BY BRAD SCHLUETER
A NEW ANGLE FOR SHELLS
At DW, the wheel of innovation just never stops churning. Like most manufacturers, its drums are made of plywood, in which thin sheets of wood, usually maple or birch, are glued and pressed together. Drum companies cross-laminate their shells for strength, meaning the grain direction of each layer is arranged perpendicular to the preceding layer. But DW has gone a step further than most by offering three different versions of its shells, which differ from each other in the orientation of the wood plies.
Most drum makers agree that the interior ply of a drum shell has the most influence over a drum’s sound. DW’s Built-In Bottom shells have the interior wood ply oriented vertically, which apparently offers more low-end response than a horizontally oriented ply. These shells are now standard on DW’s Collector series bass drums and all tom-toms 14″ and larger.
A few years ago DW began experimenting with placing both the interior and exterior plies vertically, which reduced shell tension, resulting in greater vibration and a lower pitch than previous DW shells. The company named these VLT shells, which means “Vertical Low Timbre.”
DW’s latest shell option is called the X Shell, and is named after the unusual, diagonal angle at which the wood plies are positioned to one another. DW has been orienting the exterior ply of some of its exotic wood drums diagonally for several years, referring to them as “twisted grain shells,” with the result being some very dramatic aesthetics. But what prompted the creation of the X Shell is the question of whether cross-laminating diagonally oriented plies would yield sonic attributes different from the VLT shell.
A shell with all the plies running vertically might yield a very low pitch, but it would collapse like the cardboard insert in a roll of toilet paper under the least bit of stress. So DW tried positioning the plies in an “X” shape, and the result was a perfect blend of strength and low-pitched tone. The shells are crafted with eight plies for bass drums and snares and seven plies for tom-toms, and all have 3-ply, finger-jointed reinforcing rings.
DW sent me a monstrous set comprised of a bass drum, a snare, five toms, and a pair of Rata Toms, as well as a full complement of DW 9000 series hardware. Wow! Where was this kit back when I was still playing progressive rock? Specifically, I was sent a 14″ x 5.5″ snare, 8″ x 7″, 10″ x 8″, and 12″ x 9″ rack toms, 14″ x 12″ and 16″ x 14″ floor toms, two unusual 6″ x 12″ and 6″ x 18″ Rata Toms, and a completely unique 23″ x 18″ bass drum. Yes, it really is a 23″-diameter bass drum. Although the kit did arrive around April Fool’s Day, I measured it just to be sure. Since there isn’t space enough in this article to adequately cover both the hardware and drums, I’ll focus on the drums. Suffice it to say, the hardware is of DW’s usual high standards and is sturdy, functional, and universally excellent.
When I unpacked the kit I was stunned. The drums featured DW’s Regal Royal Burst Lacquer Specialty over Ivory Ebony Exotic finish. That’s DW-speak for a blue-to-green burst finish over a streaked black grain pattern that is simply breathtaking. The finish had a wonderful irregularity to the grain, but at the seams, DW flipped the plies, creating a mirror-image grain effect. The drums were flawlessly finished with a beautiful glossy lacquer that’s as smooth as glass. The hardware on the drums had DW’s chrome finish, which I preferred to the company’s other hardware options. This is one of the most gorgeous drum sets I’ve ever reviewed. I smiled every time I looked at it. Ah, to be rich. Oh well, back to reality.
As much as looks matter, I was most interested in the sound. And since this is an especially large kit, I’ve broken it down into its component parts.
One of the most striking aspects of the kit are the Rata Toms — single-headed 6″-diameter toms that are available in a variety of depths. While similar to Tama’s Octabons, the Rata Toms are made from maple, and feature the same gorgeous finish as the rest of the kit. They are, however, unfortunately (if understandably) pricey additions.
If you play in a prog rock, reggae, or world music band, you may have a use for the Rata Toms’ unique sonic signature. But for most of us, they simply wouldn’t earn their keep. One thing I did determine is that, if I owned these, I definitely would not mike them from the top. There are two reasons for this: The first is that they’re very small and a microphone would probably get in the way while playing them. More importantly, though, they make a very short thunk sound with a lot of attack when heard from the playing position, but sound much better from the bottom end. This is where you can hear less attack, more pitch, additional sustain, and all the tone that is missing from the player’s perspective. This is something you might not discover unless you have a friend play them, or point them toward your face and play them, as I did. It’s clear that the Rata Toms use a horizontally oriented interior ply. And after speaking with DW, I learned that the company doesn’t use the X Shell construction in the Rata Toms for structural reasons.
The snare on this kit features a ten-lug design with triple-flanged hoops and uses Gibraltar’s Dunnett-designed rotating throw-off. This all-metal throw-off has a rotating handle that accommodates right- and left-handed players. I worried that the drum might be tubby-sounding with the X Shell design. Upon closer examination, however, the interior ply of the snare ran vertically, and it turned out to be a VLT shell. Though this clearly wasn’t one, DW does make snares with the X Shell design.
