The Quest for New Drums
From Modern Drummer, May 1987
by Neil Peart
Early in 1986, I started to think that it was
time for a new drumkit. My red Tamas had been through four or five serious
tours, and had been used in the recording of Signals, Grace Under Pressure, and
Power Windows. They still sounded and looked great, but were getting a little
tired, and besides, every four or five years I just like a change—perhaps a
different sound and look.
But how to choose? Well, I think people usually
buy what they've been satisfied with before, or they buy something that someone
else sounds good playing. That's okay, I suppose, but this time I wanted to make
absolutely sure that I was choosing the best-sounding drums available (or at
least, the best sounding to me).
So I spoke to Neal Graham at the Percussion
Center in Fort Wayne, and we arranged to have no less than six identically sized
kits with the same heads brought together in the same room, so that I could do
an objective "road test" of each one. We tried to pick the most resonant shells
from each of the makers in which I was interested. There was a set of Tama
Artstars, a set of Premier Resonators, a set of Yamaha Tour series, the new
Ludwig Super Classics, a set of Sonors, and a set of Tempus fiberglass drums
from Canada—what I felt would be the best drums from six countries and three
continents. (Although I would certainly have included Gretsch in this category,
I already have a small Gretsch practice kit at home, so I know they probably
sound a bit warmer than I was looking for—plus the company proved surprisingly
uncooperative in regard to this test.)
I enjoyed the long drive down to Fort Wayne from
Toronto with my wife Jackie, cruising through the heartland in spring. It was
lovely winding along the Maumee River in a good car, thinking thoughts of
spring—and of having all those drums to play with.
But before that, I had to survive the ordeal of
my first serious drum seminar(!). I had promised Neal Graham for years now that
someday I would do my first real clinic for him, though the idea of speaking in
front of a crowd seemed a lot more intimidating than just playing drums. But
there would never be a better opportunity than this, and sometimes I like to do
things that scare me! Fortunately, it went pretty well, and I felt good about
having "survived" the experience.
The next day, we went out to Larry Yager's
farmhouse, and I spent the whole day tuning and comparing the different kits,
trying to be as objective and careful as I could. I took a walk outside once in
a while to give my ears a break, as darkening skies, strengthening winds,
sporadic raindrops, and weather warnings threatened my first tornado! I've
always wanted to see one...I think?
But I do love to see nature in dramatic action
like that, and it was nice to walk outside and be whipped by the wind for a few
minutes. Refreshed and energized by these natural forces, I bravely returned
indoors, and tuned and compared some more. Playing the kits side by side, and
sometimes two simultaneously, I was trying to detect the subtle differences
between them. Of course, all of these are great-sounding drums; any difference I
would find would have to be so subtle that only the most careful evaluation
could detect it. In fact, I would have been happy to record or tour with any of
these drums, but I was looking for something special—that extra bit of tonality
While I was shopping for snap, Larry was shopping
for hardware, comparing the different "shiny bits" for durability, practicality,
and good design. We settled on mainly Premier stands, with a few bits and pieces
from Tama and Pearl. It was interesting that the 9x13 tom seemed to be the "acid
test" for tom sounds. In each of the kits, the 8x12 and 16x16 toms were "much of
a muchness," but there were subtle differences in that 9x13 that really told the
tale. It seems to be a critical size.
I also checked out a few snare drums, and was
particularly impressed by the new Pearl model with the interchangeable shells.
Nice idea! But I'm afraid nothing has taken the place of the old Slingerland
yet; it's still number one. Another interesting discovery was that the Premier
Resonators were anything but resonant! We received permission from the company
to remove the inner shells, and then they sounded quite good—rather comparable
to the Yamahas and Sonors in having a warm, very "controllable" sound. I'm sure
any of these would make very good studio drums, for getting a good sound with a
minimum of fuss.
But I was looking for something a little edgier,
a little more exciting—something that needed a careful tuning and playing
approach to bring it alive. And I found it, too, in the Ludwigs. The results
were surprising, as I must admit Ludwig had been a kind of "dark horse"
contender to me. In fact, it was a very near thing between them and the Tamas. I
had to take another walk outside, and then compare them again to be sure.
(Disappointingly, but perhaps fortunately after all, the tornado failed to
But there it was: the response, the tonality—the
overall excitement of the Ludwig sound was just fractionally better. So...I
ordered a set!
