North DrumsNorth

Directional Drums Strive For Unconventional Sound

by Stu Astor

ONE THING that Roger North’s drums have in common with most other percussion instruments is that the drummer hits them with a drumstick. But from that point on, North, a professional musician and MIT engineering graduate, abandoned normal percussion designs in his search for a more directional instrument.The shape of the instruments is the first noticeable departure from conventional drums. Below the head* of each tom-tom, for instance, the drum continues downward in a cylinder then curves ninety degrees to end in a wild looking open flared horn, facing the audience. The bass drum doesn’t have that curve, but its mouth, too, is open and flared.

Molded-in fiberglass colors are part of their look, and the drums are produced in solid, single colors or contrasting combinations — one color outside and another in the horn.

But when one music editor said recently, that, “North Drums do for percussion what the synthesizer did for keyboards,” he wasn’t talking about their unusual shape. He was responding to their sound, which is also distinctive and identifiable. These drums are loud, clear, tight in tone and are distinguishable, both live and recorded.

These superlative compliments weren’t created by the manufacturer’s advertising manager but by the people who play North Drums. The few musicians who have been able to perform with prototypes see advantages to these instruments, and some will play nothing else.

The drums were conceived and created by Roger North of Portland, Oregon. North’s credits as a drummer are impressive — a year with Odetta, five years with The Holy Modal Rounders — but his credits as a designer are even more so.

A graduate of Swarthmore College, North went on to MIT for a graduate degree, in structural engineering. For four years afterward, he played drums professionally full-time. His drums are a product of musical experience and thorough technological training.

PROJECTING SOUND

In 1968 North, then playing high quality conventional drums, realized that the sounds he was creating on stage were not projecting to the audience in the same way as he heard them. He needed a more directional instrument, fatter sounding at a distance with a lot of bottom and mid-range. His first experiments in making drums for himself produced a 12-inch Tom, laid-up by hand from fiberglass with a longer than normal shell for increased low range resonance.

The principle worked almost too well. First, the 12-incher tuned low enough to enable the sound of a much larger conventional Tom; and second, the increased volume and clarity of the one new drum, in North’s words, “Blew the rest of the drum set away.”

Clearly, development of a whole new set was indicated, and North began patiently to handcraft other complementary drums. He made smaller instruments first with increased low range. A bass drum followed with more or less the diameter of a conventional bass, but somewhat longer. By 1970, North had a rough looking but superb-sounding group of drums for his own performances, and he applied for patents on them. The patents were granted in 1971.

It took another year, while North still played drums professionally, to produce a set for a fellow musician. Finally, in 1972, he opened a small factory and went into limited production.

MTI INCREASES SUPPLY

To date, perhaps 65 drum sets and another 30 individual drums have been made and sold, seemingly gaining converts with every sale. Some rock ‘n’ roll, country and jazz drummers (including Billy Cobham, Doug “Cosmo” Clifford, Jerry Brown and Richie Albright) use them regularly, as was the current U.S. Champion Drum Corps, the Blue Devils; but until now, the demand for these instruments has exceeded the supply.

North Drums Roger NorthWith Roger North’s agreement in 1976 to allow Music Technology Incorporated to set up full-scale production and marketing facilities, his drums are becoming an available reality for every drummer.

Roger North, sitting at his original handmade
set of tom-toms, settled on this design for his
drums after seeking to project the sounds he
created to his audience.

Roger North’s original idea was to produce a better drum for live performances. In use, his drums have just as many advantages for recording purposes. Doug “Cosmo” Clifford, formerly Credance Clearwater’s drummer and now a mainstay of the Don Harrison Band, saw his first North Drums in a West Coast music store in mid-1976.

“I loved their sculpture,” Clifford explained, “but I didn’t believe they could sound as good as they looked.”

Clifford rented the set and experimented with it. Within a month, he owned the set and was playing them in concert. “Red Hot,” the Don Harrison Band’s latest recording for Atlantic Records, features Clifford playing the full set of Toms and the Bass.

 

“The only adjustment I had to make,” says Clifford, “was to get used to the smaller heads. Each drum sounds bigger than its size. The six-inch Tom is one of the most unique instruments I’ve ever played, and the bass keeps going deeper when some conventional drums might loose their bottom end.”Clifford went on to say that the smaller heads make for tight sharp attack, but that the sound stays tight and gets rounder and mellower, particularly in the bottom ranges. He claims he can get a bassy sound out of a small Tom.”All the Toms are loud, but they are not muddy,” he remarked, “they turn out clear, directional, pointed sounds, but they don’t hurt the listeners. I can get five Toms in the space I used to use for three conventional Toms.”They’re integrated tonally, but each one is distinguishable, either live or recorded, so I can get a lot of movement on any track.” (Clifford cultivates the image of an athlete. He is very active on stage. Movement from Tom to Tom is both visible and audible when he plays.)North drums manufactured
RESPONSIVE IN RECORDINGIn recording, Clifford noted, the instruments stay somewhat distinguishable against the string bass at high volume levels. They apparently don’t drive the sound mixer crazy trying to equalize individual drum sounds. But where equalization is necessary for a desired effect, they respond adequately, as they also do to echo, miking, tape delay and other recording techniques. Furthermore, the units can be miked in the horn of the drum itself in recording and amplification.

“When we’re playing,” Clifford concluded, “the drum sound isn’t lost in the floor. The other musicians tell me that they can hear what I am playing and respond to it. That’s unusual in a rock ‘n’ roll group.

North drum technician works on drum finishing.

“For me, these drums are to conventional drums what the jet plane is to the Turboprop. Until Roger North came along, the biggest technical advance in drum design was the plastic drum head. But these are all-new instruments.”

Production facilities are located at Music Technology Inc., in Garden City Park, New York, and went on stream early in 1977. Ernie Briefel, president of MTI promises a plentiful supply of drum sets and individual instruments as soon as back orders are filled. High quality control of drum shells and hardware will be maintained. MTI will also be producing cases and other accessory items for the drums, along with plans for a snare drum.

Dennis Briefel, MTI’s vice president of sales and marketing, is unguardedly optimistic about the future. “These are the best drums made anywhere,” Briefel says, “we only wish we could make them faster.”

Reprinted Courtesy of North Drums.