NAMM on the Run
Traversing the corridors of the Summer 2000 NAMM Show in Nashville, Tenn., I was suitably impressed by a number of kits I played in a cursory manner which certainly rate an audition on your part if you’re in the market for a new drum set. Of course the caveat is that, given the size of the hall and the lack of acoustic or resonant surfaces, everything tends to sound good, and a lot of the effluvia you’d normally hear is masked. Be that as it may, I encountered an extravagant big double-bass kit in a beautiful translucent turquoise wood finish (with a matching wood snare) at the Pearl booth. This new Pearl Export Select represents as good a value as I’ve ever encountered in an affordable drum kit. The sound was round, focused and melodic, with an atypically rugged, sensible set of hardware (stands, pedals and a drum throne). And while stepping up to more robust drum sets will offer greater degrees of volume and projection, this is a no-compromise ready-to-gig drum set, and at only $1,299 list ($1,399 with a serviceable, if generic, set of B8 cymbals), the Pearl Export Select is a real no-brainer for an entry level, professional five-piece kit.
I was quite taken by the enormous tom-tom sound of the Radial Pro 1000 drum kit at the Peavey booth. Fitted with Aquarian Classic Clears drum heads, these were some of the fattest, warmest, most musical sounding tom-toms I’ve ever heard. Slack tuned they had an enormous low end; fully tensioned for a jazz-type bounce and added stick control, they retained a warm, full glow. They employ a very thin, unstressed three-ply maple shell, suspended between a pair of patented radial bridges carved from solid maple (drums in the less expensive Radial Pro 751 and 501 series employ bridges molded from a composite material). The tension of the lugs (and RIMS mounting hardware) that would normally be channeled through the shell is instead conducted through the bridges. In fact, the bright, snappy Pro 1000 snare drum is essentially a solid 13/4-inch maple shell crafted from two radial bridges. The upshot of this innovative technology is that the Radial Pro kits look like the percussive spawn of the Pillsbury Dough Girl and the Michelin Man, and many drummers may not get past their novel appearance, which is shame, because considering the system resonance, solid build quality, lustrous finish and quality hardware, the $4,000 list Radial Pro 1000 is a serious five-piece kit.
Ivor Arbiter has spent years perfecting his Arbiter AT tuning system, which essentially controls the plastic drumhead with uniform tension around its entire circumference, tuning being accomplished with a single screw. The hoops seemed to be mounted on a single hinge, allowing rapid head changes and accurate tuning on the fly-quite logical and ingenious, when you think about it. The Arbiter AT tuning system and the Rails Isolation Mounting System allow for the use of thin, resonant, unstressed maple shells, and the drums I played had a rich, open sound, especially the snare. I can’t really say conclusively how well this system would work out in the field, and the tuning surface around the hinge gives me pause, but this is an exciting concept.
Yamaha is getting ready to update their clever Hipgig series with the introduction later this fall of an Al Foster Signature Hipgig Sr. kit, a really lively sounding set of 7-ply wooden drums (birch and Philippine mahogany) which features a Jaguar polymer covering. The 18-inch diameter bass drum is 22 inches deep, and it opens up like a suitcase, which allows you to store both the shallow 81/2-inch x 14-inch and 61/2-inch x 12-inch toms and the 5-inch x 13-inch snare drum inside the drum, which is then housed in a soft case, while the remaining hardware fits in another small case. Add a cymbal bag and you’re ready to gig. The use of a pipe post stabilizer allows you to adjust the height of the bass drum so that the bass drum beater strikes in the middle of the head, and as fitted with a Remo Powerstroke 3, it had a nice percussive bounce and a tight jazzy resonance. Retail should come in around $2,400 list.
Can’t wait for the Al Foster Signatures to come in, or you’d rather employ your own snare and more traditionally configured shell depths? Well, Barry Greenspon’s Drummer’s World on West 46th Street in midtown Manhattan offers beautifully finished, maple shell, three-piece suitcase kits beginning at $995. Available in either a 14-inch x 18-inch (with 8-inch x 10-inch and 12-inch x 14-inch toms) or a 14-inch x 20-inch (with 9-inch x 13-inch and 14-inch x 15-inch toms) bass drum configurations, the small tom nests in the floor tom and the floor tom nests in the bass for a solid, on-the-go jazz kit.
