Premier Drum Manufacture
Sorry! I mean drums (what else?) Peter Randall puts Premier in perspective with a glance at their production methods.
I recently had occasion to visit the Premier Drum Company in Wigston, near Leicester, to review their new Soundwave drum kit, and was invited on a tour of the factory which proved interesting and informative. Since Premier are the largest drum manufacturer in Britain and, as far as I know, in Europe, I thought I would start this review with a short history of the company and a brief outline of how Premier drums are manufactured.
The Premier Drum Company was founded in 1922 by Albert Della Porta who had been employed as an engineer, but due to limited eyesight took to playing the trumpet and later on the drums in the early jazz era of the 1920s. Being a musician in those days was not the best-paid profession and Albert decided to get a steady job working for the Boyle Drum Company. This was a golden opportunity to learn some useful tips about drum manufacturing and he soon started suggesting improvements; but his words fell on deaf ears. So he decided to start his own company and outlined his plans to George J Smith, a foreman at Boyles, who expressed his keenness to help.
Premier started operations at 47 Berwick Street, London, at a rent of 12s 6d a week. Albert managed to persuade his younger brother Fred to come and work with him and George Smith came in on a part-time basis of two hours a day, while still retaining his job at Boyles. In June 1924 the factory moved to larger premises across the road at 64 Berwick Street and a year later to an even bigger place in East London. At this point finances became a problem and expansion was being held back — so a private limited company was formed with friends of the Della Porta family, enabling the company to expand. The investment from these friends was repaid many times over the next few years. In 1929 they started promoting their military drums, improving the old rope tension by introducing models with separate tension. These received a very lukewarm reception from the Scottish pipe bands at the time, but a few years later virtually all the pipe bands were playing Premier.
Premier moved to Park Royal in West London in 1932 and about this time started branching out and making brass instruments, also making one of the first solid body electric guitars. Unfortunately, the Second World War put an end to the many new ideas that were making Premier a large and innovative company. Premier then switched to making gun sights and radar for the war effort; in 1940 an air raid burnt out the Park Royal premises, but due to the importance of production of the radar and gun sights the Government found new premises for Premier at Wigston, four miles from the centre of Leicester - and this is where they are now.
Today Premier manufacture and market a vast range of products and many are well known names: Premier, Olympic, Hamma and Super Olympic drums, Zyn, Super Zyn, Avedis Zildjian and Ufip Cymbals, Everplay and Everplay Extra heads. They also produce tuned percussion, Latin American instruments, military drums and accessories, sticks, brushes, cases, New Era educational instruments and percussion, as well as a vast range of spares and the bits and pieces that drummers and percussionists always tend to need.
The factory is spread over three plants; the process for making drums starts at the wood shop where lengths of wood are selected for the various makes of drum. There are several grades of wood: Premier drums are made from white birch from Finland, Grade 'A', while Olympic and Hamma drums are made from the same wood in a Grade 'B' category. Khiya wood is utilised for all the New Era products, and the sticks and beaters are made from hickory, hornbeam and a wood called guatumbu, while sycamore is used for pipe sticks. When the wood has been cut and selected, the rough shells are made and put into ovens in a round cast to bond the plies together and to ensure a perfectly round shell.
While on the subject of wood, one of the problems that plagues drummers and dealers is warped sticks. This is because in every stick there is a 10-15% water content and very little can be done to eradicate this problem altogether. But Premier sticks have a good 95% success rate due to a hot and cold process which dries out most of the moisture.
The next main process for the shells, after being heat bonded, is covering. This is also a heat process, the wood passing through a large roller for permanent bondage and to insure against bubbling or shrinkage of the plastic covering. Then the shells are drilled for the fittings to be put on. This is done on a hand-operated machine which has a jig of exactly the right spaces and measurements for the holes, the whole process taking about five minutes for each shell.
Premier make all their own fittings for their drums and have a new electroplating plant designed by employees. It is here that a rough looking piece of metal eventually ends up as a double tom tom holder or whatever. Each part has its own separate mould; when the part is stamped out from its mould it is trimmed of any rough edges and sent to the plating department which consists of a series of baths or dips. The parts are strung on to copper wire and sent through the various baths, the whole process taking about 10-20 minutes with the baths consisting of chemicals such as alkaline cleaner, various acids, cyanide, sodium hypochlorite, nickel, chrome, and sodium metabisulphite. When this is completed the parts are dried, checked and polished ready for assembly. One of the more interesting sections of the factory was a small room with two people tuning xylophones and glockenspiels by means of a stroboscope. A small section is shaved off and a microphone is attached to the stroboscope to pick up a musical note; when the stroboscope registers an even line the bar is then in tune and passed.
By far the largest part of the Premier factory is the warehouse and sales/administration offices at Blaby Road. The warehouse is very impressive and a real Aladdin's Cave for drummers, every line in the Premier catalogue piled neatly on racks ready to be sent out to dealers all over the world. I was glad to see that Premier are now producing concert toms with triple flange hoops, and the new Premier finishes in two-tone colours like the brown and cream or blue and white really do look good. To be perfectly honest, I have always been a bit sceptical about Premier drums, mainly because of the joined nut boxes and thin shells, but this trip round the Premier factory proved to me that these drums are without a doubt some of the best in world, all things considered, and you would have to go a long way to find equal quality, finish, after sales service, durability and reasonable prices.
Feature by Peter Randall
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