I’ve seen it go both ways with snare drums – an expensive, beautifully designed instrument can sound like a coffee can full of bees, or a cheap, old six-lug student model can seem like it was touched by the hands of angels. It definitely helps if a drum has quality construction and excellent components, but there is still something randomly magical about drums that all the high science and engineering in the world cannot predict. That “wow" factor, when a drum has an indefinable sprinkling of mojo that makes it stand out from the rest of the pack, still baffles folks like me who make a living out of working with drums. What really excites me is when someone challenges the status quo and steps outside the norm and takes a new look at an old design.
Chris Brady is one of those far too rare people in the music industry who dares to ask, “What if?" In the 1980s, Brady bucked the trend of mass-produced, production line instruments when he introduced his block-shell snare drums made from the extremely hard and dense exotic woods that came from trees native to Western Australia, where Brady lives.
For a time, there was an almost mythic stature attached to the Brady name. The idea of a man venturing into the outback for days at a time, selecting only the finest trees, felling them himself, and then painstakingly constructing a very handsome and singular snare drum is an attractive image that transcends any marketing ploy an ad agency could come up with.
A loud attack and quick decay, owing to the density of the wood and the stave construction of the shell characterized the drums themselves. After some problems in funding and ownership, which remain hazy, Brady drums resurfaced under the name Chris Brady & Craftsmen. While other drum companies try to achieve consistent sound within each model of drum, Brady celebrates the uniqueness of every shell, noting that since no two trees are alike, no two shells will sound exactly the same. Here is a man who understands the close connection between timbre and timber.
These days Chris Brady & Craftsmen produce not only the block shell snare drums, but also ply shell snares and drum kits. I am sticking to the snare drums for this review, both plied and block shells. I was sent two 14" x 5 1/2" snare drums: one desert redwood block shell finished in natural gloss, and one jarrah ply shell with an exquisite checkered jarrah veneer finish ply. I also received two 12" x 5 1/2" snares: a jarrah ply with a white gimlet veneer, and a jarrah block with a natural gloss finish. The amount of exotic woods offered by Brady is astonishing, with more than 600 different types of Australian timber to choose from, each with a different sound characteristic.
The block shells are constructed in a stave style, with the grain going vertically up and down the shell. Staves are connected by a tongue and groove method and reinforced with epoxy resin glue. The effect this has on the sound of the drum, in my opinion, is to give it a more firm and centered tone than the ply drums, which tend to sound more open in comparison. The ply drums use a .6 mm thick piece of jarrah as their basis. Jarrah, like many of the other woods used to make these snare drums, is a very dense and hard wood compared to the traditional maple or birch used in so many snare drums. Whereas most ply drums are cross-laminated, with the grain running in opposite directions with each veneer, Chris Brady & Craftsmen shells have constant ply construction, with the grain of each ply running horizontally. The 14" drums have ten plies of jarrah, while the 12" drums have nine. The snare beds are fairly abrupt compared to many modern drums. The bearing edges are sharp and the shells are undersized enough to allow the drumhead to float and fully resonate.
Chris Brady & Craftsmen snare drums have a tube lug tensioning system, triple-flange hoops and a generic throwoff and butt-end strainer system. There is an attractive logo of a regimental drummer incorporated into the finish of each shell. The snare drums ship with Remo Ambassador heads.
While all the drums are visually striking, I’ll tackle the complex issue of sound first. To say these drums are dry would be an understatement. My personal taste in snare drums runs toward a wetter and more open sound and at first I had a hard time with the hasty decay and fast bark of the drums. In a small rehearsal space, the snares had absolutely no problem cutting through the din of loud guitar, bass, and organ, but where, I wondered, was that Charlie Watts ring I love so much? If you are looking for a drum that resonates forever, the Brady may not be for you. The company’s literature even acknowledges this trait, stating that the block shells have “a very quick decay and thicker tone.” What eventually grew on me was the pitch and control the drums possess. I lent the drum out to Lorne Entress, a local session drummer and producer who likes a drier sound, and he said the drum had “a very round, controlled sound that I’ve never experienced in a 14" x 5 1/2" before. It may be the type of snare that responds better to a different mike than the Shure [the engineer] was using – something to pick up more of the transients. I came away thinking that with experimentation, the Brady could be a killer studio drum.”
During a drum teching gig for a young punk-ska (skunk?) band, the producer I was working with chose the 14" jarrah ply Brady over other snare drums precisely because it was so easy to control. He wanted to hear the snare drum over the horns and guitars and he wanted to hear the exact articulation of what the drummer was playing. The Brady drums are perfect for this kind of situation. They are also ideal for very exact and tight snare figures you might find in any number of musical settings. They excel at enunciating a note without overly coloring it. This type of sound does have its drawbacks. You will not get those long overtones you might expect from a brass or thin maple shell. The overtones you do get are pleasing, but short.
When I tuned the ply and block drums to the same fundamental pitch, I found the 14" desert redwood block drum to have an attack that lingered in a higher frequency than the jarrah ply drum. The block shell was crisper and projected better, but I found myself enjoying the 12" and 14" ply shells more. When I lined up the 14" x 5 1/2" jarrah ply shell in the studio against a plied birch shell of the same depth and roughly the same thickness, I was surprised to find that the jarrah drum had a definitive mid-range finish compared to the birch drum. Volume and attack don’t necessarily equal a high pitch, although your ears can trick you into thinking otherwise.
Just to make sure my ears weren’t deceiving me, I did a blind testing with the 12" drums, both made of jarrah. The attack of the block shell sounded higher pitched and more focused than the ply shell, even when I tuned it to a lower note! Although the block drums have a strong presence, the tone tended to choke the tighter I tuned the drums. They have a narrower tuning range than the ply drums, which seemed to crank up high without losing too much of their tone.
I have never seen a more beautiful finish than the patterned jarrah on the 14" ply drum, where the wood is woven into a checkerboard motif that becomes almost iridescent as light falls across it. This is the type of detailing you might see on high-end custom furniture, but never would expect to see on a drum. At first look, all the finishes are beautiful, showing off the extraordinary figuring of the exotic wood that Brady uses. However, upon closer examination I found some visual flaws that shouldn’t have passed the inspection process. There was a natural knot-like inconsistency on one stave of both block shell drums that caused a prominent dimple in the gloss finish. These staves should have been discarded or the holes should have been filled in. Likewise, the large tube lugs were poorly buffed at the foot, leaving the lathe marks readily apparent. When I took the head off the 12" x 5 1/2" white gimlet jarrah ply drum, I noticed that the vent hole – which is dressed up with a chromed grommet – had been hastily drilled and the wood surrounding it had splintered on the inside of the shell. The snare strainer had a very stiff movement of the lateral throw-off and while three of the drums had the same cast butt end, one snare had a cheaper pressed-metal version. Although one might argue that these are minor flaws, you shouldn’t have oversights like that on a custom drum, where attention to detail is what you expect and inevitably pay for.
The retail prices of the drums are not outrageous, considering that Chris Brady & Craftsmen is the only drum company I know of that controls the entire process of building a drum shell, from cutting down the trees and forming the shells, to applying the finish coat. They are alluring instruments, completely handcrafted and distinctive sounding. The minor flaws I mentioned shouldn’t be discounted, but can be overcome. Over the years, Brady has refined the manufacturing process, changed the design (at one point the snare drums had wooden tube lugs with metal inserts), and remained an important player in the custom drum business. It has always been interesting and exciting to see what this Aussie company brings to the table. It’s too bad that another business has already taken the motto “The Thunder From Down Under,” because Chris Brady & Craftsmen have begun to make quite a bit of noise.