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  • Writer's pictureNathan Coles

Unibody Snare Drums: One Ply to Rule Them All

Updated: Jun 21, 2023

Our steam bent, single ply, Unibody shells are one of a kind and blend a beautiful combination of art and science to create a beautiful looking and sounding instrument.

We've put a great deal of thought and action into creating our Unibody snare drums - so here's what we'll be digging into:


What are Unibody Drums?

Black Swamp Percussion, steam-bent cocobolo unibody shell

At Black Swamp Percussion, we are proud to introduce you to our Unibody brand, which stands for excellence in craftsmanship and unparalleled sound quality. Our Unibody snare drums are made from solid wood and undergo a meticulous steam bending process that takes place entirely in our facility.

Our Unibody shells are the culmination of years of research and development, ensuring that we deliver the best quality snare drum shell that we have on offer. We meticulously select the highest quality materials to create these shells, and our team of experienced craftsmen carefully constructs each one by hand to ensure that they meet our exacting standards.

We take great pride in the beauty and sound of our Unibody shells, which have earned a reputation as the top choice for discerning percussionists around the world. When you play one of our Unibody snare drums, you'll immediately notice the richness and depth of the sound, which is a testament to the quality of the materials and the craftsmanship that goes into each one.

At Black Swamp Percussion, we are committed to providing the best possible musical experience, and our Unibody snare drums are a true reflection of that commitment. So whether you're a professional musician or an avid enthusiast, we invite you to experience the beauty and quality of our Unibody snare drums for yourself.


Unibody vs Ply-Shells

If you're new to the world of percussion, you might be wondering about the differences between ply wood and solid wood shells. Ply shells are constructed from layers of thin wood veneer that are glued together to form a tube. At Black Swamp Percussion, we purchase these tubes and cut them down to various depths for our ply maple snare drums. Specifically, we use 7 ply shells for our Multisonic, SoundArt, and Concert Maple drums, and 9 ply for the Pro10 Studio drums.

Bearing edge of a ply maple snare drum shell

Ply maple shells are widely used in the percussion world, and they offer a great balance of durability and sound quality. Our most popular snare drum, the 5”x14” Multisonic, uses a 7 ply maple shell, which delivers a fantastic sound that percussionists love.

bearing edge of a walnut unibody shell with maple reinforcement rings

On the other hand, solid or “single ply” shells are made from a single piece of lumber. At Black Swamp Percussion, we source high-quality lumber and professionally process it to steam bend it in our facility. While our Unibody shells are not manufactured from a hollowed out stump of a tree, they are made from a single piece of wood, which makes them unique and gives them a distinctive sound.

We've mentioned steam bending several times when talking about our Unibody shells. So, what is steam bending?


Steam Bending

man preparing a ply of wood to be steam bent

Steam bending is part science, part art, and very labor intensive. Being born from the earth, wood flexes and bends because of its natural structure and inherent properties, specifically an organic polymer called lignin. Lignin is the substance that gives wood rigidity and strength. Generally speaking, denser woods tend to have more lignin than softer woods. Which is why a dense exotic wood like cocobolo is much more difficult to bend than domestic maple.

plys of wood being soaked in water

To start this process, raw lumber must be machined to exact dimensions and thickness to be used for a Unibody shell. The wood is soaked and then steamed. When wood is exposed to heat and moisture, such as steam, lignin becomes softer and more pliable. This allows wood to be bent into the desired shape using a specially designed mold. This process requires skill and precision, and it's one of the many reasons why our Unibody shells are renowned for their quality and sound.

a steam bent unibody drum shell with reinforcement rings

After the steam-bending process, the Unibody shell is still somewhat malleable, and without reinforcement, it is likely to warp and distort over time due to the natural stresses of the wood grain. To prevent this, we install reinforcement rings (or re-rings) inside the raw shell. These rings are typically made from a harder wood species, such as rock maple, and are glued and clamped into place. The rings provide stability and rigidity to the shell, helping to maintain its round shape and structural integrity. Once the reinforcement rings are installed, the shell undergoes a CNC (computer numerical control) machining process to ensure it is perfectly round. This is an important step because any imperfections or irregularities in the shell's shape can affect its sound quality.

