Even though some of the greatest drums in the world roll straight off assembly lines before they end up on store shelves, there is something irrefutably unique about the handcrafted – the ones where the artisan has steamed, bent, screwed, bolted and riveted their instruments together from the first slab of produce to final product. We’re talking about the made-to-order, custom and rare instruments in which each man-made little characteristic contributes to something that can’t be mass-produced or mimicked: personality. Welcome to the Custom Shop EZX, a collection of some of the most rare, hard-to-come-by and unique handcrafted drums in the world.
While most EZXs seek to capture a certain sound or genre, the Custom Shop EZX goes out of its way to do the exact opposite. It’s about the drums and the drums alone. It was recorded by producer Joe Blaney (The Clash, Prince, Keith Richards) and drummer Stephen Belans at Brooklyn Recording, a studio with a room ideal for transparent drum tracking. Featuring all handpicked drums, with tom shell sizes ranging from ten to 18 inches, several different types of wood and metal as well as a host of cymbals, the Custom Shop EZX presents the broadest possible sonic scope. The truly unique Q kit, with its solid copper shells, has a tone unlike any other – loud, open and resonant but still centered and focused with a deep and warm decay. On the other end of the scale we have the Japanese Canopus kit in a traditional jazz setup, producing a much brighter, more dense and complex attack. Balancing between the previous two, we have the classic Craviotto in solid walnut shells, crafted by hand at the small boutique factory in Watsonville, California, giving you a punchy, bell-like clarity but still a dark and round sound. Finally, at the far end of the meter we have the thunderous Fibes set, a maple-ply kit with a truly deep and vibrant tone.
Add to this four extra snares, two kicks as well as brushed variations of select kits and you have a sonic palette with near infinite application.
Welcome to the custom shop. All the drums are yours to keep.
A few comments on each kit by sampling drummer Stephen Belans.
This is the kit that really sparked the idea for the Custom Shop EZX collection. Jeremy at Q has been building some amazingly inventive drums for a while now. He can build more traditional maple or mahogany kits that sound vintage but are way more durable and roadworthy than a vintage kit. But he also builds stuff like this that just has its own voice. This kit is basically the same as one that Ilan Rubin had on the road for a while. I got to play it once and it floored me. I’d never heard anything like it, and frankly it looks amazingly cool! And this Q brass snare is so versatile. Sounds great at any pitch and just sits perfectly in a track.
Johnny Craviotto was a legendary drum builder and the company that bears his name continues his legacy. Johnny built this kit, and it has a great combination of factors that give it its unique sound. The single-ply shells present a focused pitch, the walnut provides a big, resonant tone, and the wood hoops offer a rounder attack than traditional steel hoops. All of these things come together to make this kit a truly beautiiful instrument with a distinctive voice. I didn’t want to give it back.
The brushes on this maple Canopus kit simply sound amazing. The odd 15-inch depth on the kick really shines. It doesn’t sound quite like a 14, and it doesn’t quite sound like a 16. I love it. Especially with the brushes, you might immediately jump to thinking this is a jazz kit, and it obviously works marvelously for that, but I hear pop and hip-hop applications as well.
This Fibes kit is a beauty. Just a light oil finish so nothing gets in the way of its resonance, and the toms simply sing. The made-in-Texas Fibes kick drums are always monsters with a big-as-Texas sound, and the closed front head option here makes me happy. This kit includes an 8-inch-deep solid cocobolo snare by MCD Percussion. It sounds killer, and it’s fun to say cocobolo. Try it!
We took a similar approach when choosing cymbals. While these aren’t made-to-order, both Bosphorus and UFIP are hand-made and the result of labor-intensive, small-shop craftsmanship. The Bosphorus stuff has a classic Turkish cymbal sound––dark with complex overtones and an earthy quality. Can something be dry and creamy at the same time? These cymbals sometimes sound that way to me. The UFIP pies, made in Italy, are completely different and contrast nicely with the Bosphorus tonal qualities. The UFIPs have a brighter tone with a sharper, more cutting attack. The way these cymbals are spun in manufacturing means that they’re thicker at the bell and thinner at the edge even before any lathing, culminating in a heavier cymbal that still provides a musical stick response with a shimmer that generally sits in a higher range of the frequency spectrum.
