Is Using Drum Triggers Cheating? Gear Gods Investigates!

“I thought using loops was cheating, so I programmed my own using samples. I then thought using samples was cheating, so I recorded real drums. I then thought that programming it was cheating, so I learned to play drums for real. I then thought using bought drums was cheating, so I learned to make my own. I then thought using premade skins was cheating, so I killed a goat and skinned it. I then thought that that was cheating too, so I grew my own goat from a baby goat. I also think that is cheating, but I’m not sure where to go from here. I haven’t made any music lately, what with the goat farming and all.”


I realize that this isn’t the first time I’ve referenced this joke, and it’s for a good reason – it says pretty much everything that needs to be said on the topic. Or does it? Some will never be satisfied – until the end of this article, of course.

I first brought it up in the Ongoing Concept interview we did, because the band made all their own instruments by hand for their album Handmade. Seems like a long way to go just to make an album, but I think the result will speak for itself, and they wanted to make absolutely sure that what they were doing was 100% legit.

But what about the other 99.99999% of us? Are we skirting the truth by using triggers, samples, and other performance modifications?

You’re about to get the straight dope.

No, the music isn’t coming “from inside you”, unless you’re a singer. When you push a piano key, it doesn’t unlock a mystical vibration inside your soul that sets the music free, it moves a lever that strikes a set of strings that vibrate the air, metal soundboard, and wood of the piano. You’re using physics to amplify your own musical will, using a mechanical magnification of a motion that you make to vibrate something you never actually touched.

Of course, you would never call a piano player a cheater – that would be ridiculous.

Guitar players are big fat phonies too. No matter how hard I hit the strings on my electric guitar, it’ll never be loud enough to be heard over a drummer, triggers or no. So I plug a cable into my guitar that transmits the electric signal generated by magnets in response to the puny vibrations coming off the tiny strings to the preamp stage of an amplifier. The preamp makes that signal a great deal more powerful, and changes the tone completely from what was coming out of the guitar, then transmits that sound to the power amp stage, which amplifies the sound by 120 decibels. The guitar didn’t make that sound; I didn’t make that sound. It was a domino-style chain of events leading to an end result.

Now let’s talk about how a trigger works. A velocity-sensitive transducer is attached to the drum head (or anything, really), which transmits an electronic signal (the strength of which is determined by the velocity of the hit) to a sampler module, which triggers an internal sound that is transmitted to the module’s output. The sound that is produced can be essentially any sound that exists – a car horn, a chicken squawking, fart sound, etc. What this does is allow the drums to sound like something they aren’t. The most common application is to trigger a more ideal version of the drum you’re hitting, but it’s not limited to that.

Jesus, I really hope you see where I’m going with this – I’m gonna spell it out for you, but if you haven’t gotten the gist by now I don’t think it’s going to help.

Jens Johansson of Stratovarius plays a sampler keyboard. Its control surface is obviously based on that of a piano. Only, instead of striking a set of strings, the key strikes a pad similar to a drum trigger that transmits a signal to the sampler inside of the keyboard, and outputs the sound type of his choosing. I hope when you watched the above video and heard Jens’ sublime, tasteful phrasing and instrumental mastery that you didn’t think to yourself WELL IT’S NOT A REAL PIANO SO IT DOESN’T COUNT.

Sorry, I wrote that in all caps because most people who think that sort of thing are too stupid to distinguish between capital and lowercase letters.

No, using triggers isn’t cheating. As you can see, every performance on every instrument is transmitted from someplace to someplace else, and in the process is amplified, changed, manipulated, and generally not the sound that you yourself made. You think a fully acoustic drum set on a recording is any different? Good luck hearing that without microphones, cables, speakers, and electricity! Imagine trying to hear “Black Sabbath” by Black Sabbath from the album Black Sabbath without any of that – depending on your beliefs in quantum mechanics, Bill Ward’s original vibrations might still be bouncing around somewhere, but isn’t it better that there was an engineer on hand to cheat us all by amplifying his performance and capturing it to media so we could amplify it again later and hear it again? And you’re tripping HARD if you think there was no compression used to raise the volume of the drum parts and change the dynamics – on that or any of your favorite recordings.

