BY AJ DONAHUE | FROM THE FALL 2018 ISSUE OF DRUM!
Natal Drums, the British-born brand resurrected by Marshall Amplifiers, first introduced its Café Racer line of tulipwood drums in 2016. The racing-inspired series earned significant acclaim for its blend of build quality, appointments, affordable pricing, and warm tones evocative of celebrated vintage drums. Now, building on the success of the Racer release, Natal is doubling down with an updated version of the line featuring the same shells and hardware, but with a wax-finished walnut outer ply replacing the original wrap options.
At first blush, that seems like a pretty minor change, and hardly one worth a whole review — but there’s more to talk about here than great looks. Let’s get to it.
I was thoroughly impressed when I reviewed the first-generation Café Racer kit for Drum the year it was released. The combination of modern features and fat, traditionally tailored tones from the mellow tulipwood shells made for a uniquely inspiring playing experience. The build quality was exceptional and the champagne sparkle finish was a real stunner, but the full, punching sounds I got from every drum absolutely stole the show.
When I saw that Natal’s new Café cousin was effectively the same product but with different exteriors, I assumed the change was purely cosmetic. I was wrong.
UNDER THE HOOD
Café Racer ’59 drums are only rolling out in two shell packs initially: a three-piece with a 12″ x 8″ mounted tom, a 14″ x 14″ floor tom, and a 20″ x 14″ bass drum; and a four-piece rig including 10″ x 7″ and 12″ x 8″ mounted toms, a 16″ x 16″ floor tom, and a 22″ x 14″ bass drum. I received the three-piece in a Wax Cherry Mahogany finish. (Currently, the only other finish available is Wax Cerulean Blue.)
The Café Racer ’59 drums share many build qualities with the first Café Racer series. They both feature 7mm-thick shells capped by 45-degree interior cut edges and rounded countercuts, triple-flange 2.3mm steel hoops, and the company’s signature high-mass zinc lugs emblazoned with sun logo details on each face. Natal’s excellent NRM suspension mounts offer a simple and unobtrusive option for hanging toms. Plus, all mounted toms come standard with an N-Tech aluminum ball arm. And finally, matching wood bass drum hoops and large, telescoping spurs with incremented markers for positioning consistency round out the bass drum. The difference here is the 7-ply shell, which replaces the outer tulipwood ply with one of matte-finished walnut.
The Café Racer ’59 drums ship wearing Evans drumheads. Toms come equipped with two-ply coated batters and single-ply clear resonant heads, while bass drums sport clear EMAD batters and unported EQ1 black resonant-side skins.
At every point, the construction quality and attention to detail on these drums is top notch. The edges are clean and smooth, all of the shells are true and round, and every seam is pristine. This is a well-crafted set of tubs.
While we’re talking about hardware and appointments, I want to take a second to address the rods on these Café Racer kits. The lower third of each rod is dipped in a red polymer designed to maintain tension and prevent backout. All rods are also equipped with a trio of washers — one rubber and two steel in different sizes — for an even more secure hold.
The most noticeable thing about the rods, however, is the extreme smoothness with which they turn once inside the lug casing. Even at very high tensions, they swivel with what feels like absolutely no friction. Normally, I wouldn’t bother to address something minor like that, but it’s really, really nice to work with a drum that offers almost no resistance during tuning.
LISTEN TO THAT KITTEN PURR
All right, let’s talk tone. While the shift to a wax-finished walnut exterior changed the look of the line, I initially wasn’t sure that the outermost ply of a seven-ply drum shell would make a truly significant impact on sound and response. But that is the case here.
The original Café Racer drums were robust and round with a satisfying, resonant quality that added some pleasing depth. But this kit was immense and broad sonically in a way that its predecessors are not. The sound was so rich and full that the whole kit sang with a singular energy that hit every part of my ear. I know this sounds like wild hyperbole, but these drums just exploded in the mid-range. They’re warm and blooming at all volumes, with a very slightly truncated sustain that made me want to trim the fat from my fills and make every note count.
Removing a wrap and changing the material of each shell’s outer ply shouldn’t yield such a difference. These are heavy drums. The hardware is heavy. The spurs are enormous and heavy. Everything that touches the shell is supported by a 1/4″-thick synthetic gasket. Floor tom legs are mounted directly to the shells. Those should all be resonance killers, but they don’t seem to be killing much of anything. Whatever the magic in these shells is, it’s worth exploring more.
I did a little digging to learn more about tulipwood, since it’s fairly uncommon in drum manufacturing. It’s often called yellow poplar, but despite the name it isn’t actually related to the poplar wood we’ve come to know in drum making. Tulipwood is on the lighter side, and has long been favored as a useful commercial timber because of its strength and availability. Interestingly, it does share some of the same drier, more controlled tonal qualities heard in poplar drums, but because tulip is generally harder it carries a slightly stronger presence in the middle and upper range, along with some extra punch.
Beyond the sounds, this kit played wonderfully. It has a generous and soft response under stick, but that hefty shell hardware made the whole rig, especially the bass drum, feel incredibly secure. It felt extremely comfortable and was an absolute joy to play.
Natal’s new Café Racer ’59 drums take the vintage-inspired character of their predecessors and max out the best qualities of that sound. They speak with a balance of controlled highs, rich mids, and expanding lows that blend beautifully at all dynamic levels. The construction quality is superb, and the modern, extra-durable shell hardware makes these drums a great option for touring drummers in search of a classic sound without the hassles of 50-year-old hardware. Finally, the addition of a walnut exterior ply not only adds sonic depth, but also creates a gorgeous finish.
MSRP: $2,544 12″ x 8″, 14″x 14″, 20″ x 14″ shell pack