Saturday, March 27, 2010

Treasures from the Web

In my recent post, My Approach to Tuning, I cited some tuning tips by Mike James. Among the other treasures on his site are a series of articles on recording, the art and science of arranging, transcribing and composing, and some excellent tips on tuning and technique.

The real treasure, however, is a free book that you can download titled, Drumming for Life, that is a compendium of tips on dynamics, playing and more on Mr. James' philosophy on tuning. This is, in my opinion, essential reading for any drummer at any playing level.

One other resource that I recommend is Hal Howland's The Human Drummer: Thoughts on the Life Percussive, which at one time was available for free download from Hal's web page. The book is almost a modern day admixture of Homer's Odyssey and the collected works of Plato - applied to drumming and drummers. The list of accolades from famous drummers for this book is impressive.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Hey Jude ... Take a Bad Drum and Make it Better

A recurring lament expressed by new owners of the Gretsch Catalina Club Jazz kits, as well as other low end, competing kits such as the Tama Stagestar, is the bass drum and toms sound fantastic, but the snare drum doesn't.

There is a reason why the snare drum in particular is the weak link: the shell is made of Philippine mahogany, also known as Luan. That is the one characteristic that the Gretsch Catalina Club Jazz kit shares with its cousins, including the Japanese stencil kits of yesteryear.

Philippine mahogany is a fairly soft wood compared to higher-end shell material, and it absorbs more of the energy when you strike the batter head than maple or other premium shell woods. This diffuses the sound and affects the shell's resonance. One of the reasons that this has less effect on bass drums and toms is the snare drum is shallow relative to the other drums and is more sensitive to the wood characteristics.

Another reason, again related to shell depth, is these drums are mass produced and there are tolerance variations, especially in critical areas such as bearing edges. Where the shallow depth comes in is that the drum will be more sensitive to small variations and imperfections in the edges than a deeper drum.

To be fair to Gretsch and other companies making these drums, when you are cranking out thousands of kits for the low end market, doing a final polish on the bearing edges is an extra step that adds cost. A good enough bearing edge is sufficient from a manufacturing perspective. And to be fair, the edges are good enough for a low end kit. Unless, of course, if you happen to want to wring out better tone and response from the snare drum.

Here are a few tips to transform that weak link in the kit into a snare drum that is more than adequate. I'll provide the tips from least to most expensive. Also note that I am focusing on the snare drum, but the tips can apply to all of the drums in the kit. In addition, these tips will work with vintage Japanese kits, such as Whitehall, Star and a plethora of other stencil drum kits that flooded the market in the 1960s.

Dressing Bearing Edges
The single most effective thing you can do [in my experience] is to dress the bearing edges. Tools and materials are 320 grit sandpaper and a dressing compound.

320 grit sandpaper is sufficiently fine to polish the edges while removing any tiny rough spots. The dressing compound I prefer is a Carnauba wax bar. They are inexpensive and one bar will last a long time. However, there are other valid dressing compounds. Two master drum builders, both of whom I hold in the highest regard, have differing approaches that you may want to consider. J.R. Frondelli simply wipes on a coat of varnish, while Kevin Smee of Bowie Custom Drum uses a paste wax such as Briwax or Johnson's fine finishing wax. Another product that will work well if you want to go this route is Minwax Paste Finishing wax. Regardless or your choice - and you do have choices - the dressings will seal any air gaps in the bearing edge and provide a smooth surface for seating your drum heads.

Step 1 is to lightly go over the bearing edges with the 320 grit sandpaper. The operative word here is lightly. You want to remove any minute high spots and polish the edges, not do any major surgery. I fold the paper over the edge, taking care to not touch the outside finish or wrap, and lightly follow the circumference of the shell. Be sure to follow the contour of the snare beds too. You should feel a very slight resistance when you begin. In fact, you can hear a slight scratchy noise. As you proceed and make an entire pass the resistance will diminish, as will the scratchy sound. Once the resistance and scratchy sound are gone, you are ready for the next step - wiping the dust off the edges. A clean cloth with a touch of denatured alcohol works well.

