BY RICK VAN HORN | FROM THE SUMMER 2019 ISSUE OF DRUM!
If you’re a professional drummer, your drums and hardware are the essential tools of your trade—to say nothing of being a major investment. Any sort of “road” gig can be hard on your gear, which calls for some means of protection. What that protection should be, however, depends largely on the nature of your gig.
If you’re a drummer on a major tour (big equipment trucks, tour buses, huge road crew, drum techs, etc.), then congratulations—you’re likely all set. Either the production company or the tour’s management will arrange to have your drums travel in heavy duty, wheeled road boxes. These are referred to as “ATA-style” cases, meaning that they conform to American Transport Association standards for air travel. The cases are constructed of plywood, covered on the outside with a plastic or fiberglass layer, and then edged with aluminum and braced at the corners with steel corner pieces. They have recessed handles and “coffin-latches” that prevent snagging on mechanical conveyer equipment. These can be cases for individual drums, or larger, custom-made multi-drum cabinets.
The most famous brand—and the one that’s become a generic name for ATA cases in general—is Anvil. Humes & Berg offers its Road Boss series. Others include RoadCasesUSA and ProCases, Inc., and several custom manufacturers can be found online. These are the Rolls-Royce class of cases, and they’re priced accordingly. If you’re personally responsible for obtaining your tour cases, be prepared to pay dearly for them. But also know that you’re getting the gold standard in protection.
DIY ROAD TOURING
You may be the drummer in a band that travels between all your road gigs in your own vehicle. If you’re handling the loading and setup chores yourself—or can closely supervise or trust others to do it—you can probably get by with soft bags or medium-duty fiber cases.
Bags If you choose bags, you’ll want high-quality models with heavy-duty zippers and at least some amount of padding. Snare drums, in particular, call for extra protection, since their mechanical parts can be damaged if the drum is dropped or handled roughly.
Logo-emblazoned bags are available from most drum and case companies. Well-known standalone bag brands include Beato, Ahead, Road Runner, and Protection Racket.
Fiber Cases The familiar black, cylindrical, vulcanized-fiber case has been an industry standard for decades. Fiber cases are popular because they’re fairly affordable, and they provide reasonable protection for drums under most conditions, including inclement weather. Some are available with foam linings, which adds a bit of shock protection.
Modern fiber cases are fitted with nylon web straps, and some larger sizes have metal grips with reinforced backing plates to aid in carrying heavier drums. Large drum and hardware cases are often equipped with casters for rolling. Keep in mind, though, that if you use heavy drums or hardware, you’re asking your case to carry substantial weight. Make sure you get one that can survive sudden lifts and jerks without coming apart at the seams—literally. Fiber trap cases are notorious for having handles pull out of lids, or getting holes punctured in their bottoms. To avoid these problems, look for trap cases with metal reinforcement plates under their handles and wooden “floor” inserts in their bottoms.
Humes & Berg is the largest manufacturer of fiber cases, while Nomad offers a wide selection of universal-depth models. Many major retailers offer their own proprietary brands too.
Plastic cases If you need protection that’s a bit more roadworthy, you might want to go with molded plastic cases. These are thicker, stronger, and more waterproof than fiber cases. They offer a high level of protection for drums, in a medium-high price range. In addition to drum cases, there are wheeled, trunk-style cases that are terrific for carrying hardware.
There are two major brands of molded plastic cases. One is Gator (including their Protechtor sub-brand); the other is SKB. Both offer limited lifetime warranties on their cases, which is a big plus.
Don’t Forget I.D. No matter what sort of container you choose—ATA, bag, or case—be sure to label each one with your name and cellphone number. If you only work locally and you leave something behind on a gig, you can just go back and get it. If you leave something behind while on the road, the contact information on your cases may help get that item returned to you.
FLYING WITH GEAR
Now we come to a third definition of “road gig”—one that poses the greatest challenge in terms of gear protection. Let’s say you’re the drummer in a band that has become really hot in your local area, and you’re ready for the next step in your career. Lo and behold, your manager gets you a one-night gig at a high-profile venue that draws crowds, music critics, and record-label scouts alike. It’s a super opportunity.
