BY DAVID LIBMAN
As drummers, we are obsessed with numbers. We endlessly practice in groupings of 1, 2, and 3 — often on 4- and 5-piece kits. Once we reach age 16, we load our drums into our cars for gigs. By 18 or 21 (depending on where we live), we start playing at bars and clubs — or at least stop sneaking in through the back door. The speed demons among us aspire to play double bass at 200 bpm (good luck!) and 1,200 single strokes with our hands in 60 seconds (again, good luck!).
In the year 2012, industry insiders say there is a new magic number on drummers’ minds: 1,000 — in particular, the $1,000 price point. This number represents the barrier below which many drummers are willing to hand over the cash for a new kit. At NAMM this year, I had an “I can’t complain about this” assignment that involved another number: five. The pages that follow consider five newly available sub-$1,000 (street price) drums-plus-hardware offerings from Gretsch, Sonor, Pearl, PDP/DW, and DrumCraft that, while lacking many full-professional-level features, are real-live instruments, not toys.
These kits all have a few things in common. They are made in Asia. They use poplar and/or birch — poplar shells (Gretsch and Sonor); birch/poplar hybrid shells (Pearl); or 100 percent birch shells (PDP and DrumCraft). They all come with single-chain bass drum pedals but no drum thrones. They’re all outfitted with Asian-made (not quite professional) drumheads. For the latter reason, these reviews focus more on specs and features than sound, which can alter substantially with head choice. For the most part, these kits already sound good or very good with cheap heads, but they would almost certainly sound better with professional heads. But that might tip them over that magic number.
GRETSCH ENERGY SERIES
The Energy series comes with Sabian SBR cymbals and Gretsch’s iconic teardrop lugs.
The Gretsch Energy series kit is the logical starting point to begin these reviews because, in many ways, it’s what you’d expect for less than $1,000: A fully outfitted 5-piece beginner-quality kit with hardware. At a $699 MAP price — meaning the price you could actually purchase this kit for at most stores — you can take this kit home for well below $1,000. Plus, it’s the only kit that comes with cymbals.
If you’re a beginner, this kit should appeal to you for many reasons. Among other things, a 5-piece configuration will generally work for most styles of music you would ever play. Better yet, this kit comes in the most popular standard sizes: a deep 22″ bass drum; 10″ and 12″ mounted toms; a 16″ floor tom, and a matching 14″ wood snare.
When I was a kid, almost all inexpensive kits came with cheap chrome-colored metal snares that sounded like tin cans. This wood snare sounds much better than those tin cans, and it’s nice that it matches the rest of the kit both visually and sonically. Also, when I was a kid, inexpensive drum sets made by major manufacturers typically bore different brand names on the bass drumheads. I can remember when Gretsch sold a Blackhawk series with only the “Blackhawk” logo on the front head. This Energy series kit, on the other had, proudly displays the same “Gretsch” logo on the bass drumhead that you would see if you purchased the most expensive Gretsch kit.
Gretsch also intersperses several other unique-to-Gretsch features throughout the Energy series. For example, toms are cut with 30 degree bearing edges and receive five lugs (instead of the standard six found on other brands). All drums are adorned with the beautiful teardrop-shaped Gretsch lug, which, in my opinion, is still one of the prettiest lugs around.
The hardware on this kit is pretty decent for this price. You get double-braced chrome stands that are medium weight and sturdy enough to take some abuse. Toms are mounted from the cymbal stands — one boom and one straight — via ball-mount tom holders that clamp to the stands. This allows for infinite positioning possibilities, as opposed to merely mounting toms off the bass drum. The snare stand is simple and easy to use; that’s a good thing. The single-chain bass pedal and hi-hat stand seem sturdy enough. At least as first impressions go, they had a smooth, easy action. However, if you’re looking for more speed or power, you may want to replace these pedals sooner rather than later.
With a price this low, the Energy series necessarily makes concessions to cost by abandoning features found on Gretsch’s higher-end kits. For example, the Energy series has 1.6mm flanged hoops on the toms and snare instead of the famous die-cast hoops found on Gretsch’s Renown, New Custom, and USA Custom series. The bass drum hoops are metal (not wood). The shells are made from poplar (not the maple or maple/poplar combo of Gretsch’s higher-end kits), and there is no Silver Sealer on the interior shells. The toms are mounted with brackets attached directly to the shell, not the suspension-type mounts found on professional kits. The Gretsch heads on this kit are “acceptable,” but they do not sound nearly as good as professional heads. Still, the kit — even with these lesser features — is quite nice.
