BY JAKE WOOD
The show starts, and, as usual, you’re in the back of the stage. Your fellow bandmates create that impenetrable wall of designer skinny jeans, impeding your visibility from the crowd. Chances are the lighting is focused up front and leaving you in the shadows. This is the all too common reality of playing live shows for us neglected martyrs of the meter. Sure, the audience knows you’re there, but without a riser and proper lighting, the eyes are naturally drawn up front to the musicians who are well lit.
Lighting is everything when it comes to show biz, and the lighting technician (if there even is one), has a profoundly persuasive ability to draw the attention of the audience to whomever he or she chooses. Unfortunately, there are plenty of situations where there simply is no lighting tech. In fact, most clubs under a 300-person capacity never even hire one. They just leave their stage lights either fixed permanently, or in the hands of a busy sound engineer who already has his hands full.
Now drummers can fight back! There’s a light at the end of the tunnel, and it’s an LED. Thankfully, there are a few small companies out there that have embraced the emergence of LEDs and are now making some unique gadgets to help light up your drums. So let’s take a look at some of the various products that offer creative lighting solutions.
$29.99 – Jered Systems
Did you open this article and think, “Ugh, I have to learn about lights now too?” Well, if you did, then fear not, as the Galaxy Meteor by JerEd Systems is about as simple as duct taping a flashlight to your snare (but way cooler), and requires zero study.
This unit is by far the cheapest, simplest, and most barebones method for lighting up a single drum. It’s vibration sensitive, so it only triggers when struck. The LED strip comes with an adhesive backing, installs around the inside of a snare shell, and is powered by a 9-volt battery, which is great for any mobile situations. It projects only one color, but the LEDs can be swapped out for different colors by purchasing other strips.
Overall, the Galaxy Meteor functioned quite well straight out of the box. It doesn’t provide adjustable parameters — that has all been taken care of by the manufacturer — but the sensitivity was good enough to pick up both ferocious rimshots and mezzo piano ghost notes. The only drawback was that the trigger (built into the battery housing) has to be stuck to the shell with the system’s remarkably strong adhesive. Otherwise, this is the best “gitterdone” option for lighting up a single drum with no fuss. Your inner luddite will thank you.
$139.99 (w/AC power supply), and $159.99 (w/rechargeable battery) – Jered Systems
Did the Galaxy Meteor sound a little too primitive? Want a system with more adjustable parameters? Maybe something that can — dare I say? — actually change colors (gasp!)? Well then, check out the AirBeez system. Although it illuminates only one drum, the AirBeez can produce colors within the basic RGB spectrum, and similarly is triggered by vibrations. It can be powered by wall or rechargeable battery (although the battery the company offers is rather cumbersome), and the sensitivity, duration, and decay can all be manipulated independently. When you try pulling the latter two parameters down to zero, the AirBeez produces a super fast, strobe-like burst that complements fills quite well.
The LED strip comes encased in durable clear rubber that will definitely prolong the lifespan of the strip while on the road. Due to this housing, it seemed most appropriate to position the strip under the hoop, between the tension rods and shell.
The control interface is not the most intuitive (reading the manual is a must), but after sitting with it a few minutes, anybody with a little bit of patience should be able to program it to their desires. Additionally, it comes with two adhesive mounted Pintech RS-5 drum triggers, the typical blue-collar trigger for acoustic drums.
$240-$300 – DrumLite
Now we take things up a notch and start looking at lighting rigs for the entire kit. First up is the DrumLite system. The standard kit ships with four LED strips that are custom tailored to fit inside each shell with an adhesive backing. The strips are then connected by a tour-proof XLR-style snake that is fed through the air vents of the drums. The LEDs can then be controlled either by the hardwired module, or via the included remote control. Unlike the previous two products, the DrumLite is not vibration sensitive, and doesn’t light up when struck. Instead, you turn it on and leave it on while you play.
Although the DrumLite doesn’t allow for programming of individual drums, it does come preprogrammed with a fun array of presets, including eight static colors, a few gradual fades, and some fast blinking patterns reminiscent of a sushi storefront with no shame. The controls, all of which are global to every light, are outstandingly simple to master, and it doesn’t take much knowledge to run through all of the presets to witness the plethora of awesome visuals.
If, like me, you were hoping to utilize the remote control from backstage to “wow” the audience before even setting foot on stage, be forewarned: The remote faithfully works from only a few feet away and needs a clear line of sight in order to function properly. That said, if you’re looking for more theatrically timed lighting cues, then you could upgrade this kit with a DMX controller.
What is a DMX controller, you ask? DMX is not only a superbly talented rapper who has vowed he’s “gon give it to ya,” it’s also the industry standard for controlling stage lights and fog machines. In the same way that a drum module utilizes MIDI to control various pads, a lighting board uses DMX to control individual lights. This means that having DMX capabilities on the drums opens up the option of having the drum lights controlled by a lighting tech. This is a powerful advantage compared to having automated fade patterns as your only option.
