Join me on a journey to turn someone else’s ailing garbage drums into a PC-connected super kit.
In this series…
- Part 1 – Diving Into Hybrid Acoustic Electronic Drums
- Part 2 – The Perfect Drums (For Me and Probably Nobody Else)
- Part 3 – Making Low Volume Drums
Just about everyone knows what modern drum sets looks like: big bass drum, snare, some toms, and between 1 and 50 cymbals. If you’re a player or a percussion enthusiast, you’re even probably familiar with electronic drum sets. They’ve come in different shapes and sizes over the years including little extra buttons on a piano keyboard, flat panels with pads that resemble the game Simon, rubber circles hooked up to a little control module, and lately, even sets that resemble real drums. Electronic sets are great for quiet practice and interfacing with your computer. With this setup you can record, tinker with new sounds, do easy content creation, follow online lessons, and like MIDI controller keyboards, they’re a great way to work out and record soundtracks for game development and other digital projects.
Notes: I’ll use drum “set” and drum “kit” interchangeably. It’s what drummers do. If you’re not familiar, “percussion” is a large family of instruments that includes drums, drum sets, keyboard instruments like xylophones, marimbas, and much more.
Electronic drums (or sometimes, “e-drums”) are not without some drawbacks. They’re quiet, but they still make some clacky noises. This keeps getting better with time as manufacturers and hobbyists experiment with new materials. Once you’ve played them awhile, it’s not unheard of that they might fall apart or stop working a little more often than their acoustic counterparts. You are hitting delicate electronic components with sticks, after all. Finally, the cost is way too high. The more I learn about acoustic drums, the more I’m starting to believe they’re woefully overpriced as well. E-drum pricing, however, borders on absurd. The popular models thought of as “low-end” usually come from Alesis and start between $300 and $500. Roland, known for their build quality, starts between $600 and $1,000 for a comparable set. If you want a set with similar size and feel to a real acoustic set, you’ll have no problem spending $5,000 or more.
But if electronic sets can mimic acoustic sets, can’t the reverse be true also?
I’ve learned it can, and it seems to be a fantastic solution to get the best of both the acoustic and electronic worlds for (potentially) a fraction of the price. In this article series, I’ll share what I’ve learned about acoustic to electronic conversions so far, some theory about how to do it well or affordably depending on your goals, and what led me to tackle my own build project in the first place.
How Guitar Center and Alesis convinced me not to buy new electronic drums
I’ll try not to bore you with my full musical background, but I’ve been playing drums since I was 10 years old. I started in school concert band, added pep band, jazz band, and marching band as each came up, then started playing with friends and bands around town some time around age 15. My mom “strongly encouraged” me to play for local churches we were attending and, since I had no choice about going anyway, it was a nice way to pass the time. I have plenty of stories from these years, but suffice it to say, many church musicians (especially guitarists) are actually pretty cool people behind the scenes. When I was 18, I played percussion with my high school wind ensemble at Carnegie Hall and, later in the year, played live on the radio with my friends with the little alt. rock/ska/I-don’t-know-what band on our legendary local rock station, 105.7 The Point, and that was kind of my farewell to Very Serious Performing before I went off to tech school and focused on software for a pretty long time.
Luckily, music wasn’t totally absent from my life after that. I’m never too far from musical friends. My wife is an incredible pianist, for example. My brother-in-law is a great guitarist who has started building very cool guitars. When I first started dating my wife, her medical residency program director was a musician who regularly held music nights and even arranged occasional gigs. I played drums with him for most of her tenure in the program. When I started serious game development, I’d picked up enough music theory to score my games by myself, and drums and keyboard instruments always featured very prominently.
When I moved in with my wife in downtown St. Louis, playing acoustic drums was pretty much out of the question. We had enough trouble getting along with our neighbors (ever get chased by a German Shepherd down the equivalent of a hotel hallway?) and I opted not to make it worse with loud, repetitive practice.
My wife hated this and surprised me with an electronic Simmons set for a Christmas gift.
I had a fantastic time with these, and I did play regularly with them. Not only did they keep me practicing throughout our apartment living days, I also kept them up and used them to teach my son even after we bought our first home and I had ordered a beautiful Pearl Export set like the one the school band used and I definitely couldn’t afford.
Simmons electronic sets are a great way to get into the world of electronic drums for the price and features, but they have unfortunately been through some issues with stability and longevity. My set held up to my thoughtful practice sessions pretty well, but it did not survive our 3-year-old. After the first time the frame collapsed in a heap around him, I decided it was time to let the ailing hardware go after something like six years.
