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  • Writer's pictureNathan Coles

Snare Drum Shell Types: Metal vs Wood Drum Shells

Updated: Mar 8

Metal drums vs wooden drums. We know you’ve got your opinions on which of these is superior, but what is the actual sound difference between the two and what nuances give each their own unique character and timbre?

Today we’re going to explore Black Swamp’s contrasting selection of snare drum shell types. What their individual sound qualities are, some popular models and additional things to consider when choosing a snare drum for you or your music ensemble.

Feel free to explore our extensive list of drums and accompanying sound samples for each model on our website:


A Brief History of Drum Construction

Before we get too far, I feel like there’s a few historical bits worth mentioning.

The drum is often referred to as the oldest musical instrument. In order to communicate over long distances, indigenous communities used singing and drumming.

The drum began to take shape as ancient idiophones evolved into membranophones by mounting stretched animal skins over hollowed out logs or wood frames and played with hands or makeshift mallets. As ancient civilizations advanced, so did drum construction. The egyptians, chinese and other middle eastern cultures then developed drums made from wood, clay, metal, or other available materials.

Besides communication, drums became utilized for ceremonial purposes, dancing, entertainment and military purposes as its design and purpose moved into Europe. A drum's penetrating sound made it a useful tool for conveying commands on the battlefield.

As time progressed, the snare drum found its way into musical compositions beyond the battlefield. In the 18th and 19th centuries, composers began incorporating snare drums into the orchestra, expanding their expressive capabilities. Composers like Beethoven, Prokofiev and Stravinsky integrated snare drums into their compositions adding a fresh rhythmic texture.

Over time, metal hardware like hoops, lugs and tension rods allowed for greater control over the drum's tone and sonic opportunities. Refined snare systems like our Multisonic strainer, transformed the snare drum into a more versatile music instrument, expanding its musical applications and bringing us to today.

Wow - we just covered 70,000 years of instrument evolution in 70 seconds. I think it's time to keep moving.


General Shell Types for Snare Drums

As we start digging into shell types, let's think big to small or general to specific. The first thing to ask yourself is, do you want a wood or metal shell drum? Metal shell drums will be brighter with maximum projection, but sometimes lack the “complexity” you might get from a natural wood shell snare drum. Wood shells are generally warmer and more resonant. I say generally, because there is also a spectrum of tonal character, articulation and projection you can hear from various lumber options available. We’ll unpack that briefly in a bit.

Another consideration is size, being the depth and diameter of the drum. You may already know if you’re looking for a general purpose instrument, which would lead you to a 14” diameter drum in either a 5 inch or 6.5 inch depth. Or, maybe you’re looking to round out your snare drum inventory with a piccolo drum, being 13 or 14 inches in diameter and 3.5 or 4 inches deep. Any direction you decide to go, we have a shell type in various sizes to meet your musical requirement or taste. Let’s start with ply maple.


Ply Maple Snare Drum Shells

unassembled ply maple drum shell

We use 7-ply maple shells as the core of our ply shell snare drums. For clarification, ply shells are constructed from thin veneers - or layers - of wood that are glued together and bent into tubes which are cut into various depth shells. These layers of veneer and glue make for a strong shell, not requiring the reinforcement rings you might find in a single ply shell. We’ll talk more about those in a minute.

For orchestral purposes, ply maple is pretty universal, meaning it is a very versatile shell type. Our 7-ply maple drums perform well in a wide range of musical settings with notable warmth, clarity and projection. It’s an excellent shell option for beginners to professionals, including any individual or organization requiring a go-to, general purpose snare drum.

This adaptability and versatility is why our most popular snare drum is a 5"x14" 7 ply Maple shell with the Multisonic snare system.

Besides standard snare drum sizes, we also manufacture ply maple piccolo models as part of our Mercury series. A great thing about these 4 and 3.5 inch deep drums, is they actually play “larger” than they are. Essentially, with our 7-ply shells, you don’t lose the body or character of the drum at louder dynamics, which can happen with smaller depth instruments. We have Mercury sound samples on our website and YouTube channel. I encourage you to take a peek and hear the difference for yourself.


Medallion Brass Snare Drum Shells

unassembled brass snare drum shell

If a ply maple drum has sort of a rounder, warmer tonal quality, brass drums are the complete opposite. Medallion brass is by far our brightest, most aggressive shell type, but don’t let that scare you off. Sometimes you need the maximum projection and articulation of a brass shell to cut through an ensemble or speak with supreme articulation. Orchestral percussionists love that stuff.

This is no stock beaded brass shell either. We worked with our supplier to incorporate a custom snare bed exclusive to Black Swamp Medallion Brass snare drums. This snare bed is shorter and deeper than a similar drum that might be used for drum set performance.

This special snare bed is important, as it matches the contour used in our other shell options, which is necessary for a quality orchestral sound. I’m not going to elaborate too much now, but it has to do with creating the appropriate shape when seating the bottom head, which creates the appropriate cable snare contact, which affects snare response, sensitivity, projection, etc, etc. If you’d like to learn more, check out our video on snare beds and seating a resonant snare side head.

