Saturday, May 26, 2012

Giving the brush off (Part 2)

This post is a continuation of Giving the brush off (Part 1). In this post I am going to do a mini review of six other brushes I own and use. In the previous post I listed my favorites. This go around I will cover what is in my practice room. To be covered:
  1. Regal Tip Jeff Hamilton brushes
  2. Regal Tip BR-594P Ed Thigpen Plastic Brushes
  3. Regal Tip 550W Drum Brushes
  4. Regal Tip 561A Aluminum Handle Brushes
  5. Regal Tip 583R Brushes
  6. Regal Tip JR John "JR" Robinson Brushes
I'll start with the Regal Tip Jeff Hamilton brushes
The reason I find this particular model interesting is I started out playing lighter and thinner brushes (handle size, not wires), and have grown to love heavier models. Compared to the competing and popular Vic Firth Heritage Brush this brush is noticeably heavier and a tad thicker. The wires are a heavier gauge on this one, which is a plus for me (another change in my preferences over time.)

Another plus for these brushes is the pull rod stays in whichever position you place it. I often will pull back on my right brush to reduce the fan, leaving the left brush's fan full. The pull rods on some brush brands will start pushing as you play, further reducing the fan and distracting you when you should be concentrating on playing. This model will not do that. In fact, the reason I am so loyal to Regal Tip for brushes is none of their retractable models cause problems that I have experienced with other brands.

Next up is the Regal Tip BR-594P Ed Thigpen Plastic Brushes, which look more like rods than brushes. They are, however, brushes.

I first saw these in action while watching and working through The Essence of Brushes (DVD). I immediately purchased a pair and practiced some of the grooves.

What sets these apart from the so-called rods that many drummers use is you can get a good swish sound from rods. Nor can you get any legato sound from them. I do not use rods for that reason (and never will - I think they were designed for drummers who have no dynamic range), but these are simply amazing. Depending on where you have the rubber ring that controls the spread of the bristles, you can get some very staccato sounds, or more slap like sounds. Be aware, though, that these will not fan out like regular brushes.

Although I do not often use them live because the music I normally play does not call for them, I keep a pair in my stick bag.

The Regal Tip 550W Drum Brushes is an interesting pair of fixed brushes that are great for some types of music.

Although I prefer retractable brushes I do use this one. The reason I started using this model for some playing situations is the taps are full and the sweeps have a sound quality I cannot get from my favorite brushes. Also, the thin handle (I am sure it's not over .5 inches in diameter) allows me to effortlessly sweep in a larger pattern for faster tempos, something that a heavier, multi-purpose brush will not do well.

Interestingly, the bristles are super thin (compared to other models in the Regal Tip line), which may account for the speed with which they can be swept across a head in a relatively wide arc during fast tempo songs. The bristles are about on par with the Yellow Jacket retractable model that I discussed in Part 1. The overall brush responds quicker because of the thin and light, fixed wood handle.

These brushes do not always come with me when I am playing. I have a bag that accommodates the plastic tubes fixed brushes ship in for playing situations that I know are going to be jazz only.

I'd love to say that I've never met a brush that I didn't like. While I don't hate the Regal Tip 561A Aluminum Handle Brush model, I am not overly fond of it.

Even though I personally do not care for this brush model, I am giving it five stars for the following reasons: (1) brushes - like sticks - are personal and choosing models that fit your personal style does not mean the ones you did not select are necessarily bad or inferior. (2) These brushes are very well constructed, and (3), the aluminum handles may appeal to some who have played some of the similar brushes from yesteryear.

What makes them interesting is the handle diameter, which is an anemic .437". I love thin sticks and handles, but this is too thin for even my tastes. In fact, this brush model is even thinner than the Regal Tip Combo sticks, which are probably the thinnest sticks on the market at .485" diameter. This is not a show stopper since there are drummers who subscribe to the 'thinner is better' philosophy. Not too many years ago I was among them - and still use very thin sticks compared to many.

For me the deal breaker is the aluminum handle. Yes, you can do a lot with them, including cross-stick patterns. However, it gets awfully slippery very quickly. That can be remedied by wrapping it in tape, but that defeats the purpose in my opinion. Still, that is my observation, and many vintage brushes were made with metal handles, so some folks will find that feature attractive.