As a rule, when going to work on a strange kit, most drummers cover their bets by bringing along their own bass drum pedal, snare drum and cymbal bag. That’s because in terms of tone, timbre and touch, cymbals and snare drums are the most illuminating components with which to stake your claim to a personal sound signature. Recently, I auditioned a number of different cymbals and snare drums in my home studio, and while hardly an exhaustive survey, it’s a good introduction to the subject.
The hundreds upon thousands of drummers who came of age listening to ’60s rock and ’70s jazz-fusion fueled an insatiable demand for cymbals. As manufacturers strove to increase production yields, and drummers strained to match the intense new volume levels, the tendency was to employ heavier and heavier cymbals. And nothing was heavier than the Zildjian Earth Ride, an unhammered, unlathed shield of raw bronze that was as heavy as an anvil. Then at an early ’80s NAMM Show, Paiste introduced a line of prototype Rude Cymbals, which in their original configuration were visceral, medium-lightweight, nimble-sounding jazz cymbals (made from their Formula 2002, B8 bronze), but in their final form they were marketed as big, brash, extra heavy instruments for the nosebleed set. Sabian later introduced a hand-hammered though unlathed Leopard Ride, which while a step in the right direction, was still fairly heavy, as were the original Jack DeJohnette Signature Cymbals.
However, as tuning and miking techniques have became more advanced, and drummers more sophisticated and discerning in their use of cymbals, the watchword is no longer heavy, but dry and light, as reflected in Sabian’s introduction of the Jack DeJohnette Encore Cymbals series and their line of Duo Rides and a number of Zildjian’s K. Custom models, all of which employed varying degrees of hammering, lathing and finishing.
Among the newer cymbals introduced during this summer’s NAMM Show, the Sabian AA Raw Rides were among the most intriguing, and seem to suggest that in some cases the less you do to a cymbal, the better. The 20-inch and 22-inch AA Raw Rides models I tested are essentially cymbal tadpoles just as they emerge from the hydraulic press after their final tempering process. These AA Raws are light years thinner and more pliant than the old Earth Rides and Leopards. They flex easily in your hand, are very low-pitched, and have a tight, chewy feel, almost like super-taut animal skin, so that the bead of the stick doesn’t produce a sparkling ting, but a muted tah. Anywhere you strike the surface of these Raw Rides you get the same stick tone and dynamic, and as the bell is not really articulated from the body of the cymbal by any sort of hammering, it is not a very functional sound; still, as a secondary/change-of-pace cymbal, the Raw Rides play and feel like a much warmer version of a flat ride, with a short, dark, percussive crash.
By contrast, the 22-inch K. Zildjian Custom Dry Light Ride and the 21-inch Sabian JoJo Mayer Signature Fierce Ride employ various styles of hammering to achieve a dry character with little if any overtone buildup. The K. Dry Light Ride is over-hammered front and back with small hammer peens, in an emulation of the more or less random hand hammering of the workers in the old Istanbul foundries. This confers a certain temper to the metal; Zildjian then employs a hammer with a much larger, rounder peen on the top surface to lower the overall profile of the cymbal, and as it is not lathed, this low-pitched instrument possesses an appealing combination of body, projection and midrange warmth. The K. Custom Light Dry Ride yields a discrete wash of overtones, but with minimal buildup, for a solid stick sound; what’s more, you can bring the volume down to ballad levels with short, tight quarter-note stickings. On the other hand, where the Dry Light Ride is warm and tight, Sabian’s Fierce Ride is full and lively. Lighter and less densely hammered, it flexes easily in your hand, and when you ride on it, the edges wobble in an oscillating manner Papa Jo Jones used to refer to as “dancing devils.”