One important thing that we look for as musicians and artists is control – triggers simply afford a drummer a greater level of control over their sound. It’s just a production decision made to help control certain parameters.

Here’s Dirk Verburen of Soilwork, one of the best drummers in metal today, playing an electronic drum kit, which is essentially a bunch of drum triggers without the acoustic drums at all. (Actually, it’s kind of ironic, because when Dirk records for Soilwork he doesn’t use triggers). I certainly hope you wouldn’t think he was cheating, as it’s pretty obvious he can play his ass off, on any kit.

The drum samples have multiple velocity layers, and how hard he hits the trigger determines what velocity layer you hear. Even if you max out the velocity, it’s because you’re going for a certain sound, no different from tuning your drum a certain way or choosing certain cymbals to get a certain sound.

A trumpeter blows air into a mechanical device that makes a sound that he couldn’t make without brass and the technology to bend it, a clarinetist blows through reeds that produce a tone they couldn’t make with their mouth – we’re all fucking cheats if you look at it that way. A drummer modifying the sound of his performance is no different from a guitarist using a distortion pedal, or a violinist using a bow. We’re all just searching for the sound we have in our heads, and we have to find it externally.

The idea comes from within, but the sounds are all outside of us – we’re all just transmitting our will into mechanical cheat machines. Let’s stop worrying about what’s real and what’s not and just enjoy the fucking music.

Written by

As Editor-in-Chief of Gear Gods, I've been feeding your sick instrument fetishism and trying unsuccessfully to hide my own since 2013. I studied music on both coasts (Berklee and SSU) and now I'm just trying to put my degree to some use. That's a music degree, not an English one. I'm sure you noticed.

Latest comments
  • If you use a direct drive pedal with the sensitivity on the triggers as high as they can go, you’re feigning physical aptitude that you don’t possess. That is cheating.

    • Yes, but the only people who do that are shitty local bands whose drummer just got their first trigger.

  • What a retarded article? Who was the moron that came up with this idea? Cheating is if you pretend you are playing, period. Lip-synching is cheating, using triggers based on the article is like using a compressor on your voice if you are a signer, is that cheating? So, throw mixers, synthesizers and computers away. If you want music with “no cheat” then go and watch the artists acapela with no amplification because that is cheating too. Damn…. what a moron who came up with this article.

    • depends, if you use triggers because your snare sounds like shit, I’d say it’s cheating, just like when singers use autotune.

    • You using the R word to express yourself tells us who the real moron is…

    • So, the guy who came up with the article is a moron?

      He agrees with you that mixers and computers and synths aren’t cheating.

      Read it again until you understand that.

  • It’s not ‘cheating’ but I have to disagree with it on a philosophical basis. It’s cheap. If you use drum triggers, your ‘instrument’ becomes worthless. You’re hitting a glorified midi controller. You’re not a drummer any more. You want to be able to hear the tone of the wood, the way the room sounds, the physical movements of the drummer themselves. that to me makes a drum kit. Drum triggers are just an overly convoluted way to use a drum machine, where you pantomime the actions on a drum kit, rather than press some buttons and smack a pad on a midi controller a few times. Furthermore, your example of guitars is wrong, it’s less like using an amp, and more like using some kind of midi controlled guitar that bipasses an amp entirely, plugs right into your interface and registers the notes you strum and makes it sound like any guitar in the world. Compare this to people who chose guitars selectively by the wood it’s made from, the shape the size, it definitely comes across as cheap.

    • No dude. By your logic, I am a guitarist if I play an unplugged acoustic. But if I play an electric guitar through an amp, I’m not longer a guitarist. Are you judging the drummer or the kit cause it’s two different things. A pianist isn’t a pianist if they play a keyboard?

