Saturday, September 13, 2014

Beyond This There Be Dragons

This is REALLY a post no one would want to read. No, really. Stop now. (I'm just putting it here because I felt like writing something and I no longer have a journal to write in.)


I am a lapsed drummer. I did a lot of it from roughly age 13 or 14 until the late '80s, some of it in a semi-professional capacity. I was no superstar, to be sure, but I was at least competent and could have worked from there to make a living this way. I kind of planned on that through high school.

Anyway. After a hiatus of a dozen years, I bought a used kit in 2002 or so. My circumstances and budget at the time dictated that I buy a cheap used kit. But my schedule didn't really lend itself to my playing with other people--certainly not to gigging, and just soloing or playing along with music didn't have as much appeal as, say, during my high school years. And after my years playing a professional-level German Sonor kit in the 80s, I never really fell in love with these cheap drums.

So I found I rarely played them, and after a decade of moving them from house to house I sold them.

Of course now that I've sold them I find I'm thinking about drums all the time. Go figure. But now I have no place to put them even if I did buy another kit. (Anticipating the suggestion, electronic drums are not for me. Why? Because *tone production* is a huge part of what it is to become accomplished on any instrument. I could write a post on that, I think, but we'll leave it at that for now.)

This all plays into my current subject, really.

I've been thinking about drums that were smaller and not so noisy. A company used to produce a no-shell drum that would be easy to store and carry, though I don't know anything about their sound. Whatever the reason, they didn't catch on, and you never really see them today. But I've never been quite sure why, and in my current predicament I find myself thinking about whether a fella couldn't work them up on his own.

Maybe their failure to take off has to do with that tone-production business. But this leads me directly to what I've REALLY been chewing on specifically: what role does the drum's shell really play in the drum's tone? I've combed a number of articles and websites that talk about this, and major drum companies (Drum Workshop, Yamaha, Pearl) make drums of various materials. Yamaha in particular makes drums specifically out of maple (the most common drum material), birch, and oak, citing different tonal characteristics for each material. They clearly think the material makes a difference. Additionally, a number of boutique drum-makers make drums out of a single-thick ply rather than staggered thin plies of wood--again, citing sonic benefits.

Far be it from me, a decades-lapsed half-assed musician, to contradict the accumulated wisdom of a vast industry... but I'm skeptical. I know, I know, I just talked about selling some cheap drums because they failed to excite me after I had experienced a high-quality product. They were cheap drums and they just didn't sound very good.

But I can explain. Or I think I can. I might start with an analogy from the otherwise totally- (and tonally-) unrelated world of the pipe organ. Organ aficionados say "the most important stop on the organ is the room," and indeed the acoustic is HUGELY important for organ music and for how a given instrument sounds. Stone buildings absorb less of the organ's sonic energy, so an organ will be much more resonant in a stone building, especially the lower frequencies, which inherently have more energy. Wooden buildings, by contrast, will flex and will absorb those high-energy low frequencies. So an organ will sound more biased to the high frequencies in a predominantly-wood building, whereas the bass will be more predominant in a stone building (all other things being equal). An organ builder must keep this in mind when designing and voicing an instrument for that space.

With drums, I think a similar situation prevails within the drum itself. (Of course, the acoustic of the room affects the drums too, but we're accustomed to thinking of the inherent sound of the drum apart from the acoustic, since, unlike the organ, the same drums will be heard in a variety of acoustics.) Here's my theory: it's my contention that, unlike a guitar or a violin, the drum shell itself is not the sound-producing element. The sound of a drum does not come from a resonating shell; rather, the sound comes ENTIRELY from the vibrating head (placing one's hand on a drum shell when hitting the drum will confirm this). And what the head is made of and how tightly it is tuned determine what we have to work with. A shell, as near as I can determine, can only take away from the sonic raw material that is pumped through it. The different sounds of various drum materials relate to what is absorbed and what is passed thru and out to the audience--just like a wood-vs-stone building with an organ. (In all this I'm thinking about drums with a head on top AND bottom. This is most drums. Drums are also made with only a single head on top, but these "concert toms" haven't really been in vogue in popular music since the '70s.)

