"Start by figuring out what you can afford, and then listen to as many as you can to figure out what works for you."
Ross Garfield – best known as The Drum Doctor – has been "drum tech to the stars" for over twenty-five years. A talented drummer himself, Ross began teching for other drummers in 1981. Since then he has accumulated experience, a staff, a treasure trove of new and vintage gear, and a client roster that reads like a "who's who" of drumming.
When people ask Ross why they should call him in to get a drum sound, his standard reply is, "It's real simple. You can't get a John Bonham drum sound from a Charlie Watts drumset. It's like looking at a violin and viola... it's a different set of parameters. You need to understand what different drums will do in the studio, how miking and dampening affects their sound, how they're baffled... all that stuff. I've been in that situation so many times that I can say, ‘If you're not happy with what you're getting, let's try this...'
"I can't be there for every set-up," Ross says. "But I probably make it to 95% of them. On the others, I make sure that the drums sound great before they leave the shop. And I have some clients that are pretty much exclusive – ‘A-list' guys that I work with on a daily basis."
Those clients include studio greats like Jim Keltner, Josh Freese, Abe Laboriel Jr., Steve Jordan, Ricky Lawson, Max Weinberg, Brian MacLeod, and Joey Waronker – as well as The Red Hot Chili Peppers' Chad Smith. "We just provided four drumsets for the Peppers' ‘Danny California' video," says Ross. "One had fourteen toms and two 32x26 bass drums."
Recently, Ross took a break from his busy schedule to visit the West L.A. Guitar Center store. While there, he shared his expertise about drum and percussion gear with the store's own knowledgeable drum staff.
When asked about selecting cymbals for live versus studio use, Ross replies, "Most young drummers are probably going to be playing live before they do any recording. For them, durability is as important as sound. So their cymbals – especially crashes – can be fairly thick. In the studio the microphones capture everything, so you should be using thinner crashes. They won't be as loud or gongy, which means they'll record better.
"A lot of producers and engineers prefer cymbals with darker tonalities," Ross adds. "That way they don't have to EQ the highs out of the cymbals, so the drums will sound better on the recording. With Paistes, for example, they might use Traditionals or Dark Energy models – as opposed to Signatures or 2002s, which are louder, brighter, and have what I'd classify as a more modern sound. Paiste's new Twenty series sounds to me the most like 1960s A Zildjians. Their overtones are darker than the Signatures, but not as dark as the Traditionals.
According to Ross, the "vintage" cymbal sound has become very current and hip. "I recently did recordings with Beck and Jet," he says, "where we got vintage sounds. Zildjian is capitalizing on this trend with larger sizes in their K Custom line – 15" and 16" hats, big crashes, and a 24" ride – to offer dark-sounding cymbals with more projection and durability. Jason Bonham is using those cymbals for live playing.
"When it comes to rides," Ross continues, "I like hand-hammered models for their darker sound and complex overtones. Machined-hammered and heavily lathed models tend to be brighter, with fewer overtones. I'd use them for a more modern sound. And now there are hybrid models that are half-lathed and half-not in order to control overtones in various ways.
"My job is to manifest the ideas that the artist and the producer have in their heads," Ross explains. "If they want a certain sound from the ride cymbal, I'll put up a several to choose from. A lot of times, we'll mix up the brands. Right now we're rehearsing for a tour with the re-formed Sex Pistols, and their drummer is using old, dark-sounding Zildjian crashes and a Paiste ride with a cutting bell.
"You have to find the right combination of characteristics to suit your needs," Ross explains. "That might mean using one of the less-expensive models, like Sabian's B8 Pro line, or Zildjian's ZHTs. The ZHTs use a high-tin bronze alloy for a loud, bright sound that I'd generally think of for thrash or punk music. But everything is a matter of experimentation. I'll put a trash can lid on a stand if that's the sound we're looking for.
"All of the major brands make fine cymbals, and they're all developing new ideas – like Sabian's HHX and AAX Evolution series. But there are some lesser-known brands that make some great stuff too. Bosphorus is a good example. They don't have anything that's really bright; everything is dark and pretty. I use that line a lot. Drummers should check out everything that's available to them."
On Snare Drums
When asked about the characteristics that define a snare drum's sound, Ross begins with wood drums. "Great wood snares of the 1930s and '40s, like Slingerland Radio Kings, had solid, one-piece shells. Those drums usually produce better response than ply drums, with more highs, more lows, and more resonance. Ply drums will generally have a deader sound – which may sometimes be exactly what you're looking for. So I wouldn't shy away from a ply snare simply because it's a ply snare. If you can tune up three or four different snares – ply or solid – then you'll come to understand what you want for your sound."
The three woods used most often for ply snare drums are maple, birch, and ash. How does Ross describe their differences? "Maple tends to have the most resonance," he replies. "Birch is a little softer, with a more controlled, ‘thuddy' sound and fewer overtones. Ash falls somewhere in the middle. It's also less expensive, which can offer an affordable option to a lot of drummers."
Turning to metal shells, Ross explains why he might choose one. "A big part of it is what I call ‘psycho-acoustics,' he says. "That's a fancy term for the fact that you're used to hearing a certain thing. More recordings in the '60s and '70s were made with Ludwig Supra-Phonic 400 brass-shell snare drums than all others combined. So a lot of people identify with that sound; it's sort of a starting point.
