© 2008 Paradigm Drums
© 2008 Paradigm Drums
As a drum builder, I have become obsessed with figuring out how drum sound works. This is my attempt to lay out my current understanding of how drum sound works and how the various elements involved affect sound. I hope that it is useful to you when considering the elements of your own drums. My goal is to help things be a little more clear, but I realize that it may just have the effect of driving you more crazy than you already are and leading you ever further down the rabbit hole of obsession over the details of instruments. So be it. I have not said everything there is to say, but I have tried to cover what I think you need to know to make an utterly obsessed drum purchase. I have limited myself to discussing wood drums here, but the same principles will apply to metal, acrylic, or fiberglass drums as well.
I get pretty long-
I’d like to start by addressing a couple of pitfalls that drummers encounter when considering what instruments might be right for them. First off, there is no such thing as The Best Drum Sound; there is only the best sound for you, or the best sound for you in a given musical situation. Looking for The Best is an easy way to drive yourself crazy, because there is no right answer. People have many opinions on this matter, but I hold firmly to my position that they are opinions and nothing more. Sound is sound. How is one sound “better” than another sound? Sounds get considered better because people agree that they like one thing more than another. But what people like will vary depending on who you ask. So I say, do yourself a favor and stop asking the question “What is the best drum sound?” and start asking “What is the right drum sound for me?” This is a question that you might actually be able to answer, although likely only after years of experience and experimentation. If you don’t have years of experience, try limiting yourself to “What is the right sound for me right now?” rather than “What is the right sound for me forever?” What you like is likely to change. I find my own taste in sound still changing even after multiple decades of drum obsession. More on how to answer these questions later.
The second pitfall I feel the need to address is the idea that more expensive equals
better. If an instrument is more expensive it is either because it is more expensive
to produce or because the seller understands that there is greater perceived value
in the product, meaning a well-
Note that none of these elements that increase cost translate directly into a “better” instrument. It comes back to personal preferences. If you like the sound of one kind of wood better than another, then the increased cost may be worthwhile for you. Someone else may not like the sound better, making the less expensive option better for that person. The differences in price of my drums reflect differences in the cost of materials. Services that are labor intensive have a cost reflected in the price. But please, please try to not fall into the trap of thinking that one drum is better than another just because it costs more. You will be a happier drummer if you try to identify what is right for you rather than using price as a gauge for what is good. Some of my favorite drums are the least expensive I make. A drummer has three of my snares and was told by more than one person that the least expensive one was the best sounding snare they had ever heard. Go figure. Don’t shop by price. Find your sound.
Before getting into how the details of the drum itself affect the sound, it might be useful to point out that the things that have the biggest impact on sound are not the drums themselves. Selection of heads, tuning, the acoustics of room where the drums are played, and who is playing the drums all have huge effects on how the drums will sound. Also, the less seasoned among us often overlook the differences between acoustic drum sound behind the set, acoustic drum sound from the audience perspective, amplified drums sent through a P.A. controlled by a sound engineer, recorded drums processed in any number of ways by a recording engineer, and the sound of drums played alone vs. drums in the context of a band. A classic discouraging trap for less experienced players is to try in vain to perfectly emulate the drum sound off their favorite record, not realizing that the sounds coming through the speakers are very different from what they would experience if they sat down behind that exact kit in that exact studio and played.
Experienced players have had opportunities to play drums and then hear what they sound like to the audience when someone else plays them, to hear drums alone and in various musical settings, and to hear how the sound of acoustic drums change in various mic’d or recorded situations. If you don’t have that experience, ask for help from someone who does when trying to identify the elements of a particular drum sound. It takes time to get there.
Sound involves the transmission of energy in the form of vibration. This happens in several ways in a drum. When you strike the head with the stick, the head vibrates, making a sound. The movement of the head compresses the column of air inside the drum, putting outward pressure on the shell and the resonant head. Vibrations from the head are transmitted directly to the shell through the bearing edge and cause the shell (and in turn the resonant head) to vibrate. Sound waves travel back and forth between the heads and around the interior of the shell, creating sustain. All the hardware also vibrates, but the hoops move the most because they are in direct contact with the heads, and they affect how the heads themselves resonate.
Now consider how the various components just mentioned affect the sound.
