Discreet design, careful construction, and top-shelf tones.
Although it’s a relative newcomer in the crowded world of custom drum builders, the Santa Cruz–based Sugar Percussion has already earned high praise from top artists like the Black Crowes’ Steve Gorman (“Exactly how drums are supposed to sound, exactly how they’re supposed to feel”) and producer/drummer Eric Valentine (Third Eye Blind, Taking Back Sunday, Nickel Creek). The company specializes in offering fully customizable solid stave-shell drums made to fit each player’s applications.
We were sent three snare drums constructed from different species that range on the density scale from soft (Alaskan yellow cedar) to medium (black cherry) to hard (Macassar ebony). The softer woods are said to enhance the warmth and roundness of tone, while the hardwoods emphasize cut and crack.
Fluid, Graceful Construction
All Sugar Percussion drums are meticulously built from thirty-two stave pieces. The vent holes are rounded to a smooth angle and no metal insert is used, which minimizes hardware and showcases the elegance and beauty of the wood itself. The badge is placed within a rounded-off recess, so that it lies flush with the shell. These choices regarding the vent and badges are subtle gestures, but they do a great deal to increase the overall sophistication of the drums. The hand-shaped bearing edges are perfectly smooth and rounded, to eliminate harsh angles and to provide a more fluid transition from the shell to the edge. Aesthetically, these are some of the most gracefully yet precisely constructed drums we’ve ever seen.
Alaskan Yellow Cedar
Sitting at level two out of eleven on Sugar Percussion’s solid wood density scale, Alaskan yellow cedar is a soft tonewood often used for soundboards in acoustic guitars. The company describes the sound of this species, when used in snare drums, as producing a “doughy, round warmth…full-bodied, gooey, luscious thump,” and claims that “no matter how hard you hit, she’ll never be harsh to the ear.”
Our 5.5×14 review drum came outfitted with eight center-point lugs, triple-flange hoops, a Trick GS007 throw-off, twenty-four-strand PureSound brass Custom Pro wires, and a Remo Coated Emperor batter head. The shell is lightweight.
Throughout its vast tuning range, from ultra-tight to completely slack, the Alaskan yellow cedar snare was very responsive and had a warm, round tone. No muffling was required on this beauty, even at lower tunings where the overtones became a bit more pronounced. The drum was a dream to play at higher tunings in a jazz context, where the natural warmth of the cedar prevented the tone from becoming harsh or biting. It also provided a ridiculous pillowy punch at a very low tension, and along the way there were many sweet spots to explore. Fans of mellower, fatter tones should give Alaskan yellow cedar a good listen.
Black cherry is listed as a solid five on the density scale, and Sugar Percussion uses this wood as its “company ambassador” because of its versatility. Drums made with black cherry are said to “deliver a throaty growl with a balanced combination of cut and swamp.”
Our 5.5×14 review drum came with die-cast hoops and a Remo Coated Ambassador batter, plus the same lugs, badge, snares, and throw-off as the yellow cedar. Also like the yellow cedar, this drum possessed a limitless tuning range with countless sweet spots across the spectrum. Tighter tunings produced a bit more bite and high-end overtones than they did on the cedar, but the drum still sounded big and full. Medium to medium-tight tunings produced a powerful yet beautifully balanced crack and a focused tone that recorded great and would sound sweet in just about any musical situation. Lower tunings had a wider “splat,” and the drum retained an impressive amount of tone and response with the batter head detuned nearly all the way. If you’re looking for one drum that can do it all, this could be it.
Nearly pegging the density scale at ten out of eleven, Macassar ebony is super-dense, which translates into drums with maximum cut, projection, and articulation. The wood features gorgeous red-tinged vertical stripes, making this the most visually striking of the bunch without losing the theme of refined beauty that seems to mark all of Sugar Percussion’s creations. Like the black cherry, our review ebony drum came with die-cast hoops and a Coated Ambassador batter.
The Macassar ebony model was closer in tone to the bright timbre of a steel-shell snare than to the fat, warm sounds of the Alaskan yellow cedar. Yet it possessed a similarly endless range of usable and musical tones, from a pingy pop to an electronic-sounding thump. My favorite sound from this drum came at a medium-low tuning, right at the point where the higher overtones dropped off and the attack shifted from crack to smack. This is a more specialized drum for players requiring a bit more power and precision, but that’s not to say it couldn’t be coaxed to produce a wide swath of sounds. For proof, check out the video demo of each of these drums that we posted to moderndrummer.com.