  • I think when musicians call using triggers cheating it’s because the need for control & accuracy kind of goes out the window as well as the overall dynamics a skilled player can bring, imho. The comparison between skins & triggers isn’t very logical due to my initial point as well as your remarks regarding the Piano player. They have more of an impact on tone & volume then you give them credit for. While man-made, engineered skins & keys might sound better they don’t eliminate the skill necessary to play the instrument.

    In my own experience, when I play an electric kit I sound like a fucking blast king. However, that practice session doesn’t translate very well to an acoustic kit. Just my .02

    • On your last point: I have the same experience, but that’s not because the electro-kits are making us into unrealistically “better” players. We are that good. It’s because the acoustic kit is making us perform worse. You’re fighting a lot more air pressure and wind resistance from a bunch of wooden barrels than you are from a bunch of rubber plates. This fatigues you more quickly, for one thing.

      It doesn’t mean it’s impossible for you to achieve the acoustic performance you already have electronically, but it does take work, It’s building up strength and endurance more than anything.

      • True, however that strength & endurance isn’t necessary electronically. Plus, I don’t have the options on an electric kit like the acoustic one in terms of the sound produced from certain points on the head and how hard or soft you beat the bass drum.

        • Oh, definitely. If it’s acoustic nuance you’re after, an acoustic kit is the only solution. I really don’t think electronic systems are ever going to deliver that sort of variation in dynamics and timbre. If they ever do, the amount of R&D, time and money involved would be enough to make anybody ask: Why not just record an actual acoustic kit and be done with it?

          I’ve gone from programming drum machines as realistically as I could, to learning how to play drums; and then from recording on an electro kit to learning how to record acoustics – all just because I eventually realized that the amount of time and effort I was putting into making everything fake sound “real” was counter-productive.

          • Agreed. I played around with Sony Acid Pro and EZDrummer for a very short time before I realized that I don’t enjoy making music that way, I don’t care to spend the time programming “music” and I find the digital end product never sounds as good, to me, as the real thing. The way I can tell is the lack of the Human touch. I might not be able to play Technical Death Metal but I can groove Rock /Traditional Metal better than most of those Human drum machines can.

          • EZDrummer and its ilk has also, in my opinion, led to a homogeneity in production values these days, at least in the genres that value a “clean” production like tech-death, melodeath, metalcore, deathcore, djent etc.

            This is maybe going off-topic but I also think sample replacement has started to compromise the sound of cymbals in a mix, which is often where a lot of the energy in a drummer’s performance comes from.

            Have a listen to South of Heaven or Seasons in the Abyss on headphones. Not only can you tell exactly which/how many cymbals Lombardo’s got in his kit, you can also tell where they’re positioned in the stereo field.

            Then, try doing that on a modern extreme metal record. It’s a lot harder, despite an ostensibly “cleaner” production job. For one thing, modern drummers usually have more cymbals in their kit, which makes it harder to distinguish them each using only a pair of overhead mics when the guy is hitting everything constantly at high tempo.

            But the other reason, I think, is that now you’re ONLY hearing the crash cymbals through the overhead mics; they aren’t bleeding into the drum-shell mics like they used to. It used to be that what you were hearing of a crash cymbal was partly determined by the EQ and processing applied to whichever tom mic track it was bleeding into. So even if a guy had two of the same brand/size of crash cymbal in his kit, they might still sound distinct from each other in the mix due to one getting the processing suitable for the high tom it was positioned near, while the other got the colouration of the floor tom processing. It gave each cymbal its own “character”.

            Nowadays, parts of a drumkit have gotten so isolated and controlled in the mix that this effect has disappeared. If you’re replacing the floor tom mic track with a sampled floor tom, there is no bleed from the proximate cymbal into the mic; because there is no mic. Cymbals aren’t “out-of-control” the way they used to be; so the whole kit sounds pretty boring to my ears. Rant over.

          • So true… isolating every single aspect of the drums just sounds so sterilized and un-natural to me. I used to wallow in the amazement of these Tech Death drummers because of the speed but I now feel it only sacrifices tasty beats & grooves. I guess that’s why I still listen to OSDM after all these years.

          • You’re gonna love my band! If it ever happens.

          • Can’t wait to hear it!

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