BY AJ DONAHUE | FROM THE SPRING 2019 ISSUE OF DRUM!
Quick, take 90 seconds and think of as many iconic snare drum sounds as you can. Got it? All right, take a look at your list. How many of those drums have metal shells?
On stages and in studios, metal snares frequently get the first call because their clarity, sensitivity, and projection give them an edge over everything else. There’s also a lot of variety among metal snares, including many which use carefully crafted materials to deliver updated takes on iconic snare sounds (and sometimes, entirely new sounds altogether). So, where do we look to strike it rich with that perfect tone?
To sample the possibilities, we unearthed eight metal snares—made with aluminum, brass, bronze, copper, steel, titanium, and even 24-karat gold, with finishes ranging from the glossiest polish to the gnarliest patina—and put them through their paces. Each drum had qualities attributed to its particular builder, be it a large company or individual craftsman, but we focused on the sonic highlights most connected to the snare’s particular metal or treatment.
One quick note before we dig in: Throughout this piece, I’ll be referring to conventionally accepted characteristics of each base alloy. For the most part, these are broad generalities (brass being “cutting and powerful, but warm and musical,” for example) rather than fundamental facts. Although we can guess how a particular metal snare shell will usually sound, even subtle variances—shell thickness, finish, treatments, venting, component material and mass, and additional appointments—can upset those preconceived notions entirely, as evidenced by a couple of the instruments in this article. All prices listed are street price.
Okay, now that we’ve established a baseline that includes a total lack of absolute truth, we should be good to go.
A&F RAW BRASS
Brass snare drums have a special place in the pantheon of essential instruments. Often favored for its rare blend of power, clarity, and warmth, brass is an extremely musical and capable metal, and it’s served as the base for some of the most coveted drums in history.
Austin, Texas–based boutique shop A&F Drum Co. offers a slightly different take on that traditional tone with its raw brass banger. The hand-rolled, hand-welded, and terrifyingly thin (less than 1mm thick) shell is slightly undersized at just over 13.8″ in diameter, and it’s treated with a healthy application of “Mother Nature’s” patina. I should also point out that all components other than the heads, rods, and throw/butt combo are made and sourced locally in Austin.
The result is a drum that’s notably dryer and more controlled than most brass alternatives. The fundamental note, which is remarkably low, subtly flattens out as it winds down, both qualities I attribute to that skinny shell.
Microphones find more of the metal’s pingy character than I hear sitting on top of it, but that splatting fatness is still there, as expected. High tunings bring up some musical sweetness, but that recovered-from-the-bottom-of-the-ocean patina keeps the tone pretty dusty. Dropping the tension elicits a response that’s pillow soft with a dry, breathy whoosh of wire response below. This is what this drum was made for, and it really excels when tuned down.
The shell is so thin, however, that I ran into some issues with maintaining roundness while tuning. It’s very flexible, and carelessly tensioning one side was enough to temporarily warp it out of round (fortunately, not enough to cause permanent damage). Two-key tuning is highly recommended with this one.
SIZE: 14″ x 6.5″
MATERIAL: Sanded raw brass
SHELL: Less than 1mm
BEARING EDGES: Hand-cut 45-degree
SNARE BEDS: Hand-cut A&F exclusive
LUGS: 10 solid raw brass lugs and tubes
HOOPS: Raw brass, rolled, welded, and sanded by hand
HEADS: Remo Coated Ambassador over Hazy bottom
WIRES: 20-strand carbon steel/brass wires
THROW/BUTT: George Way Beer Tap throw and butt
FINISH: Mother Nature’s patina
SPECIAL FEATURES: Leather washers on everything that touches the drum; raw brass badge with hand stamped serial number
BLACK SWAMP DYNAMICX TITAN BRONZE
We spend lots of time talking about the impact of different bronze alloys on cymbals, but many of those same rich, musical qualities translate to the metal’s personality in snare drums too. The dense, expansive sound of bronze splits the difference between brassy sweetness and woody warmth, and thanks to the metal’s hyper-sonorous response to vibration, it can be extremely powerful.
Black Swamp Percussion’s Dynamicx line made a big splash when it dropped the Titan Bronze earlier this year, partly because it weighs roughly 2.6 million lbs. (I’m kidding—it’s only about 1.5 million). It’s also beautiful. The shell’s exterior and matching, house-made cast bronze hoops have been treated with a torch patina for a lovely post-incursion kind of look. It’s gorgeously terrifying.
Sonically, I found the Titan to be biting and a little dryer than expected, but not harsh. I hear the cut and the spiking highs, but they’re mellowed by the bronze alloy’s forgiving roundness. And while that torch patina adds a hot look to the exterior, the untreated interior seems to reflect sound smoothly and cleanly.