As for the included Sabian SBR cymbals, you should probably think of these as place holders until you can afford to upgrade. Don’t get me wrong, Sabian makes some fantastic cymbals, but those Sabians are typically made from cast bronze. These SBRs are stamped into shape from sheet brass and sound nothing like Sabian’s higher-end offerings.
What Sets It Apart?
With five drums, good hardware, and included cymbals, this kit offers the most quantity of gear for the least expensive price — all in an attractive-looking package. While not a professional kit, this is a good-quality beginner set of drums and hardware that could last you for years if you treat it well. You may need to replace the heads eventually, but you’d also have to do that with a professional kit.
Configuration 22″ x 18″ virgin bass drum, 10″ x 7″ tom (five lug), 12″ x 8″ tom (five lug), 16″ x 14″ floor tom, and 14″ x 5.5″ snare (eight lug).
Shells Poplar with natural interiors. 30 degree edges on toms and bass drum. 45 degree edges on snare.
Hoops 1.6mm on snare and toms; metal hoops with wrap inlay on bass drum.
Heads Gretsch clear single-ply.
Finish White wrap. Also available in Black and Grey Steel wrap.
Hardware Gretsch Energy medium-weight hardware pack (double-braced stands): boom stand with tom holder; straight stand with tom holder; snare stand; hi-hat stand; and single-chain bass drum pedal.
Cymbals Sabian SBR cymbal pack (sheet brass cymbals): 13″ hi-hats, 16″ crash, and 20″ ride.
SONOR BOP DRUMS: AN ELEGANTLY DESIGNED JAZZ KIT
The Bop series can be paired with Sonor’s medium-weight 200 series hardware pack, or its slightly heavier 400 series hardware pack.
You might think that if you’re looking to buy a kit with hardware for less than $1,000, you would be relegated to 1) a standard-size kit with a 22″ bass drum, and 2) limited hardware choices. With Sonor’s Bop Kit (available in the U.S. only), you’d be wrong on both counts.
For 2012, Sonor offers its Bop shell pack for $399. This shell pack comes in the sizes jazzers love: an 18″ bass drum; 12″ mounted tom; 14″ floor tom, and 14″ snare. You can still keep the price under $1,000, while choosing between two hardware packs: Sonor’s medium-weight 200 series hardware pack ($479); or its slightly heavier 400 series hardware pack ($539).
These hardware packs look very similar at first glance but they have some notable differences. The 400 series boom stands have extra tubing with two height adjustments (other than the boom), as opposed to the 200 series booms, which have only one height adjustment per stand. The 400 series hi-hat stand has a black swivel spring-tension adjustment that’s nowhere to be seen on the 200 series hi-hat. The 400 series hardware pack is not that much heavier and only $60 more than the $200 series. All things being equal, I’d go with the 400 series pack.
Both the 200 and 400 series hardware packs are very attractive from a design perspective. Sonor’s wing screws are half-moon shapes. The double-braced legs have long parallel lines that look much different than the legs on any other drum brand. The rubber feet have a mallet shape that is similar to Sonor’s mallet logo. The mini booms have just enough length to allow cymbals to be positioned at any angle, but no extra length that would make them look or feel unruly. The bass drum pedal has a sturdy bass plate, a single chain, a round cam, and a relatively small footboard. The footboard shape again has the same mallet motif as Sonor’s logo. This pedal has a smooth feel. Plus, its nifty two-sided felt or plastic beater looks the same (or very similar) to the beater on Sonor’s more expensive Giant Beat pedal.
All drums have mini chrome mallet-shaped lugs — again a riff on the Sonor logo. These lugs include an internal Tune Safe safeguard designed to keep tension rods from loosening. These drums have thinner 1.6mm hoops, which I find are less likely to stay in tune than thicker hoops on any drum, so the Tune Safe feature is a huge plus on a kit like this. The bass drum legs have a quirky rounded shape and fold out from the shell. The tom mount is an infinite-angle ball mechanism that works easily and looks classy.
