As a kid, drum triggers confused me. This is because I only saw them connected to acoustic drums, and couldn’t understand how you would hear the trigger but not the drum, since both would be making sound. It didn’t make sense to my 10 year old mind. However, I misunderstood how they work and what they’re for, which I’ll explain soon. First, let’s start with what they are.
Drum triggers are, put simply, a device you put on or inside drums which detect when the drum is hit and send a signal. That’s it. That signal is usually sent to some sort of controller which interprets the signal and then plays an electronic sound or sample. This is how electronic drum sets work entirely, but triggers can be added to acoustic sets as well, to help broaden the available sounds.
For instance, putting a drum trigger on a snare drum could let you have the trigger make a clap or woodblock sound, while the snare itself still makes its sound. In this way, a drummer can really expand their sound range and be more expressive when they play. What I didn’t understand as a kid, though, was that there’s no need (or little need) to mask the sound of the drum when a trigger is attached. The drummer can either make use of the combined sounds or simply turn the volume of the trigger up and/or hit the drum softly enough so that the drum sound is drowned out by the triggered sound.
That’s mostly a concern when playing live. When recording, drum triggers have a whole different set of abilities. Sending and recording MIDI signals gives the audio engineer more control over the sound, timing, etc. of the drum tracks. Small flubs in timing can be tweaked and fixed, unlike when recording acoustic drums. Also, if one or more drums just don’t sound very good, a different, better sounding drum sound can replace it. Even still, an audio engineer can leave the acoustic set’s sounds as the drum track, and use the triggers to trigger other things or set timings. For instance, when the kick is hit in the middle of a song somewhere, maybe the audio engineer ties an explosion sound to it. Having both acoustic tracks and MIDI tracks is very useful when recording. Personally, if I have to choose one or the other, these days I’d probably choose MIDI. It’s just more flexible.
There are drum purists out there who don’t like triggers because they aren’t “real”. I understand that viewpoint, but I do not agree with it. I see triggers as a tool, a technological advance, that gives drummers and audio engineers much more control over sounds, effects, timing, etc. Just because you use triggers doesn’t make you a lazy or bad drummer. On the other hand, using triggers won’t make a bad drummer better.