Among the many advantages of living in Southern California, despite wildfires, mudslides, and earthquakes, is being so close to Drum Workshop's headquarters. The factory itself is a drummer's paradise, of course - nothing but drums, here, there, and everywhere, and nobody but drummers and drummakers. But the journey is good, too, up the Pacific Coast Highway through Malibu and the wilder regions of the Santa Monica Mountains into Ventura County.
Even on a day like yesterday, with January rains and gusty winds pushing me and my bike around the road, there was still the ocean and the mountains. And at the end, there were all those drums, and some friendly drum-makers to take me out for lunch.
While we ate, we talked about how I might share with other drummers my enthusiasm for DW's recent innovations, all of which have been so valuable to me in the business of music-making.
For myself, I told the DW guys that I thought it would be easy for me to talk about those new products - the 23-inch bass drum, the VLT snare drum, and the X shells - because each of them has such a story behind it. Plus, in a small way, I felt part of those stories.
Leaning back from the table, I spread my hands like an old-time comedian, "You couldn't make this stuff up!"
The story begins in 1974, on Rush's first American tour. Back then we were an unknown opening act from some northern wasteland called Canada, and we played anywhere that would have us - clubs, colleges, theaters, arenas, puppet shows, and kite-flying contests.
Many promoters in those days threw together a whole bunch of bands on what they called "multiple-act shows," with three, four, even five other bands. When we drove our camper-van up to some Midwestern arena, the backstage area would be a chaos of road cases and equipment. The bands above us on the bill were sometimes competitive, insecure, ill-tempered, drug-addled, or all of the above, (and likewise their road crews), so the lowly opener couldn't expect too much.
First, the headlining band would set up and do their soundcheck, then the "special guest" (second on the bill) in front of them, and so on - until somebody ran out of time and the doors were opened. Very often our two-man crew would be setting up our amps and drums on the edge of the stage, in front of all the other amp-lines, while the seats filled.
So for us in those days, soundchecks were rare, deli trays were meager, and our set was brief - twenty-five or thirty minutes. One time our set was actually cut to just two songs, at the old Stanley Warner Theater in Pittsburgh. A multi-act show was running late, so naturally the first band's set would be cut. I guess we were lucky to play at all (true enough, in every sense).
One good thing about being the opener on those shows was that once our brief set was done, I could stand backstage, or go out into the house, unknown and unnoticed, and watch the other bands. I paid a lot of attention to the drummers (of course), and to how their drums sounded from the audience. In all different kinds of venues, from bars to arenas, and through widely varying sound equipment, I listened to snare drums, bass drums, toms, and cymbals.
Back then I was impressed by the sound of 24-inch bass drums, as they seemed especially powerful out front (for once the indignity of the term "kick" would be appropriate). However, when I tried playing a 24-inch myself, it didn't work for me - it felt a little too loose and "floppy." For playability and my preferred response and dynamics, I stayed with the versatility of a 22-inch bass drum for the next . . . thirty-three years. And now our story flashes forward those thirty-three years, to 2007.
During a visit to the DW factory early that year, I was telling the above story to John Good, DW's maestro of instrument design (the Wood Whisperer), telling him how "in the olden days" I had liked the sound of a 24-inch bass drum, but not the way it played.
Without dropping a beat, John turned to me and said, "What about a twenty-three?"
I could only laugh, "What about it?"
Everybody knows there is no such thing as a 23-inch bass drum.
But at that moment, all at once a 23-inch bass drum did exist - in John Good's imagination.
He set out to make it real, but the challenge of that enterprise was sizeable - starting with the simple fact that if there had never been a 23-inch bass drum, it follows that there had never been a 23-inch bass drum head.
Not one to be discouraged by that minor detail, John contacted the various drum-head manufacturers. Right away Remo stepped up to the plate, and offered to make a few prototypes, by hand. John went on to design a shell that would express his latest theories growing out of the Vertical Low Timbre philosophy - a further refinement that would eventually become the "X" series.
Once I got my hands - or my foot - on that 23-inch bass drum, I was sold. As John had suspected, it retains all the response and dynamics of the 22-inch, but adds the punch and bottom-end of a 24-inch. For me, the bass drum is the heart of the drumset, and this heart, like a good drummer, is both strong and sensitive.
Like all of us . . .
Perhaps my favorite part of my drumming life is the songwriting and pre-production work for a new Rush album. Everything about my approach to the drums can be new and fresh, and I love the freedom to experiment with new ways of playing - technique - and trying out different pieces of equipment - technology.
Like many drummers, I'm sure, I have a special affection for snare drums. After more than forty years of performing and recording, I have gathered a collection of perhaps twenty different kinds - steel, brass, copper, and all manner of shapes and styles of wood, from bamboo to cocobolla, and from piccolo to marching drum. When I begin working on a new project in the studio, I have all of those glittering instruments lined up in a row behind me, and I'll try different ones for each song as I work on my parts. On the past few Rush albums, I typically ended up using six different snare drums, according to what voice and presence each song seemed to want.
