Yamaha Phoenix Drums: Thick Shells Reborn
Make no mistake – Yamaha’s new flagship Phoenix line represents a radical change in drum construction. It created quite a buzz at this year’s winter NAMM show. Like Pearl’s Reference line, Yamaha engineers pursued a thick-shell design even though most manufacturers have veered toward thinner shells recently. Thin shells are known to resonate more and produce more low-end than traditional thick-shelled designs, which offer attack, projection, and brightness at the expense of warmth. By using an unusual collection of Asian woods that you probably haven’t heard of before, Yamaha thinks it has hit on a winning formula. Let’s find out if they have.
Yamaha’s PHX line features 11-ply hybrid shells, which means the company mixes different types of woods together to design the characteristics of a drum’s sound, which is an advantage of plywood drums. Yamaha’s collection of exotic woods begins with the hardest wood, jatoba, in the center of the shell. This is surrounded by a softer wood, kapur, which adds warmth to the sound. Both of these are in turn surrounded by inner and outer plies of maple, though some of the drums use an outer ply of burled ash for aesthetic reasons. This method of construction is intended to create an amazing musical tone while avoiding the “thick shell” sound.
That last point seems a crucial calculation on Yamaha’s part because it’s obvious these are very thick drums. I’d guess they’re nearly 0.5" thick, which actually puts them more in the extra-thick shell category relative to the tom or bass drum shells I’m used to seeing. All this wood obviously adds weight to the drums, so gigging drummers might want to take note of that unfortunate side effect.
The drums feature a 30-degree bearing edge, and like Pearl’s Reference series, each drum has a different profile edge. The bass drum has a sharper edge cut toward the outer plies, which adds attack and shortens the sustain of the drum. The floor toms are slightly more rounded to give them an appropriate balance of attack and decay, and the mounted toms have an even more rounded profile for extra warmth. It appears that the bearing edge is formed from the softer kapur wood.
Yamaha chose the drum shop where I work (the Drum Pad) to receive the first Phoenix kit in the Midwest, and that’s the kit I evaluated in order to get this review out to DRUM! readers in the most timely fashion. The kit featured a burled ash outer veneer with Yamaha’s Sapphire Fade. It’s a gorgeous finish, boasting a flawless high-gloss sheen.This kit also had chrome hardware, though gold-colored rims and lugs are available at additional cost. In my opinion, the five highly figured burled ash finishes are all much more attractive than the four maple veneer offerings, which seem bland by comparison. However, the maple veneers are considerably less expensive. The burled ash drums actually have a half-ply of maple covered with a half-ply of ash, because, according to Yamaha, the maple adds high and mid frequencies to the drums.
Of course, having gone to the trouble of crafting an entirely new drum line, Yamaha decided to improve and refine some other features too. One is a new version of the Nouveau lug that, like its predecessor, only has to be loosened but not completely unthreaded to change a head. Once loosened, it pops off a rod that passes through the shell to greatly speed up head changes. This new lug has a more conventional rectangular shape and, unlike the first version of the Nouveau lug, mounts on a square post that allows one-handed tuning and easier alignment. This post contributes to the drum sound as well since it passes through the shell at the point where the overtones are the greatest, helping to dampen them. While I liked the look of the original Nouveau lug, most of the people I spoke with liked the new one better. The new model is a more conventional-looking lug, whereas the older one looks like something that came off a yacht. Yamaha has kept the same aluminum die-cast hoops found on the Nouveau series drums, which are lighter in weight than conventional die-cast hoops and provide warmth comparable to triple-flanged hoops.
There is also a new YESS mounting system. Unlike the previous version, which supported the drum with two bolts drilled into the shell, the new version has three bolts to add support to both the top and bottom of the shell. The tom bracket attaches to a black rectangular wooden plate that measures about 2.5" x 5.5" and uses rubber grommets for isolation. The wooden plate looks to be a section cut out of a drum shell. This new system is designed so that the inner and outer fasteners don’t touch and allow the maximum tone from the drum. Frankly, I find this wooden plate to be an eyesore that clashes with and detracts from the otherwise beautiful appearance of the kit. The only color that this plate will look good with is the matte black kit. Frankly, I’m surprised Yamaha hasn’t tried to match the shell finish with the plate, as any boutique drum company surely would have done. Barring that, the company could simply have opted to replace it with a piece of chromed steel.
