Saturday, June 2, 2012

The Rodney Dangerfield of snare drums

Pork Pie Snare Drum Black Nickle Plated Snare Drum with Chrome Tube Lugs.

Also known as the Pork Pie BoB, not only does this snare drum get no respect, it is one of the best kept secrets for being a top notch snare drum. Part of the reason dates back a few years when one of the big box stores put this snare drum on sale as a "Stupid Deal" for one hundred bucks.

They quickly sold out and hundreds were on back order. That event did two things:
  1. Put a lot of these into circulation and exposed a lot of drummers to probably one of the best brass snare drums they would own
  2. Cheapened the value of the drum in the minds of thousands who will forever associate this with the "Stupid Deal" pricing
One note about the event and the exposure of this drum: when the deal was put on the big box store's site, it quickly went viral on a number of the largest and most influential drum forums.

My recommendation is to get past the notion that this is a cheap snare drum. As someone who has owned well over one hundred snare drums (many documented on this site), I can attest that this model will hold its own against some surprising contenders. For example, I have tested this side-by-side with a Ludwig Brass Edition, a circa 1967 Ludwig Supraphonic, and a Rogers Powertone. I prefer the Pork Pie to all three. That may sound like blasphemy, but it's true.

What you are getting, in essence, is the same snare drum that is sold as the Worldmax Hawg, which ironically does enjoy a great reputation.

The stock heads and snares are pretty good, which is a surprise because I typically change those on new snare drums. In fact, the batter head is close enough to my preferred head - Remo Coated Ambassador - that I have never bothered changing it. The drum has a decent tuning range for a 6.5" deep shell, and the throw-off is functional and problem-free (it looks like the Worldmax S-9X, which it probably is).

While I prefer wood snare drums, I always keep a brass one for variety. Although I recently sold off a large number of snare drums from my collection, this one was deemed a keeper and one I am not likely to part with. That fact speaks volumes about how good this snare drum sounds and what a bargain it is.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Zildjian SDMJO John Riley Stick/Mallet

For me the Zildjian SDMJO John Riley stick/mallets are a perfect addition to my stick bag for the rare times when I need to use it (cymbal crescendos, tom tom patterns and some songs like Ahmad Jamal's version of Poinciana.)

Physically, the felt on the mallet end is pretty dense, giving these a nice dynamic range from very soft (P or PP) all the way to FFF. The drumstick tips are not sharply pointed and have never put dents in my heads.

Even with the mallet end, there is a good balance when used as drumsticks. They just feel good (I play traditional grip when holding them as sticks, but use them matched grip as mallets.)

Another use is to tame down wild, trashy new cymbals. This mainly applies to very thin jazz cymbals, which require play-in time. If you want to hasten the play-in process, mallet rolls is a common trick many of us use. This entails taking a pair of these mallets and rolling them around the cymbal for 20 minutes per day for a week or so. Start at the outside edge and work your way towards the bell, going around the circumference of the cymbal.

Like I said, I rarely use these in live situations, but I do practice with them, and definitely use them to tame some cymbals as described. The pair I own go into a special stick bag along with my normal stick and brush models, and some other sticks that I infrequently use. This bag is for playing in situations where I need to be prepared for anything - like when someone calls Harlem Nocturne.

I mentioned a few songs above - here they are, plus one more by Nina Simone, to demonstrate how mallets can be used in a live playing situation.

Let your imagination run wild!

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Open jams: good or bad?

For as long as I've lived in central Florida there has been a battle between two factions: those who host and/or attend open jams, and those who are convinced that they are the manifestation of the antichrist.

I am in the former group. Perhaps my attitude has been forged by the recognition that music - and especially jazz - has evolved through jam sessions. What would music be like today if Teddy Hill had not created the place and atmosphere at Minton's Playhouse? Would the musical seeds planted at Minton's have born the same fruit in 1959?

My main reason, though, for supporting jams is because in my day we musicians learned by listening to and watching one another. We went to each others gigs, stole licks, and, importantly, learned and grew. That does not seem to happen as much these days. Except at jams.

Instead of belaboring the past or the abstract, I'll provide my responses to common complaints from the faction who is against open jams.

