Maple, poplar, mahogany, steel, brass, aluminium and acrylic… choosing the right drum material is never an easy task, for both beginners and professionals alike. “Maple sounds well balanced, steel sounds sharper, brass sounds more muffled…” are often phrases/claims used in catalogues to advertise products, but is the distinction really that simple? And what exactly does “balanced” mean? What is the right material for a snare drum that works as much in a punk band as in a singer-songwriter project? Let’s find out!
For kits for beginners and intermediates, the material of the drums is relative and marginal
Let’s assume that you have from 500 to 1000 euros aside for a kit for beginners or intermediates and want to buy the best set depending on the budget you have set; Pearl Export, with Asian mahogany and poplar drums, or Tama with poplar drums?
Cheap drum kits are often made from soft, easy-to-machine woods such as poplar or Asian mahogany (not to be confused with the much more expensive African mahogany), woods that tend to have a less defined ‘tone’ than other more valuable woods. Don’t make your decision by relying too much on the materials used for the drums if you are in this price range, preferring rather a careful choice for the size of the kit and the feeling in general that you have sitting in front of the kit. Once you’ve made your hand of it, then, you can switch to branded leathers to greatly improve your sound.
Toms, bass drum
For toms and bass drum: maple, birch or beech? Or something more exotic? A mix maybe? Although there are many kits on the market that sound really good at the expense of price, there is still a huge debate about what to buy that sounds really good. A perfect kit, in the heads of many, is made with ad hoc measurements, a breathtaking finish and well calibrated woods for each drum, but not everyone can afford that. Just to be clear, however: no record has ever sounded better or worse because of the poplar or maple or birch used for the drums engraved on the record. This is because the average listener will hear absolutely no difference between the various woods, unless they are very stiff woods (such as bubinga) played together with very soft woods (poplar or mahogany) – but even then, the probability that someone in the audience will hear the difference is really minimal.
Experts in the field and experienced drummers will surely have their preferences. Maple sounds more “centered” than birch, when compared directly (under the same conditions and with the same setup). The bubinga emphasizes bass and attack, while the poplar drums sound softer and more closed. That said, the drums also vary according to concept and design choices, allowing you to bring out the positive features even from woods such as mahogany and poplar using very thin drums. This trend is particularly in vogue among lovers of retro and vintage sounds, and the Gretsch Broadkaster Kit is a great example:
In contrast, an SQ2 Sonor with very thick drums and sharp edges sounds more modern and ‘aggressive’:
Speaking of beech: the sound par excellence to which everyone refers is probably the one generated by the Yamaha Recording Custom, re-proposed in a modern key with thin drums that bring back the sounds of the past, deviating from the choices of “big” and “often” sound made in the 80s.
Rigid woods such as beech, maple and birch sound more present and give the impression of having more volume, while soft woods such as mahogany and poplar have a softer and more rounded sound. The last two woods mentioned are often used for modern kits that echo the vintage sounds. Using the internet, you can also find out which kits your favorite drummers use and get an even more detailed idea of the type of sound you want to try to get. For cheap kits, the toms and kick drum must be the right size, well crafted and inspiring to play – far more important factors at these levels than the endless debate about the woods used. And if you’re afraid of being wrong, don’t worry: even the most brutal and metallic kit there is can easily be converted into a 70’s disc kit with a pair of retro-style skins, like the Aquarian American Vintage:
For the opposite effect it will be enough to use clear leathers with a single layer, which will allow even the most retro and vintage kit to play with more attack and brilliance. For this type of effect, we recommend the Remo Ambassadors:
When it comes to toms and bass drums, professionals spend time and money to find the perfect sound – so it’s not strange that the snare drum, one of the most important and ‘visible’ parts of the sounds of a drum, should be treated with maniacal care to say the least. The most used materials are steel, brass, aluminium but also maple and birch.
Steel gives a very clear, open and defined sound, capable of generating many harmonics. Steel snare drums are very popular among drummers who want a “clean bang” sound. Having said that, steel snare drums are not only suitable for rock and metal: products like the Pearl Sensitone Steel are versatile and can be used in any context:
Brass is a material that has always been used on snare drums and gives it a warm and ’round’ sound, especially when compared to a steel snare drum. As brass is a softer metal alloy, the vibrations generated by the high frequencies are absorbed, giving the classic muffled result, which is very similar to a snare drum with a wooden frame. The brass snare drum par excellence is definitely the Ludwig Black Beauty.
If the price of the Black Beauty is out of reach, we recommend the models inspired by it – among which we find the Millenium Power Brass Snare, for less than 200 euros.
For those who love steel snare drums, it is impossible not to consider aluminium snare drums, a material used on two of the most famous snare drums (Supraphonic and Acrolite by Ludwig). The aluminium sounds very dry and lends itself, given this characteristic, to be at ease in various genres and musical styles. The resonance is not exaggerated, but is part of the ‘cons’ of snare drums of this type. There are several aluminium snare drums in different price ranges in addition to the Ludwig, such as the Tama SLP:
If you prefer wooden drums instead, maple snare drums are very popular. Maple snare drums sound ‘bright’, versatile and present, without ever being annoying. For these and other reasons, they are among the most used snare drums by drummers of all kinds. The choice is enormous to say the least and, if the budget allows it, snare drums like the Noble and Cooley are really fantastic.
For a smaller budget, there are equally good sounding and very good alternatives that, in most cases, only need professional skin and a well made tailpiece to get spectacular sounds.
Birch and hybrid shells
Since birch is a rigid wood, it has physical properties similar to those of maple. Low and high full and present are the timbre characteristics of this wood but, like everything we have mentioned in the article, it must be tried: it may please or not please. Sonor’s new SQ1 series offers an interesting timbre and high level manufacturing: Sonor SQ1 14 “x6,5” Snare GT Black
Having said that, it is difficult to find pure birch snare drums on the market – largely replaced by snare drums with hybrid/mixed material drums. Some layers are birch, while others are Kapur, as found in Pearl’s Session Studio snare drums:
The material of the drums is very important, but don’t lose too much sleep. Think more about the size you want to use, the price range you want to go to and also go a bit to personal taste. If you already have experience with the various materials, however, you can allow yourself some risky choices: the only way is to try! You can listen to several comparative tests on bonedo.de – Good listening and good choice!