In my travels as a drum journalist, one thing I’ve heard from a lot of my interview subjects is that, during practice, they would learn from the best by playing along to records or CDs. That’s nothing crazy, but deep in the back of my mind the same question always rang out, “How did they do that without going deaf right there on the spot?”
You may know what I mean. In the past, whenever I tried to be a part of Pantera by putting my CD player next to my kit, listening through headphones or speakers, and playing along, I instantly got nowhere. The volume of the drum set, even when played at relatively low levels, was always more than enough to drown out all but a shadow of the music.
The only solution, of course, was to jack up the volume on the player to ear-blistering levels in an attempt to achieve a workable balance. Especially when doing this in headphones, (which was my only option 95 percent of the time) this usually meant listening at dangerously loud levels. I was always surprised afterward to see that I had the volume far higher than I would ever go normally, and the screaming in my ears was additional cause for worry. Besides, even under optimum conditions, the recorded drums would seem to “disappear” into this sound assault, meaning that if I doubled the part perfectly, I couldn’t hear it anymore.
That’s not a real good way to learn, and I doubt I’m the only to have that experience. In fact, I know I’m not, because GK Music (www.gk-music.com) has kindly created DrumPhones to address this exact situation. Designed by the busy Minneapolis-based session drummer/educator Gordy Knudtson, DrumPhones present a simple solution to the problem: equipping a pair of sound isolation headphones with internal speakers. The isolation reduces the external acoustic volume level reaching drummers’ ears, thereby allowing the music in the headphones to be listenable – with a great deal more clarity – at much safer levels.
GK Music currently offers three versions of the product. DrumPhones II ($69.95) offer 20db isolation with Walkman-type speakers, while SuperPhones ($179.95) and UltraPhones ($219.95) come loaded with more professional Sony 7506 speakers, offering 20db and 29db isolation respectively. All units have 1/4" and 1/8" stereo plugs. According to GK Music, the 20db isolation of DrumPhones II and SuperPhones is enough to protect hearing while still allowing ghost notes to come through, making them ideal for personal practice. Meanwhile, UltraPhones, while also usable for practice, are recommended for studio or stage situations where drums are miked and can be monitored electronically.
This is a relatively simple product, so I feel comfortable summing up the performance of all three units with a simple sentence: They work great. All three allow a drummer playing along to recorded music to instantly enhance the experience. Working on timing and duplication of parts becomes a pleasure, instead of a battle or a guessing game, and the ability to play off of the recording introduces a whole new dimension of flexibility and creativity into the process.
Putting on the UltraPhones is like a vacuum sucking up all of the room’s ambient sound – suddenly, the outside world is very, very quiet. The deep ear cups combine with the headband to keep them firmly planted on your cranium without feeling uncomfortably tight, no matter how much you move. Listening to music from a CD player alone through the UltraPhones sounds sharp, very close to the response you’d expect from a normal pair of Sony 7506 studio monitor phones. In practice, they did what they’re supposed to – deliver the music cleanly and comfortably, while still giving me great feedback on what I was doing with my hands and feet. While tones definitely did go missing from the drums, everything came through quite well enough to illustrate how incredibly helpful this system can be for a drummer’s learning curve. The main problem was the lack of connection with the bass drum, which I had to play harder than usual to hear. Over time, this could lead to a skewed sense of dynamics that could carry over to performance from practice, but this is why they’re recommended for the studio and stage, not practice.