  1. So and so (or a list of them) are jerks. This is usually a tirade directed at a host or group of hosts of jams. In truth some hosts have probably earned title - or on the surface that is the way it appears. I suggest that before launching an ad hominem attack one consider what it actually takes to host and manage a jam. It involves scheduling folks who come in and sign up, then some disappear or, worse, insist on playing with specific musicians who may be much further up or down on the list. I have witnessed some hosts being outright threatened for various reasons. Factor that in when you see a host act like a jerk and ask yourself if it's a personality trait or a reaction (or self defense) to the challenges they face every jam.
  2. Jams cut into earnings of professional musicians. Professional musicians where I live - real professionals - are unaffected because the venues that host live jams are not exactly the places professionals target in their marketing plans. Face it, most of the venues that host open jams are dives. Nothing wrong with that. As an ex-sailor I can attest that dives are fun places. The ones in the Daytona and Greater Orlando areas where I've jammed are not exactly places where I would expect to see true professionals perform. By true professionals I mean folks whose sole source of income is from performing. There may be one or two exceptions, but I do not recall encountering them. The pros are at Disney, other attractions, or doing corporate gigs. Or touring. In addition, there is a another way of looking at the problem. This well written piece from Los Angeles musician Dave Goldberg pretty much sums it up with respect to venues and musicians, and it looks like it extends much farther than Central Florida: Why Club Owners Are Totally Lost (and some advice from a professional musician).
  3. Jammers are tricked into playing for free (and therefore exploited) while the host pockets money. First, what do the hosts actually make per jam? $100? $200? Let's say, for the sake of argument that it's a whopping $500 (which is really stretching it.) Out of that the host will need to pay the rhythm section or host band. Let's say $50 each, and let's assume that the host band is three people. That leaves $350 for the host in this generous scenario. Of that amount the host is going to spend three to four hours not only doing fun stuff like playing music, but not-so-fun stuff like managing the stage, dealing with strong personalities of some folks who sign up then make demands (see 1 above). And don't forget the investment in the backline, which depreciates like any other asset. Or the cost of recurring repairs because jammers are usually hard on someone else's equipment. But let's leave that stuff out of the equation and just assume that the host is going to spend an hour setting up and organizing, three hours playing and managing and an hour tearing down. The $350 divided by the five hours of work comes to $70 per hour. Not bad money for a forty hour week. Not good money for five hours a week when those five hours are probably filled with stress and conflict. In the real world we would factor in the cost of maintaining the gear (and the amortized investment in acquiring it), gas, and other incidentals that eat away at that $70/hour. Also, let's get real and say the hosting fee is a more realistic $200 per jam. Do the math for that. I promise you nobody is getting rich. Hell, the money could not possibly be the motivation because you could make more by picking fly shit out of pepper.
  4. The venues are getting free entertainment. They are getting what they are paying for: generally lower quality music, but the real entertainment is enjoyed by the musicians who get to participate and get some stage time. Remember, most of the folks who sign up have day jobs that pay their bills. They may be weekend warriors playing in the same dives as those hosting the jams, but their main income usually comes from somewhere else. And from what I've seen at many of the jams, the venue may bring in a different crowd on jam night, but is probably not bringing in more patrons. In many cases the regulars will stay home on jam nights. Nobody is really getting rich from what I've seen.
  5. Jammers are a bunch of no talent hacks. A few probably are. Most are passionate about music, some have virtuoso chops on their instruments, and some are professionals who drop by, or are not professionals, but are highly skilled, trained musicians who happen to do something else for a living. I've seen (and had the pleasure of sharing the stage with) some spectacular musicians at these jams. And have had my own share of off nights as well as playing with others who have as well. In a way that adds to the reasons why those of us who go to jams do so.
Before ending this post, I will admit that I no longer attend jams in the central Florida area. The reasons have nothing to do with the common arguments - I had to quit because nearly all of the venues that host jams allow smoking and it was taking a toll on my health. The minute smoking is banned in this area will signal my return to jamming.

That is where I stand on the matter. And without apologies!

Joe Morello's Natural Approach - Part 2

In my last post I discussed Joe Morello: Drum Method 1--The Natural Approach to Technique. This post will discuss the companion video, Joe Morello: Drum Method 2--Around the Kit.