The edge of the shell where it meets the head can be shaped a variety of ways, and the differences will affect the sound. The profile of the edge (e.g. rounded, double 45), the placement of the apex of the edge, and the width of the apex can all be adjusted independently in various combinations with varying results. A double 45 degree edge with a sharp apex allows for very free movement of the head, with minimal muffling caused by contact with the shell. This allows for ample head tone (sound from the head vs. the shell) and resonance. A fat, rounded edge allows for more energy to be directly transmitted from the head to the shell due to increased contact and to the angles and shapes of the surfaces making contact. This produces more shell tone vs. head tone. Also, the heads will resonate less due to the relatively greater muffling from increased contact with the shell. In general, sharper edges result in a more “wide open” sound with more sustain, and fatter, rounder edges result in a “warmer” sound, with lots of character and body but less sustain.
Does this mean than drums with 45 degree edges don’t sound warm, that they sound cold and heartless? No. We’re speaking in relative terms here. “This drum sounds warmer than that drum” is a different statement that “This drum sounds warm and that one doesn’t.” 45 degree edged drums can sound plenty “warm.” “Warmer” is just a way to try to characterize the difference in sound. Using words to describe sound is inherently tricky and insufficient. “Warmer” just gets us in the ballpark. You have to hear drums to get it.
I offer four basic edge profiles: double 45, fat roundover (w/inner 45), mini roundover
(w/inner 45), and single 45 with a micro-
The biggest factors of shell construction that affect drum sound are shell thickness, and the density and hardness of the materials. First, thickness: A thicker shell has more mass to vibrate than thinner shell of the same wood, so it will take more force to get it moving. A thicker shell will also hold firmer and flex less from the outward expansion of the column of air from the initial impact on the head. This puts more pressure on the resonant head than a thinner, more flexible shell would. These two factors mean that a thicker shell will create more head tone than a thinner shell of the same wood. Adding thickness to the area of the shell closest to the heads, in the form of reinforcement rings, adds stiffness to the edges, increasing head tone. A thinner shell that flexes more upon the initial impact creates that thick, thumpy, low end “boomf” sound in the attack. Some of that sound also can be created through loosely tuned heads, but thinner shells definitely have more of it than thicker shells. Thinner shells also can be vibrated more easily through contact with the head, creating more shell tone than thicker shells. All other factors being equal, thicker shells will be higher pitched than thinner shells. Thicker shells tend to be louder as well.
What qualifies as thick? Keller shells tend to make a good reference point, since
they are widely known to the drumming public. For toms: Keller 6-
On to shell density: A shell made from less dense wood will be easier to vibrate, but will move those vibrations less efficiently than a more dense wood. Also, a less dense wood will flex easier from the expansion of the column of air in the drum. These factors mean that a shell made from less dense wood will readily give more shell tone than a shell of the same thickness made of more dense wood. Poplar is a common wood used in shell construction that is less dense than the more predominant maple. Typically it is used as a center ply or plies in between plies of maple or mahogany.
Shell hardness: The hardness of a given wood affects the sound in a similar way to density. Harder woods vibrate more readily and flex less. Harder shells will be louder, too.
Density and hardness don’t always go hand in hand. For example, birch is denser than maple, but maple is harder than birch. This means that both woods have characteristics that might make one vibrate a little more than the other or flex more than the other. So how does that effect the sound? First off, both woods make great sounding drums with versatile characteristics. But there is a difference in sound. People tend to say that birch drums are “punchier” than maple. Perhaps when they say that they mean a little less sustain and a little more meat in the attack? Something like that. Describing sound with words is hard, and the difference between maple and birch is fairly subtle.
The many varieties of wood all have difference characteristics in terms of density, hardness, amount of oil in the wood, etc. These factors give the different woods different sounds, different vibes. Hardness is probably the easiest factor to rely on when trying to estimate what a given wood might sound like in a drum. As a general rule, harder wood will make a drum louder, more strident, and higher pitched. Acrylic shells make drums that are bright and have a round, moderate tone. (Again, these things are tough to put into words.)
Beyond the material, the method of construction will have some effect on sound as well. Standard drum shells are made of multiple thin plies laminated together. The number of plies and the thickness of the plies effects the total thickness of the shell, and hence the tone. Thicker plies (but not a thicker shell) results in a lower fundamental tone to the shell, although this difference is likely to be relatively small. Makers of stave and steambent shells tend to tout the fact that there is more wood vs. glue in their shells as a feature that makes their drums sound better. This is a difficult claim to evaluate, since stave and steambent shells are generally much thicker than ply shells, which is necessary to produce a stable shell with these types of construction. For this reason, I tend to favor ply shells for most purposes because they can be made in the (or at least my) ideal thicknesses for drum shells. For snare drums, many people like the sound of thick shells, so stave and steambent shells provide some cool options, and there is no doubt that they will sound different (better?) than comparably thick ply shells.