We were to start working on new material in the
fall, and I really wanted to update my electronic outfit as well. I had been
watching the progress of digital sampling units for a couple of years, and felt
that the time was right to explore that. I spoke with the band's "technological
mentor," Jim Burgess, told him what I was after, and he recommended the Akai
unit, with a Yamaha MIDI controller. I decided to stay with the latest Simmons
pads, as I like the feel of them.The sounds are digitally stored on those little
3 1/2" computer disks, and once you put them into the Akai's RAM memory, you can
edit and change them at will without affecting the original sample. Assigning
them to different pads is a simple affair, and you can copy from the RAM to a
new disk to create new setups and safety copies. With the Yamaha MIDI
controller, you can create "chains," which allow you to change programs with the
flick of a footswitch. For example, in one of the new songs on which we're
working as I write, I play an African drum setup for the verses, and then
"click" to a setup of my acoustic Tama drums, sampled from Grand Designs, for
the choruses. Fantastic! I love it!
I have mentioned before in MD 's pages that I do
not have a natural empathy with technological things—they often give me a
headache—but at the same time I had to get into this, because, in the simplest
terms, it does what I want! I have an insatiable hunger for new percussion
sounds, but there is just no room in my existing setup for any more drums! This
way, I can have access to every percussion sound ever played (and some beyond),
and still be able to reach them all!
I spent some time with Jim assembling a library
of. disks: all kinds of ethnic percussion, acoustic drum samples from our Power
Windows album, paint cans, big sheets of metal, industrial sounds, pipes being
struck—you name it! The possibilities are absolutely infinite.
One more decision that had to be made was whether
or not to have the Vibrafibing applied to the inner shells. My last three kits
had been treated by the Percussion Center with this thin layer of fiberglass,
which is meant to even out the tonality. In keeping with my policy this time of
taking nothing for granted, I asked them to do a sample 9x13 Ludwig tom to
compare with an untreated one. Once again, it was a painstaking decision; I even
took them into "Le Studio" to listen to, since I was in Quebec at the time. I
found them to be a little sharper with the Vibrafibing, and the tonality was a
little more focused. Making a decision on the finish was equally difficult. As
much as I loved the Candy Apple Red finish of my Tamas, I just couldn't have the
same color again! Neal and I discussed a few possibilities, and he did me up a
sample with a mix consisting of an opalescent white base, with just a hint of
pink in it, and a few metallic flecks to highlight the opalescence. (More
goodies from the "hot rod" finishes book!) I stayed with the brass plating on
the hardware—because I couldn't think of anything nicer!
Another thing I have been seeking for quite a
while is a keyboard percussion synthesizer. I had been playing a marimba quite a
lot and really wanted some kind of more portable instrument to use live and
(hopefully) in the studio. Once again, Jim did some research and came up with a
unit made by the KAT company in Massachusetts.
It is available in modules of one octave and up,
and basically consists of a set of soft rubber pads laid out as a keyboard. I
decided on a three-octave range, and since the KAT is also a programmable MIDI
controller, compatible with the Akai unit, I started collecting samples of
marimbas, vibes, tubular bells, glockenspiel, tuned African percussion, harp
arpeggios—again, you name it!
Like many percussionists, I had long harbored a
secret wish to create a piece of music using only percussion instruments, and
this looked like the key to that dream! I practiced with the KAT for a few days
and then, when I had a free day, recorded a "demo" of a marimba piece I had been
working on over the summer.
I began with the marimba part, double-tracked it,
and then overdubbed my acoustic drums on top (yes, the new Ludwigs!). I began
experimenting with overdubbing different vibe sounds, a bass marimba, a cabasa,
castanets, concert toms, metal sheets, African toms, and some highly tuned
bongos. (All of this was played with mallets on the KAT unit.) I did use one of
Geddy's keyboard sounds, but since it consisted of a marimba with a human voice
mixed in, I decided that was close enough! The biggest difficulty was finding a
good bass instrument in the percussion library. The bass marimba didn't provide
the power in the bottom end that I was looking for, so we experimented with some
other things. We ended up using an African drum called a Djembe—transposed to
the keyboard—and I played the bass part with that! It made me laugh—a new
definition of "bass drum"!
The piece is entitled "Pieces Of Eight" because
of all the different time signatures it ended up meandering through. I hadn't
thought about that too much just playing the marimba, until I had to learn it on
drums! With only a day to record it all, I didn't really have time to play it
more than a couple of times through, so that, too, was a good challenge. I find
it interesting as a drummer to work with a melodic instrument and think melody
as well as rhythm. You can really get into some wild areas! In a way, I wish I
hadn't been so obsessed with drums alone in the beginning and had acquired more
knowledge of music theory. But I suppose in this day and age you do have to
Now, if I only had about two weeks in the studio
to work on this thing....
So I've got my new drumkit. Am I happy now? Well,
yeah! Here I've managed to hang on to the best of both worlds: an
exciting-sounding acoustic set and an incredibly versatile and "user-friendly"
electronic set. Who could ask for more? Well, how about "Pieces Of Eight"
becoming a hit single? Ha- ha!
Recorded and mixed at Elora Sound Studios
Engineered by Jon Erickson Technical Assistance by Jim Burgess, Larry Allen, and
Tony Geranios Copyright © 1987 by Neil Peart