How did drumming get so DAMNED LOUD?

How did drumming get so damned loud?

When you go to a gig and the band is wearing in-ear monitors, audience members are stuffing plugs in their ears, and the chap running the soundboard is deaf, it is obvious that something has gone wrong with making music. It has become too bloody loud.

Sure, 1940s big band jazz was a sweeping sonic experience, 1950s rock ‘n’ roll could get raucous, and the Beatles and Kinks could shake it up in the early 1960s. But there was a moment in time when drumming got loud. Really loud. It started in 1965, took hold in 1966, and by 1967 a full-fledged assault by high-decibel, ear drum-busting volume was underway. And it was here to stay.

How it all started: the first Marshall JTM 45, ’62

This matter of volume arose soon after the arrival of the Marshall amplifier, most notably the Marshall 100-watt ‘stack’ (there was also a 200-watt stack and a 50-watt half-stack, both also lethal), which the firm of Jim Marshall, himself a drummer (he taught Jimi Hendrix’s Mitch Mitchell), developed with input from Pete Townshend and John Entwistle of the Who. Their idea for a massive 8-by-12 speaker cabinet (8 x 12 “speakers) proved to be much too big and heavy for the Who’s roadies, so it was cut across the middle, creating the much revered and reviled Marshall 4 -by-12 cab.With all that Marshall power cranked to the max, Townshend bashing his guitars into the realm of intense feedback and Entwistle playing basses strung with piano wire (Rotosound’s roundwound strings were his idea), stage volume not only drove the meters into the red, it shifted the balance away from the drums, as the beat was getting lost in the churn of screaming six-strings and rumbling low-end bass. That was because drums were not mic’d at the time, so even with the drummer bashing harder and harder they were no competition for the air being shifted at full volume through those 4-by-12 stacks. It would be several years before the arrival of on-stage monitors, so, paradoxically, they played even louder just to hear themselves. And with Keith Moon on drums, The Who were plenty loud before the amps were even switched on.

A year later, by the end of 1966, blues-rock trio Cream had arrived. With Eric Clapton on guitar, Jack Bruce on bass, and Ginger Baker drumming this was three of London’s hottest players. They too had Marshall stacks. There was one for bass and one for guitar. Then there were two for bass, so there had to be two for guitar. Drummer Baker, whose double bass kit was – as with Keith Moon’s inspired by seeing jazzer Sam Woodyard of the Count Basie Band at a London gig was furious about the volume, claiming it was deafening and forcing him to bash his drums, not play them.

Despite selling millions of records the band split after only a couple years, due in part to Baker constant arguing with Bruce about the bass being much too loud. Even after the band’s sold out 2005 reunion concerts at London’s Royal Albert Hall and New York’s Madison Square Gardens, Baker was still furious about Bruce’s volume. To him, the bass-playing Scotsman was moving too much air.
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Cream in 1968: Jack Bruce, Ginger Baker, Eric Clapton…with Marshall stacks

But as 1966 advanced into 1967, the volume of the Who and Cream took hold. And those Marshall amps, well, they looked and sounded so cool that soon Hendrix, the Jeff Beck Group, then Led Zeppelin … all the major British bands had stacks lined across their stage. In America the trio Blue Cheer led the revolution. They were so loud that it was necessary to record part of Outside / Inside album with their Marshalls out on Pier 57 in New York Harbor. It cost them over $ 1,000 per day to be there … and be loud. 

By now, the late 60s, with bands playing outdoor concerts and bigger venues, microphones were being used to make those amps even louder. Drums too, as mics, typically two or three, started to show up around kits. One for the bass drum, an overhead and maybe one on the snare. Everything was now louder than loud, with some drummers following the likes of Carmine Appice, the archetype of heavy rock drumming, and going with bigger drums (Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham’s played a kit based on Carmine’s) and cymbals. Others removed the bottom heads of their toms and stuck a mic inside, something started by session ace Hal Blaine but popularized by Appice. Same with the bass drum stuff a pillow in it to make the sound punchier and add a mic to make it louder. With Beck, Bogert & Appice, Carmine had two massive monitors,one on each side of his kit a Fender Dual Showman stack and a Marshall stack with him stuck in between. Crazy loud.

By the mid 1970s, with bands playing much bigger venues – 20,000 to 80,000 capacity arenas and stadiums had entered the picture – high-powered sound systems took over from big amps in terms of music projection. But the big amps and big drums stayed, even in small clubs – they’d become a token of coolness. Single- and double-headed power toms, bigger and longer bass drums, deeper snares, thicker heads with power dots or EQ rings, and larger and heavier cymbals on heavy-duty hardware were the things to have. Sticks got bigger and heavier too, with some being made of virtually indestructible fiberglass or carbon fiber. There were also carbon fiber drums. And harder, non-porous synthetic shells including phenolic and fiberglass, which sounded bright, cutting … and loud. Hayman tried a metal liner for its bass drum as a means of increasing volume, though later settled on high-gloss urethane paint for the same purpose. Other companies including Asba and Ludwig created metal drums of stainless steel. Carl Palmer of prog trio Emerson Lake & Palmer played a stainless steel kit that included gongs and even a church bell that weighed in at a reported two-and-a-half tons. Volume had become the currency of rock ‘n’ roll. Indeed, Loud had become big business .Embed from Getty Images

Mahavishnu Orchestra with Billy Cobham drumming

And it stayed that way through the eras of hard rock, soft rock, arena rock, speed metal, the MTV 80s, the LA ‘big hair’ bands, the grunge of the 90s. Even jazz got loud when in the early 1970s Mahavishnu Orchestra, Return to Forever and Weather Report, with the double bass drum kits of Billy Cobham, Alex Acuna, Chester Thompson and others, the blistering guitars of John McLaughlin and Al DiMeola plus the soaring synths of Jan Hammer, Chick Corea and Joe Zawinul emboldened the spirits of Bud Powell, Grant Green and John Coltrane with high-wattage energy. Call it jazz-rock, call it fusion; it was quite a few notches up the volume ladder from bebop. Even Miles Davis, inspired by Hendrix, got kinda loud.

