Box O’Drums – DIY Cajon

Cajon Complete

Being a recovering musician I still get the urge to get together with friends and jam. There is a magic that happens when the mood is right, the personalities mesh, and the defenses are dropped. The music just flows. These days however, with kids and schedules, it’s not easy to find the time or place conducive to musical escapism. When it does happen, it inevitably ends up being a room full of guitars, endless tuning, plenty of strumming (lots of beer), and not much creating.

Recently, I was in just this scenario when something interesting happened. Like anyone with an acoustic guitar is wont to do,  I began using it as a drum – tapping out a beat on the back and sides. Almost immediately the mushy “watch my hands” chord changes tightened up, and we all felt a rush of excitement as we found a groove and started making music.

Having had the luxury of being the reckless lead guitarist for most of my life I had forgotten how important it is to have reliable rhythm to keep everything on track. I’ve played the drums for 20 years, but I’m no drummer. Still, I can at least appreciate good rhythm.

Maybe what my lazy Sunday afternoon guitar jams need is one less guitar?

Hmmm. Time for a project!

Deciding that  a small portable drum/percussion kit was what I needed, I began scouring the used-webs orphaned drum parts with a plan top build a mini franken-kit. My plan was to go with  just the basics: bass drum, snare drum, and some combination of hi-hat or cymbal. After looking at some very cool Cocktail Drum sets for inspiration, I discovered the Cajon.

One of the most basic percussion instruments you can imagine, the Cajon (literally Spanish for box or crate) is capable of a surprising variety of sounds. A Cajon is a simple wooden box with a hard wooden playing surface (the tapa) on the front, and a sound hole on the back or side. The resonance of the box itself is augmented by the addition of guitar strings or snare wires resting against the inside surface of the tapa. Depending on where the playing surface is struck, a variety of bass drum and snare like sounds can be achieved.

There are several commercial percussion instrument builders who seem to offer all manner of Cajon models and exotic wood combinations. A quick look online and it’s not hard to find lots of tutorials detailing every aspect of DIY Cajon building. I’m not a wood working expert, but this seemed to be within my reach.

Like any artisan crafted instrument, care ought to be taken to select a combination of woods that offer excellent physical structure and a variety of natural tones. Well, at least that is what someone who knows what they are doing would do. I had some 1″ thick  pine panels and thin, 1/4″  Finnish birch plywood. With a lot of glue, some 1″x1-1/2″ internal bracing, and a few screws I made a simple butt joined 4-piece box (top, bottom, and sides). To that I added a fixed flush mounted back panel from the birch plywood (by recessing the internal braces slightly). The front playing surface/tapa  is attached along the bottom and lower sides by many brass screws, about 2″ apart. The top half of the tapa is mounted only at the top centre, allowing more movement and ‘slapping’ at the corners.

Cajon with Loose Snares

Cajon - Front removed to show bracing and loose snares.

At first, the movement of the playing surface seemed restricted by having too much contact area around the perimeter. The combination of the 1″ thick pine body, and the 1″ braces seemed to mute the tapa. After routing away all of the brace and most of the side panel material, the playing surface seemed much more lively.

After some trial and error, I replaced the loose snares pictured above with a fixed 8″snare which bows outward slightly to contact the inside of the tapa. This setup seems to yield a nice mix of bass tones and snare snappiness.

Cajon Inside

Cajon - Front removed showing thinned front walls and fixed snare placement.

More tinkering with the position and tension of the snares has paid off and has resulted in what I can honestly call a musical instrument. The variety of sounds that can be achieved with a combination of bare hands and jazz brushes is pretty satisfying.

Cajon with Fixed Snares

Cajon - Here the Cajon tech carefully adjusts the snare tension.

If you are at all curious about trying this project, go for it. With minimal materials and some basic hand tools you can do it too. I have not included any specific dimensions as used for this Cajon because I’m sure you will find some more specific, knowledgeable advice with little difficulty.

Next up I think I will try to engineer a bass drum pedal that throws the beater backwards to make a Cajon-Kick Drum hybrid.

Stay tuned.

Podcatching: Thinking inside the box

I love making and listening to podcasts. I use iTunes primarily on a Macbook to download and organize audio and video-casts which I consume constantly as white noise while I am working or commuting.

I tend to listen to audio-casts when I am out and about, and watch video when I am sitting for long periods. (I have played with an iPod Touch, but I’ve never felt comfortable sitting on a bus watching video.) I like small.

Out of necessity, I hop back and forth on several computers all the time. I use several PC and Macs. Some wide open, some firewalled to the hilt. I run VMware as well, and virtualize Windows and Linux on my Macbook to use as necessary. I consider myself pretty neutral in the Mac vs. PC argument. Both have their uses. I just want my tools to work and get the job done.

When my beloved first generation iPod Shuffle finally stopped working (best form-factor ever!), the search was on to replace it. The obvious choice would be the new iPod Shuffle, but I was starting to long for a display and menus. The 4th Gen iPods sure are pretty, but feature wise I could not reconcile the price premium as compared to the many other capable players available.

Specifically, the 4G Sansa Clip is (to me) the best of all micro players:

  • Very, very small
  • Nice display
  • Built in mic (neat plus)
  • FM tuner (nice bonus)
  • Drag and drop USB Mass Storage Device

I knew I was going to sacrifice some of the seamless ‘Apple Experience’ I was used to when syncing with iTunes, but I fell in love with the Sansa Clip. While there are several PC options for syncing libraries, just for fun I wanted to find a reliable method for syncing a non-iPod to iTunes on the Mac.

Sure enough there are many Mac applications and Applescript workarounds that attempt to simplify the task of migrating iTunes libraries and playlists to a removable device.  Two in particular were pretty cool: SyncTunes and iTuneMyWalkman. While functional, they are a bit cumbersome and strip away the elegance of iTunes.

I was beginning to think I made a big mistake not getting another iPod. It was only after relating my frustrations to a non-techie friend that I realized my error.

My problem was not that I couldn’t get the Clip and iTunes to play nicely together, but rather that I was not solving the right problem.

By being hard-headed and making sport out finding a band-aid solution to kluge together iTunes and my player, I had abandoned my particular Use Case:

  • Find the perfect device (for me) and the simplest means to load it with audio podcasts no matter what computer I’m at.

For inspiration I looked here: Podcatchermatrix.org. Enter PodcastReady and MyPodder. I had heard of this application years ago while trying to make my Treo 650 useful. Back then it was called ‘Podcatcher on a Stick’.

MyPodder is a standalone application that runs ON the portable device, and through a very simple interface facilitates managing and downloading many forms of syndicated content straight to the device. No duplicate versions, no synching. There is also a launchable web client that makes searching for and discovering new content a breeze.

Best of all since this cross platform application is on my Sansa Clip player, I can update and manage my podcast subscriptions from just about any internet connected computer. (I have not fully tested the Mac and Linux implementation, but they are part of the same ‘folder’ of apps.)

I still use iTunes on the Macbook for subscribing to video podcasts, because that’s where I watch them –  on the nice big screen.

Now, my portable media is just that: Portable.