Some while ago I was at a major drum manufacturer’s annual dealer day. The star endorsees line up and too it in turns to blast us with the new products. Endorsee eA’ played the budget kit and endorsee eB’ played the expensive one. A dealer sitting next to me leaned over and said, iThey’ve shot themselves in the foot thereOe” Why’s that, I asked? iWell, the cheaper kit sounds better than the expensive one.” Oh dear.
This is a peculiar thing about drums, and a puzzle for many drummers. The sound of a kit relies on many variables, not least the expertise and touch of the player. I’ve always felt that, whit it’s possible to recognize a clear difference between, say, the sound of a Fender Stratocaster guitar and a Gibson Les Paul, it’s impossible to listen to a record and say that’s a Gretsch drum kit, or that’s a Mapex drum kit. But it is possible to say, with some certainty, that’s Max Roach, Ginger Baker, Stewart Copeland or Tony Williams.
A player’s sound is his or her trademark and is as distinctive as a singer’s voice. This is true of all good instrumentalists. So if a cheap kit can sound as good as an expensive kit, is there any point in shelling out all that extra money? Quite definitely, yes. There is a difference in sound between a good budget kit and a massively expensive kit, although it’s actually quite small. (It’s not just drums: how many classical music buffs can really tell the difference between a Stradivarius and a modern good quality violin?) Great musicians have their own sound; irrespective of what brand instrument they play.
But buying the best possible instrument enables that performer to realize his or her own sound to its fullest. Like driving a car, it’s when you get behind the wheel that you really appreciate the difference. I would humbly suggest that today’s professional drums are characterized more by the similarities in their sound than the differences. This is meant as a compliment. What I’m really saying is that they’ve all got their acts together and there are no real duds.
They all make accurately rounded shells with decent bearing edges and they all use birch or maple. You can argue that one make is a little better than the next, but frankly no one is going to know except, possible, you the player, and only when you’ve been on intimate terms with the drums for a while. Certainly if you go to a concert it won’t make the slightest difference whether the drummer’s playing Sonor, Pearl, Brady or Brady or Orange County. What will make a difference is whether the drummer’s any good. (And whether you can hear him through the wall of PA gear.) So what are you spending your money on?
How do you make a choice? And crucially, how does each manufacturer go about persuading you their product is, after all, the best? Well, lest I appear too cynical, I certainly do think sound comes into the equation when we’re making our decision. The problem is that until you’ve taken the drums out on half a dozen gigs in different rooms it’s very difficult to make a valid assessment, to know whether you’re going to be happy with them in the long term. Which is not to say that you can’t infer from the design and build quality, which make has the best chance of sounding good, of being easy to tune, of being reliable and of offering maximum resonance with a convivial timbre.
In the end, my belief is that choice mostly comes down to which kit you like the look of best, which kit has the coolest image, and which is played by the drummers you most admire. And ultimately, which kit you can afford. After all this, you can only hope that it will sound as good as your fervent expectations. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, either. The most expensive kits may not sound that much different, but they look a million dollars. And this is not to be sniffed at. In the entertainment world, image counts for a great deal.
And when you are contemplating forking out a large wad for a new instrument, the way it looks is extremely important. Time was when drum companies made two lines: student and professional. Today the choice is much greater, with different gradations within each of the main classifications: beginner, middle and top. Now we have reached the top end of the scale and we find the same spread we’ve seen in the starter and middle ranges.
If anything, the top end is the broadest, in the sense that it starts at under $1,000 and goes up to four or five times that amount just for a five piece kit. The reason for this is that at the lower top-end the companies want to minimize the leap from their increasingly good, and ever cheaper, budget lines. While at the very top end, the only way they can differentiate is to make ever more exclusive and luxurious kits. Somewhere in the middle are the top line kits for the eaverage’ punter. So we have at least three levels again.
As an illustration, Mapex has the Saturn Pro series as its first etop’ line, then the Orion Classic, which in turn is topped by the Deep Forest series, in 100 percent cherry or walnut. Tama has its Starclassic Performer, Starclassic Maple and limited edition Exotix. Sonor has its S Class Pro, Delite and Designer.
Traditionally the big difference between middle and top levels would be that the top line kit had 100 percent premium hardwood shells with a choice of stunning finishes. And to set the kit off there would be a third, top, level of hardware which would usually be the heaviest, ensuring that it could withstand the most demanding touring schedule. But, as we’ve seen, no sooner are any refinements added to the top line than the pressure is on to introduce them in the budget lines. Pacific, the budget arm of DW, has 100 per cent maple and birch shells, while many other middle bracket kits already have resonance-enhancing mounted tom toms and lacquered finishes rather than wraps. These luxuries are possible because the manufacturing base, for the metalwork at least, has moved out of America, Europe and Japan to Taiwan and China. This is the pattern we’ve seen throughout all the lower ranges and it is now also true of the top ranges.
The product designers in the USA, Japan and Europe make up 3D CAD (computer aided design) models of every part, and simply wire them over to the Far East where the parts are made. I’m told there’s no need any more even to make up prototypes. The Far Eastern workshops send the parts back for assembly in the home country, where they’re bunged on to the shells. Increasingly, manufacturing trades are being lost in the first world countries, but the result is that we drummers are getting better drums at cheaper prices every year.