Classic: HiPercussion Too Far Ahead Of Its Time

By Bob Henrit Published in DRUM! Magazine's November/December 1999 Issu

HiPercussion drums unexpectedly burst onto the international scene in 1977 and floored just about everybody. They looked so completely different and incorporated a great many firsts. Initially, since they looked so complicated, I put off reviewing them for quite some time. Perhaps I was hoping they’d go away.

They were built in Italy, a country not particularly famous for drum manufacture, by a firm called Caldironi Musica, which, prior to that, had been responsible for the Hollywood drums we occasionally saw in England and the Wooding ones only seen in mainland Europe.

Hollywood and HiPercussion drums were the first built with a revolutionary modern tuning system, later taken up by Pearl and Remo, where it wasn’t necessary to completely remove the tension rods from the hoop to change the head. Horizontal swivel-nuts were held loosely inside the cast lug casings and penetrated by the tension rods, upon which were located small cast claws that fit over the eye-less triple-flange hoops. You simply loosened the screw until the claw disengaged and the whole thing swiveled away from the drum. The system worked exactly the same for the bass drum.

HiPercussion’s shells were no less unusual, made from beech and walnut. They were thinly made with three plies for the snares and toms and four for the bass drums, all without the benefit of reinforcement rings. The drums sounded really great – open, ballsy, and resonant – but I was always skeptical about whether their shells would retain their true shape over the years. With that in mind, they fitted a 1" strengthening tube permanently inside the bass drum in an effort to maintain its shape. I was taken aback by HiPercussion’s bearing edges, which could only be described as adequate, but, they didn’t seem to adversely affect the response.

They broke new ground with their drum sizes too, making the first 7" and 11" diameter toms as well as giving them all slightly shallower depths. And as an added bonus they included a 14" or 16" diameter double-headed pedal tom as standard with all their sets. This tom was an innovation first seen in Europe on Hollywood drums, and eventually taken up by Yamaha. It effected timpani-type pitch changes by way of an internal “umbrella” attached via its spokes to the swiveling lug casings and by way of its shaft through cogs, worms, cams, and levers to a foot pedal at the side. Of course it was really a gimmick in normal use, but in those days when drum solos seemed to be obligatory, it did work particularly well.

The other big first with Signor Caldironi’s drums was their support system. They were possibly the first racks, unless you count some of the curved consoles used by big band drummers in the ’20s. You could call HiP’s system sophisticated scaffolding, with a pair of parallel pieces of chromed 1" diameter tubing mounted to the bass drum and then joined together with “fist” joints. Imagine a hand gripping a tube, being locked around it by an Allen screw penetrating the fingers and coming out of the back of the hand. The wrist therefore acts as either a tube or rod to mate with another fist or a plastic ball joint.

Hollywood was also responsible for this plastic ball-and-cage joint (ultimately used by Slingerland and others) which in HiP’s case not only held your toms where you wanted on the rails, but also your snare drum, a static hi-hat, and even goosenecks for microphones. (The basket-holding mechanism on the snare stand had what I’m pretty sure was the first quick-release lever. This one actually worked!)

Because the modular scaffolding mounted to the bass (via a cast double receiver block) and supported just about everything else in the set, it necessitated putting the whole kit on rollers to move it quickly. These were four sophisticated rubber wheels set parallel to the bass drumhead on a piece of the scaffold tube, which also held the snare stand. Fortunately the front pair could be locked while the backs actually had a suspension system for uneven stages.

HiPercussion wasn’t actually around long enough to make very many snare drums – the only ones we saw were 6" deep and either made from wood or copper. (I know there was an 8" deep version in the pipeline called Dynamite with no less than 24 tension rods, but it never turned up in the UK.) They had precisely the same tuning systems as the other drums (with ten double-ended tension rods), an unsophisticated, Gretsch-like snare strainer, and aside from an ingenious non-adjustable sprung-steel external damper (which located onto a tension screw so it could also fit the toms), that was it.

Instead of using Remo heads, the company bought the same Mylar film from Dupont, Remo’s American supplier. However, they didn’t realize that Remo had their own exclusive grade of the material, so the HiPercussion stuff dented very easily and gave up its tone very quickly.

There was nothing particularly startling about HiPercussion’s stands and pedals, unless you count the fact that the Giraffe cymbal stand was capable of reaching 7' high! All the bass pedal’s action functions were adjustable on its swivel axle, and its cast one-piece footplate matched the hi-hat and pedal-tom’s. The hi-hat had a pair of expansion springs fitted outside the down-tube and worked a great deal better than the bass pedal. It was unusual yet logical, in that the top tube was actually offset by an inch or so away from the tube attached to the legs. It didn’t line-up at all (like the majority of hi-hats do), but it did the job well and came complete with hidden spurs. HiPercussion appears to have been the first company to market a static hi-hat.

As far as finishes were concerned, HiPercussion’s were spectacularly unimaginative, considering the fact that the set seemed to be aimed at the drum soloist. Originally you could have white or a not particularly attractive natural wood, but I suspect they also introduced black plastic coverings towards the end around 1981. Old Caldironi finally gave up the unequal struggle of trying to sell high-priced instruments to skeptics who, at the time, wouldn’t take Italian-built drums seriously. So, the world’s first modular drum set disappeared without trace.

In 1980 you’d have paid $2,368 for nine drums (eight of which were single-headed), a hi-hat, bass pedal, and a couple of cymbal stands. You’d also get a snare holder and a couple of cymbal arms, all specifically designed for rail mounting. Nowadays, providing you could find one, you’d obviously pay an awful lot less.