The great interest in wood choice began at the end of the 1970s, when lacquered finishes began to catch on. For a decade, plastic wrap finishes became almost obsolete on top-end drums. The often translucent finishes made the type and quality of wood much more apparent. In particular, Yamaha made the Recording Custom kit for Steve Gadd, and stressed the fact that it was a birch kit. Gadd was also the first great session superstar, and of course close attention to sound is essential in the studio. Birch, it was claimed, was the perfect wood for recording. It was a masterstroke of marketing and we all fell for it.
This despite the fact that virtually every great record in the previous history of recorded drumming had been made on maple or mahogany Gretsches, Ludwigs, Slingerlands and Rogers. Throughout the 1980s, lacquered kits with natural grain were all the rage. They were nearly all birch, and were made by the emerging Japanese companies, which put many of the historic American companies out of business. Then, during the 1990s, North American maple became popular again and coincided with the resurgence of American companies like Noble and Cooley and, in particular, Drum Workshop. Birch drums had been cheaper for the Oriental companies to make than maple and this added to their popularity. But by 1997, Pearl, for example, found birch had become as expensive as maple. So, with sales dropping off, it stopped producing its 100 per cent birch drums. The perception was that birch should be cheaper than maple.
Yamaha tackled the same problem by coming up with its Absolute series where birch and maple drums are the same price and you can mix them in the same kit. Quite a few Yamaha drummers now use a combination of maple bass drums for low-end power with birch small toms for added cut. This seems to be an emerging trend. Premier’s new Series drums are available in maple, birch or Gen-X birch/maple hybrid, all at the same price.
Pearl, meanwhile, has its Masters Custom series in which you can specify any combination maple, birch or mahogany in the ply make-up of each individual drum. So if you want your toms to have birch outer plies, mahogany inners and maple in the middle, you can. You may have heard birch described as sounding quieter and more focused, mahogany as warm, while maple is the unruly American cousin.
Maple and mahogany were the most popular woods of classic American drums and suited the era before miking-up where you needed the warmest, loudest, most open sounding kit possible. And maple drums became popular again in the 1990s when there was a return to 1960s ninfluenced retro-rock bands alongside a fashion for playing vintage drums. Birch is often said to be more controlled, and was perfect for the tight and punchy sound of the computerized and fusion-mad days of the 1980s.
Interestingly, birch is once more making something of a return today with the popularity of tighter dance/R&B grooves. So we can see there is a loose logic in the swinging fortunes of maple and birch under the influence of fashion and musical trends. The importance attached to choice of wood today reflects the intense scrutiny that modern recording and close miking places on your drums. But a word of warning: I’ve heard many completely contradictory statements about birch and maple from highly respected drummers.
The same words are sometimes used to describe them both. The sound a wood imparts is subtle, and different drummers hear it in different ways. I’m afraid there’s no clear-cut formula. What I would say is that however small an effect the type of wood has, you can hear a difference in sound between a birch and maple kit, particularly when you’re in the driver’s seat. Different people characterize it in different ways but for what it’s worth, my feeling is that maple is slightly warmer, louder and more open n ebangier’ n while birch is slightly more efocused’ and harder. This is the distinct impression I got many years ago when I first played my Yamaha RC 9000 birch kit, following several years of playing my Gretsch maple kit. I’ve still got both, and the longer I’ve had the Yamaha the warmer it sounds.
In fact both kits are maturing very nicely, and this points up another factor. Age is a major reason why vintage drums always seem to sound so good. I’ve also often heard birch described as brighter, with more cut, attack and projection, but slightly less resonance. However, not wanting to confuse the issue even more, it’s important to remember that the type of head you choose hugely affects the sound. When birch was most popular, in the 1980s, many drummers used double-ply Pinstripe heads, which themselves have a dark, controlled, attacking sound.
Then when maple resurged in the 1990s the trend was back to single-ply Ambassador heads, which have a much brighter, more resonant sound. It’s not unusual for shells to be made from a mixture of woods. In particular, budget shells often have cheap wood in the middle with a single, better ply on the inside and/or outside. But professional drums also sometimes have interesting hybrids. Mapex’s Saturn Pro Studio series is made up from four plies of maple on the outside with two plies of walnut on the inside.
And as we’ve seen, with Pearl’s Masters Custom series you can specify any combination of maple, birch and mahogany. This may point up another way forward for the manufacturers to tempt us in the near future. One final word on this admittedly complicated subject. Changing head types will have a greater effect on your sound than the type of wood used for your shells. Yet while you can always change your heads, once you’ve bought your drums you can’t change the wood.
The type of wood acts like a subtle EQ on your sound, imparting a flavor or fragrance, and like an expensive perfume it’s much prized and talked about. How you choose to bring out this flavor depends very much on your heads and tuning. This may be the main reason why different drummers seem to say contradictory things about these two fine woods. If it’s any consolation, either wood will give you a great drum kit.