These are not for everybody, but if you find them appealing I can assure you that they are very well constructed and should last a long time if you take care of them. And if you have small hands these may be the perfect brush for you.

The Regal Tip 583R Brushes are probably the most played brushes in the world. They don't look special, but they are meat and potatoes tools for brush players.

I normally carry multiple brush models in my stick bag. However, if I could only bring a single pair of brushes, these would be the ones.

The wire bristles are medium weight, providing a consistent sound and feel across tempo and dynamic ranges. The handles are comfortable and lightweight, and if you familiar if you play other Regal Tip models. I have never experienced any issues with these brushes marring heads that were reported by others.

I adjust the fan of my right brush to obtain the dynamic level appropriate for each song, as well as to achieve the staccato or legato level I want. Therefore, any brush that has a retractable handle that does not stay put quickly falls out of favor with me. This one does not. I keep a few pairs in my practice space and in my car.

As I said, they are not my go-to brushes, but they are ones I keep around because they are versatile and relatively inexpensive.

The final model I'll cover in this post is the Regal Tip JR John "JR" Robinson Brushes.

This brush is based on the Regal Tip 583R above. What Regal Tip did was lengthen the handle of what I call a 'meat & potatoes' brush, changing the feel and (in my opinion) improving the already superb balance.

Like the 583R, the wire bristles are medium weight and gives a consistent sound and feel across tempo and dymamic ranges. Moreover, the retractable handle stays in any position without budging. This is important to me because I adjust the fan of my right brush to obtain the dynamic level appropriate for each song, as well as to achieve the staccato or legato level I want.

While this model does not have the long-handle feel of the Clayton Cameron model that I discussed in Part 1, the extra length makes it a pleasure for me to use. This is a personal preference that reflects my own playing habits - others may have valid reasons for not liking it.

I'll continue with a Part 3 at a later time. In the mean time, there is a wealth of information about brushes and brush playing in this blog. There also some relevant topics in my Music For Drummers blog. A parting word: when shopping for brushes, bear a few things in mind:

  • Feel and balance, and even retractable vs. fixed are considerations you need to take into account. That means it is always better to actually hold and try before buying.
  • It is OK to have and use more than one model (or even brand.) If you find two models you like and cannot decide, get both if your budget allows it.
  • Once you settle on model(s) become intimately familiar with them, their playing characteristics, and strengths and weaknesses.
Oh, and practice!!!!

Friday, May 25, 2012

Cheap, but surprisingly good, microphones

I originally purchased this Nady DMK-5 microphone set for micing drums, but have never had an occasion to truly need them due to the type of music I play and the venues in which I play them. I have used them, but did not really need them. On the other hand, I found that they are perfect for other instruments and micing amplifiers. In fact, I will put the DM70s in this set up against a Shure SM57 Microphone - costing nearly four times the price - for micing instruments and amps.

This set consists of four Nady DM70 Drum and Instrument Microphones and a DM80. The mics are built like tanks and are reliable and capture signals that are surprisingly accurate. Both mics have unidirectional cardioid patterns, which allow you to closely mic your sound sources with little - if any - bleed between and among the mics if they are placed close to the sources. Also, they are dynamic mics, which means they require no phantom power and can be used with an XLR cable or an XLR with a 1/4" adapter for the mixer end.

The Nady DM70 Drum and Instrument Microphone is perfectly suited for snare drums, toms and cymbals as advertised, but I have found that they work well with other instruments. Specifically, they do an excellent job with alto and tenor saxophones, trumpets and other brass. They also work well for micing amplifiers such as the Fender Champion 600 Electric Guitar Amplifier. Specs: these have a frequency response of 70~16,000 Hz and sensitivity of -73dB, +/- 3dB (@ 1KHz, 74dB SPL. For horn instruments using these attached to a mic stand works perfectly. A good combination is to clamp an extension bar and a gooseneck to a stand, and attach the mic, which has an integrated mic stand adapter.

For bass drums and instruments such as baritone saxophones and trombones, the DM80 does a reasonably good job of capturing the low end with a frequency response of 30~15,000 Hz and sensitivity of -73dB, +/- 3dB (@ 1KHz, 74dB SPL. In addition, this mic is excellent for micing small bass amplifiers when playing in cramped spaces where it makes sense to use something along the lines of a Fender Rumble 30 or similar small amp to save stage space and use the PA to augment the signal.

