GEAR HEAR

 

 

Artisans

 

Jeff Ocheltree

 

Casting About For New Ideas in Snare Drum Design

 

By Chip Stern

 

When I first played the solid cast shell Paiste Spirit of 2002 Snare Drum at a Nashville NAMM Show, I was positively startled by the tonal response, resonance, sensitivity, articulation and projection of this astonishing instrument.  I felt as though I had just graduated from a motor scooter to a custom-shop chopper. 

 

Paiste Signature Bronze Snare Drum

The S-Bronze

A New Standard in Sound and Sensitivity

 

So when I heard that Paiste was about to introduce two new cast bronze snare drums employing their patented Signature Bronze, I was all over them like white on rice in pursuit of a review sample.  (The Spirit of 2002 features B8 bronze, which is 92% copper-and-8% tin, while Paiste’s Signature Bronze is a phosphor bronze variation on traditional bell bronze, with higher proportions of tin, or roughly 85% copper-and-15% tin.)  The Signature-style bronze employed in the S-Bronze Snare Drums is smelted down from re-cycled, cut-up Paiste Traditional and Signature cymbals that have been rejected for final commercial release because they didn’t measure up to the sonic template of the perfected “Master Cymbals” for each particular model at the Paiste factory in Nottwil, Switzerland.  Ocheltree recycles this same Signature Bronze to fashion the sonically and gravitationally imposing Paiste Custom Cast Drum Set that is also marketed through Paiste. 

 

You can adjudge my responses to the cast shell Paiste S-Bronze Snare Drums in a GEAR HEAR evaluation elsewhere on this site. 

 

 

Paiste Custom Cast Drum Set

Carl Palmer at the Throttle

Mass Times the Speed of Light Squared

 

The higher tin content of the Signature Bronze snare drums confers a slightly warmer sonic signature, and their 4” X 13” and 5.5” X 14” configurations fill out the range of available sizes drummers can choose from (the Spirit of 2002 Snare Drums are available in a choice of 5.5” X 13”, 5” X 14”, 6.5” X 14” shells).

 

Now the idea of solid shell snare drums has been around for a long time, such as the famous Slingerland Radio Kings, and more recently the Brady Snare Drums from Australia, which employ a stave style of construction in the tradition of the great barrel-makers of yore.

Brady Snare Drums

 

And of course, there are loads of custom snare drums out there for drummers to choose from, featuring a variety of wood and metal shells.  What makes these Paiste cast bronze snare drums so musically compelling is not just a matter of volume and power, but of nuance.  I’ve never played any snare drum that offers such a range of expressive possibilities or that responds with such graceful immediacy.  But then, I’d never had a chance to use one of artisan/instrument designer Jeff Ocheltree’s Phantom Steel Snare drums (now marketed and distributed by Paiste as Dangerous Ocheltree’s), fashioned from a solid cast piece of carbon steel pipe, which is what cemented his reputation amongst drummers (and ultimately inspired him to develop a cast bronze version).  

 

Or as one giddy drummer on the Internet enthused, “I have been using one of Jeff Ocheltree’s Phantom Steels (carbon steel) for about three years, and it is constantly the first question I am asked when people hear me live or on a recording.  It’s so powerful, yet so delicate—ghost strokes are clear as a crystal.  Cranked like Carter [Beauford] or tuned lower, it sounds unbelievable…” 

 

As such, on behalf of all drummers, I wanted to commune with this artisan and delve deeper into the origins of these instruments.  And in speaking with master craftsman Jeff Ocheltree, and learning about his background and motivations, I was able to divine how come his instruments are imbued with so much…spirit. 

 

R: Ocheltree Phantom Steel

L: Jeff Ocheltree

 

Jeff has quite the resume, having practically invented the concept of the modern “Drum Tech” back in the 1970s through his work with then Mahavishnu Orchestra drum innovator Billy Cobham, and a host of major players, such as Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham and Alex Van Halen of…(ta-dah) Van Halen.  Jeff continues to function as a paternal figure and a grand old man of the drums, both on the road and in the studio, through his ongoing relationship with Steve Smith and Vital Information, and because of his ongoing commitment to the sonic majesty of the modern drum set and his ongoing influence in the evolution of snare drum designs.  Jeff has a genuine, abiding love for the art, science and spirit of drumming, and the kind of practical experience you can only achieve by rubbing shoulders with the best in the business—which he generously shares on his long-anticipated DVD-Video instructional release Trust Your Ears: The Drum Tech Explorations of Jeff Ocheltree. 

