Why do drum sets have descending toms?

TL;DR: Drums used to be acoustic, then needed to get louder, and we then got a strange mixture of the loud and the acoustic drums, which obviously was mixed together without any musical intent, and we kept it that way because it looks cool. That’s why. Gee, even I think it looks better, despite I know better…. 

This video talks in length about bad tom sizes, and how some sizes are more difficult to tune than others. I found out that a lot of drummers feel that way, and have called it the “middle tom syndrome”, as it usually is the middle tom that we suffer with.

The reason why the middle tom often does not sound well is pretty simple: it was not designed to be a middle tom! Let me explain…

Did drums always have descending sizes?

All these drums have in common: they come in different diameters, but always in the same depth.

Short answer: no.

When drums were still acoustic (before 1964, drums usually did not get mic’d), drum sets usually had only one high and one low tom. If they had two high toms, it usually was either the same tom twice (Moon played even three 12×8″) or they had the same depth. In fact, until today, all other percussion instrumens come in same depth, but different diameter: Congas, Bongos, Timbale,… Why then did the drum set suddenly carry odd sizes, where the smaller drums are shallower, and the arger also get deeper? No, it is not because the depth of a drum makes it deeper in tone – remember, that we can archieve either by tuning, or when tuned with the same tension as a smaller drum, with the diameter. Larger diameter, same tension, deeper tone.

This is what we are used to with drum sets though… toms grow both in diameter and depth at the same time. This makes the drum set unique. Odd enough, it has never been intentionally. We just liked to look at drums that way.

When the Beatles hit the scene, a lot of things changed. Everybody wanted to play in a band, and the stages, thanks to Marshall, got a lot louder. So loud, that in fact the drum manufacturers started building drums louder. And how do we make a drum set louder? – Larger diameter, thicker shells, and deeper sizes! When a drum set usually featured an 18 or 20″ kick, we now see a 22 as standard; where you had the 14″ FT, you got the 16″, and the standard 12×8 was replaced with a 13×10. As Snare, steel shells were promising to drive the volume up too.

So we see now how drum manufacturers offered a larger range of drums. Before, if drummers wanted two high toms, they either got two of the same size and depth, or some companies even had a smaller 10″ in their catalog (still, same depth). But in the major companies catalogs before 1964, you never saw a set with what we call a standard set up. Now when drummers wanted a secont high tom, they simply used the louder set up, 22/13/16 and added the 12″ tom from that older, let’s agree call it acoustic set.

Now, when we make a drum deeper, it is not just louder, the sound is different too. As air muffles – it has about 1.3g per liter – you get a dryer, less resonant, more percussive sound from a deeper drum than from a shallower one. Thus it is harder to get the middle tom to sound as warm and tonal and resonant as the smaller one. The Middle Tom Syndrome.

For some reason, the look of drums being descending got stuck in our minds and we would swear that it has musical reasons we do this. It was quickly mistaken as giving us lower end, and I hear this myth a lot (it escalated later in even deeper kick drums, for the love of god, drummers would swear they sound deeper too, despite the opposite being true), so we just kept building drums that way, even though it makes no sense. And even I am guilty of this; I still have the larger 12″ tom about an inch deeper than the 10″, simply because it is not always wise being smarter than your customers. Drummers are very conservative, and for some reason, descending tom sizes look right to us, so we do not question that dogma. And a dogma it is.

Now some might ask what is with the floor tom. Actually, high toms and low toms, or floor toms, are different instruments, we expect them to sound different,too; not like a tom, just lower. How different? Traditionally the floor tom was rather dry and short in sustain; many drummers who use larger high toms as floor tom complain over the sustain being too long when the tom is not standing on legs, those take a way a lot of sustain. Also, usually floor toms are rather deep; this is not to make them lower in sound, but to make them to be louder and shorter in sustain. Those who had cut down the deep shells of an 80s/90s kit to get a shorter drum will recognize how the sustain gets longer, and the tone more defined, while the drum loses some attack, but nothing on low end.

Building two floor toms so they fit tonally into a setup would also mean, ideally, having them in the same depth, just as we see this in the percussion world, too. When we keep in mind that the diameter drives the pitch, and the depth sustain, and deeper means less sustain (and more attack),  it makes sense that there is a perfect combination of sizes, and sizes that work less well for the sound we want than others.


the future is acoustic.

Recently drum manufacturers have discovered that the same depth does indeed sound better, especially with smaller toms, and have begun to offer drums that are either pretty close in depth or even the same depth. I welcome this trend. We also have always been building 8” and 10” toms in the same depth, as making the 8” even shorter would also make it significantly less loud compared to the rest of the kit.

Drums don’t need to be loud anymore, this has slowly been the new consent. We have microphones on all stages, and the venue sound profits generally when the stage sound is better; drums being drums, needing to be mic’d up to sound well and balanced, might soon be a thing of the past. While drum manufacturers usually only build what people demand and stores are willing to stock, the smaller boutique drum builders have played a huge role here. As local drum maker who cuts a lot of shells from the 80s and 90s shorter for more and better tone and sustain, the customers learn that a shorter drum might be less loud, but it is nothing to be afraid of. And eventually we get used to the look of smaller drums, and then the major manufacturers will follow. It is just not as easy as with the deeper drums. Those were happily and eager embraced by the drum community, as we associate masculism and rock and roll in general with loudness and large drums. For just too long drums have been mere stage prob, and sound engineers responsible for their sound. It is about time drums sound acoustically well again, balanced, built intentionally to sound good together, even when not mic’d. If we learned anything during this pandemic, if a band want’s to be out there and play again, better prepare for smaller stages. And that means: watch your stage sound, especially when the stage sound is your venue sound… swallow your pride, drummer, and play the kit that suits the gig. And listen to your drum builder, he knows his shit..

Stefan Korth

Stefan Korth was founder of the drum building community dertrommelbauer.de (R.I.P.), CEO of customdrums.de and supplyer of roughly a thousand drum makers with drum parts and shells. Being a church drummer himself, his interest in drums have always been focused on low volume drumming in difficult acoustic situations. He first started building drums age 15, and took the chance in 2007 to turn his career around - he was a well established graphic designer with his own advertisement company - and started all over with building drums, or as he would put the emphasis: real acoustic drums.

Adoro Drums, the company that evolved from all that, has since won several prices and nominations for best instrument. Stefan also gives workshops on drum building and tuning, and has been helping legion churches and theaters to get rid of edrums and drum cages.

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