Mapex RetroSonic: A Blast From The Present

mapex retrosonic

For more than a decade, the Black Panther series has been Mapex’s flagship snare line. Mapex currently offers 14 Black Panther snares, many of which feature unique shell materials, sizes, and/or other various quirks that make the Black Panthers something more than just run of the mill. More recently, Mapex has begun introducing drum set configurations that take an individual Black Panther snare drum and expand it into an entire kit.

So far, the Black Panther drum set configurations have included a Velvetone kit and a Blaster kit. Both kits are comprised of shells made from different mixtures of maple and walnut. I happened to have the pleasure of receiving the third drum set in the Black Panther series, the RetroSonic. This is Mapex’s first 100 percent walnut drum set. For now, at least, Mapex is releasing the RetroSonic kit as a limited edition, with only 25 sets available in the U.S., and only 100 available worldwide.

The RetroSonic kit includes a 22" x 16" bass drum, 12" x 8" mounted tom, and a 16" x 16" floor tom. Because the new mounted tom has no mounting hardware, Mapex also includes its new S1000 snare stand for the tom. The 14" x 5.5" Black Panther RetroSonic snare drum is surprisingly not included with the shell pack but is, of course, included in this review. The snare completes the kit.

Are These Drums Or Furniture?

My first impression out of the box was that this is an extremely elegant-looking set of drums that will likely have tremendous appeal to drummers who are a bit older. Yes, this is your father’s drum set, but it’s also the one that you want to borrow all the time. Two aspects of this kit make a tremendous visual impression: its lovely walnut burl veneer (in a satin finish) and its tube lugs. The walnut burl veneer has a luxurious brown swirl that reminds me of some of the kits I loved from the 1980s: the bubinga-finish Sonor Signature series and the cordia-finish Tama Artstar kits. If you loved those kits, the RetroSonic will be right up your alley.

I’ve always liked tube lugs, but in the last decade or so, several purportedly “custom” drum makers have outfitted their kits with straight tube lugs that have very little styling. Not so with the RetroSonic. Its hand-tooled stainless steel tube lugs have an attractive hourglass shape. Furthermore, the RetroSonic bass drum has wooden hoops (also with walnut burl veneer) that are complemented by Mapex’s classy-looking chrome (rather bulbous shaped) bass drum claws. The combination of gorgeous wood veneer and long chrome pieces makes this set look like a really expensive piece of furniture.

Other chrome parts on the RetroSonic drums include the Sonic Saver hoops on the snare and toms. In lieu of the chrome-colored stickers that some manufacturers apply to their flanged hoops, these hoops actually have the “Sonic Saver” logo engraved on the side — a subtle yet nice touch. Like the old Slingerland Stick Saver hoops, the Sonic Saver 2.3mm steel flanged hoops curve inward at the top flange. This rounded over edge is smooth and helps save wood sticks from chipping. I also think that it looks a lot better than normal flanged hoops, which typically flange outward at the edge.

Mapex completes the “retro” look of this kit with white batter heads and bass drumheads. Snare and toms receive Remo Suede Ambassador batters and clear Ambassador resonant heads. The bass drum comes outfitted with Remo Suede Powerstroke 3 heads on both batter and resonant sides. The resonant head has a stripe and shield, à la Buddy Rich. The only visual feature that does not look particularly “retro” to me is Mapex’s rather modern-looking panther image that fills the shield on the bass drumhead. Still, the set has a consistent and well thought-out visual theme.

New Drums That Sound Old

Tuning these drums was a breeze. I had no trouble getting an even pitch at each lug in a matter of minutes. Mapex cuts the edges with tremendous accuracy with what it calls a 1:9 rounded bearing edge. What this means is the edge is cut at the ninth outer ply of these 9-ply shells. This allows more surface area of the head to vibrate, but it also, theoretically, means the shell could vibrate less than it would if the edge was cut more near one of the center plies. For example, Mapex’s Blaster set (another kit in the Black Panther series) has a 5:5 rounded edge that comes to a peak at the center plies.

Once I tuned the RetroSonic, it quickly became evident to me that walnut has characteristics that make it quite different from the usual suspects (i.e., maple or birch). To my ear, walnut emphasizes mostly mids and lows in the sonic spectrum without that many highs. It has a lot of warmth and breathiness, a good amount of tone, but not that much bite or attack. As a consequence, these drums sound old or, dare I say, “retro.”

