IT visits Britain's percussion princes
Regular IT readers will know that we don't go in for 'Advertising Features'. However, now and again a major manufacturer undergoes changes that warrant a closer look. Such a case is Premier Percussion - so we despatched John Clarke to get the lowdown.
One must be on pretty safe ground when stating that before Japan entered the musical instrument industry in a big way, the Premier Drum Company held a dominant position in the percussion world. Sadly, that world was destined to change dramatically for many makers (a lot of whom are now no longer in business) when the Japanese arrived; and, without wishing to repeat yet again a well-documented event, the original Premier company failed. In came the receiver - but then followed a rescue by the present managing director, Mick McLaughlin, who now leads a young management team in getting this reawakened giant back on its feet once more. Although comparisons between the newly titled 'Premier Percussion' and the old firm must be inevitable (if only due to inheritance of their products), IN TUNE holds the view that it's only relevant and fair, when discussing this British drum maker, to look at the people and plans of Premier as they are today. Being granted the loan of our Editor's ageing bike, I was given a route map and launched in the direction of Leicester to undertake a report.
On arrival at Premier's famous spiral-staired entrance tower, I parked the bike next to the managing director's transport (a chrome-framed BMX with gold-coloured wheels - obviously an executive machine). Having drawn the short straw, marketing man Jim Duignan had been pushed out of his office to greet me and act as guide during my investigations in the factory. Before we go any further, here's a brief look at the current Premier kit menu. The Black Shadow fills the top slot, with the Resonator as the other high-end model. Following these, the new Projector, in the mid-price range, has replaced the Soundwave, being supposedly cheaper and better. Catering for the less expensive drum market are the Royale Stage and APK variations.
First target was the wood store, as I was very interested to see if any 'naughty bits' of timber were now being used in the lower-priced drums. Over-suspicious? Not really, when you see what some makers' shells are made of! But I'm happy to report that nothing remotely dubious was to be found in that department, or in any of the materials used, if it comes to that. Both mid- and top-line drums (Black Shadow, Resonator and Projector) all use Birch ply for their shells. These are cross-grained for strength, with a 'hot roller' forming process stress-relieving the shell to ensure 'in-roundness' for life. The resulting cylinder is scarf-jointed - meaning that the two edges which meet to form the cylinder are both tapered, and when mated together give a virtually seamless construction. Bearing edges, which are vital to seating drumheads and tuning, looked smooth and true, with the Beech reinforcing hoops adding strength to a quite thin shell. Premier have stayed with this method of building a drum, claiming it to be the ideal when creating a strong, resonant instrument of good tone, definition and quality.
Royale APK drums enjoy the same manufacturing processes as the top models, but (obviously) with material and design departures. Luan is the wood used for these, also being cross-grained, yet of a heavier three-ply construction which accounts for the famed Royale sound, or so the well-informed Jim told me. Normally I don't favour other than normal ply in a drum, so I decided to question a little deeper on the subject. It transpires that, after first being considered, Luan was then thoroughly tested for strength, durability and acoustic properties before Premier made the decision to use it, and it's even been suggested that its use has been instrumental (ouch! Sorry...) in producing the sound which has made the APK a real winner for the new company. This last issue is one I'm not prepared to argue, as the drums don't need me to speak for them - in fact, I would guess that their swift rise to popularity has surprised even Premier!
The black interior on these Royale APKs both reinforces the styling and complements a black front head (once one starts something, everybody gets in on the act!) but I suspect that iLs also quicker and/or cheaper to produce than a clear lacquer finish. However, my examination of the ply has satisfied me that it's not there to disguise any hidden bits of balsa or packing-case!
Another difference from the more expensive drums is the omission of reinforcing hoops on the mounted tom toms; another matter I took up with the ever-patient Jim. During development trials, I was told, it was found that the material and strength of the drum eliminated the need for hoops - in fact, they sounded better without them. Personally, I'd like to hear them with hoops fitted in order to assess any sound changes; and for me the kit would be just that little bit more complete for the use of hoops. But this is really cosmetic, I suppose. The only other areas where cost-cutting is evident on the Royale APK kits are where you'd expect them in a low-cost range of drums; for instance, the bass drum and snare are both eight lug models, as opposed to the ten one would demand when spending more money on a kit. However, one surprise was to see the same hand buffing ('mopping' is the correct term, I am told) on all lacquered drums, with an extra veneer added to give a good grain for staining. Twenty-four hours has to elapse between coats of lacquer and buffing - but obviously the Black Shadow is taken to the finest point in the process, to raise that deep lustre.
Where snare drums are concerned, I wouldn't even attempt to cover the large range available. Suffice it to say that they are made to the same standard as other drums, and the newish 'Project One' (which is doing very nicely everywhere) looked to be an extremely well put together and nicely packaged bunch of ideas. I hope IN TUNE will get to review one before long!
