REVIEW Alesis DM8 USB HD Electronic Drumset $599 (USA), a best buy professional e-pad kit, including module/brain & rack that is disguised and priced for the beginner, student, or hobbyist.

Alesis DM8 USB High-def Electronic Drumset I’d recommend the Alesis DM8 USB for practice, teaching, stage, or professional recording studio session—the latter providing it’s acceptable to send a stereo mix. The sounds are that good. The Alesis DM8 USB is possibly the best deal in electronic drum kits, ever.” T.Bruce Wittet (pull-quote)

DISCLAIMER: This is a favorable review, so much so you’re going to be thinking I get points on sale. Truth is, I do not. I have no vested interest. The company suggested a review and I agreed, believing it would be a departure from the usual vintage drum and cymbal examinations; and it would be fascinating, helpful for readers. Alesis couriered the unit and prepaid the return shipment.

Speaking about returning it to sender post-review, had I any inkling the Alesis DM8 USB would be this good I’d have spared Alesis the expense of the return shipment and made a low ball offer. As if the sticker price isn’t low enough!

Permit me a few personal notes and suggestions to you

because I’m not sure you’ll get them elsewhere. I’ve scoured the Internet for any semblance of an in-depth review and found squat, so here it is and I’ll try to keep my observations friendly to the layman.

The DM8 USB is not only more than adequate for my uses, it’s a real creative tool that stands tall on account of the richness of the unadulterated samples. For each voice, say a floor tom, there are 2 layers (“2 sounds”), meaning when you strike a pad you trigger a voice, which consists of 2 samples. You can cause the voice to ascend or descend in pitch per the force of your stroke; you can filter; you can add this and that effect. Most drum enthusiasts will never get to the bottom of this one. But it’s nice to know there are choices lurking within the modest sized control module/brain.

If you’re the sort who practices on electronic drums, know (1) this sucker is as silent as it gets. Your neighbors will not hear a thing. (2) There’s a great metronome, easy to crank up and as easy to mute if you need a count in. (3) And there are over 70 sequences to which you can practice. They’re accompanied by drumset to assist you in getting the feel. You can then mute the drumset and play along to the keys, guitar, bass depending on the nature of the sequence. Each sequence can be slowed down or sped up: a slow blues, for example, becomes a fast shuffle at the flick of a knob. In addition, you can create and store your own sequences and store them; or edit the on board ones. Sky’s the limit.

Again, on the matter of the suggested $599 US price, I’m serious when I say that I walked into this blindfolded, had no idea of what the thing cost, and assumed immediately I was playing a $1200 e-drumset. I found little wrong with the unit and I’ll share a couple of minor misgivings.

You unload it from your car

Everything about the Alesis DM8 USB is a class act, user-friendly, right down to packaging. I’m a klutz. Assembling an Ikea table, no drawers, induces panic attacks. Recently, it took me three days to install a Moen faucet cartridge for a family member. Good thing they were far away in San José when I turned something the wrong way and summoned a flood of Biblical proportions.

For me, the Alesis DM8 was a breeze to assemble. Every single bit and piece is clearly labeled and color coded, no guess work required. The rack comes in one unit that you fold out like a lawn chair, the pads seat securely without pleading, and the wiring is secured in a snake; only the ends are free and each is tagged according to what pad it runs from and final destination. In a half-hour, I had the thing blasting through a guitar amp (in mono mode) and sounding impressive. All I needed was a bass drum pedal, standard issue and nothing special.

The most important thing you need to do is to calibrate the hi-hat, which you can tweak to emulate the action of your regular hi-hat—then save your settings. If you don’t save, you will probably end up calibrating your hi-hat each time you turn the power on. Mind you, that’s simple as dirt. You press F1 (button clearly indicated on the backlit LED) with the pedal up/open, then you press down on the pedal the way you usually do with an acoustic hat and press F2. Done.

Through phones you want to hear this unit to appreciate it fully. But I tried it through a few amps and through B & W studio monitors and the DM8 was aglow. That’s why I’d use it on a studio session, again (sorry for repetition) if I can get away with sending out a stereo mix, or mono, a la DJ Fontana or John Bonham.