Tell us a little about your background!
I’ve been a musician my whole life, but I tend to do a lot of different things that fall under the umbrella of being a musician. I like to learn and I get curious, so for me, one thing eventually leads to another. I’m a drummer, and I’ve been playing for the last five years or so with a great songwriter named Radney Foster, and a long list of singer/songwriters that I also admire before that. I’ve always had an interest in recording and as I got to play on more records. As I was coming, up I kept my eyes and ears open to what was happening in the control room, trying to learn as much as I could. I would hang around after my tracks were done and soak it all in. I eventually started producing records and then engineering sessions for other records, which is kind of backwards for how it works for most people but that’s how it unfolded for me. I like all of it and I try to keep myself open to any opportunities within my interests. Right now, I’m on the road running Ableton for Elvis Costello and The Imposters. It’s all fun and interesting to me. So much possibility in music.
This is your third Toontrack project. Talk a little about your earlier projects with us and how you first cross paths with the company!
Toontrack came to The Congress House Studio in Austin to work with Mark Hallman for the Americana EZX. Mark’s a fine drummer as well as a great producer, engineer, singer, and all-around musician. He can play whatever instrument you put in his hands. He’s also a tremendous human being and a great friend. He rented some extra drums from me for the sessions and had me in for the first day to help tune drums and get set up. I hit the drums while Mark dialed in the sounds. He ended up asking me to stay for the rest of the sessions, and we both played on those sampling sessions. It was our first time working with Toontrack and we were blown away by the depth and detail of the articulations list, not to mention the sheer quantity of hits required to capture enough variations. Now that I’ve done a few projects I’m comfortable with the process, but those first sessions were intense and exhausting. While we were working on that EZX, I spoke with Ulf and Stefan from Toontrack who produced that project about an idea I had that eventually took us to Seattle for sessions that became the Indie Folk EZX and Indiependent SDX. Likewise, while we were in Seattle the idea for the Custom Shop EZX started brewing, and I’m excited to get it out into the world.
You are, for lack of a better description, literally a human encyclopedia when it comes to drums, types of materials, manufactures and their stories. Where does the deep interest in drums come from?
Ha, I wouldn’t say that I’m an encyclopedia by any stretch of the imagination! Plenty of people know way more than I do about this stuff but I can definitely keep up with any conversations about drums and their general history and evolution over the last hundred years. A drum is a beautiful and versatile instrument, and the people who dedicate their lives to making great drums are extremely passionate about it. Sometimes that translates into a company that grows and becomes a major player in the industry like Ludwig or Gretsch, or more recently, DW. More often it stays small. For some, it’s more about the actual craft of building the drum than building a factory to sell as many drums as possible. I like getting to talk with people who hear something in their head who then go figure out a way to make it. They take a lot of pride in their designs and the sounds that they bring to life. And usually, the drums look as beautiful as they sound. A custom drum is as much a piece of art as a painting or a sculpture, and is often commissioned in a similar way.
What was the idea behind this new Custom Shop EZX project?
The idea was to showcase the unique sounds that come from these craft builders I was talking about. There’s been an explosion of boutique drum builders, and so many of them are doing really cool things. I thought it would be useful to capture some of these sounds and assemble a library of drums that have a little something extra than the sounds we’re all used to hearing and could be used in any genre or musical setting. Ultimately, it’s about the sounds. Also, you can’t walk into your local drum shop or chain music store and find these drums most of the time. They’re usually built to order and limited in quantity so the sounds aren’t readily available or easily attainable. If you want to record a hammered Ludwig snare, you can find one without too much trouble. The entire copper kit by the Q Drum Company in this collection isn’t as easy to find. But after you hear this, you’re going to want to order one for yourself––it’s amazing. So fun to play!
What was the selection of drums based on? Were you looking for the broadest possible palette of tones or did you go for different manufacturers, types of wood and metals or anything else?
