Snare
It is time to buy another snare drum. I have a small collection, but there is one drum missing. Something happened to me when I played a Ludwig Supraphonic 402 a few years ago. On that occasion I walked away, but that drum what did what no other drum I’d played had done – it answered back…

I met the EcHo Custom Drums team of Dave Sr. and Dave Jr. while selling my book from an Ashgate Publishing stand at the UK National Drum Fair in 2013. The EcHo stand was opposite mine, and we got talking. Dave Sr. kindly bought a copy of my book, and I spent most of the day staring lustfully at the gorgeous brass drum kit they had on display. This kit and the snares they had on show seemed to have personality – unlike most of the drums I saw that day which seemed, well, just a bit ordinary. When I began talking with EcHo Custom Drums about us establishing a mutual endorsement, I told them my ideal snare drum was probably the Ludwig Supraphonic 402. Dave Sr. said EcHo could produce something even better. I was sufficiently impressed to arrange a visit to the workshop in Cheshire for a couple of weeks hence.

The drive to the EcHo workshop in Stalybridge puts me in a great mood. The M1 is uninspiring, but gives me – as is its wont – a chance to learn some songs for an upcoming recording. Google Maps’ polite lady navigator asks me to take the A616 and then the A628 cross-country. The sun is just at the roof-line of the car, casting a misty effect over the stunning scenery of the Peak District National Park as the road undulates beneath me, the majesty of the drive heightened by the soundtrack of Slowly Rolling Camera. When Dave Sr. greets me at the door to the EcHo workshop in an old mill building I am pleasantly surprised to discover I will be his sole customer this afternoon. He makes me tea, shows me around, and we chat over dinner and a pint in a local pub about drums, education, family and life in general. Certainly I feel like a valued customer. And then the fun begins.

I try the full range of beautifully engineered custom snare drums in the workshop. I work my way unhurriedly through brass, stainless steel, copper and aluminium, all in a range of depths and thicknesses. Aluminium sounds the best to me. It’s not that the drums fashioned from other metals sound bad – far from it: they are all very finely crafted musical instruments. But the aluminium drums produce a wonderful decay, and the ideal combination of overtones. It’s as though the middle frequencies are turned down, with plenty of punchy bottom and top (I picture the EQ curve to which I always return when setting up a stereo in my house or car). And the thinner the shell, the better – the bigger the dynamic range, the freer the sound seems to be. The aluminium snare drum with a 1mm-thick shell and a depth of 5.5 inches is the one. It packs a punch (to say the least); it rasps it simmers; it has power and subtlety; it cuts like a knife and keeps tugging at the leash. Playing this drum, I now sound (to me!) a lot like John Bonham. So I play bunch of Zeppelin grooves – The Crunge, Moby Dick, Good Time Bad Times, Since I’ve Been Loving you. Two aspects of this drum captivate me: the sounds it makes when I strike it (at any velocity) – crisp and confident at all loudnesses – and its sheer dynamic range. Jimmy Page, in the film It Might Get Loud, talks about dynamics as a “whisper to the thunder”. This drum does that all right.

The Ludwig Supraphonic 402 I’d played a while back was thrilling to play. On that occasion, however, I opted for a 14×6.5-inch brass Tama Starphonics snare drum. In doing so I became the driver of a Bentley – a drum that is smooth, beautiful, sophisticated, and consistent across speeds and dynamics. Sometimes, though, it’s too conservative, lacking in passion. This new custom snare drum from EcHo is vivacious and expressive. It demands more of me, and it gives back at least as good as it gets. It is the Ford Mustang Shelby GT500 I’ve always dreamt of throwing around the contours of an alt. rock gig with Stephen Wheel or a psycho-ceilidh gig with Neck. I can’t wait to do both.

It is delightful to select the finishing touches for my bespoke new snare drum, with Dave acting as Head Waiter and Sommelier. The default snare throw-off on an EcHo custom snare drum is the classy Trick model, available in black or brushed chrome. I decide I want everything on the drum to be silver, from the aluminium shell to the triple-flanged stainless steel hoops. The model I try out has cool EcHo custom lugs with a slightly oversized hexagonal nut in the centre. These lugs are brass, so Dave orders chromed lugs specially to fit my design. The vent-hole-surround (brass on the test model) is also available in silver. Dave responds with courtesy and patience to my every question about cosmetic alterations affecting the sound of the instrument, and to queries based in my massive naiveté regarding all aspects of drum manufacture.