The final step is to dress the edges. If you opt for a varnish dressing per J.R. Frondelli's approach, use a clean cloth and wipe on a very small amount on the edges and let dry. If you opt for the wax (be it the Carnauba wax bar or paste wax), lightly apply the wax and buff it out. For this step I use Meguiar's X2020 Supreme Shine Microfiber. Reassemble the drum, tune it up and I believe you will be treated to a discernible difference in sound.

Coating the Shell Interior
This approach, along with dressing the bearing edges, will give you the most bang for your buck, but is more time consuming than dressing the bearing edges. I have found that coating the shell interior is the key to dramatic improvement in the sound of the snare drum that ships with the Catalina Club Jazz kit (as well as the other drums I mentioned above.) It does give the snare drum a more focused sound, and makes it a bit more sensitive as well. Note: If you elect to perform this step, do it before dressing the bearing edges.

What you will need:

Here are the steps:
  1. Remove all hardware from the snare drum (lugs, throwofd and butt)
  2. Using the 3M 2090 Scotch-Blue Painter's Masking Tape, mask off of the holes on the exterior side of the shell, and the bearing edges.
  3. Apply the shellac to the interior of the shell. Do not flood the wood with shellac. I lightly dip the muslin into the shellac that has been shaken per manufacturer instructions, then apply it in a circular motion until I have the interior completely coated. One coat will work, but I usually let the shellac dry for a day, and repeat the process until I have three coats.
  4. While you are waiting for the shellac to dry take the time to lightly spray WD-40 on the moving parts in the strainer, as well as the tension rod threads. Don't over do it - a little WD-40 goes a long way, and you do not want to reassemble the snare drum with dripping parts.
  5. After the shellac has dried, remove the tape, reattach the lugs, throwoff and butt, and perform the bearing edge dressing step.
Other Tweaks
One of the modifications I make to any snare drum that comes equipped with plastic snare wire straps is to replace them with grosgrain ribbon. In most cases the simple (and inexpensive) replacement of the plastic snare wire straps with grosgrain ribbon will result in an immediately noticeable improvement in snare response.

Most plastic snare straps are 3/8" wide, but I typically buy 5/8" wide grosgrain ribbon because it perfectly fits the Catalina Club (and every other) snare drum throwoff and butt. The thinner, 3/8" ribbon can cock when threading it through the strainer and butt clamps, skewing your wires. You can purchase this item, in a variety of colors, from Walmart and any fabric store. Here is a photo of one of my snare drums outfitted with it:

I also replace stock snare wires with premium wires such as the German steel wires. These wires are, in my opinion, the equal of Puresound custom wires, but at a fraction of the price.

Obviously, swapping out the stock heads on the Catalina Club Jazz snare drum is an option that may improve the sound. That said, the heads that come stock with it are relatively decent. I personally prefer different heads, and you probably have your own preferences. However, before rushing out and spending even more money, give the stock heads a try after you have tweaked the snare drum per my tips.

If you do want to explore different heads, you may want to examine some of the recommendations that I made in this post, as well as this follow-on post. You may also find some of the information in my approach to tuning useful.

Now turn that dog into a snare drum you would be pleased to gig with - and good luck.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Brief History Lesson

Here are two interesting (if somewhat trivial) resources dealing with drum history:
  1. History of the Drum Set
  2. Vienna Symphony's Snare Drum History
Somewhat related is Disc #2 of Steve Smith's Drumset Technique/History of the U.S. Beat DVD set. Steve uses period-correct drums and cymbals (and associated hardware) to step you through the evolution of US drum kit playing, starting with ragtime and ending with fusion. The playing and the gear are wonderful glimpses into history.

My Approach to Tuning

There are a number of factors that go into getting the sound you want from your drums, some of which you can control and some which you cannot.

Let's start with what you cannot control:

  • Diameter and depth
  • Material from which the drum is made: various wood types, metals, plastics and fiber; i.e., acrylic, carbon fiber, etc.
  • Bearing edges
  • Number of lugs
  • Snare beds (for snare drums)
What you can control:
  • Head type
  • Snare wires
  • Hoops
  • The Room
In my experience the shell material is not nearly as important to the sound as the diameter and depth, bearing edges, head type and the room.

