Ludwig Rainbow Vistalite
Bob Henrit reviews the new Ludwig acrylics.
TEST ON: Ludwig Rainbow Vistalite Big Beat Outfit
DATE October 1975
Ludwig are arguably the most famous of all the American drum manufacturers, and as far as England is concerned were the first drums from the States to be brought legally into the country once the tariffs were lifted in the fifties. Up until then the only way to be the proud and unique owner of a Ludwig kit was via a friendly drummer who was fortunate enough to be working on one of the trans-atlantic boats. On arrival, this friend would buy the drums at Lew Adler's now defunct New York shop at 48th and Broadway. This method meant having a Ludwig set with Premier, Carlton or John Grey badges on it in an attempt to deceive H.M.'s Customs. At that time the drums weren't called Ludwig but instead by the founder's initials W.F.L.
The Company in darker days had been forced along with Leedy to sell their name to C.G. Conn the horn company from Elkhart, Indiana. Prior to this the company had been called "Ludwig and Ludwig" and owned by the late Bill Ludwig and his brother Theobald. The brothers started out making bass-drum foot pedals for drummers who until then had no need of them since they only played snare-drum, cymbal and assorted other traps. Our modern "Speed King" pedal originated in the thirties and, judging from the example in the Ludwig's Chicago museum, has changed very little since then.
I can still remember the thrill I got in the fifties when I saw my first Ludwig kit. Buddy Holly's drummer Gerry Allison had this magnificent white pearl super classic kit which, I am not ashamed to say, I coveted. Absolutely all of the American drummers with the fifties rockers like Fats Domino, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Gene Vincent et al, were using Ludwig. So the company have always had a reputation for turning out good quality drums even at the height of the sixties beat boom when Ringo was playing them and production increased from a hundred sets a week to a thousand. I have found Ludwig's recent pre-occupation with plastic shells vaguely off-putting since they seem to be concentrating far more on these than on their traditional wooden outfits. However, their new concessionaires, Rose-Morris, assure me that they are bringing in fifty per cent plastic and fifty per cent wood-shell drums. Rose-Morris also say they are importing absolutely everything that's in the Ludwig catalogue so at last we should be able to get all the extraneous bits and pieces which were unavailable before. The wholesalers are very conscious of the spare parts problem and promise to move Heaven and Earth to not only supply these important items but also to sell them at a realistic price.
I feel I should say right from the start that the new striped acrylic finishes are not my cup of tea. Although after looking at them and playing and examining them for quite some time I had a sneaking feeling that I was beginning to like them. However, my wife thought they were the most exiting new drum development ever. So who are you going to believe? Obviously these rainbow striped instruments were designed to look really breathtaking under stage lights but as yet I don't know anyone who has a kit and therefore can't really comment on their visual effectiveness. Anyway, the see-through drums can be supplied in any Ludwig size in six different pattern combinations and six different opaque colours plus solid black and solid white. The set I examined was a red and clear spiral mixture.
22" x 14" with wooden counterhoops inlaid with plastic, it's curved retracting spurs are reasonably new and the same idea as Cameo's originals with a square section and a fixed circumference. This bass drum had a big solid sound with little need for dampening except for the one strip supplied for the batter head. Twenty classic nut boxes and 'T' shaped tuning handies with claws complete the hardware on the bass drum. N.B.: Ludwig say - if you want to have the single headed drum sound you must cut a large diameter hole in the front head instead of removing it completely. Evidently you could have shell strength problems if you don't follow their advice.
The big beat outfit has 12 in. x 8 in, 13 in x 9 in and 16 in. x 16 in. tom-toms which are small by today's standards but I understand the larger more modern sizes are available in other sets. The tom-toms were all beautifully finished and equiped with opaque medium strength general purpose heads and a strong sensible damper acting on their batter sides. The holder and leg mountings on these drums are surely well known by now; cast blocks with a threaded eyering inside to ensure non-slip control. The tone was very good from these drums but to my mind it's a somewhat plastic sound. Still, if see-through plexiglass is good enough for Billy Cobham... what I am trying to say is it's a question of personal taste and these plexiglass drums are definitely ideal for most sorts of modern music.