For micing bass drums with the DM80 or amps using either the DM70 or DM80, I recommend using Samson Audio MB1 Mini Boom Microphone Stand. It's sturdy and can easily hold and position either mic.

Overall, this inexpensive set is a bargain if you are looking for an low cost set of well constructed, reliable microphones for drum kits or other instruments.

Giving the brush off (Part 1)

This and a few subsequent posts will give brief reviews of various brush models. If you rarely play brushes you are probably inclined to believe that there is little - if any - difference among the various brands and models. Not true.

First, some background information: A list of instructional videos for brushplaying is a good starting point for either learning to master this aspect of drumming, or to brush up on your technique. See this page for examples of excellent technique performed by some top brush masters. Brushes and drum heads have a close relationship, so you may want to check out Part 1 and Part 2 of a pair of posts focused on drum heads. And some history of brushes is a way to trace back to the beginning. One final note: a frequent question is which practice pad supports brush practice? Answer: while there are a number on the market (Remo makes an excellent one), my advice is to save your money and use a pizza box! I am serious.

On to brush models. My personal favorite is the Regal Tip BR-584W Ed Thigpen retractable model.

For the longest time I used fixed handle brushes, and was in love with Regal Tip's Clayton Cameron model. I grew tired of carrying them in their plastic tubes to protect the wires because those tubes take up a lot of real estate in stick bags. At first the Ed Thigpen model felt too heavy, but after prolonged playing (and switching among a few other brush brands and models) I came to appreciate the way these brushes balanced, and also the wood end at the rear of the handle opens an entire, new set of sounds when used to strike cymbals, drum rims, and even drum heads (think Joe Morello on Three To Get Ready).

While I love the Ed Thigpen model I also carry Regal Tip's BR-575-YJ Yellow Jacket retractable brushes in my stick bag.

The wires flex noticeably more than most brush models I have used. In fact, the feel of the wires is similar to the feel of nylon, while still producing the distinctive sound that only a wire brush can provide. The wire is such a thin gauge that you may encounter problems with them falling out under heavy playing (I have heard a few such stories on various forums). I use mine for ballads because of the way the bristles flex. And unlike other brushes, these do not catch on new heads. They also require less break-in time.

My former favorites and still a model I love) is the Regal Tip Cameron Clayton model.

The wires seem to be the same gauge as the ones in the Regal Tip's BR-575-YJ Yellow Jacket retractable brushes Pair. They are ideally suited to ballads, and because they are slightly longer than fully extended wires in the Yellow Jacket model, you can use them for heavier playing as well. Another plus about the wires (and the overall balance of the brush itself) is they lend themselves to rim rolls.

I love the balance. Clayton Cameron came up with the basic design and it suits me perfectly. I am pretty sure the length of the handle, diameter and weight are factors. And the wires may also contribute.

The metal tips in the ends of the handles are good features. They work beautifully for getting that zing sound when dragging the end around the circumference of a cymbal using the lathed tonal grooves.

Why don't I still use them exclusively? I have grown to like the convenience of retractable handle brushes. Those do not need to be housed in a plastic tube to prevent the wires from bending and snagging. Also, I have developed the habit of adjusting the fan on my right brush - using the handle - to calibrate how legato or staccato I want to play. I can also do that with the fixed brushes using a rubber band at the top of the wires and sliding it down, but the handle is easier and quicker. I still carry a pair of these brushes in my main stick bag because there are times when it's the right brush for the music.

I have not scratched the surface of the models I plan to discuss (I still have over fifteen other ones to cover). However, those can wait until I have the time to write subsequent articles. In the next post I'll cover an additional three to five models. Until then, enjoy.

Getting Ahead Part 2

Before continuing the heads discussed in my previous post I want to recommend that you read my approach to tuning in conjunction with the discussion of heads. There is a close relationship between tuning and head choice, and since I am focusing on a relatively narrow set of head models, you may find information of more value in that piece.

While I love Remo Coated Ambassadors, I also have a love affair with their Fiberskyn series (as well as the 14" Skyntone snare drum heads.)

