photos by Jim Esposito
North America has a plethora of custom drum builders, and Canada alone has a sizeable number. Among these builders, Vancouver, Canada's Ronn Dunnett has managed to establish a pretty high profile. He's a tireless supporter of live drumming events, and he's a major force behind the popular drumsmith.com Web site. These activities undoubtedly contribute to his recognition factor. But amid all the hoopla, he also manages to create some pretty spiffy drums.
Although Ronn does build drumkits, his bread and butter comes from distinctive snare drums made of titanium, stainless steel, brass, bronze, copper, composites, and a wide variety of domestic and exotic woods. Ronn machines the shells to his own specifications and fits them with hardware of his own design.
Many of Ronn's theories about shell design, bearing edges, and what makes a drum sound a certain way fly in the face of conventional wisdom. But that's just fine with him, since it helps to set his drums apart from those of other custom manufacturers.
For this review we were sent a 51/2x14 Stainless Steel drum, a 61/2x13 Titanium drum, and a 51/2x14 Milkwood MonoPly drum. All came fitted with R Class chrome-over-brass tube lugs, R Class throw-offs, Hypervent I adjustable air vents, 2.3-mm triple-flange hoops, Remo coated batter heads and hyper-clear snare side heads (exclusive to Dunnett), and 42-strand snappy snare wires.
Each drum bears Ronn's signature, an individual serial name, and the date of manufacture written inside the shell. And, as befits the work of a noted custom drum builder, every construction element of our three review drums was outstanding.
Earlier, I mentioned Ronn's theories of manufacture. According to Ronn, variables of weight and mass determine the voice of a drum as much as do that drum's dimensions. More specifically, he believes that heavier drums do not produce greater volume. So his designs focus on shell thickness (or more accurately, thinness) and weight, combined with low-mass/minimal-contact hardware, the efficient use of lugs (eight maximum, as on all of our review drums), and undersized diameters.
Dunnett drums also feature what Ronn calls "soft" snare beds. These beds are contoured quite deeply, and are cut to run just past the lugs on either side of the snare throw-off or butt. This design is intended to eliminate snare buzz and to accommodate the use of 42-strand snares.
Ronn Dunnett designed the R Class Throw-Off to be durable, functional, and convenient—and it's all three. It's an all-metal unit that features excellent machining, fit, and finish. It operates smoothly, with a lever that's big enough to grasp easily but that isn't cumbersome.
Best of all, the entire throw-off mechanism can be rotated 180°. That means that you can select the direction in which you want the throw-off lever to move—toward you, away from you, straight out from the side of the drum, whatever—no matter how you have the drum positioned on the stand. (Lefties take note!)
Our review drums all came with original R Class throw-offs. However, by the time you read this, all Dunnett drums will be supplied with the upgraded R2 throw-off and butt end. This unit offers the features of the R Class, but adds a coupling system that allows the snare wires to be removed from the throw-off and butt without the use of a drumkey. This quick-release feature reduces the amount of time and effort involved when changing the snare-side head.
The Hypervent I is an adjustable valve that allows you to determine how much air you want to escape from the drum when it's struck. You turn a small knurled knob to fully open or fully close the vent, or put it anywhere in between.
Ronn created this option because he believes that the air inside a non-vented drum acts as a pneumatic transducer, carrying the vibration of the top head to the bottom on a 1:1 ratio. Thus a drum without a vent is likely to be more sensitive and more responsive. Under conditions of more aggressive playing, where sensitivity is not an issue but sheer volume is, venting a drum will prevent the drum from "choking," and will allow it to project to its fullest capacity.
The 61/2x13 Titanium drum we received certainly supported Ronn's claim that his Titanium drums feature "the lightest metal shell available—period." It weighed only eight pounds (as compared to the Stainless Steel drum's ten pounds). It featured a raw titanium finish, with no lacquer coating.
