Drumcheck Sonor Phonic Plus Hitech Kit
Bob Henrit's new image builder
You're probably wondering what a 'Hi-Tech' acoustic drum kit could possibly be. Maybe a reference to microchip memory-locks, or even computer controlled skin tensioning.
I'm afraid not. What 'Hi-Tech' refers to in this context is the unusual finish that decorates this Sonor kit normally referred to as Sonic Plus. This new grey covering bears a resemblance to the brushed aluminium found on the majority of hi fi products.
It's been a number of years since the original Sonic Plus came under review and along with a new covering a number of changes have made the kit a very attractive package, not least of which is the black hardware that helps enforce its Hi-Tech moniker.
Changes in spec of course mean changes in price, though exact pricing depends on what size and configuration of kit you're after as Sonor don't supply an actual 'kit'. For a typical five piece you can expect to pay £385 for a 22" bass drum, £146 and £167 for 12" and 13" toms, £251 for a 16" floor tom with legs and for an 8" deep wood shell snare. Stands of the black variety will cost £73 for a tom holder, £60 for a snare stand, £81 for a hi hat stand, £64 for a bass drum pedal and £48 a piece for a couple of cymbal stands. Total cost — £1,574, including the dreaded VAT. Optional boom arms come in at £26 each, and all items are fitted with Ebony Pin Stripes on top, and Ebony plains on the bottom.
'Phonic-Plus' sets are made from nine plies of Beech with a 45° bearing edge cut into the raw edges to enable the head to 'sit' properly. Consequently it will resound without anything interfering with it. (These bearing edges are ultra-smooth and fairly sharp, though not enough to cut into the head of course.) The shell is actually put together from nine plies of Beechwood which are first glued together transversely in threes, then these laminations are placed separately into a former which is heated. The two inner joins are butted together and staggered around the circumference of the shell. (They aren't butted together at right angles, but at 30° to give more strength.) All Sonor wood shells are deliberately made slightly undersize relative to their respective head and hoop diameters. This results in a head seating rather like that of a timpani, where the head, fitted snugly inside the hoop, doesn't touch the shell at all. Only the very slight bearing-edge is in contact with the head.
The 'Plus' in their title indicates that the drums have so called Power shells. For instance, the 22" bass drum and the mounted toms are all four inches deeper than their 'phonic' counterparts. The floor toms, though, are just (depending on their head size) two or three inches deeper than the norm.
Now, I saw a seven piece set, but as I already mentioned, the Sonor catalogue no longer lists any sets at all, simply drums. Therefore you can 'mix and match' any drums you like to make up your set. (Sonor aren't the only company proceeding in this direction; Gretsch did it long ago for economic reasons and several others have since followed suit.) Sizes available in the Sonic Plus range are 20", 22" or 24" bass drums with 8", 10", 12", 13", 14" and 15" mounted toms and 15", 16" or 18" toms.
The Hi-Tech bass drum I used had a shell which was 18" deep by 22" in diameter. It had 20 of Sonor's solid nut boxes which are, like every other piece of metal on the set, coloured black. They're the usual ones which are wedge shaped with a chiselled end and a foam dampened spring inside them. The foam is there to stop the nut box from acting as a tiny reverb chamber. As per usual there's one of the company's 'snap lock' swivel nuts fitted to each of them. These are slotted and a sprung 'D' ring of steel wire locates into them. The idea is that the flat of the 'D' serves to close the swivel nut a little so that when the tension screw, which has a pair of 'flats' machined into it, is inserted it has pressure acting upon it at all times to stop it from swivelling under pressure from the head being hit. (The screw will, of course, lock at every half turn.) Phonic sets all have 'T' handled tension screws as well as pressed steel, wide spreading claws to maintain contact against the pressed steel, warp-proof hoop. This is also painted black and fitted with a rubber block to accommodate the bass drum pedal and (if you want) a front spur. I don't believe that you'd need one of these with the wonderful Sonor spurs though. They're of the outrigger type, and made from thick bent steel rod which is shaped to follow the curve of the shell when packed away. The rod is actually bent into the shape of a triangle which is cleverly planned to angle the tip forwards. This tip is fitted with a rubber end which can be twisted to expose a wicked looking spike. Normally Sonor fit a felt strip damper to each head, but the HiTech I saw didn't have any. Perhaps they're waiting for black felt! Certainly even a bass drum which sounds as good as a Phonic Plus needs to have these strips to take the edge off the ring. I wrote before that this thickness of bass drum shell makes for a slightly more brittle sound with more attack than (say) the Signature series drums. What I mean is they have more of a bangy sound to them.
