If you look over the typical magazine ads for drums, you’re likely to come away quite bewildered and confused. Every manufacturer, whether it be the lone custom drum builder or one of the big established names, will claim that their latest model is "the one." With a price range from $400 to $2200 how do you know you are getting your money’s worth? 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 been wanting to restore. The basic ingredient of a great sounding drum is a shell with structural integrity – a shell that is rigid, round, and "flat." Following is a list of items you should mentally check before buying or building a drum: How rigid is the shell? Rigidity is necessary for sound projection. Just as a woodwind instrument must have the 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: Set various disassembled shells (some wood and some metal) 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 and structural integrity than a typical metal shell. Shell Material Your choices are basically between wood and metal. In terms of wood, many exotic materials are available, and a whole host of specialist advocating the advantage of one wood over another. Personally, after years of research and experience on the stage, I don’t think the sound of the drum is the result of a particular material, as much as it is the result of several other factors such as 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 structural integrity than another? Perhaps, but my choice would not be based on any unique "tonal characteristics" of the wood. Typical metal shells are the result of sheet metal fashioned around a mold. To get some degree of rigidity, the manufacturer will crimp a large flange around the bearing edge. The thin shell combined with the particular way the bearing edge is crimped gives the "sheet metal" drum its unique sound. Ideally, for the greatest projection and sensitivity, I would use a metal shell that was lathe turned from a solid casting, eliminating the need for any crimping or other compensations around the bearing edges. Be careful of synthetic shells. Some fiberglass shells are more flexible than an inferior wood shell. Know what you are getting before you buy. Shell construction If money were no object, I would have a shell turned on a lathe to computer specifications. I am fortunate to own several aluminum drums designed in this fashion, and they are simply incredible. Do the sound waves interact any differently with aluminum than with other metals? If any nuances at all can be observed up close, they quickly fade into irrelevance as the distance increases. The main ingredient is that the waves have the kind of precision, resonating chamber that makes for great projection and response. With wood shells, you have three choices: The first is the typical plywood shell, described by the number of layers of wood glued together (6-ply, 8 ply, etc.). If I can get the rigidity I want out of a 1/4" shell, that is preferable to a thicker 5/16" shell. True, a 5/16" shell may give you a more rigid cylinder, but you are going to lose an important ingredient: sensitivity. For this reason, I would avoid drums with reinforcing rings glued around the inside bearing edges. Also, some drum makers, prior to the gluing process, torque or twist the shells as a method of providing additional, internal strengthening. This allows the drum to maintain a greater degree of structural integrity and stability under its own "pressure." I own a wood drum made in this fashion and it is an excellent instrument. If you want a ply shell, ask about the process used in bending the wood. Most important, ask if there is a return/exchange policy if you are not satisfied with the results! The second option is the solid wood shell, which is usually made from maple. A solid piece of wood is steam bent and spliced together at one joint. Try to find a shell 1/4" thick without bearing-edge reinforcements. 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 will reduce response and sensitivity towards the edge. If you find a solid wood shell 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 as 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 turned on a lathe in the same fashion as a metal casting. This process uses much less glue than a ply shell and has a tremendous amount of precision involved. A drum made in this fashion has the appearance of overlapping bricks or blocks of wood. For a wood shell, this would probably be my first choice. This process is more expensive than typical steam bending, but you get what you pay for in this regard. This method allows you to work with some of the very hard and dense exotic woods that you could not use with steam bending. The amount of glue in the layering process has a definite effect on the shell’s overall resonance. Try this experiment: Suspend a typical plywood shell and a solid or segmented wood shell. Strike each with a yarn mallet listening to the difference. The more glue involved, the more dampening effect there is to the shell’s ability to "sing." Regardless of the type of wood shell purchased, make sure the inside is finished to protect it from humidity and warping. Brian Del Signore–Principal Percussionist of the Houston Symphony–recently retrieved some wood drums that were submerged in a basement flood for several days. Amazingly, the shells that had been nicely finished on the inside of the drum appear to have survived totally intact.
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