Butch MilesDriver’s Seat

Being Equipped For Big Band

by Butch Miles

In this article, I’ll touch on equipment, various big-band drummers’ set-ups, muffling the set for live and recording situations, and some hints on cymbal technique.As far as sizes go, I’ve found the following to be pretty much the standard for big band drumming:SNARE: 5″X14″ or 6 1/2″X14″. A thinner snare may give you a little more response, but will often be covered by the brass section in loud “shout” choruses unless you’re extensively miked. A thinner snare works very well in a recording situation when the sound can be controlled through the board.

BASS DRUM: a 14″x22″ or 14″x24″ will give you that full bottom sound that you’ll need to anchor the band with plenty left for the kicks in brass or ensemble phrases. A properly tensioned 20″ bass drum may be sufficient in some cases but I’ve always preferred the 24″ myself.

TOM-TOMS: Tensioned properly, an 8″X 12″ and a 14″X 14″ will give you plenty of sound, however, 9″X13″ and 16″X16″ are standard. The larger sizes have more depth. Two toms are all that’s needed, but if you’re in a spotlight solo situation you may want to add an extra tom or two for more voices. Therefore, a basic big-band set up would consist of a 5″X14″ snare drum, 14″X22″ bass drum, 9″X13″ tom tom and 16″X16″ floor tom.

My set is standard, except I use a 14″X24″ bass drum and two 16″X16″ floor toms, one pitched lower than the other. Gene Krupa used a 16″X18″ and a 16″X 16″. From time to time, I’ll also use a 14″ and a 16″ Roto-Tom for extra color. Louie Bellson uses the standard set with two 14″X24″ bass drums and four Roto-Toms (10″, 12″, 14″, 16″). Mel Lewis uses the standard set with double mounted toms as does Rocky White (with Ellington) and Duffy Jackson (with Basie). Harold Jones (with Harry James) uses the standard set while Ed Shaughnessy uses 20″ and 24″ bass drums and a host of toms.

CYMBALS: My set-up consists of a 20″ medium heavy ping, two 18″ medium thin and thin crashes, 14″ New Beat hi-hats and an 8″ splash. They’re all Avedis Zildjian Brilliants which give me plenty of tone and response with almost no break-in time required. I also use a 20″ medium thin swish with no rivets. My cymbals are set flat so that the angle of attack gives me maximum sound and power with a minimum of effort. Cymbal set-ups are a very personal matter so check a Zildjian or Paiste catalogue to see who’s playing what. Once again, it primarily depends on the style of the band you’re playing with.

MUFFLING: I leave my set wide open with only one exception. I use a small (2″- 3″ wide) felt strip on the inside of both bass drum heads. Buddy does the same. Lou Bellson uses a sheet fitted on the inside head of each bass with a large hole cut in the center so that the outer rim of the head is deadened. He gets a great sound, especially for recording. I once recorded on a 28″ bass drum with the front head off and a roll of fiberglass insulation rolled up inside the drum leaving an 8″ hole for the microphone to fit inside. I do not recommend this. I also don’t recommend taping up your drums or cymbals for big-band recording, though some groups do prefer this. It’s up to you to determine your own particular sound.

My drums and cymbals sound the same on record as they do live. I know the set will respond as much or as little as I want it to. I also use a wood beater. Felt gives a fuzzy sound that I don’t care for.

I can always control my set to sound pretty much the way I want. Control is a key word! The set itself is important to be sure, but the sound actually eminates from the player. Many young drummers waste a lot of time thinking it’s the other way around. Not so! You control the set and the sound. Learn that and you’re 95% closer to creating your own sound.

One final word on cymbals. The best way to get your own sound is a good selection of top quality cymbals. Spend the extra money and buy a quality product that will last and perform to your own demands. Also experiment to find what angle of stick and cymbal is the most comfortable. How strong should your crashes be? Do you want a distinctive ride cymbal or one that roars? Are your hi-hats strong enough to take the punishment of pushing a big band and still be heard? Are they too high pitched or too low pitched? Where are the best live spots and dead spots on that particular cymbal? These and a hundred other questions need to be answered to get the best feel and sound for kicking your big band.