If you look over the typical magazine ads for drums, you’re likely to come away quite bewildered and confused. Every manufacturer, whether the lone custom drum builder, or one of the big established names, will claim their latest model is “the one.” And with a price range of $400 to $2200, how do you know you are getting your money’s worth? Well, with a few basic facts at your disposal, you can pick out or even put together your own great sounding snare drum. Also, you can decide if it is worth the time and money to fix up that old “classic” you’ve always wanted to restore.
The basic ingredient to a great sounding drum is a shell with structural integrity. You want a shell that is rigid, round, and “flat.” Following is a list of items you should mentally check before buying or making a drum.
Rigidity is necessary for projection. Just as a woodwind instrument must have hardness and density for good sound projection, so must the snare drum. Also, as you begin to tighten down the lugs and hardware, you don’t want the shell to contort or begin to “cave” in around the bearing edges. Try this experiment--take various disassembled shells (some wood and some metal) and set them on the floor in a vertical position. Now push down on each one and notice the amount of flexibility and bend. One of the most surprising discoveries will be that a good wood shell can often have more rigidity than many metal shells. Simply put, a lot of the thinner metal shells just don’t have the ability to maintain their shape under pressure as do some good wood shells.
- What is the shell made of?
Your choices are basically between wood and metal.
As to wood, there are many exotic materials available, and a whole host of specialist advocating the advantage of one wood over another. Basically, after years of research and experience, I don’t think the particular sound of the drum is the result of a particular material per se, rather, it is the result of several other factors: namely how rigid, round and well crafted the shell is and how the bearing edges are cut. In order to get those qualities, you may want a very dense wood or material, but not for any unique “vibrating sound qualities” of the particular wood. Will one wood provide better integrity than another? Perhaps. But my choice would not be for any wood that has any unique “tonal characteristics.”
Typical metal shells are simply the result of sheet metal fashioned around a mold. To get some degree of rigidity, the manufacturer will crimp the shell around the bearing edge. (You will notice the internal flange around the circumference of the drum.) The thin shell combined with the particular way the bearing edge is crimped is what gives the “sheet metal” drum its unique sound.
As to synthetic shells, some fiberglass shells I have seen are more flexible than an inferior wood shell. One of the newest entries into the drum market is the new carbon fiber shell. Personally, I have not had enough experience in the concert hall with this one to render a judgment.
- How is the shell constructed?
If money were no object, I would have a shell casting turned on a computer lathe to a ¼ inch wall thickness. I am fortunate to own several aluminum drums designed in this fashion, and they are unquestionably the finest shells I have ever played. Do the sound waves recognize the material as being aluminum? Of course not, but the waves do have the kind of precision, resonating chamber that makes for a great sounding instrument at all dynamic levels.
As to wood shells, you have three choices.
The first is the typical plywood shell, listed by the number of glued layers (6-ply, 8-ply, etc.). If I can get the rigidity I want out of a 1/4” shell, this is preferable to having a thicker 5/16” shell. True, a 5/16” shell may give you a more rigid drum but you are going to lose on another important ingredient: sensitivity. For this reason, I would avoid drums with the old reinforcing rings glued around the inside bearing edges. Also, some drum makers “torque” or twist the shells in a complicated process prior to gluing to maintain shell stability. If you want a ply shell, simply ask about the process used in bending the wood, and most importantly, ask if there is a return/exchange policy if you are not satisfied with the results.
The second option is the solid wood shell--usually maple. Simply, a solid piece of wood is steam bent and spliced together at one joint. Look for one that is ¼ inch in thickness without internal reinforcing hoops. Again, some of these drums may use a reinforcing, thicker ring around the bearing edges to help maintain the drum’s shape. While these drums will offer great projection at fff, the reinforcing ring--if they have one--will reduce response and sensitivity towards the edge. If you find one without the ring, check to see that it actually offers more rigidity and roundness than a good ply shell. Otherwise, in my opinion, it is not worth the extra money, for these shells are expensive.
The third option is the segmented shell. Here, various hard woods that are not conducive to bending under steam are glued together into a large overlapping block pattern. This large block of wood is roughly cut by a saw and then placed on a lathe and turned just like you would if you were machining metal. This process uses much less glue and has a tremendous amount of precision involved. When you see a drum made in this fashion, it will have the appearance of overlapping bricks or blocks of wood. For a wood shell, this would probably be my first choice, assuming that a reliable gluing process is used. Yes, this process is more expensive than the typical steam bending, but you get what you pay for in this regard. Again, this method allows you to work with some of the very hard and dense exotic woods that you could not otherwise use with steam bending.
