March 2004

CLE Ratio Drum Kit

I won't pretend to understand what Michael Latini is talking about when he explains his "ratio" drum-building concept. My eyes glaze over and the sound of Coltrane starts to play in my head. But whatever it is, it works.

CLE stands for "Carol Latini Enterprises" (Michael's wife). R&D began in 1998 and the production shop officially opened February 19, 2002. Latini manufactures to customers' specific requests, assembly to finish. His prices are reasonable: between $3,600 and $3,700 for the great loaner set I played, with maple shells and a gorgeous high-gloss lacquer natural wood finish tentatively called "Redbeard." I measured the drums as a 12 3/4 x 18-inch bass, 4 x 13 snare, 10 x 14 floor tom and an 8 1/2 x 12 small tom. I was way off! The actual sizes are 13 1/2 x 18 bass (8-ply), a 4.875 x 13 10-ply snare, a 10 1/2 x 14 floor tom and a 9 x 12 rack tom (both 6-ply).

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CLE Ratio Drum Kit

According to Latini, there's "no rhyme or reason" to major companies' drum sizes: "I felt drums, being a cylindrical instrument, similar to the pipes of an old church organ, that the bigger a drum was, the longer it had to be. There had to be a balance there, to bring out the finest tones."

Through trial and error he found that drums with depths that measure 75 percent of their diameters "sing together better. I find [that they] ring not necessarily longer, but cleaner. The 80 percent are more rock 'n' roll, boxy, heavy." Around the 67 percent range-for instance, a traditional 8 x 12-inch-the drums "tend to ring off a little faster, a little bit more attack. But you're going to get more sustain from any of our drums." He's right: Although I love wide-open bass drums, I had to put a strip of muffling felt under the front bass drum head because this one was singing like crazy!

The snare drum ratio is 37 1/2 percent. (Half of 75-I was beginning to see a pattern emerging.) After a discussion about repeating sound waves, I became aware that Latini's grasp of sympathetic vibration, with his fanatical devotion to math and science, has led to building real drum sets rather than individual components. Latini spoke about the results obtained from switching out drums of different ratios and how such experiments affected the overall drum-set sound. As my experience with his kit proved, he is onto something.

In one concert, I substituted my own snare drum, and noticed a big difference when using the CLE snare drum with the kit two nights later at another concert in a very acoustically similar space. The entire set seemed to come alive harmonically; it had seemed somewhat choked when using my snare. While other manufacturers' drums cosmetically look like they constitute a "set," CLE drums sound as if they truly belong together. The resonance of the small tom enhances the sound of the floor tom and vice-versa, and both blend with the bass drum to create a drum-set choir, one in which any chosen drum may step out front and sing lead, but the backup voices are present, supportive and always in tune with each other. The snare, outfitted with a Nickel Drumworks strainer, had no dreaded dead spots, regardless of tuning range. It also possessed that "Bill Bruford" quality I love: you could hear the tom pitch even with the snares on. A formula applied to the insides of the shells enhances resonance without "tightening it up-there's no hard material in it, like lacquer or tung oil," Latini says. Lacquer would brighten the sound. CLE's proprietary "secret they'll never give away" warms it.

The first things I noticed, though, were the beautiful, unique lugs, recalling those little appliance light bulbs for ovens and refrigerators. Latini says he designed and engineered the lugs to accentuate the sound, rather than detract from it: "Hollow, die-cast lugs absorb a lot of the sound." He has them machined and milled at a local shop, and sent elsewhere for triple chrome plating, "so it has somewhat of a tuning fork effect-they actually resonate." The pedestals of the solid aluminum lugs are 75 percent the size of the ball. And the smaller lugs on the snare and toms are 75 percent the size of the larger bass drum lugs.

In fact, as you, dear reader, have probably deduced by now, this 75 percent ratio is a design constant throughout the set. In a nice esthetic touch, the hinged mounting brackets are also round. The bearing edges have a radius at the same rate as the heads (whatever that means). Without referring to nodal points, he says, "The lugs and the tom mounts are mounted where they sound the best-off the bearing edge. If you were to move them down a quarter of an inch, the drums would choke out a little bit. If you moved them up an eighth of an inch, it changes. It's a real small spot that these fit on without having a different effect. I don't know why."

I have the distinct feeling Michael Latini does indeed know exactly why but is more than smart enough to know that I wouldn't comprehend a word of it.

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