I saw four mounted toms which measured 10"x10", 12"x12", 13"x13" and 14"x14" and a floor tom measuring 16"x18". All the smaller toms have the same sized nut boxes while the bass and floor toms have slightly larger ones. The smallest tom has five tension screws per head, the next two have six and the others have the usual eight. These tension screws have a screw driver slot and, of course, that 'snap lock' system to hold them securely. All these drums are equipped with Sonor's unique triple-flange hoops which are formed seamlessly from one piece of steel on the same machine which also spins their snare drums. No internal dampers are fitted to these Hi-Tech drums; instead they produce a very good adjustable external damper which clips to the rim. It, too, is coloured black and two different sizes are available. The sounds from these toms are also very clear yet with that bit of edge that you invariably get from a slightly thinner shell.
Sonor don't use any rings either and this tends to make for a smoother tone. The extra thick tom tom legs are held in place by the same sort of adjustable prism block which also locates the spurs in position. (Instead of a circular hole to clamp the rods they use a right-angled slot. This grips better.) Sonor drill air holes into their shells to dissipate the air and make the shell more efficient.
Hi-Tech's snare-drum is numbered D518; this means it's eight inches deep with a wood shell. Sonor use nine plies of Beech for these snare drums which have just the same bearing edges and 45° chamfers. Like the other drums D518 doesn't have any glue rings, but it does have a snare bed cut into the bottom edge at two places to allow the snares to touch the very centre of the bottom head. The snare strainer is interesting since it has the usual throw off, but with snare adjustment at both ends. It also boasts a pair of outriggers which serve to stretch the 20 strand snares an inch or so further out than the shell of the drum. This allows for longer snares which also ensures that the wires will touch properly in the centre. (Gravity tends to be the cause of this centre 'touch' problem.) The strainer is part-cast like the butt end and the mechanism will allow you to change from the cord which is factory fitted to the Japanese-type plastic strip. (The snares have slots and holes at each end too.) Ten of Sonor's double ended, waisted nut boxes are fitted and these, just like the strainer and the rims are coloured black. The batter rim is thicker than usual like the Signature ones; this makes the sound a little thicker. When I reviewed this beast before I said that it was without a doubt the snappiest extra-deep snare drum I'd played. I see no reason to change my tune; it still has a really deep crisp sound without ugly overtones and is sensitive over the whole head area. Like all the 'H-T' drums, the snare drum is fitted with one of Remo's 'Ebony' heads. These are made from Ambassador film but coloured black. They sound to me exactly like a see through head. Sensibly Sonor fit 'snap locks' to D518 too to stop it detuning.
I know that Sonor make an extra deep metal shell snare drum too. It's numbered D508X and I would not be at all surprised if you could specify it with the Hi-Tech finish.
Even though the drums themselves benefit from having their metal parts painted black, it's the stands and accessories which really start to look hi-tech when all one colour. I was interested to see just how permeable the finish was. It is baked on at the moment and Sonor are in the process of using a Blackchrome process to really make it permanent. I understand that they introduce a pigment into the electrolising bath to achieve this dark chrome finish. Be that as it may, I found it very difficult to scratch the stove enamel finish off. To be honest I couldn't do it.
The stands and other ancillary equipment are actually 'Phonic Plus' accessories. They have double-braced tripod legs, which aren't quite as salubrious as their Signature counterparts. However, they are still distinctly up-market. The snare drum stand, for instance, is a Z5570 which used to be the top of the range before 'Signature'. It has a wide tripod base with flat steel struts and large rubber wedge-shaped feet. It holds the drum with an adjustable basket-type system and has wide bored tubes like all the other stands. It has been specially developed to accommodate these extra deep snare drums and has the useful capability of going very low; to do this the lowest tube has been foreshortened. It's actually only just long enough to allow the legs to move from folded flat, to an outstretched position.
The balance struts move downwards to set up the stand. The height adjustment/arrest uses a metal clamp which is squashed at a slight angle to the horizontal. This means that as the top section is rotated so the top face begins to tilt because of its large central clearance hole. The top face has a felt washer on top of itself and this accommodates the bottom cymbal. It's really simple and really effective. The two inside faces of the 'reel' have plastic radial splines formed into them and these hold the required angle. Sonor hi hats have always had centre rods which are hexagonal in section. This is to stop the top cymbal clutch from rotating since it too has a hexagonal hole machined into it. These clutches have been around for years and are very secure.
