BY R.L. HULSMAN
RETURN TO THE AGE OF METAL
I used to play metal snare drums. When I was 18, my dad bought me an early-model Pearl free-floating brass snare, a deep 7″ monster that was whacked to death in my basement along to Tommy Lee in the headphones. It was a powerhouse that I cherished and even took along with me on my first tour of Europe (ultimately being damaged in a stunningly stupid Keith Moon—esque act of onstage destruction). But as I matured and moved from punk bands to alt-country, more and more I settled into playing old wooden snare drums, the latest being vintage 1937. So when Pearl sent me their new Sensitone Elite line, I approached the drums with a bit of built-in skepticism: The words new and metal instantly turned me off. Well, let me tell you, after running these snares through the paces, I’m at least 50-percent less snooty about new gear, and I am definitely back on the metal.
Pearl sent me all ten models from the new Sensitone Elite line, so now my UPS guy no longer speaks to me. It was a bit overwhelming, but what fun it was to crank on ten brand-new snares — my inner drum geek bubbled up. I received snares from all five metals used in the Sensitone Elite line — aluminum, phosphor bronze, brass, stainless steel, and steel. Each metal drum was also sent in 14″ x 5″ and 14″ x 6.5″ sizes. I’ll go over each model individually, but first, let’s talk about the drums’ shared features.
The Sensitone Elite snares are priced relatively low, but they look and play like a million bucks. All the drums are beaded, featuring a raised bump running around the middle of the shell, and all are fitted with Pearl’s Super Hoop II, CL-55 Masters Bridge lugs, SR-017 strainer, and 20-strand UltraSound snares. They all sport coated Remo Ambassador heads on top and Ambassador snare-side heads on bottom. The drums all had ten tension rods per side, with plastic washers.
Pearl’s Super Hoop II is very strong and made to be beaten. If you’ve got your drum in the back of the car and have a flat, I’d wager you could drive on a Super Hoop II. I took some of these out on the road (well, not that way), and I can attest to their durability. I also cranked each of the snares to ridiculously tight tunings as part of my testing, and the rims had no problems.
The CL-55 Masters Bridge lugs are attractive pieces of hardware. These bridge-style lugs are open in the middle, as to contact the shell only on either end. The contact points are buffeted by black plastic spacers. They are chrome-colored and look nice in a classic, elegant sort of way.
Pearl’s SR-017 strainer is a simple yet effective piece of hardware. As I mentioned, I took a few of these drums out on the road, and the set I was playing each night required a lot of switching between the snares-on and snares-off position. The strainer functioned smoothly and was easily adjusted. Its knobby handle was easy to grab for fast gear changing. The screws that hold snare cords in place are adjusted via drum key, eliminating the need to keep a screwdriver lying around. In an age where strainers seem to get more and more complex, the simple functionality of the SR-017 was welcomed relief. Connected to these simple gems are 20-strand UltraSound snares that complement the drums’ sounds.
Another nice, small touch is the rubber lining on the back of the drums’ badges. This tiny but wonderful detail makes the badge certain not to loosen or rattle. The badge itself is a classy, understated ornament, each featuring the name of the particular drum’s metal.
So they look good and are built well, but how do they sound? All the drums came tuned fairly tightly and sounded great right out of the box, in a modern-rock way. I took three of the drums out on an extended tour and tested the rest in a rehearsal space.
ALUMINUM– IT IS WHAT IT IS
Pearl describes the sound of the aluminum models as a “natural EQ sound, dry.” Aluminum doesn’t ring or produce as many overtones as its metallic brethren, nor does it have quite the volume. The aluminum models produced a tight, punchy sound when tuned up, but lost their definition when loosened too much. The dry pop of the drums would certainly be a welcome sound in an atmosphere that demands restraint yet a steady 2 and 4. The aluminum models on the whole, however, are essentially one-note wonders, in that they sound good at one tuning but don’t offer much of a range. The cross-stick on both drums was also rather thin, and the snares-off sound wasn’t a peach either. That said, when in their tuning comfort zone, the drums had a punchy pop (not so much a crack) that was definitely pleasing. I think these snares would do well in low-volume settings. The clear lacquer finish on these drums allows the understated hue of the brushed aluminum to speak for itself. These drums were by far the prettiest looking of the bunch.
PHOSPHOR BRONZE — DRY YET COMPLEX
Going up a bit more on the brightness scale, but not too much, the phosphor bronze models were more flexible than their aluminum cousins. Nice, complex overtones rang over the drier sound of the shell but didn’t overpower the drums’ sounds. The 14″ x 5″ and 14″ x 6.5″ drums felt drier and punchier at tighter tunings and had less ring. The middle-range of tuning brought forth the overtones, giving the drums real life. The cross-sticking area was generous on both models — very easy to find that full wooden sound of a stick on the rim. Of all of the models in the Sensitone Elite family, I found the phosphor bronze drums to be the most flexible. These drums do well in both quiet and medium-loud situations. Though I wouldn’t recommend them for an unmiked performance with a death metal band, they (especially the 6.5″) can definitely hold their own in a small to medium club setting. Both drums also sounded nice when dialed back for a fatback sound.
