FROM DRUM! MAGAZINE’S SEPTEMBER 2017 ISSUE | BY AJ DONAHUE
Carolina Drumworks is a one-man operation specializing in finely crafted solid and plywood drums. Working directly with each customer, owner-operator Jeff Hankin makes most of those drums to order, so there aren’t a lot of stock models or even repeat builds in the Carolina catalog. The Blue Ridge Mountains-based crafter does offer a couple different lines, however, in the Gold (solid wood) and Silver (plywood) series.
The Gold Series previously comprised mostly steam-bent single-ply drums, but the big news for this year (and a little bit of last year) is the addition of house-made stave shells. Hankin is cutting and crafting every drum by hand, and using a variety of wood types based on buyer request and board availability.
I took a quick drive up to Carolina headquarters and picked out three Gold Series snare drums for review. Here’s what I discovered once I got home.
Even though most Carolina snare drums are custom built, they are offered with a selection of standard features that can be adjusted or changed outright if preferred. Those default details include a 45-degree inside bearing edge cut with a truncated roundover on the batter-side, a single 45-degree cut with a 1mm outside countercut on the resonant side, a glossy polished polyurethane-over-oil-blend exterior finish, and an oil blend sealer on the inside. Evans heads, Puresound wires, Trick throw-offs, die-cast hoops, laser-engraved brass badges, and proprietary tube lugs with brass or stainless steel components round out the picture. There’s no shortage of options here, but there is a particular aesthetic at the heart of every Carolina drum.
Small appointments also add value. Gaskets under each lug post offer improved isolation and protect the wood, while stacked metal and synthetic washers help maintain rod tension. On both the throw-off and butt-plate, grosgrain ribbon makes secure wire tensioning a breeze. After a thorough inspection, it’s clear that every aspect of these drums is thoughtfully considered, and the results speak for themselves. Let’s break it down starting with the staves.
Unlike many other barrel-type bangers, these stave shells are only 0.25″ thick through most of the vertical space. They’re built with reinforcement rings for structural strength, but those rings aren’t separate pieces of wood. Instead, each stave is milled to include an additional 0.25″-thick section on top and bottom to create fully integrated rings all the way around. I think that design makes a big impact on the range and resonance of these drums.
Stave drums can, in many cases, have lower fundamental pitches than single and multi-ply alternatives, because there’s no standing stress on the wood fibers. Here, the thinner shell wall really helps bring up those inherent lows. Both of these stave snares are also exceptionally resonant, which I have to assume is because there’s just less mass than in those drums cut to a uniform (usually 0.5″) thickness. This is a different sound than what I’m used to hearing in conventional stave builds.
Bubinga is a very hard tonewood known for its rare combination of both enhanced highs and lows. I admit that I normally find bubinga drums to be overly harsh from the player’s perspective. Out front, they sound excellent, but when my ears are right on top of one, that boosted high-end crack can sometimes make me wince.
Thankfully, that isn’t the case with Carolina’s model. The 14″ x 5.5″ drum turned out to be a real surprise sonically, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t first mention how pretty it is. The staves are bookmatched beautifully — so much so that they don’t look like separate pieces unless you’re very close. The proprietary gloss finish adds a lot of depth, and the bubinga’s dark brown hue is exaggerated further by almost entirely black-plated shell hardware. The included die-cast hoops, rods, throw-off, butt-plate, and lug tubes are all finished in a beautiful shiny black, and classed up with brass posts. It’s a real looker.
Like most other bubinga snare drums I’ve played, this one has a lot of attack up front. Even the softest ghost notes kind of pop off the head. It reminds me a little bit of an aluminum snare with the added benefit of a woody bottom. I wouldn’t call it the fattest sound in the world, but there’s definitely some midrange meat there, and rimshot-supported backbeats really bang. It’s incredibly articulate at all levels, and I was never able to choke the drum, no matter how hard I hit it.
Tuned up high, it tiptoes into the pingy range, but not enough to be obnoxious. It cranks out a quick, biting sound that sits on top of an even woody bed. It struggles a bit down low, but still puts out a long, satisfying doo note with some good punch up top. It’s surprisingly resonant even with the head barely above wrinkle-loose.