"Today," Ross continues, "drum companies offer shells made of steel, brass, bronze, aluminum, copper, and titanium – many in smooth and hammered versions. It's more than cosmetics; there are legitimate sound differences between them. You probably get the most highs out of a stainless-steel drum, and then it would go to aluminum, then copper. Brass snares would be the warmest, yet they still have a nice crack to them."
Many drummers believe that wood snares sound warmer and fatter than metal snares do. Says Ross, "I wouldn't disagree ¬– in general. But I get some of my fattest tones out of metal drums, like Ludwig Black Beauties. AC/DC always used a Black Beauty, so there's one point of reference. I've also used Tama's Bell Brass on a lot of big records, like Nirvana's Nevermind and Offspring's Smash. That drum has a thick, heavy shell, and we get great results out of it.
"I also like DW's Edge snare," Ross adds. "It has a wood shell in the center and thick metal edges, and it sounds completely different from any all-wood or all-metal drum. The wood center dries out the sound, creating a dry crack with few overtones."
A lot of drummers seek snares that can cut through loud amps, especially for live use. What does Ross suggest in this area? "If you want a snare drum sound that pokes through a wall of guitars," he replies, "that usually comes down to size and shell material.
"If you want a snare that's going to cut," Ross continues, "get one made out of the harder materials. A solid-steel 14" drum will sound higher and dryer than, say, a 14" titanium drum like Dunnett makes, which tends to sound on the warm side. With wood, the thicker the shell, the more piercing the sound. Orange County Drum & Percussion is noted for ultra-thick ply shells that create such a sound."
OCDP is also noted for vented snare drums, which are also offered by several other brands. How does venting affect the sound? "It makes the sound louder, dryer, and more aggressive," Ross replies. "You're getting more of the ‘inside' drum sound out into the room or the mics."
When I was growing up, there were 3x13 piccolos and 4x14 ‘Jazz' snares. These days I have 10"- and 12"-diameter snares that are anywhere from 3" to 6" deep. You can get high-pitched sounds from drums like those – which is good not only for loud rock, but also for hip-hop recordings.
How does Ross feel about acrylic drums? "I have several," he says. "They have very few overtones. It's more of a ‘fwack' sound. I think they tend be used more for their looks than for their sound. But if you're on stage, that's a big part of your performance, too. In fact, that's a big element of all drums these days. That's why we see so many custom finishes.
"There are literally hundreds of snare drums on the market," comments Ross. "Start by figuring out what you can afford, and then listen to as many as you can to figure out what works for you."
Though his main focus is on kit drummers, Ross does "a fair amount" of work with studio percussionists. "Most projects will include a day or two for percussion ‘sweetening,'" he says. "On one occasion, Macy Gray's producer called me and said, ‘I want you to bring me a percussion rig that would make Santana jealous.'" [laughs]
When asked about his preferences in percussion gear, Ross responds, "I like the new Gon Bops congas and bongos, as well as the LP Giovanni series, which are made of ash. I particularly like congas with rounded hoops, like LP's Comfort Curve models. They make long sessions a lot easier on the hands of the players.
"Djembes and cajons have also become very popular in the last few years," Ross continues. Alternative bands are doing a lot of acoustic things, and a djembe or a cajon gives the music another flavor. The manufacturers have responded to that with a huge variety of models, sizes, and sounds.
"When people go into studios, if nothing else they usually want a nice selection of tambourines and shakers. So over the years I've hunted down really great-sounding ones. LP... Toca... Rhythm Tech – every line has good stuff. Vaughncraft has a great-sounding wood-shell tambourine with a steam-bent shell. But if I had to play a tambourine live for two-hours, I'd choose the crescent-shaped composite-shell design that Rhythm Tech introduced years ago. They also offer some cool mini-maracas."
Ross points out that many drumset players are adding percussion to their kits. "Drummers are looking for new sounds to add to their kits. That's why items like Factory Metal Percussion's Cross Crashers and Hat Crashers are so cool. It's what I call ear candy. When you're listening back to a track, you say, ‘Hey, what was that?'"
Advice from an expert like Ross Garfield is certainly valuable. But Ross will be the first to say that the best way to find your signature sound is to get out and hit some drums and cymbals. To highlight some of the products and sounds Ross describes in this article, your local Guitar Center Drum Shop will be featuring four special Test Drive setups – one per week during July – so you can hear for yourself the crucial elements of a great-sounding kit.
Test Drive a Different Drum Rig
Every Week at Your Local Store!
Week one (July 1-8) focuses on snare drums. You'll find piccolo, metal, wood, and hybrid models lined up and ready to play.
Week two (July 9-15) is all about crash cymbals. Test-drive everything from rock, medium, and thin crashes to unique effect cymbals like the Cross Benderz...and more.
Week three (July 16-22) lays out the gamut of ride cymbals. Hand-hammered, lathed, sheet, and hybrid ride cymbals will all be represented.
Week four (July 23-31) gets you started in world percussion. Get your hands on congas, bongos, djembes, and a host of other instruments that can add a unique touch to your kit.