If the ancient Greek saying “A man is known by the company he keeps” rings true, then Santa Cruz–based Sugar Percussion is on a fast track to the drum maker’s equivalent of Mount Olympus. Not only do top drummers with discerning tastes, like session great Aaron Sterling and Black Crowes’ Steve Gorman, swear by the up-and-comer’s super-sweet stave snares and kits, but legendary producers/engineers, such as Eric Valentine, Vance Powell, and Ross Hogarth, are also singing their praises.
This small custom shop outputs some of the most refined and beautifully designed drums we’ve ever seen, and no detail goes overlooked by the keen eye of expert woodworker and company founder Jefferson Shallenberger. When asked how he knows that a drum is complete, Jefferson says, “The entire process is about quieting the noise in my head. My eyes see every flaw, and the flaws create that noise. When the noise is gone, the drum is finished.”This quest for mental peace during the build is mirrored in how each Sugar Percussion drum looks, feels, and performs. The wood for the shell begins as a plank from a single tree. Once cut into pieces, the blocks are arranged strategically so that it’s nearly impossible to detect where one piece ends and another begins. Shallenberger prefers the stave-style design because it allows the wood to be manipulated into cylinders without applying excessive stress to the timber, which results in more natural tone and resonance.
The bearing edges and beds on Sugar Percussion snares are hand-shaped and customized for each drum, and they have a seamless contour from the shell wall to the apex. The interior of the shells are finished just as carefully as the exteriors, which satisfies Jefferson’s stringent quality standards for his work. Even the hand-carved wooden badges are perfectly placed inside beveled recesses so that they don’t distort the seamless, smooth curvature of the shell. Snares are outfitted with Remo heads, a Trick throw-off, Puresound wires, and either die-cast, triple-flange, or straight hoops, depending on the customer’s choice or Shallenberger’s recommendation for particular sizes and wood species. The sleek single-point lugs used on all drums are Sugar Percussion’s design.
One of Jefferson’s most recent endeavors is to craft sets of six 14″ snares from a single tree that range from 2″ to 12″ in depth. Here we’re checking out a complete collection of mahogany drums to not only review SP’s handiwork, but also to assess the effects of shell depth on otherwise nearly identical instruments.
The Median Three
The 4×14, 6×14, and 8×14 models had the most “normal” sonic characteristics. The 4″ had very quick snare response coupled with a full, rich tone. Even though most would consider this a piccolo, I found that the 4×14 performed more like an all-purpose 5×14 drum. It had a full, unencumbered sustain with balanced overtones and a moderately quick decay. I could tune it up high for snappy articulation and pop, medium for a more balanced mix of crack and ring, or low for a thumping-yet-crisp attack. The mahogany shell maintained its naturally darker, softer timbre throughout, which gave the 4×14 snare a classic Art Blakey–type vibe when tuned medium-low. It came with twenty-four-strand Custom Pro brass wires.
The 6×14 was the standout of the set in terms of versatility and sonority. It had the fullest tone and longest sustain, which could be manipulated and controlled easily via tuning and small amounts of dampening. I’d feel confident taking just this model to any session or gig that required a darker wood-shell sound. It was super-sensitive, as were all of the others in the set, and it had a seemingly endless tuning range, with an especially stellar sweet spot in the lower-middle register. It came with twenty-four-strand Custom Pro steel wires.
I expected the sustain and overtones to ratchet up when I played the 8×14, but it actually had less pronounced ring and a drier, chestier punch. For rock, studio, and modern country players favoring deep snare tones, this drum delivers a big, full sound with a lot of dark, woody ambience and super-crisp snare response. You won’t need—or want—to use any muffling on this drum; its tone is just too sweet to dull with tape and gels. But if you desire a drier, tighter thud, it handles dampening well and doesn’t become boxy or tubby at very low tunings. It came with Super 30 steel wires.
Now that we’ve covered the more conventionally sized drums, let’s dig into the oddballs. First up is the super-skinny 2×14 “pancake” model. Because of the limited amount of space to work with for this shell, Shallenberger had to forgo the triple-flange hoops and round lugs found on the other five drums for single-tension straight hoops with claws. Also different is the throw-off, which is a beer-tap-style mechanism that’s bolted to the hoops rather than to the shell. The on/off lever is on one side of the drum, while the tension control is on the other.
Like the 4″ and 8″ snares, the 2×14 deceived me. I assumed it would be tailor-made for a tight, fast side-snare sound, but I discovered that it actually had the most intriguing voice when tuned super-low. The single-tension lugs had a limit on how tight they could go, which ended up limiting the upper register below that of the other drums. However, it was the 2×14’s medium and lower tuning ranges that produced the most interesting mix of instantaneous smack, dark rattle, and chesty punch. If an Irish bodhran had two heads, snares, and metal hoops, it would probably sound like this. Gushy yet focused, this is a very distinct-sounding instrument.
The two larger drums (10×14 and 12×14) were set up more like floor toms with snare wires. They both featured leg mounts affixed to the shell and had Super 30 wires. The 10×14 had center-point lugs and extra-long tension rods, while the 12×14 had separate lugs for each tension rod.
The two deeper drums had fairly similar sounds, and were amazingly sensitive and versatile. They could be cranked to produce a high, dry bite, or they could be tuned lower for fuller, punchier tones. I doubt that in a blindfold test anyone could tell that these are unusually deep drums; they didn’t sound boxier or choked at any tuning. Yet they offered something extra-special in the medium-low and lower registers that was deep and punchy yet full, open, and balanced. Neither required muffling, even when the batter heads were slack, which gave them more presence and projection than you’d get from a shallower drum that’s been detuned and heavily dampened. I was surprised how controlled the overtones were on these deeper models. I expected them to ring on forever, but they actually had the shortest decay of the lot.
For drummers who are currently employing low, thuddy auxiliary snares in their setups, the 10×14 and 12×14 Sugar Percussion models can get that vibe very easily, while also doubling as floor toms when the wires are disengaged. I experimented with using a trio of these drums (4×14, 8×14, and 12×14) to create a standard bebop-style setup, and it sounded completely convincing. No one would have known all three were actually snares until the wires were engaged.
To sum it all up, yes, Sugar Percussion makes absolutely amazing drums. Like the others we reviewed several years ago, the six mahogany drums in this 2–12 Series looked flawless and produced a nearly infinite range of clean, articulate, open tones that varied from tight and cutting to deep and gushy. If you’re looking for a workhorse, pick one of the middle three. But don’t overlook the more unconventional sizes. They’re not as stylized as you might think. In fact, they might actually be exactly what you need.