Saturday, July 21, 2012

Dynamics and Sound Levels - part 1

In earlier posts I opened the door to this discussion. Specifically, Some Quick Tips (tempos and dynamics) introduced the notion of dynamics, while Drummer Apps for Androids touched upon sound pressure levels (SPLs) as they relate to decibels.

This post will discuss dynamics as they relate to music. I am going to cover the absolute basics to lay the foundation for tying it all together in future posts.

The goal is to make you aware of some fundamental characteristics of your instrument, and how to use those characteristics to their best advantage.

Characteristics: drums are not [normally] a melodic instrument. While you can play the melody - see More Quick Tips (fills, dynamics and melody) - you are not concerned with the melody as a series of tones with specific note values. That is not to say that the two elements of a melody, pitch and rhythm, are unimportant. They are. In fact, pitch is one of the fundamental characteristics of your instrument. The rhythm is what you, the drummer, provides. Here is what your instrument brings to the ensemble and what you should know how to accomplish:

  • Dynamics - the ability to play between very soft and very loud.
  • Note style - staccato to legato (short and sharp to long and drawn)
  • Change in dynamics, such as crescendo or going from soft to loud in a continuous, smooth build-up or the opposite called diminuendo. Those are gradual changes; there is also a sudden change, called subito, that would be a cymbal crash (as one example).
For the remainder of this post I am going to discuss dynamics and how they are expressed. Let me emphasize that dynamics are relative. Here is one way of marrying the terminology to the definition, using an illustration that Demetri Music has generously placed into the public domain:

Ignore Velocity, which is not germane to this discussion, and compare the values expressed as P and F, and combinations of those, to the relative loudness those values represent.

Please note (and remember) that the table is truly relative. When applied to loud, amplified music, PPP could actually be construed to be yelling while FFF could be as loud as a jackhammer.

P stands for Piano and means soft. Repeating it is the same as saying very; i.e., PP would be very soft, and PPP would be very, very soft. The same applied to F, Forte, which means loud (FF meaning very loud and FFF meaning very, very loud.) The two designations - mp and mf - stand for mezzo-piano and mezzo-forte where mezzo means medium or moderately.

At this point you have three things:

  1. A list of the fundamental characteristics of your instrument
  2. An introduction to the basics of dynamics and their relative nature
  3. A basic vocabulary with which to express dynamic levels within a dynamic range
In my next post I'll provide definitions of note styles and changes, and start to tie them together with examples. In the meantime, carefully study the dynamics employed by Papa Jo Jones in this video:

Friday, July 20, 2012

What is "The Best"?

Every time I check my logs for this blog there is at least one visitor who arrived via a search engine query looking for The best .... Most of the time it's the best snare drum, or, on occasion the best cymbal or even the best head. No matter what the specific search, it boils down to gear and usually gear that will make the visitor a better drummer. It's interesting that this blog typically attracts nearly ten times more visitors than its companion blog, Music for Drummers. Frankly, that blog contains listening recommendations that are more likely to make one a better drummer than all of the gear discussed in this blog!

If you've taken the time to peruse this blog you know that I have some pretty good drum kits, as well as some highly desirable snare drums. Here is one example of a kit I routinely play out with:

Certainly there is nothing to complain about with that kit, which is described in this post (the snare drum is a single-ply, olive ash shell snare drum tha Kevin Smee built for me.) One would think that the drums (or the cymbals - or both) were the most important components. Not really so.

For one thing, it truly is all about the drummer. And as a drummer who has played some sorry backline kits, such as the one shown below, I can attest that the drums and cymbals are not the most important pieces to a great sound. Not by a long shot. Imagine yourself behind this kit:

Aside from the acoustics of playing outdoors and your own touch on the instrument, what do you think are the most important factors for playing your best?

Answer: pedals that actually work, and heads that still have some life in them. Most drummers are on a quest for gear that will make them sound good. That part, though, is up to the drummer. So what are the barriers to sounding good? Remove those and you will - with proper skills and technique - sound good. Here are the barriers as I see them:

  • Bass drum pedal and/or hi-hat stand issues; i.e., sticks, too much slop in movement, etc.
  • Other hardware broken or in need of servicing. Examples here are bass drum spurs that will not hold the bass drum in place, brackets that will not completely tighter or have restricted movement, and tension rods that are rusted, stripped or missing.
  • Lifeless (or missing) heads. Note the backline kit I am pictured behind in the above photo. The resonant heads are missing on the toms. The other problem with that kit and a barrier to any kit is heads that have been pounded on by people with drum sticks who are not actually drummers (even if they claim to be.) Dead giveaways are heads that have what appears to be moon craters on the surface, or are so stretched that you cannot tension them evenly when trying to tune them.
Those are the major issues with any drum kit. Note that I have not mentioned anything about the quality of the drums. Even cheap drums can be made to sound good if the barriers mentioned above have been dealt with, they are properly tuned, and the drummer employs good technique. In fact, very low end kits can be easily and inexpensively modified and tweaked to sound like a much more expensive kit.

Conversely, even the most expensive kit can be brought down to the level of a super-low end kit by stuffing blankets, pillows or other resonance-killing material in a bass drum, and/or using moongel and sound rings on the other drums head. If you must use stuff like that, then you are wasting your money if you purchase any of the high end kits or snare drums, like those made by Craviotto, DW, and the like.

Trust me, it is not the gear as much as the drummer and his or her skills at tuning and playing them. Going forward I am going to post less about gear in this blog and more about technique and the care and maintenance of drums, while I concentrate most of my writing and sharing in Music for Drummers. As promised (or threatened, depending on your interest level), my next post will cover dynamics, which was touched upon in this post about tempos and dynamics, and in this short piece that introduced decibels and sound pressure levels.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Zildjian Armand 19" and A. Zildjian & Cie "Vintage" series

I recently stumbled upon Chip Stern's excellent review of, and thoughts on what he considers to be outstanding offerings in Zildjian's A-series line.

I certainly concur with him since I own a full set of the A. Zildjian & Cie "Vintage" series as well as a full set of Armands. At the time Chip wrote this piece only the 19" Beautiful Baby ride was being offered. Now you can purchase a full set of Armand cymbals for a pretty nice price.