Remo started out making the Skyntone for snare drums, and I was an early adopter. My take on it is that it works beautifully with both sticks and brushes. It is thin to the point where you need to be concerned if you play mainly with sticks and are a heavy hitter. While the tone I get from these heads is superb to my ears, it's possible that they will need frequent replacement. Thus far I have had no problems with them, but I am an extremely light hitter and I play mostly between PP and F. The texture is similar to genuine calfskin, including simulated pore holes.

I have this head model on five of my snare drums, including a circa 1920s Ludwig Pioneer, a few custom made single-ply snare drums, and a Rogers Powertone COB. The head transformed each of these drums into a low-volume jazz instrument that sounds superb with brushes and very light playing. If you are a rock drummer you may find that this head will not suit your needs. Remo has since started making them in tom sizes, including 10", 12", 13", 15", and 16" sizes. Those, plus the 14"Skyntone snare drum heads, will allow you to completely out most drum kits - except for the bass drum. Frankly, I am sticking with the Fiberskyns for the time being because I am very pleased with them, and I am still a little uncertain about the durability of the Skyntones (although the ones on my snare drums have held up very well.)

Ludwig 100th Anniversary Snare Drum
Outfitted with a new 14" Skyntone snare drum head

My next most used configuration uses Remo Fiberskyn heads. I'll start with the 14" Fiberskyn FD. This is a Diplomat weight head that I prefer. This head, paired with a Diplomat snare side head on the bottom of my snare drums is a perfect combination for my playing style. However, I do not limit this head to my snare drum - I also use it as the batter side on my toms, paired usually with a Remo Renaissance Diplomat on the resonant side.

What I particularly love about this head is its ability to fit into acoustic mixes as well as in some rooms that are challenging. Most of the time those challenging rooms make other heads sound too lively, whereas the Fiberskyn seems to tame down the acoustics (with some tuning tweaks and on occasion cursing, of course). As for brush playing, there is sufficient texture to achieve legato notes on ballads, and for the staccato notes, the head sounds superb. Here is a tip: try the Vic Firth Steve Gadd model bushes on this head (and the 14"Skyntone snare drum heads as well). Ironically, that brush was designed for heads like the coated Ambassador, but works best this this and the Skyntone.

This is an excellent head choice for some situations, and works particularly well when paired with the resonant heads I mentioned. If you want even more attenuation and warmth, while retaining some resonance, the Fiberskyn FA head may be a better choice.

My kit with Fiberskyn heads

A word about the reso heads on the toms. I use Remo Renaissance Diplomat heads on the kit shown. Here is a shot that shows the resonant side of the rack tom:

The 12" Renaissance Diplomat shown works perfectly as a resonant head on toms with Fiberskyn FA (Ambassador) or FD (Diplomat) weight heads on top. In fact, they give noticeably more resonance than pairing Fiberskyns top and bottom. In addition, they work beautifully paired with a coated Ambassador on top. In that case, they provide a little more resonance and a slightly brighter sound.

Used as batter heads on toms they are a bit too bright and thin sounding, but warmer than clear heads. Paired top and bottom, they are still too thin for my tastes, but I have to admit that they have a nice tuning range and feel. The same goes for the 14" or any other size of this head.

The bass drum heads I use are interesting in that I stumbled upon the combination by accident. The batter head is a Remo Powerstroke 3 Fiberskyn. When I purchased this it was a compromise. I normally will not use pre-muffled heads, but could not get an Ambassador weight unmuffled head at the time because they were back ordered.

I opted for a Diplomat weight to offset the muffling, which is nothing more than a plastic ring on the backside of the head. To further offset the muffling, I opted to not use my tried and true approach: Gibraltar SC-BF Bass Drum Felt Strips. My last ploy was to use a non-Powerstroke 3 Fiberskyn Diplomat for the resonant side (without felt strips.)

The combination worked perfectly. Frankly it exceeded my expectations and when I was able to obtain the Ambassador weight, unmuffled heads I wanted in the first place they did not come close to matching the warmth and depth this head and the companion reso provide. Sometimes one does get lucky.

My concern that the Diplomat weight would not hold under live playing was assuaged by the fact that I actually used this kit as backline in a jam and the head held up fine. So much for stories of coating loss and short lifespan.

Needless to say, the serendipitous events that led me to purchasing this head against my better judgement (at the time) worked in my favor. If I outfit another of my kits with Fiberskyns, this is the combination I will use.