The new YESS mount does stabilize the drum vertically, but you can wiggle the drum from side to side a bit. Still, this system seems to work well to provide the drums with ample sustain.
When I first heard about this new line and how thick the shells were, I was very skeptical. Thick drums tend to have qualities I typically loathe, but I’m paid to keep an open mind (and ears). Besides, my curiosity is greater than my preconceptions – or so I like to think.
But now that I’ve had the chance to hear and play them, I have to say that Yamaha has indeed succeeded in making excellent-sounding thick-shelled drums that, as advertised, really don’t have a “thick shell” sound. Unlike thick-shelled drums of the past, these drums are very warm sounding and have oodles of tone and sustain. In fact, these are among the best-sounding toms I’ve reviewed.
The toms came equipped with clear Remo Ambassador (single-ply) heads top and bottom. Usually, those heads lend a brighter sound to a drum, but these drums still had a warm, rich, deep tone and tons of sustain. The fact that the review kit had relatively shallow 10" x 7" and 12" x 8" mounted toms no doubt contributed to the sustain. The 16" x 15" floor tom had a very deep and satisfying sound. Interestingly, while the mounted toms had one vent hole each, the floor tom had six – Three pairs, with one hole above another, placed between every other lug. These toms were inspiring to play and truly sounded great.
The Phoenix bass drum had ten vent holes in the shell and, for about a second, I wondered if this were an OCDP bass drum. The bass drum can either have a tom-mounting plate attached to the shell or, for the same price, can be ordered “virgin,” without the mount and hole. Our 22" x 16" drum came with a tom mount attached and coupled with a TH945B tom mount. As a gigging drummer, I appreciate the convenience of being able to mount the toms on the bass drum, and this drum’s shell is certainly thick enough to support Tommy Aldridge-sized toms without a problem. The drum had a clear Remo Powerstroke 3 batter head and a smooth-with-solid-logo resonant head.
Our store’s kit had one minor defect that wasn’t rectified before the completion of this review: One of the bass drum claws was missing the rubber liner that protects the hoop from gouging. I substituted a claw from another set when I auditioned the bass drum, which hopefully had no influence on the drum’s sound. While the bass drum sounded good, it didn’t really stand out from many of the other bass drums in our shop, and a few similarly sized bass drums sounded deeper.
If you’re wondering about the snare drum, frankly so am I. There isn’t one. Yamaha has introduced its new flagship drum line without offering any snare drums to match the kits. I’m still scratching my head over this. In the ad photos they show a snare, but you’ll notice its finish doesn’t match the kit. Whatever reasoning Yamaha is using for not offering drummers the option of purchasing a matching snare drum, in my opinion it’s misguided. If you buy a Phoenix kit your snare will not match your kit, which is fine for recording or if you always use your favorite snare live. But that’s a choice Yamaha shouldn’t make for you.
The toms do sound spectacularly good. No question. However, I can’t get past the feeling that this is a prototype for a drum line, and not the drum line itself. I probably wouldn’t feel that way if the kit were offered with a matching PHX snare. Without a selection of snares, the Phoenix line just seems incomplete. Hopefully, that will change.
The other negative thing about these drums is that they are priced in the stratosphere. Our kit comprising a bass drum, three toms, and a double tom holder lists for $10,325. If you go with gold hardware and a burled ash finish, any tom offered will have a list price over $2,000, and a 24" x 18" bass drum is just shy of $5,000. However, choosing one of the maple finishes will drop the cost by a couple of thousand dollars. If you’re a Yamaha endorser or drive a Bugatti Veyron, this might not matter to you. For the rest of us, the price alone will keep our noses pressed to the window.
No doubt, though, Yamaha has succeeded in making a noticeably great-sounding set of drums. I venture to say some of its best-sounding drums to date. No small feat indeed.
Unique hybrid shells comprising jatoba, kapur, maple (and with certain finishes, burled ash) and varying bearing edge profiles.
10" x 7", 12" x 8", and 16" x 15" toms, a 22" x 16" bass drum, and a TH945B YESS double tom holder.
Sapphire Fade burled ash high-gloss finish.
New YESS mounts; aluminum die-cast hoops; a variety of sizes and finishes; multiple vent holes; ultra-thick, heavyweight shells.
4-piece kit with bass drum mount: $10,325.
Yamaha Corporation of America, 714-522-9011, http://www.yamaha.com