Review: Pearl Reference snare drum, 1st series: not “pure” but perfect

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Snare Drum Review: Pearl Reference Original Series

Don't fence me in: Lots of tone in the Pearl Reference snare drum

The best snare drum? There isn’t one. There are many good ones, depending on the music. But certainly the Pearl Reference first series snare drum is among the very best I’ve played. I understated this years ago in Modern Drummer. The passage of time has done nothing but confirm my original thumbs-up. This is a drum that’ll cut and rock to the last stadium row, yet do Ravel’s “Bolero” right in a velvety concert hall.

This first-series Reference snare drum shouldn’t be so good. The shell is thicker than a sidewalk and, in this case, ought to sound out out of sorts, as if contradicting itself, given it’s a slender 5” in depth. It’s like, where’s all that sound going to go? The resonant chamber is too tiny to contain it!

But speaking this 14×5” Reference drum (and the one I reviewed for MD), the elements combine in a rare harmonious fashion. This is a drum that exhibits few weird overtones, errant rattles/hums, or dissonance. It’s all drum, snares on or off, suggestive of the range from African tribal to American urban.

My Modern Drummer Review and on to today

Back in the day, I remember remarking I was tickled pink that Pearl sent me a complete, sparkling gray Reference kit—not a wrap but a pristine covering exhibiting incredible depth of field. That kit turned this reviewer from a doubter to a believer. It’s all public record.

But drummers are fickle. They go back and forth; they horse trade; they seldom remain satisfied. Give them two weeks and their perfect ride cymbal is tainted and ready for sale. Then they sell and hear it in the arms of another and regret “the one that got away”.

Sometimes people tell me I’m too favorable in my reviews. In that light, I’ve wondered about the Reference on many occasions since that MD review was published.

As it turns out, two years ago I was making my usual rounds of Dave’s Drum Shop, a facility in my home town that will ship to yours, even if you’re in Japan or New Jersey (my MD editor, the late Bill Miller bought 2 kits from Dave’s Drum Shop and had them sent to his home in “Joisey”).

I was browsing in my own disjointed fashion and spotted an equally curious snare drum, brushed aside to the far reaches of the rack. The color was not immediately to my liking—a burnt orange sunburst. But it was a well-executed paint job and the generously chromed Pearl lugs spoke “Reference” to me. Dave told me this drum had sat unnoticed, unwanted, for months and he’d reduced the price. To me, it was going for peanuts, something well under $300.00 US.

Pearl Reference snare showing snare strainer lock

note "industrial" lugs and locking snair strainer lever

I examined the drum. Peering through the opaque, condom-thin snare side head it was obvious this was a Reference comme les autres, a typical first-series, mega-thick shelled snare drum. By “mega thick” we’re talking 2” shell walls composed of 16 plies maple, 4 inner plies birch. The maple is said to enhance bandwidth while the birch nudges the attack component upward.

Pearl Reference shell, 20-plies of maple and birch

Thick enough shell for you?

Immediately I saw why the drum was a shop orphan. Who’d want a cinder block weight snare drum that sounds mushy, indistinct and absent of any unique attributes—a drum you strike once a push back into the ranks? The heads were sloppy, the bottom rippling a little.

Fortunately, I’d spent a little time with the drums, thanks to MD. Perhaps that’s what caused me to hear something in this 14×5. And it was struggling to get out.

Feel me, touch me, tune me!

I carry a drum key everywhere and without ado I cranked the snare side two complete turns with the drum key—complete turns, mind, and perhaps a wee bit tighter at the snare gate and butt. The batter received 1.75 complete revolutions of the drum key.

I hoped that some fool hadn’t browsed along and strummed the snares as if windmill-chording on a guitar but, fortunately, were pristine and parallel when engaged. They were simply looking for a little tension.

Pearl Reference snare units, you know, the rack of wire strands stretching across the bottom of the drum, offer a delightful feature. You crank them tight and the band of wires in the middle, or maybe it’s the edges, remain slightly looser. You tighten further if you like heightened articulation and the one band of snares remains relatively looser, irrespective of how tight you tension the group. Works a charm.

Drum nerd note: This is a quality well-exploited in the Fat Cat snare units, which I had ignored in my basement work area until recently when they brought a previ9usly deadbeat snare drum alive on account of the same concept. With Fat Cat units, you tighten the snare wires with lever the usual way, fine tension them with the knob and get the snares snug and comfortable. If you prefer a little “wetness” to the response, you get it by taking a screwdriver to a little slotted screw on the snare plate: you can loosen it in fine degrees and retain the snap yet enjoy a elongated sizzle from the ten or so strands affected by the turn of a screw.

