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Zildjian’s Alchem-E e-drums solve one of the biggest problems with electronic percussion

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Stan Horaczek

Electronic drumsets have come a long way since the early days of fake-sounding samples and clunky rubber pads. Mesh heads and advanced computing hardware have made e-drums totally viable for recording and performing. Electronic cymbals, however, are a different story. Fake cymbals typically feel nothing like their traditional metal counterparts, which can really cramp a player’s style. It’s fitting, then, that Zildjian—a company continuously making cymbals since the 1600s—has discovered a solution to the e-cymbal problem and integrated it into its new Alchem-E drum kits. 

How do electronic drums work?

E-drums work similarly to most other electronic instruments. An electronic keyboard, for instance, replaces hammers striking metal wires with sensors that cue electronic signals when you apply pressure to the keys. Electronic drums typically contain a sensor in a rubber pad or a traditional drum with a special mesh head. A central computing device triggers when you hit those inputs and translates action into whatever sound you desire. That can be heard through an amplified speaker, or, more importantly, they also work with headphones so that you can get in real practice sessions while drastically reducing noise to the outside world. To an external observer, it simply sounds like a series of clicks and taps instead of crashes and splashes, cracks and thwacks. 

Zildjian’s Alchem-E drums offer real maple shells (a wood typically found in high-end kits) with mesh heads. The sensors inside detect multiple variables to tell how hard you hit and where the stick landed on the head. Hit the rim and drum simultaneously, and you get an extra-loud rim shot, just like with acoustic drums. Behind the kit, it all feels very natural. The bouncy mesh heads allow for rolls and precise changes in dynamics. They feel like very high-end electronic drums because that’s what they are. I’m a semi-experienced drummer, and the learning curve felt almost non-existent.

What about electronic cymbals?

This is where Zildjian really sets itself apart from other electronic drum makers. The E-series cymbals sport an array of laser-cut holes, which drastically reduces the amount of metal involved. This feature reduces the cymbals’ overall sound output by roughly 80 percent while also cutting the duration of the sound. The company has been offering this type of cymbal as a lower-volume practice-oriented option since 2017, but now it’s fulfilling its electronic potential.

A sensor clips into the holes in the cymbal to create a connection with the electronic brain (which Zildjian calls the E-Vault). Once attached, the sensor can register many different inputs, whether a hard hit on the edge for a crash, a regular hit on the bow, or a precise whack on the bell for a defined ping. 

These are real cymbals, so the feel is impeccable. You’re applying wood (or nylon tips in some cases) to actual metal alloy, so it’s as if you’re playing on a normal kit. I was very impressed with the responsiveness, especially in the context of my very sloppy technique. I played everything from tight ride patterns to aggressive crashes and got what I expected each time. 

I could spend hours switching through the huge library of cymbals just to see how they sound with different types of hits. An eight-inch capacitive touchscreen allows players to scroll through pre-programmed and customizable kits designed to emulate common musical genres. Want to play hair metal with big boomy toms and a reverb-laden snare drum? There’s a preset for that. Or maybe you want to play a small jazz kit with meticulously tuned toms and super-dry cymbals. And Zildjian can update the E-Vault down the road to include even more sampled cymbal sounds. 

One particularly impressive feature: You can choke the cymbals just like the real thing. When you want a short, punchy crash that doesn’t ring out over time, you can simply grab it to stop it from resonating. That’s typically a no-go for electronic cymbals, but Zildjian seems to have mastered it. The sampled cymbal sounds come from real models pulled from the company’s vault. When you choke the cymbal, the sound doesn’t simply stop; rather, it makes a unique and abrupt sound that a real cymbal makes when you mute its vibrations. If you need an example, fire up “Master of Puppets” by Metallica like I did during my demo time with this kit.

OK, so they feel good, but what do they sound like?

All the feel in the world isn’t worth anything if it doesn’t make pleasant noise. Zildjian has gone to great lengths to ensure the output is worthy of your input. The E-Vault computing captures activity from all of the sensors and translates it into whatever kit suits your style. 

Each sound is carefully sampled from real drums and cymbals. The results are extremely convincing. I played through headphones and an amplified speaker and was very impressed in both cases. Once you start messing around with selecting specific cymbals and drum sounds, you could easily spend hours tweaking to get your exact preferences set up. 

The E-Vault (shown below) accepts up to six drums and six cymbals at a time, so you can add more inputs down the road if you want more options. You could add a small special effects cymbal that you’d never actually buy in an acoustic version or just map one of the cymbals to a dog bark sound. They are electric, after all. 

Playing quietly

As stated before, Zildjian’s perforated speakers provide an 80 percent reduction in overall sound output compared to a typical model. It’s hard to convey just how impressive the reduction is without hearing it in person. Or not hearing it, in this case. Even when playing with relatively normal technique, the overall sound output to the outside world is still apartment-friendly. You wouldn’t want to play in the middle of the night, but it’s overall less disturbing to those around you than watching an action movie on a typical soundbar. 

Built-in Bluetooth makes the E-Vault compatible with computers and smartphones, so you can stream your favorite songs or practice tracks from an external device and play along. With headphones on, it almost feels like you’re playing with a real band. 

The Alchem-E kit options

Zildjian designed Alchem-E for professionals or high-end amateurs, so the kits aren’t cheap. All of the kits come with a single bass drum, hardware, the E-Vault, a snare drum, toms, and cymbals. The least expensive model is the $4,500 Bronze EX kit, which includes shortened shells with no resonant heads for each of the toms. The bass drum is also shallower than a typical option. This is the most portable kit.

The $5,999 Alchem-E Gold kit offers full-length maple shells for the toms and the bass drum. Since they have resonant heads on the back, you can simply swap out the mesh heads for more traditional skins and use this as a standard acoustic drum set. It’s a typical four-piece configuration with one rack tom and one floor tom. The cymbal kit includes a standard ride, crash, and high-hat. The flagship Gold EX setup costs $6,999 and includes two rack toms in addition to the floor tom. The cymbal kit also gets two crashes, a ride, and a high-hat. 

Yes, these kits are expensive, but they’re beautifully made and, at least in my first impressions, perform impressively. Plus, if you go with the Gold models, you’re essentially getting two kits since a simple head swap can turn them from e-drums into an acoustic set. Plus, no price is too high when it comes to pretending you’re Lars from Metallica without annoying all of your roommates. 

Source : Popular Science

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