Black Is Back
DREAM MACHINE: ludwig snare
the return of the ludwig black beauty snare drum
Even if the rest of your kit would disgrace a jumble sale, it's worth splashing out on a brilliant snare drum. Like the Ludwig Black Beauty - the grandaddy of all snares, now available again.
LIKE IT OR NOT, there's no denying that the beat of popular music this century has been the beat of the snare drum. And few would disagree with the assertion that the snare drum is the most important element of the modern drum kit.
In jazz, rock and dance music, the snare provides the basic beat that makes things compelling and exciting. In the studio, getting a usable snare sound invariably takes longer than anything else. Live, it is the drum that drives the rest of the band along, while also grabbing the attention of the audience.
For all these reasons, choosing a snare drum is an all-consuming passion in the minds of many drummers. It's not unusual for a professional to have a variety of snare drums, each with a different depth and shell material. Obviously, this sort of behaviour increases their versatility as musicians. But sadly, it's not an option that's open to many of us, so selecting a single snare capable of dealing with a variety of situations will probably be, at some point, essential.
Before you go hot-foot in search of the ultimate all-singing, all-dancing snare drum, however, it's worth sitting down for five minutes to find out a bit about the breed. As it turns out, the snare drum is one of the oldest instruments still used in "pop", with a history stretching back more than three centuries. It's the descendant of several different types of drum and tabor (a deep, occasionally snared drum dating from the middle ages) with the military side drum as its closest relative. First used, in an orchestral setting, some 250 years ago, the snare drum has since undergone more design changes than the 'Nine o' Clock News'.
One thing that's remained constant, however, is its basic design - essentially a cylindrical shell covered at each end by a drum head, with a number of "snares" stretched across the bottom head to give the drum its characteristic sound. These snares were traditionally made of either silk or gut, but coiled wire now seems to have become the standard. However, some orchestral players still use the older materials, often a combination of gut and wire or gut and wire covered with silk; obviously these setups produce the desired effect for classical music, but you don't find many pop producers falling over themselves to cop samples...
Wire snares give a completely different sound from gut, and their predominance today is purely because their sound is more suitable for jazz and popular music; their "buzz" is simply less harsh than the "crack" of a gut snare.
Something else that's become more standardised during the development of pop - and particularly danceable pop - is the size of the snare drum. Although the extremely shallow "piccolo" has seen something of a revival lately, the most popular depth for a snare drum over the last three or four decades has hovered between five and eight inches, while the width, after a brief flirtation with 15", has settled down to a steady 14". There are exceptions to this, but they're usually the dusty type of exceptions that lurk in the back of music shops.
Somewhere along the line, innovations such as rod tensioning and separate lugs were introduced, these replacing the rope tensioning of military drums. What we would recognise as the modern snare drum began to appear towards the end of the 1920s. Since then, many different materials have been used in snare drum construction and a host of minor modifications have been developed, each claiming - at the time - to be state-of-the-art innovations. Telescopic shells, anyone? Still, during the Big Band era of the '30s and '40s, several genuinely "classic" drums began to see the light of day.
Now, interest in drums as collectors' items has yet to reach the hysteria of the vintage guitar market. Yet models from that period such as the Leedy, the Slingerland 'Radio King' and the Ludwig 'Black Beauty' are now much sought-after, and highly prized by the drummers who own them. If, when browsing in your local Oxfam shop, you happen to come across one of the above drums with a price label of less than several hundred pounds, put your pestering hat on and go see your mum.
Possibly the most famous, certainly the most enduring of these "classic" snare drums is the Ludwig Black Beauty. It was first manufactured in 1927, and remained in constant production until the late '70s. Problems with attaining the correct finish for the metal shell were responsible for its disappearance, but these have now been solved and the Black Beauty is available once again.
The reputation of all Ludwig snares has been justly earned, and in fact, this is the one area of American drum manufacture that successfully resisted the influx of Japanese imports in the early '70s. Mega drum hero Steve Gadd has been a Yamaha endorsee for many years, yet still uses a '60s model Ludwig 400 which can even be spotted in several Yamaha promotional shots.
