Drum Conversion - Acoustic to Electric With DIY Heads and Triggers

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Introduction: Drum Conversion - Acoustic to Electric With DIY Heads and Triggers

Electric drum kits have recently become more mainstream with the development of their signal processing technology and their ability to closely reflect the feel and sound of a true acoustic kit. While they do seem to fall short in live performances compared to acoustic kits, they are ideal for beginners to learn and for seasoned drummers to quietly practice. They're also extremely useful for recording and developing tracks with MIDI. However, they can also be very expensive compared to acoustic kits.

I decided I wanted to start out with an electric drum kit to learn and practice quietly, but I also wanted the ability to convert to an acoustic kit if the occasion ever required. I was able to find a cheap but heavily used acoustic kit on Craigslist locally, and I decided this was the perfect opportunity to attempt an acoustic to electric drum conversion. I would be able to learn the ins and outs of electric kits, have the ability to fix or replace any parts that I break in teaching myself drums, and also convert back to acoustic easily without buying an entirely separate kit.

In this build I will be detailing how I created my own silent mesh drum heads, drum triggers for each piece of the kit, and built my own silent cymbals. I decided not to build my own signal processing module, and instead purchased a commercially available unit (Alesis Nitro) to do the heavy computing tasks.

Supplies

Parts

Supplies

  • 1"x3" wood furring strips
  • Small wood screws
  • Double Sided Foam Tape
  • Double Sided Clear Window Tape
  • Electrical tape
  • Heat Shrink
  • Thin-gauge copper wire
  • Metal Hanger Strap Roll
  • Thin Plastic - I used a lid to a plastic storage tote
  • Gym Mat Foam
  • 1/8" Plywood

Tools

  • Scissors
  • Leather Hole Punch
  • Drill
  • Drill Bits and Driver
  • Drum Key
  • Tin Snips/Metal Shears
  • Soldering Iron and Solder
  • Wood Saw

Step 1: Full Video

If you're a visual learner, I documented the entire build process in this YouTube video, enjoy!

Step 2: Cleanup and Restoration

Before I got started on the conversion, I restored the acoustic kit by giving it a good clean and replacing some of the drum tension and tom-mounting hardware that had been broken from years of heavy use. Luckily all of the drum shells and stands were still in great shape.

The kit I found was only a five piece drum assortment and did not include cymbal stands or cymbals, so I purchased some cheap cymbal stands and a hi-hat stand from eBay.

I removed all of the heads from the drums and threw them away, as they were all so beaten up they were unsalvageable. When I convert the kit back to acoustic I will need to buy new drum heads and new cymbals.

Step 3: Make Mesh Drum Heads

This conversion will have two-ply mesh drum heads. There are many opinions as to what makes a good mesh drum head, and I settled on a two-ply system made from heavy duty fiberglass screen mesh. It can be found very cheaply and if I ever manage to break the heads I can easily replace them. The vinyl tube will be woven through the mesh and the drum rims will be applying tension to the tube pulling the heads evenly. The alternative of sewing the mesh onto a drum head ring will make for a much more difficult replacement and doesn't provide much more strength or rigidity in the long run.

  1. Line up two layers of mesh
    1. Use binder clips to hold the layers together throughout this process
  2. Trace the drum ring's circle onto the mesh
  3. Cut out the mesh in a circle approximately 2 inches in diameter LARGER than the circle you traced
    1. This excess will allow room for tightening the mesh heads to your desired tension
  4. Draw dots spaced about 1 inch along the entire circumference of the circle you traced
    1. Make sure an even number of dots are drawn on
  5. Punch holes on each of the dots through both mesh layers
  6. Wrap a length of vinyl tubing around the drum shell and mark where the ends meet
  7. Cut the tubing on the mark so that the length is the same circumference as the outside of the drum shell
  8. Weave the tubing through each hole punched in the mesh
  9. Secure the ends with some strong tape
  10. Repeat this process for each drum shell in your kit

Step 4: Drum Triggers

Drum triggers convert the vibration and velocity of the drumsticks striking the drum head into an electrical signal to be processed by the module. Once again there are many methods for adding drum triggers to a kit, but I decided to make my own triggers and install them on a brace inside each shell, as opposed to a premade trigger added to the outside of the shell. Repeat the process below for each drum in the kit, including the bass drum