Volume ran rampant and unchecked for about forty years, until around 2005, when, inspired by 1950s amplifiers, some guitarists started to downsize their wattage and develop their tone. Instead of 50- or 100-watt amps, they went with 20 or 30 watts, often with the ability to switch down to 15, 10, 5, even 1 watt. The ‘lunchbox’ amps, tiny terrors that fit on a dinner plate, gave visual meaning to the reality that the game had shifted from the power rating of the amp to the tonal quality of the sound it projected. It was no longer about being loud, it was now about having tone. A less powerful amp enabled more dynamic playing within a tighter volume range: there was no need to turn it up to eleven. Spinal Tap loudness and amp stacks like Stonehenge had met their match.

In the drum world, because audio techs and recording engineers had trouble dealing with so much sound, some drummers had tried various accessories and techniques to reduce their volume without actually having to hold back on their playing. Rubber mutes, pads and gaffer tape deadened the response but killed the resonance and tone in the process, leaving only the sound of a wooden stick hitting a plastic head. Thwack, thud, thunk. Ouch!

For those seeking some serious control there were electronic kits. But those aren’t the ‘real thing’, are they? They don’t resonate. They don’t have tone. And with rubber pads, electrics to plug in, cables to connect, and the need for amplification, they’re like the karaoke of drums in that they attempt to be like the real thing. But they’re not the real thing; they’re synthesizers.

Still, the rapid rise of electronic kits did spark drum and cymbal companies into doing something for those who out of necessity or choice wanted drums with which they had more control over the volume. It was easy with electronic kits because like guitar amplifiers they have a volume knob and a headphone jack. Real drums and cymbals have neither. Instead, drummers must choose their gear and adjust their playing dynamics to suit each situation. For many that is inconvenient, difficult, even impossible. “The drums are too loud … don’t play so hard,” is commonly heard (or thought) by band members, families and friends. So what’s a drummer to do?

In their effort to compete against electronic kits drum and cymbal makers came up with smaller drums, cymbals perforated by hundreds of holes, rubber or silicone drum and cymbal mutes, plus various head types to either bring down the volume of soften the attack. One cymbal brand’s marketing said ‘Don’t Hold Back’. But largely it was about choking the volume, killing the tone and, well, offering nothing positive sound-wise. Indeed, hose options compromise sound for the sake of keeping the volume down in practice and rehearsal situations but offer little if anything when performing or recording. How can a drummer have their own personal sound when there is no resonance, tone or dynamic range to be had from their ‘turned down’ gear?

* * *

Like guitarists, drummers are now recognizing the benefits of less volume and more tone. I long ago developed my own concept of volume control by combining smaller, brighter sounding drums with small, darker sounding cymbals, so I could play softly and get crisp articulation, or bash away and only be as loud as those small sizes let me be. But not everyone wants to play an 8 “top tom, 12” snare, and 10 “hats; they are more about dynamic limitation.

Which is why, when Adoro’s Stefan Korth told me he designed Worship Series drums to excel within a lower volume range I took note. “They can get loud when played hard, though not as loud as other drums,” he told me. “I made tone the focus of the design, not volume.”

Wow, drums designed specifically for volume-sensitive venues including churches, schools, concert halls, clubs and studios. Also, because they’re not too loud they must be great on big stages, where they can be mic’d and the sound be more easily controlled by the audio tech. (Loud drums get turned down in the mix; quieter drums can be mixed into the sound.) 

Stefan also noted that, “In addition to drum design, suspension mounts ensure the shells resonate freely, to produce a warm and round tone that blends into the music happening around it. Tune higher for brighter, more cutting responses, or lower for deeper, darker and more funky and soulful sounds. ” The vibrancy of the shells – the catalog says Maple for brighter tone, Walnut for darker responses and a tighter volume range –  means that anywhere dynamics, tone and musicality matter, Adoro Worship Series drums deliver the acoustic sound of a well-balanced, amplified kit with perfect volume control. Volume-reduced drums. Intriguing, right?

How well do they do this? The catalog notes that readers of Germany’s Drumheads magazine voted the Worship Series Dream Drum Set of the Year . In America, where Adoro is known mainly by tone aficionados, music instrument retailers nominated it for the MMR Magazine Dealers Choice Award . (The firm’s City Lights drums has also won Dream Drum Set of the Year awards.) Like perfectionist auto makers Maserati and Porsche, Adoro’s design-driven strategy puts their drums in a class all their own.

So, in a world where excessive drum volume long ago became a serious challenge, there is finally an answer that doesn’t mute your dynamics, kill your tone or take the fun out of playing. With Stefan Korth’s volume reduction design, Adoro Worship Series drums let you play as you normally do, sound great, yet never be too damned loud. Beat that!


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