BY DAVID LIBMAN
In 1997, Yamaha opened a factory in Xiao Shan, China, where it has since manufactured many of its instruments, including pianos and marching percussion – but never drum sets. In 2013, Yamaha introduced the Live Custom Oak series as the first professional drum kit line that it will manufacture exclusively at its China factory. Yamaha has also announced that by September 2013, it will cease Japanese production of essentially every professional drum line it makes other than the PHX series. Are you gasping? I was.
To be specific, all the pro Japanese lines were previously manufactured at Sakae Rhythm according to Yamaha’s specs. In 2009, Sakae Rhythm began manufacturing professional kits under its own name. Still, I’m told this parting of the ways is amicable. If, in future years, you simply have to have a brand-new Japanese-made Yamaha kit, the überexpensive PHX series will continue to be made at the custom drum factory Yamaha established in Hamamatsu, Japan in 2008.
Needless to say, since the Live Custom Oak series is Yamaha’s debut professional kit from China, the pressure is on. I have read several online commentaries lamenting the manufacturing shift – all of which seem to be written by people who have not played the Live Customs.
Yamaha currently sells the Live Custom Oak series in a variety of preset configurations that include a bass drum, one or two toms, and a floor tom. I received a Live Custom three-piece configuration consisting of a 22″ x 14″ bass drum, 12″ x 8″ tom, 16″ x 15″ floor tom. Yamaha also provided a Live Custom 14″ x 5.5″ snare (currently the only snare size available). Other Live Custom Oak sizes include bass drums in various depths and in 18″—24″ diameters; toms in 8″—16″ diameters; and floor toms in 14″, 16″, and 18″ diameters. So, with the exception of the current one-size-fits-all Live Custom snare drum, the Live Custom line offers plenty of sizes to choose from.
ISN’T THIS JUST A CHINESE-MADE OAK CUSTOM KIT?
In two words: “No way.” True, the Live Custom Oak kit will replace Yamaha’s Oak Custom series, but these series differ in many respects – most of which I believe improve on the already excellent Oak Custom series.
For example, the Oak Customs were made from 1mm thick oak plies, with 7-ply bass drums and 6-ply toms and snares. The Live Custom bass drums are now eight (instead of seven) plies, while the toms and snare are still six plies. However, the Live Custom Oak plies are a tad thicker – 1.2mm instead of 1mm. This makes for hefty 9.6mm-thick bass drums and 7.2mm toms and snares.
I generally prefer thicker maple shells. I was curious whether I’d feel the same about oak. Turns out, I do. The sound and feel of the Live Custom Oak shells is dynamic, responsive, beefy, and woody. The shells speak with a nice ping in the higher frequencies, a pleasant fundamental tone in the mid range, and tremendous punch on the low end. The Live Custom Oaks are not as warm as maple drums, but they’re not harsh either.
When tuned low and loose, the Live Custom toms have excellent attack, a quick decay, and beefy tone. Mid-range tuning offers good sustain, with the oak providing a bit of a more aggressive attack than maple. When tuned high, the toms sing without being choked, which I believe is because of their extra thickness. By the way, tuning was a breeze. The edges looked and felt perfect. Ultimately, whether I played these drums whisper soft, obnoxiously loud, or anything in between, they responded in kind without ever going dead.
I have to give kudos to Yamaha for offering a 22″ x 14″ kick in a standard configuration. I grew up playing a 22″ x 14″ kick (back in the ’70s), and I’ve sorely missed having that size readily available as kick drums have become progressively deeper. The Live Custom Oak 22″ x 14″ kick is a dream. I tuned it with no muffling at loose, medium, and tighter tensions and could not make it sound anything but awesome. The 14″ depth gives this kick plenty of punch and response while still retaining the same volume as a 22″ kick with 16″ or 18″ depth. I find this size extremely comfortable to play because the shorter 14″ depth makes the beater bounce off the batter head quicker than it would with a deeper shell. Plus, I was able to fit the shallower 22″ x 14″ kick in my car’s trunk instead of having to load it into the backseat.
The 14″ x 5.5″ Live Custom 10-lug snare sounds woody and lively, but it can be fat when tuned loose. I particularly enjoyed the sustain and snare response from this drum. I played it at pianissimo with brushes and as hard as I could with sticks. It followed me effortlessly through every dynamic range.
DARK EXTERIORS AND INTERIORS
Aside from the sound and feel of the oak shells, they look good, too. The kit I received came finished in high-gloss Emerald Shadow Sunburst, one of four available finishes. The gloss on the Emerald Sunburst finish is quite shiny; the burst is not too severe, and the exterior shell is stained in a way that makes the oak wood grain look darker than the surrounding green hue.
All of the finishes on Live Customs are rather dark and ominous looking. With clear heads, I don’t like the contrast of a light wood-colored interior shell if the exterior veneer is a dark finish. So I was pleased to see that Yamaha chose to stain the interior shells black on the Live Customs. This, of course, is a nod to the stained interiors on Yamaha’s iconic Recording Custom series.
