Monday, March 03, 2014

Too high

There's this thing about the way drummers think: they're prone to feedback loops. They'll find something cool, and say “That sounds good! Let's do that, only more so, forever.” It's the same impetus that leads Metal musicians to say, hey, we liked it when Metallica started playing really fast, so let's just keep going faster. But you can't just keep going in the same direction forever; at some point the the thing turns on you. That bi-level haircut that looked modern and punkish in 1981 has morphed into a ridiculous-looking mullet. Or you run into natural limits. Like Too Much Coffee Man, you thought that since drinking a cup of coffee made you feel good, then drinking six must make you feel really good. So let's talk about snare drum sound.

Around 1980, inspired by Reggae drummers, Stewart Copeland was tuning his snare drum very high, and it sounded great, and fresh:

Some New York R&B guys, took this further with their little Brady drums— here's Charley Drayton, sounding great, but with a snare sound that is getting a little stylized:

A couple of decades later you have this. There was a period in the 90's when everyone was using piccolo snares with a regular tuning, but here we're in true piccolo range. The drum here shows off Eric Harland's snare drum work beautifully, but the sound is very insubstantial. The tune needs more power:

Continued after the break:

A similar thing happened for a time with tom toms, after Steve Gadd put 10 and 12 inch drums on his bass drum. Having that punchy 10" as a regular voice really added a new dimension to the sound of the drums. In the later 80's, Dave Weckl went one better, using 8 and 10 inch drums his main mounted toms. In this video, the 8 is all stick. It's more of a bongo sound:

This played out in an even more extreme way in drum corps. When I was doing the activity in the early 80's, we were basically maxing out the pitch for mylar heads on 14" drums with triple-flanged hoops. It was an extreme sound compared to what came before it, but the drums still had power, and they definitely cut. With the initial run of Kevlar in the late 80s, the sound was higher than ever before, but still basically the same animal. Since then, the drums have been reinforced so they can take extreme tension without folding up, while the sound of the heads has taken on a nasty metallic edge, and the snare response is basically nil, leaving you with drums that are basically devoid of musical tone. The pitch is so high that the normal frequency range of the snare drums has been totally abandoned— there's a big hole in the sound of the ensemble there. They might as well have just said “let's not have snare drums any more.” Compare the the sound of the rimshots on this 1978 video embedding is disabled) with the same piece played in 2011 to hear how much has been lost:

For the most part, jazz drummers, who tend to crank their drums, have avoided this phenomenon, at least with regard to tuning. Despite the occasional flirtation with tiny bass drums, they/we tend to stick with normal, smaller sized drums, which, even when tuned very high, still sit in their proper frequency range. We just go for too-large and too-thin cymbals— a subject for another day...

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