The reason for the Ludwigs' success resides in two things: an exceptional quality of construction and a sound that has yet to be bettered for power and projection. You may not know it, but you've heard the sound of a Ludwig snare drum countless times. Ringo Starr used one on all the Beatles' early recordings (and some of the later ones, too) and during the '60s and '70s it became something of an essential piece of equipment for every rock and pop drummer.
All Ludwig snare drums have something going for them, but the mystique and reputation of the Black Beauty qualify it as among the most desirable drums ever made.
The Black Beauty's shell is made from the same material it's always been - bronze. This is a pretty unusual material for a snare drum in its own right, but is made doubly so here by virtue of its unique "Gun Metal" finish: the bronze is treated to give the shell the appearance of a very dark smoked mirror, inside and out. Not jet black, but a deep, lustrous and reflective grey that is, quite simply, stunning.
The new Black Beauty is available in two versions, with a choice of 5" or 6½" depths in either. The Supra-Phonic model features Ludwig's P85 snare strainer, a design that has been ripped-off to some extent by just about every other drum manufacturer on the planet. It has a side-action lever to release the snares, and a fine-adjustment knob to tension them when they are in place. On the opposite side of the shell, the snares are attached to a simple yet effective butt. To some eyes this particular strainer mechanism may look primitive, but in practice it does its job quite efficiently and, as with every mechanical object, its simplicity ensures the number of things that can go wrong is kept to a minimum.
The alternative to this arrangement is the Super-Sensitive model, which boasts Ludwig's P70 strainer. This is to accommodate the parallel-action snares which are a feature of all Ludwig's Super-Sensitive snare drums. "Parallel-action" is a term applied to snares that remain at a constant tension regardless of whether or not they're in contact with the head. This is achieved by a rod passing through the shell, which joins the butt on one side with the strainer on the other. The whole affair then moves up or down in tandem when the lever is activated, and either holds the snares against the head or away from it.
Obviously this mechanism is a lot more complicated than the P85 strainer, and therefore costs significantly more. Many people consider it worth the extra, since it offers you the chance to alter each of the 20 coiled wire snares individually, and is a far more flexible system than the length of cord used to attach the snares with the P85. Yet the P85 works perfectly well, and spending an extra hundred quid on a strainer seems silly when you consider it won't significantly alter the sound of the drum - which comes, in essence, from the shell.
The shell is spun from a single piece of tempered bronze and has a strengthening bead running around its centre. This is a visual as well as a practical feature of Ludwig snares, as are the Art Deco-style double-ended tension lugs, of which there are ten. The Black Beauty is also fitted with an internal damper, a pad of felt that can be raised against the under side of the batter head by means of a knob on the outside of the shell. This puzzles me somewhat. Surely Ludwig are aware by now that nobody uses these things: they "choke" the sound of the drum and rob it of a great deal of natural character.
Despite this, the Black Beauty sound is totally superb, fab, and groovy. It becomes obvious as soon as you hit the thing that its reputation is not built on looks alone. Describing the sound of a drum in words is about as easy as knitting porridge, but with the Black Beauty, most of the old cliches definitely apply.
The bronze shell imparts a beautifully open, ringing tone with depth and brightness aplenty. It's a sound completely unique to bronze, and very different in character from either wood or steel, with a dry, dark quality that borders on the exotic. The response from the batter head is as crisp and controlled as you could wish, and it goes without saying that the power and projection of the Black Beauty are quite exceptional. It's easy to tune and performs more than competently at all tensions, though I find it sounds best at a fairly high tuning with both heads cranked well up.
The model I tested was a 5" Supra-Phonic. The 6½" is the more popular, but having made a similar comparison before, I doubt that the difference between the two is remarkable.
A Black Beauty is not cheap, but as the epitome of a superlative all-round snare drum - not to mention a sound investment for the future - it has few equals.
LUDWIG BLACK BEAUTY SNARE DRUMS: 5" Supra-Phonic, £299; 6½" Supra-Phonic, £310; 5" Super-Sensitive, £400; 6½" Super-Sensitive, £425
INFO: Vincent Bach International, (Contact Details)
Review by Simon Braund
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