Trigger Brace

  1. Measure and cut a wood brace (1"x3") to fit inside the drum shell
  2. Remove a tension lug screw on either side of the shell
  3. Install an angle bracket onto each lug (horizontal arm up) with the lug screw you removed
  4. Screw the wood brace onto the bracket with small wood screws
    1. Drill a pilot hole with a small drill bit to prevent cracking in the wood
  5. Mark the center of the brace and draw a dividing line
  6. On the center of the wood brace, place a layer of doublestick foam tape on either side of the center dividing line
  7. Stick a layer of metal strips to cover the foam tape
    1. Cut metal strip using tin snips/metal shears
  8. Place a roughly dime-sized layer of doublestick tape (non-foam) over the center of the metal layer
  9. Set the drum shell aside to await placement of the trigger


Trigger Wiring

  1. First you want to identify which pins on the 1/4" TRS jacks are which. There is a Tip, Ring, and Sleeve pin that contacts the tip, ring, and sleeve on the plug of the wiring harness. It helps to insert the plug into the jack to determine which pin is contacting which section of the plug.
  2. Each piezo sensor has a signal wire (red) and a ground wire (black). The signal wire will be soldered to either the tip or the ring pin, but the ground wire(s) will always be soldered to the sleeve
  3. Typically the red signal wire is soldered to the tip pin, but if you will be having a second piezo in the trigger it will need to be soldered to the ring pin. A second piezo will offer you a secondary sound, such as a rim shot on the snare drum or a bell on the ride cymbal. Look closely at the harness plugs to see which plug can accommodate a secondary ring piezo
  4. Based on the length of the wires, they may need to be extended to reach the position of the jacks
  5. Solder the wires to their respective pins - Signal 1 to Tip, Signal 2 to Ring, and Ground(s) to Sleeve
  6. Secure each solder with electrical tape or heat shrink


Mounting Piezos

  1. Secure the primary piezo to the double stick tape on the trigger mount.
    1. Press firmly but not so hard that you crack the piezo.
  2. If you have a secondary piezo to mount as a rim shot, secure it to the wall of the drum shell with double stick tape.
    1. Because you are not sending the vibrations from the rim directly to the piezo and not through a mesh drum head it is far less complicated for a rim trigger
  3. The foam cone is going to translate the vibration from a hit anywhere on the mesh head to the piezo in a way that makes the drum sound more realistic. The more perfectly shaped you can make the cone, the better it will sound
    1. Use scissors or a knife to cut the cone out of foam, don't worry about the height at this point. The base of the cone should be the same diameter as the piezo sensor
    2. Place the cone on the center piezo. The correct height should be such that the tip comes above the line of the drum shell's rim by 1.5mm. I placed a metal carpenter square on the shell and marked where it met the foam. Cut the cone at this height
    3. Use some more clear doublestick tape on the bottom of the foam cone, and stick the base to the top of the piezo
  4. Lastly, drill a hole through the drum shell to mount the 1/4" jack.
    1. Choose a location on the shell that will allow the module wires to reach their respective jacks when the kit is set up
    2. Start small and use progressively larger drill bits in order to prevent cracking the wood and shell wrap
    3. If the shank of the jack's threads are too small to go all the way through the mounting hole, you may need to carve out the inside of the shell with a rotary tool to thin that portion of the wall enough so that you can get the nut onto the threads on the outside of the shell
  5. Place the mesh head over the shell, place the drum rim over the head, and tighten it down to your desired tension.
    1. Make sure the inside of the rim holds the vinyl tubing all the way around to provide even tension across the head.
    2. Do not overtighten as it is possible to rip the mesh from overtightening.

Step 5: Build Cymbals

The cymbals are a much simpler affair than the drum triggers. You will be using more piezos and jacks and wiring them similarly to the drum triggers.