I wanted a balance of tones, and that often means different materials, different species if we’re talking about wood, different ply configurations, and other variations like flanged versus die cast hoops, or even wood hoops. Mostly, I was looking for something fresh in the sound of the drums.
These are some extremely rare and expensive instruments. How did you get a hold of them for the session?
Like I said, most of these instruments aren’t likely to be sitting on the showroom floor of your local music shop. For the most part, I contacted the builders directly who put us in touch with customers who had what we were looking for and were willing to make their drums available to us. Remember, these drums are precious to their owners. I was extremely lucky to be able to play them, and we’re all lucky we get to hear and use them. And to be honest, there are even more companies I wish we could have included. So much great stuff out there right now.
How come you chose Brooklyn Recording?
Brooklyn Recording is one of my favorite studios anywhere. Andy Taub built a great-sounding space and filled it—and I do mean FILLED it—with all the best gear. Everything you could ever want, and probably three or four or five of them. Giant Neve console, the best mic collection I’ve ever seen, a literal mountain of guitar amps, and instruments for days. The tracking room is a comfortable size, and really a pretty neutral space. Things sound like they really sound in there; the room doesn’t impose itself on the recording. Some spaces have their own sound and you go there for that sound if that’s what you’re looking for. For this, we wanted to really hear the instruments themselves. Andy’s place was perfect—we were able to capture the detail and nuance of these drums, and do it using incredible signal chains. Best of all worlds for this project.
As when talking engineers for this project, why was Joe Blaney the perfect choice?
Joe Blaney is a great engineer with a long career. He’s worked with everyone from The Clash to Prince to Keith Richards to Tom Waits to the Neville Brothers. So many more—Rosanne Cash, Shawn Colvin, Run DMC, The Ramones, World Party. It’s crazy how diverse his credits are. The records he makes always sound great, and he goes for sounds that make sense for the music. Joe studied electronics as a teenager and got his start as a repair tech at Electric Lady, and eventually started working there as an engineer. He has a legitimate grasp of how gear works, and why. That technical background really helps inform his recording and mix decisions, but in a way that supplements his musical choices. For Joe, the music dictates his techical choices, which seems obvious but you’d be amazed at how often that’s not the case for some people. But really, I wanted him to do this session because he makes drums sound great.
To you, what defines a great drum sound?
What a loaded question! As a drummer in a vacuum, I like snares that crack, toms that ring, and a kick with a pleasing punch and just a little bit of length to the note. As a producer or drummer in a musical setting, I prefer what fits the music, which may be what I described or may be the complete opposite. As an engineer, I aim for a drum sound that fits in the space it should for the recording. Pitch, total frequency bandwidth, transient detail, note length, placement in and width of the stereo image, depth of field—all of that comes into play for each drum or cymbal and for the kit as a whole. I’m lucky. I have a great drum collection and a nicely equipped studio with a good sounding room, and I know how to record drums. It took a long time to acquire the gear and to acquire the knowlege. That’s the really amazing thing about EZdrummer2 and SD3. The drums sound great from the start, yet there’s so much flexibility to quickly shape the drums to fit your musical needs. If you don’t have the same resources that I do, your drum tracks can still sound amazing even if you’re working on a laptop at your kitchen table.
Listening back to the finished product, what are your thoughts on how the drums came out and the project on a whole?
I’m really happy with it. It sounds so musical, and to my ear the collection really does have a sound that’s different with a broad palette of attack and tone. I hope people find it to be as pleasing, flexible and useful as I do.
Name: Stephen Belans
Location: Austin, Texas
How did you get started in the music business ?