The Pearl snares do this in a manner that suits me. I get beautiful “snap”, and the capacity to articulate quiet buzzes and doubles cleanly, plus a little sustain in the bargain. Pearl seems to have gotten proportions right.

Those wires literally sizzle seamlessly on that ship funnel thick Reference shell, which probably would stop a bullet it’s so substantial. The snare bed, although I haven’t measured it, looks fairly wide and, perhaps, slightly deeper than many today. You can judge from the photo.

Snare bed on Pearl Reference snare drum

snare bed is fairly wide, fairly deep

The tone is woody (duh, it ought to be, what with 20 plies of maple and birch) and most significantly, with snares off it sounds like a drum, even when you crank tension unbelievably high. You get this sharp, sustaining rimshot with snares on and, by flicking the lever off (the lever boasts a tiny locking button, a no-brainer), you get a usable “first tom”. Most drums choke and refuse to offer any discernible pitch when tightened unreasonably high.

Back to Dave’s Drum Shop, I’ll never forget striking the drum. The first blow turned heads…people’s heads, that is. The second dropped jaws. It was that obvious. The Reference snare drum boasts an uncanny desirable sizzle everybody seeks from drums wood and metal.

I bought it, no questions asked.

The Reference: a keeper not a sleeper

t’s been a couple of years, several recordings and loads of live gigs under my belt, and the drum has not failed me. Not once has the locking strainer arm slipped nor has the butt-end fine tension knob (usually it’s at the strainer side) proved unreachable. In fact, I wonder know if a butt end fine tension knob counters the ability to apply tension on the strainer side…just a thought.

Pearl Reference snare strainer butt end

note that the snare fine tension knob is on the butt end

Under every silver lining there is a dark cloud

The one blotch on this sunny canvas is the rim. Why on earth did Pearl supply an already powerful snare drum—and strangely one that would sit in the LA Philharmonic without flinching—with a heavy, die-cast rim. It protests too much. Overkill. Coals to Newcastle.

Paul Frederick, then Pearl rep now Direct Music marketing manager, suggested I try the last Pearl stainless steel rim he had in stock—a regular, triple-flanged hoop to all intents but constructed from, well, stainless steel—as opposed to the usual steel, zinc, brass, aluminum, white metal, and so on.

The moment I fitted the Reference with those stainless steel rims, the drum went from better to best. Rimshots were cleaner and more in keeping with the timbre of the resonant chamber. The drum gained an even broader frequency range, and yielded a “rim click” or country “cross-stick”, that balanced better, in terms of attack and “wood block” tone, with adjacent drums in the kit. I found this important when recording with distant/minimal mics.

No Ambassadors or G1s for me

My choice of batter head for the Pearl Reference first series 14×5” snare drum is not the factory fitted head, a Remo Ambassador, the lazy man’s choice. It is, rather, a Remo Renaissance Emperor, either marching (extra-crimped?) or regular model. I’ve gone through two in the life of the drum and have changed over only out of habit. The rimshot sustain is longer with the Renaissance Emperor (or, for that matter, any Emperor or Evans G2; am I alone in noticing this?); the tone is more equally distributed (no bright, boingy spots aside choked zones); and the overall feel is what I associate with a medium weight calf head. If you haven’t tried a Renaissance Emperor batter head on your snare drum, irrespective of brand, you are missing something special; extra-special on the Reference. The heavier head seems to stand up to the heavier, thicker shell. High energy meets high energy and disperses smoothly and widely (John Donne, your days are numbered!). This drum might have been like hitting a boulder, all hard and brittle. It “gives”, however, before striking back!

I truly love, okay appreciate, this drum. The snares-off tone is a bonus and rare attribute. I own snare drums that excel with snares secured but cough a dry rasp when snares are withdrawn. The Pearl 14×5” Reference snare drum can do Chad Smith as easily as Aaron Copeland. My only concern is replacing the snare strands should mine meet with an accident. Gene Okamoto, veteran drummer and Pearl rep, insists I will not have trouble.

Hopefully the series II Reference “lite”, Pearl Reference Pure, with slender shells (snare drums are 6-ply), will hold a candle to these. With respect Gene, I can’t see how they can but I’ve come to respect Pearl over the years. They’re doing things their own way and, from what I’ve seen, doing okay or better. The only Pearl drums I own are the Reference 14×5 snare and the 1960s budget Coronet (Pearl stencil brand) kit, which as surprised me more than once. Let’s see if Reference Pure is more than relief for lower back sufferers….If not, the first series are plentiful and penny-conscious, considering what you get. Mind you, although I happened upon a sweet deal on a sweet drum, I wouldn’t pay over $500 for a snare drum. Then again, if I did, I’d be buying a grand instrument.