Sabian also employs an extra-large, round hammer peen-with an emphasis on hammer strikes from the bottom up-to give this nonlathed cymbal a much higher profile and a lumpy look. The Fierce Ride is very low-pitched and tightly coiled like a spring, but with a fairly dry, hollow sound-as if you had scooped out all the midrange to emphasize highs and lows. I was able to get a tight, snappy stick attack with an exceptionally sweet bell sound. As there is no appreciable wash or overtone buildup, the Fierce Ride is a slaphappy citizen, and I was able to employ vigorous side-stick accents to achieve complex rhythmic patterns and short, fat crash accents. Sabian’s accompanying Fierce Crashes share the family hammering style but are shallowly lathed, and the 16-inch and 18-inch models evinced a broad attack, smooth decay and a gassy, low-end spread.
Besides dry and light, the most important other concept to understand in turn-of-the-century cymbal jargon is vintage. Paiste really put this notion on the map con gusto a couple of years back with the introduction of a Traditional class of cymbals crafted from their patented new bronze alloy. This superb series of rides, crashes and hi-hats didn’t so much recreate as redefine and codify the sound of those great hand-hammered bebop and big-band archetype cymbals of the ’40s and ’50s, instruments we might readily identify with the recordings of Art Blakey, Elvin Jones, Steve Gadd and Tony Williams. These new cymbals played like your favorite drummer’s best old cymbals, all broken in and mellowed from 40 years of continuous, loving use.
To that end, Paiste continues its quest for signature sounds with the introduction of three new Traditional cymbals, the 20-inch and 22-inch Medium-Light Swish, and a 20-inch Medium Chinese Swish. The Medium-Light Swish cymbals sound and feel like a cross between vintage A. swish and pang cymbals, but with a soft, buttery attack, a warm, breathy wash of overtones and a welcome lack of top-end sibilance. They’re quite sensitive to a light stick, with a creamy crash sound and a gently blossoming rise-time-making them ideal for delicate ride patterns. The 22-inch sort of reminds me of Mel Lewis’ old swish knocker, and seems oven-ready for rivets. If the 20-inch Medium-Light Swishes hiss and moan, then the 20-inch Medium Chinese Swish shouts and roars like a cross between a swish and the traditional Wuhan province, square bell-Chinese cymbal. This is still a fairly warm sounding cymbal, but there’s more bite to the transients, a faster rise-time to crashes, and more pronounced presence in the upper midrange, which confers greater immediacy to crash patterns. But unlike most oriental-style cymbals, there’s nothing harsh, abrasive or overly metallic about the Paiste Medium Chinese Swish.
Finally, when speaking of vintage cymbals, all roads inevitably return to Zildjian, which in one form or another has been at it continuously since 1623. Their response to the Paiste Traditionals has been to supplement their K. Zildjian Line with a new series of K. Constantinople rides, crashes and hi-hats. Like the old over-hammered Turkish K.s that inspired them, if you examine a sampling in your shop, you’ll find some that leave you cold and others that will blow your mind. The new K. Zildjian Constantinople 24-inch Light Ride I tested looks like a lion but plays like a lamb (well, a very passive-aggressive woolster at that). Most of the 24-inch cymbals I’ve ever played took off on me like a runaway train. But this K. 24-inch Light Ride, for all the depth, richness and sizzle-cymbal-like complexity of its overtones, is incredibly focused and controllable. The cymbal seems to be flanged downwards and lathed to form a thin outer lip, which acts as a firewall to control overtones-it’s slightly rippled, like the old Paiste Sound Edge High-Hat Bottoms. Oh, sure, you can get it to build up to a nice controlled roar, but it never takes off on you; you can downshift back into a tight, centered stick sound within the space of a beat, and the big bell is like crystal. This is one of the best ride cymbals I’ve ever heard-it makes you want to play.
So too does the new (well, new/old style) line of A. Zildjian & Cie Vintage Crash Cymbals, which are meant to recreate the quick, shimmering, melodious sound of ’30s A. Zildjian crashes as employed by the likes of Gene Krupa, Papa Jo Jones, Chick Webb and Davey Tough. Though I would stop short of characterizing the 14-inch, 15-inch and 16-inch Vintage crashes I played as authentic, they were very satisfying. In a sense, like the Paiste Traditionals, the Vintage crashes are modern retro instruments that evoke an idealized, perfected vision of a vintage cymbal. I have an ancient 14-inch A. Zildjian crash, and it is much thinner, with a lower profile and a different style of cup. But the style of drumming and the weight of sticks employed back then were fundamentally different, and most modern drummers would bust this old crash. And while the new Vintage crashes are a heavier, high profile design, they have the old sound in triplicate: short and sweet with a cool rounded attack, and an open, airy quality that is indeed a throwback compared to the more aggressive metallic zing of contemporary crashes. Still, they each demand a good solid whack with the stick to really open up and project, yet they cut out quickly enough that you can play syncopated phrases on them without overlap or buildup.