I'll say up front that this video has poor sound quality. However, that is a small barrier to overcome when you consider the invaluable information and tips Joe imparts.

First off, let me state that I do not believe this is a video that new drummers should tackle first. Not that drummers of every skill level will not benefit, but the focus of this particular video is crafting solos and mastering each component of the drum kit. I personally believe this is secondary to timekeeping and groove, which are - to me - the essence of drum kit playing. To that end I would encourage new drummers to focus on Tommy Igoe's Groove Essentials, which will not only expose drummers at all skill levels to an encyclopedic range of grooves, but will provide a solid foundation of technique that can be leveraged in the lessons Joe gives in this DVD.

Second, this, like Joe Morello: Drum Method 1--The Natural Approach to Technique, is not an easy set of lessons and exercises to get through. One reason is Joe's on camera instructional technique is deceptively informal and quick. He has a habit of tossing off tips and advice in such a casual manner that you find yourself dismissing them as unimportant - and that is not the case in anything he utters. Also, many of the 40 exercises in this video are explained in a minute or less, with very quick reinforcing examples. This requires you to pay careful attention to what he is saying and demonstrating. Moreover, in the parts where he explains how to play, for example, a bass drum or hi-hat, he is scratching the surface, providing enough information to an alert viewer to take and expand on his or her own, without going too deeply into the topic. For drummers who are used to slicker presentations that are designed to ensure that even the slowest or least experienced student will get it, Joe's approach can be disconcerting and frustrating.

The solution is to make your remote control your best friend by pausing after each exercise and spending at least 20 minutes working through the exercise (less if you have already mastered it and more if not.) That is 800 minutes of work you need to be prepared to do if you truly want to benefit from this DVD - and benefit you will because while the exercises seem trivial when explained, they are anything but when you are working through them.

For example, the last exercise on substitutions can be extremely difficult for even the most experienced drummers, and could warrant hours and hours of work to become merely proficient, but not an expert. Also, this exercise is a great example of how Joe teaches. He provides a fairly simple example or exercise that has behind it many combinations and permutations, and expects you to figure out your own practice plan. The goal, of course, is to build muscle memory of these many variations until you can perform them automatically. By definition, this is boring and physically exhausting, which in the larger scheme of things are small inconveniences to achieve the chops that will result from your hard work. Some of the exercises will require very well developed chops, so I recommend either Joe Morello: Drum Method 1--The Natural Approach to Technique, or Tommy Igoe's Great Hands for a Lifetime, (or both!)

If you are seeking an easy path to improving your skills, you are not going to like this video. However, if you are willing to diligently work through the exercises, and are also willing to engage your brain to build upon the tips Joe provides, you will dramatically improve your drumming skills.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Joe Morello's Natural Approach - Part 1

Hard work and a lot of woodshed time can pay off. This post is going to critique Joe Morello: Drum Method 1--The Natural Approach to Technique and will follow-up in a subsequent post for Part 2.

There are a few things I want to say about this video:

First, Joe Morello's on-camera teaching style can be frustrating because he is whips through each lesson quickly. However, you can replay any segment of lesson as often as necessary, and Joe does provide a constant stream of advice and tips that - if you heed them and actually put them to use - will dramatically improve your technique.

Second, this is NOT a video to be watched from start to finish without interruption. Watch it one exercise at a time, breaking at the end of each exercise to actually perform the exercises, and repeat until you feel that you are comfortable with, and have met the objectives of, each exercise before proceeding to the next. Then, incorporate those exercises into your personal practice regimen. This may not sound like much fun (and at first it isn't), but it does build muscle-memory, which means that the techniques and exercise objectives are incorporated into your own playing, which is why you purchased this video in the first place, right?

Finally, regardless of your level of proficiency or ingrained style with respect to grip and technique, if you follow the exercises and work at employing the techniques Joe teaches, you can "unlearn" any bad habits you bring to the lessons and exercises. For example, I started playing in 1964, took a long break from drumming, and took it up again years later. I brought a plethora of bad habits and questionable technique, all of which I was able to rectify through diligently following the lessons and exercises presented here, and the hard work and frustration that entailed. I personally think it paid off significantly, making this one of the most invaluable instructional videos I had the good sense to purchase (and work through).

