FROM DRUM! MAGAZINE’S APRIL 2018 ISSUE | BY BRAD SCHLUETER
Doc Sweeney prides itself on making one-of-a-kind custom drum kits. This boutique brand from California has been building snares since 2014 and drum kits since 2016, and in that brief time has made a name for itself creating gorgeous snares and kits from exotic woods using stave or steam-bent construction.
Most companies typically create a design and make dozens, hundreds, or thousands of identical kits. Doc Sweeney doesn’t “remake” a kit unless the original owner grants the company permission to do it.
So, our striking, steam-bent review kit is unique, to say the least (it even has a cool name: “Panther”), but it’s an example of the level of quality that can be expected from all of Doc’s creations.
Our Panther kit featured steam-bent East Indian rosewood shells with purpleheart and curly maple inlays. I’ve never reviewed or even seen a rosewood kit before, let alone one that was built using steam-bent shells. Part of the reason is that the cost of the raw materials is very high, and it’s not a build-friendly wood. Despite these challenges, rosewood was chosen because of its exceptional tonal characteristics. Doc Sweeney founder and drum maker Steve Stecher believes this is the only steam-bent East Indian Rosewood kit in existence.
Our Panther kit included a 20″ x 14″ bass drum, 13″ x 9″ tom, 14″ x 14″ floor tom, and 14″ x 5.5″ snare. The shells are 5/16″ thick with 5/16″ rosewood reinforcing rings. The bearing edges have a 45-degree round over, which is a popular and versatile edge profile. Each Doc Sweeney drum set is sold as a shell pack, so you’ll need to supply the necessary hardware. The steam-bent shells are available in sizes from 10″ to 26″ with a maximum depth of 18″. The company also offers 30-degree round over, fully rounded, and dual 45-degree edges.
A little backstory on drum construction will be helpful in understanding just what makes Doc Sweeney drums so unique. Most modern kits are made of various forms of plywood, which is the cheapest way to make wood drums. In this process, glue is applied to thin sheets of wood, which are then put into a mold and pressed into shape. Plywood has some advantages in that you can have different woods used inside and outside the shell, and the edges of the plies are offset for added strength so that they can be made thin. These drums don’t usually need reinforcing rings, though some manufacturers add them to alter the tone.
Steam-bent drums are much rarer and more difficult to make. A single high-quality board is slowly steam-bent into shape and then dried until the moisture content is right. Next, the scarf joints are glued and clamped. Reinforcing rings are added to the top and bottom of the shell to secure its shape. If there any inlays, the drum will be routed and they will be applied. Next, holes are drilled and the edges are cut before the finishing process begins.
Steam-bending is one of the most costly methods of making drums because of the amount of labor, the quality of materials, and the amount of time (four to six weeks) needed to create a single drum, depending on the species. Many drummers desire them, however, because of their heritage and rich vintage sound that harkens back to the days of classic Radio King drums.
Sitting behind and playing a top-shelf, only-one-in-existence drum set is an exclusive experience akin, perhaps, to driving a Rolls Royce. These drums are gorgeous, exquisitely made, and like a Rolls, well out of my price range. However, that never interfered with the joy I had playing them, unless you count the suppressed awareness that I’d eventually have to send them back.
I tried a couple of different tunings with these drums, and they never choked. At the lowest tuning the toms reminded me of studio drums from the ’70s, only with a lot more resonance. This is due in part to the Aquarian Focus X heads with a ported ring beneath the outside edge of each head. This removes unwanted overtones and seems to enhance the attack and low-end by dampening the highs. I liked that full and deep ’70s sound with the ample sustain. With these drums and heads and some muffling, I’d never be tempted to use single-headed concert toms.
The Focus X heads were forgiving of inexact tuning and made it hard to get a bad sound. The toms’ sustain decreased a bit as I raised the tuning to the bebop range, but the tone never suffered.
The snare was fantastic. The rosewood seems to bring a full sonority to the sound regardless of tuning. Tuned low, it would be a great recording snare for a ballad. When cranked high, it still had that woody tone I like, while becoming more sensitive and crisp. Cranking the 20-strand Canopus wires added to the drum’s articulation. It had some ring, but that never overpowered the tone.