Speaking of which, I also believe the amount of glue in the layering process has a definite effect on the shell’s overall resonance. Try this experiment: Suspend a typical ply wood shell and a solid or segmented wood shell. Strike each with a yarn mallet, listening to the difference. Obviously, the more glue involved, the more dampening effect there is to the shell’s ability to “sing.”
To check for roundness, simply measure the diameter across from each of the lugs, avoiding any shell that has a differential of 1/16” or more. If it is out of round before mounting heads, it is going to be worse afterwards. Also, tighter head tunings will usually exacerbate this problem.
- Does the shell lie “flat?”
You should be able to lay any shell on a truly flat surface and notice if the drum lies “flat” (with the exception of the snare bed). Without a large piece of machinist granite, the next best choice is usually a good flat counter top. Put a flashlight inside the shell and notice any unevenness around the circumference on either side of the drum. If the shell is otherwise round and rigid, any unevenness with the bearing edges can usually be corrected by someone certified to do shell “contouring.” It is usually not an expensive process and it is well worth the investment.
- What about the bearing edges?
The bearing edge is the highest point of the shell where the head crosses before it meets the rim. Where and how the edge is cut affects the overall brightness or warmth of the drum’s sound. For maximum ring, that point will be the extreme outer part of the shell, with an inward slope of about 45 degrees. This tends to produce a sharper “attack” to the sound. Moving the high point in slightly from the outer shell wall will produce a warmer sound. This is referred to as a “back cut” or “counter cut.” Rounding off the top edge will further warm up the drum’s sound. In any case, make sure the edge is cut with precision.
- What kind of snares are used?
Basically, players today can choose between gut, wire and cable. Gut was used regularly in the “old days,” but was especially sensitive to humidity and the elements. As an organic substance, gut would eventually deteriorate. Wires offer a brightness and “wetness” to the sound that many set drummers have historically preferred. Cables, especially ones that extend past the bearing edge, now offer some new options that players of all styles of music are beginning to notice.
First of all, wire coils only produce sound where the coils actually contact the head, leaving the rest of the coiled space "soundless." If you go to the trouble of measuring and adding up all of the exact points of contact on a typical set of wires, that represents only 3 to 4 inches of total head contact! Cables span the entire surface of the bottom head and provide anywhere between 14 to 23 feet of continuous head coverage. Feet vs. inches--think about it. Wires are also especially sensitive to the sympathetic “buzz” vibrations caused by amps, horns and bass frequencies. With wire snares, it is not at all uncommon for the drum to actually be “buzzing” louder from other instruments rather than from the actual soft passage you are attempting to play! Cables that extend pass the bearing edge have the ability to reduce sympathetic snare buzz by 80 to 90%. This is especially an important factor to drummers who want to play “clean” solos around the set, without the snares buzzing every time the toms or bass drum are played.
And of course, there is the frustrating experience of trying to sort out dynamic nuances with wires. Typically, as you adjust the drum to play soft, you will get a noticeable “slap” if you venture into the forte range. Or, you can adjust the drum for “forte” only to find the snares are too tight to get any response at ppp. Up until the advent of cable snares, it was not at all uncommon to see players including a roll of masking tape in their gig bag to control annoying wire slap! The cables offer a tremendously expanded dynamic range for any one setting, with only minor adjustments otherwise.
- How is the snare bed cut?
The best bed for cable or gut snares is 1/8 inch deep and 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 inches wide. Usually a slope of 1/2 inch on either side back to the original bearing edge is fine. This allows the snares to pull into the bottom head for maximum response. Of historical note, this was the customary way of cutting beds back in the early days when gut was used. With the advent of wire coils, manufacturers got away from using beds almost entirely. Now, it appears they have rediscovered them! However, in an attempt to control wire slap, some manufacturers have extended some beds to almost a 1/4 or to a 1/3 of the drum’s circumference. If you have one of these drums, you will want to consider having the snare side “contoured,” and then new beds cut. (Of course, if you have a sheet metal shell, you are stuck with the way the drum comes from the factory.) With this process, you may loose 1/4 inch in depth for the drum, but such loss in depth will be negligible compared to the improvement in the drum’s overall sound and response. However, if you are using some kind of extended snare mechanism, be sure any loss in shell depth will not prevent the snares from pulling up correctly once the strainer is engaged.
