My snare set-up has changed a lot over the years. If fact, I've been through more than 10 'primary' snare drums in as many years. Recently, as a pre-cursor to this series of articles, I set out to define my own signature snare drum. A single drum I could envision encompassing the sounds, dynamics and tonal coloring of my favorite memories of snare drums past. How did I do this? Well, as I eluded to in the previous article, I let my V-Drum module do a lot of the work. (A Roland < TD-6V or TD-20 V-Drum module is a great way to 'audition' various drums that may or may not exist in the real world.) As I began I thought back at the construction of some of my favorite drums. I looked at tunings, snare layout, heads, shell material, etc. Then, I got out the V-Drum module and experimented with some COSM modeling. I compared the accuracy of the modeling with a few of my own drums of the same layout to verify what my mind remembered about various materials and heads. I made trips to Musician's Friend to see what was out there. I researched catalogs looking for a drum built of the dimensions and materials I came up with. When I didn't find what I was looking for (or realized that some of the drums that best encompassed what I was looking for had been DISCONTINUED) I decided to build my own, sort of.
I have always liked my first snare drum, a Ludwig Acrolite 5" x 14" school-kit snare. The size has always felt like the perfect compromise between snare liveliness and meaty depth. Of course, when I packed that snare kit 1/4 mile up the hill from school each day I had a different opinion of it's size. The crispness of aluminum and the bread and butter 5x14 size has been a favorite of mine ever since. So are blow-molded cases. After listening to several vitrual models using COSM modeling, I was able to eventually decide on the dimensions and material for my new 'signature' drum. Maybe not the drum that would be appropriate for many of my current gigs, but I decided on a steel shell for purposes of the article. Hopefully I wouldn't be packing it 1/4 mile anywhere soon. Mine would be a 5" x 14" with a tightly tuned top head (Coated Ambassador, although the Remo Powerstoke had an interesting sound) with a bit of perimeter muffling and a tight strainer. Here's where COSM jumped the tracks a little bit, so I had to leave the construct of the Matrix for a bit of reality. I was close enough that I was ready to purchase the raw material for my drum anyway.
Isn't the ultimate irony to use someone else's signature drum as the raw material for your own? This question will have to be left to the scholars as I am too busy enjoying my new creation. Since my visual signature of 'none more black' became an issue, I found that amazingly enough, all of the drums that best fit these criteria in my collection of catalogs had been discontinued. I wanted a steel shell, but a black or black-chrome finish. I also like the look of black hoops, so this became the visual criteria for my search. Pearl had discontinued a similar drum, so had a couple of other manufacturers. So, I began to look at something that was close, but needed a little work to get there. Enter the Chad Smith Signature Snare Drum from Pearl. The shell is the right color and material, the lugs made minimal contact and the strainer looked reliable and stout. This became my raw material.
As I had suspected, the rims (though heavy duty 2.3mm SuperHoop IIs) weren't up to my level of tensioning. Cast hoops were definitely in order. I thought of just replacing the top one (ala the Tama Stewart Copeland Signature Snare ), but still had hopes of having black hoops. I finally located some black, cast hoops and ordered up some different finishes of replacement tension rods while I was at it. After fitting the black hoops and what my eyes agreed were the most striking tension rods in combination, I tuned it up for a dry run.
I wasn't able to get the strainer to sound much like a snare on light hits, yet be tight enough to keep from rattling on harder hits (or when another drum was struck). So, it was back to the catalogs to research some different snare wires. After my search I decided I was going to replace it anyway, so I might as well tweak the ones I have a bit. I promptly cut out the center-most wires to test the theories used by some of the newest snares on the market. Wow! Problem solved! It can be left a bit looser, while still retaining the right sound at higher velocities. It is also much less prone to sympathetic vibration from other drums. If you don't want to start snipping snare wires from your new drum you can order up a set of Puresound Equalizer Snare Wires and retain your originals for later use.
So, this is all great for me, but what about you? Where's your signature drum? Again, the best start to finding your signature drum is to combine all of the characteristics you like best in a snare drum and build with the proper materials for the job. Here's where COSM modeling comes in. If you know someone with one of these Roland V-Drum modules, see if you can't get them let you experiment with some virtual snare drums. You might even consider this reason enough to pick one up on your own. Your ears and reality will be your eventual fine-tuning, but you should be able to find your raw material with this method.
What kind of shell sounds good to you? What acoustic character do you most enjoy? What pitch range is appropriate for your playing and music style? What kind of feedback do you like from the head? If you like a loose head, yet a higher pitch you should look at smaller diameter drums. If you like a tight head with a deep, thick tone you may want to experiment with drums with a deeper shell tuned up tight. Of course, tuning a drum up tight requires more lugs per head for even tuning and may even require a cast hoop to prevent warping of the hoop. A tighter tuning will also make the type of lug important. One-piece lugs that serve both the top and bottom heads help to balance the tension on the shell better than individual lugs. Experiment with head type and muffling as well. Once you have the raw material picked out, you are half way there. The tuning and tweaking that follows will be what helps you find what works for you in the context of your kit. Don't just stop at what it sounds like. You are going to have to look at it too.
Pick a look that fits your personal style. Natural wood can be finished in a variety of ways. Check out our Refinishing Article if you want to go this route. It's not as difficult as it might seem to turn a piece of wood into a piece of art. Maybe you want to go all out and start with a drum carved from one big hunk of maple like the Craviotto Unlimited Snare. You could build some wild solid stave shell drum from scratch using alternating staves of Oak & Cherry. Interested? Check out our on-line Stave Drum Calculator for the dimensions needed to build your perfect drum. Of course, when I finished mine and started research for the article Pearl had UNdiscontinued the one that inspired me to start with, the Ultracast Cast Aluminum Snare Drum. I like what I ended up with better anyway for them moment, but can't help but wonder if that will hold true when I end up at a gig with a 1/2 mile worth of stairs...
When YOU find the one you can't stop playing, sign it. You've just found your signature snare drum.
2007 UPDATE: Not long after writing this article, I began to get SERIOUS about snare drums. The drum I had tweaked for this article served me well in the practice room, but didn't translate well to the softer gigs I typically found myself in. I quickly created a couple of smaller, wood shelled drums more appropriate for the church and theater gigs I typically found myself in.
Being a native of the Oregon Coast, I had always wanted to own a drum made of Myrtlewood, a species native only to the area surrounding my childhood home. This journey resulted in the eventual creation of an entire business of building snare drums from this and other exotic woods. Check out Oregon Drum for the whole story.
When I revisited this article 5 years later, I felt the need to expand on the concept of a signature snare drum. I've also gained a great deal of respect for the concept of Free Floating drums. When you start to scrutinize the details of tone and the contribution of a given shell material, the free floating drums allow this to a much greated degree. To date, the majority of our drum construction has been in the creation of shells for the free floating system.
Having had the opportunity to build dozens of drums that have defined the signature for others, I plan to expand this article soon with a new perspective. In the meantime, here are just a few of the Free Floating drums we've built for others to sign their name to...
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