I started out working in the NYC recording studios as a maintenance technician. At the time, all major studios had a technician on duty in the shop whenever a session was going on. In case a tape machine started malfunctioning, or to change blown speakers at 4 AM, so a client could finish a mix. I started tinkering with electronics when I was a kid, and went to a trade high school to learn electronics and radio/TV repair. After a short time working at a couple of midtown studios, I was hired by Electric Lady Studios to be their nighttime maintenance technician. There were a lot of great artists working there at the time, The Rolling Stones, The Clash, AC/DC, The Brecker Brothers, Hall and Oates etc. I got to know the guys in The Clash while they were recording their “Sandinista” album at the studio with Bill Price engineering. A little over a year later, they were playing some shows at a place called Bonds Casino, so I went backstage to say hello. Mick Jones told me that the shows had been over sold and they were going to be playing there an extra ten days. They had started recording a song called “This is Radio Clash” in London before the trip. They were excited about the song and couldn’t wait to finish it. Mick asked me if we could get into Electric Lady for late night sessions after their sold out shows, to finish overdubs and mix the song. So the tapes were sent over and we had four or five sessions, starting around midnight and going to about 10 AM. We made three versions of “Radio Clash” for the 12″ single and finished another song, “Sean Flynn”, for the 7” B-side. That was my first gig as a recording/mix engineer behind the console. They were happy with the outcome and they asked me to record their next album “Combat Rock”.
You have recorded some truly classic records and worked equally classic artists. Looking back on your career, name a few stand-out moments and productions.
I produced a song for Modest Mouse a few years ago called “Whale Song”. It’s an instrumental with a vocal section in the middle. I was recording their six-piece band live in the studio, Johnny Marr was playing guitar with them at the time. They had a very rough demo of the song (not with the whole band) and they’d performed it live a few times, but they hadn’t really worked out an arrangement. When they started playing the song in the studio, it sounded cluttered and messy. The band’s two drummers, Jeremiah Green and Joe Plummer, hadn’t really worked out what they would play together. Joe was playing a one bar pattern that everybody liked on the demo. It had a busy bass drum part that was good, but it was too much all the time. I suggested that he come up with a two bar pattern, alternating his pattern with one that had less bass drum accents. He came up with a good part and all of a sudden the feel of the song was more relaxed and open. Eric Judy, the bass player instantly locked in his part and Jeremiah starting figuring out how to fit his drums in, improvising around Joe, starting out sparsely and building up as the song progressed. After a few takes, the band slowed it down a touch and settled into a nice groove to support Issac Brock’s eire lead guitar theme. The song was long, so we’d record two or three takes, listen to a playback and have a short break before they would record again. The song was progressing with each take we recorded, Johnny Marr has a great ear and he was improvising within his rhythm guitar parts throughout the song. Somewhere around take 13, everything fell into place and we got a performance that sounded a lot better than all the previous ones. It was a great moment.
I was Prince’s engineer for his “Lovesexy” album. We had been recording some songs with the Linn drum machine and Prince playing most of the instruments. It was simply incredible to watch him in the studio, building a track, one instrument at a time. His process was just so different. Usually, an artist has a song fully written, or demoed, or rehearsed before they go into the studio. With Prince, the writing, arranging and recording of the song might all be happening at the same time. One day we were going to record Prince with his band. I was told that I would be recording the band in the Studio B control room while they would play in their rehearsal space next door. I had a split from the microphones that were used for the shows. The band and crew arrived early and I began getting sounds to tape. When Prince walked in the room, we were ready to roll. They did a couple of run-throughs while I got the final levels, Prince was singing, directing and he played a keyboard as well. The band had been rehearsing the song and the arrangement was all worked out. We recorded two takes and they both sounded great. After a couple of playbacks, Prince decided that we were done. I remember the energy in the control room was really intense. Prince had a way of pushing everybody to the max, to be at their best. I’d never set up and recorded a track that quickly (with an 8-piece band!). Then Prince told us that he had another song and he headed back into the room with his two keyboard players (Matt Fink and Bonnie Boyer) and bassist (Levi Saucer). This time, Prince sat behind the drum kit. He briefly taught the musicians the song while playing drums and singing the main riff and calling out the chords. They rehearsed the verse and chorus separately for about a minute each. They didn’t even rehearse the song all the way through once when Prince told me to start recording. When they got to first chorus, things fell apart. Prince said “Joe, don’t