In late 2006, though, when we started working on songs for our Snakes and Arrows album, all that changed. DW's John Good presented me with one of his new Vertical Low Timbre snare drums, and from the day I first played that VLT snare, I never touched another one.
Its playability, stick response, power, delicacy, and sheer versatility were unmatched by any other drum I had played, plus its sound was simply right for every song - so driving and musical that I never even bothered trying any of the others. That one drum simply did everything, perfectly and I can hardly overemphasize how great an accomplishment that is. For this drummin' man, it is a revelation, verging on a miracle.
Best of all, the VLT snare is as satisfying to listen back to as it is to play, and it performed brilliantly in the studio - not just for me, but my bandmates, our co-producer, and our engineer. Everybody loved that drum, on every song.
When it came time to prepare for the Snakes and Arrows tour in early 2007, I was further delighted to find that this drum dominated the stage, just as it had conquered the studio. For the past few tours I had been using two different DW snare drums - an Edge for indoors, and a Solid for outdoors - but once again, the VLT snare changed all that. On the stage or in the studio, it does everything perfectly.
So, that collection of old snare drums I've amassed is going to be gathering dust in the warehouse for a while. I may enjoy looking at them from time to time, but I'll probably end up giving them to a music school or something. Everything I need from a snare drum, for old songs, new songs, and especially the wide range of "voices" required for soloing - it's all covered by the omnipotent VLT.
So, there's only one snare drum for me now - unless John Good and DW accomplish the impossible and come up with something even better.
As John would be the first to confess, "Anything is possible."
While I was rehearsing for Rush's Snakes and Arrows tour in April, 2007, the long-awaited new drumset arrived. The look we had developed so painstakingly was stunning, in Aztec red, gold leaf, satin gray metallic, and black nickel hardware. Louie Garcia and his fellow artists in the DW factory had done a beautiful job once again.
By the time the drums arrived, I had been working in a Toronto rehearsal room every day for two weeks. I was beating myself into good touring shape by playing along with our CDs for hours, rehearsing old songs and new ones we were planning to play live. Along with smoothing out parts, transitions, and tempos, I was building strength and stamina (painfully).
Because I was playing to recorded tracks on a little CD player, through my in-ear monitors, the drums I was actually playing were necessarily muffled and indistinct - felt more than heard. While waiting for the new drums to be finished, I had been using what we called the "West Coast kit," a recording set DW had made for me, which I used for the Snakes and Arrows sessions. I already thought those drums sounded just about perfect, so I wasn't expecting any big changes in the sound of the new ones - just a more "stageworthy" look (it's a bling thing).
However, the first day I sat behind the Snakes and Arrows kit, playing along with the CDs as I had been doing all those other days, I found myself hitting, say, the 15-inch tom on my left, and thinking, "Wow, that makes a lot of noise!"
The "noise," of course, was the radical increase in tonality, resonance, and timbre that John Good and his artisans at DW had built into those drums. John is a restless and demanding craftsman, obsessed with the endless promise of his beloved wood. For these drums, he had carefully selected what he considered the ultimate construction for each shell. Apart from variations in wood plies and reinforcement hoops from small to large shells, the biggest innovation, and the biggest payoff, would be John's experiments in laying the laminates in alternate directions.
For centuries, drum shells had been made with the grain of the wood following the circle, running around the circumference. John had other ideas, starting with placing some of the laminates across the circle, vertically - hence "Vertical Low Timbre," because that is the result.
John made me a believer in the Vertical Low Timbre principle during a visit to the factory several years ago. Up in John's "tuning loft," above the factory floor, where he continues to timbre-match each drum to every drumset that leaves the plant, he held up two 13-inch shells of bare wood. He gave them his special "timbre matching" knock, with the side of his fist, and the difference in tone and depth from the VLT shell was truly unbelievable. Since then, John has taken that concept even farther outside the conventional - outside the shell, you might say. John's latest innovation in his visionary progress as a Wood Whisperer is the "X" shell.
Like many fine ideas, this one was easier to imagine than to accomplish. In order to create laminates that would run across the circle like that, in a spiral, rather than around or across it, John's team needed larger pieces of raw wood - the typical four-by-eight foot sheet was too small. Somehow, John managed to talk his suppliers into doubling that size, and soon eight-by-eight foot sheets of carefully selected hardwood began to arrive at DW's shipping dock, piled high on huge pallets.
All of that makes a good story, but for a drummer, "The proof is in the pounding." When it comes to that proof, for a drummer and his drums, I believe the ultimate test is the concert stage. Throughout 2007, and now into 2008, my own performances have been enhanced and inspired by an incredible drumset that includes innovations like the 23-inch bass drum, the VLT snare, and the X-shells on my lower toms.
As uncompromising artists of drum-making, the people at Drum Workshop continue to explore the frontiers and expand the horizon, on a ceaseless quest to create the finest expression of the heart and soul of drums. I am proud to play their instrument, to be a small part of their research and development circle, and to write about the results with such sincere enthusiasm.
Like I told the guys at lunch the other day, "You can't make this stuff up!"