By Phil Hood
The New York recording scene was hopping in the ’70s. There was plenty of work for TV, movies, jingles, record dates, and even the occasional porn soundtrack. Remember this was the ’70s, before Times Square was cleaned up and the mob was partly removed from the entertainment business. Young musicians who were getting work could sit all day in a place like Possible Twenty, waiting for a phone in the booth to ring telling them to hustle down to an afternoon session. It was here in this hothouse environment of songwriters, musicians, producers, engineers, and a nonstop stream of sessions that our story begins. It was 1978, when a young drummer named Richard Taninbaum was in a recording session with legendary producer and engineer Bob Clearmountain. And, Taninbaum had a problem.
“I was laying down a tambourine track that was over 15 minutes long,” says Taninbaum, a full-time drummer and percussionist whose album credits include hits with such artists as Herbie Mann, Ben E. King, and Eddie Kendricks. “After a couple of takes my arm got so tired that I couldn’t continue. I felt pretty bad but Bob (Clearmountain) told me that my problem was no different than any other percussionist’s. I was really determined to find a way to make a tambourine that didn’t feel as heavy and was easier to play… but still sounded good.”
He realized that the shape of the conventional, round tambourine was a flaw. Since most tambourines used in the studio were headless, the round shape was no longer necessary. It placed all the weight out in front, making it uncomfortable and tiring to play.
Taninbaum’s simple-but-brilliant insight was that if he could hold the tambourine in the center of the circle, it would have better balance and be much easier to play for long periods of time.
He took the basic crescent shape design and developed a prototype that enhanced playing comfort even more with the addition of a cushioned grip. Before this, the only option for players was to hold a tambourine on the hard, outside edge. This new Crescent tambourine became a huge success and led to the birth of percussion manufacturer Rhythm Tech. It also was a hit in terms of industrial design, and is now in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. I talked with Taninbaum in December.
DRUM!: When you were developing the Crescent tambourine how many prototypes did it go through?
Richard Taninbaum:I had the initial idea of cutting a round, headless tambourine and taking the smaller segment and turning it around so that the handle would then be in the middle of the circle. The first crude prototype was simply that: an old wooden round tambourine that we cut and screwed back together with steel angle irons. From there we did two other prototype series that were made out of sheet acrylic plastic. These were heated in my kitchen oven and put into a wooden press mold—very low-tech.
When it first started getting distribution what was the store response?
Store response was positive immediately. I remember bringing a prototype into Manny’s on 48th Street in New York City and showing it around. Tito Puentewas there. He thought it would never work. Outside of Tito, everyone else was very interested. You have to remember the Rhythm Tech tambourine was the first tambourine most people had ever seen that wasn’t round, so it got a lot of attention.
Tell me about a couple of other important accessory items you developed over the years?
Trigger Triangle, Studio Shakers, Active Snare, IT Tuners, Laptop Snare to name a few. Also we were the first company to develop a cowbell mount that utilizes an eyebolt design. Before that all cowbells just had a screw that pressed against the mounting rod, which really didn’t work very well. Now all companies use some variation of our mount design.
We’ve talked before about the cost of designing and prototyping an accessory, getting it to a stage where it is production-ready, and bringing it to market. What’s general cost structure for doing that today?
Hard to put a number on it because every item is so different. But I’d say a general guide would be $20,000 and up for R&D patent/trademark work, tooling etc.
Here’s a scenario: An inventor develops a drum set accessory and quickly sells a few hundred of them through a few stores. But then in order to get wider distribution the inventor hears, “The first thing you need to do is start making this in China to get the price down.” Is that still the way it goes?
It depends on many factors including projected sales figures, distribution chain, and inventory control and levels. Sometimes it’s a better call to pay higher per piece charges if your sales figures aren’t high enough to justify carrying the inventory levels that are required by sourcing overseas. Also, many smaller companies want to keep some or all of the fabrication and/or assembly in house. It’s a case-by-case scenario.
What’s the biggest change you’ve seen in the business over 40 years?
When we started, the business was made up of largely independent manufacturers that sold their products through independent mostly regional distributors and local music stores. This [supply] chain encouraged and was dependent on a lot of personal relationships. Even before the internet this model came under pressure as businesses consolidated and greater efficiency and lower price points were pursued by all the segments. The downside of all this I think is that we’ve got a market place now that is less interested in experimentation. We’re more risk averse, in a sense. In short, it used to be more fun. I think anyone who’s been in the business for over 20 years will agree with that.
What’s the biggest change you’ve seen in which accessories drummers use over that time?
The off-the-shelf hardware (stands, heads) from the drum companies are much better so drummers don’t need as many aftermarket additions (Gauger hoops, head dampers, etc.). Drummers are more interested in newer sounds now—“trash” sounds and ways to incorporate hand percussion sounds into their kit. It’s no longer about kits with eight toms.
You worked a lot of disco sessions in the ‘70s, cranking out hits like “Superman” and “Push Push In The Bush.” You’ve never promoted that part of your career but there was some great work there.
That was a fabulous time. I was a journeyman session player but there was tons of work. I was doing jingles, records, dirty movie scores, publishing demos. That was a big business back then. A publishing company would call a date and you would knock out six or eight tunes in an hour or two. But you needed a band to cut a demo. These were songs that publishers hoped to sell to record companies and artists. They’d pay you like $25 or $50 a tune. Almost never a second take. Now, everybody does that in their computer.
“Push Push In The Bush” was a disco hit produced by Patrick Adams. I did a lot of disco records. Herbie Mann had a number one with “Superman”, Candy Staton’s “When You Wake Up Tomorrow,” Eddie Kendricks, and Carol Douglas. Some of these were one-hit wonders, producer records, like Universal Robot Band. It was just a great time to be a musician in New York.
Tell me something else about Richard Taninbaum that people don’t know.