To my eyes, Sonor’s Silver Galaxy wrap is one of the better silver sparkle wraps available. The sparkles look smaller than normal. Consequently, they seem to catch the light in a unique way and glisten from any angle. The wrap is shiny enough that you might mistake it for a lacquer finish. (Red sparkle will also be available in 2012.)
The Bop drums were easy to tune, so I assume they have evenly cut bearing edges. With that said, it would be unfair to give a detailed account of these drums’ sound because the drumheads are mediocre at best. Still, the toms had a clear tone, the bass drum had a nice punch, and the snare had a crisp crack. To my ear, Sonor drums generally have an identifiable and distinct focused sound. These drums had that sound, even with these drumheads. With professional heads, I suspect this kit would really sing.
What Sets It Apart?
I love 18″ bass drums for any gig that doesn’t go beyond medium volume. Most decent kits with 18″ kicks are quite pricey. The ability to get a kit with bop sizes that looks anything but generic makes this kit a real gem. P.S. If these drums aren’t small enough for you, Sonor offers a Safari kit with a 16″ bass drum for a very similar price.
Configuration 18″ x 16″ bass drum, 12″ x 8″ tom, 14″ x 14″ floor tom, and 14″ x 5.5″ snare.
Shells/Lugs Select poplar 9-ply 7.2mm shells with 45 degree bearing edges. Tune Safe lugs on all drums. STH 274 single tom holder kick drum mount.
Hoops 1.6mm on snare and toms. Wood hoops on bass drum.
Heads Remo UT single-ply.
Finish Silver Galaxy Sparkle wrap. Red Galaxy Sparkle wrap (available fall 2012).
Hardware Medium-weight 200 series HS 275 hardware set (double-braced stands): two MBS 273 mini boom stands; SS 277 snare stand; HH 274 hi-hat stand; and SP 473 single-chain-drive pedal with double-sided beater, support board, and adjustable toe stop. Or Heavy-weight 400 series HS 475 hardware set (double-braced stands): 2 MBS 473 mini boom stands; SS 477 snare stand; HH 474 hi-hat stand; and SP 473 single-chain-drive pedal with double sided beater, support board, and adjustable toe stop.
Price $399 (shell pack, U.S. only).
$479 (HS 275 hardware set).
$539 (HS 475 hardware set).
PEARLVISION BIRCH ARTISAN II
The Vision Birch’s pinstripes come courtesy of American Chopper artist Nub.
Pearl is one of the biggest drum companies in the world. You might assume that because of this, your under-$1,000 kit would be totally generic and soulless. Fortunately, that’s not the case at all. Because of Pearl’s size, it’s able to manufacture its own shells, hardware, etc. without outsourcing. This means that if you buy a Pearl kit, you get several features that are unique to Pearl. The Vision Birch Artisan II series incorporates many of these Pearl-only features, making it a very appealing and unique choice in the sub-$1,000 category.
Although called Vision Birch, the 6-ply shells on this kit have only one inner ply of birch. The remaining plies consist of poplar, another not-too-expensive tone wood. Pearl utilizes a proprietary SST (superior shell technology) to make these shells. They’re known to be strong and consistent. This process involves cutting shell plies with overlapping scarf-joint seams, saturating each ply with Pearl’s exclusive glue, and forming the shell in a high-temperature mold under pressure.
First impressions for me were that these birch/poplar hybrid shells are a good combo. The drums sound surprisingly good, even with non-professional heads. The 14″ x 5.5″ snare sits in an appropriate mid-range frequency, and it had a bounciness that made me want to dig into it — probably due to the fact that it has eight instead of ten lugs. The Remo UT Pinstripe heads on the toms are, in my opinion, much nicer than the Remo UT single-ply clear heads on other budget kits. The 10″, 12″, and 16″ toms have plenty of sustain, nice tone, and the sort of EQ’d punch that I’d expect from birch (even if it is just the inner ply).
The two mounted toms each mount off the bass drum into Pearl’s Bridge Type bass bracket. Drummers either love or hate this mounting system. I love it because the bracket has a separate receptacle for each tom arm so that each tom can be positioned completely independently of the other. This bracket doesn’t seem to have any negative impact on the sound of the kick. This 22″ bass drum sounded big and open with plenty of volume.
