BY PHIL HOOD
Growing up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Black Swamp Percussion president Eric Sooy got infected with the drum building bug early. “I had no money as a kid,” he recalls, “but I built crude frame drums.” Later on, he got his first drum kit. “It was,” he says as if still disgusted by it, “a piece of crap. My dad and I painted it ‘Neil Peart red’ because he was my hero. And, I made my own racks. When I first saw them I made my own instead of mounting the toms on my bass drum.”
It wasn’t just acoustic drums that captured his attention. As he got older he also tinkered with electronic instruments and mallet percussion. “Do you remember Synsonics (made by Mattel)? When they came out I took them apart because Bruford and Peart played Simmons. I made drums from plywood and Lexan with my Synsonics pads. Then I made a real simple pedal that pushed a little button. It was springloaded so I could play the bass drum and hi-hat.” And, later, when Sooy had a 4-octave marimba, he extended it so he could customize it with a low E above the standard low C.
That urge to tinker and invent has never gone away. Today his companies, Drum Foundry, Black Swamp, and the Dynamicx snare drum line, are known for a wide range of percussion instruments and accessories, including symphonic snare drums; snare systems and wires; concert toms; innovative multibass drums; various blocks, tambourines, and triangles; specialized mounts and hardware; and a full line of Dynamicx drum set snares. These include models in metal or from steam bent solid shells in a variety of exotic woods.
Ethnomusicology Loses Out To Business
The business that became Drum Foundry and Black Swamp Percussion really started at Bowling Green University in the mid-‘90s when Sooy was on his way to a bachelor’s degree in musical performance and a master’s in ethnomusicology. Although at the time he thought that would be his career, he wanted to be a builder too, and started making his own bamboo timpani mallets. “That was the first product I actually made and sold. My friends and other students would buy them.” Postgraduate trips to Bali and then Ghana let him see how traditional percussion instruments were made as well. So when his wife got pregnant in 1997, they made the decision to move back to the Grand Rapids area and Sooy started pursuing building full-time.
After mallets, he soon got into making concert tambourines. “I looked around the industry and what I saw that a lot of what was being offered was not quality, so that was one reason I took on tambourines. From there I began expanding out woodblocks, castanets, and, of course, drums.”
When he began making concert drums for symphonic players, very few companies were in the business. “Many players were relying on vintage drums and drums that really weren’t concert drums, they were drum set drums that people were trying to convert with cable snares.” Ever since, fine concert snare drums and tambourines have been the core of the business.
However, by 2010 Sooy’s urge to tinker took him in a new direction: snares for drum set players. The Dynamicx name came about because he already had custom snare wires by that name. “I like to tinker…and this was something I was able to do in my spare time,” he says. Frustrated by the narrow needs of concert percussionists who, he says, only want drums in black or brown, he started experimenting with shell types, veneers, and new models.
The Dilemmas Of the Boutique Instrument Builder
Black Swamp’s mission is pretty simple: ”To craft concert and orchestral percussion instruments that are sonically, functionally, and visually superior to all others.” But like all smaller builders, whether they are a one-man shop or a larger operation there are tradeoffs, and Sooy and his crew have faced all of them. Should we build our components or buy them? Should we aim for more sales (and lower prices) or higher-end products and higher prices? How much custom work should be produced versus standard products that we can build over and over?
He uses the example of the Dynamicx snare wires. He started making them because he was looking for a different sound than what was available. He felt imported snare wires were abrasive-sounding, and the alternative Puresound, was darker than what he wanted. Though Dynamicx snares have gotten some traction in the market, Sooy found that it took too much valuable time away from making drums. So eventually he had to have them made overseas to his specs. “This is just a problem all custom builders face,” he says. “It’s hard to touch a drum today that doesn’t have something foreign made. Those guys in Taiwan know what they are doing.”
For Sooy the answer has been focusing more on drum innovations and less on making every part. “I’m a long-game player, not a short-term player, which you have to be in this business,” he comments. “There are no quick wins to be had [in musical instruments.]” He admits that every business is different and that some people do better at high volume and low margins than he could. “I’ve mostly stayed away from making parts for others. We’re trying to make things that are a bit more unique and have a higher barrier to entry. That’s why we’re doing solid shells. That’s why I learned how to engrave so now four of us can do it in the shop. We know our niche.”
The newest product at the high end of that niche is the Titan Bronze snare drum. It’s constructed of a cast bronze shell with cast bronze hoops. “We put some kangaroo heads on them and everyone at NAMM was blown away. I was really shocked by the reaction.” Still, at $2,100 and up, it’s not a drum for everyone. “We won’t sell a ton of them but it’s a marquee product that says, ‘Look what we can do.’”
How does he describe the sound? “I’m still trying to put a finger on it? It’s not like a brass drum because it’s 3/16” thick. It’s a centrifugally cast shell that’s really pure. As a shell it rings, and with the cast bronze hoops it dries it up, but it can still be like a shotgun. It’s not a dry drum but for a metal drum it’s on the dry side.”
Sooy has built drums in other favored metals, like titanium, and currently has a couple of special projects under development, including one using brass. But he promises it won’t be one with a black-nickel finish. “Why do it if we’re going to be like everyone else?” he says.
Before he goes, I ask him which drum is his favorite, knowing that all his creations are like children to him. He thinks for a minute and says, “My desert island drum? There’s so many. But I’m looking at a shelf now where I have a birdseye maple drum. It was a Vaughncraft shell and I played it for many years in all kinds of situations — big band, jazz, and rock. I’m a little more of a wood guy than a metal guy, personally. Probably it would be a drum like that.”