But the venue is clear across the country. The gig is too far away and is happening too soon for you to drive, so you have to fly. And the venue will not be providing any equipment. What do you do?
If you want to use your own drum set, you need to figure out how to get it to and from the remote venue. To accomplish this, you basically have three options.
Excess baggage Fly your kit as excess baggage on your flights. On most airlines, this means $25 for the first bag, $35 for the second, and $50 for each additional bag. Overweight items—like, say, a hardware case—cost even more. Round-trip baggage fees for a five-piece drum set and just one hardware case could cost you more than you’re making on the gig. Plus, it’s just asking for trouble in terms of damage due to rough handling.
Airline air cargo Fly your kit as air cargo with the same airline that you’re traveling on. This is better than the excess baggage option, but you’ll need to invest in airworthy road cases or shipping crates, on top of the shipping cost itself. (Anvil offers its Fly Anvil lightweight ATA-style cases for this purpose.)
Cartage air cargo Fly your kit as air cargo handled by a professional cartage service that regularly ships gear by air. This option is similar to the one above in terms of cost, but it offers the benefit of having your gear handled by people who do it for a living. The service may or may not also offer delivery and pickup between the airport and the venue, so you might have to arrange for that separately.
All these options are risky and expensive. If you feel the best protection you can give to your kit in this situation is not to take it at all, there are other options that might work better anyway.
Rent a kit If the venue isn’t providing backline, look into renting a kit yourself. The cost may very well be less than any of the airline shipping options above, and you won’t have to worry about damage to your own equipment. You can stipulate exactly what you want (within reason, of course) in terms of brand, models, and sizes, and you can have the gear delivered to the venue and taken away after the gig, with no effort on your part.
Virtually every major city has at least one backline or cartage service, and many larger cities have several. If you’re playing a more outlying area, research a service in the nearest large city. They’ll likely be the ones who service venues in that area anyway, and you can still arrange for delivery and pickup.
Bring some, rent some If you feel that you absolutely must take some personal gear items with you, plan on checking those items as baggage on your flight. Don’t figure on carrying them onto the plane, since carry-on regulations have become more and more restrictive. The last thing you want to hear at the gate is, “I’m sorry, we’ll have to check that cymbal bag for you.”
Restrict the amount of gear you’re taking so that it fits into a single, well-padded bag or case. Think in terms of functional items that will help you feel comfortable on an unfamiliar kit. For example, along with my stick bag, I take my bass drum pedal and my fixed-height drum stool. These give me points of reference from which to set up a rental kit from scratch.
Don’t be convinced that you need to take your favorite snare drum or cymbals in order to have “your sound.” This is a one-off road gig, not a recording that will define your career. Be clear with the cartage service as to exactly what you need to play the gig successfully, and you can leave your babies safe at home.
Things happen in our business. Gear gets lost, damaged, or even stolen. And while these things can happen on local gigs, the odds of them happening increase when you’re traveling in unfamiliar territory and under circumstances beyond your control.
With this in mind, it’s a good idea to protect your gear (and your financial status) with some kind of insurance policy. Most homeowner’s policies don’t cover musical equipment used for professional purposes, so you’ll need to investigate other options.
You might be able to obtain what’s called a “personal articles floater” as a sort of rider to your existing homeowner’s or renter’s policy. Or you can check with an insurance broker about a separate policy for your gear. If you’re in the musicians’ union, you might be able to obtain coverage through your local’s office.
None of these options will be cheap. But what would it cost to replace your kit—and how much income might you lose while waiting for that replacement to happen? In this case, insurance coverage for your gear should be considered as part of the cost of doing business (and, therefore, would likely be tax-deductible).
No matter what your travel situation is, the time to prepare for it is before you leave home. That means putting your drums into whatever protective containers you deem appropriate for your purposes—as well as deciding whether to travel with your gear at all. The fact is, carefully considered prior planning is the best protection your gear can have.