Written by Daniel Lamontagne
MONTREAL – I am not a big fan of electronic drums. I don’t like how they look, I don’t like how they feel, and (for most preset kits) I don’t like how they sound. But then COVID-19 struck. With the wife working from home for months, I had to convert my beloved acoustic kit to an electronic one. For the toms and bass drum, it was easy : Remo Silentstroke Heads and external triggers did the job. For the snare drum, I built an 14-inch one with internal triggers (description in an article to come).
For cymbals, it was not so easy. I bought a couple of electronic cymbals, but I was disappointed. Different feel and smaller sizes compared to my real cymbals. Then I bought Zildjian L80 Low Volume cymbals matching my real cymbals in size : 14-inch hi-hats, 16 and 18-inch crashes, and 20-inch ride. I love the feel of these cymbals, and being the same size, I don’t mess up my muscle memory when I’m practicing with them. Now, can they be converted (for cheap) to electronic cymbals? Let’s find out!
DISCLAIMER – This article was not sponsored. All the equipment used and tested in this article was bought with my own money!
Several companies offer specialty triggers that can be either bolted (Go eDrum, Magnatrack) or fixed with strong magnets (Magnatrack) to metallic cymbals. They also offer switches to built two or three-zone cymbals. But they can be expensive, especially with international shipping cost. So I bought from Amazon low-cost Contact Microphones (Piezo Pickups) normally used for acoustic guitars, ukuleles, violins, etc. They costed around 10 US$ each and came already wired to a female 1/4-inch connector.
Since I wanted the build to be non-destructive, I attached the piezo pickups to the cymbals with nylon cable ties, and used one of the holes to fix the 1/4-inch connector with a small bolt. The piezo pickups were fixed away from the normal striking zone, because cable ties will break if hit a couple of times with the stick.
An edge trim U seal (around 20 US$ for a 6-m/20-ft roll, enough for all my cymbals) was used to muffle the cymbals. The trim was cut to length and the ends attached to each other with black electric tape.
These cymbals offer 360-degree triggering, with a hotspot near the piezo pickup. They are one-zone cymbals, so no specific bell or edge sounds, and no choking. But they are good looking!
Let’s hear the results
The following sound samples were produced using Yamaha DTX-PRO drum module, and recorded with Yamaha Rec’n’Share phone App. There is obviously no DIY cymbal preset in drum modules, so I selected in the DTX-PRO the PCY90 preset, which is a single-zone cymbal (one piezo and no switches), and made the appropriate adjustments for gain, sensitivity, reject time, etc. This approach (selecting a single-piezo pad or cymbal and making some adjustments) should work for any drum module.
My DIY cymbals were compared with commercial electronic rubber cymbals (Yamaha PCY135 for crashes and PCY155 for the ride). For a better comparison, the same voice was attributed to all crashes. Likewise, the same voice was attributed to the DIY and the PCY155 rides.
The following video shows a single hit on the crashes (better with headphones) :
The 16-inch crashes wobbles reasonably, and produces a sound with a sustain comparable with the rubber cymbal. On the other hand, the 18-inch one wobbles quite a lot, with a sound that lasts for ever!
It seems that the rubber edge trim does not provide enough damping for large cymbals (18-inch an above). Better damping should reduce the sustain. To test that hypothesis, a towel was thrown on the 18-inch crash in the following video :
The towel did reduce the sustain. However, despite this long sustain, these DIY cymbals work well in a groove :
Here is an example of a medium swing on the rides :
The triggering of the DIY ride will follow a slow to medium rhythm. For faster rhythms however, there is a substantial amount of missed triggers :
Triggering accuracy can be improved by limiting the vibration of the ride with more damping (a towel on the ride for example).
Additional building was required for hi-hats. First, you need a hi-hat controller to tell the drum module if the hi-hats are open or closed. Go eDrum offers affordable hi-hat controllers compatible with Yamaha (GHC-Y), Alesis Nitro (GHC-AN) and Roland (GHC) drum modules. This controller sits on top of an ordinary hi-hat stand (I had to make a washer from MDF to stabilize it though).
First, I tried using only the top hi-hat cymbal. It didn’t work. The cymbal was wobbling too much. It needs to make contact with a bottom hi-hat cymbal (when the hi-hat pedal is depressed) to be stable and give an authentic feeling when played.
So I bought a cheap used hi-hat cymbal, and grabbed the drill! First, I enlarged the center hole so the piston of the hi-hat controller could move freely inside it. A second hole was drilled to accommodate the stereo cable that will be connected to the piezo pickup of the top hi-hat.
With the bottom hi-hat installed, the piston of the hi-hat controller was too short to be depressed by the top hi-hat. The solution? A wine cork with a 1/4-inch hole drilled in the middle! Voila! You now have fully functional hi-hats with a realistic feel when played.
Here is an example of the hi-hats sounds :
The final test was to see whether these DIY cymbals could be used to record a drum MIDI track. I used Logic Pro X with Steven Slate Drums (SSD 5.5) as a virtual instrument. The next image shows the MIDI notes produced by a single strike on the cymbals (from top to bottom : 18-inch crash, PCY155, 20-inch ride, 16-inch crash, hi-hat open, hi-hat clap with the foot, and hi-hat closed).
As expected, a single strike on the 18-inch crash produced countless MIDI notes over near 9 seconds. The 16-inch crash also produced multiple MIDI notes, but over a shorter period (less than 2 seconds). Surprisingly, both the 20-inch ride and the hi-hats (open and closed) produced a single MIDI note, which was comparable in length with that of a rubber electronic cymbal (PCY155). Clapping the hi-hats with the foot produced systematically two MIDI notes.
The following image compares the MIDI notes produced by the 20-inch ride and the PCY155 with a short medium swing (PCY155 on top and DIY cymbal below).
Both cymbals produced a comparable amount of notes, and with comparable lengths. The dynamic was different though : the PCY155 produced notes with a wider range of velocities (depicted by different colors in Logic Pro X), compared with the DIY ride.
I was surprised how well these DIY metal cymbals performed. They look great, they feel great, and they performed well enough to practice at home with headphones, without disturbing the neighbours. Here is my Pros and Cons :
- Very inexpensive (especially if you already own low-volume cymbals)
- Easy to build (although more work is required for the hi-hats)
- The size and feel of real cymbals
- Performance good enough for practicing
- Better look than rubber cymbals (to my personal taste)
- Suitable for MIDI track recording (hi-hats and ride)
- Single zone (no bell sound, no edge sound, no choking)
- Durability to be determined
- Performance not good enough for live playing or studio recording
- Not suitable for MIDI track recording (crashes)
In conclusion, I will definitely used my DIY cymbals for my daily practice, but I will swap them for rubber cymbals if I need to record an audio track or a MIDI track.