Pearl Reference Series Drums Tested!

pearl reference

Just when you thought the drum set had evolved about as far as round shells with skin stretched over them could, Pearl has upped the ante and made a brave leap into a new millennium of drum design. The company’s new Reference Series drums represent not only a major advance in design, they mark a new philosophical shift in drum-set construction.

The approach Pearl took on the Reference Series is based on the idea that differently sized drums call for different combinations of wood, various numbers of plies, and unique bearing edges to achieve an optimal sound. In other words, a 12" tom has completely different sound and performance requirements than a 16" floor tom, or for that matter, a 22" bass drum. For example, the Reference Series 12" x 9" tom has six plies of maple and a 45-degree bearing edge, while the 16" x 16" tom is made from two interior plies of mahogany and four outer plies of maple, and sports a fully rounded bearing edge reminiscent of vintage Radio King and Leedy toms. In those drums, the round edge yielded more surface area (or “land”) and gave the drums a warm character and a fuller, more musical projection.

After hearing the buzz about the Reference Series drums at this year’s Winter NAMM show, I was left with the feeling that someone had read my mind. For years as a drum tech and drummer, I’ve mixed and matched both different drums with different woods, including vintage and new drums, in search of the ultimate kit sound. I would preach to anyone who would listen that my 1960s Ludwigs or 1940s Radio Kings were the last word when it came to big rock toms, or my Eames 15-ply birch snare drum had more crack than the Liberty Bell.

Pearl took the concept that they call “individual engineering” and ran with it. They also looked at the smaller picture by updating — and in some cases completely redesigning — hardware such as lugs, strainers, and their OptiMount isolation mounting system. They claim the result is a collection of the “most acoustically advanced drums in the world.” You can’t make a statement like that without drawing the attention of someone like me who makes a living making drums sound good. I wanted to have a closer look at these tubs and pull them apart like a vulture in the Serengeti. For some crazy reason, Pearl was more than happy to oblige, and I had the opportunity to check out two full kits.

Shell Game

The most radical shell in the Reference Series belongs to the snare drum, which combines six inner plies of birch and 14 (that’s right 14) outer plies of maple. The shell is 1" thick, making the drum’s interior effectively 12" in diameter. The birch plies lend the drum a very crisp and focused attack and higher fundamental pitch than a straight maple shell would have. Although Pearl claims the maple plies provide good mids and a warm note, I thought the character of the birch was quite dominant over the maple.

I tried the 14" x 5" and 14" x 6.5" snare drums (a 13" x 6.5" model is also available) in many situations and both proved to be strong performers. I got to hear the 6.5" drum in the best of circumstances, being played by none other than one of the company’s top endorsers, Chad Smith. I was hired to drum tech on the Red Hot Chili Pepper’s upcoming (and as of press time, untitled) new record. We spent three-plus weeks putting many snare drums through their paces on more than 30 songs, and the Reference drum was used on more than a few of them. The drum will be noticeable on the record because it tuned up very high without choking, something thin-shelled maple drums tend to do, especially with a solid hitter like Smith. It also had wonderful articulation and projection. I don’t know if I would use the drum on a ballad — although it had a nice tuning range, it didn’t sound great in lower-to-mid registers — but for tight fast rock, funk, or even jazz (it sounded great when played with brushes) the Reference drum was a winner.

The snare drums also embody two extremes of design that I think applies to all Reference Series drums — on one hand, the hardware takes a major step forward in dealing with some of the important playing considerations shared by today’s drummers. On the other hand, all the improvements come at a cost: whereas most wood-shell snare drums are a relatively light 7-9 pounds, the 14" x 6.5" Reference snare weighs in at about 17. In fact, all the drums tip the scale. If you’re a big-name touring drummer with a road crew who will haul your drums and set them up, weight is not an issue. But if you’re like me (and I hope for your sake you’re not), you often have to carry your drums up stairs, set them up on cramped stages or in small rehearsal rooms, and then load them back into your econo-wagon. At this point, the sheer bulk of these drums becomes an issue. Did Pearl really need to make its already sturdy and dependable OptiMount even heftier? To my thinking, there was nothing wrong with the OptiMount the way it was.

My rant would be much harsher if all this over-engineering didn’t make a good deal of practical sense — in fact it does. The new snare strainer and tension knob are almost worth the weight, especially if you’re a hard hitter. For years I’ve had to resort to some pretty drastic measures in the studio including, but not limited to, using Krazy Glue, in an effort to keep the snare wires securely tensioned and the throw-offs from accidentally throwing off in the middle of a take. Tension knobs can twist many revolutions in the span of a few minutes of high intensity playing, and ruin a great drum sound. Pearl has addressed this problem with an elegant yet simple fix: both the butt-end snare tension knob and the throw-off lock into place, and it’s virtually impossible to loosen or throw them off unless you want to. The strainer has what’s called a Positive Lock System, which snap-locks when thrown forward (or back depending on how you orient the drum) and unlocks by pushing the handy-dandy button on top of the lever. The tension knob has an indexed arrow and short, ratcheted stops, which keep the knob from turning backwards, allowing you to (all together now) “set it and forget it.” When you want to change the tension, all you do is lift the knob to unlock it and twist away.

