Sounding the Inner Landscape
This time I look at creating different sound textures to expand on the basic instrument pitches. Even with 9 drums (10 counting the mounted tambourine) in my solo set up, compared to most other instruments, I am limited in scope as far as creating melodies. So I need to be creative to change the sound texture of those notes, giving me a wider range of sounds to present to the listener.
A wise drummer once explained to me that “the easiest way to change your sound is to change your sticks.” With that in mind, I use a wide array of sticks, mallets and other implements to give me a panoply of sound textures. Even with wood sticks, there is a lot of sound variation between using a standard 5A—with its beefy, full sound—and using a very thin, straight sabar stick that elicits the higher frequencies, giving a very sharp, pointed sound.
But I find myself most often using things other than wooden sticks. As a rule, a bigger, heavier stick/mallet will bring out more low frequencies, while a smaller, lighter one tends to bring out the higher frequencies only. So I choose my implements with different sound character in mind for each composition. Soft and hard yarn-wound mallets, with their heavier heads, tend to bring out a full tone on both drums and cymbals. A rubber mallet, with a bit harder surface, gives more edge to the sound, while a plastic/phenolic mallet adds a brittle tone to things. Pro•Mark TUBZ, which are a soft, hollow plastic tube, have a more open sound that changes tonality as you cover the open end of the tube with your hand. Both metal and wooden knitting needles bring out a great deal of tic in the sound. Something like a nylon cooking spatula, or Vic Firth Blades, allows me to get a slapping sound on things. Wire egg beaters create a whole variety of tonalities. Playing drums with shakers, rattles, jingle sticks, and things like African seed pods on a handle all increase the tonalities you can create.
Drum Tone Modifications
I think in terms of my single headed drums being much like frame drums, I have 3 basic sounds: dum, the full, low tone in the center; kah, the higher, brighter sound near the edge of the head; and tek, the cracking sound of a rimshot. By modifying the actual sound of the drums, I can expand on those 3 basic tones.
Photo 1 shows my toms with the standard clear single-ply heads I use. With the shallow depth shells, I’m going for more of a pure-tone head sound, much like a frame drum. The single-ply heads give a bright, ringy sound that holds a fairly pure note.
Photo 2 shows the same drums with the addition of plastic muffling rings. Because the drums are single-headed, these cut out almost all the harmonic ring, leaving a very flat sound. I use yarn marimba mallets to get a sound very reminiscent of a wooden log drum.
In Photo 3, I’ve covered the drums with foam backed cloth discs over the heads. These completely muffle the drums, leaving only a short, bonk sound that retains the basic pitch of the drum, but little else. Wooden sticks get a short, sharp muffled sound, while yarn mallets get a slightly wider muffled sound.
Photo 4 shows the drums overlaid with small gongs. If I place the gongs or other percussion directly on unmuffled heads, the drum then acts as a resonator, adding some ambiance to the sound. This works particularly well with a Kalimba, where the drum acts much like a gourd resonating chamber as used in Africa. If the instruments are placed on top of the muffling pads, as in the photo, then the sound is more directly the instruments, with little added drum sound. I can also create a mixture of open, muffled, and layered sounds.