There is no denying the romance of a kit built out of steambent shells, but keep
in mind these are thick shells and will have the characteristics of thick-
Hoops often get overlooked as an element of drum sound, but they have a substantial impact on it. Hoops are in direct contact with the heads, so they affect how the heads resonate. Similar principles apply to hoops as to shell construction in terms of how they change the sound. Thicker hoops have more mass, so they require more energy to vibrate. So, thicker hoops tend to dampen the vibration of heads, reducing resonance. Is more resonance always better? Not necessarily. Most people favor the sound of 2.3mm hoops over 1.6mm hoops on most drums. The thicker hoops cut a touch of high end twangy frequencies that most people don’t miss. Those who tend to enjoy a little twang and often use higher tunings might enjoy the lighter, more open sound of thinner hoops.
Single flange hoops tend to produce a very open sound with some softness in its character. Brass hoops are heavy and sound thick and meaty. Wood hoops are softer and thick, and in my opinion give drums a dull sound.
I’m not one who puts a lot of credence into nodal point theories or minimal contact lugs as a way to improve drum sound. I just don’t think it makes a ton of difference compared to other factors. However, the number of lugs on a given drum will make a noticeable difference.
People are used to using 10-
Suspension mounts for toms increase resonance. Whether more resonance equals better
is a matter of opinion. If you are planning on using pinstripe heads or other heads
with built in muffling, why bother increasing the resonance of the drum in the first
place? Many young players fall into the trap of insisting on suspension mounts because
they are “better” and increase the resonance of the drum, then turn around and muffle
the heck out of their drums to emulate the sound on their favorite recording. If
you are going for a thick, meaty, fugga-
The finish on the interior of the shell effects how sound waves travel inside the drum. A harder finish creates more reflection for a brighter sound. A softer finish creates less reflection for a mellower sound. A smoother surface is more likely to create standing waves that may result in “ping” sounds or high pitched overtones. A rougher surface disperses sound waves in different directions and tends to reduce overtones. On my drums I favor a moderately hard, rough interior finish, for a lively but dry interior. This type of finish supports active head tone without unpleasant overtones.
So far I have discussed each of the elements of sound independently. As you can imagine, things become somewhat more complicated when you start putting the various elements together. Different combinations of shells, edges, and hoops (to say nothing of heads) can result in a wide variety of sounds. Many people on a quest for The Best Drum Sound may be tempted to try to find the perfect balance between this characteristic and that to create a Perfectly Balanced Drum. Keep in mind that going for the middle ground does not necessarily yield the best results. Certain shells will show off their signature characteristics with particular edges and hoops while others shine with different kinds of edges and hoops. I think drums sound the best when you heighten their unique characteristics, rather than trying to get them to sound like every drum in the world all at once.
What combinations work? Here are some rules of thumb that sound good to my ears:
Thicker and harder shells tend to sound best with sharper edges. (For toms I tend
to think of a double 45 or a mini-
The exception to this is low-
Now add hoops to the mix. My favorite of those fat sounding vintage
kits have thinner 1.6mm hoops on them. They seem to work well with the thick edges,
allowing a bit more resonance and head tone, reducing the muffling effect of the
fat edges. 2.3mm can work on this kind of setup as well, if you’re going for a very
thick and dry, fugga-
Thicker and harder shells sound best to my ears with sharp edges and die-
The exception, once again, is low-
Like toms, thin shelled snares will sound good with whatever edges and whatever hoops, and will work with 8 or 10 lugs. They have their thing, and it’s hard to make it sound bad, even when you adjust the sound this way or that.
Middle of the road shells sound great with 2.3mm hoops and any edges. They also
work with sharp edges and die-
As far as snare beds go, I favor a wide and shallow snare bed for a lush, full, and sensitive snare response.