I liked the bubinga drum enough at home, but it really shined at a band rehearsal. With the surrounding noise of other instruments swallowing some of those juiced-up highs, I was able to hear a lot of the wood’s built-in bottom. Plus, I think those integrated reinforcement rings added some control around the edges to further focus the attack.
This would be an excellent main drum for funk, pop, or jazz, but I wouldn’t limit it to those genres. There’s a lot of range in this one.
This 14″ x 6.5″ birdseye maple stave snare is simultaneously full and focused with a throaty bottom and surprisingly present attack. Really, it kind of hits the whole spectrum at once. The 6.5″ depth helps keep the low-end present, while those 45-degree interior edges maintain a cutting presence up top. And I think a big part of the woody, resonant fundamental note comes from that thin-wall stave construction. There’s real tone at every volume level. It’s just a beautiful, well-rounded instrument. It’s also gorgeous. The figuring on the birdseye maple is out of control beautiful, and the all-chrome appointments keep the grain in focus.
Bringing the drum up high pulls out more of that woody sweetness, especially when it’s played around the edges. The sound is crisp and sensitive with lots of snappy wire response right under the attack, which is boosted by the snare’s 2.3mm triple-flanged steel hoops. Despite that openness, though, the drum is rarely burdened by excessive overtones.
Finally, as comfortable as the birdseye snare is at medium and high tensions, it loves to live down low. At a half-turn past finger-tight, it lets out a super-fat boof that’s right in line with the modern Nashville sound. I brought it to a rangy country/rock gig with it tuned pretty low, and I was blown away by how consistently full that gushy splat was at every volume. From light taps in the center to heavy rimshots, it always gave me what I wanted.
The one issue I’ve run into with this drum is that it kind of flattens out when you really lay into it. It doesn’t totally choke, but some of that resonant low-end disappears. It’s still a big note, but just not as big as the sound I hear under less forceful hits.
As mentioned above, single-ply, steam-bent shells have long been a cornerstone of the Carolina brand, so I wanted to make sure we included one in this review. The piece I picked up is a 14″ x 5.5″ cherry unit with a 0.25″ shell and 0.25″ single-ply walnut reinforcement rings. The natural reddish, light-brown color of the cherry is balanced beautifully by stainless steel tube lugs with brass posts. A hand-installed inlay around the center of the exterior makes this one a real showstopper.
Sonically, the drum is a delight. I don’t have a ton of experience with cherry, but in this instance, it has a slightly softer-than-maple sound with a fat middle and upper low-end presence — maybe somewhere between maple and mahogany. Because it’s a single-ply shell, it has a healthy crack in the upper range that combines with the hefty middle and strong bottom to produce a kind of warm splat when struck dead center.
The drum has a very woody character at all volume levels, and is incredibly tone-rich. Tuned medium-high, it reminds me of the softened, organic crack heard on a lot of modern jazz records. The response is broad and resonating with a controlled overtone set that I’m sure is influenced by the increased head contact of the batter-side bearing edge and the darkness of those walnut rings.
Down low, the cherry snare lets out a great, long doom that’s augmented by a surprisingly sharp splack on top. It’s just enough to keep the drum sounding fat and gushy without sacrificing too much presence, especially with a gel muffler near the edges. Surprisingly though, the cherry tub retains a ton of tone when cranked up high. It’s cracking and cutting, but balanced by a sweet center that adds a lot of dimension. This is a great go-anywhere, do-anything snare for players that like the low warmth of vintage drums, but don’t want to sacrifice attack.
The three Gold Series snares Carolina Drumworks submitted for this review are, simply put, incredible instruments. The build quality is exceptional across the board. Shells are almost clinically round, edges and beds are flawlessly cut, and every joint is perfectly smooth. While each drum has particular strengths sonically, I think they’re all versatile enough to handle whatever you throw at them. And with direct sale prices coming in under $1,000, there’s some real value here.