ION Drum Rocker: Rock Band Premium Drum Kit Review4
Matt posted in Games, Xbox 360 on November 23rd, 2008
I started drumming 15 years ago, so I have very strong opinions about the state of drums in video games. As a disclaimer, I’m not the world’s greatest drummer nor am I the greatest guy at Rock Band drums (mostly because I have not played it very much due to my constant work schedule and the fact that my neighbors complain if I drums late), so take my opinions worth a grain of salt.
I have pretty much all the drumming games and their associated drums. I have 2 Taiko drum controllers, the US version of Taiko Drum Master, 2 Import only Taiko no Tatsujin PS2 games, 1 PSP Taiko no Tatsujin (I haven’t gotten the DS one yet, which makes a lot more sense than the PSP one), 4 Donkey Konga Bongos, Donkey Konga 1 and 2, DK Jungle Beat (which I haven’t actually opened yet… I didn’t care for it at E3, so mostly I bought it because it was cheap and I got another set of bongos), Guitar Freaks & Drummania 5 (this is another Japanese import), the Drummania drum controller, Rock Band 1 and 2, the Rock Band 1 drum set and finally the ION Rocker Premium Drum Kit.
I think I’m in a good position to say this drum kit is BY FAR the best video game peripheral that has been released for drumming. I hope for my wallet’s sake that they don’t release anything better than this (or they sell upgrades for this unit). It’s a great kit, and I’m very glad I’ve purchased it. I just want to get that out of the way up front because I’m quite long winded, so you can stop reading if that’s all you were looking for. My full thoughts are as follows, and they include a lot of nitpicky comments that probably don’t matter to non-drummers and even still, don’t affect the enjoyment of the game. So the summary is it’s great, and I like nitpicking.
Starting from the very beginning, for $300 you get a big box packed to the brim of drummy goodness. (I purchased mine from amazon.com because they have free shipping unlike the official ION Rocker site) It’s a bit larger than the full Rock Band package. Contained inside is all the various racks, stands and drum pads necessary to create a semi-realistic drum kit. One of the best features about the kit is the modularity. It is made up of many aluminum tubes and plastic joints, which gives you a lot of flexibility as far as positioning. Every drummer has a personal preference as to the locations of all their drums, cymbals and pedals. It takes quite a lot of time to position them in order to get the kit to feel right. Unfortunately, with all previous kits there was not a way to fine-tune the positions. Luckily, the ION Drum Rocker allows the level of control drummers have expected from drum kits both normal and electronic.
The main pads are quite nice. They have a good feel to them similar to many practice pads that drummers use for training. One important thing to note is that unlike the traditional Rock Band kits pads, they have rims that do not register your hits. This is accurate for real drums as well as most electronic kits. Unfortunately, unlike the expensive electronic kits, the rims aren’t sensitive to hits, so you can’t do any rim shots. It’s not too important for the game, but would be a neat little touch. Perhaps you should only get half points if you missed the note and hit the rim, but it wouldn’t end your streak. It’d be a cool gameplay touch, but they are selling the kit for $300, so I didn’t expect it to include a lot of advanced features like that. Although the rims register a hit on the official kit, they don’t register as a separate rim shot sound. Rather they are just molded from the center pad creating a more forgiving experience despite that hurts the drum simulator aspect of it.
Continuing with the nitpickiness – although there is quite a lot of flexibility in positioning, all the joints are made out of plastic. They seem pretty solid, but feel a little cheap. However, as a nice touch, most of the screws have the typical square peg found on most drum heads and other equipment. If you have a lucky drum key, you can put it to good use to create an authentic game experience. Maybe you can even find a roadie to set it up for you.
