plugged-in

It’s Alive!: Build Your Own Electronic Kit

The moon ducks behind gathering clouds, plunging the earth into the darkest night. You wake in a sweat, the urge to attack the kit dominating your thoughts. But … curses! What about the neighbors? It sure would be sweet to have an electronic drum set at a moment like this. You muse over the flexibility of such a creation: the seemingly endless possibilities; the awesome variety of sounds; the ability to thunder while barely making audible noise; and the option to crank it up when the situation warrants it.

Electronic drum kits offer plenty of advantages. They’re acoustically quiet, usually fairly compact, and can trigger a wide variety of sounds, even loops, depending on the features offered by the drum module. There are many manufactured selections, but these can cost a pretty penny. So here’s an idea: why not build one yourself? A few parts here, a few items there, a little elbow grease, a couple of tools, a modicum of ingenuity, and of course, a good brain. Well, Dr. Frankenstein, let’s get started digging up what you’ll need so you can get started on creating your own personal monster.

What You’ll Need

A Brain

Drums:
Old Shells
Rototoms, a Practice Pad Kit (Remo Or Gibralter), or Homemade Pads

Cymbals
Plastic Practice Cymbals, Rubber Pads, or Inexpensive Brass Cymbals

Rack
Use a Prefab Mounting System or PVC Piping with Couplers and Joints, plus Hardware/Clamps to bolt it together

Triggers
Piezo Elements (with two soldered leads)
Foam Cones

Tools
Soldering Iron
Tin Snips
Drill with bits capable of drilling wood and metal
Screwdriver (Flathead and Phillips head)
Exacto Knife or Razor Blade
Hacksaw
Wire Strippers

(Some other nice tools to have, but not absolutely necessary: Table Saw, Drill Press, Dremel)

Other Stuff
Sheet Metal (various, but bronze is best)
Metal Bar
Foam Rubber Sheets (like mouse pad material)
Sorbothane
3/8" Auto Tubing
Wood: a couple of 2x4 pieces
L-Brackets
Screws and Nuts to secure the brackets
T-Bolts and T-Nuts for mounting the piezos to crossbeams
1/4" TS and/or TRS Jacks
Instrument Cable (hot/shield)
Balanced Cable (hot/cold/shield)
Solder
Silicone, Hot Glue, or Rubber Cement
Super Glue
Gaffer Tape or Duct Tape

Dig The Basics

Before you begin, you’ll need to determine your preferred playing surface(s), an appropriate module, a mounting system, and a practical triggering method for your purposes. Your approach will depend on how much you’re willing to roll out and how much time you want to spend on this labor of love. Then you’ll need to find and purchase the parts and make sure you have the right tools for the job.

One of my students, let’s call him “Jake,” recently embarked on a mission to build his own electronic kit, so I tracked his quest to help illustrate the process better. Jake’s vision incorporated a number of techniques for building the components of an electronic kit, so I’ve included details of his progress, in addition to offering alternative angles to creating an electronic kit that’s right for you.

Gathering Body Parts

Playing surfaces abound: from mesh heads on drum shells and Rototoms, to rubber pads, to real-feel Mylar-head practice pads like the ones made by Remo. Muted acoustic drums with regular heads can also be fitted with pickups. If you’re feeling really creative, you can make your own pads. Plastic practice cymbals are an excellent option for making e-cymbals and have realistic action, though you could also use rubber pads, or even inexpensive acoustic cymbals muted with rubber padding adhered to their surfaces.

Jake chose to go with mesh heads fitted into an old set of Rototoms, a funky old 12" tom for the kick drum, and a beat-up metal snare. He bought some bass drum spurs for the tom and a set of Pintech plastic practice cymbals. For the hi-hat, he layered a 1/2"-thick disc of wood with a rubber surface as an interim measure until he gets the stuff to make a hi-hat with a more realistic response and feel. He then mounted the whole lot to an old Yamaha drum rack. Other options besides a pre-made rack include making your own out of PVC or metal piping, couplers, and joints; welding one together out of metal piping or rebar; or using traditional hardware if you opt for a trigger-retrofitted acoustic setup.

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