Friday, April 2, 2010

Properties of Drum Shells and Bearing Edges

In My Approach to Tuning I briefly discussed the importance of bearing edges and shell material. Eric J. Macaulay's paper, Properties of Drum Shells and Bearing Edges adds a significant amount of information to what I touched upon. In addition, the following articles will add more information to aspects of drum construction that affect the sound of a drum:It all comes down to knowing your instrument. I hope the foregoing helps you to understand aspects of drums that too many drummers ignore.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Wood or Metal Shells? Here's a Compromise

Many drummers have marked preferences for either metal or wood snare drums, and usually stick to their preferences. Not all drummers, of course, because some drummers will select the right instrument for a specific venue or recording session.

I have a personal theory that preferences are often based on the first snare drum a drummer owns. I prefer wood snare drums, and it's probably because my first drum kit in 1964 came with a wood snare drum. The sonic characteristics of our first snare drums tend to imprint us. Wood snare drums are typically warmer than metal, and have tonal qualities that a metal snare drum cannot deliver. Metal, and especially brass, tends to project more, sound brighter, and - when tuned a certain way - has a "honk" that appeals to many drummers.

Certain snare drums, however, have sonic characteristics of both shell types. The Slingerland copper snare drum I discussed in my last post has wood-like sound qualities. Part of the reason is the copper shell, which gives the drum a softer, almost diffused tone.

There is another class of metal shell that possesses the same qualities: hammered metal. I own two, both made from different types of metal, that would fool many in a blindfold test.

The first is my Ludwig 6.5x14 hammered bronze snare drum:

That is the snare drum that induced me to try metal sell snare drums. The hammering dried out the sound sufficiently to give it a distinct wood tone, and the bronze shell contributed to the tone and sensitivity, making it ideal for brushwork. In fact, it is an extraordinarily sensitive drum considering the shell depth. At first I wasn't sure if it was the bronze shell or the hammering that imparted the sonic qualities I found so desirable. I became convinced after I acquired another hammered shell snare drum - a 5x14 hammered Supraphonic:

Not only is the depth more shallow, but the shell is made from Ludalloy (Ludwig's term for chrome plated aluminum.)

Like the bronze shell model, the hammered Ludalloy model is drier than a standard Ludalloy Supraphonic, and has wood-line tone.

To truly ensure that it's the hammering and not the shell material I tested out a Ludwig 5x14 hammered brass Black Beauty. The test was apples-to-apples against the Ludalloy hammered Supraphonic in that the depths were identical. Result: same dry, woody quality as the other hammered shell snare drums. It was actually a surprise because brass is a much brighter sounding metal when used for drum shells.

The conclusion is if you want a snare drum that shares some of the most important characteristics of both wood and metal, then a hammered shell snare drum (or one with a copper shell) may be the best solution. I've used Ludwig snare drums as examples because I own and have first hand experience with them. Most major drum companies offer hammered shell snare drums, mainly made from brass, including Gretsch, Pacific, Peace and Worldmax. They are worth a look if you are seeking a versatile snare drum that has tone with a bit more projection.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Slingerland 6.5x14 Copper Snare Drum

This drum is from the Music-Yo era that is usually associated with the nadir of the Slingerland brand. However, some of the snare drums from this era, and particularly this copper model, are excellent and represent a great value if you come across one.

The Zoomatic strainer has always been the weak link on any Slingerland snare drum from any era in my opinion. However, the one on this particular snare drum works well. I did disassemble it to clean and lubricate it, which accounts for the problem-free operation it gives me.

The drum itself sounds wood-like. This quality comes from the relatively thin, copper shell. It also has a fairly wide tuning range - a surprise - and is one of the better snare drums I have for brushwork.

Because it has a deep shell and because of the thin, copper construction, it is well suited for low volume venues. Controlling the dynamic range, particularly in the PPP to F range, poses no problem with 7A sticks.

I've gotten the best results with the resonant head tuned high and the batter medium. If you tension the snare wires low this snare drum makes buzz rolls and shuffles sound amazing. The wires will go to medium tension before they choke, so it is probably not the best choice for heavy backbeat music.

I have had this snare drum for a few years, but rediscovered it today when I was looking for another snare drum. It is now set up on my kit as the snare drum in rotation for this week. Sometimes owning 60 snare drums can be a curse as well as a blessing because you can often overlook a gem. I can assure you it will get a workout this week.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

How to Properly Thread Snare Cord

When attaching snare wires to the strainer and butt my preferred method is to use gorsgrain ribbon (see Other Tweaks in this post). However, I have a lot of vintage drums equipped with strainers that require snare cord. Often I get these drums with the snare cord incorrectly installed.

This post applies to the majority of snare wires one encounters with the end plate designed with a lateral channel under the end plate. An example of this type of end plate is shown here:

There are exceptions, such as these two examples where there is a pair of front channels designed into the end plate or tabs on top of the end plate that require an approach opposite of what I describe below.

For the majority of snare wire models, including Puresound and other common models that have the lateral channel under the end plate, here is an example of how not to thread the cord (and is the focus of this post):

Notice that the cord is threaded over the top of the end plate, which means that the two ends of the cord are threaded under the end plate. This causes the end plate to lift slightly off the head, which, in turn, does not allow the wires to have full head contact.

The second problem shown in the photo is the end plate is slightly cocked to the side, which also hampers wire to head contact because the wires are slightly offset from the center line that extends from the strainer to the butt. A close-up of the problem is shown in this photo:

You can actually see the lifting of both the end plate and the wires.