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Tommy, Can You Hear Me?

The 10" x 8" and 12" x 9" toms were a snap to tune. Again, this is where the heavy MasterCast hoops and new BRL-300 swivel lugs come into play. The drum feels so solid that there is no threat of the drumhead seating poorly because of bending hoops or bad tension rod alignment. The sound of the mounted toms was excellent: the mixed birch/maple 10” tom performed perfectly and the 12" all-maple tom was warm and very responsive. Both rack toms had a wide tuning range and played surprisingly well at all volumes. They sounded best at mid-to-lower pitch tunings. I’d be interested to hear how they would react to having heavy gauge triple-flanged hoops instead of die-cast. Next time.

The 16" x 16" floor tom also had an exceptional tone. Instead of the whooshy pitch bend or hollow sound of many modern drums, the gorgeous mahogany inner plies, round bearing edges, and isolated “floating” legs give this drum a much fuller, more musical character. The real benchmark of a floor tom is how well it holds a note at lower pitches. The Reference tuned easily to a low pitch and didn’t waver in tone like some of its thinner shelled, sharper edged cousins. The three toms sounded like they belonged together, and each drum did what it was asked to do without limitations.

Kick Me

My pet peeve raises its ugly head again with the bass drum. I’ve never had to carry a heavier bass drum before — not even a Sonor! It’s not just the shell that weighs so much, but also the hardware, which is admittedly thoughtfully designed, but adds some real pounds to the drum’s overall weight. While I tend to gravitate towards thicker shells on toms and snare drums, I usually like a thinner bass drum.

At first, it was difficult to get a handle on tuning the 22" x 18" Reference Series bass drum. Trying different heads didn’t help, but when I tightened both heads considerably, the drum suddenly came alive. I wasn’t knocked off my feet by the kick’s sound, but was really impressed when it was used on the Chili Peppers recording. It held up favorably against both a vintage Ludwig and a Gretsch kick drum. With Smith’s powerful right foot behind it, the drum sprang to life. It was more punchy than resonant, but definitely had plenty of power. Ideally, I’d like to see drum companies offer a 14" depth on bass drums, like the classic American drums of the 1950s and ’60s. To my ear, shallower shells, while lacking in huge punch, make up for it with a more musical tonal character.

Hardware And Finishes

Pearl hardware has always represented the pinnacle of function and form, and their new generation of stands and pedals is no exception. One shining example of ingenuity is the WingLoc — a cymbal stand topper so radically different, it all but makes the standard wing nut obsolete. Other little changes such as the adjustable arm on the snare stand are clear evidence that there are no flies resting on Pearl’s product designers.

The kits I tested had two different finishes. One kit sported a gorgeous deep-sprayed finish called Purple Craze, which was a burst type, with the purple darker towards the top and bottom head. This lacquer was absolutely flawless. The other kit came in what the company calls Root Beer Fade, which was actually an almost amber color at the top fading into a darker burnt amber. This finish was also close to perfection, save for one dark blemish in the maple outer ply. The gloss of the shells combined with the ample amount of chromed metal give these drums a classic, upscale look.

The Verdict

In less competent hands, Pearl’s concept of individually engineered drums might make for a conflict of sound between the various elements of the kit. I was surprised to find that, although the drums had different wood and ply structure, the kit had a balanced and organic sound. No single component stood out or was weaker than the other, although I might prefer to try to a thinner, shallower bass drum.

Still, there’s no question that these are about as upscale as drums get. With a hefty price tag of $4,399 they represent the very top of Pearl’s product line. I imagine lots of drummers have better backs than I do, so weight shouldn’t be a deterrent to buying these kits. But I’d be willing to risk a sore back if I could own a Reference Series set. For now they are at the front of the pack and they reconfirm Pearl’s commitment to the future of drum making.

Specs

Model: Pearl Reference Series Drums
Price: $4,399
Finishes: Purple Craze, Root Beer Fade
10" x 8" Tom: 2 inner plies birch, 4 outer plies maple, rounded 45-degree bearing edge
12" x 9" Tom: 6 plies maple, rounded 45-degree bearing edge
16" x 16" Floor Tom: 2 inner plies mahogany, 4 outer plies maple, fully rounded bearing edge
22" x 18" Bass Drum: 6 inner plies mahogany, 2 outer plies maple, fully rounded bearing edge
14" x 6.5" Snare drum: 6 inner plies birch, 14 outer plies maple, 45-degree bearing edge
Features: Pearl OptiMount tom mounts, LB-200 bridge leg brackets, MasterCast hoops, BRL-55 swivel lugs, and Eliminator BD pedal and hi-hat stands
Contact: Pearl, 549 Metroplex Dr., Nashville, TN 37211. 615-833-4477. pearldrum.com