Panic! at the Disco’s Dan Pawlovich Teams Up with Stratasys Direct Manufacturing to Turn Fantasy into Reality

Panic! at the Disco drummer Dan Pawlovich has always been interested in exploring ways of making his instruments sound and look better. About eight years ago, after stumbling upon a YouTube video demonstrating 3D printing of a crescent wrench, Pawlovich realized that this innovative construction process could conceivably improve drums in a way not previously possible using traditional manufacturing methods.

“This stems from when I was a young drummer with my first drumkit,” says Pawlovich. “I didn’t know that much about drums at the time, including that they needed tuning or what the T-shaped pieces of metal were that came with it. A couple of years later I started to get bored with how the kit looked, and that was the first time I took a drum apart. I repainted it this really bold blue color, and that was really exciting because I got to see the inside of the lugs, which are normally hidden. I also got a sense for how light the drum was without all the metal hardware on it. I pondered how you could refine or design a drum in a way that could include lugs as part of the shell. The only way I could think that would be possible was if I became a whittling artist.”

July 2020 Dan Pawlovich
Panic at the Disco!’s Dan Pawlovich with his 3D-printed snare. Photo by Jake Chamseddine

The video of the 3D-printed wrench revealed to Pawlovich that he didn’t need to hone his carving skills. “The gear and jaw had been printed at the same time, so no assembly was required,” he recalls.

Finding a CAD designer was the first step in developing a 3D-printable drum. “What we had to end up with were exact measurements down to one hundredth of a millimeter for this drum to pair with industry-standard rims,” Dan says. “It also needed to pair with drumheads and the throw-off. The angles of the bearing edges needed to be specific, and the snare beds took us probably six or seven months to get right. Even the vent hole was something to solve, since we printed it as part of the shell as well.

“The bedrock of making this whole thing possible was ensuring that I could attach tension rods to the drum and put tension on the head,” Pawlovich continues. “The initial thought was that we print the threads in the plastic lugs. But I remember stripping metal inserts in my old kit just from over-tightening, so I knew that wasn’t something we should do in plastic. The first thing I drew by hand was a hex-shaped channel that went into the lug that would accept a hexed-shaped insert, which I found online at Drum Factory Direct. It took about a year and a half to get the channel perfect. The whole process took about three years to get to where I felt comfortable that the design we saw on the computer measured up perfectly. Then I met with a representative from Stratasys Direct. We talked about a couple different design elements, including what color I wanted. Then it was in their hands.”

July 2020 Lewis Simms
Stratasys Direct Manufacturing’s Lewis Simms

Stratasys Direct Manufacturing, which has offered 3D printing and custom manufacturing since 1991, brought Pawlovich’s vision and design to fruition. “Our job is to understand customer requirements and translate that into an actual part,” says Lewis Simms, Stratasys solutions marketing and communications manager. “We work in a wide array of industries, from medicine to auto, oil, gas, and even the music industry. It boils down to listening to the customer and trying to understand what they need this product to do, how long they need it to do that, and what environment the product is going to be [used] in.

“Dan had some unique challenges that we were excited to find a solution to,” Simms continues. “When you’re looking at this drum and you look at the CAD, it looks simple. But because it’s a drum, resonance becomes a huge component. The way this piece functions is so incredibly important from an auditory standpoint, and simple things like poor fitment can cause issues.”

One distinctive challenge Pawlovich and Simms faced was that the drum had to survive the rigors of touring. “It might be 30 degrees one day and 90 the next,” says Simms. “Any sort of material is going to shrink or expand based on the temperature, so you need something that has a low coefficient of expansion that can remain pretty stable and also look good. We started with our glass silk nylon material. It provides rigidity and stability, so there’s not a lot of shrinking and swelling based on the environment.”

july 2020 3d printed red snare

Pawlovich adds that the nylon glass-filled material has similar properties to wood. “That was a big deal for me before I even held one of these things in my hand,” he says. “The first show of our last winter tour was in Buffalo, and it was minus-30 in the trucks overnight and the venue warmed up to 72 degrees. The drum needed to withstand that by taking on and expelling humidity. I read about the material and thought it sounded like wood.”

