Powering the box

Tuesday, 27 February 2018 4:15 pm

In recent years, the cajon has been transformed from an acoustic box to an electronic instrument. So how can you bring your cajon into the electronic age?

The last couple of years has seen some off-the-shelf e-cajons hit the market. But what if you already have a cajon lying around – or have access to a cheap one that you’d like to use as a trigger device?

DIY options

The first option for those who are handy with a soldering iron and have access to parts is to  add your own triggers. At the most basic level, you can stick on some ready-made triggers like Yamaha’s DT10 or DT20, Pintech RS-5s, DrumDial drum triggers or Simmons SDSDTs.

You can, of course, use more than one trigger if you want to generate different sounds from different parts of the cajon. But you will need to watch for crosstalk or interference from one trigger to the others.

The triggers can be connected directly to any drum module or VST plug-in through an interface.

If you want something more sophisticated, check out Anders Gronlund’s e-cajon which he unveiled in the May 2014 digitalDrummer. This concept was refined by Antonio de Braga in our November 2016 edition.

Interfacing the cajon

In terms of cost and ease, the least-demanding solution is probably apTrigga3, which does not require a drum module. All that you’ll need is a pickup or even a mic, an audio interface and the apTrigga3 plug-in. apTrigga3 was reviewed in the August 2017 digitalDrummer (http://en.calameo.com/read/0043053101c18d3a850ca). The basic licence costs $69, but you will probably also need the sample set, which can be bought as a bundle for $89.

How does it work? Well, see for yourself here: https://vimeo.com/240006411

Plug and play

If you’re after a simple plug and play solution, the Roland EC-10M ELCajon Mic Processor stands out for its versatility, ease of use and ability to blend acoustic tones with triggered sounds.

The EC10M consists of a clip-on mic/sensor and a control module.

Simply clip the mic to the opening of the cajon and plug it into the processor. (In fact, if you don’t have a cajon, you can even use the packing box as a sound source!)

The mic unit does two things: it acts like a regular acoustic mic, picking up the natural sound of the cajon, and it acts like a dual-zone trigger.

The mic component works well, but like all microphones, you have to be careful about feedback, especially if you are playing next to a speaker.

The controller has some rudimentary FX - compressor and enhancer – but don’t expect too much ability to shape the raw sound.

The creativity comes courtesy of the pickup which actually detects two types of strikes – the edge and the head, allocating different sounds to each.

The 16 onboard kits range from tambourines to classic Roland TR-808 electronic snare sounds. And you’re not limited to two zones on the cajon since you can add two external triggers as well.

And to make it an even more powerful performance tool, there’s a built-in looper. However, you can only record one track at a time, and any new recording overwrites that one, so you can’t build layered loops.

The module has two mono outputs which allow you to send the mic output and the trigger output to different channels on your amp. There’s no headphone out, which may not be a big deal to most players, but as an e-drummer, I feel this limits the unit’s usefulness as a practice tool.

And the price tag? Around $220.

Want to hear it in action? Click here.

Digging deeper

Some would argue that to realise the full potential of a cajon, you need to move to MIDI. Alternate Mode last year started offering a Cajon DIY kit, which is effectively a scaled-back jamKAT attached to a cajon.

The kit includes a five-zone jamKAT FSR sensor, the jamKAT circuit board and all the cabling needed to connect it all.

There are a couple of caveats with this system. Firstly, it basically treats the cajon itself as a mount rather than an instrument. It doesn’t enhance or reinterpret the acoustic sounds of the box. In fact, you will only get sounds out of the system if you strike the sensors. Hit anywhere else and it’s just the acoustic sound.

This makes playing counter-intuitive for traditional cajon players, but for cajon novices or skilled finger percussionists, it’s just a new instrument – one you can sit on while you play.

The sensors are fantastic to play – as we described in our review of the jamKAT, and the DIY kit is reasonably priced at $99. But – and it’s a big but – you will need a DITI digital interface to power it as well as a synth, drum module or VST set-up to provide the sounds, so you are looking at a total investment close to the price of an entry-level e-drum kit.

One other consideration that may deter some purists: you will need to cut a slot in the cajon for the cables linking the sensors to the controller which you need to mount inside the box. One more thing to be aware of: the kit requires a cajon with a width of 13 inches or more – which may be an issue if, like me, your box is only 12 inches. This means either leaving bits hanging over the edge (not advisable) or mounting the sensor sheet on a slight angle so it fits (not a great look, but not impractical).

If money is no object or you already have a DITI, the creative opportunities are enormous.

The next big thing?

Looking at available technology, I think the ideal solution already exists – but it has not yet been applied to cajons: Sensory Percussion triggers.

The Sensory Percussion system uses mics to trigger samples. The current version can differentiate between around 10 different articulations on an acoustic drum – anything from the rim struck with the tip of the stick to a muted centre hit. So, the software certainly has the capability of differentiating between the various tones that can be generated by hitting a cajon in different places and with different parts of the hand.

What’s needed is a way of attaching the sensors to the box. Come on, guys, I know you can do it! The downside – an SP trigger costs $600, which is much more than the price of a cajon – even a decent one.

Finally, of course, you could avoid the box totally and just select cajon sounds on your e-kit or multi-pad!!