- What about the “Snare Strainer?”
The typical side lever or cam lever strainer with a traditional butt plate is fine for most purposes. At all cost, try to avoid internal drum hardware. Whether timpani, bass drum or snare drum, you will want to avoid any type of setup that interferes with the internal resonance of the drum. In fact, some players have even gutted some very expense and sophisticated internal hardware mechanisms to add a simple strainer, butt plate and cable snares in order to drastically improve the drum’s sound.
Typical lever strainers pull upward, while extended snare mechanisms pull the snares outward. If you want to try cables, look for ones that do both. Also, consider how accessible the adjustment knob is. You don’t want to have to reach around the throw-off lever to get to it. (The old Ludwig P87 Strainer works great for Patterson Snares—the large adjustment knob is in front of the strainer lever. The snares can be released with the knob or the lever.)
Always use die cast hoops. These can be obtained from Kaman and Universal Percussion, two of the nation’s largest suppliers to dealers. Just like the shell, make sure your hoops are not warped. Simply lay them on a flat plane to check. Also, for ease of mounting your snares, get a bottom hoop with an enlarged snare-gate opening so you don’t have to remove the bottom head every time you wish to change out your snares.
- What about the placement of lugs and vent holes?
Several prominent manufacturers claim that lugs and vent holes should be mounted in the “acoustical dead zone” or nodal area to achieve maximum “shell vibrations.” On a flat plane, nodal points are a scientific reality, such as with keyboard bars. However, as NASA discovered when analyzing the shuttle’s nose cone, once the surface is rounded or bent, the issue of nodal points becomes meaningless. Besides, the notion that this feature allows the shell to vibrate unencumbered is nonsense. The last thing in the world you want is a shell that vibrates. That would mean you have a very poorly made drum. You want a shell so rigid and dense, that the vibrations are totally directed against the heads and “outward” to the audience. That is what projection is about. So, it is my humble opinion that you shouldn’t be “taken” by spending more money on drums that have the hardware and vent holes mounted in this fashion. Drum makers include this feature because they have not only convinced us that this is a necessity, but that we should also pay extra for it.
- What kind of lugs are best?
I always prefer a double tension lug. Separate “single tension” lugs pull with inordinate tension and stress around the outer edges of the shell. I prefer post tension lugs, because you have less surface contact against the shell. I always go for 10 lugs, since each lug point only has to absorb 10% of the total head tension. This is especially preferable if you are used to higher tunings over A-flat. What about the non-attached lugs used in the “free-floating” shell design? Again, experience has shown the flaw in this design allows the heads and/or shell to literally move in relationship to each other. In other words, the heads can move off the center point to the bearing edge, causing serious problems with your drum tuning and head response.
Wire coils are known for actually breaking bottom heads. The point of the coil has a sharp enough edge to split a bottom head under heavy playing. To compensate, manufacturers and players tend to use thicker bottom heads, thereby choking the drum sound. Since cables lay flat against the entire plane of the head, you can use thinner, more resonant heads on the snare side-an advantage you should consider (i.e. Remo Diplomat). A thinner head also brings out the beautiful sensitivity that cables are capable of. (The best head combination for band/orchestral is either the Diplomat Renaissance or Aquarian Modern Vintage for the batter side, and the regular Diplomat for the bottom “snare” side.) Aquarian (800 473 0231) by Roy Burns offers heads without the typical preset, bearing edge “crease” that is common with other manufacturers. I have had good success with tuning these heads.
Top heads for drum set are usually tuned anywhere from G flat up to about an A flat for a 14 inch drum. Concert snare drummers will tune from A-flat up to an A or even B-flat.
Bottom heads serve two functions. Not only do they activate and determine the kind of snare response you get, but they play an integral part to the drum’s resonance. While the bottom head will sound higher than the top, remember it is still looser because it is thinner. For lower drum tunings, I suggest the bottom head should sound a 4th to a 5th higher. Otherwise, it is too loose for maximum cable response. However, with an interval of a 5th, watch to make sure the bottom head doesn’t stretch out to a tri-tone: not a pleasing interval for the best resonance. For higher batter tunings, try tuning the snare side to sound a Major 3rd higher. Again, if the bottom head is tuned too tightly, you will choke the overall drum sound.
© by William Patterson 1998