Before mic’ing became a necessity, acoustic drums were just that: acoustic. And when they needed to be louder, drum manufacturers made them bigger and longer. That led to some diameter and depth combinations that weren’t so great because there was no musical intent; just more volume. But the concept – bigger diameters with longer shells for more volume and deeper tone – became popular, as players believed those longer shells actually did deliver more low end. And, well, a drum set with toms that get longer and longer from the smallest drum to the largest – a sequence of descending toms – does look cool.
How cool? As a drum maker I know better, but even I think they look cool.
But as this video reveals, some sizes aren’t as perfect as others. This is called the “middle tom syndrome”, as the middle tom is typically the problem. Why? Because sonically it was not designed to be a middle tom. It was designed to be louder.
Confused? Let me explain…
Did drums always have varying shell lengths? No.
By the early 1960s, a typical drum set included one high tom and one low tom. If there were two high toms they were often the same size (Keith Moon played three, all 12″ x 8″) or of different diameters but the same depth (10″ x 8″ and 12″ x 8″). But if congas, bongos timbales and tympani have differing diameters but identical depth, why is it that the smaller drums in a drum set are shallower and larger sizes deeper? Does a deeper shell produce a deeper sound? No. Depth is achieved with tuning, or when the head of a larger diameter drum is tensioned as tightly as a smaller one. Tune 10″ and 12″ toms to the same tension and the larger diameter of the 12″ will ensure it sounds lower than the 10″. So, why longer drums?
Length? Blame it on volume
When the Beatles hit the scene in 1962, rock ‘n’ roll became more rock than roll. In fact, it was called Beat Music (thus BEATLES). Ringo, whose kits up until 1964 were 20″ 12″ and 14″, switched up to 22″, 13″ and 16″ (a 12″ was added in 1967) to be heard above the screaming fans. By late 1966, with the Who, Cream, and the Jimi Hendrix Experience cranking up multiple 100-watt Marshall stacks, drummers were being overpowered.
But the arrival of Carmine Appice in 1967 with Vanilla Fudge saw the ‘bigger is better’ mantra applied to drums. His four-piece red sparkle kit with a 26″ bass and over-sized toms also confirmed bigger as louder.
When he later debuted a maple set with 2 x 26″ bass drums, drummers including John Bonham wanted the same. So, manufacturers designed louder drums. How? Larger diameters, thicker shells, deeper sizes. Instead of an 18″ or 20″ x 14″ bass with 12″ x 8″ and 14″ x 14″ toms, the standard setup became 22″, 13″ x 9″ and 16″ x 16″, with many rockers moving up to 24″ or 26″ bass drums (still 14″ deep), 14″ or 15″ high toms and 18″ floor toms.
Then, inspired by session ace Hal Blaine’s Monster studio kit, Appice played a multi-tom Octa-Plus setup which included eight high toms running 6″ to 18″, with each increase in diameter – including ‘odd’ sizes 13″ and 15″ – seeing an increase in the shell length. This is where the descending tom concept – high notes down to low from drums whose increasing shell lengths descended further down – really revealed itself.
Choking on too much air
Now, a deeper drum is not just louder; the sound is different. Because air filling the inside – about 1.3g per litre of shell size – causes resistance against the air movement created when the drumhead is played, a deeper shell (which contains even more air) is less resonant, making its response drier and more percussive than a shallower one. This is a tone ‘choke’ factor means that with 12″ x 8, 12″ x 10″ and 12″ x 12″ toms the most resonant and toneful would be the 12″ x 8″; its shorter shell offers the least air resistance. Thus, in a 12″ x 8″, 13″ x 9″ and 16″ x 16″ setup it is harder to get that middle tom to sound as warm, tonal and resonant as the smaller one. This is middle tom syndrome.
Still, multi-tom setups with shells descending an extra inch or more with each successively larger head size seemed legitimate. Like those tubes descending downward on a vibraphone, surely there was some musical reason for the additional length of those toms? But no, we were mistaken: the idea that additional length lowered the tone is a myth. Even I am guilty, because 12″ toms I produce are about an inch deeper than the 10″, simply because longer toms somehow look “right”. With the arrival of deeper bass drums, some 20″ or longer, drummers also believed they too sounded deeper, despite the opposite being true. Sigh….
Floor toms are different
Now, what about floor toms? They are quite much longer than high toms, typically with a length matching their diameter (14″ x 14″, 16″ x 16″) and we expect them to perform differently, not like a low-pitched high tom. But how different? Unlike a high tom suspended from one point (external bracket, bayonet mount, or isolation rim), a floor tom stands on legs that transfer resonance vibrations into the floor, thus reducing sustain and creating a drier response (which also happens when a high tom is placed in a snare stand). Drummers using large mounted high toms in place of floor toms often say the sound is too boomy and lacks definition. That is because without legs to reduce their vibrations, these drums resonate more fully with low-end tone, causing stroke definition to get ‘mushy’. So, the longer length of floor toms is not to lower the pitch, but to increase the volume and dry down the resonance so notes retain definition.
Building two floor toms so they sonically fit into a setup would mean making them the same depth (e.g., 16″ x 16″ and 18″ x 16″).
The future is acoustic
The idea is to create drums that sound great on their own and are compatible with each other. Some drum makers now offer various diameters that are either close to or match each other in depth. This is good. I build 8” and 10” toms to the same depth, as making the 8” any shorter would make it significantly less loud compared to the rest of the kit.
It is possible that deeper drums were originally popular because players associated large sizes and loudness with masculinity and rock ‘n’ roll. But let’s face it: drums no longer need to be loud. Not only have stage volumes come down (20- and 30-watt guitar amps have replaced those mighty Marshalls), there are microphones. Lower stage volumes mean better sounds for the soundman to work with out front, and for the audience to hear. Mic’ing the drums might become a thing of the past.
The effect of Covid on the live gig scene means that post-pandemic, things could be different for months, maybe years. Bands should prepare for smaller venues and maybe no instrument mic’ing. That means taking control of the stage sound , especially if that is all the audience will hear out front. Just as guitarists have cut back on amp power and now focus on tone, drummers might want to play drums that suit the gig. No longer is it about being loud; it’s about dynamics, tone quality, and a balanced response from drum to drum.
As usual, while big brands focus on what sells most, boutique builders are the ones getting drums back to the reality of what sounds best. As an independent maker who cuts down a lot of longer 1980s and 90s “power” shells so they have more tone and sustain, I’ve seen many players surprised that while their newly shortened drums might be a little less loud, they sound better. So I assure you; shorter shells are nothing to be afraid of. Longer toms may have looked cool in those 1980s MTV videos, though looking back it could be said that were merely stage props.
It is now 40 years since those MTV 80s: drums no longer need to be long and loud. There is no need for descending shells. It is time for drums to once again not only sound great acoustically on their own, but sound balanced in terms of volume, tone and sustain within a set, even when not mic’d. And that starts with shorter shells and avoiding the “middle tom syndrome”.
Be smart: Choose with your ears, not your eyes.