A handful of years later, I started to regret letting them go so easily. I have a little space in my office that I could hook up a modest set and fiddle around on the PC, make some silly videos, and maybe even score some projects. I have a set of mics and stands for my acoustic set, but that would take two of my current office and would also probably cause me to go deaf shortly thereafter. Those old Simmons pads sure would have fit nicely, and in researching how to work on and repair them, the process wouldn’t have been as bad as I first thought. But hey, many of the same manufacturers are still in business. A new set wouldn’t be that bad. Right?
Yes and no.
Alesis, the go-to low-end set manufacturer, is still around and they’ve made some cool stuff over the years. A lot of manufacturers are moving to mesh heads instead of rubber pads which are quiet and feel a little better to most players. Here in the age of all business going poorly, their product line seems to be changing quickly. They still have some very affordable sets that I’m sure will be great for beginners for a time. I’m at a point where, out of the box, I’d like a five-piece set of drums with hi-hat, ride cymbal, and two crashes. If you’re new to this, you’d be surprised at how many products that eliminates.
After some research, I noticed Guitar Center was offering one deal on an Alesis kit that far surpassed anything else I could find. At the time of writing, they still are (we’ll talk about why that’s weird soon). For $599.97, they are offering a brand new Alesis Command X Mesh-Head Electronic Set, a five-piece kit with a large bass target compatible with upgrading to a double pedal and my desired hi-hat and three-cymbal configuration. This set is getting hard to find as the Special Edition model takes over which is barely any different at all and costs $300 more. I was pleasantly surprised to see that my studio bank account could cover the cost, so I ordered it up. They emailed that they were working to fulfill my order (whatever that means) and then said nothing for an amount of time that surprised me.
Three days later, I received an email from Guitar Center letting me know this drum set isn’t actually available new, but the store in Houston has a floor model ready to ship for the same price.
I was not able to communicate directly with anyone about this, but I was directed to fill out a form to let them know if I wanted to accept the drums that strangers probably visited the store to make TikTok videos on or say some version of “thanks, but I’ll wait for a new product in box.” I selected the latter option.
The next day I started putting out feelers including a few Tweets about how odd the situation was. The company had confirmed more than once that I’d ordered a new product, and they didn’t appear to have a new one at all. I wanted to know if they had any ability to actually fulfill this order for real because I was kind of hoping to have and be playing my new drums by this time.
Guitar Center, seemingly no stranger to customer fallout at this point, doesn’t appear to address issues from their main Twitter account. Instead, they have a series of small “agent” accounts reply. This leaves you less likely to get the impression that Guitar Center is actually ass-deep in customer service issues. In the chaos that ensued, agent accounts tried to restart the “forward your info, I’ll see what I can do” process several times that never led to a resolution.
I was curious to see what a customer service rep would say, so I pulled up the website’s support chat. Let me treat you to a snippet from that chat:
Rep: Right now we’re out of stock on that kit so you’re [sic] order is on backorder. We’re expecting to get it in towards the end of this month. Would you want to keep you [sic] order in place or would you like me to help you out with ordering a different drum kit today?
Me: If you’re expecting to be able to fulfill the order I’m willing to wait. I just hadn’t heard that.
Rep: Actually I apologize, we are not getting any more of this kit in from Alesis so I will go ahead and get your order cancelled so it doesn’t stay stuck. Could I help you out with ordering a different kit today?
[I’ll pause here to point out that, according to Consumer Reports, advertising a product the seller has no ability to sell and trying to talk the customer into something else when approached meets the FTC’s definition of illegal bait and switch]
I pointed out that Guitar Center is still advertising the item as new online, now they’re saying they have no ability to fulfill the order as offered and no one was reaching out to let me know. After some back and forth, the rep asked if there was a different set he could help me out with some extra savings on and offered, I shit you not, “a free set of drumsticks for you as well.”
For the uninitiated, drumsticks go for between roughly $2.50 and $15 per pair.
This wasn’t the fault of the rep, and I tried to be clear I was frustrated with the situation but that I appreciated his help, even though I intended to take my business somewhere else. We were most of a week into this process already, and I realized there was no way for me to tell from the website what products they actually had available and which listings were pretend.
I wrote more Tweets as a few people had expressed interest in the situation. I tagged Alesis who offered no help or advice whatsoever.
I fully intended to move on, but it occurred to me that Guitar Center had acknowledged that the product was listed as new, they didn’t have it new, the price was marked down, and if you order it, they try to get you to take a floor model for that price. It sure looked to me like they were simply marking down the usual product price to whatever they’d like to recoup for floor models, then pretending to have the item new and in stock. Here nearly one full month later, after I’ve discussed this with company reps several times, filled out a Better Business Bureau complaint and responded to their feedback, and Tweeted about the situation several times, they’re still offering the product as new for that same price today. My guess would be that it’s because they haven’t unloaded their floor models yet.