Snares Along the Mohawk
To me, while snare drums are not quite as ineluctable and mystical as cymbals, they run a very close second. I have a half dozen snares, so it was with consid
erable interest that I began surveying modern snare drums.
All the drums I tested were well engineered, musically satisfying and responsive, but initially I found myself drawn to the versatility and expressive range of the metal shell drums, possibly from force of habit. Drawn from its Precious Metal Series, the 6-inch x 14-inch Mapex ST4653D Snare Drum features a stainless-steel shell with a polished steel finish, plus die cast hoops with a chrome finish, while the 4-inch x 14-inch Pearl MS-4014 Marvin “Smitty” Smith Signature Snare Drum features a copper shell, gold-plated Pearl CL-05 lugs and Super Hoop II (even the strainer is gold-plated, and the snares colored to match). Both were fitted with coated white Remo Ambassadors on top and clear Ambassadors on the bottom (as was every other snare I tested), and feature simple, quiet snare strainers and throw-offs-though the Pearl is of a more traditional design, while the Mapex offers a G-style throw-off with dual tension adjustments.
I was quite taken by the lively feel, depth of tone and tuning range of both drums, each of which seemed equally responsive whether cranked up high or drop-tuned low, without any appreciable loss of clarity or definition. The differing tonal effect of the metals employed to make these drums is quite striking. Stainless steel has a bright, sweet, slightly edgy character, while copper has a warm, full, lushly rounded signature. Both had terrific projection and responded beautifully to a variety of stickings. They differed sonically in that the Mapex had a sizzling, wide-open quality and delicate left-hand figures seemed to come out a touch more detailed; while Smitty’s Pearl model, given its shallower dimensions, had a darker, more controlled character, which translated into terrific articulation on rolls (a real mellow low-end moan on press rolls) and a distinctive woody shout on rim shots. With list prices in the mid-$400s, both are terrific all-purpose drums.
By contrast I found the two wood shell Yamaha Signature Series Snare Drums to have much more specialized performance parameters. That is to say the optimum articulation and tonal response occurred over a more narrow tuning range. Which took some getting used to, but once I let go of my preconceptions and addressed each snare drum’s area of strength, my playing began to flow and I happily went where each drum took me-which was really quite a trip on the percussive namesakes of two master drummers. The 7-inch x 14-inch MSD1470EJ Elvin Jones Model and the new 6-inch x 14-inch ASD1460BC Billy Cobham Model are extraordinarily sensitive, responsive instruments that employ maple shells and 19-ply maple hoops, differing in that Elvin’s drum employs ten tuning lugs and a 7-ply/7mm shell, while Billy’s is a 6-ply/6mm shell with eight lugs and an extended style of snares featuring an H-type strainer on the release side, a G-type on the butt side, and dual snare guides. Elvin’s model is done up in gold sparkle with small, gold-plated lug casings, while the Cobham is silver-sparkle finished in chrome.
Both drums are much happier cranked to a higher pitch, and the stick response is swift and sure, and though the Cobham model has a thinner, shallower shell and only eight lugs, it consistently tuned at least a half-step higher than Elvin’s drum, with an almost symphonic response. Tweaking the two rotary snare adjustments to get a loose, grainy feel really opened things up. I found it amusing how much each drum suggested the personality of the player, and thus influenced my playing. The Cobham is incredibly easy to play fast patterns on, with a sweet, snappy sound, and while rebound on the Elvin is also quite brisk, this drum has a darker, livelier sound, and opens up in a more elemental manner. The Cobham sings, while the Elvin barks. I was particularly taken by the quality and variety of articulations I was able to achieve on or around the thick wooden hoops, and while neither of these drums project with the authority of the steel Mapex or copper Pearl, I was captivated by the tone color and natural feel. Still, they should prove plenty loud for any jazz application.