The phosphor bronze 14″ x 6.5″ model was one of the drums I took out on the road with me, and it proved its worth quickly. The drum functioned well in a variety of situations. I played it on back-to-back nights, the first being on the gi-normous Memphis In May festival stage and the second being in David Kimbrough’s (son of blues legend Junior) tiny juke joint in Mississippi. The drum worked appropriately in both settings. In fact, it sounded so nice that one of the other drummers at the juke asked if he could use it for his band’s set.
The drums’ clear lacquer finishes let the beautiful bronze tone shine through. This is an attractive piece of gear.
BRASS — CRUSH ON A BEAUTY
Continuing our way up the path to brighter tone are the brass models. I have to admit a serious crush on the 6.5″ brass snare drum. I took this drum out on the road, and it quickly became my go-to snare. Both the 14″ x 6.5″ and the 14″ x 5″ drums have remarkably warm tones. I’m a big fan of brass in general, and these drums are excellent examples of the metal’s superior characteristics. Pearl describes the brass models as “ringy, wet — a great general purpose snare drum.” I can’t argue with that. These suckers rocked right out of the box. Wonderful overtones, warm sound, a bright snap — these are killers. Even a guitarist I work with commented on the sound of the drum, and we all know how often guitarists take the time to offer unprompted praise on a particular piece of drum gear. The cross-stick zone is generous on both models but more so on the 14″ x 6.5″ drum. I would highly recommend this snare as an all-purpose drum. It has enough tone to be pretty at low volumes and enough umph to be felt in louder situations. It also sounded wonderful — articulate and sweet — under a pair of brushes.
The black nickel finish makes these drums real beauties. Back in the day, I had a Pearl Steve Ferrone model snare, and the 6.5″ reminded me quite a bit of that excellent drum. But that being said, I was never a fan of gold hardware, so I find the Sensitone Elite model, with its CL-55 Masters Bridge lugs, to be a visual improvement.
The 14″ x 6.5″ drum offers more depth of tone and a bit more punch than its 5″ counterpart, but both performed quite well. Dialing back either of these will give a wallop of a fatback crack. Tuned up, the ringy tones step to the front and beg for reggae or ska-inspired licks. With the snares off, the drums can be tuned to almost downright timbale-like tones or dialed back to sound like an additional tom in your setup. What a great range of tones!
STEEL AND STAINLESS STEEL — SIMILARLY SONIC
At the top of the brightness/volume scale stand the steel and stainless steel models. Pearl describes the stainless steel versions as having “strong midrange and projection” and the steel drums as having “strong highs and projection.” Maybe it’s my tin ear (no pun intended), but I found the two metals to be quite similar in sound. I set the drums side-by-side and banged on ’em, and quite frankly I couldn’t tell the two apart, in either the 14″ x 5″ pair or the 14″ x 6.5″ pair. That said, wow are these some loud drums. Both have ringing high tones and power for days. The 14″ x 5″ steel drum had a more generous cross stick as did its 14″ x 6.5″ brother, but who’s really buying this drum for its cross-stick sound? This is a seriously loud drum for a seriously loud player. Heavy metal and alternative drummers are going to be very happy.
I took the 14″ x 6.5″ stainless steel drum out on the road, and honestly had to put it away after one set — it was not appropriate for what I was doing. The volume is undeniable, but its tone suffered at lower volumes. The rimshots on this one about made the soundman soil himself. It sounded great at medium-to-tight tuning, but tuned down with a black dot head, it was Rudd-y, as in Phil. Like a punch in the gut, it was a beast of a sound.
The 14″ x 5″ drums were also quite powerful, but with less depth — more Stewart Copeland than Dave Grohl. Either drum would do well in a practice room up against a Marshall onslaught. Brush sounds were articulate on both though a bit harsh in tone. But again — brushes? On these?
The steel drums have a clear lacquer, and the stainless steel drums are polished — maybe this accounts for the similarity of tone. Both pairs look quite nice — shiny, shiny.
Model Pearl Sensitone Elite Snares
Sizes, Shells & Prices
14″ x 5″ Aluminum $399
14″ x 6.5″ Aluminum $429
14″ x 5″ Phosphor Bronze $379
14″ x 6.5″ Phosphor Bronze $399
14″ x 5″ Brass $439
14″ x 6.5″ Brass $459
14″ x 5″ Steel $299
14″ x 6.5″ Steel $309
14″ x 5″ Stainless Steel $399
14″ x 6.5″ Stainless Steel $439
Features Super Hoop II, CL-55 Masters Bridge lugs, SR-017 strainer, and 20-strand UltraSound snares
Contact Pearl, 549 Metroplex Dr., Nashville, TN 37211. 615-833-4477.pearldrum.com
For the price at which they are offered, you really can’t do much better than these drums. Simply put, Pearl has put together a line of straight-forward, well-built snares. Thoughtful details — such as the padding under the badges or the nice 20-strand UltraSound snares — and rugged construction really push these ahead of the similarly priced pack. The range of tones available via the different metals gives players a good palette from which to choose. But the different metals have very different ranges of tones and tuning possibilities — choose your weapon wisely. As for me, I’m back on the metal. My next project is to restore that great old free-floater from me dear-old dad.