Black Swamp Percussion cocobolo snare drum on a shelf

After the shell is machined, we apply an appropriate finish and hardware onto the shell. Our exclusive Arch tube lugs are used to secure the drumheads to the shell, and our innovative strainer designs allow for precise and easy snare wire adjustment. After the drum is fully assembled, it undergoes a tuning process performed by a professional percussionist. This ensures that each drum meets our high standards for sound quality and is ready to be shipped to musicians around the world.

It's worth noting that while we are transparent about much of our design and manufacturing process, some aspects remain proprietary. We've spent a lot of time and energy developing our process (science) but not every type of lumber bends the same due to its natural characteristics and individual demeanor (art).


Let's Talk Lumber

plys of cherry, zebrawood, and maple

So let’s talk a little more specifically about lumber. We work with a wide variety of Domestic & Exotic woods here at Black Swamp Percussion. Our domestic selection includes: Maple, Cherry, Walnut, and Ash. And our exotic selection being: Cocobolo, Bocote, Purpleheart, Zebrawood Mahogany, and Bubinga.

The Janka Hardness scale is a useful tool for understanding the hardness of different wood species. It is calculated based on the pounds-force required to embed an 11.28 mm diameter steel ball into the wood. The higher the force required, the higher the rating. The scale is commonly used in the furniture industry to document resistance to denting and scratching, but it also has connections to percussion instrument manufacturing.

In general, exotic woods tend to have higher numbers on the Janka scale, indicating greater density and hardness, which translates to shorter, more articulate sounds for drums. For example, Cocobolo is the hardest wood that Black Swamp works with and produces a crisp, articulate texture, which is popular with orchestral musicians. Domestic woods, on the other hand, tend to be less dense, with lower numbers on the Janka scale, and produce a darker, smoother sound. Ambrosia Maple and Ash are softer wood options and produce a noticeable contrast in sound to Cocobolo.

However, the hardness rating is not the only factor that affects the sound of a snare drum. Different woods also have contrasting timbres apart from their specific density and hardness. For example, Walnut is technically softer than Maple, but it has a more focused sound to the ear and has become a popular solid shell choice. Bocote, which is similar in hardness and timbre to Cocobolo but more affordable, has also become a popular Unibody shell option.

While the Janka scale can provide some insight into the hardness and density of different woods, it is not the only factor that affects the sound and performance of a snare drum. Other factors such as the individual characteristics of the wood, the shell construction, and the hardware used also play a role.


Considerations For Your Snare Drum Sound

Black Swamp Percussion Cocobolo Multisonic being played

The material of your drum shell is certainly important, but it's just one factor among many that will influence how your drum ultimately sounds.

For example, the type of hoops you choose can significantly impact your drum's tonal quality. Die-cast hoops produce a more focused sound, Whereas, 2.3mm steel hoops have more flexibility and can not only alter the overtones that are produced by the instrument.

Your choice of drum heads is another crucial factor that affects the sound of your drum. There are countless synthetic head options on the market, each offering its own unique tonal characteristics. However, natural calf and Kangaroo hide heads can also contribute to the depth and complexity of your drum's sound. For instance, the folks over at Kentville Drums specialize in crafting beautiful Kangaroo hide drum heads that provide a warm and round tone.

Black Swamp Percussion cocobolo Multisonic being tuned

Tuning is yet another key factor that can dramatically alter the sound of your drum. Not only must you tune both the top and bottom heads to your preferred pitches, but you must also fine-tune the snare system to achieve the desired sound for the specific piece of music or performance context.

Check out our Multisonic and SoundArt tuning tutorials to see how we dial in our snare systems for maximum sonic impact. These tutorials are a great place to start if you're new to our strainer systems and offer a guided explanation of how each system functions.

Black Swamp Percussion wooden drum dampeners

And let's not forget about dampening. The type of dampening used on your snare drum can drastically alter the sound of the instrument and provide some relief from some potentially unwanted overtones. We offer a variety of wood drum dampeners that can help you achieve the perfect amount of sustain and resonance for your drum. These drum dampeners are made from recycled wood from our Unibody shell manufacturing.

Ultimately, your choice of sticks, playing area, performance location, and personal playing style can all contribute to the final sound of your drum. Each of these factors deserves its own deep dive, as they can significantly impact the overall tone and character of your instrument. So, while the drum shell material is certainly important, it's just one piece of the puzzle when it comes to crafting the perfect sound for your drum.

With that in mind, we sometimes feel you can begin to split hairs when comparing the specific lumber options and potential sound qualities - which leads to another point of conversation we make when talking about these instruments: How the drum looks should be just as important in the decision making process.