All the drums have Pearl’s Bridge lugs. These look similar to Gretsch or Slingerland lugs, but they have less shell contact due to a gap (or bridge) between the two screws that connect the lug to the shell. Supposedly this allows the shell to resonate more. It seems to work.
Pearl offers four lacquer finishes in the Vision Birch Artisan II series. This review kit has the one wrap finish currently available: an exclusive blackish wrap with orange and white pinstripes designed by the artist Nub. (If you watch the television show American Chopper,Nub is the guy who often paints the gas tanks for Junior.) The pinstripes make this one of the cooler wrap finishes I’ve seen on any kit at any price.
What Sets It Apart?
The hardware. Although not its most expensive or heavy-duty series of hardware, Pearl’s 900 series hardware is, in my view, fully professional hardware loaded with great features. Even if you decide to buy more expensive drums a few years down the line, you’d probably keep this hardware.
Among other things, the 900 series stands are double braced, very stable, and have chrome with a noticeably high-quality look and feel. The cymbal stands, snare stand, and tom arms come with toothless Uni-lock tilters that allow for infinite angle adjustments. Instead of a standard wing nut, the cymbal stands have Pearl’s Winglock — a hard plastic gizmo that allows you to quickly snap and lock the cymbal in place (instead of spinning a wing nut down a thread.) I like that the Winglocks don’t rattle or buzz.
The P-900 single-chain pedal has a linear round cam and borrows several features from Pearl’s famous Eliminator series pedals, including, most notably, the Powershifter feature. This allows you to shift the footboard back and forth in three positions for a heavy, medium, or lightweight feel. I prefer the lightweight feel, but whatever your preference, this pedal feels smooth and fast. The H-900 hi-hat includes a handy spinning spring-tension adjustment, swivel legs (for easy positioning if you use a double pedal), and the same footboard as the bass drum pedal. Overall, this is a good set of drums with great hardware that makes it an excellent under-$1,000 choice.
Configuration 22″ x 18″ bass drum, 10″ x 8″ tom, 12″ x 9″ tom, 16″ x 16″ floor tom, and 14″ x 5.5″ snare (SR-900 Duo-Motion strainer can be converted from a side-lever action to a Gladstone-type throw-off). Toms have I.S.S. tom mounts.
Shells 6-ply (inner ply birch, remaining outer plies are poplar).
Hoops 1.6mm; wood hoops on bass drum.
Heads Remo Pinstripe UT batters, Pearl bottoms, and Remo Powerstroke bass drumheads.
Finish Old School Pinstripe wrap design by Nub. Vision Birch Artisan II also comes with Amber Burst Eucalyptus, Emerald Fade Eucalyptus, and Ruby Fade Eucalyptus lacquer finishes.
Hardware 900 series hardware pack (double-braced stands): C-900 straight stand; BC-900 disappearing boom stand; S-900 snare stand; H-900 hi-hat stand with swivel legs, and P-900 single-chain-drive pedal with Powershifter plate and two-sided beater.
PDP CB4 CONCEPT BIRCH KIT: A PERFECT BALANCE BETWEEN QUALITY & PRICE
The CB4 retains a lot of DNA from its DW parent.
or 2012, PDP introduced Concept series birch and maple drums as boutique-style drum kits that can be purchased at an affordable price. To understand the “Concept,” a bit of history helps. Now celebrating its 40th anniversary, DW made its reputation as an ultra-custom drum manufacturer that makes high-end drums (and they’re all high end) in the U.S. In 2000, DW created PDP as a sibling company that would offer less-expensive drums and hardware but, in theory, still include many of DW’s high-end features and innovations. To keep costs down, PDP drums are (or have been) made in places like Mexico and China.
In the last few years, DW began making what has become a very successful production series of drums in California: the Performance series. Four-piece Performance series shell packs can be purchased for just over $1,900. At the same time, PDP discontinued its flagship Platinum series drums. DW acknowledges that there was perhaps too much brand blur between PDP Platinum series shell packs that sold for well over $1,000 and DW Performance series shell packs that sell for not much more than that. PDP’s Concept series is an attempt to keep DW/PDP distinctions focused, while offering the drumming consumer a professional-quality kit made offshore (in China) at a very affordable price point.