From there, Medallion Brass finish options include a beautiful black nickel for a clean, classic look or an earthy patina finish for a vintage brass snare drum vibe, applied here in our facility.


Titanium Elite Snare Drum Shells

unassembled titanium elite snare drum shell

Next, is my personal favorite Black Swamp shell type: Titanium Elite. Not just because the word titanium sounds so state-of-the-art, but because of its truly unique sound quality. Even though titanium may look unassuming, and be used in a variety of other industries, it makes an exceptional shell option for orchestral snare drums.

What stands out to me is the crisp tonal quality of titanium, fused with a warmth you might not normally associate with a metal shell snare drum. It has an unmistakably dark yet sensitive character, placing it in between the sound qualities of ply maple and brass.

Our Titanium Elite shells are also surprisingly thin, approximately a 1/16th of an inch, and light, without sacrificing strength, thanks to the inherent properties of the metal. This thinner shell definitely helps to produce the distinct character and body of titanium, which is becoming more popular with orchestral percussionists.

Our most popular Titanium Elite model is the 4 by 14 inch Mercury snare drum. Marrying this shorter depth with a titanium shell type results in an orchestral snare drum with a quick response, unique texture and unexpected body.


Unibody Snare Drum Shells

unassembled unibody cocobolo snare drum shell

Finally, let’s talk about our steam bent Unibody solid shell option. These shells are made in-house from a range of domestic and exotic woods, each with their own unique tonal characteristics. We went pretty in depth about our Unibody shells in a previous blog post if you'd like to learn more about these shells. For now, we’ll quickly cover the general tonal properties of Unibody options.

Unibody shells are manufactured from one piece of lumber, essentially a single ply, which gives the drum a distinct fundamental pitch and beautiful tone. In comparison, multi ply shells, like our 7-ply maple discussed previously, are constructed from layers of veneer and have a broader response. Bottom line, Unibody solid shells have exceptional clarity, resonance and projection.

Besides sounding amazing, Unibody shells look exquisite. The variety of shell options provide a unique offering of colors, grain patterns and overall aesthetic that matches the level of performance you can achieve. Because we all know, if you look good, you feel good. And if you feel good, you’ll sound even better.


Drum Shell Comparison

Now that we’ve covered the different shell types offered by Black Swamp Percussion, let’s examine some comparisons between them. We’ll start with metal snare drums vs wood snare drums. Categorizing shell types into these two camps is an easy way to identify what material might be best suited for you and your needs.

Wood Snare Shells

As covered earlier, wooden drum shells will oftentimes have a rounder, warmer tone compared to their metal snare counterparts. Wooden shells have a lot of variety whether you select a ply maple shell or Unibody. While Black Swamp sticks with 7 ply maple shells, you can find shells that are made with more or less plys or a combination of different wooden plys to add even more complexity to the mix. Unibody shells can have just as many variables when selecting from a plethora of different domestic or exotic woods.

Metal Snare Shells

Metal shells on the other hand have a brighter, more aggressive tone. What makes these shells so impressive is the ability to provide unparalleled articulation at all dynamic ranges. In comparison to wooden shells there are fewer construction considerations to address - no plys or exotic woods here. Depth and diameter are your main points of customization for a metal drum. A benefit of this “limitation” is that you know a brass drum when you hear it. Titanium though, that’s a sneaky one. Its surprisingly warm tone makes it a versatile instrument and one that can blend in with wooden shell snare drums.


Which One is Right For You?

So, which option makes the most sense for you? The construction of a drum shell is one thing but how it sounds is the most important factor you should consider.


Where you’re regularly performing should also be a factor when choosing an appropriate shell type. If the hall you play in most sounds exceptionally boomy or open, you may need a drum with more articulation. A brass, titanium or more articulate solid shell option for instance. If your usual performance space is already very dry, you can feel comfortable choosing a ply Maple or Unibody solid shell option.

If you’re a band director and need an instrument versatile enough to travel from a rehearsal space to the concert hall, one of our 7-ply maple shell drums is definitely the best direction to go. From there, you can decide on a specific size and strainer option.


The cost of the instrument is also important, especially if you’re on a tight budget or part of an organization where cost effective instrument solutions are paramount.

Ply Maple drums are the most affordable of the bunch, which is good. Not only will you be purchasing a versatile or universal shell option, but your pocketbook, or music secretary, will thank you.

Because of the materials used, brass and titanium drums will be higher priced. Again, these shell options have a more distinct and specific sound quality which may be necessary for your performance space, or helpful in rounding out the selection of drums in your instrument inventory.

Unibody shells represent the highest quality of snare drum shells and their price tag reflects that. Not only can the lumber itself be expensive, but yes, time is money. There is a fair amount of labor that goes into manufacturing a solid shell snare drum. But it’s worth it, if you're looking for a superior sounding instrument that will last a lifetime.


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