The first drum was printed using Laser Sintering (LS), a process that uses a CO2 laser to fuse a plastic material in layers. The nylon, presented in an eye-catching red using a proprietary dyeing process called Colortek, not only withstands temperature and humidity fluctuations but also is impervious to UV damage. “The glass-filled version resulted in a pretty dense finished product,” says Pawlovich. “And more density means more mass, which means a higher pitch.”

The second iteration, a 5.5×14 snare in matte black, had the same features, except Stratasys Direct printed it using Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) technology and a Nylon 12 carbon fiber–filled shell. “I put the same heads on each drum and tuned them as closely as I could,” says Dan. “The density of the nylon carbon fiber–filled drum was greater, so the fundamental note was much higher. The Laser Sintering version was half of that, and it was a great deal lower.”

july 2020 top down underside view of assembled drum

Stratasys Direct printed a third drum using the FDM technology, but with ASA material, which is similar to ABS but with more UV stability, according to Simms. This resulted in a drum with an extremely low density and a subsonic tone that was difficult to detect. “The carbon fiber–filled version, the highest-pitched one, sounds like a thick maple snare, somewhere between twelve and fifteen plies,” says Dan. “The ASA version sounds reminiscent of a brass shell. It’s pleasantly bright and has a nice low end to it.

“I couldn’t believe it,” the drummer continues. “We have the same exact drum printed three different ways, using three different types of printing and material, and they all sound drastically different. This is a place where 3D printing can rise above the traditional woodworking. I don’t want anyone to think I’m saying 3D drums sound better than wood drums—I think all drums sound beautiful. But if someone hears my 5.5×14 carbon fiber–filled, FDM-printed snare and wants to get one, we can print it, and it is going to sound exactly the same.”

Pawlovich explains that the sound of a wood drum can’t be perfectly replicated, even if you use the same specs and materials. If the wood used for two drums is cut from a different tree, or different parts of a tree, they’re not going to sound alike. “That’s cool,” says Dan. “That means that all wood drums are unique. But [with 3D printing] we can play with materials, methods, thicknesses, and densities, and give someone exactly what they want. And 3D printing is the only method currently available that allows for a completely homogeneous drum. The lugs, bearing edges, and even the holes for the snare wire mounts are one piece on a molecular level.”

Although Pawlovich holds patents for the 3D-printed drum, he has no current plans for mass production. “Panic!’s team has been extremely supportive of this whole thing,” he says. “In fact, they’re a big part of why I pursued the patents in the first place. But I like being a musician, and I have an amazing job right now.”

When asked if a 3D-printed drumkit is in the works, both Pawlovich and Simms mention that the size of the build box offers some limitations, especially with a bass drum. But it is a possibility. “When experimenting with other technologies that provided Dan alternative solutions, we also opened the door to build these larger parts, more material variations, or even more color variety,” says Simms. “Things like that make it interesting from a commercial standpoint, and I’d love nothing more than to see a fully 3D-printed drumkit.”

july 2020 the red snare

Adds Dan, “This industry is going to keep innovating and growing naturally, but there are methods we haven’t used yet because the materials don’t have the shelf life I’d like for the drum to have. But the 3D printing industry is still young. It changes every day.”

Pawlovich is enthusiastic about the future of 3D drums and their place in the drum community. Although unprecedented in construction and composition, 3D-printed drums remain modeled after their conventional counterparts. “I want to show that we can hang out with established companies and traditional drums,” he says. Concludes Simms, “Dan and I connected not by doing something just because you can, but by actually making something better. It’s innovation in an area that hasn’t seen a lot of innovation in quite some time, while still maintaining a highest level of respect for the intent, the industry, the design, and the expectations of the product. It was very interesting and fulfilling.”