Steam bent Bocote unibody drum shell

The aesthetic appeal of a drum shell can play a significant role in your selection process, and it's important to acknowledge this without causing offense. You may be drawn to the contrasting grain patterns of Bocote or Ambrosia Maple, the striking beauty of Purpleheart or Birdseye Maple, or the sleek and classic appearance of Maple. Regardless of your preference, you can expect your chosen wood to produce a phenomenal sound. With so many variables to consider when customizing your snare drum sound - such as heads, hoops, hardware, and snares, all of which we previously discussed - sometimes choosing a wood based on its appearance is the way to go. It's worth noting that grain patterns and color can vary even within the same species of wood, so it's essential to choose based on what speaks to you personally. Ultimately, the overall aesthetic of your drum can add to your enjoyment of playing it, so it's a factor worth considering.


Why Choose a Unibody Snare Drum?

After learning how Unibody snare drums are made, you may be wondering why these instruments deserve your consideration?

First and foremost, Unibody snare drums offer exceptional sound quality. The construction of a single-ply shell provides uniform resonance and produces a pure, impressive tone with exceptional response. Whether you're playing delicate whispers or rambunctious roars, you'll notice a distinct fundamental pitch in the instrument.

In contrast, ply shells are constructed with multiple layers that resonate together, creating a more complex set of overtones and a distinctive "crack" in the louder dynamic range of the drum. Nevertheless, they still produce a beautiful sounding instrument.

We have a comprehensive list of sound samples for these instruments on our channel and website, and we'll link a playlist in the description where you can hear these drums in action.

Another reason to consider Unibody snare drums is their manufacturing quality. We're meticulous in our selection of shells, sorting through lumber to find prime cuts, and bending several times to get a proper shell. This is because cracks or defects may not present themselves until we're well into the manufacturing process. With years of experience and fine-tuning, every shell is made with the utmost care and attention to detail.

Steam bent Ambrosia maple unibody drum shell

Thirdly, Unibody drums are aesthetically pleasing. They represent a full and varied selection of lumber options, each with unique grains, colors, patterns, and expression to fit both your artistic style and musical tastes. They're not only high-quality instruments but also visually stunning.

Finally, Unibody snare drums are incredibly durable due to their single-piece wood construction and reinforcement rings. Even when dropped from a two-story building, the shell maintains its integrity and stays in round. So you can rest assured that your investment in a Unibody snare drum will last for years to come.


The Cost of Quality

man operating machinery with drum shell

When it comes to Unibody drums, it's important to keep in mind that they do come at a higher price point compared to their ply shell counterparts. This is due to a number of factors. For one, the manufacturing process is much more labor-intensive, as each shell is carefully crafted from a single piece of wood. This process requires a great deal of expertise and patience, adding to the overall cost.

Additionally, the quality of lumber used for Unibody drums is often more expensive, with many rare and exotic woods being imported from all over the world. While this can drive up the cost, it also ensures that each drum is made from only the finest materials available.

However, it's worth noting that the higher price tag is well worth it in terms of the quality and longevity of the instrument. With proper care, a Unibody snare drum can last a lifetime and offer exceptional sound quality that simply can't be matched by a lower-priced drum. Think of it as an investment in your musical future, and a chance to own a truly exceptional instrument that you'll be proud to play for years to come.

Closing Thoughts

Black Swamp Percussion Zebrawood Multisonic snare drum

Unibody snare drums represent the pinnacle of our craftsmanship at Black Swamp Percussion. Our skilled artisans pour their years of expertise and attention to detail into every aspect of the manufacturing process, from sourcing the finest lumber to meticulously bending and shaping the shell. As a result, these drums produce an exceptional sound that simply cannot be matched.

In addition to their sonic excellence, Unibody drums are also works of art. Each drum is crafted from a unique piece of wood, selected for its individual character, grain patterns, and color. We take pride in showcasing the natural beauty of the wood in our instruments, and we believe that a drum should not only sound great, but look great as well.

We invite you to explore our website and social media channels to learn more about our Unibody offerings. You'll find detailed descriptions of each drum's unique sound characteristics and the materials used in its construction. We also have audio and video samples available to give you a taste of the incredible sound these drums produce. With a Black Swamp Unibody snare drum, you're not just getting an instrument - you're getting a work of art that will inspire you to create your best music.

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