  1. Cut a circle from the thin plastic to your desired dimensions. I used the high tom's shell diameter for the crash and ride cymbals, and the small container for the hi-hat diameter
  2. Drill holes in the center of each cymbal for the cymbal hardware to go through. I reused the cymbal hardware from each cymbal stand
  3. Cut several circles in the 1/8" plywood. You will need two circles for each cymbal. I used the double stick tape's diameter for the crash and ride cymbals' disks, and the electrical tape diameter for the hi-hat.
    1. The wood circles provide support and structure to each cymbal, as the plastic is thin and flimsy.
    2. Drill similar center holes through each wood disk
  4. Cut a piece of gym mat foam to cover the top of the cymbal, I chose to only cover half but you can choose to cover the whole area. Leave a section in the center for the wood disk to fit
    1. The foam is meant to protect the piezo and silence the strike on the cymbal
  5. Secure the piezo to the plastic with clear double stick tape
  6. Solder lengthening wires as needed, and solder the signal and ground of the piezo to the jack tip and sleeve.
    1. I chose to mount the piezo on the top of the cymbal and drilled a small hole to route the wires and mount the jack on the bottom of the cymbal
  7. Mount the jack to the back of the cymbal with some double stick foam tape
  8. I chose to mount a secondary piezo on the ride cymbal to give a "bell" sound in addition to the ride sound. I used some tape to stick it to the wooden disk and placed a foam circle on top of the disk to protect it. I soldered it to the ring pin on the jack
  9. I also chose to install a "choke" switch to the ride cymbal. This switch is used to pinch the crash cymbal to cut off the reverberation, similar to choking a real crash cymbal. The choke switch can be soldered to the ring pin on the crash's jack. I stuck a small piece of gym foam to the choke switch on the underside of the cymbal to protect it as well
  10. Secure any dangling wires with electrical tape.
  11. Stick the gym foam pads over the piezos with some double stick tape or glue

Step 6: Put It All Together

Drums

  1. Set up the bass drums, toms, and snare with snare stand as you normally would
  2. Plug in each labeled module harness plug into its respective jack.


Cymbals

  1. Mount the cymbals to each cymbal stand. Make sure that each cymbal is "sandwiched" with a wooden disk mounted between the cymbal hardware.
  2. Plug in each module plug onto its respective cymbal jack
  3. Set up the hi-hat pedal beneath the hi-hat stand, and plug in the corresponding 1/8" plug from the module's harness


Module

  1. Mount the module to the drum kit. I found that a tom-mounting arm fits snugly onto the module's mounting pipe. The tom arm can then be mounted onto a cymbal stand with a bracket.
    1. Any mounting solution will work so long as the module is accessible and doesn't move around when playing
  2. Plug and secure the harness into the back of the module with the included screws
  3. Secure all dangling wires around the kit with Velcro straps or cable ties


Practice!

  1. Plug headphones or a small practice amp into the module to begin practicing. Tune each of the triggers with the module to get your desired sounds and sensitivities
  2. Play with MIDI and VSTs
    1. I use a free software called Waveform and the ASIO4ALL driver to connect the drums to a computer over the USB plug on the module. This allows me to add even more functionality to the already capable module
  3. Enjoy your new drums. I've found that it is really nice to practice quietly with headphones, and learn a lot of the fundamentals. I also really like that I'm able to convert all of the shells back to acoustic simply by removing the trigger braces and plugs, and adding real cymbals


Thank you for reading this Instructable, I hope you enjoyed it and are able to use it to make your own kit. Feel free to ask questions!

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    17 Comments

    0
    bobdole1221
    bobdole1221

    1 year ago

    Totally badass idea. My only question is how much money did you spend on all the equipment needed to build this? Almost seems like to have a good decent set that you're gonna drop a decent amount of coin anyways and run a risk of ruining the acoustic set if any attention to detailed is lost. Sorry please dont confuse this comment with negativity more of a cautious tone im taking here

    0
    Jake_Of_All_Trades
    Jake_Of_All_Trades

    Reply 1 year ago

    Great question! So the drum kit itself was only $50. I spent another $75 or so just on cymbal stands and replacement hardware to get it back into working shape (I bought new only because I couldn't find any used in my area). All of the other components to build the heads and triggers with the module and pedal came to about $150. All-in cost of about $275. This is equivalent to a low end e-drum kit or a decent used acoustic kit. But the nice thing about this build is that by simply replacing heads and removing the triggers this can become a fully acoustic kit again.