My next topic will be a follow-up on brushes. Until then, enjoy.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Getting Ahead Part 1

OK, poor pun. Heads are more important to your sound than we tend to give them credit for. I did touch on heads in a post I wrote over two years ago, Selecting Heads and Brushes for Brush Playing, and a companion post titled A few heads I left out and words about the best snare drum for brushes. Those, however, were pretty specific in focus.

Before proceeding, here are a few caveats:

  • I play a narrow set of genres - mainly jazz and blues
  • My preferred sound is open and minimally muffled
  • The only heads I am going to discuss are ones with which I've had direct and extensive experience
The bottom line is there are a lot more brands and models than I a going to discuss, and it's more than probable that some of those that I do not discuss may be a better match for your playing style, music and personal sound. One size does not fit all.

First up is my workhorse heads - Remo Coated Ambassadors.

I use these on everything - snare batters, and tom and bass drum batters and resonants. Let's start with why I love them on snare drums: For snare drum batter heads I have tried every other head on the market and the Remo coated Ambassador has the resonance, warmth and for snare drums, the right texture, that I want in a drum head. Bear in mind that I play a lot of acoustic jazz and like my drums to be open sounding. Also, I have found that when paired with a hazy Diplomat on the snare side I get superb response.

Regarding the texture - there are certain Aquarian models that have better texture for brush playing, but sound too plastic like with sticks. My solution is to take some 400 grit sand paper and lightly (very lightly) pass over the surface. This smooths the rough spots without starting a wear spot that will prematurely shorten the head's life. Note: This head will not fit some vintage drums, which I will address further on, and also will not fit Premier drums in metric sizes. Remo has a model especially for those: BA-0114-PR. In fact, if you replace the "00" with a "PR" in Remo part numbers you will get the model number for heads that fit the metric sized Premiers.

Since I play mostly 20" bass drum, 12" and 14" toms or the same configuration with 18" bass drums, I also use 12" coated Ambassadors for my rack toms (the 14" snare head works on my floor tom) and either the 18" coated Ambassador or the 20" model on my bass drums.

Like my toms, I use the heads on both the batter and resonant sides. For me this configuration is not only excellent for old school blues, but perfect for jazz. I do not stuff anything into the bass drum, and, in fact, usually use a single felt strip (depending on the room.) The resonance and warmth this head provides is amazing. On every bass drum, from the lower end Tama and Gretsch, to my custom made one, this head emits a note instead of a thud. Of course, my muffling and tuning approaches have a lot to do with that, but still, this is a sound that you are not going to get from pre-muffled heads, or even film batters and resos.

A few shots of one of my kits
The Snare drum is a very unique one that was custom made using 1930s Radio King parts and a magnesium shell. The engraved hoops required Aquarian American Vintage heads

Remo also sells convenient prepacks of these heads in various configurations: 10, 12, 14 and 14 (for the snare drum), as well as a 12, 13, and 16 pack for toms but no snare drum.

Before continuing with modern heads I want to address the snare drum head shown in the photo above because if you have vintage drums this one is important. The head brand and model are Aquarian American Vintage (not shown is the snare-side companion.This head was designed specifically to fit vintage American snare drums. The reason I am emphasizing 'American' is because other vintage drums, like Premiers, may use metric sizes in which case this head will not work.

The reason this head is needed is because circa 1900s-1930s and even later snare drums were made slightly oversized by today's sizing standards. For example, the vintage 14" diameter drums were really 14" whereas modern snare drums cited as 14" are really 13.85. To confuse the issue, the above applies mostly to wood snare drums. In my experience, modern heads seem to fit most metal snare drums from the same vintage eras. Still, I am citing rules of thumb and not hard and fast facts because there are always going to be exceptions.

Also note that some late 1800s through early 1900s snare drums - regardless of material - were such off sizes that your only recourse is to have custom heads made for them. Measure first before ordering!

There is a lot to like about this head. The slightly yellowed vintage surface is a nice touch. The texture is beautiful for brushwork. And, of course, the fact that it allows you to play a vintage snare drum that would otherwise be sitting in a display because of heads is the best thing to like. However, to my ears this head has a plastic-like sound when played with sticks. Bear in mind that is the way I personally hear it, and you may not have the same impression. Also, in a live playing situation that sound disappears into the mix.