The set comes with either a vistalite or a 5½ in. metal shell four hundred. My test model was the 400 which was very good indeed. Apart from the new stronger snare mechanism and see-through heads the drum doesn't seem to have changed since I bought my first one fifteen years ago. The 400 was introduced in the sixties and so was the super sensitive but, believe it or don't, Ludwig have been making a ten lug metal shell snare drum since 1911. Everything is very purposeful and functional on this well accepted drum with, to my mind, the definitive rock and roll sound. One criticism, there used to be lots of holes on the cast snare strainer to thread the snare string through but nowadays there are only two which makes it much more difficult to replace the snares especially in an emergency.
Ludwig's bass drum mounted double tom-tom holder has been around for years now and must have been tried and tested by thousands of drummers around the world. In common with most other manufacturers holders unless moved and mounted nearer to the front of the bass drum, it doesn't allow the drums to be very close together unless they are too near to the player. This can be uncomfortable and restricting. I haven't ever heard of any weakness in the design and my only criticism would be that the holder can be fiddly to adjust especially the first time when it arrives direct from the factory. However, once the angles have been set there should be no need to touch it.
The Atlas snare-drum stand has also been with us for a long time and my own example seems to have lasted for several years without any problems except for some wear in the rivets which now need tightening. It's a Buck Rogers tripod type basket stand with a new refinement — the angle adjustment now has two sensible locking screws for extra strength, and a very heavy duty height adjustment wing bolt and clip for extra security.
The Speed King foot pedal has been fashionable for almost as long as I can remember and it doesn't appear to have changed at all. For those of you who don't know this pedal it's an adjustable twin-compression spring model with a reversible one or two piece foot plate and a beautiful feel. Eventually the pedal begins to squeak at its foot plate hinge and causes real problems for recording engineers. The foot plate is prone to cracking at its thinnest point, the saddle too cracks where the beater rod enters it and the foot where the unit meets the bass drum hoop often breaks off. Oh, and if you're really clever you can bend the beater rod. Over the past ten years I calculate I have cheerfully bought and happily used thirty five or so of these pedals. Despite its imperfections, I personally would use no other.
The hi-hat pedal supplied with the kit is a centre-pull adjustable spring Atlas model. It really looked strange to me because it just doesn't look as substantial as its competitors, although for many years we have all managed perfectly well with this particular model. Bill Ludwig Junior assured me at the trade show that they were working on a much more substantial, larger tubed model which should be released in the very near future. I have had very little trouble with Ludwig's hi-hats over the years and, now that they make the strap between the foot plate and centre rod of nylon, there shouldn't be any trouble. However, I did once manage to make the whole centre-pull mechanism fall out of its tube when I got carried away in my solo: but then my drums are sometimes sorely used. But that's my problem!
Two cymbal stands come with the Big Beat kit with very substantial wide spread legs and a larger diameter top section than before. The new style cymbal tilter seems reasonably fool-proof and the height adjustment is well taken care of with very large and heavy wing bolts and dips. Ludwig also do a boom stand but so far it isn't on the market in this country. I saw one at the trade fair and it looks pretty good. Unlike the other stands, it's made completely from tubular steel and, very soon, all of Ludwig's stands will be available in this much stronger material. It's the end of an era because instead of rubber feet all the new stands will be fitted with something called a self-levelling floor glide. Ludwig claim to be the inventors, in the late fifties, of the plastic drum head. The discovery came about because of the success of plastic, waterproof saxophone and clarinet pads. Bill Ludwig Senior put a lot of research and development into plastic heads and, nowadays, they can supply us with six different grades of Thermolene heads. These range from .003 mil to .014 mil, as well as their centre dot varieties. All Ludwig sets still come with a drum key, a box spanner, a pair of wire brushes and a pair of unfamiliar looking Joe Morello IIa Hickory Sticks.
Here is a drum set which is very well made and has an awful lot of development behind it. It's too soon to say whether the joins on the shells where the stripes meet will stand up to general wear and tear. However, the Ludwig people claim that all of the strength and resilience problems have been sorted out. It's the first outfit that Ludwig have made specifically for rock and roll music and, as such, it has a really good modern sound.
In short, if you want a different looking, see-through, acrylic kit, with a unique inherent sound, with sixty years experience behind its manufacture and can afford the price of £550 plus, you have no alternative but to choose Ludwig.
Review by Bob Henrit
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