    0
    bobdole1221
    bobdole1221

    Reply 6 months ago

    sorry on the delay responding back to you. thats not bad at all. considering half way ok sounding e-kits go for 500-1000$ just on the low end. overall how does it sound? not sure if thats been covered. but in your honest opinion and not just cause you built it. how do you think it sounds? any latency issues or how close can you make it sound like an acoustic set.. thanks for your time answering these questions too

    0
    Jake_Of_All_Trades
    Jake_Of_All_Trades

    Reply 6 months ago

    So it sounds...okay. My biggest complaint honestly is the module itself. The Alesis Nitro module does not have the best drum samples and sounds very electronic. If I could do it over I would've picked up a used Roland module. I can always upgrade in the future though. The MIDI features are basically useless because of lag, so any hope for using a VST are sort of out, at least with this module.

    As far as the drums themselves, it works surprisingly well. Very rarely I'll have a missed trigger, or a double trigger. It takes some slight adjustment in those cases, and they only really occur if I'm really bashing on the cymbals.

    0
    bobdole1221
    bobdole1221

    Reply 6 months ago

    i watched your video and obviously cameras dont do any justice on picking up the instruments sounds properly but they did seem to respond very well. idk why but i didnt think about it or maybe in your instuctable about it been almost a year since reading it. but are you able to convert back to the acoustic set? if so how quick are the switches over thatd be cool to master the sounds you had issues with and connections. itd be cool to make a swap over lets say a head broke or power outage you needed to drum ypur way through.

    0
     buttonkey
    buttonkey

    1 year ago

    I'm curious as to how well that mesh is holding up. I have mesh heads from Evans on all the heads on my practice kit (which are truly a godsend!) and the material is similar to the fiberglass you used but I can't say it's identical.
    It's single ply, tighter woven and incredibly durable. They're also tunable (within reason) and they allow practice at literally any hour in the room next to my sleeping wife.
    I'm asking because I know mine won't last forever and it turns out that they are a bit more expensive than regular heads (go figure). If you find success in your iteration, I would seek to replace any I may damage in the future with screening, like you used, and using the salvaged hoops in place of the tubing.
    By my math, screen mesh around the whole kit would cost the same as one mesh tom head (don't even ask what a 24" kick head is going for).
    As a word of advice, spend the extra $5 and get a impact pad for your kick to mitigate the damage from the beater striking the head. All manufacturers sell them and any music store online will have one at your doorstep inside of a couple of days. It will save you many hours of frustration for a minimal investment.
    Let me know if you are looking for alternative resources (at low to no- cost) for learning how to play. I can point you in the right direction and maybe show you a trick or two myself.
    Thanks and good luck!

    0
    Jake_Of_All_Trades
    Jake_Of_All_Trades

    Reply 1 year ago

    So far the mesh is holding up well. Initially it does have some stretch. I was having to tighten it every day or so (just a quarter turn at most for each lug) until it seemed to hold its tension after about a week of practice. Very durable so far, especially with two ply. I do wish it had a bit tighter weave, I think that would make it more "tune-able"

    I'll definitely look into an impact pad. My pedal has a wooden head and I can tell it's going to wear out the mesh fairly quickly without some help, thank you!

    Any resources for helping learn things are always appreciated!