What Do I Know?

I know, as they say, what I like. And a little more. I owned a Simmons SDV back in the day. A few years later, I put together an electronic kit consisting of an Aphex Impulse trigger-to-MIDI converter through which I routed pad signals to trigger an analog Simmons module and a digital Roland R8M. It was a good system but the Alesis DM8 smokes it according to any criterion: quality of sound, speed of triggering, stick noise (important to apartment dwellers or if you’re combining electronic with acoustic drums in the studio, where an O/H mic picks up the clack of stick-striking-pad). And the Alesis coast $599 whereas mine was stretching well past $3000.

Configuration

Pictures don’t lie. You get what you see. Foot pedal for hi-hat & hi-hat cymbal pads; multi-zone snare pad (okay, two zones but it works out to more than that due to the layering of samples and the velocity of your hit), 2 toms up, 2 toms down, tom holders and brackets and a rack to prevent them from tumbling to the ground. You don’t see cables in the photos. Don’t worry, they’re included. Cables are expensive. You don’t want to go buying them separately. And if you don’t own a bass drum pedal, you can pick up a used one for $25.

It’s funny when you talk to people about electronics and they don’t like electronic drums one bit. Furthermore, it’s, “I don’t need all those tom pads”.

For the last few weeks I’ve been auditioning the Alesis DM8 USB without the second tom. I push it aside and down, then mute it, or I remove it. Where tom 2 sat, I place the Alesis ride pad, low just like Travis or Buddy. This is jam on both feet, as my mentor Halley Southgate (Scottish) used to say: I get electronic cababilities out of a retro 2-tom set up. If I really want to go 1950s, I detune the ride a couple of steps and it begins to resemble an old, thin Turkish-made K Zildjian.

Retro set up Alesis DM8 USB

Alesis DM8 USB with tom removed for vintage, classic vibe

Although you can generally reset the DM8 to factory default settings, I’d read the manual before making any changes. At first, I did a quick set up without bothering, and was convinced the hi-hat unit was a problem. It was me. The Alesis manual states it clearly and I know I’ve said this but I learned it the hard way, thus you get it from both barrels: If you like your customized setting, save it.

Two Flaws

If I had one criticism, and I have two, it’d be the hi-hat unit. The pedal is solid, sturdy, and won’t slip, and the controls sufficient to get the thing feeling like your regular hats (you’ll get used to striking a softer, rubber surface pronto), but it’s finicky in total. That is, it takes me a good while to zone in on an optimum set up, thus my admonition to save your settings once you find that perfect setting. Out of the box, the hi-hat on my Alesis DM8 was set a little “airy”, almost as if the cymbals were not quite closing when I stomped the foot pedal.

It’s good to go now. I guess what I’m saying is that if you’re a hobbyist, the time you spend reading the hi-hat portion of the manual is well spent, even if you learn the rest of the kit by touch and feel.

The second issue is not a flaw; it’s implicit in the stated purpose of the Alesis DM8 USB. The rack is a good one and it’s of light weight PVC construction. Once you get used to the large wing screws and learn the proper tension so that the pads don’t slip, the thing is flawless. But it’s not the strongest tree in the forest. There are better racks, and from Alesis, too, that would be infinitely better for road gigs. I’m inclined to speculate that the Alesis DM8 USB rack would cave in after ten gigs under the soft touch of, say, Chad Smith.

For around town, project studios, and even commercial studios, the rack and the pads would be good to go two years from now. A couple of tiny screws detached and I still haven’t determined where to re-attach them; but nothing has been affected. And damn if they don’t look great, all silky black. I was impressed, in fact, by the quality of the chromed wing nuts, tasteful departure from the matte jet black. And they’re not generic bits and pieces you’ll see elsewhere to my knowledge.

You can play it, you can “play with it”, endlessly tweaking your settings until you’ve arrived at a feel, response, and relative pitch situation that reflects your other being. Then again, if you’re not totally solid regarding acoustic drums, or you’re in transit, the Alesis DM8 USB might be your main instrument. I’m not saying it’s the best electronic drumset but I will venture it’s as good as anything out there, providing you mess with it. And, fortunately, the capacity to do so is seemingly endless.