The edges on Dunnett metal-shell drums are distinctly different from those found on virtually all other metal snares. They're pretty much just the smoothed-over edge of the thin shell itself, with no added contour. Ronn Dunnett puts it this way: "What makes a crash cymbal and a China type sound so different? The flange. When you bend something, you alter the way it resonates. That principle also applies to a metal drumshell. Virtually all metal snare drums have a flange that serves as a blunt bearing edge. Dunnett Classic drums do not have a flange. As a result, they resonate clear and clean, with full sustain. A non-flanged edge also provides for easy and precise tuning."
In this instance, I have to disagree with Ronn about the easy tuning. It took us a quite while to find the optimum combination of top and bottom head tension for this drum. The issue seemed to be the drum's depth. It wanted to be a fatback drum, and as soon as we tightened the batter head beyond a medium tension, it started to choke up. When we finally found the right tension combo, though, the Titanium drum had a distinctive quality: full, yet fairly warm—and very dry (once the drumhead ring was taken out of the equation).
The Hypervent didn't have much effect on this drum—until we found that optimum head-tension combo. After that, we heard (and felt) a much more dramatic difference between the vented and unvented response of the drum. It was very crisp and even dryer when unvented. When vented, it was brighter, and it spoke with more authority.
With its mirror-smooth finish, the 51/2x14 Stainless Steel drum was the very definition of "gleaming." I almost hated to handle it, owing to the fingerprints I left on the shell. (White gloves, anyone?) But that reluctance was reduced by the enjoyment I received from playing the drum.
Steel is a heavier, denser metal than titanium, so it wasn't surprising that the Stainless Steel drum produced a crisper, brighter, and more powerful sound than that of the Titanium model. Our review drum's shallower depth also contributed to this acoustic character. Surprisingly, though, the Stainless Steel drum had a wider effective tuning range than did the Titanium model. With the batter tensioned just a little tighter than medium, it could easily be a fine symphonic drum, with excellent snare response (made even more prominent when the Hypervent was closed). On the other hand, if you wanted a bullet-through-the-brain rock crack, you'd just need to crank this baby up and open the vent.
The resonant character of the Stainless Steel shell gave this drum an almost timbale-like over-ring when it was played close to the rim. Actual rimshots rang for days. But this could be easily eliminated with a minimal amount of batter-head muffling if so desired.
Dunnett is best known for metal-shell drums, but the 51/2x14 Milkwood MonoPly drum we tested was pretty impressive in its own right. "Milkwood" is Ronn Dunnett's proprietary name for the exceptionally lightweight wood used to make this drum.
I'm partial to solid-wood drums, because they generally provide the best acoustic characteristics of wood while also offering reflectivity and projection that approaches that of metal. Depending on the type of wood and its thickness, solid-shell drums can sometimes be unexpectedly bright. But Dunnett solids are substantially thinner than other drums I've seen. They also feature reinforcement rings that are reduced in depth and diameter. The result, according to Ronn Dunnett, is that his solid-shell drums are the lightest on the market.
The Milkwood drum, with its thin shell finished in clear matte lacquer, produced a sound that was exceptionally warm and rich. It was neither too ringy nor too dry, and it responded dramatically to Hypervent adjustments. Its maple reinforcement hoops helped to focus stick attack before the sound "spread out" within the main shell body. Overall, I'd describe this drum as an outstanding hybrid of vintage and contemporary characteristics.
In spite of what was said earlier about deep snare beds, at first I didn't think the Milkwood snare even had a snare bed. It did, but that bed was very wide and much shallower than that of the metal drums. The resulting amount of "flatted" bearing edge that came into contact with the snare-side drumhead was likely a contributing factor to the drum's controlled sound. Ronn Dunnett informed me that this bed was cut on this drum only, by special customer request. The same drum with a "standard" deep Dunnett snare bed might be a little brighter.
I could end this review with the typical "custom drums command a custom price" comment. But to be honest, Dunnett prices are surprisingly affordable, considering the drums' unique design, construction quality, and acoustic performance.
Ronn Dunnett spares no expense in the creation of his drums, but neither does he inflate his prices unrealistically to capitalize on the "custom" mantra. Just like his design concepts, this sales philosophy is an original—and very refreshing—approach.
(604) 643-9939, www.dunnett.com