 

Not surprisingly, like many youngsters who came of age in the 1960s, his love of the creative process was such that he came in through the back-door as it were, realizing he could still make a significant contribution to music, even though his own earnest musicianship might’ve been somewhat lacking on the grander stage of life. 

 

     

 

 

Davenport’s Finest

Bix Beiderbecke

Louie Bellson with Steve Smith

 

“I was born in Davenport, Iowa, which is where Louie Bellson and Bix Beiderbecke were from,” Jeff recalls.  “I moved from there when I was six months old to Pasadena, and we lived there for a while, then we lived in Seattle, Washington, and then we came back down to Southern California.  At some point my parents were having problems, and they went back to the Midwest, and I grew up between there and Southern California, and ended up going to school in Kansas on a basketball scholarship.  Anyway, I had this great drum kit and was in a really cool band, and I came back home one night to the studio where they were set up and discovered it was burning down. 

 

                                                                                                                                                                              ©  John McColgan/BLM Alaska Fire Service

 

Forest Fire in the Bitteroot Valley of Montana

 

So that changed my whole life, because I didn’t have any insurance, and for some reason I was depressed,” he laughs.  “The firemen found out latter this girl left a cigarette burning in an ashtray by a gas wall heater.  And I just got very down and took a hiatus, when I heard of this rock band named Snail, who did all sorts of phenomenal music like Dave Brubeck’s ‘Blue Rondo A La Turk’ with drummer Ron Fillmore, and they said, ‘Why don’t you come with us and get your mind off of what happened to you.  You and your brother can set up the stage and Ron’s drum kit and come out on tour,’ and that’s what we did and that’s how I got started, and for some reason I was drawn to that.  I figured if I’m never going to be brilliant as a musician, then I better figure out what I’m going to do.  I didn’t want to leave the drums, so I stayed next to the music and the drums in this way.” 

 

            

 

Billy Cobham: Mahavishnu Orchestra & Beyond

“…To me, Billy Cobham was the most inspiring drummer ever…”

 

Jeff’s road journey eventually led him to New York City where he initiated two of his most important long-term creative relationships, helping to demarcate his path both as an in-demand Drum Tech and as a musical instrument artisan.  Drummer Billy Cobham and drum designer/inventor Al Duffy inculcated Jeff with their creative passion, and helped define a standard of excellence that continues to inspire Ocheltree some thirty years down the road.  “I was with Billy from 1973-1975, from the end of Mahavishnu through the first of his own bands.  When Mahavishnu broke up, I went with Billy and my brother Joe went with John McLaughlin. 

 

L-R: Frank Ippolito, Elvin Jones and Al Duffy

The Original Professional Percussion Center

50th Street & Eighth Avenue in Manhattan

 

You’ve seen Joe Ocheltree’s name on Jean-Luc Ponty albums, and he was Steve Smith’s first roadie way back then. One day on the way to the Schaffer Festival in Central Park, Ponty told me brother that he really wanted to start his own band, and asked Joe if he wanted to come and work for him.  And it was great for Joe, because he was learning a lot about violins and bows: their construction and the nature of the vintage stuff—their care and maintenance and tuning.  Which was a step removed from being one of the old roadie guys who set up everything and drove the trucks.  You see, that’s the era we came from—doing everything: driving the truck all night long, setting up the PA, setting the drums up, doing all of the guitar amps. There were no teachers and there was no cruising—we worked our butts off.  It was fun, it was exciting, and you felt like you were on the leading edge of something new.  It sure wasn’t about making money, because there wasn’t any. That’s what inspired us: it was a like a family thing—you were part of a team.  And to me Billy Cobham was the most inspiring drummer ever, because he was a stickler for tuning; he got deep into miking; he we committed to bringing a quality drum sound out front—and he made me want to learn more about what I could do to make these instruments even better. 

 

“During that time I was fortunate enough to work with Al Duffy.  I was introduced to him and Don Doeher and all of the cats at Frank Ippolito’s Professional Percussion Center when I worked with Billy Cobham.  It was nice to be accepted by these people—not being laughed at or disrespected.  I was new in New York City, and they could’ve just said, ‘Get out of here kid.’   But they saw my enthusiasm.  They knew how hard I worked for Billy and how much I was learning from him.  And they realized I wasn’t your typical roadie who just sets things up and doesn’t care to learn anything more than that—they saw that I just wanted to make better instruments, and be a part of that mindset, so they kind of took me in. 