I reviewed the Concept Birch drums at NAMM and was immediately impressed with their sound and feel. The mounted and floor toms responded with punchy attack, nice sustained tone, and a spongy rebound that is unmistakably similar to the feel of DW toms. The 20″ bass drum has tremendous versatility. It can play soft enough for the smallest clubs, but it can get loud enough to play amplified music at medium to not-too-loud volumes. PDP includes an acoustically designed bass drum pillow that muffles this kick just enough but not too much.
The Concept snare has a slightly thicker shell than the rest of the kit (ten instead of seven plies) and thicker hoops (2.5mm). These thicker components give this drum the sort of rigidity that’s helpful if you want to pull a loud crack out of this snare at higher volumes. Snare sensitivity is excellent and the copper wires have a bit of “sparkle” in their sound that’s audibly better than run-of-the mill snare wires. PDP includes DW’s MAG throw-off on this snare (with the DW logo). This is a smooth and quiet drop-lever mechanism that uses a magnet on the lever to engage snare wires when you flip the lever up. It also includes an ergonomic horizontal-tension knob to make fine adjustments to snare-wire tension.
The high-gloss Cherry-to-Black lacquer on this kit has a mirror-like sheen. Concept Birch also comes in a Natural-to-Charcoal fade finish, but the Concept Maple kits come in five other color options (including two sparkle fade finishes). I would like to see a few sparkle finish options on the Concept Birch kit in the future. PDP completes the classy look of this kit with Dual-Turret lugs. These look like two mini DW circular lugs stacked atop each other and are simple yet attractive. The Concept series badges are the first PDP badges ever to also include the “DW” name.
If you buy the $619 Concept CB4 shell pack, you will have plenty left over to buy hardware and complete your kit for less than $1,000. DW suggested the PDP 8.155 medium hardware pack for $240. These stands are medium weight with double-braced legs for stability. Cymbal stands have memory locks and fine-tooth tilters. The snare stand is sturdy and functional. The hi-hat and bass drum pedals have enough adjustments to get the feel to your liking — although, they’re not necessarily speed demons. Overall, this is high-quality, no-frills hardware that gives you everything you probably need for most gigs, but not much more.
What Sets It Apart?
An array of features that are unexpected on a kit priced under $1,000 — many of which are subtle but make a huge difference in your playing enjoyment. These features include True Pitch tuning rods for more accurate tuning, copper snare wires, the MAG throw-off, graduated hoop thicknesses for optimal tuning on each drum, a thicker snare shell, a bass drum pillow, a top-notch lacquer finish, and drums that sound very good. In my view, this “Concept” strikes just the right balance between quality and price.
Configuration 20″ x 16″ bass drum (with included bass drum pillow), 12″ x 9″ tom, 14″ x 12″ floor tom, and 14″ x 5.5″ snare with copper snare wires and MAG throw-off. (Other configurations are available, including Concept Maple kits.)
Shells 7-ply birch toms and bass drum; 10-ply birch snare; no reinforcement rings; Dual-Turret lugs; and True Pitch tension rods on all drums; toms include specially designed STM mounts.
Hoops Graduated thickness: 1.5mm on 8″ and 10″ toms; 2mm on 12″, 14″, and 16″ toms; and 2.5mm on 14″ snare. Wood hoops on bass drum.
Heads Remo UC
Finish Cherry-to-Black-fade lacquer. Also available in Charcoal Fade.
Hardware 8.155 medium-weight hardware pack (double-braced stands): CB800 straight/boom cymbal stand; CS800 straight cymbal stand; SS800 snare stand; HH800-01 three-leg hi-hat stand, and SP450 single-chain-drive pedal.
Price $619.99 drums; $239.99 hardware.
DRUMCRAFT FUSION SERIES 6: AN INCREDIBLE VALUE
Striking lacquer finishes, eco-conscious design, and German engineering —any questions?
DrumCraft is a German drum company that launched in 2009. I first saw DrumCraft at NAMM in 2011 and was impressed with the look and sound of the company’s kits, not to mention the outrageously low prices attached to them. As of 2012, DrumCraft currently offers four drum series: 1) Series 8 — its most expensive line, available in birch, maple, or acrylic shells; 2) Series 7 — similar to Series 8, but with wrap instead of lacquer finishes; 3) Series 6 — an all-birch kit made in Asia, but according to German design and manufacturing standards; and 4) Series 4 — the least expensive kit made from birch/poplar shells.
