BY AJ DONAHUE | FROM THE SPRING 2019 ISSUE OF DRUM!
Concert toms are seeing a revival of sorts, and that rules. The single-headed tubs are celebrated for their punchy tones and short sustain, making them an excellent choice for recording or any situation that calls for quick, clear notes that won’t clutter a mix. Plus, they look rad. So when we heard about Sugar Percussion’s African mahogany concert kit, we could definitely feel a review was in the air tonight.
Jefferson Shallenberger is the founder and main crafts-human at Sugar Percussion. His handcrafted stave wood drums have found favor with some of today’s top players, and it’s easy to see why. Every instrument we’ve seen from Sugar has been exquisitely built and ridiculously satisfying to play. I don’t want to waste
any more time with all this table setting—this kit is bonkers, and I want tell you about it right now.
The shell pack that Sugar shipped us includes a 22″ x 13″ bass drum, a 16″ x 13″ floor tom, and 13″ x 9″ and 12″ x 7″ mounted toms, all built with thick-cut, single-source African mahogany staves. Shells graduate in thickness from 7/16″ (12″ mounted tom) up to 9/16″ (bass drum), and each features a short interior taper on the batter side leading up to the bearing edge. Much like the shell thicknesses, the full-roundover bearing edges increase in width as the shell sizes increase, which means more head contact—and thus, better control and drier response.
Toms are equipped with 2.3mm steel triple-flange hoops, while the bass drum sports a complimentary cream-colored, matte-finished wood hoop with rod receivers anchored to the hoop itself (rather than floating hooks). The proprietary shell hardware and single-point lugs are stylish and solid, but subtle enough to let the wood handle the aesthetic heavy lifting.
It’s easy to see that every square millimeter of this kit received special attention. The stave joints are barely visible in the grain, making each shell look like a solid piece of vertically oriented mahogany. They’re stunning. I found no deviations in roundness or bearing-edge height. Further, they are all supremely smooth, with no rough patches, finish pile-up, or unevenness. The shells are all so beautifully built and finished that even just handling them was a joy.
As an added touch, the bass drum hoop includes an embedded pad of heavily figured wood at the pedal mount point. It’s an extravagant little reminder of how much labor went into these. Every tiny detail is as visually pleasing as it is useful.
Shallenberger was nice enough to provide some insight into his process. He made the concert shells thicker than his standard builds to “deaden up the sound, further celebrating the glorious deadness, and to offer a bit more structural integrity, given they’re working with half the rim support.”
The result? Well, this is a tough thing to communicate: The drums sound exactly like I expected them to, but also way better than I expected. Shallenberger’s goal was to create a kit that would be “effortless to record, and an homage to my ’70s and ’80s heroes, as well as my not-so-closeted love for glam rock.” Mission accomplished, my guy.
The drums respond to each stroke with quick, hearty thumps that sound like fat leather ballons popping followed by short bursts of round, warm tone and growling bottom-end that surges late. No matter where I tune them, I hear no excessive sharpness or overtone. They sing with sweet, clean notes up high, and they rumble like 808 samples down low. I really couldn’t find a way to screw up the sound here.
While I heard almost exactly what I was expecting to hear, I did encounter a few surprises. First, these drums speak quite low. Hearing more of that unaltered low fundamental is pretty common with concert toms since nothing is altering the note, and there’s significantly less return reflection to make the higher frequencies shine through. But the soft mahogany on these drums really amplifies the middle and bottom frequencies by soaking up even more of the highs.
Second, there’s a notable difference in the response of the 12″ tom compared to the others in this kit. While the bass drum, 13″ and 16″ toms all respond with a quick splat and a truncated rumbling tail, the 12″ answers with a note that leaps off the head much more aggressively when tuned to the same tension as its siblings. My right-side overhead mike was roughly equidistant from the 12″ and 16″ toms, but you can hear that 12″ just firing a sweet doo into the mike. I realize that might sound weird taken out of context, but I stand by it.
Were I to track this kit with a band, I would feel totally comfortable leaving the toms untamed. I might swap in coated Pinstripes to knead the dough even more, but that’s strictly a personal preference. I would, however, put something small inside the kick. That grumbling sustain helps push the note forward in recordings that feature only drums, but I think it might be a bit distracting next to other instruments.
Speaking of recording, this is clearly a kit with a specific job. They’re beautifully made and sounded outstanding anywhere I set them up. But Sugar’s concert kit hits its highest marks when the microphones come on. Give these drums a warm, comfortably lit room with good microphones and let them work.
Sugar Percussion has a deserved reputation for crafting the kind of instruments that players spend their lives looking for. The African mahogany concert kit we received for this review lived up to those standards, and absolutely nailed the intended sound while supplementing it with tremendous tone. But beyond that, these drums are just fun. In fact, I’d say doing the “research” for this review was some of the most fun I’ve had behind a set. This is the kind of instrument that pulls things out of your playing you didn’t know were there. I found it to be an absolute joy in every way.