 

“And every time I went there, Al would talk with me.  ‘I know you’re having troubles with this and that.  Why don’t you come over to my shop in Brooklyn and maybe we can figure out ways to modify things so they won’t keep breaking down when you’re on tour with Billy.’  Al Duffy was just a brilliant designer; he invented the chain pedal, and I have one of the original ones.  Later on when he was with Pearl he designed those free floating drums with an extended head, like a timpani, where a 14” drum would use a 15” head.  The problem with that concept was that you couldn’t do a rim shot on them, but still, they had the most amazing tone and resonance and were just a brilliant, original vision of a drum. 

 

“So I went down to his shop in Brooklyn and we would do modifications on the interiors of drums, bearing edges, snare beds; we designed drums and built them.  And he had built this heavy, heavy, thick steel shell…Al always said it was made from a lead drainpipe, but I don’t think it was.  It was like a 7” snare drum and it had the most incredible sound to it.  And aside from the fact that it was loud, it was a nice sounding loud drum—not obnoxious loud.  It had a lot of dynamic range yet was very sensitive, which defines Billy Cobham—and it could take anything that Billy would dish out.  And that really inspired me.  And we also worked with Fred Hinger, and I was in on the beginning of the Dresden Timpani that Hinger was developing and which Duffy was involved with as well.  And Billy had the first set to take out on the road.  And Hinger was also one the first to make cable snares, and I was one of the first guys out there to use them—we converted all of Billy’s snare drums to cable snares with Teflon-covered cable wires.  I just learned so much from Duffy and Hinger and all the drummers of that era.” 

 

Fred Hinger

The Dresden Timpani

 

The next step in Jeff’s evolution was logical enough.  Having learned first-hand what makes for an expressive instrument, Ocheltree began crafting his own signature snare drums, and from there it was only a hop, skip and a jump to the commercial side of the biz—for better and for worse. 

 

“I started making drums, but only certain guys would play them. I got hooked up with this guy at Trick Percussion, and he talked me into making some drums for a Summer NAMM Show in Chicago.  There were some brass snares and some wood ones, and I really spent a lot of time on them because I didn’t want to lend my name to yet another me-too instrument.  I didn’t really have any expectations, but they got this incredible response at the NAMM Show, and this guy wanted me to be in business with him, and because he had all this money I said…well, okay, if you’re willing to pay for all the materials and my time, I’ll continue on…but I don’t know for how long.  And it never really felt quite right, and after a while this guy started doing some strange things, but they created a lot of buzz and some positive feedback as the Trick-Ocheltree Snare.” 

 

 

Still, the mass, density and unique tonal qualities of Al Duffy’s solid steel snare drum lingered in Jeff’s brain-pan.  Inevitably he was inspired to create cast drums of his own, beginning with carbon steel, and leading eventually to bronze when he joined forces with Erik Paiste,(third generation patriarch of the Paiste family of cymbal innovators)  to create a custom line of cast drum sets, timbales and snare drums.   

 

 

                                                                                                                                                              Bragging In Bronze: The Paiste Family

                                                                                                                                                             Third and Fourth Generations of Cymbal Innovators

                                                                                                                                                               Robert, Michael, Toomas and Erik Paiste

 

“It had always been on my mind to make something out of a heavy seamless steel pipe, because it has a very focused sustained sound that you can do a lot with, just like bronze.  But the steel just has a different vibe to it, so that when you tap the raw shell, there’s this amazing sustained note.  The whole idea was to get a big, thick piece of carbon steel pipe, put it on the lathe, and experiment with it to find out what that thing would do, and if it didn’t sound good, well, then I’d have found out for myself.  Anyway, I did one a number of years ago and I really, really liked it—it had and organic quality, with some profound shell sounds unlike any other drum.  Compared to the bronze drums I would subsequently make with Paiste, it’s actually a little more brilliant, and yet in some cases depending on the finish—like the black nickel finish—it almost sounds warm.” 

 

Warmth from a metal shell drum: now there’s an interesting phenomenon and maybe I’ve just had some bad luck with wooden snare drums…because over the years, much to my surprise, I’ve found that in some ways a meaty metal snare drum can often sound more warm and “woody” to my ears than an actual wooden drum. 