The hobbyist won’t have a clue about trim or curve or velocity and will enjoy the unit straight out of the box. And that’s cool in itself because the Alesis DM8 comes in one box, the packaging so clearly labeled it might be destined for a NASA lunar landing. It’s pristine. In addition, the hobbyist will appreciate what I like to call the “immediacy” of Alesis sounds. Maybe it’s just me but I’ve always found that there is no artifact, no delay in response time, and, furthermore, a big payoff for a modest stroke, not that you get big sounds when you strike lightly. You can choose that if you want but, no, this is reactive.

Who are You?

I give credit to Alesis, an American company that makes creative and technical decisions before sourcing out components elsewhere. You thought I was going to add, “then manufactures the DM in China” (or India, Mexico, Thailand). Nope, it starts in America and ends in America, which is where the buck stops. Perhaps that’s why I enjoyed dealing with Alesis.

What a breath of fresh air talking to Alesis product manager Dan Radin. He was in on the ground floor designing, prototyping, and perfecting the DM8 USB, the DM10, and other winning Alesis units). It was Dan’s old Ludwig glitter early-badge kit that he took into the studio and sampled for the kit bearing the name “keystone”, one of the many you can dial up (and edit to taste).  Same with Dan’s old Gretsch…until he ran out of drums and began renting kits to sample.

Dan tells me that the reason I detect an “immediacy” in Alesis pad kits is that when you strike a pad, what you hear are multi-samples devoid of synthesis or coloration—no proprietary software processing to augment samples.

With the Alesis units, “ Dan says, “there’s no ‘intermediate levels’. You strike the pad and you hear real drums, most of which I’ve sampled myself and I’m finicky about sounds. The other important fact is that the Alesis unit features the fastest trigger-to-MIDI conversion, 40% faster than any other unit from any company out there.”

That adds up, as far as I can tell. There’s something incredibly life-like in some of the “boingy” samples that speaks truth. Dan’s trotted out, for example, an original pig-heavy Keplinger 14×5 and a vintage Gretsch. Both of these honk in peculiar ways and rather than tart them up with effects, you get the original tone.  This applies as much as is possible/appropriate to the vintage drum machine samples. Again, you detect immediately that it wasn’t some keyboard player who designed this sucker but a drummer; in this case, Dan is a drummer who is an electronic wiz. If you’ve ever sampled your frying pan, your cardboard box, and all that stuff, you’ll know that it’s not a walk in the park. Ditto with capturing the sustain from a ride cymbal or ensuring that when you detune it (easy to do in fine increments by punching a button and turning the large round knob) it’s going to be a usable sound, not an artefact.

The lifelike sounds, not somebody’s idea of what is cool, are one of the many reasons to buy this unit. Did I mention the price? “Natural” sounds are good. It’s such a relief not having to deal with 100% monster sounds, many of them trendy and useless 6 months hence, or, at least, to have the good fortune to be able summon raw-truth samples. Reminds me of my recording days and hearing engineers compliment me, “You get a recordable sound live off-the-floor”, meaning they can EQ it to taste and apply effects later, not to make drums sound like drums but for creative reasons. In this respect, the bass drums are all great on the DM8 USB. I’ve rarely encountered an instance where the factory preset sounds are pitched at what I agree is the optimum pitch. And, hey, if you don’t agree with me or with Alesis, you simply do the button/knob thing. You can get in there and pitch in increments less than a semi-tone, learning details about timbre shifts that will help you when you next sit down with a drum key and tune acoustic drums.

The fun factor

It’s here, that’s for certain. The fun, I add, is a drummer’s kind of fun. In other words, give the drummer enough rope he can hang himself. What this means is that there are so many filters and effects, you can do the Starwars Treatment on the various samples. Thank God you don’t have to start with the space cadet ethic. Now it’s true that in certain instances, Dan’s had to make subjective decisions on recreating, say, the “house” configuration. All I can say is that it sounds as if he’s listened to a variety of musical styles and played a few, too.

But maybe some of this purist talk is falling on deaf ears. Maybe you’re buying on price point, hoping to have a little fun.