The bass drum pedal I saw with Hi-Tech is the well known Z5370. Sonor, according to their catalogue, only make three pedals these days and this is the middle one of the range. It has a twin post framework which is finished in black crackle with a two piece cast footplate complete with toe stop and nylon strap. This strap may be adjusted in length to increase the angle of the footplate without changing the position of the beater. The stroke may be changed on a rubber cam which is attached to a large drum roller which serves to gear down the action of the pedal and smooth it. They supply three different strength expansion springs with the pedal and these may be adjusted even further once in position. It is very simple to fit the pedal to the hoop from a sitting position because it has an extra long T screw tapped directly into the 'U' shaped cast framework. This screw pushes against a lever arm and its end is so shaped that it fits neatly into the inside channel of the bass drum hoop. The pedal has a pair of spurs tapped into the framework and a beautifully balanced pear shaped beater. This pedal works really well and feels great.
The double tom holder locates into a cast plate which is fixed about dead centre of the bass drum. There's a memory clamp which fits to the down tube of the holder and locates into a like shaped indentation formed into the bass plate. The down tube by the way is splined for most of its length to stop it from slipping, and has a block fixed to its top to locate the tom holder arms. These have splined knuckle joints which are, of course, adjustable. A pair of 'L' shaped screws are fitted to the block which holds (or rather sandwiches) the tom arms and since these work on a spring may be turned in any position without disturbing the screw within.
It goes without saying that these Hi-Tech sets are finished via one of Sonor's special wing nuts which match the bass drum 'T' screws. These are also to be found as cymbal toppers to keep all the washers together and ensure the cymbal doesn't leave the stand without your permission. There's a plastic wear-resisting insert fitted inside the pressed steel clamps to take the strain and, of course, to stop the clamp from eating into the paint. The playing angle adjustment squashes two flat pieces of metal together — one is joined to the down tube and the other to the cradle. The Sonor cradle has a rather unique locking mechanism for the arms. Besides the usual screw adjustment for the 'basket', there's a quick release cam-lever to open the arms. Once set up properly we need only to move that lever to lock the drum solidly in a playing position. The retaining arms are sheathed in rubber to help them to grip the drum without scratching the paintwork.
Sonor produce two sorts of Phonic cymbal stands. One is straight and the other has a boom; both are painted black — Z5270 is the straight one. It has three stages with the same double strutted wide spreading legs. These double legs are not fashionably bent like the Signatures but they are still very serviceable and not that much lighter in weight than the upmarket versions. The tubes are extremely wide bored and the top stage is reduced to enable it to take the cast, skeleton strengthened, splined ratchet cymbal tilter. The height adjustment uses those same spring clamps with large wing nuts. At the top of the tilter are washers and things to enable the cymbal to sound and sit properly. There's a boom stand too which uses the initial three stages of the upright stand and then uses a boom section which has a large counterweight.
Z5474 is the hi hat stand for the Phonic Plus sets. It has double braced tripod legs as you'd expect and an adjustable spring housed in a chamber fixed at the bottom of the down tube. Like all the best hi hat pedals this one has a centre-pull action with a very easy feel. The feet are not like those on the other stands, instead they have rubber ends like the bass drum spurs with a sharp spike sticking through. This rubber foot may be screwed out of position if you so desire.
The footplate is cast and in two pieces with a heel plate as well. The height adjustment is via the unusual clamp and at the top of the second stage is a unique bottom cymbal cup. It was invented, I seem to recall, for the Signature set but is now used for this one. I normally describe it as a black plastic cotton reel which is cut cylindrically in half. The exteriors are finished in something called Anthracite which is a sort of powdery charcoal grey; the insides are as per usual. The badges on all the drums are slightly different too. They're black and inscribed Hi-Tech. So far all the metalware seems to be standing up to hard wear, but if Sonor feel that they should use Blackchrome instead then they must have a valid reason. Certainly they have an illustrious reputation to keep up because their old triple chrome-plating finishes were absolutely brilliant.
I found the Hi-Tech set very exciting to look at, and since it sounds just the same as a Phonic-Plus set, if you're looking for an image, this set's for you.
RRP: See copy
Review by Bob Henrit
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