 

                

 

Davenport’s Finest, II

Jeff Ocheltree

Striving To Do Something Really Artistic, Musical and Unique

 

“It’s true, it’s true,” Ocheltree concurs.  “A lot of those wood drums using big, dense, solid pieces of wood can sound almost metallic.  They’re too thick, and I don’t mean Sonor-thick.  So what’s the point of using that kind of wood?  And that’s something you’ve got to understand about me.  I’m just so tired of watching people—and I don’t just mean musicians, but quote, craftsmen—that are not coming from an old world perspective.  By which I mean they’re not doing any real thinking with their hands: thinking from deep within themselves; thinking from their experience and listening—using their ears.  How else can you develop an instrument if you don’t have all of those qualities, and you’re constantly evolving with them?  That’s why I wanted to make something that didn’t copy and rip off everybody else’s beaten to death ideas.  And that’s why I went to the seamless carbon steel: I just determined that I was not going to make drums out of wood anymore, and I never will again; and that I’m not making drums out of brass, and never will again. 

 

“To my ears, there’s just all of this untapped potential in carbon steel.  And I wish I could cast it myself, but the foundry that does my bronze told me, ‘Jeff, there’s no way we can get into that ball game.  You’d have to re-open all of the steel mills in Pittsburgh.’ So I’m actually using a material that was intended for a whole other purpose: these different diameter pieces of pipe that come in twenty-foot lengths or longer. 

 

John Bonham of Led Zeppelin

One Of Many Great Drummers

To Benefit From Ocheltree’s

Passion For Perfected Sound

 

And there are different types of steel: there’s cold-rolled, there’s hot-rolled and there’s seamless and then there’s a seam.  And I get this stuff called Schedule Forty, and it’s really neat pipe; not much thicker than what you end up with as a finished product, but it’s a thick enough casting that I can take off enough metal to arrive at the sonic characteristics I have in mind.

 

“The final step in the process was to do a finish on these shells that had some traditional references, like Black Nickel or Black Chrome.  So I experimented around, and got fed up with the straight chrome, because it has a bright sound that took away from the warmth of the drum, and I didn’t want that modern-day, glossy look.  And I did a lot of experiments with sand blasting.  And I found that by heating and blasting the steel shells, where you polish the steel and then clear coat it and bake it, we came up with some amazing results.  In working the metal that way, it adds a touch of temper and gives you this unique, funky finish.”

 

Having perfected his cast steel designs, when Paiste approached Jeff about developing a no-compromise, solid cast bronze shell—using the finest gold-plated die cast hoops, a sophisticated new strainer design, the best hardware and fittings and recycled cymbals that could be cut up and melted down—Jeff jumped at the opportunity: beginning with a Spirit of 2002 line of snare drums employing B8 Bronze, then moving on to a cast drum set and finally a pair of snare drums employing Paiste’s patented Signature Bronze. 

 

Carl Palmer

A Sixteenth of an Inch Either Way

 

“You would really appreciate this Chip,” Jeff enthuses in describing the fabrication process, “because we employ the ancient method known as sand casting.  This is the original technique that came about during the Bronze Age.  Centrifugal casting only gives you one dimension in terms of what your shell is going to produce, no matter whether or not any machining remains to be done on the shell afterwards.  But with sand casting you make the form two or three times the size of your actual drum, and by putting it on the lathe and cutting off all the slag and turning up one end to make a flange, you now have the ability to make a perfectly round shell.  Obviously you are always checking your figures and checking your specs and checking your tooling.  But these shells turn out perfectly round and everything about them is checked and double-checked in the machining process.   

 

“Then there are the actual sonic properties of sand casting, that is to say, when you make a shell this way, it does something special to the bronze in terms of the actual temper of the metal.  There’s a special tonal quality to the bronze that you can readily discern when the shell is finished due to the thickness of the sand casting you start out with and the temperature of the metal.  You also have a lot more options as far as working the initial casting down to a manageable, tunable shell.  The trouble with other forms of casting is that they are so definite—they don’t give you nearly as much margin for tuning, nor enough room for listening to other tonal qualities, other tonal properties and other notes in the shell. 

 

“I’m working with this wonderful foundry out in the mid-west that my uncle first told me about.  They are amazing people, who’ve been around for 250 years; very educated people who do amazing things with castings.  As you know, there are many different forms of bronze, and they do very specialized work, such as bearings for cranes—and when they’re done with them they look like pieces of art.  So I just love that particular method of casting, because there’s just so much more room to play around with the shell and do something really artistic and musical…something unique.  Because while there is obviously a certain consistency that we strive for from drum to drum, each of these instruments are really one-off originals.”