The DM8 is no toy although in America toys go for this kind of pocket change. I want to assure you that the hobbyists among you can plug the Alesis DM8 USB into the AC socket, clamp on a pedal, press the power button and get frisky. Right out of the box. Again, I think the hi-hat might take a little work…not necessarily for the hobby drummer who’s never experienced acoustic drums in their glory. One of the ways in which drum enthusiasts can to toy is to swap out the preset ride cymbal for, oh, a bell tree, which jangles and chimes for days. It’ll be months before any thrill wears off if you approach the DM8 with no preconceptions. Indeed, if you’re not a pro and simply love drums, and you’ve got money to spend, the Alesis DM8 will be like winning the lottery. And, speaking as a pro during times of financial restraint, the Alesis DM8 USB answers many a prayer.

I’ve never been one to practice on pads and I don’t want to annoy my household by banging away endlessly on “real drums”. I found that the Alesis DM8 USB had me practicing more, working out ideas. I had no problems with the pads/module tracking the lightest grace and ghost strokes—once I tweaked and saved.

It won’t do a press roll, not for me anyway, and I do a nice, sizzling and consistent one. That’s no big deal. I can mike an old brass snare drum and play one at pp. Nor will the Alesis track a wire brush scraping across the snare pad surface—although it gives a good college try! As Dave Dudley of Dave’s Drum Shop remarked to me, when I was in checking similarly priced units to verify my conclusions, “this type of unit is not going to be something jazz drummers scoop up….they tend to stay with acoustic drums”. That spoken, the brush kit patch is cool sounding and you can get a decent emulation of the sound of a brush tapping the heads of snare and toms.

There’s more, much more than anyone ought to expect for a mere $599. I’m thinking back to the days of that cobbled together electronic drumset (Roland R8M, Aphex Impulse etc). Back then musicians would proudly be punching patterns into sequencers that cost a grand and did 25% of what this wee Alesis DM8 USB does and without the royal pain and suffering. Aside from the vast editing possibilities, about which I’ve only hinted, the sequence bits can be made musical by means of pitch, timbre, placement etc. I haven’t played the DM8 Pro but I now have a basis to imagine the refinements, none of which at this point I require.

Since borrowing the unit for review, I’ve used it when teaching, while students play acoustic drums, sometimes in unison, and find the Alesis DM8 USB stands up in terms of presence and tone, even when plugged into a tattered, under power and overly distorted war-era amp used by the band recording the original “Signs”, the hit that preceded the Tesla version. If it sounds okay through that pig, it’ll sound plenty good on anything you own.

I admit that even weeks into the review, I haven’t scratched the surface. My current game is matching snare drum sounds I hear on The Roots’ albums and tuning the bass drums higher than they ought to be. Owing to the good quality samples, I can go in other directions… for a real Motown or maybe Stax sound, remembering that most of the bass drums back then, minimally miked, were pitched higher to cut through the mix and because those  drummers were coming from a jazz background.

The jazz kit is a good starting point for this, given it’s already sporting an up-pitched kick but all of these kits are useful. Current favorite kits are the Fusion, Cable Snare, Bop Brush, Crank It, Dry Honk, Keystone, and one of the Latin choices, which I haven’t figured out yet.

The Alesis DM8 USB earns 9 out 10, smartly designed and sturdy. Not sturdy enough for the road but sturdy enough for in town and day trips.

*** ***

Funny the things you miss, however clearly indicated. I was using the Cable Snare kit through phones, playing to urban tracks, then switched to some Miles Davis. The snare and kick worked okay at my custom pitches but the ride didn’t. On a whim, I chose to edit-instrument, scrolled down, and found a couple of rides that I wish I owned: an 18” old K and also something called a Snub. I hadn’t tried this with rides for some reason, despite my cymbal obsession and vast collection. I’m happy to report that the cymbal samples are done more or less the way I hear cymbals. That’s a big compliment to Alesis. I mean, could have been the way some keyboard player computer nerd hears cymbals. I shortened the decay and perverted them in ways I cannot mention here. A half an hour went by.

See what I mean? Tbw