BY AJ DONAHUE | FROM THE FALL 2019 ISSUE OF DRUM!
Global availability of certain timber species is shifting, and while the drum industry isn’t significantly responsible for those changes, it’s certainly being affected by them. As time passes, we’re learning that some tonewoods may not be readily available forever, and that includes a few of our tried and true favorites. One of those is genuine mahogany, a reddish-brown hardwood favored in instrument manufacturing for its mellow, dry character and strong low tones.
Craviotto has been using genuine mahogany to build drum sets and snares since very early in the company’s history. After a rigorous evaluation of alternative species capable of offering similar sonic properties, the Crav crew settled on European beech, a medium-density timber harvested in the Nordic region of Europe.
Interestingly, considering its selection as an alternative to mahogany, European beech shares a lot more in common with maple at first glance. Mahogany has a Janka hardness rating of 800, which is at the softer end of the spectrum; European beech ranks at 1,450, the same as American hard maple. Additionally, beech’s pale color and light grain lines create a much closer visual comp for maple than the deep-hued, heavy grain-lined appearance of mahogany.
The folks at Craviotto have used European beech in snare drums before, but this is the first time it’s been added to the company catalog as an option for full kit builds. To help us get a clearer picture of what the shop can do with beech, Craviotto shipped over a five-piece shell pack for examination. Let’s get crackin’.
LIFE’S A (EURO) BEECH
This is a whopper of a kit. Craviotto sent over a steam-bent shell pack with a 24″ x 14″ bass drum, 14″ x 10″ mounted tom, 16″ x 16″ and 18″ x 16″ floor toms, and a 14″ x 7″ snare drum. Visually, those jumbo sizes leave plenty of room for the pale-hued beech to breathe. The wood doesn’t have particularly strong grain lines, but there’s a very light figuring that adds subtle depth.
Each shell is banded by a hand-laid walnut inlay, which looks great while providing some pleasing subterfuge for the seam where the top and bottom halves of each two-piece shell are joined. Because evenly steam-bending wide boards is incredibly difficult, deeper drums—like the toms and the bass drum in this kit—are built using two steamed boards joined together to make the top and bottom halves of a single shell.
Other than this inlay, these drums are simply appointed. Craviotto’s signature diamond detail is incorporated into the proprietary bass drum claws, the chrome-over-brass tube lugs, and snare drum butt plate. Like a lot of tube lugs, these don’t have a swivel nut, so the threaded receiver is bored right into the brass body of the lug. That can create some stiffness in the movement of the rods, and that was initially the case here. It made tuning each drum a little more difficult at first, but things did start to improve after a few rounds of de- and re-tensioning.
Beyond that, the build quality was what one would expect from Craviotto. I found no flaws in the chrome on any parts, the shells are round, the 45-degree edges are consistent and even, and
the shell seams are really beautiful. Single-ply shell seams almost always have some deviation to them, like a river more than a straight road. These seams are much closer to straight lines than those I’ve seen on other large, single-ply drums.
ROUND SOUNDS WITH REBOUND
At a medium-low tension, these drums have a deep sound that kind of blooms from the middle down. They’re pretty well controlled, but not overly so on account of those 2.3mm hoops. They don’t have quite the same punch as birch or maple, but I do hear a little more sweetness than mahogany. The notes don’t leap off the heads. Instead, they swell up from the bottom and sing with a medium-long, low finish. It’s an enormous sound that’s only exaggerated by the large sizes.
The bass drum has significantly more dry-ish, slapping attack than the toms. That’s mostly due to the depth-to-diameter ratio, as well as the clear batter head. It’s got a big, warm middle just like the rest of the kit, but it speaks up and settles down a bit faster. This is a great example of that classic, heavy 24″ bass drum sound.
The toms and bass drum surprised me with their range. I didn’t think I was going to get a satisfying high tom sound out of a 14″ x 10″ mounted tom tensioned up high, but I was wrong. With the heads way up on the high end, the sustain of each drum shortens, but they don’t sound choked. They’re clear and big in the middle and then settle quickly. They can handle the higher tensions needed for articulation and projection, but those large diameters keep them from sounding overly bop-ish.
At the other end of the spectrum, the toms and bass drum share a humongous low-end rumble that perks up if you even breathe on them. I can’t believe how sensitive these large drums are with both heads barely above finger tight. They’re completely playable, with truly uncommon dynamic range for that tension. I’m sure the 45-degree edges play a big part in keeping them responsive even with the heads so slack.
The drums didn’t perform as well in the upper-medium range as they did elsewhere. I had a tougher time dialing in a consistent, full tone when I brought them up past medium, particularly the 14″ and 16″ toms—they seemed to warble a bit more. That disappeared as I brought the rods up tighter, though. They do extremely well up high, and everywhere between (generally) medium and extra low tensions.
These drums are also incredibly comfortable to play. My sticks and bass drum beater seemed to spring back off the heads with little to no effort, which came as a real surprise considering the large sizes. It’s an elastic, trampoline-type rebound that gently catches each stroke and quickly volleys the stick back up to the starting position. It’s a wonderful feel.
THE SNARE UP THERE
The Euro beech snare drum that came with this kit is sensitive and cracking with a big, fat, tone-rich pock in the middle. Like the toms and bass drum, the snare on this kit is a little bit more controlled than maple, especially in the upper ranges, but not quite as dry and dark as mahogany.
It tunes beautifully. In fact, this drum is so easy to dial in, I wasn’t really able to make it sound bad. I’m not hearing much in the way of unwanted ring at any tension, and it sounds great at super low tunings. The 7″ depth combined with the natural low-end presence of beech makes it easy to get a deep, beefy sound without dropping it all the way down and totally sacrificing feel. This is an exquisite drum that feels like it can handle anything.
In looking for a comparable sonic alternative for genuine mahogany, the folks at Craviotto landed on European beech. This doesn’t feel like a “replacement” kind of kit, however. These drums sound spectacular, with a vibe all their own. They are not quite as sweet as maple or as punchy as birch, and I don’t hear as much of the dry focus I’m used to with ply mahogany shells either.
I think they land somewhere in between those three.
It’s not always easy to make big drums with a lot of range, but the European beech shells have range for days, with only one minor blind spot. This could be a perfect kit for someone who needs a versatile instrument, but prefers big sizes. Or maybe for a very tall person who can comfortably play a 14″ x 10″ mounted tom next to a 24″ bass drum. Either way, it feels like a win.
STREET PRICE: Craviotto European beech five-piece shell pack (24″ x 14″ bass, 14″ x 10″ mounted tom, 16″ x 16″ and 18″ x 16″ floor toms, and a 14″ x 7″ snare) $6,950