None of that really matters though. What does matter is that this is a wonderful-sounding drum. It was surprisingly crisp and sensitive for a wood drum, and had a rich tone, yet wasn’t at all boxy sounding. It offered a good rim-click sound, and its rimshots had the perfect amount of ring for my taste. This is a great snare drum and would work for any style of music.
The toms didn’t disappoint me either. Out of the box, they were tuned very low. Once I raised the bottom heads and got the top heads where I wanted them, I found a set of great-sounding toms with good sustain and a healthy amount of low end. They had a good balance of attack to sustain and a big warm tone. The two floor toms were amazing, with even more richness than the rack toms. The toms all blended perfectly together, without a dud among them.
Due to their single-ply heads, they had an openness and clarity during their decay, but if you prefer, that could be made even fuller sounding with double-ply heads. I reviewed a superb DW Vertical Low Timbre kit a couple of years ago, and if my recollection is correct, this kit has even better sounding toms. If I were ordering a DW kit today, these are the shells I’d choose.
The 23″ bass drum offered a deep, satisfying thud, but it wasn’t as exceptional as the toms and snare were to my ears. Don’t get me wrong — this is a very nice-sounding drum. It sounded similar to a 22″ bass drum, yet felt a little softer, although that varied depending on tuning. That extra inch probably does allow the tone to reach a little lower, but it wasn’t something that I found to be incredibly obvious. In fact, I didn’t find that it sounded any bigger or deeper than some other 22″ drums I’ve played, but that could also have had something to do with head selection. Frankly, though, I can’t see any particular advantage to a 23″ bass drum over a 22″, or over a more common 24″ for that matter, which offers a distinctly lower tone with the added benefit of readily available replacement heads.
While I applaud DW’s innovative spirit, I can’t help but think that the 23″ bass drum is the weak link in this equation, and has “bad idea” written all over it. For a brief period, Tama manufactured 11″-diameter toms, which might have made sense on paper. Sonically, they’d be a little lower than a 10″ drum and would work great for rock music. But when the rest of the drum industry didn’t follow suit, the owners of those drums found themselves stuck with an albatross, and facing a limited selection of available head styles. When Tama abandoned the idea all together, the drums because truly obsolete and difficult to sell.
I teach at one of the largest drum shops in the world, and while we have nearly a thousand heads in stock, we have no plans to stock 23″ heads, so what happens if you’re on tour and your spare heads get lost? Remo makes the head for DW, but what if you endorse or prefer an Evans EMAD or Aquarian Superkick? In a best-case scenario, every other drum manufacturer will embrace the idea and begin making oodles of 23″ bass drums, but the likelihood of that happening strikes me as effectively nil, especially in the current economy. I can see making a special kit with this size drum for an endorser like Neil Peart (who inspired the idea), but since drum kits have a way of lasting decades, it strikes me as something consumers would be safer avoiding. Plus, either a 22″ or 24″ drum will fit the bass drum case you may already own.
Great-sounding drums are simply inspiring to play. DW’s new X Shell drums deliver all the warmth, sustain, and low end the company promises. The toms and snare sound great and the kit has a flawless, gorgeous finish to boot. DW’s hardware is already the choice of countless professionals for its features and durability, and the 9000 series is the beefiest hardware yet. The one drawback of the kit I reviewed is the unnecessarily odd size of the 23″ bass drum. Otherwise, any professional (with deep pockets) who demands the best will be thrilled to own one of these kits.
MODEL Collector’s Series X Shell Drum Set
SHELLS Diagonally cross-laminated shells crafted from 100-percent North American hard rock maple. 8″ toms are 7-ply, snares are 10-ply, and all other bass drums and toms are 8-ply. All have a matching maple 3-ply reinforcing ring.
CONFIGURATION 8″ x 7″, 10″ x 8″, 12″ x 9″ rack toms, 14″ x 12″ and 16″ x 14″ floor toms, a 14″ x 5.5″ snare, a 6″ x 12″ and 6″ x 18″ Rata Toms, and a 23″ x 18″ bass drum.
FINISH Regal Royal Burst Lacquer Specialty over Ivory Ebony Exotic.
FEATURES Full complement of DW 9000 series hardware; unique “X” orientation of plies offers strength and increased low end; 3-ply, finger-jointed reinforcing rings in every shell; full range of DW finishes and drum hardware colors available.
PRICES $12,676 drums and hardware (as reviewed), or $7,872 for the 7-piece kit without hardware. Hardware costs $2,845, and Rata Toms are an additional $1,959.
Drum Workshop Inc.
3450 Lunar Court
Oxnard, CA 93030