BY AJ DONAHUE | FROM THE FALL 2019 ISSUE OF DRUM!
When Tama first announced the discontinuation of its much-celebrated Starclassic Bubinga/Birch series, there was some consternation among fans of the legendary Japanese brand. The bubinga/birch drums were loved by a heavy contingent of pros and amateurs alike, and I know quite a few drummers who personally expressed their disappointment that the B/B drums wouldn’t be produced anymore. Enter the Tama Starclassic Walnut/Birch series.
Bubinga’s declining global supply and rising import costs are simply making it too difficult to retain as a production wood at this level. So, the team at Tama turned their attention to American black walnut, another dark-toned timber often chosen for its blend of reflective presence and strong lows. It’s not an exact comp for bubinga, but it shares some of the same sonic qualities, especially when combined with birch.
Tama shipped over a four-piece Starclassic Walnut/Birch shell pack with a 22″ x 16″ bass drum, 10″ x 8″ and 12″ x 9″ toms, and 16″ x 14″ floor tom in Lacquer Phantasm Oyster finish (a dope name that is indeed a stunning lacquer finish) for us to check out.
Review: Tama Starclassic Walnut/Birch Shell Pack
SAME SAME BUT DIFFERENT
The team at Tama says the W/B was not developed as a substitute for the B/B kits, but these walnut/birch kits are largely the same as the most recent iteration of the B/B drums. Star-Cast mounts, Quick-Lock tom brackets, Evans heads, and die-cast hoops all carry over to the new line. Other than the wood type and fresh finishes (Tama rolled out some real stunners here), the most notable difference is that the W/B drums have fewer interior plies, with two interior walnut plies versus three bubinga.
As a whole, the level of detail and build quality on this kit is really remarkable. Tama is known for impeccable standards on its high-end kits, and the new W/Bs are no exception: Staggered ply seams are straight and smooth; what at first glance seems like 45-degree bearing edges are actually graduated bearing edges that start at 55 degrees internally and get wider toward the edge (official Tama nomenclature: Dynamic Bearing Edge), and are clean and level at every check; all of the hardware is smooth as silk. I fine-tooth-combed this kit looking for issues and couldn’t find anything that jumped out.
On top of that, they look incredible. The Lacquer Phantasm Oyster finish is bold, for sure, but it’s a really captivating look. The pink and purple swirls combine with white and black accents for a sort of Starship-Enterprise-traveling-at-warp-speed kind of vibe. It’s intense, but somehow not over the top. The only thing I don’t like is the single-color, fuchsia hoops. I would have much preferred to see the oyster finish on the hoops as well.
I have been lucky enough to play a few of the B/B kits in recent years. To my ear, the W/Bs aren’t quite as grumbly-rumbly in the low spectrum as their predecessors. The toms sound a tiny bit shorter than what I remember of the bubingas as well.
The first thing that hits my mind when I think of those B/B kits is the long tail on the low-end of the toms, and I just didn’t get as much of that here no matter how I tuned them. The difference is slight enough, however, that what I’m hearing may be due to other factors like heads or room sound.
Speaking of heads and tuning, I’m completely floored by the range of these drums, especially at the extremes. Medium tensions are great—those die-cast hoops keep them quick and punching up top, while the walnut/birch blend delivers a generous mid-bottom to make them sound full. But the W/B drums truly excel at the highest and lowest ends of the tuning spectrum.
Cranked way up high, they balance each sweet, pinging pop with a strong doo sound that settles quickly. Tones are clear and rich. I would have no problem using these drums on a traditional bop hit, even with the clear two-ply heads (although preferably with a smaller bass drum).
On the other end, dropping both batter and resonant heads to barely above finger-tight left me truly stunned. I hear the wet slap I expect with a super loose configuration, but after that, there’s still so much sound coming out of these drums. No flabbiness around the middle, no droopy decay—just heavy booms that jump out but don’t linger. If you like low and loose sounds, these drums are more than happy to give them to you.
For a change, I swapped out the two-ply clear batters for single-ply coated heads and took the kit out on a rock gig at a small venue with no mics. I tuned the drums up a little higher to compensate for the lack of microphones, but was still treated to a healthy dose of big lows from each drum. This was a very loud gig, and I can’t say the toms cut through completely. But they did project much more fully than the thin-shelled maple drums I normally use.
The bass drum warrants special attention here—what a behemoth. I was very happy to see Tama opt for a 16″-deep kick with this shell pack. For me, that depth is a little easier to play than an 18″, and in this case, I didn’t find it lacking any low-end power whatsoever. It sounds great with some tension on it and there’s a sweetness at its core that makes it feel nice and musical. But this one earns its money down low—it’s an earthmover.
NUTS & BOLTS
Most of the hardware appointments on the Starclassic W/B line have been covered in previous Drum! reviews, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t shout them out quickly here. The Quick-Lock tom brackets are quite handy, and I’d happily install them on every drum I own. They do allow for a bit of wobbly play in the floor toms, which is disconcerting at first. Tama says that movement, along with its Air-Cushioned feet, allows the drum to resonate more fully.
The telescoping double tom mount is much easier to use than traditional, shell-penetrating mounts. It’s smaller, but can still extend pretty high. The range of positioning options it affords is pretty extreme, and the whole thing held secure at all times.
Beyond that, the telescoping bass drum spurs have incremented markers on the main post to help with even positioning, and they extend almost straight down from the shell. That’s a small thing, but one I found really helpful for managing tight set-ups. And the rubber feet have wingnut-style tabs for quick adjustments that are easy on the hands. Bass drum claws come equipped with fairly thick gaskets to make sure those hoops stay protected.
Last, but not least, tension rods for each drum are on the shorter side, which makes tuning and head changes faster without sacrificing much range.
One thing I found frustrating was the stock heads. I had a bit of trouble seating them on the 12″ and 16″ toms. I measured everything and found the shells and heads to be round within expected tolerances. I’m not sure what the issue was, but it was a challenging start to my time with these drums. That said, if I were buying a kit like this I’d probably spring for new heads anyway.
Fans of Tama’s Starclassic Bubinga/Birch drums can rest easy. The new Starclassic Walnut/Birch drums feature the same excellent hardware appointments, outstanding build quality, and meticulous attention to detail seen in their predecessors. While they don’t sound exactly the same, they come darn close, and these drums have a very satisfying vibe of their own.
The tuning range is insane, they’re punchy but not overly aggressive, and they’ve got a huge low-end presence that feels great in modern pop, hip-hop, and rock settings. The new finish options are also quite stunning. This is an excellent shell pack, and a great value.
STREET PRICE: Starclassic Walnut/Birch 4-piece shell pack in Lacquer Phantasm Oyster
22″ x 16″ bass drum, 10″ x 8″ tom, 12″ x 9″ tom, 16″ x 14″ floor tom $1,699.99