Picks and Pans

Update to my different drums post

I went out to GMS the other week to check out some new vintage style snare drums they're making (8 lugs, rounded bearing edge). Jim Mola (the great jazz drummer, singer and drum geek) came with me, bringing along one of his vintage Rogers power tone snare drums for comparison.

I grudgingly admit that a bunch of the snares we listened to have very different characters, even though they all conform to my requirements for a good sound (thin round shell, good edge, simple design). And I was very tempted to buy one of the new GMS drums (I eventually will).

BUT, a few days after that I was doing an internet session for my old friend Barry Finnerty and it called for a thumpy old-school sound. I was thinking boy, I wish I had that GMS super vintage snare right now, or a Rogers power tone. not having one, I grabbed a drum key and lowered every lug on my modern 10 lug diecast hoop GMS snare a half turn. then I put one of those muffle rings on it, and pressed the record button. Brilliant sound - perfect for the track. I dare you to listen to it and tell me that it doesn't sound as good and as appropriate as one of those old vintage drums...

SO, I stick to my original statement, with a slight modification. YES, different drums and vintage drums have a somewhat different character, particularly when you make a direct A/B comparison, but it does not mean that any good quality drum cannot be made to do the job in almost all cases. So again, get a good quality nice drumkit that you like and are comfortable tuning, and use it - tune it up, tune it down, muffle it, unmuffle it - whatever. you don't need 10 different snare drums, and you definitely don't need that 70's Ludwig kit on ebay - (talk about overrated).

quick story from GMS - one of them told me they were at NAMM a couple of years ago and they're standing talking to Bill Ludwig Jr. some collector kid comes up with an old Ludwig snare and says, "Mr Ludwig, can you tell what year this drum is? I've tried to figure it out but the serial number is missing, bla bla bla bla."
Ludwig says something like (I'm paraphrasing): "NO, I have no idea, and I don't care. buy a new drum - you vintage geeks are killing the market".

What's all the hoopla about different drums?

Drummers will spend hours prattling on with each other about different drums - vintage ones, modern ones, different woods, plies, edges, hoops, snare beds, etc etc etc.
they talk about it as if they are guitars or violins. I'd like to weigh in on all of this. What follows is my OPINION. You drum guys may think I'm deaf, or crazy; if so I say bring your special drums over to my studio so we can do a truly scientific blind listening test and see if you can hear the difference between different shells and/or drums....

To a certain extent, a drum shell is a drum shell is a drum shell. If it's:

A. within the common thickness parameters of most drum shells, 3 ply, 6 ply, 8 ply, 9 ply, solid, reinforcement hoops, whatever.
B. actually round (not oval)
C. wood
D. has a good bearing edge

The difference in sound between drums has mostly to do with the following:

A. The hoops - die-cast or stamped? Gretsch style or some other die-cast hoop?
B. The bearing edge - old Gretsch drums had a backwards bearing edge right? it curved in from the oustide, rather than the reverse. Then there's the question of the angle of the bevel on the edge, which makes a smaller difference than the inside-curve/outside curve question, but does make a difference.

while we're on the subject of old drums, there is one other thing that seriously affects the sound in certain cases:
drums before a certain year were made initially for calf heads. some of those drums have a thick wrap over the shell, which were made exactly to the stated sizes (12x8, 13x9, 14x5, etc etc). When you put a mylar head on one of those drums, the flesh hoop is tight over the drum - you have to squeeze it on. When you tune that drum up, all kinds of binding at the edge occurs. That makes it difficult to get the head to settle in. Add to that the inherent difficulties of getting a drum with a heavy die-cast hoop in tune (because the hoop is so rigid that it moves as one thing when you turn one lug screw), and you end up with a drum that is probably not gonna sound good for WEEKS after you change the head or adjust the tuning more than just a small tweak.
This is why I'm always mystified when I'm asked to bring my old Gretsch drums to sessions - they're tuned up like jazz drums, which is probably not gonna be appropriate for most records. To tune them way down and have them sound decent will require weeks of advanced planning.
Here is a little doc that I send to folks when we're having this conversation:

the famous gretsch sound is mostly due to the diecast hoops, which are dense, clunky, short of ring, and NEVER tension the drum evenly. don't get me wrong - I love my gretschs and they sound super cool, but I want to have other drums there in case we say, "hmmm, can we get that same tone but tune the toms down for this tune?...."

so what's so desirable about old gretsch drums for modern recording?
In my experience, here's why. 1. most of those "magical" gretsch recording kits, if they had the funny backwards bearing edge to start with, have been redone in a modern way, many of them have stamped or other die-cast hoops instead of the original gretsch, and most of them are bare or finished wood, not wrapped; so the magic of those drums is ONLY the resonance of the thin shells, nothing else that's specific to gretsch drums.

and as I've already said, that magic shell resonance is MAYBE 5% of the sound.

The other thing that affects the sound is how much crap is on the shell, and whether there is a resonance iso mount on the drum. some fixed-shell mounting systems change the sound of the drum radically, others less-so.
drums with full length lugs from top to bottom are obviously going to resonate differently than drums with small-footprint lugs, and not always in predictable ways. I've never heard a completely floating-lug drum that I liked - the vast majority of the floating lug snare drums that I've encoutered seem appropriate for classical snare drumming, but pathetic for drumset playing.

And with snare drums, the snare bed has a big effect. I'm convinced that's why many modern snare drums don't sound good - they don't have a good snare bed. I had a yamaha metal snare drum years ago that had NO snare bed - perfectly flat bottom edge!

this is why GMS makes the best sounding drums in the world with Keller shells, which are available and used by lots of companies. What makes their drums sound better? the hardware, the placement of it on the shell, the edges, the mounting system - everything BUT the shell.

In closing, my contention is that if you take any drums which are in good repair - round, good edges, good hoops, quality construction and not too much crap or gimicky junk on the shell; put fresh, well-chosen heads on them and tune them up properly, they'll all sound equally great and very similar - whatever the shell and/or age of drum.
LEARN TO TUNE YOUR DRUMS. IT'S NOT PARTICLE PHYSICS. I'm amazed at how many drummers don't know how to tune. Often times they'll know how to do some kind of cockamamie gimick tuning, like tuning one lug down to get a fat sound, but they don't know how to get the drum
in tune with itself - top head, bottom head, each lug. THAT'S where you start. THEN you use whatever other technique you want to affect a certain character. I recently made a drum tuning video for puremix.net Stay tuned for it's release....

Graham Hawthorne 2012