roll back” and told the band that they’d pick it up from there. He counted in and we continued recording from the chorus, we got about another minute in and he stopped again, we did the same thing, recording from that point until the end of the song. As soon as the song ended, Prince said “OK Joe, now cut it together”. I went right at the 24 track tape with a razor blade. The three parts fit perfectly and the tempo was consistent, which was pretty incredible, as we weren’t using a click track and the song has some very intricate drumming. Prince had an impeccable sense of time. So, we had a master backing track of the song, “Dance On”, rehearsed, recorded and edited together in about 15 minutes. I suppose that he did it that way to get a fresh, spontaneous performance, which he did. We spent the rest of the afternoon overdubbing guitar, keyboards and vocals. He also replaced the bass in one section. Sheila E. added some percussion. Prince added some electronic drums, played on a keyboard. That evening, he called a few of his band members to sing the background vocals. Around 11 PM, the recording of “Dance On” was completed. Prince was in a really great mood, happy with the day’s work. Then he says to me “Why don’t you stay here tonight and mix it, you can take tomorrow off?”. I wasn’t too keen on the idea, as I’d been working about 12 hours already. I would’ve preferred to go sleep and mix the next day, but I wasn’t going to tell him that. Prince was so enthusiastic about the song, he wanted to hear it finished. So, I mixed it through night. Prince came back very early in the morning. we made a few adjustments and printed the final mix that’s on the album. I’ve never been in a situation with a major artist, where the second song of a tracking session gets worked on for another 18 hours, and then it’s finished for the album, done. It’s one of my favorite songs on “Lovesexy”.
In a mix, where do you usually start: the drums, guitars, vocals or something else?
I try to start by getting a quick, intuitive balance of everything, especially if I don’t know the recording. When I’m processing sounds, I like to have a basic mix up to be able to reference everything in context. Then I usually start with the drums. If I notice something needs a bit of work (like a lead vocal track that was recorded with too much compression), I may start with that first, to get the tedious tasks over with before I really get into mixing.
Is there any instrument you generally struggle with more than any other in a mix?
Well, I wouldn’t use the word struggle, but live drums require more work, simply because they’re recorded with multiple microphones. The snare drum is also being picked up in the overheads and hi-hat microphones, so you have to wrestle with balances, EQ, compression, transient limiting, saturation, noise gates etc. to get a sound that works. I get sessions to mix with eight to 16 different tracks for the drum kit. If I didn’t record them, it takes a little time to study what’s there and get a drum balance started. If it’s drums that I recorded, it’s much easier, as I know what I was going for in the recording process.
Do you have any mix “trick” you generally fall back on?
No, no tricks. Every song is different. Lately, I’ve been inserting Neve 1073 modules on certain tracks, right from the start. On a kick drum, I can turn up the input gain and saturate the Neve circuit, to control transient peaks and enrich the harmonics. It’s a quick fix for making computer recordings sound more natural. I like to work on the balance and gain structure a little, before I use EQ or other processors. I mix with a hybrid system, utilizing plug ins in the DAW as well as analog processing.
If you produced a record you couldn’t mix yourself, who would be the first mix engineer on your list to call?
I don’t know, I usually mix the records that I produce. I feel that mixing is part of the whole creative and production process. I’ve been the recording engineer on albums where other people were hired to mix. I recorded Shawn Colvin’s “A Few Small Repairs” album. Bob Clearmountain mixed it and it sounds good.
Worst studio moment ever?
They’re have been times when things go wrong at the worst possible moment. Like power interruptions when I’ve been mixing in Miami or the French countryside. Once, I was producing a record for Tamio Okuda from Japan. We were close to finishing the final mix of the last song late one night in a NYC studio (Tamio and company were headed back to Japan the following day). Suddenly smoke started billowing out of the air conditioning vents of the control room. We had to leave the room and the studio’s receptionist called the fire department. Minutes later there were firemen with axes coming into the studio. They wanted to shut down all of the audio gear and I had to convince them that we couldn’t do that. The smoke had started to subside and they sent a guy with a mask up into a crawl space above the control room. A portion of the circuitry for the light dimmers had melted down and it was right next to the air conditioner intake. We had to wait another hour or so for the air to clear before we could resume. When I pressed play on the tape machine, my mix didn’t sound right at all. This studio had a pet cat. During all of the chaos, the cat got into the control room and was running across the console, depressing switches with his paws. Fortunately, it was a console with total recall and we had stored the settings when the smoke started, so we were able to get back to where we were and the mix came out great.
