Tama Techstar Electronic Drums
Tama are the first acoustic percussion manufacturer to enter the electronic arena: Paul White tested the first example in the country to see if the Japanese could make something more than a Simmons copy.
Electronic drums need four things to be successful - playability, durability, good basic sounds and good looks. The Tama Techstar would appear to offer all these features. Paul White
Ever since Dave Simmons got the concept of electronic drums to be universally accepted, everyone has been waiting to see when the Japanese would try to break into the market, and with what. In terms of facilities and sounds, the Techstar would appear to be a direct competitor for the Simmons SDS8, as it's a five-drum hexagonal kit with a choice of one factory preset or one user-programmable voice per pad, but there are some important differences.
First, the heads are real drum heads which may be tensioned to give a suitable playing feel without in any way affecting the sound, and second, the snare drum has a rimshot capability which is routed to an extra channel on the control module.
The pads themselves are moulded from a tough black plastic, and the snare drum has an extra section in order to trigger the rimshot. All the stands are made by Tama and, when set up, everything stays firmly where it's been put. The bass drum has an isolated striking pad at the centre, ostensibly to reduce crosstalk, and two massive spurs hold this firmly in place. A metal plate is secured to the bottom of the bass drum pad so that a conventional bass drum pedal may be easily fitted.
The drum pads accept conventional twelve-inch heads which are tensioned by means of six conventional lugs protruding through the plastic casing, foam being fitted to the underside of the head to minimise stick sound.
The control module is mounted in a smart steel box with lugs for rack mounting and, if the box is placed with the controls facing upward, the connections run along the back edge. In practice, these would be inaccessible if the unit were to be mounted in a conventional rack, so I suppose most users will stand it on the most convenient object to hand (in my case, this was the cardboard box that the pads came in). There are six channels of electronics in all, and the ingredients which make up the sounds are tone, filtered noise and stick click, with variable tone bend and decay. Additionally, a control labelled emphasis adds a degree of lower mid boost to beef up the basic sound.
Each channel has its own sensitivity control, and the outputs may be taken separately to a mixer or from the mixed output. The latter provides a pre-panned stereo drum mix, but if only one socket is used, a normally balanced output is achieved useful for stage monitoring. All the channels have identical facilities, except for the rimshot channel which has no noise filter.
Using the factory preset sounds give a reasonable impression of Simmons toms but the snare is a little short of noise and sounds too much like another tom as a result. The bass drum is deep and punchy but not at all like an acoustic bass drum. Still, the 'electronic' bass sound has become quite popular in modern music, so doubtless the standard Tama preset will find plenty of use. Now to the rimshot. Perhaps they don't have rimshots in Japan, but this sounded more like a ricochet: definitely over the top.
On selecting the user-programmable function, the snare was duly made snarier, the rimshot made rimshotier and the bass drum sound tightened up to what I (probably misguidedly) thought was a good bass drum sound. (I used to be a drummer before I took up a musical instrument you know!)
Pitch sweep may be either up or down, and the stick click adds a burst of noise to the beginning of each beat, just like a Simmons. One useful addition is the Emphasis control, and I was tempted to use a lot of this to fatten out the sound. I eventually yielded to this temptation, and said fattening was duly achieved.
Each drum may be triggered by a positive pulse rather than by a pad if required. I used my Roland TR606, and this makes sequencer operation possible (providing you've got a suitable sequencer) though it also means you lose out on the touch-sensitivity afforded by pad control. An LED is fitted to each channel so that triggering can be monitored and, if you hit the drums hard with the sensitivity turned well up, a certain amount of crosstalk is shown by the LEDs, though in practice this isn't too serious.
The heads feel very much like real drums but although they look large enough to hit, its a little too easy to hit the rims instead. This doesn't matter much as the electronics will still trigger, but on the snare drum this action also triggers the rimshot sound, which could be a mite embarrassing on stage. The rimshot sensor is in fact a raised piece, about three inches long, fixed along one of the flat sides of the snare drum, and when not in use acts as a convenient device for holding drum sticks.
In use, everything on the Tama felt very secure and playing was natural but the pads do make an acoustic sound when you hit them, so it's necessary to monitor at quite a high level to get the proper feel of things, otherwise all you hear is the stick striking the pad. One slight mounting problem was also encountered. I found it difficult to get the toms mounted low enough - the stands had plenty of capacity to get longer but not to get shorter. Still, I managed it in the end.
Tama already have a strong reputation for producing acoustic drums, and this kit should extend that reputation into the electronic field. The stands shouldn't let you down, and the real drum heads may well woo a few drummers who'd never previously ventured into electronic percussion because it was too much like playing on top of someone's crash helmet.
In terms of sound, I think it's probably fair to say this kit has been designed to sound as Simmons-like as possible but this kit is not a cheap copy. In fact, it will retail for about £100 more than the Simmons SDS8, but the Tama's striking looks and real drum feel could well tip the balance for some players. If you already have an acoustic drum kit you feel at home with, you could always supplement it with the Techstar TS600 (not tested here), which provides four toms, a versatile synth sound and handclaps, instead of the TS500 - the circuitry works from the same pads.
The Tama Techstar is further evidence that electronic drums are here to stay, and I have a feeling that once a good choice of digital kits hits the market, acoustic drums may well become a thing of the past: after all, the public won't accept (or even recognise) a drum sound these days without compression, reverb and gating. A good digital kit could provide all the studio drum sounds for less than the cost of a good set of drum mics and these, combined with synthesised drums such as those reviewed here, could well provide the drummer with more versatility than ever before, and in an easier to amplify form.
Now that the Japanese have made an inroad into the market, who knows what electronic miracles the future will bring?
RRP of the TS500 is £930 inclusive of VAT while the TS600 retails at £989 inclusive of VAT.
Review by Paul White