How the Material of a Drum Affects Its Sound

How the Material of a Drum Affects Its Sound

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A lot goes into making sure a drum kit has long and healthy life. Aside from proper care, finding the right shell material is just as important. The heart and soul of the drum is the shell. This is its main feature, and every sound starts here. Whether it is a wooden shell or metal shell, every factor of the shell makeup effects the final sound. There are many types of drum materials that produce a wide range of sounds. To understand drum shells and their sonic properties, let's dive into the types of shells you might encounter and what each mean.  

Wood Types

The common shell type of a drum kit is the classic wood design. Wood shells produce a wide range of sounds, ranging from warm tones to sensitive sonic sounds. These wood shells include:
  • Maple is an all-purpose shell type capable of producing a nice level of high and mid-level tones that are slightly warm.
  • Mahogany is a classic drum shell with resonant and vibrant sounds. The highs can be rather muted but there is a smooth midrange and a rich/warm low tone product.
  • Birch boosts frequencies with a reduced midrange and a good punch on the low-end. The overall sound is cutting and loud.
  • Oak provides a lovely soft high, good midrange option, and warm lows. Oak drum shells are all-purpose and tend to decay quickly.
  • Walnut creates warm and big sounds. Walnut shells are equal across a low, middle, and high sound range.
  • Beech is capable of focused and sensitive sound. The low-end range gives a punch and has mid and high with pronounced products.
  • Cherry gives off a sensitive and bright sound with a boost for the highs, punch in the midrange, and an average low end.
  • Bubinga is punchy and sensitive with an even product between middle and high, with a very rich low-end sound product from this shell.
  • Poplar has a smooth sound that is warm with a soft middle and high sonic product.
  • Ash has a warm and throaty sound when used as a drum shell. It is a distinct and pronounced sound.
Wood shells present infinite options for drum sounds because there are so many species of timber to use. Choosing the wood for a shell largely depends on the type of music you are looking to produce. You might also choose a non-conventional shell on purpose to make your sound unique. For example, while maple and birch are the most common choice for genres like jazz, the more unusual poplar or ash will be unexpected for listeners.  

Metal Drum Shells

As you might imagine, metal drum shells produce quite a different sound than wooden counterparts. Metal drum shells are typically welded, cast, or hand-spun. We will get more into construction later. For now, learn a little bit about the most common metal drum shells and the sounds they produce.
  • Carbon Steel is all-purpose as a metal shell. The sound tends to bring an average midrange and very clear high-level sounds.
  • Aluminum drum shells have sensitive and colorful sound quality. The midrange product is open and warm with crisp highs and a low-end product.
  • Brass shells are vibrant and warm. The lows, mids, and highs are all open.
  • Copper is both powerful and loud when used as a drum shell. Copper brings muted highs, a low-end sound, and a distinctive midrange.
  • Titanium drum shells are focused and clear in terms of sound quality. It has a box low end with a clear middle range and highs.
  • Bronze shells are also responsive and warm with a powerful midrange and muted high range.
Similar to wood shells, metal shells are limited only by the number of metal alloys to choose between. Once again, think about the sound you are looking to produce. Beginners might want to buy carbon steel and then play with adventurous sounds like copper and brass.  

Synthetic Drum Shells

In the past thirty years a new shell option has entered the market. Synthetic shells are capable of very clean and focused sounds. In many cases, they are rather versatile. Three common synthetics are carbon fiber, acrylic, and fiberglass.
  • Carbon fiber is used for a dry and controlled sound. It is even in the across the high and middle range and warmer towards the end.
  • Acrylic drum shells have a strong presence and a powerful attack. They are warm across all levels of ranges, including low, middle, and high.
  • Fiberglass is focused and controlled. Similar to acrylic shells, these are even across all ranges and known for consistency.
Most players don't explore synthetic shells as much as wooden and metal ones. However, their unique quality is not to be overlooked.  

Hybrid Shells

A final type of shell to consider is a combination of synthetic, metal, and wood. These combinations can be a hit or miss as not all types mesh well. Each type of material produces a sonic quality that can sometimes clash with other sounds. Hybrid shells cannot be combined without careful consideration of what the end result might sound like. The experts at Drum Center of Portsmouth can guide you through the hybrid collection before you settle on a final purchase.  

Shell Construction

After breaking down the different materials to choose between, it is important to understand how construction can influence the sound that is created. Similar to the above, let’s go through the different materials and the construction options. You'll see how much shell construction affects the final sound.  

Wood Construction

  • Plywood construction results in a long sustainable sound and a varying pitch. Plywood shell gives a lot of volume. These shells are formed from thin layers of wood that have been laminated together. The number of layers will also play a role in the final sound.
  • Stave construction is similar to barrel construction. Pieces are laid vertically and the edges bevelled for the circular shape. Stave results in a high pitch and a short sustain.
  • Steam-bent shells have a vibrant sound product with a fundamental pitch. As the name implies, the shell is formed through steam technology.

Metal Shell Construction

Metal drum shells are formed through three methods: cast, spun, and welded.
  • Cast metal drum shells involve a lot of labor that starts with pouring metal into a drum shell cast. The craftsman then shaves away metal until the proper shape and thickness is achieved. The final result is a high fundamental pitch and long sustain.
  • Spun construction is similar to cast, but it involves drilling the shell to the desired shape. Spun shells also produce fundamental pitch and vibrancy.
  • Welded construction fuses metal together in the desired form and thickness.

Try as Many as Possible

Material, thickness, and construction are three important factors in the formation of a drum shell. With such a wide range of materials to choose from comes endless possibilities for playful shell experimentation. The eclectic nature of shells is what makes them so unique - have fun trying a few out!