The bass drum had a deep, punchy sound that I loved for funk. I like Aquarian Super Kick II batter heads but found the dampening of the second Super Kick used as a resonant head to be a little too extreme for most styles. The good news is Doc Sweeney offers a variety of choices from Aquarian, Remo, and Evans to accommodate any preference.
Played together, these drums offered a cohesively warm sound that made me wish I could have recorded with them. Their tone had me playing them not just with sticks, but also with brushes and mallets to extract a variety of textures. I would have loved to lay down some old school funk, a la Vulfpeck, with these drums.
Doc Sweeney chooses highly figured woods, so the wood grain remains the star of the show. It should come as no surprise that this kit was a looker. In the middle of each shell is a purpleheart inlay with thin curly maple bands bordering it, and two more purpleheart inlays near the outer edges of the shells under the lugs. The bass drum hoops were curly maple with a purpleheart inlay. The combination of these three kinds of wood resulted in a visually stunning kit.
The finish was flawless. The drums have a hand-rubbed oil finish, which gives them a transparent, glossy sheen. Unlike thicker polyurethane, the oil reveals the wood grain’s texture. There are a dozen coats of hand-rubbed oil, and each is followed by hand-sanding.
Most of Doc Sweeney’s kits highlight the exotic look of their wood, though the company also can dye woods for more colorful effects. They also can laser etch shells with graphics or text and apply inlays for spectacular looks.
Doc Sweeney uses a unique turret-style lug made from 6061 aircraft-grade aluminum with stainless steel tubes and fasteners. Every lug turned smoothly without binding or needing extra coaxing or lubrication.
The toms and snare on our Panther kit had S-Hoop drum rims on top and bottom. This is a variation of a triple-flanged hoop, but the top flange bends toward the head rather than away from it. It’s a bit wider and more rigid than a triple-flanged hoop, functioning more like a die-cast hoop. This allows for loud, clear cross-stick sounds and cutting rimshots. Die cast and wood hoops are also available.
The bass drum did not have a tom mount, which is thought to put stress on the shell and dampen the resonance. The folding bass drum spurs were heavy duty with retractable spikes, and there were gaskets where the hardware connects the shell. The floor tom brackets were hinged. Our 13″ mounted tom didn’t have a bracket, so most drummers would likely mount it on a snare stand.
The bass drum had ten lugs per head, the floor tom had eight, and the mounted tom had six, while the snare had ten dual-sided turret lugs in the middle of the shell. The snare drum used Trick’s Multi-Step throw-off, which cleverly offers a couple of positions between released and fully engaged.
As you adjust the fine-tuning knob, you can feel detents that help secure the setting.
The Panther kit came with Aquarian heads. The snare had a single-ply Texture Coated head (excellent for brushes) over a Classic Clear snare side head. The toms had Focus X coated batter heads over Classic Clear resonant heads, and the bass drum had a Super Kick II batter head and a ported Super Kick logo head.
Perhaps the most notable feature of Doc Sweeney drums is that the company works with customers to build the one-of-a-kind kit of their dreams. If you’re into mixing and matching, Doc Sweeney also offers dual species drums that use one wood near the batter head and a different one near the resonant head. Some of the woods may be familiar, like maple, cherry, and walnut; others, such as canary, rosewood, and myrtle, probably aren’t.
Reviewers tend to misuse the word “unique,” but in this case it’s entirely appropriate.
This kit is, quite literally, one of a kind. The build quality is superb, it’s gorgeous, and the rosewood sounds full and versatile.
Doc Sweeney has begun to offer limited edition runs of a design in order to make its drums more affordable. These runs will be very short, and will still be unique because every kit will have different specs and finishes. This Panther kit is the priciest set that I found on Doc Sweeney’s website, but kits made with other woods are available for much less. If you have the funds, these shell packs are worth your careful consideration. They are heirloom instruments.
See the kit at Doc Sweeney’s website.