Increasingly, we see e-drums deployed in orchestra pits for stage musicals. Perry Gragas explains why he went the electronics route.
My first experience with electronic drums was in the mid-80s when I purchased an original Simmons kit. Intrigued by the eye-catching hexagonal shape and futuristic sounds, I gigged with this kit for a couple of years until the novelty wore off and musical tastes changed.
Fast forward to 2001. I got a call from my old band teacher asking me to play for a big production of West Side Story at the new state-of-the-art theatre. This was my introduction to musical theatre, and the start of a 20-plus-year career playing for shows.
For the first five years, I used an acoustic kit, but found that the bigger shows required more percussion. That was the first dilemma – albeit a fun one – because my set-ups resembled Neil Peart’s pre-electronic kits. But secondly, I was just too loud for the pit. The solution? Electronic drums! I would have hundreds of percussion sounds at my disposal and I could hit as hard as I liked without having to worry about volume. I was in heaven!
The e-kit I chose was the Yamaha DTXtreme model. I liked the larger pads, which made the footprint more like an acoustic kit, and the silicone heads, which made playing more comfortable. The many upsides include the chokeable crash cymbals, the three-zone ride cymbal, the three-zone tom pads, the customisable kits and the realistic sounds supplied by Yamaha’s MOTIF synthesizer line.
The few downsides include not being able to do a realistic cymbal roll or swell, inability to do a traditional rim click on the snare, and not being able to use brushes.
But the good definitely outweighed the bad, and I enjoyed playing it for many years, over a hundred different productions and several hundred performances – everything from The Sound of Music, The King and I, and Evita to Hair, Rent and Cats. Too many to mention here, but you name it and I’ve probably done it with my workhorse Yamaha e-kit.
There are many in the theatre community who frown upon the use of electronic drums in the pit, but when you’re a one-man percussion section in a small theatre that only seats 400 to 500 people, it’s a godsend. I’ve since done shows in bigger theatres that allow me to bring a full set of timpani, but I’ve had the same sounds programmed into my e-kit for the smaller venues. And the audience can’t tell the difference.
Then COVID hit and all theatres went dark. But for me, it was a blessing in disguise. My once-trusty Yamaha was showing signs of age and it was time to replace it. Always wanting to try Roland, I settled on their mid-tier e-kit: a TD-27KV. I added an extra tom to give me four (two-up, two-down), just like my Yamaha, as well as a BT-1 sound bar for extra percussion, as Roland’s toms only have two zones versus Yamaha’s three. The digital snare makes all the difference: being able to play a rim click traditionally with your hand resting on the drum, being able to use brushes, being able to play a cymbal swell and the different snares available make the possibilities seem endless.
So far I’ve used this new kit for two shows: this past summer’s Something Rotten and the current Rocky Horror Show. If you’re ever on Maui, in Hawaii, check for show listings at the Historic Iao Theater, and if it’s a musical, more likely than not, it’ll be me in the pit. You can hear me and my kit and judge for yourself.
Roland TD-27 KV
MDS Standard 2 rack with extended pipes
DW9000 bass drum pedal