Saturday, August 22nd, 2009 | by matthew mcglynn
Some people emailed to ask what happened to my new Taye drum kit. I posted pictures of the unboxing in March, but haven’t mentioned the kit since then. It was conspicuously absent from the photo at the end my recent USB audio interface/mic-pre shootout.
The story of my Taye StudioMaples is a sad one, because the drums were defective.
I first learned about Taye at NAMM last January. They drums looked great. They sounded great. And they cost about half what a comparable Tama kit (for example) would cost.
The StudioMaple line has just about the thinnest shells on the market, which is exactly what I wanted.
I did my research first — I read everything I could find about them. I visited a dealer. Everybody loved the drums. I couldn’t find a negative word about them.
My secret fear was that the bearing edges would be bad. Why would I worry about that? Because I can see the future, apparently. I actually asked the dealer about it — “What should I do if the bearing edges are bad?”
“That’s a deal-breaker,” he said. “We’ll send them back.”
Reassured, I put in the order. I got a 6-piece shell pack (kick, snare, four toms, rim mounts, no stands) for about $1675, shipped. And I was really impressed with it, as I said in the unboxing. The finish was gorgeous. The drums were clean.
But they wouldn’t tune worth a damn.
At first I thought it was due to the “Dynaton” crimp-lock heads that come stock on the kit. A couple drum technicians suggested to me that crimped heads don’t hold tension as well as heads whose edges are epoxied into the collar; I hoped the problem was that the head material had pulled out of the collar on some of the stock heads. So, I ordered a stack of Aquarian heads… but they had the same problem as the Dynatons.
The specific symptom that I experienced on nearly every shell was that I couldn’t get equal tension at adjacent lugs. In some cases, I could remove two of three lugs, leaving one in the middle, and still the area of the head above the missing lugs would be higher-pitched than area above the lug in the center. The only possible explanation for that was that the bearing edge had high and low spots.
Not every drum was affected. The snare drum sounded great. The kick drum did too. But every one of the toms had at least one warped edge.
Testing the edges seemed impossible, because I don’t have a truly flat surface to compare the shells to. Someone suggested buying a piece of plate glass and painting it black, but that seemed like a hassle. On the other hand, paying a drum builder to recut all the edges on my brand-new drum kit would have been a bigger hassle.
Ultimately, I tested the edges on a Formica countertop. It is not as flat as the laser-polished slab of marble that DW uses, but as it turns out it was good enough for my purposes. Meaning, the shells were in bad enough shape that even on a Formica countertop, the problem was easily seen.
Before I go on, I want to make clear that I do not intend this article to be a condemnation of Taye Drums. My experience with this one kit was not good, but I believe this was an anomaly. There is no way they could have been shipping defective drums for the past 30 years without a single other player mentioning a problem with the shells — especially not now that they’re putting their own name on the label. My kit happened to slip through their quality control procedures, and I’m sure the company has taken steps to address whatever loophole allowed this to happen. Therefore the chances of anyone else getting out-of-true bearing edges from Taye are even smaller now than they were six months ago.
How to test bearing edges
The best way is to use a really flat surface. They’re hard to come by; kitchen counters don’t usually get built to micrometer tolerances.
Granite, marble, and glass might be naturally superior to composite materials, but the truth is you’re probably going to use your kitchen counter or a coffee table anyway, whatever it’s made of. So I’ll tell you how to make the best use of whatever you have.
The general approach is to put the drum, with no heads, on a flat surface, then drop a flashlight or, preferably, a small (low-wattage) bare light bulb inside the shell. Kill the room lights, and look for light escaping from the bottom edge of the drum shell, where it meets the counter.
The problem is that if you put something that may not be perfectly flat, like a drum shell’s bearing edge, on a surface that also may not be perfectly flat, like a countertop, you will likely see a light gap where the two surfaces don’t exactly meet — but you won’t know which one is to blame. Is the gap due to a low spot on the counter, or a low spot in the shell?
The solution is to spin the shell in place on the counter. Any inconsistencies in the countertop are then going to show up as a consistent light gap as the shell turns. If the shape of the light gap changes as the shell turns, then it is very likely that the shell has high and low spots.
To prevent the drum shell from sliding around on the counter while you spin it, mark its position with 3-4 pieces of tape on the counter around the circumference of the shell. When you spin the drum, make sure it stays inside the perimeter described by the pieces of tape.
Put a camera on a tripod in front of the counter. The tripod ensures that the camera’s position relative to the drum shell is consistent — important because a change of angle could make the light gap appear to change. Take a photo of the light gap, then spin the drum 1/4 of the way around, and take another picture. Repeat twice more, so you’ve photographed the entire 360° of the shell.
If you don’t see any light at all, you have a perfect bearing edge and a perfectly flat counter top. But it’s more likely you’ll see some light escape. The true test is watching the change in the light gap as the drum spins around — you can do this by comparing the pictures. See the animated image at right; it shows two photos of a drum with a bad edge. You can see that the position of the drum on the counter is consistent, but the light gap changes considerably. This is basically a picture of the high and low spots on the bearing edge.
On two of the edges on my Taye kit, the gaps were big enough that I could slide a piece of paper underneath, like the 8'' pictured at right. My poor drums!
In the end, the folks at Taye were gracious about my warranty claim, despite initially believing than I was a nutjob. I can’t say I blame them; at first I thought I was going crazy too. But after inspection (of the drums, I mean), they confirmed that the shells were indeed defective. I’m sure they had some followup conversations about their QA program, because they can’t afford to be selling defective instruments at that price point.
They offered to send me a replacement kit. It was a hard decision, but after consideration I declined. I am quite sure that the replacement kit would have been perfect in every respect, but I’d by then grown attached to a particular kit from a different manufacturer (which I look forward to reviewing here, if and when the damn thing ever ships). [Update: It’s here!]
The takeaway lesson is that if you have a drum that is consistently difficult to tune, it may well have a bad bearing edge. Another takeaway lesson: you can test this yourself, without special equipment.
On a new drum, a bad bearing edge makes for a valid warranty claim, in my opinion. If your new kit, with new heads, can’t be tuned, you should test the shells. If they’re not flat, send them back, because you’ll never be happy with drums that don’t tune up.
On old drums, you can get bearing edges recut and sealed, usually for about $20 per edge. This can completely restore a crappy-sounding, ringy, off-pitch tom or snare. Find local drum builders through your music store.
Update: Technically speaking, the problem with these Taye drums was not that the bearing edges, meaning the shape of the beveled cuts in the edges, were bad. It would be more accurate to say that the drums were not square or that the faces were not true — essentially, good bevels had been cut into a shell whose edge was not flat; therefore the result would never sit flush with a drumhead (or countertop). This distinction may only be useful to drum builders, but in the interests of being accurate I am happy to make this clarification here. I suspect most drum builders can fix both problems.