Improvizone

Roto-kick and restored drums

Andrew Booker 2010-08-29 19:21:35

Earlier this year I had the idea of using my 18" rototom as a bass drum. Anyone with a clue about rototoms is probably thinking, hmm, yeah that's not going to sound much like a bass drum. I am one of those people. Anyway, I had an 18" rototom knocking around that I had no use for. For the first Improvizone this year I used a hand-cut shallow bass drum, whose light-weight kick sound worked out quite well, so I thought trying to convert my rototom to something kickable would be the next logical step.

Before any drum can be used as a kick, it needs to have a wide hoop that you can clamp a pedal onto. Bass drums come with wide hoops already, often wooden ones, while all other stick-hit drums have much lower-profile metal hoops so you can hit the drum easily. I looked around for someone who could make me an 18" wooden hoop for my rototom, and I found Eddie Ryan, veteran drum craftsman and refurbisher, who made one that fits very well. With the rototom clamped to the base of a regular tough boom cymbal stand, everything is sturdy. The sound is quite pointy and shrill, with plenty of attack but none of the depth of a real bass drum. This might be OK for an Improvizone evening, when I don't really want a lot of noise, and provided I close-mic it there should be enough bottom end for recording.

Besides my new roto-kick idea, I had another reason for going to Eddie. I wanted to sell my Ludwig acoustic drum kit. I was getting tired of it, I didn't really like the sound and it was all too big. My thinking was, I've basically given up bands and am not using it any more, and even if I did want an acoustic kit, I would prefer something more modern-looking and modern sounding. If ever I decide I want acoustic drums for Improvizone, I would prefer smaller gear. Hence the roto-kick. Plus, old Ludwig kits can fetch a couple of thousand. Trouble was, the front hoop was missing from the bass drum. I took the hoop off in about 1990, quickly shed any intention of putting it back on again, and even unscrewed all the lugs. I kept it, but when my parents moved house last year, the hoop went missing, presumed taken to the local dump by accident. So as well as the roto-kick hoop, I wanted Eddie to make me a 22" replacement hoop for my Ludwig bass drum.

Wooden bass drum hoops usually have a strip of lacquer in the middle to match the drum. Bring in your bass drum, Eddie suggested, so he could match the lacquer on the hoop he was making. Yuck, he basically said when he finally saw the drum, that's not the original lacquer. I restore these drums. That lacquer is all wrong. I can re-lacquer it for if you like, clean up the metalwork, change a few of the lugs maybe... And so I got Eddie to recondition my 1967 Ludwig Gold Badge drums, replacing all the lacquer with a new grey glitter finish, polishing up the metalwork, levelling off the shell rims so that the heads sat properly, changing a few heads here and there. The the better condition they were in I thought, the more they would be worth.

A couple of weeks ago I drove back over to Eddie's to pick up the kit. I didn't recognise it. Stunning restoration. I actually didn't mind the old lacquer, but the new finish looks terrific. As far as how the drums now sound, I'm not sure yet, as I predict it will be incompatible with a sleeping one-year-old boy. What I really need is some kind of live music event to try them out at, ideally some kind of improvised evening where I can play what I want... Sorry if you've been looking out for one of these kits, I'm keeping mine for a while yet.

The picture shows the original Ludwig 13", 16" and 22" pieces without any of my newer cymbals or hardware, nor my Ludwig 400 aluminium snare which Eddie also reconditioned. The rack tom is suspended on its bass drum mount, a piece of hardware I always thought rather crap and flimsy and never liked to use. But now Eddie has found me a more recent version that requires a spanner for tightening, and therefore seems fairly sturdy, so I might give it another go.

Not only would I like to use the acoustic drums again for the next Improvizone, in fact I have a mind to use just drums. Maybe a couple of cymbals for occasional texture, perhaps a hi-hat but with the cymbals at knee-height underneath other drums so I don't hit them. I have two motivations for this. One, I do most of my practising without cymbals. Two, I notice the best atmospheres in Improvizone recordings appear to coincide with me dropping out the cymbal sounds and sticking with percussion.

Besides the 18" roto-kick, I have four other rototoms sized 6", 8", 10" and 12". I confess I originally lusted after the look of these when I first got them, more than having any idea how they sounded. Since then I've known that with thin heads and a mic a little distance away they record an excellent tuneless clatter. Just what I like. Also the smaller ones are great for encouraging me to do more interesting paradiddle-type beats around the snare rather than just ts-ts-ts on the hi-hat.

The trouble with rototoms is mounting them. When you buy them they come three to a mounting rail, which means there are all facing up on the same plane. This might be OK for a standing percussionist who can move about, but isn't great for a drummer sitting still on a stool, who needs drums arranged in an arc. So far the only proper kit-drummer-friendly way of mounting I have seen them involves cannibalise valuable boom cymbal stands using some dodgy piece of metal that you could only be sure would not shift if you welded it on. So this is my next spend-money-here project for acoustic drums. Get all the rototoms mounted properly and consistently. Somehow.

The eyes finally have it << | >> View from a new roof