Merlin and Big Softy Snares
Distinctive yet versatile offerings from the UK’s strongest newcomer.
British Drum Company has been a quick-moving newcomer since establishing itself in 2015. With unique cold-pressed shells and classic hardware styling, the entire line is worth a serious look. Of particular note are some of its snare offerings. In British fashion, the company sent us two with cheeky names—the sturdy and versatile Merlin and the light and woody Big Softy.
The Merlin we were sent for review was a 6.5×14 model with a 20-ply, 10.5 mm shell comprising alternating vertical and horizontal veneers of maple and birch. The drum features 45-degree bearing edges. Per BDC’s website, “The shell is then expertly finished with a black tulip outer veneer inlaid with a tasty double pinstripe of maple.” The art deco–inspired Palladium lugs and strainer hold in place 2.3 mm triple-flange hoops and twenty-strand BDC-branded brass wires. Given that these shells are formed in a mold from the outer plies in, at room temperature with no heat or moisture, it can be assumed that there was a fair amount of labor involved. The final result is a drum that looks super sharp. Everything from the interior decal to the badge looks as if they could be accessories on a classic British car.
The Merlin is far more practical than one might think, given its 20-ply shell. When presented with that thick of a drum, I usually assume it’s meant to compete with loud guitars. But I first took the Merlin on a jazz gig on which I played brushes most of the time, and it fit in like a dream. The Palladium snare strainer reminded me of the Gladstone-style throw used on Pearl Masters series drums from twenty years ago; the latter is still one of my favorites because it can be engaged and disengaged with a quick flick of the thumb.
The maple plies in the Merlin shell offer the warmth you want at lower tunings, and the birch gives the cut you need at higher tunings. In louder contexts the Merlin had the cut of a brass or aluminum shell, but I felt like I was hitting something more substantial. Snare sensitivity was crisp when I played on any area of the head. And when it’s tuned up high, you get the authoritative backbeat you need when playing in a funk or rock context.
The Big Softy
The 6.5×14 Big Softy is described at the BDC website as the warmest snare in its collection. The inner and outer veneers are cherry and have an oil finish. The core plies are kiln-dried ochroma, which comes from the balsa tree. Apparently ochroma is the softest of hardwoods.
The interior plies of most classic drum shells are poplar, which is similar in density and hardness to ochroma, so this is a new take on an old concept. As BDC describes, ochroma has “a micro-pore grain structure that filters out higher frequencies, so bigger, warmer, and funky sounds are achieved without detuning.”
The drum came with the same hardware as the Merlin; additionally there were wooden washers placed under the interior lug screws. There’s also a wood tag under the badge that has the words “Big Softy” laser-etched into it.
The Big Softy presented a new sonic palette for me, but it was a delight in many situations. Even at higher tunings, it maintained fullness of tone while being dry but not brittle. It produced full backbeats, even with the heads cranked. Ghost notes at any tuning had a lot of grit and substance, and rim clicks sounded dry and woody. Rim shots had distinct flavors that ranged from a full, throaty smack to a brighter “ping” when hit just inside the rim. I took this drum on a blues-rock gig, and it provided some satisfying woody sweetness when I explored buzzes and different types of rim shots in second-line and mambo grooves, while also supplying big and funky backbeats.
The street price for the Big Softy is $689, and the Merlin comes in at $699. While not a no-brainer bargain, these drums are significantly cheaper than many boutique snares. Whether you favor the all-around contemporary vibe of the Merlin or the fatness and warmth of the Big Softy, you would be getting a distinct drum with a wide range of applications. The top-shelf hardware and artful design choices are the icing on the cake. These snares—as well as British Drum Company’s other creations—are well worth checking out.