    0
     buttonkey
    buttonkey

    Reply 1 year ago

    Glad to hear you're making progress and working out some bugs! I hope you're starting to enjoy it. I just started back up 7 months ago after a 10 year hiatus from an injury. I had 25+ years in rock/metal before that. This time I'm not looking to do any gigs or do a world tour. Nor am I trying to resurrect the glory days into a "dad band" thing (I'm cool but not THAT cool). Nope, I don't even really want to be heard by anyone. I just love playing and this new approach has me enjoying where I am with my instrument instead of always wanting to be somewhere else (i.e. faster, smoother, more technically proficient, etc) with it. Its surprisingly liberating and really keeps the tension out of my playing (staying as loose as possible is one of the requirements for playing well) by not always trying to outdo myself anymore.
    As for where to go for instruction and inspiration, there are myriad guys posting on YouTube at any given hour of the day with breakdowns of fills, beats, solos that are all legit but if you're just starting out, its imperative to develop your hand technique to avoid any repetitive motion related injuries that could absolutely sideline any hopes you may have had of playing the drums at all. It is a process, I won't lie but, its incredibly rewarding and very much worth the endeavor.
    For where I think you're at, I would suggest checking out a guy named Mike Johnston on YT. He has a lot of stuff for free on YT but also offers an extremely comprehensive set of courses with an amazing amount of information for a monthly fee (I know, I know. But this guy is legit.) at a cost equivalent to what one 30 minute lesson would cost you at Guitar Center. He has lessons for advanced guys all the way back to day one, saved up my allowance for 6 months to get my first pair of sticks, beginners. You go thru the lessons at your own pace and you can skip ahead as far as you want or replay lessons indefinitely. He's also available for questions a few times a week if you have any. I was impressed with his thorough coverage of the fundamentals so much so that I watched, and participated in, all of his beginner lessons and got a lot from them. He's at mikeslessons.com and you can cancel, suspend or resume your subscription at any time without any kind of grief. And the GrooveScribe feature he has is really cool and can help you learn how to read/sight-read music among other things like experimenting with grooves or hearing how something notated should sound.
    Another fantastic resource for some free tips and tricks is my dude Rob "Beatdown" Brown(robbrownondrums.com). He's a crazy good drummer that puts out 20 minute vids about once a week with topics ranging from hand exercises to buying tips for gear to tuning. All for free and your skill level won't ever hinder what you take away.
    While you're on YouTube, Drumeo has some great interviews with some truly legendary players. Bernard Purdie, Thomas Pridgen, Bennie Grebs, and the Sonny Emory one was off the hook!
    Also, I'm usually pretty accessible and always happy to offer any help or answers. I can at least point you in the right direction to find something you may be seeking. (Speaking of, here's a link for the kick pad I use from a place I deal with all the time; https://www.americanmusical.com/evans-pb-eq-nylon-... They'll likely have it at your door the day after you order it.)
    I've found that the overwhelming majority of folks in this community are happy to go miles out of their way to share their knowledge and they'll sincerely try to help you play better and would be more upset at you NOT asking something... In other words, don't hesitate to ask a stupid question, we've all asked the exact same one at some point.
    Good luck and, remember to breathe!

    0
    Jake_Of_All_Trades
    Jake_Of_All_Trades

    Reply 1 year ago

    This is amazing, thank you for all the excellent resources!

    0
     buttonkey
    buttonkey

    Reply 1 year ago

    Any time. I hope you are able to put some of it to good use. And don't hesitate to holler if you need anything.

    0
    smbrown
    smbrown

    1 year ago

    Bravo! This may be the start of some young kid or two building their own drumset. I have an electronic kit and what you are doing is great. The construction seems to be exactly the same. Keep improving it and maybe you'll be building these for other people one day.

    0
    Jake_Of_All_Trades
    Jake_Of_All_Trades

    Reply 1 year ago

    Thank you! That means a lot. I have learned most of what I know from independent makers that just chose to document their process. I hope to be able to be the same for future makers.

    0
    DarrenY4
    DarrenY4

    Question 1 year ago

    Does the second sensor on the snare drum work? Does it trigger a cross sick sound?

    0
    Jake_Of_All_Trades
    Jake_Of_All_Trades

    Answer 1 year ago

    It absolutely does. The module I picked has a rim shot as a dedicated zone, so the two trigger system I made it perfectly compatible. Unfortunately the second piezo on the Ride cymbal does not work so well. Even though the plug from the module has a Tip and Ring, it doesn't seem the module itself has a second ride note programmed in.

    0
    Jake_Of_All_Trades
    Jake_Of_All_Trades

    1 year ago

    Here is an Instagram video I made of my brother-in-law demonstrating the drums through a practice amp: https://www.instagram.com/p/CCbM88snfac/

    Since this posting I have made new cymbals out of some cheap 10" frisbees, they seem to be much sturdier. Enjoy!

    0
    Seba2020
    Seba2020

    1 year ago

    What about using an optical pickup - reflective optocoupler behind the membrane? It can be found i.e. in broken smartphones (used to turn off the screen when phone is held next to user's ear or in the pocket). I'm going to make such an instrument - I already made a simple electric guitar with slotted optocoupler from an old printer and it works.

    0
    Jake_Of_All_Trades
    Jake_Of_All_Trades

    Reply 1 year ago

    Very cool! I think the drum module I chose requires a piezo to figure out the vibration and velocity levels but I'd be very interested to see how a drum set with optocoupler triggers performs!