November 2002

CLE Drums

If you’re looking for a set of drums with dry-sounding components that offer instant separation and less than immediate response, stay away from these drums. CLE drums are clearly designed to resonate with each other to produce an aural blend that draws the sound together, making a drum set what it should be: one instrument.

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CLE Drums

Though these drums are visually refined and elegant, drum-maker Michael Latini focuses on their sound and feel. The kit I received consisted of a 5 1/2 by 14-inch snare, a 9 by 12 mounted tom, a 12 by 14 floor tom and a 15 by 20 bass drum. To my ears, these drums are reminiscent of ’50s and ’60s Gretsch, with a touch of WFL tossed in. In other words, they’re meant to be played acoustically in a wide variety of situations.

I was lucky enough to play and hear these drums in more than a dozen settings, from a cavernous tile- and brick-lined club to the sterile environment of a drum booth. They never ceased to sound warm and wide open. Even though they always sympathetically vibrate, they never sound muddy. The stick response is as easy as bouncing a ball, and the drums also feel good with brushes, unlike so many newer drums that don’t seem to want to wake up unless you pound them with sticks.

The first time I encountered CLE drums, veteran Washington, D.C.-area drummer Mike Shepherd was playing them in an outdoor concert. I was standing in front of Shepherd, playing vibes and remember being engulfed in the drum sound without noticing any lack of clarity or strain from the instrument. That’s very rarely the case when there is nothing for the sound to bounce off of. Shepherd likes his drums tuned low, with coated Ambassadors on the batter side and Diplomats on the bottom. He feels he can achieve his bottomy, resonant sound on these drums better than on any he has played in his 40-year career.

When I played the CLE drums in the studio, they spoke clearly on the recording in a quintet setting. Even legendary engineer Jim Czak spontaneously remarked on how nice they sounded. The drums sing beautifully when tightened up, too. I prefer a higher-pitched sound and the drums still sounded unchoked and resonant that way, especially on a trio gig in a club. CLE drums also possess the rare quality of being able to blend with the sound of the other instruments.

Latini logged three years of research, experimentation and professional use to refine his approach to making his dream drum. He has succeeded in creating a very musically pure sounding instrument, and the fact that he uses Keller maple shells doesn’t hurt, either. Latini has worked with the bearing-edge cut to provide maximum head-to-shell contact that no doubt contributes to the considerable sustain these drums produce. I was especially impressed by the bass drum’s ability to produce a pronounced boom or just shadow the bass player.

I like the hardware very much too. Though RIMS mounts are standard on all toms, the set I used had a shell mount and floor tom legs, which I prefer. These Gibraltar shell mounts do exactly what you need without being overly heavy or bulky. The snare strainer is made by Nickel Drumworks. This strainer is a beautiful, simple, lightweight piece of machinery in itself. The throw-off is as smooth as you could want it. The unique round lugs actually contribute to the resonance. Latini wanted something distinctive but no-nonsense, and “less is more” is where he is coming from every step of the way. The lugs are concaved against the drum using no sound-eating gasket but rather conforming perfectly to the shell. This provided a surprise result: the lug vibrates with the drum itself.

The finishes are only as limited as your imagination. The high-gloss lacquer “Charity Blue” finish on the drums I was using is quite handsome and unusual. In addition to an array of unlimited high-gloss finishes, CLE offers a satin oil varnish at a lower price that provides more protection against flying beer, spilled coffee or pouring rain. Latini even custom made a painted silver sparkle finish.

Even though Latini likes to keep it simple, he’ll custom make a drum of any dimension to help capture the sound and look you are going for. The price range of these drums is comparable to that of many other independent drum makers and probably a little under some of the larger high-end companies. CLE sells only through private, independent dealerships.

I thoroughly enjoyed playing these drums.

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