Aquarian did the vintage drum world a great service with this series because prior to these your only option was to have heads custom made. Or display the snare drum in a case. The first option was expensive (breathtakingly so, in fact), and the second option was a waste of an instrument that survived through the years and deserved to be heard. Aquarian makes a full range of sizes in this series, so if you are outfitting an entire drum kit you may find this to be the best solution.

In my next post I will cover the other heads I use, which are the Fiberskyn series I have on some of my snare drums and one of my drum kits, and the Remo Skyntone, which I have started using on my snare drums.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Stick bags - function and vanity

Every so often stick bags come up as a topic. Most drummers I run across usually have some sort of canvas bag, with the cheaper ones like the Zildjian, Meinl and similar bags being the most common. Going up the food chain a notch you sometimes see drummers carrying something along the lines of the Kaces Not Leather Deluxe Stick Bag. The truth be known, the low end bags are functional and truly serve most drummers well. They lack the cool factor, however. I am going to devote this entry to bags that are cool.

At the top of the food chain, in my opinion, is the Anthology Gear Wear stick bag. I own one, shown in the following photos:

Front (shown leaning against an 18x14 bass drum)



Note the size (pretty large), capacity (considerable) and looks (uber cool). Although this bag has rawhide straps to hang it from a floor tom, it is so heavy and dense that it would kill the drum's resonance. Also note that the pockets are not nylon like most other high end bags, but, instead, are leather.

This is truly the epitome of stick bags. Also, if you do not like the finish, called "black whiskey" you can have one made in carbon black instead. There is ample pouch space - shown in the front and back shots - plus a pocket for music or other papers. And the carrying strap will make guitar and bass players drool.

The only other bag I have come across that has anything near the capacity is the Peter Erskine Stick Bag (formerly made by Yamaha and now by DW.)

The next bag down on the food chain of high-end bags and the brand that most folks associate with the pinnacle of stick bags is the Reunion Blues brand. I have both the large model (in black leather) and the extra large model (in chestnut leather). Here are the two, side-by-side, for comparison:

Closed (leaning against a 20x14 bass drum)


I have to admit that the extra large model does not get as much use as the smaller 'large' one, which is more than sufficient for my needs.

That is not to say that the extra large bag is not best for some drummers. For touring drummers that model will easily carry a more than adequate supply of sticks, mallets and brushes. For percussionists who use a wider array of stick and mallet types this bag is hands-down the best.

Another point in extra large bag's favor over the smaller one is if you play with fixed brushes such as the RegalTip Clayton Cameron model, then this bag will easily hold the plastic tubes you probably store those brushes in (the smaller bag cannot do that.)

On both bag models the front pouch can hold an array of drum keys, small tools and spare parts with room to spare.

Both are also built to last a lifetime, with careful attention paid to zippers and stitching. The leather is of the highest quality and it looks as good as it is constructed. If you are a professional drummer or percussionist this bag is an investment.

Back to the Peter Erskine Stick Bag. If you want to set vanity aside and go for pure function, this is the bag to get. It is not sexy like any of the above bags, but will hold just about anything you need, and is well constructed. I had the Yamaha model and loved it. Unfortunately, I got bit by the vanity bug and sold it, whicb I sometimes regret.

I also own a few other vanity type stick bags that I rarely use and, frankly, find to be of questionable value. One is the Levy's Leathers Suede Stick Bag, and the other - also by Levy's Leathers - is the Levy's Leathers LM9-BRN Stick Bag. Read my reviews on each page to see why I am not as enthusiastic about those models.

For high end bags I have to confess that I am hooked on the Anthology Gear Wear stick bag. And, make no mistake, it's because of the vanity factor because it is a very heavy bag and holds more sticks, brushes and mallets than I would ever use in a single gig. On the other hand, I have fallen in love with my Reunion Blues large, black leather stick bag. It holds the perfect number of sticks and brushes that I routinely use, and looks great. I love the carrying strap and its light weight.

However, there is nothing whatsoever wrong with the lower-end bags. We are, after all, protecting implements that we bang against surfaces, so any cost/benefit arguments are contrived at best. But you cannot put a price tag on cool, right?