This excellent video produced by Drum Supply House is bearing edges 101 and will show why I believe the bearing edge is an important factor in achieving your sound:

About heads: I play low volume music, mainly acoustic and electric jazz and blues, so my head selection may be vastly different from yours. However, you may find these two posts about head selection for brush playing to be a starting point for understanding head selection. First is about selecting good heads for brushwork, and the second covers a few heads I neglected to mention in the first post. I also have a brief post about snare wires that discusses this important element of sound. To understand snare beds I have found Ronn Dunnett's excellent article to be a good starting point for understanding this often overlooked aspect of a snare drum. Another excellent article on snare beds is Snare Bed Theory. If you actually want to understand how to cut one, Drum Foundry's companion article, The Down and Dirty of Snare Beds, is a great tutorial.

The room where the drum(s) will be played is the one variable that bedevils most drummers. A kit or snare drum (and cymbals) that sound great in one room may sound horrible in a different room.

A good starting point to learn about tuning is the Drum Tuning Bible. While it contains excellent information, remember that your personal sound will come from your intimate knowledge of your instrument and where that instrument will be played. While the Drum Tubing Bible will give you the foundational knowledge of your instrument and some excellent tips, it's up to you to personalize your sound.

My starting point with tuning begins with some idea about the room. The placement chapter in the Drum Tuning Bible gives some excellent advice and guidelines that you should follow. I also like the approach Mike James takes in Drum Tuning. Another approach is to think like a sound engineer. Alex Case's Recording the Snare is highly recommended reading.

I don't use muffling aids, such as bass drum pillows, Moon Gel, or gaffer's tape. The only thing I do is lightly attenuate my bass drum with felt strips (I use Gibraltar SC-BF Bass Drum Felt Strips), but otherwise, my drums are tuned open.

My personal approach is to have a basic tuning, and tweak for the room once the kit is set up. I always start with tuning the reso heads first to get the pitch I want, then the batter side for tone.

A trick I use is the two key method where I simultaneously tune opposite tension rods, then move clockwise to the next pair. I also start by backing off the tension slightly before tuning, and use feel to ensure that the tension rods are tensioned about the same. Of course, this is somewhat unscientific and highly subjective (and can be thwarted if you don't occasionally use a light lubricant on the rods.) However it works for me.

I listen for changes in pitch as I tap around the head near the tuning rods - I usually tap about 3 inches away from the rods so I can hear some resonance - and do fine adjustments according to what I hear.

When I am tackling the bass drum I do the initial tuning and have someone hit a few notes while I stand back about ten feet. Often the bass drum will still be too lively and resonant for a room, so I use a full turn at a time on the resonant side tension rods to correct it. Usually I only need one full turn to tame it down, and often need to back off a quarter of a turn.

The drums that give me the most trouble are square ones where square means the diameter and height are the same. Since I play traditional sizes, this means floor toms. Depending on the bearing edge you can either dial one in after some trial and error, or remain frustrated. Like my other drums, I start with the reso head to get the pitch, then work with the batter. If I cannot get a floor tom dialed in to my satisfaction, I will compromise by retuning the rack tom so that I can get an octave between the two and suffer through the tone. Life isn't always fair.

If you are new to tuning (or even drumming) I recommend grabbing a copy of Drum Tuning: The Ultimate Guide. Although this book/CD combination isn't nearly as comprehensive as the Drum Tuning Bible, it is simpler and more straightforward, and the biggest advantage is the CD that comes with it. One can read about tuning, but there is nothing like hearing examples, which the 29-tracks on the accompanying CD provide.

In ending, my approach may or may not work for you, but I hope it serves as a catalyst to get you thinking about the many, interrelated aspects of drum tuning that you can factor in when pursuing your own sound.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Wood Hoops

More than a few of my snare drums and two of my drum kits are outfitted with wood hoops. There are pros and cons to going this route: on the pro side is the warmth these hoops add to any drum, and, especially for snare drums, the sound you get from cross sticking and rim shots. On the con side is cost and the loss of sensitivity when playing close to the edge of the drum head.