A “drum guy” at Guitar Center’s “contact center” did leave me a voicemail saying he’d heard about the situation and wanted to help me find a new one (which he surely meant different set entirely) and “possibly get me a couple discounts on there.” He said he was sending me an email with his contact information, called me brother, and ended the call. I never received an email.
Turns out, if you search Google for “Guitar Center”, “floor model”, you find a whole lot of people with curiously similar issues.
As a nearly lifelong musician, I’d of course been a Guitar Center customer for probably 20 full years. I seem to recall the chain reached Missouri long before Southern Illinois, so several times I’d crammed myself into the back of my high school drummer buddy’s dad’s Geo Metro and we’d make the hour trek across the river to get in for their biggest sales. I’ve spent a decent amount of money with them over the years. That doesn’t make me special, of course. They should be treating everyone better than this.
So that was that. Time to look elsewhere. I checked Musician’s Friend, Sweetwater (which I hadn’t really been familiar with until recently), and even Amazon.
The problem was, I no longer really wanted to fork over a bunch of money to Alesis either after they decided not to even give me a “we’re sorry to hear this” for drums that would maybe be shot in another six years. My Simmons kit literally caved in around my kid (though that’s probably shared blame at worst). I thought seriously about a couple of kits from Roland, but they really are priced much too high in my opinion for sets that have very imperfect reviews. There had to be a better way.
That’s when I searched for something like “build electronic drums,” and the flood gates burst open. As it turns out, I’m not the only person fed up with overpriced instruments and garbage behavior from retailers, and there’s a thriving community of drum builders making things that would positively blow your mind.
Almost regardless of your technical knowledge, building e-drums is a great option for a few reasons:
You can do as much or as little technical stuff as you want
We’ll talk specifics later, but e-drums are made from very simple sensors build into acoustic drums, rubber pads, or nearly anything else that you want, and there are a variety of ways to achieve that. The simplest version is a pack of sensors that you clip to the top drum heads on your kit, then plug instrument cables into your interface and you’re off to the races. If you want to save money and aren’t afraid of a bit of soldering, you can make these “triggers” yourself using surprisingly inexpensive components and do the technical part for practically nothing.
You can spend almost nothing in comparison to retail prices
I’ll go into my target design in the next post, but the magic of this method is that you can make almost any drum sound like almost anything. Drum kits that would work for this kind of project literally start at about $50 on Facebook Marketplace, and that’s if you don’t know anyone trying to offload an old drum set for free. The electronic and wiring components are absurdly cheap, and there’s a big market for used and refurbished interfaces and modules, the part that will go between your drum kit and the computer. Based on my early research, it seems like there’s a good target range between $500 – $1,000 for a whole project, depending on how fancy you want to get with some of the parts. When you’re done, you’re likely to end up with the equivalent of the higher end sets that manufacturers are selling for $3,000 – $5,000 or more.
You can customize like crazy
Both drum interfaces and modules are very versatile. Interfaces just send your drum signals to a computer. Modules can also send your signals, or they’re loaded with their own drum sounds and features if you don’t want to use a computer. Using either, you can design a perfectly conventional set, or you can put triggers on a bunch of plates and cups if you want and make them sound like almost anything. Want ten cymbals and no drums? No problem. Want your cymbals to sound like drums and vice versa? I don’t know why you’re like this, but be my guest.
You’ll have a set that never just needs to be thrown out
The process of creating and installing drum triggers is actually not that complicated once you know what you’re doing, so if a drum falls off of a mount and explodes for some reason or a shell cracks and won’t hold a new head, you’re never totally out of luck with this method. You can add drums, change components, upgrade, and replace them to your heart’s content.
When I learned all of this, I was embarrassed that I hadn’t started tinkering with it sooner. I’m not a soldering genius, but I’ve done it successfully before. I’ve done plenty of drum setup, modification, and repair over the years. Most importantly, I’ve never been a snob about what type of drums I’m playing. When you grow up as broke as I did, you’re grateful to have something other than a book or a table to hit. This means I can take just about anything old kit and, hopefully, make something new and cool out of them.
In my next post, I’ll explain how I decided on the perfect first kit to do just that.
Todd Mitchell is a US Midwest-based comedy writer and game developer with bylines at Weekly Humorist, Fanbyte, Slackjaw, End of the Bench Sports, and more. He’s the author of Inside Video Game Creation, the founder of CodeWritePlay, and host of several podcasts including GameDev Breakdown and Fully Remote with Todd Mitchell. Follow him on Twitter @Mechatodzilla.