I was able to spend some time checking out the Series 6 all-birch kit. The first thing that intrigued me about this kit before even placing stick to drum was its good looks. The Purple Haze lacquer on the model I reviewed was simply gorgeous, with a shade that’s just right and a glass-like surface. DrumCraft prides itself on being a “green” company, so it accomplishes this lustrous finish via a water-based varnish that contains no hazardous solvents. Furthermore, DrumCraft constructs its 8-ply all-birch shells via a staggered ply process where they are glued together using formaldehyde-free glue. Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen, and DrumCraft doesn’t want to use it in making its drums.
DrumCraft integrates a modern-looking cylindrical motif throughout the entire design of its Series 6 kit. The DrumCraft lugs look like two half cylinders (one smaller, one larger) stacked atop each other. The die-cast bass drum claws look like full chrome cylinders (with nylon inserts to protect the wood hoops). The floor tom leg receptacles are also cylindrical. Even the rubber feet on the Series 6 hardware have an elongated cylindrical look. The overall effect is a set that looks well thought-out with a fully integrated design.
The Series 6 has many high-end features that you might not immediately notice or expect. The snare has a Nickel Drumworks throw-off. This is a super smooth custom throw-off with a simple clear plastic lever engagement mechanism that utilizes a patented design of pistons and, you guessed it, cylinders. Typically, these throw-offs only show up on expensive custom snares, so it’s nice to get one on an affordable kit. Toms and snare have 2.3mm flanged hoops, which are stronger than the thinner hoop varieties found on many other budget kits.
DrumCraft’s triple bass drum mount has two short tom holders with ball angle adjustments for the mounted toms. It also includes another receptacle for whatever else you might want to mount (say, a splash cymbal). This mount reminds me of Yamaha’s three-hole tom mount assembly, although DrumCraft’s looks a bit bulkier. Similarly, DrumCraft’s Zero Gravity tom mount reminds me of the RIMS suspension mount, but again, DrumCraft’s looks bulkier.
The chrome on the Series 6 hardware pack had a high-quality glimmer. The double braced stands felt substantial and sturdy — somewhere between medium and heavy weight. I like that the hardware pack comes with two boom cymbal stands (no straight stands). These stands have nylon inserts where wing screws tighten, two separate height-adjustable tubes, and gear tilters. The snare stand has a ball angle adjustment, like the tom arms. I prefer gear tilters for snare stands, but that’s just me. The hi-hat has a multiple-adjustment spring tension and a swivel three-leg base, which I always prefer. The bass drum pedal is a single-chain design with the adjustments you’d expect — beater angle, length, etc. It worked fine, but it did not feel particularly fast.
When I played this kit, everything sounded like what I would expect from a good-quality birch kit. Toms are punchy, the snare is full and snappy, and the bass drum has a nice punchy thud to it. If I bought this kit, I’d immediately replace the heads to achieve what I’m sure would be an even more impressive sound.
What Sets It Apart?
I don’t know how much it costs DrumCraft to make the Series 6 shell pack with hardware, but I was almost shocked the company could offer you so much for less than $1,000. You get five drums made from all-birch shells with a gorgeous lacquer finish, nice heavy-duty chrome hardware, and cool features like the Nickel Drumworks throw-off. You could show up at the gig and tell your bandmates that you spent $2,000 on this kit, and they probably wouldn’t blink. With professional heads and a better bass drum pedal, this is the kind of kit you could take with you to gigs (and be proud of) for years to come.
Configuration 22″ x 18″ kick, 10″ x 8″ tom, 12″ x 9″ tom, 14″ x 13″ floor tom and 14″ x 5″ snare drum with Nickel Drumworks throw-off. Toms have Zero Gravity mounts.
Shells 8-ply birch with staggered plies and 45 degree inner bearing edge and barely rounded sharp ridge 45 degree countercut.
Hoops 2.3mm on snare and toms. Wood hoops on bass drum.
Heads Remo UK
Finish Purple Haze lacquer. Also available in Pitch Black, Pearl White (pictured), Lava Red, Natural Birch, Deep Sea Burst, and Ocean Blue lacquer finishes.
Hardware Series 6 hardware pack (medium-weight double-braced stands): two CBS-6 boom stands; SS-6 snare stand with ball cradle adjustment; HH-6 hi-hat stand with swivel tripod; and PD 6 single-chain-drive pedal.