Sunday, 15 May 2022

We’re Going to Need a Bigger Drum

I posted an article some time ago on how to play quietly but there is another side to the equation. So let’s have a look at  HOW TO PLAY LOUD.

Go Big
There are a lot of factors involved, but the first priority is larger drums. It’s just physics: A 24-inch drum has more vibrating area than a 20-inch one, which translates to more air moving, and that means more oomph and more volume. Larger drums can make the difference between struggling to be heard or being able to relax and just play. And let's face it, big drums do look pretty cool.

For Reference: Bonham Sizes

26 x 14 BD, 14 x 6 1/2 SN, 14 x 10 ST, 16 x 16 FT, 18 x 16 FT.

Carry a Big Stick
Even a small increase in stick size and weight can help you get more volume. If your go-to is a 5A, a 5B is a pretty easy upgrade. If you normally use maple sticks, consider switching to hickory or oak.

Tuning Up 
Lower tones don’t carry very well, so if you’re accustomed to tuning your drums in the low end of their range, then the drums won’t help you to project. Bonham’s over-sized sound was thanks to middle-of-the-range tuning.

Let ‘em Ring
Damping is almost essential on drums, but too much can interfere with volume and projection. When applying damping, use only as much as is necessary to get rid of any microphone-unfriendly ring.

Is This Thing On?
Speaking of microphones, this may be your best option. Why risk your physical well-being trying to compete with a bevy of amplifiers. If they all get to use huge amps and P/A support, then so should you.

Let’s Get Physical ... Safely
An overly physical style of playing can be exciting, but keep in mind that there is always the risk of injury. Have a look at how Bonham attacks the drums. Actually, he doesn’t. He’s a loud and heavy player, but at the same time his hand work is quite relaxed -- almost gentle at times. Volume and excitement do not require hard playing.

So get drums large enough to do the job, tune for projection, invest in some microphones, and above all, relax.

Tuesday, 19 April 2022

That's Not What I Do

I'm listening to a friend's playing on an instructional CD. This guy is a great player, and his tracks here are very impressive. I absolutely love what he's doing. So I'm envious -- no surprise there. And I'm also feeling a bit guilty. Guilty? Now why would that be?

I have a couple of suspect responses when I hear playing this good. My first reaction is “I could never do that”. Perhaps it's just my sense of awe that immobilizes me since, upon further analysis, I realize that most of what he's demonstrating is within the realm of possibility for me ... with a bit of practice, of course.

Sometimes I come across a lick or rhythm that would be a good addition to my tool kit. In that case I may work on it. But most of the time, the things that catch my attention are not necessarily things I'm interested in learning.

My other reaction is equally suspect. I assume that I need to play like that. As a drum-set generalist, I’m motivated to continually learn more stuff and, in doing so, to try to cover all the bases. And over time I seem to have developed a vague sense that I should to be able to play anything and everything that comes my way. That's unreasonable by any standard. Nobody can do it all, nor should you or I even try.

As I was listening to the tracks, I realized that, not only did I have little use for that style of playing, that it really wasn't my thing. That is, I don't actually want to play like that. And I certainly don't need to. That won’t stop me from having a look at the material -- it’s good exercise and beneficial knowledge -- but in the end, most of the stuff is Just. Not. Me.

So while I can do a presentable job of rock, funk, Latin, country, and whatnot, there are limits to what I'm realistically able to do. And there are also limits on what I'm willing to do. You see, I’d much rather concentrate on “my music.” I enjoy playing all sorts of styles and try to play them as authentically as I can, but I prefer to spend my  time  on the stuff that really turns my crank.

Wednesday, 30 March 2022

The Most Important Sticking Ever?

Watch any drummer in any situation -- especially during a drum solo -- and you'll probably see a rather ordinary figure. And you'll see it a lot. That's because the sticking is simple, versatile, easily executed, and very effective … and it‘s a lot of fun to play.

It's this one: RLL (or LRR if you prefer). 

