Choosing the right drums can be a big headache. After all, there are color, style, pieces and sizes, brands, heads, and hardware all to consider. But if you don’t seriously consider your drum shells, you’re missing out on the defining feature of your drums.
Shells define the sound of a drum set more than just about anything else. The material they’re made from makes a huge difference, as does their construction. But don’t worry – I’m going to condense it all into the most important points. So, here’s what you need to know about drum shells…
What Are Drum Shells Made Of?
We can start right away by making it clear that we’re talking about drums in drum sets. Different hand drums from around the world are constructed from all sorts of different materials and use a huge range of techniques. Luckily, there’s not quite so much variation in drum sets, where the shells are usually made from wood or metal, or possibly synthetic materials.
Wooden Drum Shells
Let’s face it – wood is what most drum shells are made of. In comparison to metal and synthetics, wood is deeper, darker, and generally warmer-sounding. It can be loud, but less focused than metal, and usually have more low-end in the mix due to their density.
But that doesn’t mean that all woods are equal. Here’s a list of the most common wood used for making drum shells and their particular sonic qualities.
A majority of drums these days are made from birch wood. Why? Birch is a fairly common but comparably durable wood that doesn’t cost a whole lot for manufacturers. As a medium-density wood, birch offers a fairly rounded sound with good volume and a bit of boost in both the high and low end.
Recently a much more popular choice for drum shells. Poplar is actually a type of birch, but it’s softer and cheaper. You’ll find it in a good starter kit like Pearl’s Roadshow, for example. While not too different from birch, the sound might be a bit thinner, especially in the top end. The low-end is less boosted and defined than you’d find with birch, but still warm.
Maple is a harder wood than birch, and the increased price of maple shells reflects this. Not only is a harder wood more difficult for builders to work with, but it also produces a sound that most drummers recognize as classic.
Maple is very balanced, with a lot of warmth all over. While there is a little bit of high-end boost in maple shells, they generally have less attack than you find with birch.
Mahogany is a dense hardwood that’s both hard to work and more expensive for manufacturers. It’s still a fairly common wood for shells, though. Most players will hear a lot of resonance and warm sounds from mahogany shells.
The high-end will often be a bit muted in comparison to the even mids and warm, almost lush low-end. Ludwig’s Legacy Mahogany kit is one example of a rare and highly recommended mahogany drum shells.
Oak is another really hard wood that costs a fair amount due to both demand and difficulty in manufacturing. You get a good loud sound from oak drums, with a brighter high-end than most other woods but still a nice warm low-end. Oak drums like the Ludwig Classic Oak set are expensive and relatively hard to get your hands on.
Wood Shell Construction
Shells made from the same wood can sound very different due to truly different construction methods. Most drum kits in the world feature shells made from laminated plywood. This gives a lot of sustain and good volume.
Stave construction, which connects lots of pieces of wood like a barrel. It brings less sustain and a higher fundamental pitch to each drum. Steam bent wood features a single piece of wood bent into a hoop to give a lot of sustain and medium fundamental pitch.
Finally, shells can be lathed out of single blocks of wood. This gives a lot of sustain, a high fundamental pitch, and a whole lot of warmth.
Metal Drum Shells
I don’t think we’ve ever seen a whole metal drum kit. When we think of metal shells, we’re generally only talking about snare drums, or else some odd and rare little accessory drums. Here are the four most common metals for drum shells.
Here we’re talking carbon steel that’s usually chromed on the outside for durability. A steel snare shell is going to give very clear, loud highs and tons of attack. Steel is also the most durable of any drum shell material. Lots of manufacturers make affordable steel snares, from Pearl’s Firecracker Snare to Yamaha’s Stage Custom Steel Snare.
Another relatively cheap and durable material for shells. Brass snares are going to be loud and bright but give more overall warmth than steel. Pearl’s Brass Free-Floater is a great example.
Aluminum is tough and lightweight but costs a lot more than steel or brass. Surprisingly, it leads to a pretty good sound for a snare. The top end is crisp, while the mids and lows are warmer than you find with steel. Ludwig’s Smooth Chrome Plated Aluminum Snare is a beautiful example of what an aluminum snare can be.
If you’re looking for something not only stunning but also really different in a snare shell, copper might be just the ticket. A copper snare like the Ludwig Copper Phonic is going to set you back a pretty copper penny, that’s for certain.
But the sound you get is powerful. The high-end is a bit muted, while you get lots of volume and attack across a warmer mid and low range.
Synthetic Drum Shells
Even wooden drum shells don’t grow fully formed on trees. But by “synthetic,” I mean completely human-made materials. And it is the final piece of what you need to know about drum shells.
Yes, the lightweight and super-strong material used for bicycles has also been applied to drums. You end up with tough, ultra-light shells that are very dry sounding and tightly controlled with little reverb.
That might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but we doubt you’ve seen a prettier drum than DW’s Carbon Fiber Snare in jet black with shiny gold hardware. They don’t come cheap, though.
Acrylic is a type of super-clear, durable plastic. Because it’s see-through, it can make some stunning shells if you’re searching for a different look.
Sound-wise, you get a surprising amount of warmth in the low end from acrylic shells like DW’s Design Series Acrylic set. They also have tons of attack and power, which makes them particularly suited to rock and other harder styles.
Looking for Great Drums or Drum Accessories?
We can help you find what you are after. Check out our in-depth reviews of the Best Portable Drum Kits, the Best Snare Drums, the Best Drum Tuners, the Best Jazz Drum Sets, the Best Drum Thrones, the Best Drum Practice Pads, and the Best Drumsticks you can buy in 2021.
You might also like our comprehensive Sabian XS20 Cymbals Review, our Zildjian ZBT and ZHT Cymbals Review, our Ludwig LC178X0 Drum Set Review, and our Yamaha DTX562K Electronic Drum Set Review for awesome items currently on the market.
What You Need to Know About Drum Shells – Final Thoughts
There’s still more to think about, like bearing edges and hardware, but these are the basics of drum shells. Although most are made from plywood, there are lots of metal snares out there and full kits using other experimental materials as well.
Don’t be afraid to try out something new. Take every opportunity you can to bang away on drums of different types until you find what you love. After all, drums don’t come cheap. So you’d better be sure you’re in love with the kit you’ll probably be playing on for years to come.
Until next time, always make sure the beat goes on.