Complaints about the instructional style and pacing have some validity, but if you look beyond those and dig in and take the lessons to heart (and work through the exercises), this video can and probably will make a big difference in your abilities as a drummer. After all, your instructor is one of the top drummers ever, and is no longer with us to give personal lessons, so this is as close as you are going to get to unlocking the secrets to Joe's amazing technique.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Giving the brush off (Part 3)

Continuing from Part2, I have even more brush models to discuss. Before proceeding, I trust that you have checked out the examples of great brushwork from my last post. I slipped in one not-so-great example (me) at the end because the great examples, while fun to watch, can be discouraging on one level. Also, in case you missed it, there is a list of instructional videos here that you may find interesting.

I'll start with the Regal Tip 551WXL model. This model is but one of many that I have accumulated, and by rights should not appeal to me because I prefer smaller diameter handles on brushes and sticks. However, appeal to me it does.

While most of my brushes and sticks sport handles in the .5" diameter range, this one has a whopping .562" diameter handle. At first it was uncomfortable and I almost tossed it into my little closet of horrors - purchases I tend to make that seemed like a good idea at the time. Instead, I lazily left them in my practice room, and started using them. While I am not sold on them, I have grown to appreciate certain aspects. They are extremely well balanced and actually feel good when playing ballads. I love the wires, which - again - seem well suited to ballad work. Considering the size of the handle that may be counter-intuitive to many folks.

If you play Latin or Brazilian, the Regal Tip 565U Ultraflex is a good choice.

This and the Regal Tip BR-594P Ed Thigpen Plastic Brushes are two brush models that every drum kit player who plays Latin and Brazilian should have in their stick bag.

Where the Ed Thigpen model can work for playing fast, staccato notes while implying a cabasa with one of the brushes, this model will provide a different set of textures. Specifically, the large, nylon brush area can be used to create patterns that work with Latin and Brazilian music from a drum kit player's perspective.

If you have read the preceding two parts and have read to this point here you may have noticed that I prefer Regal Tip brand brushes. I personally think that they make the best brushes on the market. The key word is personally. In fact, I do own some models from other brands and will wrap this up by discussing those.

The Vic Firth Heritage model is a popular brush that many drummers use.

This particular brush is a safe choice if you are looking for a first pair to learn the art of brush playing. I like the feel of the wire bristles, which have good flex and a relatively tight fan that makes it an excellent choice for general purpose playing (for softer ballads I prefer a brush with a wider fan when fully opened.)

Handles are light with sufficient balance that they will not fatigue you on a brush-only gig. I love the triangle-shaped ends on the retractable handles, which allow you to use the apex for zings around the lathed tonal grooves of cymbals.

Personally, I am not too fond of how the retractable handle seems to lock into position when the wires are fully fanned, but does not hold when the wires are fanned in any other spread. For my personal playing style I adjust the wire fan to achieve the dynamic level appropriate for each song, as well as to achieve the staccato or legato level I want. Unfortunately, these brushes do not support my playing style. They may, however, be perfect for you since brushwork is probably the most personalized technique in drumming.

The Vic Firth Steve Gadd Signature Brush is an interesting design that I feel falls short of its stated design goals, but turns out to be perfect for a different application.

This brush is advertised as being ideal for preventing brush wires from catching on new, coated drum heads. The design feature that allows that is a bend at the ends of the bristles. Frankly, that idea makes no sense because you can very lightly run 400 grit over a new, coated head and immediately break the head in for brush playing. Another problem with the intended use is once a head was broken in by the bent bristles, it starts to wear very quickly - a double whammy!

On the other hand, this brush is perfect for calf heads or heads designed to simulate calf, such as the Remo Skyntone head that I use on some of my snare drums, or my alternate choice, the Remo Fiberskyn. Those heads have a very subtle, calf skin like texture (the Skyntone even simulates pore holes) that are good for ballads with regular brushes, but sometimes too subtle for other styles. These brushes, though, are perfect for those heads.

I have also tried these brushes out on Remo Renaissance heads with excellent results.

The balance and feel are not the same as my much preferred RegalTip brushes (every model I've used seems to have great balance and feel), but that is a personal preference. You may wind up loving they way these feel. I have a few snare drums outfitted with calf, Skyntone and Fiberskyn heads, so I always keep a pair of these brushes in one of my stick bags. For those heads these are perfect.

