"Practical Solutions – The art of drumming without drums"

It’s pretty rare these days for a drummer to have access to a space where they can practice comfortably on an acoustic kit. With many musos living in flats, apartments, student accommodation and share houses, it can be pretty hard to get in a practice without disturbing anyone or getting kicked out.  

Here are some tips and alternatives for you drummers out there.  

This is a great but expensive option. If you’re in a house or well-insulated apartment you should be fine, but the pads (especially rubber kick pads) can still be very loud. Cheaper kits tend to use a very thin layer of rubber over hard plastic and are typically pretty noisy when struck. As you go up through the price range the rubber gets more impact-absorbent, and mesh heads also become an option that are quieter still. The quietest pads with the best feel I’ve used are the Yamaha DTX pads although they are super expensive! Electronic kits (even some entry level models) can be used as a means to trigger MIDI on your home recording setup. This means you jam along to demos and record using programs like Superior Drummer, or even sample your acoustic kit and trigger that via a software sampler. Pretty cool. You could also take the module to gigs and use it with an acoustic drum trigger and run a kick drum sample through the main mix – a major part of a metal drummers live rig. You can mount the pads live to trigger sounds like Danny Carey from Tool does, or use them to trigger bass bombs or samples. A LOT of possibilities open up if you’re creative!  

Yamaha DTX Pad  

Still, with decent kits ranging from $1100-$10K+, you want to be sure you will really get use out of it. A friend of mine lives in a floor-boarded apartment and when he tries to play his electric kit the thumping travels throughout the household – bummer. Test them out at your local music shop and really do your research in terms of the pads, the sound module, MIDI capabilities and customisation or fine-tuning abilities.  

These are thin foam/rubber pads that sit on your drum skins and screw down to your cymbals. Many teachers use these to keep the volume down so they can still talk while teaching, and to ensure the overall feel and action of playing drums is retained. They can still be too loud for many situations, but if you’re in a house they’re not going to wake the neighbours and they might be just the thing you’re looking for. They’re also pretty cheap which is also good!  

Sound Off Pads  

This can mean one pad or many. I’ve used a good few practice pads in my time. They’re a much cheaper option than an electric kit but are similar in feel. The low-grade ones are noisy and ‘slappy’, whereas the higher grade ones have better materials and feel. Harder plastic will be louder and rubber will be quieter, but as before – try before you buy! I have a Vater pad that is half soft-rubber and half harder-rubber. I NEVER use the harder side and I wish the whole pad was the soft yellow rubber. Pads come in various sizes. My Vater pad is 12 inches in diameter, but I did buy a 6 inch Vater pad for tour (all softer rubber) and that worked great as I could slip it in my backpack and warm up before shows. Most pads come with a threaded hole underneath which allows them to be screwed on to a cheap cymbal stand – one where the thread runs all the way to the top. These are usually cheap single braced stands by Dixon and the like. Having them mounted can make them less noisy than if placed on a table top or a chair. I mount mine in a snare stand at home, and I always sit on my drum stool when using it. You can buy kick pads too although they all have a degree of loudness to them. Because they sit on the ground and take the full force of a pedal being driven by your leg, they can sound like someone stomping around from the next room.  

My beaten up Vater Practice Pad (that rules!)  

Pearl Kick Pad. Mine works great but is a bit noisy for some situations.  

I have spent many hours practicing grooves and rudiments by sitting on my stool, on the edge of my bed, or even at a desk using heel-down on the ground and drumming on my knees/thighs with my open hands. This has helped me keep my coordination up and also to nut out tricky patterns. I’ve listened along to CDs and a metronome through headphones in a flat and not disturbed a soul. Practicing heel-down without a pedal is surprisingly challenging and really effective. It really helps with coordination and can give you a real burn on the front of your shins! It translates great to heel-up on a kit and is good practice in any situation.  

Practicing ‘heel-down’ on the carpet.  

Nothing will replace actual kit-time. There’s so many different factors that create the feel of hitting real drums and cymbals and I can’t see anyone replicating that silently for a while yet. Seize every opportunity to practice on a real kit! If your band jams weekly or fortnightly you might be fine to supplement with pads or something in the meantime, but if they don’t then find a rehearsal room that will give you a cheap deal for a room for a couple of hours by yourself. Rehearsal room owners know all to well how loud drums are and many will help you out!  

Functional strength  
Stamina is something you might not notice slipping until it’s too late. If you play a physically demanding style of music you might find it beneficial to do some exercise in between gigs and practices. Some tips are to do cardio rather than heavy weights. Controlled movements with heavy weights aren’t really anything like the action of quickly swinging light sticks or pedal beaters. I’d suggest lighter free-weights and doing them explosively. Kettle bells are an awesome way to use full body movements that translate nicely over to the kit. I have 1x12kg kettle bell and 20mins with that thing a couple times a week works wonders for my playing. I’ve heard plenty of drummers like Martin Lopez from Opeth, Joey Jordison from Slipknot and even our old mate Lars from Metallica talk about the benefits of running. I think not only running, but cycling, rowing or an orbital machine can help your bass drumming immensely – it’s rhythmic and uses similar movements to pedal-playing. Whatever you do just don’t overtrain, and avoid training on the day of or the day before a gig or practice; give your body time to recover. Remember, exercise won’t make you a better drummer, so don’t choose this over practice. Gene Holgan blew out to 400lbs on tour with Fear Factory and was still nailing whole sets of intense double-kicking. Practice is where it’s at!  

Kettle Bell. 20mins to exhaustion.  

Do whatever you can to stay on top of your chops and try to be in a constant state of improvement. I didn’t have a kit for my first 3 years of playing and with improvised practice kits made of pillows and chairs I managed to get better – although I didn’t improve more than when I finally got hold of a kit and started playing regularly.