Not all hoops are created equal. There are four basic types:

  1. Yamaha style, which are thick. PDP also makes this type of hoop, as do a few custom wood hoop makers.
  2. Shaped style, which is basically the Yamaha style that has been shaped to resemble - as best as can be done - a regular drum hoop.
  3. Straight, which is similar to the metal band and wood hoops used on early drums.
  4. Hide-A-Hoop, which is similar to the straight style, but has a counter groove cut to fit over the flesh hoop on drum heads in the same manner as a double-flanged hoop on 1930s-1940s snare drums (see this post for more information.)
An example of a Yamaha style hoop is shown in this photo:

Notice how heavy the hoop is and the flat top. There is a lot of wood surface in this hoop, so if your music calls for cross-stick playing or rimshots this hoop would be ideal. This is also the style that causes the greatest loss of sensitivity as you play closer to the edge of the head. If you play heavy backbeat music, this loss probably won't be noticed, but if you are playing any kind of music that requires nuance such as second line drumming, or sensitivity down at the PPP level, this hoop probably won't fit your style.

The shaped head shown in this photo is a compromise - you still have lots of wood and tone, but you gain back a modicum of sensitivity:

I like this style so much that I outfitted this drum kit with them:

I no longer have any snare drums with the straight hoop on them, but the one I had and sold had the characteristic warmth of wood hoops and was extremely sensitive to the edge of the head. The straight hoops are usually thinner than the Hide-A-Hoop style, and are not as durable in my opinion. On the plus side, though, is some models can be used with regular lugs, whereas the Hide-A-Head style typically requires spacers under the lugs to move them far enough from the shell to accommodate the increased outside diameter of the hoops. This increase is due to the way the Hide-A-Hoop hoop is designed to mate with the head's flesh hoop.

The Hide-A-Head hoop, like the straight hoop, gives drums a warmth while not significantly hampering sensitivity or shell resonance. Here is a snare drum and a kit configured with this hoop style:

Personally, I love the tone, durability (this hoop is slightly thicker than the straight hoop), and sensitivity of this particular hoop.

There are a few things you need to consider when purchasing Hide-A-Head hoops:

  • Thickness - will the mini-claws fit it? I had to sand down parts of these hoops from some sources to get the mini-claws that are shown in the above photo to fit over the hoop. If you are using a bass drum claw this isn't a problem.
  • Before rushing out and grabbing a set make sure you have a strategy for adding spacers to your lugs so that they protrude far enough off the shell to accept the tension rods into the lug receivers. If you are using tube lugs, be aware that they are not forgiving of tolerance errors.
  • Be prepared to spend money. You need more than just hoops - you will need claws, longer tension rods and lug spacers. These add up quickly, so carefully cost it out before purchasing the hoops. Also, if you decide to use the mini-claws that are shown in the above photos, you may find that they are nearly impossible to get. There are times when they are readily available from multiple sources, and other times when you cannot get them amywhere.
One of my favorite sources for all of the hoops mentioned is Stellar. Their hoops are among the best you can find, and the customer service is excellent. I also like Champagne Drum's hoops, as well as their customer service. Their Hide-A-Hoop hoops are a bit lighter than those made by Stellar, but are of the highest quality. Like Stellar, Champagne Drums offers multiple styles of hoops. Another source is Precision Drum Company. They offer a full range of hoop styles, although their Hide-A-Hoop is just a tad too thick for the mini-claws I prefer to use. Like the other companies I recommended Precision Drum Company has excellent customer service.

The choices are many, but the nice thing about hoops is they can be swapped out to quickly change the characteristics of a snare drum. While I have enough snare drums to just grab the right one for a particular room, just having an extra set of hoops to throw on for specific playing situations makes a lot more sense than having an extra snare drum. Any of the hoop styles, and especially the Yamaha and shaped ones, will tame down a snare drum that is a bit too lively for a room when it has normal hoops. Plus, playing a wood hoop snare drum (or kit) is fun!