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The bass drum on the RetroSonic has less attack than, say, maple or birch, but it compensates for that lack of attack with a lovely, low pitched round boom that’s warm and controllable — even with no muffling. Although the Remo Suede Powerstroke 3’s are good quality professional heads, they tend to give a slightly papery sound on this bass drum. I suspect a clear Powerstroke 3 or clear Emperor would give this kick more attack on initial impact, but still retain its lovely low tone.

The 12" mounted tom is perhaps the most finicky drum, sonically, on the RetroSonic kit. At tighter tensions, it has a tendency to produce less sustain, giving it a sound reminiscent of some of the mounted toms on old bebop recordings. If tuned too loose, it can get flubby. This tom sounds best at a medium tension, with a focused full pitch and quick decay.

I suspect this tom might ring longer if it was mounted with a Rims-style suspension mount instead of the S1000 snare stand included with the kit, but that would not look very retro. With that said, this is a very nice snare stand, although it does not look very retro either. The S1000 has a center-positioned snare basket with a ball-style angle adjustment that is engaged by use of a comfortable large black handle. This stand also includes spikes that can be adjusted to protrude out of the rubber feet. I’m not sure why you need spikes on the bottom of a snare stand, unless you’re playing on the floor of an ice rink, but it’s a feature. The stand’s tripod base can be rotated, which is helpful if you use a double pedal and want the tripod positioned just so. Also, this snare stand has a decent height that allowed me to place the mounted tom rather high up.

Walnut seems to be a perfect wood for the 16" x 16" RetroSonic floor tom. This tub sounds absolutely amazing. It sings with a big, round, low pitch that seems to ring for days. No doink here, just pure tone. I should mention that although I understood Mapex’s choice of Remo Suede Ambassadors on this kit (they have a vintage vibe), I would love to hear how both the mounted tom and floor tom would sound with clear Emperor heads. These walnut shells seem thick enough to handle a 2-ply head. I bet clear Emperors would give that extra bit of attack that is already somewhat muted by the walnut.

The RetroSonic snare speaks with a full, breathy, woody, midrange voice that sounds aged. It feels bouncy, sensitive and not new, even though it is new. The snare strainer is new for Mapex. It’s got a smooth lever that disengages outward from the drum. Both strainer and butt each have a tension-adjustment dial that spins and click locks at various positions. I liked the ease of adjustment and the fact that both strainer and butt are all chrome with no ugly black rubber parts.

This Feels Familiar!

Although I had these drums only briefly, I gave them a good workout. I have owned my share of vintage kits over the years, and playing these drums gave me the same sort of emotional response I get from those kits. Quite simply, this is very comfortable kit to play. Although it’s new, the RetroSonic doesn’t feel new. Instead, it feels … familiar. The RetroSonic drums allowed me to dig in and they would bounce back with a responsive, non-harsh, cushioned feel. Sonically, although the walnut lacks the sort of attack that I’ve heard from maple or birch, it still manages to produce a good volume due to its round, albeit slightly lower pitch. Would I use the kit for heavy metal or techno gigs? No. But I would definitely use it for jazz, classic rock, funk, and country, or any other setting where a wide range of dynamics are in play.

Verdict

With its Black Panther kits, Mapex appears to be attempting to prove a point: that it’s a large drum company capable of producing luxury drum sets that one would otherwise expect to see from only the small high-end custom drum companies. Point proven.

With its walnut burl veneer finish and slick tube lugs, this kit looks like luxury furniture. I might be afraid of scratching these drums if I used them as an everyday gigging kit. I would, however, love to have this kit in my living room or (if I had one) my recording studio. At a $3,799 list price for the shell pack — with an extra $799 for the snare (which you would almost certainly want to include), these drums are expensive. But the RetroSonic kit has a unique vibe and limited-edition status, which will almost certainly make it a collector’s item. Well done, Mapex.

Details

Shells 9-ply, 8.1mm walnut shells made with a 1:9 rounded bearing edge cut at 45 degrees with an outer walnut burl veneer.
Features Mapex Sonic Saver hoops (like Slingerland hoops), RetroSonic column lugs hand-tooled from stainless steel, Remo Suede Ambassador batters and clear Ambassador resonant heads, Remo Suede Powerstroke 3 bass drumheads, and the S1000 snare stand.
Configuration 22" x 16" bass drum, 12" x 8" mounted tom, 16" x 16" floor tom, 14" x 5.5" or 14" x 6.5" snare drum (not included).
List Price $3,799 for the 3-piece shell pack; $799 for the snare.

Contact Mapex USA, usa.mapexdrums.com, 615-773-9900