Other subjects on which it's not possible to give details in the space available are the full range of heads and sticks which Premier now have, plus their marching and tuned percussion.
Having seen the production side, my next meeting was with Advertising and Marketing Manager Roger Horrobin, who ended my disruption of work in the factory. Hearing that I was lurking about, M.D. Mick McLaughlin had offered to join in the meeting and answer any questions put to him.
Mick McLaughlin is a less formal and more direct man than is often found in such a position - and he also possesses a biting sense of humour which keeps you on your guard. If a positive and dynamic approach are what will breathe new life into future projects, the attitude I encountered on all sides on the Premier team will push them through, and I guess a lot of enthusiasm is generated by the man with the ultimate responsibility. As Mick McLaughlin readily admitted, 'We still have a lot of hard work ahead, but at least we know how to tackle it - and we have the expertise to achieve our aims.' He also made it very clear that Premier Percussion are prepared to listen to any and every drummer's views, irrespective of their status in the music world, and (although of course he didn't say as much) I got the distinct impression that he felt this attitude had perhaps been lacking in the old company. Here, then, are the answers to some of the general questions I put to Mick McLaughlin and Roger Horrobin.
With the Royale range, and APKs in particular, being your volume seller, are there any plans afoot to make significant changes to these drums?
M.M. 'We'll continue to develop and expand the range to give drummers greater choice. We're constantly looking at ways to improve on what we already offer.'
Your professional line of kits don't seem to have a very high profile as yet What are your intentions there?
M.M. 'A complete update of the top-market drums is in the pipeline - you'll see something on this very soon now!'
R.H. 'You've seen one new development in the prototype range that Mel Gaynor has just been working on with us. There's a lot more to come!'
M.M. 'Although we'd love to bring out all the new product ranges that we've got planned, everything must be launched from a firm base, and that means new lines having to wait their turn. It's frustrating for us, too - but it's the only way to ensure stability.'
To put it bluntly, why should any drummer buy a Premier kit as opposed to others in the same price bracket?
M.M. 'Because we can now compete in the market, and give excellent value for money along with a good back-up service. Take the natural wood finish APK that you quoted earlier as our volume seller, for example. Those drums were conceived as a team effort to produce an exceptional product at the same price as some of the less refined drums - and that's exactly what we've done.'
R.H. It's a philosophy we intend to apply to all new Premier products - and this is why we must keep in touch with the drummer and percussionist.'
Do you think endorsees have any credibility these days, as so many seem to switch makes so often?
M.M. 'Firstly, I'll state categorically that Premier Percussion will not go out with bundles of money to persuade drummers to play our equipment. We have a good relationship with our endorsees like Mel Gaynor; they provide us with vital feedback not only on what the top professionals want, but on the expectations of drummers who are perhaps just learning their instrument.'
What about the clinic or demo scene? This seems to be another issue Premier have shied away from!
R.H. 'That's been true in recent years, and it's my responsibility to look at this and decide how to rectify the situation. I'm not trying to avoid giving an answer on that one, but we have a few ideas under discussion right now, and we'd rather tell you what's going to happen when we have some definite plans.'
M.M. 'To be honest, we do intend to make Premier's image more modern and progressive. Unfortunately it was looked on as rather staid in the past, and we're going to change that.'
Is there any particular message you'd like to get over to the drummers reading IN TUNE?
M.M. 'Most certainly. It's to reaffirm our intention to meet their requirements, whatever sphere of percussion they're involved in; and with their help we can produce what we need at the right price and the right time. All this isn't going to happen overnight, as I stressed earlier, but it's happening now, and will continue to do so. Premier is wide awake once more.'
I felt that made a good closing statement, and, concerned at the fading light and the poor state of the bike's lighting system, decided it was time to hit the saddle (if only it had one!). Thanking both Mick McLaughlin and Roger Horrobin for giving up a big chunk of their day for the benefit of IN TUNE readers and, of course, for me, I found poor old Jim waiting to see me off the premises.
Cycling down the fast lane of the M-something-or-other, it was relaxing to do my usual mental summary of what I'd seen and heard that day. My first thought was that this is a very different Premier company to the one we knew in the past, in terms both of the people controlling it, and their whole approach to the percussion market. If their plans work as they hope, the company must surely prosper on that basis. However, I feel the home market will judge them not only on what they turn out, but also on pricing and backup - the latter being a big minus in my book with Premier for as far back as I can remember. As an impartial observer who has now witnessed them at work, I have to agree with their M.D. in saying that Premier are a wake once more. We can only wait and see if they take the big steps necessary to compete with the current Japanese giants. Perhaps I can be forgiven a sudden rush of patriotism if I say, 'I hope so'!
More info on Premier products from Premier Percussion Ltd., (Contact Details).
Feature by John Clarke
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