And last, but not least, the Pro Mark TB6 retractable model will wrap up this entire series on brush models.

I purchased a pair of these brushes when they were on sale to check them out. I am normally a loyal RegapTip brush fan, but I do have a few other brands. I'll compare this pair to its closes competitors:

Compared to the RegalTip 596R Jeff Hamilton Brushes this pair is slightly lighter than the Jeff Hamilton model, and does not have the same weight. However, the diameter and length are fairly close. Also, while the Jeff Hamilton model has heavy wires, this one has heavier wires. I use the Jeff Hamilton brushes occasionally (depending on which stick bag I grab) and despite the differences, in a live playing situation I doubt you would know the difference once you started concentrating on the music.

It stacks up better against a popular model, the Vic Firth Heritage model (in my opinion). I prefer the feel and balance of the Pro-Mark over that one, and I think the wires sweep and tap better. They are both approximately the same size.

Ending note: Like sticks, choosing the right brush is a personal matter, so factor that in when you are considering my comments in all three of the posts in this series. What is important to me may not be to you.

Monday, May 28, 2012

A few great examples of brushwork

I was going to follow up to my last two posts about brushes, Giving the brush off (Part 1) and Part 2, but decided that so many posts about brush models would make some folks puke. Instead, I am going to post a few video clips of what I consider to be great brushwork to inspire those who want to improve, as well as to possibly pique the interest of those who may otherwise think they are passe implements.

If you want particulars on who and where of each performance contact me.

Cool stuff? I think so. Each of those clips has inspired me. However, they can be intimidating too. And, I will admit that many drummers who visit here could not care less about jazz.

This next clip is not slick, nor does it contain a compelling example of brush playing. What it does show, though, is how they work with blues and blues-oriented rock (early Rolling Stones in this example).

That is me on the right with brushes. The drummer on the left with the sticks also has a jazz background, so we were able to work together without stepping on each other. This was recorded outside with the only mic being the one built into the camcorder - and you can still hear the brushes. Voila! Real world example.

Credits: Stingray's on Beach Street, Daytona Beach, FL on April 13, 2011. Video shot by Thomas Colella III. Left to Right: Sam Church (guitar), Ryan Ribeiro (drums), Joe Pappalardo (bass), Donna Sweeney (vocals), Mike Tarrani (drums), Kane Miller (guitar)

Enjoy. In my next post I will provide even more brush models and my thoughts. Hopefully this post will show why I love playing them.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Clamps and goosenecks for positioning mics

In Cheap, but surprisingly good, microphones I mentioned a clamp and gooseneck for positioning the mics. Here are some illustrations of those useful (and inexpensive) tools. This may be especially useful information to those of you who play with brushes because a well positioned mic can often greatly enhance your performance.

In the photos I have provided a few different viewing angles, but have labeled the three main components consistently in each shot. They are:

  1. Nady DM70 Drum and Instrument Microphone
  2. Microphone gooseneck
  3. Microphone extension clamp
Photo 1 - view from the drum throne

That is probably not the position you would want for component 1, the DM 70 mic, which should be a little higher and aimed around 30 degrees to the center of the snare drum. However, this show clearly shows the leeway the gooseneck, 2, gives you for positioning the mic. Also note that the extension clamp, 3, is attached to a heavy-duty Pearl hi-hat stand. The tube on that stand is probably as thick as any you will encounter on hi-hat, cymbal or even snare drum stands, so the clamp is up to the task.

Photo 2 - view from the right front facing the drummer

A different angle of the mic, gooseneck and the extension clamp to show just how far the extension clamp extends out and how long the gooseneck is. There is plenty of leeway for positioning that mic just about anywhere over the snare drum, or even over the hi-hats. Also, note that there is actually room on the hi-hat stand tube to accommodate an additional clamp and gooseneck combination. This would allow you to individually mic either the hi-hat and snare drum, or the snare drum and hi-hat combined, with the other mic for the rack tom.

Photo 3 - A closer view that shows more of the extension clamp

I hope this clarifies what I took to be self-explanatory comments in Cheap, but surprisingly good, microphones. Enjoy.