The correct way to thread snare cord is to pull each end through the eye holes in the butt plate from the bottom as shown in this photo:

Under the end plates are slight channels that prevent the long side of the cord from lifting the end plates off the head. There is a caveat here: not all snare cord is created equal. For example, the stiff blue cord that comes with Puresound snare wire sets is too stiff to be pulled flush into the end plate channel, which prevents the plate from laying flush against the head. Another problem with the Puresound cord is it is really wire, and if you over tighten your snares they can actually dig into your snare beds!

Yet another potential problem is using any kind of cord that is handy, which may be too thick to properly fit into the channel. I have received snare drums with everything from packing twine to fishing line in lieu of proper snare cord. They do not work!

I use and recommend Ludwig's orange snare cord, which can be purchased from any Ludwig dealer in ten yard lengths. I order mine from Dana Bentley who runs Bentley's Drum Shop. I've also used Gibraltar snare cord with good success.

Threading the end plates correctly is only half the battle. You also need to make sure that the snare wires are centered and straight when installed. Correctly done, your wires should look like this:

Getting the wires correctly centered and straight takes attention to detail and a little time, but the effort is worth it.

First, lay the properly threaded wires across the head and visually center them with relation to the shell's bearing edges.

Second, thread the cord into the strainer holes. I usually use the two outermost holes on the strainer as shown here:

This gives me sufficient spread to aid in lining up the snare wires from the center of the strainer to the butt.

Before tying off the strainer end, adjust the throw between fully engaged and disengaged, and make sure the end plates are each the same distance from the bearing edges, indicating they the wires are completely centered on the head. There are two basic ways I adjust the strainer's tension to be between fully engaged and disengaged, with the method chosen depending on the travel of the strainer when it is cycled from fully engaged to fully disengaged:

  1. For strainers with relatively short travel distances, such as the strainer on the 1920s Ludwig snare drums, I usually loosen the tension know a few full turns, then position the throwoff lever halfway between fully engaged and disengaged.
  2. Strainers with a lot of distance, such as the Leedy three-point and the Ludwig P83, I leave the throwoff lever up (engaged position) and loosen the tension knob adjustment by two thirds.
The goal is to make sure that your initial layout of the wires across the head does not change when threading the cord into the strainer and butt.

After you have threaded the strainer, thread the cord into the butt and tighten the pressure bar on the butt sufficiently to hold the cord in place, but loose enough to make minor adjustments in tension.

Double check thhe wires across the head to ensure they are centered relative to the shell's bearing edges, and are straight with respect to the center-to-center of the strainer and butt. After making any necessary adjustments, fully tighten the butt.

Turn the drum over to normal playing position, place it in a snare drum stand, and adjust your wires with the strainer adjustment knob to suit your preferences. Play the drum with the snares on and off to make sure those adjustments are correct, and that the snares engage and disengage normally.

Finally, town the snare drum back over, snare side up, and make sure that the wires are centered and aligned. If you need to make small adjustments, do so by loosening the butt pressure plate slightly, while also using the snare adjustment knob to ensure that the end plates remain centered relative to the bearing edges.

These instructions make the procedure appear to be more difficult than it is. In practice, the procedure is straightforward, reasonably easy to perform, and the end result is worth the time and effort to get it right.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Inexpensive Video Recording Solutions

One of the most powerful practicing aids is to record your practice sessions. I do this to not only catch those serendipitous moments when a mistake leads to a new lick or variation on a groove, but to also check my posture and state of relaxation. I have caught recurring tenseness more than once, as well as less optimum movements, which leads to overall improvement.

If you teach there is a lot of value in recording your students' lessons for playback and critique.

Finally, having an inexpensive video recorder is great for sharing tips and techniques - or even gigs - with fellow drummers. YouTube is full of such videos, and many are great learning experiences (not the mention the self confidence you gain from posting your drumming.)

The current darling of the music world is the Zoom Q3 Video Recorder. The key strength of this particular recorder is the outstanding audio capture, which has no rival in low-end video recording devices. Moreover, it does not need an external microphone. What it lacks is truly good video capture. In order to obtain decent video you need very good lighting. Also, despite the Zoom name, it's zoom features are abysmal at best. For recording practice sessions and lessons it is, in my opinion, weak. For capturing performances, however, it is my first choice because of the audio features.

Here is the manufacturer's product review that steps through the main features:

Another review, done by the great Peter Erskine, is not as slick, but he used the Q3 to make the video, so you will get a more realistic view.

If, like me, your main use is as a practice or lesson aid, then you may find the Kodak Zi8 Pocket Video Camera to be better suited to your needs. One key advantage is, unlike the Q3, you can purchase an inexpensive remote control for the Zi8 . This is an essential feature for any recording device that is used to capture practice sessions (unless you can convince someone to operate the recorder for you.) A quick summary of features is provided in this manufacturer's video:

As mentioned, the remote control feature alone sets this recorder apart from the Q3 for capturing practice sessions. The video is better than the Q3, although the audio is not going to come close to what you can achieve with the Q3.

While both the Q3 and the Zi8 function well as hand held recorders, for recording practice sessions you are going to need a tripod. My favorite is the Vista Explorer 60" tripod because it is easy to adjust to any angle, sturdy and relatively inexpensive.

There are other video recording solutions besides the two I mentioned. I feel that the Q3 and the Zi8 are two of the best values for low-end solutions, and each has key strengths for different purposes: the Q3 for recording live gigs or making demos, and the Zi8, with the add-on remote control, for recording practice sessions and lessons.