Zildjian's new e-drum kit is a gamechanger in music technology

Electronic drum kits can do wonderful things, but even the best models out there still suffer from the same essential flaw: those god damn rubber1 cymbals.

But a few weeks ago, my friend Chris (drummer for the Roland High Life) and I visited the headquarters of the Avedis Zildjian Company just outside of Boston. It was a cool day overall — the office is littered with famous drum kits from stars like Ringo Starr, Travis Barker, and Animal (yes, Animal), and we got to see a cymbal get lathed in real-time and chat with the QC guy who personally tests every single cymbal before it leaves the factory.

The highlight of the trip, however, was a sneak peek of the Zildjian ALCHEM-E—a brand new e-drum kit, now available for pre-order, with full-size maple drum shells and actual metal cymbals.

Seriously, just look at (and listen to) these things:

And yes, what you're hearing in that video are audio samples—not live cymbals! Without the audio interface, those cymbals basically make a slightly more metallic version of the muted thwak you get from high-end rubber cymbals. I showed this video to several other drummers I know, and none of them believed that they were hearing a pre-recorded sample with that kind of authentic responsiveness. Just like, well, an actual cymbal.

These e-cymbals stand out not just because they're made of real metal (albeit with a sort of Ben Day muting mechanism). In capturing the samples from all the analog cymbals in the archives — and seriously, there are a lot of different cymbal options here — Zildjian made sure to record each position at least three times. The result is that when you hit the cymbal in the same spot more than once, you don't get the exact same sound every time (because no one ever actually hits an acoustic in the exact same way every time; there's also some slight variation). It's a subtle difference, but those are also the sort of nuances that have held e-drum cymbals back for so long.

The ALCHEM-E cymbals also use ethernet cables to send data back to the drum module (the rest of the kit still relies on the standard 1/4" TRS cable). This, a spokesperson explained to me, serves two purposes:

  1. The cables lock-snap into place, so you don't have to worry about accidentally pulling them out while you're playing; and
  2. Ethernet cables transfer more data more quickly, which helps with processing of all that over-sampled audio.

If you want to hear the difference, here are some audio samples. I plugged the Zildjian drum module directly into my laptop using USB-C, and for this first one, I recorded each of the drums onto individual audio tracks, then mixed them down to stereo with no EQ, compression, or honestly even any level adjustments.

And here's the exact same thing, recorded via MIDI and exported using my usual rock drummer preset:

These things are genuinely thoughtful, and truly impressive. Of course, it shouldn't be that surprising that Zildjian would a way to make e-drum cymbals work. The family-owned company has been making cymbals for over four hundred years (as I learned on my tour, the family name of Zildjian was actually given to them by the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, and literally means "Family of Cymbalsmiths" in Armenian).

That being said, the ALCHEM-E kit also marks the company's first foray into non-cymbal drums. The toms, kick, and snare are all full-size, maple-shelled drums. The electronic heads are still the same mesh that's become standard with e-kits, but you get a better feel for the air and acoustic response; even if the actual sound you're hearing comes from a sample, at least you can still feel the resonance of every kick drum hit. All of the sensors are tucked away in the rim of the mesh drum heads, too, which means you can swap them out for regular drum heads and play it like a regular acoustic kit.

That is to say, you could do that. But this kit honestly sounds great as it is.

1. There are certainly kits that do it better than others; I've been testing out the Alesis Strata Prime at home recently, and while the cymbals are fine, it's still very much, well, an electronic drum kit made from rubber, mesh, and plastic.