$1,850 (Module only, no LEDs) – BrightBeats
And here, with the Tour-10 by BrightBeats, we arrive at what is essentially the Cadillac of chroma, the Dubai of drums, and the apex of A/V. This rack-mounted flagship is the answer to all professional drum lighting desires. Along with being sensitive to vibrations, lights can be set permanently on or off, and each LED strip can be controlled independently: any color, any fade length, any sensitivity. Did you want three toms on a slow yellow fade, a snare with a fast burst of red, and a kick that stays green for the whole show? No problem. Tour-10 “gon give it to ya,” all without questioning such hideous color schemes. Have a lot of drums? No problem; this bad boy controls up to ten LED strips at once. Want to simply have your drums remotely controlled by the lighting tech? Done.
The Tour-10 is controlled by a touchscreen and while it can be a bit fickle about tracking your finger gestures (it’s definitely not a smartphone touchscreen), once the parameters are set, it’s smooth sailing from then on. Additionally, it has an auxiliary input for a two-channel footswitch for hands-free scene changes on the fly.
Unsurprisingly, the Tour-10 has found its way onto many large stages, including Mötley Crüe and Taylor Swift, because it’s a sturdy and highly programmable product that can precisely deliver what scrupulous lighting techs demand: versatility and control.
Crash ‘N Flash
$274.99 (basic trigger and control package, no lights included) – OnQue CrashNFlash
Here we have the proverbial black sheep of the multicolored herd. Unlike the other systems that have triggers adhered onto heads and LEDs wrapped inside drums, these guys have created their very own industrial strength trigger that senses cymbal crashes. This, in turn, sets off any number of professional stage lighting options.
Using a small spring-loaded antenna-like “whisker” of sorts, the trigger is mounted underneath the cymbal and, when struck, tilts the whisker, which activates a switch. This sends a signal to the control unit, and from there, the signal can be sent to any number of things, including basic LED stage lights and fog machines that have DMX capabilities. Simply daisy chain up to 32 LED fixtures per channel, put them in Slave mode, and voila, everything is illuminated.
Some skeptics may wonder, “But won’t the trigger dampen the tone of the cymbal?” Nay! After rigorous testing, we found that it doesn’t affect the tone in the slightest, although setting up the trigger to function properly can be a bit tedious, as there is a fine balance between latency and retriggering. However, once the settings are locked, you’ll never need to reset them.
The DMX control unit includes a single foot- switch, which can be used to turn lights, fog machines, and yes, even flame machines on and off. In fact, the control unit can be used as a stand-alone controller, bypassing the need for any triggers, to cue visuals for a show. While there’s minimal manipulation of color choices from the unit, those parameters are best programmed at the lighting source.
$23 and up – Neptune Light Systems
A whole article about LED drums would feel incomplete if we neglected to mention LED sticks, so without further ado we present Rockstix2 by Neptune Light Systems. Unlike the completely worthless rubbish of the 1980s, the Rockstix2 Pro and HD are both legitimately playable and long lasting. All Rockstix models are activated by vibration, and there is no on/off switch. While that’s great for drumming, it presents a bit of a problem for doing extended stick spins, as they won’t stay illuminated very long.
Within its entire catalog, Neptune basically offers two variations: color and thickness. Color-wise, the company offers some sticks that are monochrome and others that have preprogrammed RGB fading patterns. For thickness, they offer Rockstix2 HD (Heavy Duty), which are a tad thicker than the Pro model. This makes a slight difference when drumming, but both models still have quite a bit of flex to them, causing a somewhat foreign rebound experience. In the end, drummers must accept that LED sticks will never feel exactly like their favorite timber. In fact, in order to execute fast intricate rhythms, drummers may need to slightly modify their technique to adapt to the nature of these glowing beasts.
On the plus side, the Lexan plastic used to create the stick is incredibly durable (it’s the same material used in some riot shields) and will last a lot longer than a typical wooden stick. While you wouldn’t want to play a two- hour show with these, they’d make a strong impact in an encore, music video, short art piece, or psychedelic hallucination.
I SEE THE LIGHT
Originally, I dove into this article thinking that sound-activated lights were the only way to roll. After all, it’s pretty darn cool seeing a drum light up when struck. But after experiencing the eye-fatigue of blinking lights over and over, I quickly started appreciating the quiet strength of the more subtle fixed lighting that just stays on. On a similar note, theater folk say that the mark of a professional lighting technician is when you never even realize they’re there. Of course, try telling that to someone like the king of over-the-top showmanship, Tommy Lee.
There are now more options for lighting up the drums than ever before, and they’re portable, affordable, and interactive. You wanted to illuminate your drums, well huzzah! Now you’ve got strobe-like fills, dramatic color fades, and a jealous Christmas tree!