Under microphones, the Titan has so much body. Thanks to the seamless shell vibrating as one uninterrupted unit, along with those bronze rims adding some warm smack to the upper register, there’s a tremendous lower-middle note that adds a heap of beef to each backbeat. But still, I hear no harshness anywhere.
Reducing wire tension under looser tunings was very helpful with this one. If it was too tight, the sharp rattle of the wires would begin to take over the note, so letting them breathe more than I normally do (when tuning for a deep sound) helped keep things smooth and satisfyingly puffy.
SIZE: 14″ x 5″
MATERIAL: Centrifugally cast bronze
BEARING EDGES: Slight outer roundover, inner 45-degree bevel
SNARE BEDS: Medium deep, even arc
LUGS: 10 steel arch lugs
HOOPS: Cast bronze
HEADS: Remo Ambassador coated top over Diplomat Hazy bottom
WIRES: 20-strand Dynamicx
FINISH: Torch patina
SPECIAL FEATURES: Proprietary Dynamicx designed hardware components; included case, key, cleaning cloth, and certificate of authenticity; laser-engraved internal label
DUNNETT CLASSIC TITANIUM
Titanium is a somewhat uncommon material in the world of drum making, but it’s become nearly synonymous with one shop in particular. Dunnett Classic Drums first introduced its titanium snare in 1989, and it’s gone on to become something of a secret weapon among high-profile players.
Praised for its evenness and fat middle and lower registers, titanium hits my ear a bit like a compressed recording of an aluminum drum. It’s got an almost uncolored tone—not too sweet, warm, or heavy—that allows it to blend well in most situations.
The Dunnett Classic Titanium is no exception. It’s quick and crisp up top with a beefy lower-middle note that cinches up quickly. Behind each stroke, there’s a satisfyingly strong cutting presence with a roundish finish. Dunnett’s 42-strand wires keep the drum feeling extremely sensitive, and they add a nice gust of airy buzz underneath strokes at any volume.
I hear more highs in the recording than I did while playing it, but the Dunnett still stays in that sweet spot between aluminum’s dryness and steel’s natural pang. Low tunings are broad with an abrupt finish that sounds excellent in rock and country settings, while bringing up the batter head tension pulls out a hint of ring even though the finish remains beautifully controlled.
Brass lugs don’t restrict the titanium tub’s natural resonance—in fact, they might help amplify it—and the adjustable Hypervent system allows the player to dial in how much air they’d like to escape the chamber after each stroke. I found it to be most satisfying wide open, but closing it most of the way added a little fatness under microphones. Dunnett’s titanium comes in undersized at around 13.75″ in diameter, which minimizes overtones and maximizes that dry character.
SIZE: 14″ x 6.5″
MATERIAL: Dunnett Year 20 Titanium
SHELL: Dunnett weight scale 1 (roughly 1mm)
BEARING EDGES: Hand-lapped
SNARE BEDS: Wide-contoured
LUGS: 8 brass lugs
HOOPS: George Way Double Edge/Double Flange
HEADS: Remo Ambassador over Dunnett Cristal
WIRES: 42-strand Dunnett Presence
THROW/BUTT: Dunnett R4 with patented swivel lever and keyless quick release
SPECIAL FEATURES: Patented Hypervent I; Dunnett script;Ari badge
INDe LIMITED EDITION LACQUERED BRASS
INDe’s polished brass beauty features an ultra-thin shell, brass hoops, and a 6.5″ depth, but unlike its patina-covered counterparts this thing is Sunday-at-the-country-club-jewelry shiny. Every component other than the heads is either brass or brass-plated. It’s a remarkably ritzy-looking showstopper from builder Josh Allen, whose work is usually elegantly spare and subdued.
As expected, this INDe drum plays extremely fat and warm with a hefty punch and a smooth, bell-like middle tone that hums down after the attack. It stands apart from other brass snares in that it is unbelievably resonant—there’s just so much sound coming out of every part of the instrument. That’s likely the result of Allen’s hard ban on any resonance-killing rubber or synthetic gaskets, as well as the exaggerated cut of those brass hoops.
At the heart of each note, I hear a rounded pock, which is likely bolstered by the included Power Dot head. Low tensions help deliver that classic, puffy doof sound without any need for a wallet on top or additional tone-taming. Really, this drum never felt like it needed muffling of any kind. Even tuned way up, it responds with a nice spread of very musical highs while staying warm and controlled in the middle. It’s huge under microphones, and feels like a perfect studio drum, but it’s so pretty that this thing definitely needs to be seen under stage lights.