Seriously, Right-Left-Left. Count it as triplets and then just keep doing it: RLL RLL RLL RLL. Boy is that useful! And its variations -- LRR, RRL, LLR -- can be just as useful. Plus , it's real easy way to fake speed.

Buying Time
You probably don't think of diddles as strategic, but they are. The diddle cleverly gives the other hand time to move around, and you can use that time to good effect because it gives you time to move the single stroke around the set. Play the single stroke on a cymbal and the diddle on the snare. Move the single stroke from drum to drum. Do the Buddy Rich thing and play singles on alternate crash cymbals.

A Poly Approach
If you play the pattern as 16th notes rather than triplets, you end up with a cross rhythm with a 3-against-4 pattern: RLLR / LLRL / LRLL / RLLR. In this type of polyrhythm, an 'implied pulse' moves seductively in and out of the time.

Free Samples
There are a number of lines in books like G.L. Stone’s Stick Control that take advantage of this pattern, and many of the figures can be easily applied in a jazz or swing environment or any style of music. Here are a few lines to get you started.

Stick Control  
Page 7, lines 43-44 
Page 9, lines 65-68

Diddle - Two strokes with the same hand, e.g. the various paradiddles begin with single strokes and end with a diddle. Can also refer to interpolating a double stroke where a single stroke would normally be.

Thursday, 3 March 2022

Devil In The Details

There are many factors that determine a drum’s sound: size, shell material, hardware, head choice ... there is a lot to consider, and it's easy to get bogged down and confused by the detail. I'd like to recommend my usual don't-sweat-it approach, but it’s still a good idea to become familiar with the factors and concepts that contribute to the final product and, ultimately, your unique personal voice.

Shell Diameter : Each drum's size has a useful pitch range, and that should help determine your choice of sizes. In general, small drums are quieter and higher pitched than large drums. The shell's diameter in relation to a standard head size will also have an effect on sound. A drum that is slightly undersized will have more resonance whereas a shell that fills the head to the edge will have a more robust sound.

Depth: Shell depth affects volume, resonance and decay. Deep shells typically produce a longer, fuller sound. Shallow shells speak quickly, with a short decay.

Material: This is a real can of worms these days. There are at least a dozen different types of wood available, and about as many types of metal. Then there are the synthetics, the exotics, and the so-called ‘hybrid’ shells. The differences range from minor to dramatic, so you need to do a bit of research.

Thickness: Thicker shells tend to have a greater pitch range and good projection. Thin shells often have a lower pitch range and are somewhat mellow sounding. This applies more to wood shells, but is valid for metal and other shell materials.

Plies: Wood drums are most often made of plywood. The plies are held together with glue, which is harder than wood. So the more plies, the more glue and therefore a harder and usually thicker the shell. The thickness of the plies also affects the wood-to-glue ratio and therefore the hardness of the shell.

Glue Rings : Also called re-rings, these strips or plies of hardwood affect the way sound bounces around inside the drum. The general result is a softer tone.

Bearing Edge : The bearing edge is to a drum what a bridge is to a stringed instrument. There are a few factors to consider, but the critical one is trueness.  Dips, bumps or dings in the edge can even render a drum untunable. 

Head: Choice of drum head can have a dramatic effect on a drum's sound, often over-riding all other factors. There are dozens of drum head styles to choose from. The best approach is to experiment with different heads until you find something that works for you.

Rim: The choice of rims (hoops) is nearly as complex as any other option. Triple-flanged steel rims, either welded or spun-cast, are available in different weight, thickness, height, and material. You can also find brass and stainless steel versions as well as single and double-flanged. You'll find die-cast rims on many high-end drums, while the true connoisseur may opt for solid wood.  Each type of hoop will have a different effect on the drum's sound, ranging from subtle to profound.

Bottom Head & Rim : A simple yes or no answer here -- take away the bottom head and you're essentially removing the drum shell from the equation. Single-headed drums produce mostly the drum’s fundamental tone, with little resonance and almost no sustain, whereas a bottom head will trap sound inside the drum where it generates complex tones and resonance.