                                                

What’s really fascinating about the casting and finishing process of Ocheltree’s bronze shells, is their bell-like quality, because for me the element of pitch on the drumset—in terms of tuning in particular, and the tonal quality of cymbals in general—has always been a source of fascination.  “I’d love for you to hear just the sound of the raw shell as I tap on it, employing a good piano for a reference point,” Jeff explains, which immediately put me in mind of the ancient art of bell-making, and of the world’s largest carillon at Riverside Church in Manhattan, with its immense array of 72 tuned bells, extending over a full five octave range, including the largest tuned bell in the world—a colossal low C that exceeds ten feet in diameter and weighs in at over twenty tons.

 

 

World’s Largest Carillon

Riverside Church

Talk About Some Really Humongous Bronze Bells

 

“Wow,” Jeff laughs,  “Billy Cobham told me about that carillon and said we’ve got to go up there to hear it, but I never did it.  That’s what I’m telling you about these shells, Chip.  When you tap them they ring forever, like a chime, really, but it’s very focused and controlled.  This is how it came about.  In working towards a workable thickness, as the shells were spinning around on the lathe, we found that we were getting notes—and the more metal you take off, the more the shell rings.  And we experimented quite a bit to find the right thickness, because I didn’t want a thin-shell drum.

 

In coming up with a totally cast kit for Carl Palmer, he insisted on 1/8” thick bronze shells, whereas my original notion was to make them a 1/4” thick, but that was way too over the top.  So I would bring the shell down from 1/2” to 1/4”, then we’d bring other shells down to 3/16” and we tried all sorts of specs other than those less than 1/8”.  I was after the right balance of density and mass—that’s what I wanted with this bronze.  And we arrived at that 3/16” thickness over the course of building several prototypes—and after listening to what kind of note it produced while machining it.  And what I found with Paiste’s Signature Bronze is that you can’t compare it to anything.  It gives these shells this fatness and depth of tone, without the edgy top-end qualities of some other bronze and brass shells I’ve heard.  That’s all done with a special cutting tools that I developed, and that’s what also generates this distinctive carved look to the surface of the shell, which is the very last thing we before taking it off the lathe.” 

 

In my experience, there is a depth of tone and harmonic complexity to Paiste’s 5.5” X 14” S-Bronze Snare Drum that is utterly captivating, and to these ears it encapsulates a perfect balance of sensitivity and projection, of tonal response and dynamic range.  And in tweaking this remarkable drum shell to the outer limits of its expressive possibilities, Ocheltree dialed in the sound he was hearing in his mind’s ear by employing a fairly traditional forty-five degree bearing edge on the finished shell; a sophisticated new snare-strainer design and some beautiful die-cast hoops—which are really the sonic cherry atop this percussive sundae. 

 

“The reason I really believe in die-cast hoops for density-and-mass type shells, is that I don’t want to do anything that is going to impede the resonances and tonal qualities as I experience them while I’m tapping away at the shell—those bell-like qualities we’ve discussed.  So I’ve developed a set of die-cast hoops that will not only accurately transfer the sound from the shell but also allow it to be transmitted directly through the hoops themselves.  Now sometimes die-cast hoops can be a bit too much for a drum shell.  But on a shell this massive, these die-cast hoops allow the drum to ring freely, and really contribute a lot both to the depth of tone and the immediacy of the sound—while affording drummers the widest possible dynamic range, from a delicate pianissimo to a big, crackling fortissimo.”  

 

And yes, Virginia, the S-Bronze Snare Drum certainly does open up when you play it—as I’ve suggested, it can purr like a kitten or shout like a bloodhound in heat.  Which is why we’ve devoted so much time to studying it, evaluating its sonic characteristics, and analyzing the process by which Jeff Ocheltree arrived at his sonic epiphany. 

 

However, the sonuvabitch won’t do a damn thing by itself—the rest is up to you. 

 

Because Jeff Ocheltree poured thirty-plus years of his life into the creation of the Paiste S-Bronze and Spirit of 2002 Snare Drums, they have the potential to unlock your creative muse—to help you define your own original sound signature.

 

But, hey, don’t take my word for it.  Give them a listen and decide for yourself

  whether or not you can discern a bit of your own inner vibe in Jeff’s sand cast creations.

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