The spun bearing edge of the shell is at 45 degrees, and I choose to keep this feature since the drum sounds so wonderfully open and responsive in part because of this. My drum will have none of the Greek-style patterning that is engraved around the shell of the test-drive model; I will keep just the protective lacquer on top of the sensuous brushed aluminium. The two “beads” around the drum have to stay; these two slight bulges add strength to the cylinder – essential for an instrument that has its future in pounding rock and roll! My first choice of batter head for years has been the Remo Coated Ambassador – it’s versatile, punchy, warm-ish, and works great with brushes. However, the drum I am trying out uses a coated Evans EC Reverse Dot Evans head, and it sounds so good that I instantly switch allegiance. The drum comes with a 20-strand snare as standard, and I see no reason to change this. The crowning glory of the drum will be the engraving; including the EcHo Custom Drums logo is only fair, and I ask for my name in the same font.

Before leaving, I have a quick bash on a drum kit that’s set up in the studio – the Apollo 1, with 3mm shells – and find it less than thrilling. So I arrange to come back in a fortnight to try out the Apollo 2 kit, with 2m shells. I intended to drive back to London today having designed a snare drum with an outrageous colour scheme to wow audiences. Instead, I come away looking forward to a drum understated in appearance, and barking mad under the bonnet.

I return to Stalybridge two weeks later, and am, I confess, a little dubious, having been away from the mill for a fortnight and thinking about wooden drums rather a lot in the meantime (drums are, after all, meant to made of wood, aren’t they?! Especially drum kits). Since my previous visit to Cheshire I have visited another custom drum manufacturer, worried that I’d been seduced by the Romanticism of the scenic drive, and that sleep deprivation had induced a kind of aluminium delirium of which I would be sure to purge myself upon seeing and smelling quality craftsmanship in wood. Contrary to my expectations, the vintage mahogany-and-die-cast-hoops left me cold; maple, though, was sonorous and enticing, while bubinga looked gorgeous and sounded thoroughly promising. I decided that I would politely play these aluminium drums for twenty minutes or so out of gratitude and respect for Dave’s hard work on my snare, then beat a hasty retreat to London, call the guy I’d been speaking with in the Channel Islands, and order a proper drum kit made of wood. I even started to doubt my prior convictions about the custom snare drum.

When I arrive at the mill my stunning custom drum occupies pride of place in the EcHo workshop. I’ve never normally been one to get excited about the look of a drum – they all appear broadly the same (round, more or less shiny, seething with noisy potential). This looks like a Formula 1 car, and oozes pure class. The Apollo 2 kit that I’ve come to play has another snare drum set up with it already, but I need to hear the kit in the context of my new acquisition. I swap them over, and play. What a sound! It is electrifying! So good, so full, so dynamic! My new snare drum is ALIVE!

When I play the Apollo 2 kit – 10×7”, 12×8”, 14×12”, 22×18 – I am genuinely excited, and grinning. Playing this kit is addictive. Half an hour slips into an hour, turning quickly to 90 minutes. The Apollo 1 left me wanting, but not this kit. The drums are calling to me, singing loud and clear. The batter heads are Evans 360s – the same as were on the maple kit I’d found pretty enticing a week earlier in Sussex – but the sonority here I prefer, with the “EQ” similar to that of my new snare drum. I’ve heard talk that aluminium drums are loud – maybe too loud – and while these drums are loud when I hit them hard, they are sweet and quiet when I play them gently. Like the snare drum, the kit has a responsive, enhanced dynamic range in comparison with my Premier drums and the various DW and Mapex kits I play at the college where I teach. These EcHo drums produce wonderful, alluring tones all the way from pianissimo to fortissimo. I re-tune all the toms to try and catch them out, plagued by my conviction that I shouldn’t like the sound of a metal drum kit. But I love it. My only worry is what colour to choose, as I am unconvinced by the red of the kit I’m playing. I think for a split second, and realize the only way to go is to finish the whole kit in the brushed aluminium of the snare drum. I leave, grinning like a child.

I had been concerned about the drive home – three-and-a-half hours on the M1 got really boring last time, and I had to pull over for a nap. Not this time. I am buzzing! The sound of those 2mm EcHo drums has me thrilled. Soon I will own a set of the best-sounding drums I’ve ever had the privilege to play. And, to boot, they will look cooler than cool. I use the return journey to London for rehearsal of the songs I’m recording later in the month with Stephen Wheel.

 

See me and my drums, here.

 

 

 

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