Nickel and Chrome Plating: What’s the Difference?
Iam looking to buy a nice 6.5×14 brass snare to use as my primary drum for studio and live applications. I really like the clean, shiny look of chrome, but I notice that a lot of studio drummers prefer nickel-plated brass snares. Is there a sonic difference between the two, if everything else is the same (shell thickness, hardware, drumheads, etc.)? And what about natural brass or black nickel plating? Do they sound different as well?
We sent your question to Joyful Noise Drum Company founder and president Curt Waltrip, who specializes in re-creating classic metal snare drums in addition to innovating new designs. He studied physics at UC Berkeley, and he’s been a professional drummer and drum design researcher for over thirty years, building drums for fifteen years. Here’s his take on the metallurgy behind snare drums.
“In musical instrument design, the magic recipe is the marriage of mass and density,” Waltrip explains. “The greater the density of the material and the lower the mass, the more efficient the energy transfer. In electronics, this is referred to as impedance. Brass is used in wind instruments because it transfers vibration more efficiently than any other metal. In other words, it has the lowest impedance. The physical and mechanical attributes of brass result in a strong fundamental tone and a vibrant array of overtones, or partial frequencies, which results in a very musical instrument.
“Now let’s move on to the mystery of plating. Back in the 1920s, nickel was the plating material of choice for something bright and shiny, but then along came chrome. Chrome’s claim to fame was that you didn’t have to clean it regularly to remove fingerprints or polish out oxidization. Because of that convenience, chrome replaced nickel as the preferred finish by the ’30s.
“For drum design, using chrome instead of nickel was an economic and aesthetic decision. However, it did introduce subtle sonic differences. Many people will argue that .01″ or .001″ of plating material doesn’t change the sound of an instrument, but it does. For example, trumpet manufacturers will silver-plate a brass bell to brighten the sound, or they’ll solder a pure silver bell to the brass body for an even more pronounced effect. Saxophone manufacturers sometimes nickel-plate entire instruments to darken the tone in addition to changing the aesthetics.
“So what are the sonic implications of plating a snare drum? The answer goes back to mass and density. If a material has a lower mass and higher density, then the transfer of energy is more efficient, which results in more apparent frequencies above the fundamental. The opposite applies for a material that has higher mass and lower density: fewer frequencies above the fundamental.
“Silver’s density is high on the scale of other metals, in relation to its mass. This means silver plating will produce more overtones and partial frequencies. In short, plate any metal-shell snare drum with silver, and you’ll make it sound brighter.
“Now that we’ve covered the science, here are the general sonic differences between the three most popular types of snare plating—nickel, black nickel, and chrome. Nickel subtly darkens and focuses the overall sound. Plating black nickel correctly requires copper, nickel, and black nickel, plus clear lacquer, and the result is that it darkens and focuses the tone even more. A black nickel finish on a brass shell delivers a very articulate response. Plating a chrome finish on brass can be done several ways, but brass loves chrome placed directly over the base material.
Some manufacturers, like my company, Joyful Noise, use triple-plating techniques. That method requires copper, nickel, and then chrome. The result is a brighter tone, due to the higher density of the chrome.
“Once I understood these subtle differences through my research, I discovered that drums with no plating were more vibrant and true to their base metal, which is why I pursued patina finishes with Joyful Noise. Patinas adhere with the base metal through heat and molecular bonding. This process differs from plating, as the materials added to the base metal have very little mass and density and are not distinguishable to the human ear.
“With all of that said, I firmly believe that the ‘best’ drum is whichever one works for the track. If it’s a coffee can, then that’s it! Don’t overthink it. But also make it a point to pursue the nuances of tone so that you can gain a deeper understanding of your instrument. Don’t let marketing focus you on what you see, rather than what you should hear.”