The harder the material--in order, cheap plywood, birch, maple, oak, metal--the louder and more resonant the drum. We especially see this in snare drums, which are made mostly of wood or metal. Wooden snare drums, all things being equal, do not produce as much volume or sustain or projection as a steel drum. Also, the bigger the drum's diameter, the louder the sound and the longer the sustain. My cheap drums were made of some Southeast Asian scrap wood, and they had no sustain whatsoever. I put the same heads on these drums as I had always used, but the sound that came out was uninspired. And I suspect it was because the cheap wood simply flexed and absorbed any energy put into the head mounted to it. On the other hand, I bought a custom-made rolled stainless steel snare drum which weighed a ton and, I suspect, absorbed NONE of the energy put into the heads with the stick. So it was naturally pretty loud and had *fairly* good sustain, though not so much as to slam-dunk my theory. I talked to the drum maker about the possibility of completing a kit out of stainless steel, and he confirmed that the bigger drums--bass drums and floor toms especially--were MONSTROUS in their volume and sustain.

So that's one set of ideas to chew on: I'd like to determine if one needs shells for any TONAL reason. And there's another angle to this question to consider: nowadays, drums are very often mic'ed and amplified, and this adds another complicating layer to our situation. The volume in particular of a drum set, but also its projection out into an audience, seems much less important than it might have been back when drums were never amplified. (In my career, such as it was, we rarely if ever mic'ed the drums, and in most intimate acoustic settings the drums' inherent volume was a problem to be tackled. The other instruments had to be amplified to bring them up to the drums' volume.) The amplification system will play a huge role in what an audience hears, and so the drum's basic sounds--specifically things like volume and resonance--may be less important than in the past. (In an extreme analogy, a solid-body electric guitar needs no sonic properties at all. Assuming everything else is the same, the sound is all about what pickups are used, where they are placed, and what processing of the signal one applies. Electronic drums are NOT analogous to this; with electronic drums the sound itself is electronic and only *triggered* by the player. That's a whole different kettle o' fish.)

So my thinking has been moving along these lines. Why could one not just work on a head that vibrated with the basic sound that you wanted and then amplify it? If the head is doing the work, and there is no shell to deplete or otherwise dampen the sound (which is all I contend a shell can do), why would this not be the best thing from a pure sonic standpoint? Why even bother to bring a shell into it?

As I said starting out, there used to be a shell-less drum set available, called the Traps A400 portable kit. The company seems to be in business, but there's a steam-era website that I cannot get to work on any of my browsers, so I'm not entirely sure they're a viable entity. I was able to find a YouTube video review of the Traps A400 drums where the owner verified one key piece of my theory: under amplification the A400s sound like every other amplified drum (though let the record reflect that up close and unamplified they do not).

There is also a product made by Remo called the Roto-Tom. Roto-Toms are small drums, typically sold in a group of two or three mounted together, which can vary in pitch by rotating the heads in their stand, like a tympani drum but with rotary tuning rather than a foot pedal. I believe the small roto-toms are still available, but there were once a full range of sizes made (though not a bass drum). Even these larger sizes can still be found used on eBay. I never owned them, but now I'm dying to play with some, and especially to compare their sound, size-for-size, with a single-headed concert tom. Any difference would kind of have to come down to the shell.

So I'm chewing on how I might construct shell-less drums on my own as an experiment. A drum is after all only a head stretched over a hollow tube, and we really only need enough of that tube to hold the tuning lugs--or, in the case of the Roto-Tom, not even that much. But Roto-Toms sport pretty expensive machining, and for most people the ability to quickly change the drum's tension is not important. Certainly it's not to me.

Of course, I'm not the first to think on these things. Turns out a British inventor named Marcus de Mowbray has played in these fields already. He started with "shell-less" tympani drums for classical music--that is, tympani without the copper bowl beneath the heads. And it sounds like the great discovery was that the bowl was of no use whatsoever (I've never heard any of Mr. de Mowbray's work). He then went on to make no-shell drums, but with top AND bottom heads for each drum. And it seems, though the evidence is a bit sketchy, that they work brilliantly well. I see from the pictures, though, that they do not take up any less space than regular drums, and by his own account the drums are even louder than standard drums. So based on his experiences I'd be zero for two.

I had plotted getting assistance from a friend who is a former metalworker, but another buddy suggested a much easier test platform: just buy an old drum and cut the unneeded shell out of the middle. Brilliant idea.

So I think that's where I'll start.


Vancouver Voyeur said...

Now that M's band is defunct (a couple members moved out of state) and she sees no point in reforming it, no time, we're planning to sell a set of Pearls. I never learned to play an instrument. I have two, a keyboard and a mandolin. I fiddle around with them on occasion, but I've never found the time or the discipline to truly learn them. *sigh* I hope you're able to create a drum set that will work for you.

William Stachour said...

Pearl has made some great stuff over the years.

It would make much more sense for me to, say, take up guitar (a travel guitar could be carried easily when I go to work) or to study the piano with some diligence; but I find I do neither of these things. And I have the biggest head start with drums, even if I can't really use them. Alas.