…and best studio moment ever?
I’ve had a lot of good times making records. I’ve been fortunate. “Rock The Casbah” was a great moment from The Clash’s “Combat Rock” sessions. I started the session with only the band’s drummer, Topper Headon. It was an experimental session. While we were finishing vocal overdubs for all of the other songs, Topper had come up with the piano part at a friend’s apartment. I recorded Topper playing drums, bass, piano and percussion in a few hours. Mick Jones arrived and he added some guitar. Then we recorded handclaps and a reference group chorus vocal. The vocals and some sound effects were recorded at a later session. The song took far less time to record than any other song on the album.
Over the years, you have worked in all capacities – and engineer, mixer and producer. Is there one you prefer over the other?
I like doing all of those tasks. I would say that I prefer producing, but the circumstances have to be right. First of all, I have to believe in the artist and feel that I have a clear vision for realizing their music on a recording. Producing is more of a passion for me. When I get hired to engineer or mix, I’m not responsible for overseeing everything, so that’s usually much easier. I like engineering basic tracking sessions, it’s a great feeling when you get a good take and everybody listens to the playback. I usually enjoy mixing. It’s always fun to fit the pieces together and get a song to a place where it sounds good to me and the artist is satisfied.
To you, what defines a “great sound”?
It all starts with the music and the creative vision of the artist. Recording has always been about capturing a special moment or an inspired performance. A large orchestra in the right hall can sound great with one stereo microphone. I prefer records that achieve a surrealistic sound in the studio, like The Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows” where a special sound was realized in the production.
Finally, looking back on this project – which is completely different from recording a record – what did you take away from the process?
It was a great experience, to be able to hear the different personalities of all of the drums and how they compared. There are conventional plywood shell drums that are meticulously crafted, as well as unique solid wood and metal shell drums. It was a great collection of high-end instruments. I’m looking forward to using them.
Name: Joe Blaney
Location: New York, NY
16×24” (copper shell)
5,5×14” Q brass snare
9×13” (copper shell)
FLOOR TOM 1
16×16” (copper shell)
FLOOR TOM 2
18×18” (copper shell)
14×20” walnut single ply
4,5×14” Antonio true tolid (maple)
8×12” (wood hoops)
FLOOR TOM 1
14×16” walnut single ply (wood hoops)
6,5×14” (sampled with brushes and sticks)
12×8” (sampled with brushes and sticks)
FLOOR TOM 1
14×13” (sampled with brushes and sticks)
8×14” MCD percussion (solid cocobolo)
FLOOR TOM 1
FLOOR TOM 2
14×24” Craviotto (ash single ply)
14×22” Craviotto (ash single ply)
5,5×14” Fidock (blackwood stave)
6,5×14” GMS “Vaughncraft Timeless Timbre” (solid birch)
5,5×14” Canopus (maple)
14” Bosphorus Turk Series
14” UFIP Natural Series
14” UFIP Natural Series (sampled with brushes)
21” Bosphorus New Orleans Series
20” Bosphorus Ferit King Ping
22” UFIP Natural Series (sampled with brushes)
18” UFIP Experience China
10” UFIP Natural Series Splash
10” UFIP Natural Series (sampled with brushes)
18” Bosphorus New Orleans Series Crash
18” UFIP Natural Series White Logo 18” Crash
18” UFIP Natural Series White Logo 18” Crash (sampled with brushes)
18” Bosphorus Ferit Series Thin Crash
18” UFIP Natural Series Orange Logo Crash 18”
UFIP Natural Series Red Logo Crash (sampled with brushes)
16” Bosphorus Ferit Series Paper Thin Crash
15” UFIP Natural Series Crash (sampled with brushes)
3 GB free disk space, 2 GB RAM (4 GB recommended).
A working EZdrummer 2.1.8 or Superior Drummer 3.1.2 (or above) installation.