SIZE: 14″ x 6.5″
MATERIAL: Polished brass
BEARING EDGES: Flanged, 2mm radius
SNARE BEDS: Shallow, wide, and gradual
LUGS: 8 brass-plated steel lugs
HOOPS: 2.5mm polished brass
HEADS: Aquarian Texture Coated Power Dot over Classic Clear Snare Side
THROW/BUTT: INDe SB1, brass-plated
FINISH: Polished and lacquered brass
SPECIAL FEATURES: Thin shell and low-mass hardware; brass-plated tension rods; hand-signed serial number label
LOVE OLD STEEL
Steel, readily available and affordable, is too often overlooked as a preferred material for use in snare drums because it’s associated with entry-level instruments. Sonically, the hard, highly reflective alloy has a reputation for bright, cutting power and strong overtones that allow it to project very well in loud settings.
Love Custom Drums’ Old Steel snare does not resemble that description.
This Central California–based shop crafts its Old Steel units with heavily weathered and patina-covered reclaimed metal. The thoroughly oxidized steel shell is rolled and welded with a visible seam that adds to its rustic charm, while the accompanying polished steel components add balance with a modern counterpoint.
Its looks are plenty appealing, but the Old Steel’s real strengths are in its sound. Fat and woody with a strong lower-middle presence, the LCD snare plays unlike any other steel drum I’ve experienced. I imagine the uneven, heavily oxidized finish must be mitigating the steel’s hardness enough to scoop out all of the pinging high-end notes I usually associate with this metal. It’s controlled and dry-ish with a healthy, warm tone at the heart of every note. Soft strokes play up a little louder, recalling some of steel’s traditionally potent responsiveness, but this is otherwise a tremendously dynamic instrument, and it’s surprisingly sensitive despite the included Power Center head.
With the batter head tuning dropped, it has that super-low, super-dry thing prominent in the 1970s. Even at a higher tension, there’s a well-worn-baseball-mitt-like softness here. The pitch comes up, but that controlled, smacking middle stays consistent throughout the tuning range.
SIZE: 14″ x 6″
MATERIAL: Hand-rolled, naturally aged steel
SHELL: 16-gauge (measured at a little over 2mm)
BEARING EDGES: Hand-filed roundover
SNARE BEDS: Medium-wide, deep beds with a quick taper
LUGS: 8 self-adjusting machined aluminum/steel bar lugs
HOOPS: 2.3mm steel hoops
HEADS: Evans Coated Power Center over 300 Snare Side
WIRES: 20-strand Puresound Blasters
THROW/BUTT: Standard deluxe strainer and butt plate
FINISH: Clear lacquer finish to stop natural patina
SPECIAL FEATURES: Naturally aged shell only years of Mother Nature’s harsh wrath could produce; specific badge for Old Steel line
There’s a good chance most of the snare drums you’ve heard on the radio are made of aluminum. It’s nearly impossible to verify, but a couple of aluminum models in particular are widely considered to be the most recorded drums in history. That’s mostly because aluminum shells often sound dry and fat, which are desirable traits for studio recording. Generally less dense and rigid than steel, aluminum can sometimes sound softer in the upper registers. It’s not lacking bite or attack, but it’s rarely as assertive as denser metals, and it doesn’t speak with the horn-like sweetness of brass or bronze.
When he decided to add an aluminum snare to the Sugar Percussion catalog, Jefferson Shallenberger didn’t want to simply add to the legions already available today. “Bored with making just another metal shell, we thought we’d make ours look like aged concrete,” he says.
Well, the Sugar unit definitely doesn’t look like the aluminum snares we’re accustomed to, and it doesn’t sound much like them, either. I hear a lot of chattering, steely bite sitting above the alloy’s traditional fat splat. And there’s a sharpness that’s really satisfying behind rimshot-supported backbeats on those straight steel hoops. It reminds me of Manu Katché’s sound during his time with Sting.
Under microphones, however, the aluminum bark I’m used to is much more present. It’s dry and smacking, but there’s a ping around the edge that adds some extra life. I did have trouble finding a happy wire tension between choked-tight and TV static–loose when the drum was tuned down. For the recording, I went with loose. I enjoyed the way it tracked, but I would like to find a more even wire response before recording again.