Finish: The finish on the outside of a shell contributes little a drum’s sound. Drum shells today tend to be thick and heavy, so the presence or absence of, for example, a sheet of glittery plastic will add little to weight, mass or tone.

Attachment(s): The general idea is to avoid attaching anything extra to a drum shell which, it’s argued, will diminish resonance and tone. Each attachment adds more mass, potentially altering the drum’s sound. So-called floating shells have nothing attached directly to the shell.

Putting it all together : The level of care during assembly can make or break the project. An artisan drum maker might meticulously tweak every bolt to ensure it’s properly tightened; factory booting out low-end instruments will use whatever method is fastest and cheapest. An otherwise good drum that was poorly assembled can be frustrating. The good news is that you can fine tune any drum yourself to bring out its total potential. 

Tuesday, 15 February 2022

Practice vs. Rehearsal

Q: How do you get to Carnegie hall?
A: Practice, practice, practice -- attributed to violinist Isaac Stern when a passerby on a street in New York asked him for directions.

Q: So how does your band get to Carnegie Hall?
A: Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse!

A number of such reminders have come across my computer screen lately, so maybe it's time for a review of these two processes. Here’s the gist of it: Practice and rehearsal are not the same, although the nature of either can change according to need.

Practicing is something you do on your own to maintain and enhance your skills. it’s when  you play the same thing over and over till you're quite tired of it ... not the sort of result you want from a band rehearsal. BTW, practice includes studying music and learning new tunes.

Just Part of the Job
Few things are more aggravating than dragging your butt to a rehearsal only to find that one or more members haven't done their homework. As a member of a team,  we each have a responsibility to make our rehearsal time as productive as possible, and you can't do that if you're waiting around for someone to figure out their part or them waiting for you. Make sure you are well prepared when you hit the rehearsal hall.

Not All By Myself
I used to belong to a number of rehearsal bands. These bands consist of musicians who want to enhance, polish or at least maintain their playing skills. Some bands have firm schedules: every Tuesday from 7 to 10. Others may be very casual. The goal of these bands is to work on new tunes and develop techniques, especially ensemble parts and improvisation. Sometimes people join rehearsal bands just for fun. I belonged to an 18-piece big band that never had a gig, which helped me with my reading. I also worked out with a Dixieland band. I'd never played Dixieland before, so it was a nice diversion, and a lot of fun. I think we played one gig.

Sharpening the Tools
Learning tunes is the job of both the individual and the band. You've all learned your parts and now it’s time to put it together. Your rehearsals should be for polishing old tunes, trying out new tunes and creating your own arrangements. It's OK to take a few minutes to work on a part, but it's important to get on with the business of rehearsing the band.

Our band likes to do a quick run-through before a gig. We get together regularly for 'band practice' but personal schedules tend to interfere. So we make a point of playing through the entire set list within a week of an upcoming gig. It's amazing how much we can forget when we put our minds to it.

"Rehearsing is a Privilege" - Carole Kaye
With all the demands and pressures in our lives, having the time and a place to rehearse with the band can be pretty special. Don't waste it by showing up unprepared. While you're at it, don't make it too 'worky'. Our band has a lot of fun at rehearsals. Sometimes we grumble and may even argue but mostly we smile and laugh. And when we've done our homework, we can direct all our energy into the music and into our connections with each other.

Monday, 17 January 2022

Is It Time to Come Clean?

If you'd like to get an interesting discussion going with a group of drummers, ask them how often they clean their cymbals. You're bound to get a plethora of opinions, and possibly a few dirty looks. There are four principal modes of cleaning -- Wash, Scour, Strip, and Grind -- plus the option of going au naturel – and which direction you opt for is a very personal choice.

It'll Come Out In The Wash
The majority of commercial cymbal cleaners are designed to remove surface dirt and nothing else. If your aim is to preserve some of the cymbal's patina and tone, then any of these cleaners will do the job. You can also use household soap or detergent. Keep in mind that cymbals can't perform their best if caked with dirt.