A COMBINATION OF TRIED & TRUE, AND NEW COMPONENTS
Rather than go with traditional chrome, Yamaha outfitted the Live Custom Oaks with dark silver hardware appointments. People may assume this is nickel-plated hardware, but it’s not. What the plating is seems to be a closely guarded secret. To my eyes, the dark silver hardware has a similar reflective quality to liquid mercury (the stuff in thermometers). Whatever the process, the plating looks impeccable with no pitting and lots of luster.
The Live Customs use the same lugs found on Yamaha’s Absolute series. Aesthetically, these lugs have a simultaneously modern yet classic look. Each lug attaches to the drum with only a single bolt, thus minimizing the amount of holes drilled into the shell. In my view, what’s best about these lugs is that they hold their tension and never rattle – even when the drumheads are tuned loose. In fact, none of the hardware on this kit buzzed or rattled.
The single mounted tom came with Yamaha’s time-tested ball mount and clamp tom arm with the YESS Mount. This is an elegant, sturdy design that allows tom positioning at virtually any angle. One odd quirk here is that the tom arm and mount are finished in regular chrome. I’d like to see Yamaha offer both parts in the same dark silver finish so they match better with the hardware on the rest of the kit.
Yamaha outfits the Live Customs with professional-quality Remo USA heads on both batter and resonant sides. Batter heads consist of clear Emperors on the toms, coated ambassadors on the snares and clear Powerstroke 3s on the bass drum. I’m always annoyed when drum companies sell professional kits with sub-par resonant heads, so I am glad to report Yamaha included Remo USA ambassadors on the tom bottoms, and an Ebony P3 on the bass drum front head. On everything other than the kick drum, the heads are tensioned to the bearing edge with 2.3mm steel Dyna hoops. The wood hoops on the bass drum are rather thick, which is typical of Yamaha’s professional kits. In my experience, thicker wood hoops seem to help the kick drum hold its tension.
Yamaha also redesigned a number of hardware components for the Live Custom Oak series. The floor tom brackets are a new rectangular clamp design that wraps around approximately 2.5″ of each floor tom leg. These clamps tighten easily with a wing bolt and hold the legs sturdily in place. The bass drum’s tom holder base has been redesigned and downsized to a simple, unobtrusive part. I have owned the prior larger version of this tom holder, and frankly, the newly designed smaller holder works just as well and looks better. The Live Custom’s bass drum hooks sport a sleek new die-cast design. They include black insertion plates (I’m not sure if they’re rubber or plastic) to keep them from marring the bass drum hoops.
My favorite redesigned component is the strainer on the Live Custom snare. It has an easy-to-use lever design. The lever has a sturdy and smooth feel, plus it engages or disengages the snare wires quietly. I attribute the sturdy feel to the fact that the lever’s base is fortified with two parallel metal strips on opposite sides of the strainer’s tension knob. When disengaged, the snare wires drop sufficiently far from the bottom head to ensure that the wires won’t touch the resonant head.
A CHAMELEON FOR GIGS
I had these drums long enough to play them at a number of venues. What surprised me most was their versatility. For example, I took them first to a quiet jazz trio gig. Because I had not previously had much opportunity to play an oak kit, I was concerned they might be too loud. To my pleasant surprise, these drums played exceptionally well at soft volumes and were easy to control.
The next week, I took the kit to the opposite extreme – an amplified Latin gig at an open-air venue. Everyone in the band was miked or amplified except for me. I played hard; the Live Customs responded with all the volume I needed – and then some. The thicker oak shells have enough rigidity that they didn’t choke or lose their tone.
I have gushed a lot about this kit because I believe Yamaha hit a home run with the Live Custom Oaks. To me, this kit is a sensibly designed, relatively no-frills workhorse that seems equally capable of sounding musical across the entire dynamic range. The drums stay in tune, sound good at any volume, don’t buzz or rattle, and have simple-to-use hardware. Essentially, this kit is a working drummer’s dream.
I have yet to mention price, but when one considers MAP pricing ($1,499 for the bass and toms I received and $299 for the snare), this kit could be purchased for under $2,000. This isn’t cheap, but it’s definitely less expensive than the prices I’ve seen lately for Yamaha’s Japanese-made kits. So, from what I can tell, the reality of shifting production to China is that more drummers will be able to afford professional-quality Yamaha drums. In the end, is that so bad? I don’t think so.
Shells Ply oak shells with black stained interiors (6-ply 7.2mm snares/toms, 8-ply 9.6mm bass drums); 45 degree R1.5 bearing edges.
Hardware Dark silver finish Absolute lugs and 2.3mm steel Dyna hoops; YESS Mounts on toms; newly designed die-cast bass drum hooks with insertion plates to protect bass drum hoops, floor tom brackets, and reduced size penetrating tom holder bass on the kick drum; new snare strainer and butt end.
Available Finishes Matte Black, Emerald Shadow Sunburst, Black Shadow Sunburst, and Amber Shadow Sunburst.
Heads Remo USA professional heads: (toms) Clear Emperor batters and ambassador bottoms; (snare) Coated Ambassador batter and Clear Ambassador Snare bottom; (bass drum) Powerstroke 3 batter and Ebony Powerstroke 3 logo fronthead.
List Price 22″, 12″, 16″ configuration $2,775 (list)/$1,499 (MAP); 14″ snare = $590 (list)/$299 (MAP).