I don’t see any reason to put anything but a big fat roundover edge on a bass drum, regardless of the shell or the style of music you play. Bass drum heads are so large that the amount of muffling created by a roundover edge still leaves way more resonance and tone that pretty much anyone wants from a bass drum. Even someone playing bop who wants a wide open bass drum sound will have a lot of tone to work with in a drum with rounded edges. Pretty much every player will add some kind of muffling to a bass drum, either inside, under the head, against the head, or as part of the head, so why bother using edges that increase resonance beyond what is already too much? I say go for maximum energy transfer and bring out that shell tone. Boom. Of course, there are a variety of edge profiles that could qualify as a big fat roundover, so there is room for adjustment even within this paradigm.
I have heard that thinner bass drum hoops can have the same effect on drum sound
that thinner tom or snare hoops have, but I have yet to experiment with this personally.
Someone order a bass drum with 10-
This page is full of my personal opinions already, but I thought I’d go ahead and talk about some sets that I like and why I like them. Again, these are just opinions, not gospel.
Middle of the road thickness maple shells for toms and snare (e.g Keller 8-
If I had to live with just one kit forever, for every gig, it would probably be this
kind of setup. Mid-
Thinner tom and bass drum shells along with thicker snare shells tend to be more
popular than the kind of setup I have just described. I have to admit there is something
very satisfying about playing thin toms and bass drums and getting that thump in
the attack and the easy low-
I have found that the relatively thicker tom and bass drum shells put more tone through mics and through the sound of a band. The tone on thinner shells is very audible when the drums are played alone, but it tends to disappear as volume increases, leaving mostly attack coming through. I’m a tone guy. I like tone. Some people just want to hear that thump, and that’s great. But me, I like to hear the drums singing in the mix, and I find the setup I’ve described above does the best job of that. I like tone in my bass drum too. Even though I use some muffling, I like to hear tone in the body of the sound, hence the slightly thicker shell. As I’ve gotten older and gained more experience, I’ve become less a fan of snare sounds that cut through. As I have become more attentive to elements of production, meaning the sound of a recording or band as a whole, I have come to appreciate a fat snare sound that sits in the middle of the mix rather than cuts through. One man’s opinion.
Luckily I don’t have to limit myself to one kit forever and ever, so I can think
about other kinds of sets for specific purposes. This is in the zone of a 60s Ludwig
kit. (By the way, if you don’t know what I mean by fugga-
Vintage style maple/poplar blend (low density) shells (e.g. Keller Vintage Maple)
on all drums. 1.6mm hoops on toms and snare. Big fat edges on everything. 8 lugs
on snare and bass drum. 10-
Fugga to the dugga. Just think about that sweet vintage Ludwig kit you saw and you’re in the ballpark. I prefer the thinner hoops and fewer lugs on this kind of setup to get a little more air in the sound. 1.6mm hoops let out some high end resonance and lighten up the feel just a bit. Keller’s Vintage Mahogany shells are great too and would work for this set. They would just be a little drier–less head tone, more fugga.
For more of a Slingerland vibe you could go with 2.3mm hoops or sticksaver hoops for the full Slingy effect. Alternatively, to go for a Roger’s vibe, this kit could be outfitted with double 45 bearing edges and 1.6mm hoops for a more singing tone than big round thump and more sustain in higher range tunings.
Thin maple shells (e.g. Keller 6-
I wish I’d never sold that roundbadge Gretsch kit I used to have. Of course, I’d
probably never play it since I make my own drums now, but it was a cool set. The
rig above is my homage to that old set. I know, I know—the purists among you will
cry out that roundbadge Gretsch drums had weird one-
I think ply drums sound better than steam-
Middle of the road maple shell (e.g. Keller 10-
A snare for all occasions. Would also sound great with double 45s or mini rounds
combined with die-
Steambent walnut with micro-
Walnut makes a beautifully balanced steambent snare drum–meaty, articulate, and sounds great across a wide tuning range.
Steambent walnut makes a great studio snare and is just a damn cool drum. Even so,
my first choice might be either a thin-
A couple setups for amazing sounding metal snare drums:
6.5x14 chrome over brass shell with chrome over brass hoops. Big sound. Brass is fat and meaty for metal. The chrome brightens it up some. Chrome over brass hoops heighten the thickness of the sound. A fantastically balanced big snare sound
5.5x14 chrome over brass with die cast hoops. Again, this is a meaty but bright
sounding shell. The die-
Thin maple shells for toms (e.g. Keller 6-
This is my estimation of what most drummers think when they imagine The Best Drum Sound. Fat, ringy toms. Loud, articulate snare. Thumpy, fat bass drum. A winner!
|Notes On Sound|