SIZE: 14″ x 5.5″
MATERIAL: Rolled and welded aluminum
BEARING EDGES: Double roundover, shaped by hand
SNARE BEDS: Wide and deep
LUGS: 8 chrome-plated aluminum lugs
HOOPS: 4.5mm straight steel
HEADS: Remo Coated Ambassador over Clear Ambassador
WIRES: 24-strand Puresound Custom Pro
THROW/BUTT: Trick 007 3-Stage
FINISH: Sanded, polished, then acid-etched
SPECIAL FEATURES: Solid, low-profile hoop claws
TAMA STAR RESERVE COPPER
To my ear, copper offers the closest blend of the projection and sensitivity of metal with the warmth and beefiness of wood. It generally speaks with a darkened, punchy voice laden with organic tone. It’s softer and more pliable than other metals, so copper shells, especially those on the thinner side, aren’t always as powerful as their alternative alloy counterparts.
Tama’s Star Reserve Copper, the first metal model introduced in the Star line, is more than worthy of its place in the company’s flagship family. It features a hammered shell, which adds tension and breaks up the reflective surface to dry out the core note. Additionally, three grommeted air vents taper the sustain even further. Finally, 2.3mm brass Mighty Hoops with a specially trimmed top—they’re thinner at the impact edge—balance the drum’s depth and darkness with added musical cut and presence.
The result is a supremely dynamic, warm, and sensitive instrument. It’s darker and woodier than anticipated, and responds to center hits with an enormously fat smack that’s bolstered by those brass hoops. It’s ringy, tone-rich, and lively around the edges, but focused and powerful in the center.
With the batter-side tension dropped, the drum responds with a honky, solid splat down low, but up high, it’s crisp and quick with a very mellow top end. Here again, those brass rims help punctuate rimshots, but don’t add too much aggressive character to the attack. Plus, it’s a dream under microphones at any tuning, offering a full yet never overbearing sound without any processing.
SIZE: 14″ x 6.5″
BEARING EDGES: Star Bearing Edge, wide and rounded
SNARE BEDS: Medium and shallow
LUGS: 8 cast steel lugs
HOOPS: Customized Brass Mighty Hoop
HEADS: Remo Coated Ambassador over Remo Snare Side Ambassador
WIRES: 20-strand Super Sensitive Hi-Carbon
FINISH: Hammered copper
SPECIAL FEATURES: Bearing edge peak is 3.5mm in from the shell’s outer surface to increase contact; shallow snare bed specially designed to provide even wire contact without compromising resonance; cupped washers with synthetic inserts on top of flat synthetic washers on every rod for extra tuning stability
VAN KLEEF 24K GOLD–PLATED STAINLESS STEEL
Although similar to “normal” (carbon or mild) steel, stainless steel is harder and more reflective due to the presence of chromium rather than carbon in the alloy, giving stainless shells a brighter and more cutting presence. Additionally, the added durability and resistance to corrosion of a stainless base make it preferable for high-end manufacturing.
Through his VK Custom Drums company, Alan Van Kleef crafted a stainless steel snare that he personally rolled, riveted, and assembled with parts he made himself. On top of all that, it’s covered in 24-karat gold. [Editor’s note: The drum was shipped with white gloves for handling, and we used them.]
I can’t be sure how all that gold plating affects the sound, but the Van Kleef has much more warmth and control than I expected. Each stroke pulls out a full middle, as well as a deep and weighty bottom end. There are a few of the pinging highs common to steel snares, but they’re not abrasive or disruptive. It’s extremely contained at low volumes, and remarkably versatile.
Recordings of the drum showcase a hidden dark character, which I imagine is the result of the heavy rolled and welded hoops taming the wildest edge notes. Lower tunings highlight more steely ping; the overtones start to poke out, but the beefy bottom remains intact. Bringing the tension up makes the note feel shallower, with a quick biting attacking and some edge-ring that recalls Stewart Copeland’s sound from the mid-1980s.
After spending some significant time with this drum, I’m impressed with its versatility and controlled tones. It looks like a showpiece but plays like a workhorse.
SIZE: 14″ x 6.5″
MATERIAL: 24k gold–plated stainless steel
BEARING EDGES: Hand-sanded rounded
SNARE BEDS: Wide with a gradual taper, medium deep
LUGS: 10 solid stainless steel lugs
HOOPS: Rolled and welded stainless steel
HEADS: VK branded Remo Ambassador Coated batter over Hazy bottom
WIRES: 20-strand Puresound Custom Pro
THROW/BUTT: Stainless steel VK throw with stainless steel integrated Vkey, solid stainless steel VK butt and butt plate
FINISH: 24k gold–plated with contrasting mirror polished stainless steel lugs
SPECIAL FEATURES: Everything is gold-plated, from the washers to the bolts—only the lugs and badge are left natural for contrast; rolled and riveted with stainless steel rivet plate and rivets; comes with white gloves for handling