Dunnett Classic Snares: A Triplet Of Sounds

Dunnett

Check out the Dunnett Classic Drum web site (dunnett.com) and you’ll realize that Ronn Dunnett has some strong opinions about how drums should be made. There he sings the praises of low-mass drums, minimal contact hardware, undersized shells, deep snare beds, eight (as opposed to ten) lugs, and nonflanged, simple-cut bearing edges on metal drums.

Indeed, the drums I received — a 14" x 5" steel shell with a raw finish, a 14" x 5.5" solid Milkwood shell with a cream-colored lacquer finish, and a 13" x 6.5" titanium shell with a polished finish — kept true to those concepts and were each built by Dunnett’s own hands. Each had eight tube lugs, 2.3mm flanged hoops, deep snare beds (much deeper than I am used to seeing), 42-strand snare wires (yes, even on the 13" drum), single-ply, coated heads (Remos on the 14" drums and an Aquarian on the 13" drum), and newer R2 versions of Dunnett’s famous snare throw-off. The metal shells had no flanges, but rather, simple cut bearing edges. The Milkwood drum featured a thin, low-mass solid shell with reinforcement hoops.

I had never tried a Dunnett snare throw-off (a previous DRUM! Magazine readers’ poll winner for best accessory) until receiving these drums, but I can now see why they are so popular. The newer R2 throw-offs on all three drums had polished metal parts (no ugly black plastic or rubber) with a simple lever release mechanism that looks as slick visually as it feels ergonomically. The R2 lever swivels to face any direction — a feature I’m not sure I needed, but which was fun to play with. The throw-offs released very quietly and allowed the snare wires to drop far away from the bottom head. As a result, when the snares were off I could hit the drums hard and the wires didn’t bounce back against the bottom head. Also, when the snares are released, the R2 butt ends can be removed by hand without the use of any screws or tension rods. This feature allows for quick and easy snare-side head replacements — a brilliant idea in my humble opinion.

Each drum came with Dunnett’s Hypervent, an air hole with a fancy screw in the middle that allows adjustment of the amount of air that enters or escapes the drum. To my ears, all three drums sounded more choked and tight with the Hypervents closed and more open with the vents open — no surprises there. I preferred the open sound but you may not, so it’s nice to have options.

The Classic Look: Been There, Dunnett

Despite their advanced, hi-tech features, all three drums had a classic, elegant look. The Dunnett tube lugs have an old-style charm, and the Dunnett script-style badge reminds me of the vintage Rogers drums from the ’60s. The 14" x 5" steel shell’s raw finish was not lacquered or shiny, which gave it an industrial look that was a pleasant contrast to the highly polished lugs, hoops, and throw-off. The 13" x 6.5" polished titanium shell’s mirror finish offered a traditional chrome look. My favorite drum aesthetically, however, was the 14" x 5.5" Milkwood drum. It’s lustrous cream-colored lacquer revealed only a hint of the shell’s wood grain and was neutral enough to match with virtually any drum set in the world, except for my own purple sparkle drums. (Only purple sparkle matches with purple sparkle.)

The Sound: Why Dunnett Has Become So Famous

Once I started playing these drums, I decided it would take me a very long time to complete this review. I kept the drums as long as I could, which gave me the opportunity to test them at several gigs. All three drums sounded very different from one another, but there were some consistencies to the Dunnett sound. Specifically, all three drums offered long, full-sounding notes (with a breathy quality), extremely sensitive snare response, and an incredibly wide dynamic range that did not lose sound quality at soft volumes or choke at loud volumes. Dunnett

The 14" x 5" Steel Shell
As I would expect from a steel shell, this drum projected ample high and mid frequencies, but without steel’s typical harshness. I tried this drum at a low-volume trio gig in which I played a lot of brushes, and was pleasantly surprised by its sensitivity and expressiveness, even at low volume levels. A week later, I tried this drum in a completely different situation, a loud fusion gig at an El Torito Mexican restaurant (ahh, the glamour of being a freelance musician). At the louder volume levels, I used sticks and got a fat backbeat and piercing rimshots without having to hit the drum too hard. I found I could tune this drum high or low and adjust the snare wires loose or tight, getting a wide variety of different snare drum sounds, but I could do nothing to make the drum sound bad. If you are looking for a primary snare drum with a lot of versatility, you cannot go wrong with this drum.

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The 14" x 5.5" Milkwood Shell
If you’re wondering what kind of tree Milkwood comes from, join the club. Dunnett created the proprietary “Milkwood” name to keep the actual species of wood secret (no word yet on whether you shouldn’t play this drum if you’re lactose intolerant, but you might cry over a spilled Milkwood drum).

The Milkwood shell, to my ear, was not nearly as versatile as Dunnett’s steel shell. The Milkwood projected ample lows and a decent range of highs, but not as many mids. It did produce a round, vintage sound. Rimshots on this drum were wide-open sounding with beautiful, inoffensive overtones. I found the Milkwood’s sound to be somewhat like a birch snare drum but with longer, less articulate notes.

I first tried the Milkwood snare at a loud outdoor jazz concert with a quartet that included a singer belting out Frank Sinatra-era standards. The singer happens to be my uncle, so he was kind enough to let me play a lot of drum solos. The Milkwood’s vintage sound and bouncy feel were a perfect match for this standard jazz setting.

I later tried the Milkwood drum on a medium-volume duo gig in which we played many styles of music. On the more backbeat-oriented songs, I thought the drum sounded a little too old school, and I longed for the more articulate, modern sound of the steel drum. That’s not to say that the steel shell is a better drum than the Milkwood; they’re just different, with the Milkwood being more specialized.

Dunnett

The 13" x 6.5" Titanium Shell
I’ve noticed a trend toward deeper 13" snare drums and am somewhat familiar with the size range because I often use my own deep 13" maple snare as a secondary snare (to the left of the hi-hat) on gigs. I find deep 13" snares to be excellent for playing cutting, full-sounding backbeats, but I do not typically use them as a primary snare because they seem to lack warmth and breathiness and the higher quality side-stick sound of the larger diameter 14" snares.

Dunnett’s deep 13" drum is the first titanium shell drum I have played. To me, the titanium had similar sound qualities to aluminum. It was clear, articulate, dry, and projected mid frequencies incredibly well without too many overtones. This particular drum also had the breathiness that other drums in this size range miss. The titanium seemed to project slightly louder than aluminum, but I wasn’t sure if that was because of the material or the way that Dunnett made the drum.

I tried this drum on my fusion gig at El Torito. It produced an absolutely stunning, popping backbeat and maintained a full, studio-quality sound at soft and loud volumes. As good as Dunnett’s deep 13" titanium snare sounded, it still did not offer the kind of side-stick sound I would want from a primary snare. Nevertheless, this is one of the best deep 13" snare drums I’ve played.

Verdict

Custom drums do not typically come cheap, and Dunnett’s are no exception to that rule. According to Dunnett’s January 2007 price list, the drums list at $625 for the 14" steel shell, $695 for the 14" Milkwood solid shell, and $995 for the 13" titanium shell. Given the quality, sound, and expressiveness of these drums, I think they are without a doubt worth the money.