Heavier dirt and other contamination can be removed with light scouring. Products such as Ajax Cleanser, Barkeeper's Friend and other scouring formulas will take care of the accumulated detritus without removing precious metal. You can make your own scouring powders that include washing soda as a scouring medium. Note that these powders can be used dry as well as wet. A dry scrub will remove more deeply whereas water will activate the powder's dirt banishing ingredients.

A Strip Routine
This group of cleaners is made up of chemical strippers -- i.e. acids, alkalines and other volatile chemicals. That lovely surface patina is mainly oxydation, and to get rid of it you have to remove the outer layer of metal. It's just a few molecules, but repeated over time it can be enough to affect the sound. These products include Brasso, Peak and the like. For a milder acid bath, you can try lemon juice, Coke or ketchup (yup, Coke and ketchup).

Back to the Grind
Heavier abrasives will remove not just surface dirt and patina but also a significant amount of metal. Heavy polishing with a buffing wheel will accomplish the same thing. If this is your goal, pick up some Turtle Wax Polishing Compound (or similar) at the local auto supply and grind away. Just be sure to not let the metal overheat. This, by the way, is how you create a 'brilliant' cymbal.

So which to choose?
I guess the main question here is whether you prefer a well-aged patina, a radiant shine, or something in between. A cymbal cannot vibrate fully if it has layers of grime on it, and removing the offending crust will make your cymbals sound brighter as well as look brighter. If you prefer a darker sound, you may want to just let nature takes its course. Many old-time players would never think of cleaning their cymbals. 

From there it's really a case of how much gleam you want to see on stage. My view is that cymbals, like any quality instrument, will age, often improving in the process. If that isn't what you're looking for sonically, then regular cleaning may be in order. 

Cleaning a rare or vintage cymbal will most likely reduce its value ... a lot.

Sunday, 19 December 2021

A Heads Up about Heads

With the triumph of plastic heads over calf-skin, we now have a near-infinite variety of options. Plastic film comes in a number of thicknesses and materials. The heads can be layered, coated, dampened, even ‘chrome-plated’ ... and more. And each drum head innovation has either cured a problem, created a new sound or both. 

Now, about finding that ideal drum head: Here is a basic guide to plastic drum head characteristics.

Ranges from 1 mil (1/1000 of an inch) for orchestra snare-side heads to 15 mil for heavy duty batter heads. Thinner film has faster response and more high overtones but is not as strong. Heavy film is mellower and can be tuned lower than thin heads. 

Number of Plies
Usually just one or two. A second ply removes a lot of the high overtones while deepening the low end and adding both sustain and ruggedness. Two-ply heads can be made from any combination of ply thicknesses to yield heads as heavy as 30 mil. Heads can also incorporate a tone ring and reinforcing dot. 

A sprayed-on coating softens the tone, bringing the sound more in line with calf-skin, and provides an excellent surface for brush work. Some heads are treated to a texturing process that looks much like a coating (e.g. Remo's Suede heads), with a sound that is mid-way between clear and coated heads. 

Drum heads can incorporate a variety of tone-modifying rings. Many bass drum heads have an added "tone ring" at the perimeter. The Evans EMAD system for bass drum has a mounting system for damping rings. Donuts mainly affect sustain (increase) and ring (decrease). 

The first 'dots' were added to the centre of drum heads to counteract some of the abuse drummers were inflicting on them. It turned out that these heads produce a tone that is desirable in its own right. Dotted heads are loud and hard wearing, and can provide very good stick response.

The Works
In theory a drum head could have more than three layers plus other features, but there are practical limits. Many combinations simply do not work.  Too many layers kills the sound, as does a head that is too thick. And a thicker head may not even fit the drum shell properly. So you won't find a 3-ply coated dotted head with a donut. Fortunately, the makers know what works and what doesn't.