The bass drum pedal, although quite a bit better than the Rock Band plastic pedal, still does not feel like a real bass drum pedal. It has a lot of travel before it hits the switch, and the switch is purely binary. Although all the pads are velocity sensitive, the bass drum is not. This isn’t that big of a deal, but a velocity sensitive pedal would be cool since dynamics are one of the few tools a drummer has, and using an electronic kit always takes away many of the options. For example, depending on where you hit cymbals they make different sounds. Playing the bell of your ride cymbal creates a super cool sound that is great for hard hitting metal songs. In fact, Zildjian makes a Zil-Bell, which is just like the bell of a cymbal, so you can make another unique sound in your kit. Anyway, electronic drum sets have some advantages like size, ease of recording and not pissing off your neighbors. But especially if you are planning on hooking up the pedal to a real electronic drum set module preserving the volume control is very important.
Ideally, they’d sell an optional bass drum trigger pad that would allow you to use any sort bass drum pedal. This is usually what electronic drum sets do. Most non-drummers may not be interested in paying more than $300 for a more authentic experience, but some drummers like myself already have pedals they like, so it might be worth it to some. If you are looking to get serious, the best bass drum pedal back when I kept up with drumming was the Tama Iron Cobra line of pedals. If you go to a music store and try one out, you’ll know the difference instantly. However, I’d even prefer a cheap pedal to the pedal they have because real bass drum pedals allow drummers to adjust the spring tension, which goes a long way to help drummers get the best bass drumming experience. Again, this may not make a difference to most consumers, but if they are targeting the enthusiast market, it might be worth providing this. I’m tempted to buy an electronic bass drum trigger and see if I can get it working with the kit. If I do, I’ll let you know if I can get it working.
The bass drum pedal appears to be identical to an Alesis hi-hat pedal. The fact that it’s binary is especially unfortunate for a hi-hat pedal because the hi-hat is one of the most versatile instruments at a drummer’s disposal. Because you can adjust the tension of the hi hat with the pedal, you can create a whole range of sounds when hitting it. Whether the pedal works well for a hi-hat is a bit of a moot point since Rock Band doesn’t have hi-hat support. I would really like to see Rock Band 3 add a hi-hat pedal since developing four limb independence is important to train the future of drummers trained on the game.
Interestingly, the Rock Band 2 drum set has an input for a second pedal, but the ION Drum Rocker does not. I’m worried I may have to buy a new little brain for any new features that are added in the next iteration. The brain is not a sophisticated piece of electronics because all it does is encode the inputs from the trigger pads to whatever format they use over USB. I imagine it could sell for $30 if they wanted, but I have a feeling they aren’t going to charge that little should you want to upgrade it. It would be nice if they sold the modules individually so the few people that want to switch between platforms don’t need a new kit. A lot of my friends have the PS3 Rock Band, so theoretically I might want to have both copies, so I can play with all my friends. I’m not devoted enough to do that, but I can totally see people wanting to switch when there may be platform exclusive content or in the case of Rock Band 2 an exclusive early release. $300 is a sizable investment, and I want to future proof my investment. If Sony buys Harmonix from MTV and Rock Band 3 is a PS3 exclusive, I don’t want to buy another kit. (I don’t really see that happening, but I like having all my bases covered)
So again, the kit is awesome. If you are serious with drumming, it’s definitely worth $300. It’s not the greatest electronic drum kit ever, and if you are serious about drumming, it’s probably worth buying a real drum kit to use for practice. There is quite a bit of room for improvement as far as realism, but I imagine price was a big factor as far as what features they chose to include. Konami’s Drummania Japanese PS2 games actually support real electronic drum kits using a midi to USB converter, so if you think any of my complaints would bother you or you want to drop $1000 on an electronic drum kit, that’s an option. Their song selection is no where near as rockin’ as Rock Band, so it might not be that great of an idea.
Let me close with a random thought. I used to play a mean marimba. I could even do the 4 mallet thing, which was really tough (at least for me). Any chance someone will make Marimba Hero? Maybe I should trademark that in the off chance someone does. I guess I’d have to get Xylophone Hero and Vibraphone Hero just in case they wanted to get around my trademark. Keep your fingers crossed that they create rhythm games for other forms of percussion. I could totally see Harmonix’s Symphonic Orchestra having an awesome Timpani controller.