Drum review: Yamaha Live Custom oak drums, a world premiere before the series hits store shelves. The forums are a-buzzing. Yes, they’re made in China. And they are wicked

The forums are indeed buzzing and it’s the usual forlorn forum stuff. Often it’s the blind leading the blind. The talk that buzzes around the new Yamaha Live Custom is the country of origin: not Japan, not Jakarta but mainland China.

Let’s put this business to rest, at least for now.

I’m fortunate in that I’ve played the new Live Custom oak kit (22, 10, 12, 16, and snare). I thank Yamaha Canada drum director Sean Browne for supplying a kit—actually bringing them along on a 5-hour drive when doing other business in my town. I bought him a donair at the best outlet in 500 square miles. It doesn’t add up but we both parted happy campers.

As drummers say, time was of the essence. Sean offered them to me for an afternoon; he then had to transport them home for shipping to Japan where Yamaha designers wanted a look at the kit before it hit the market.

I booked at my natural habitat, a recording studio and 3-hour session at Bova Sound in Ottawa, Canada. Part of the “natural” is Phil Bova, with whom I cut a lot of folk albums and jingles over a 15 year period. Phil Bova generously sat-in on bass and enabled a musical context. I coaxed him and, although (my apologies) you can’t hear him that well on video-2, he facilitated a musical context. You know how some drums sound just fine and dandy, thank you very much, until you throw a keyboard or a guitar at them? All of a sudden the drums vanish or get soaked up I the wake of others’ overtones. Not these. But with all their attack, volume, and sustain, they are ultimately musical.

Bova Sound Green Light

No question, the Yamaha Live Custom not only held their ground but steered the action. You can hear it on the video. Why the guy in sunglasses let bloopers go by, let them go to public record, is a mystery. But he gets sound out of them—buckets. If I’d studied another month (I’ve been learning software you work with in studios but never have time to ask about) I’d have been able to sync up Phil’s wonderful board mix. This guy is amazing. He can make digital sound as good as his pair of in-house Ampex 16-track 2” open reels.

Actually, I’m a fan of digital on account of the details they reveal. This made them keenly sensitive to the review drums. Unfortunately, for now you’ve got to hear the Live Custom drums through the Zoom Zoom Q2 HD video recorder’s on-board mic’s. It’s not like they’re bad; they’re good. But they’re not a Bova Board Mix.

And a bonus: You are assured that this way you will not be duped by studio trickery. Disclaimers out of the way, here we go.

Attack is the word, blossom is … the last word

These drums are aggressive from the moment the stick meets the batter head. The attack component isn’t exaggerated, it’s just there in spades. And this tip action is immediately followed by an eruption in the lower-mids that intrudes up through the spectrum. Not a lot a 6kHz or anything, except snare and plastic beater, but that’s a good thing.

That spoken, as you’ll hear in short order, there’s an audible sparkle of harmonics I’ve yet to hear on another drum—not even my former favorite drums, LA-badged Camcos (not Tama Camcos). Nearer the rim these tones reside. It’s interesting because they’re well-behaved and interact with fundamental tones in a way I’m afraid I haven’t had time to examine forget about explain. Fact remains they add to the explosion, as streamers follow Disney fireworks, and are symmetrical in their decay. No lurches are evident as the head settles. And when the head is at rest, I couldn’t detect a single ripple. The view was that of a mountain lake at dawn, smooth and unbroken (no, I quit all that years ago). Part of this is, of course, attributable to the supplied clear Ambassador heads, which afford drummer customers a showroom glimpse at the ebony-coated interiors, shades of the old Recording Custom series! But I came to believe, during my intense 3-hour, fun workout, that the head fit and response—at extremes from forceful flows (you can see me switch to butt end, haul off and smack the floor) to gentle whisks—was due to the exceptionally true shells and tweaked bearing edge, something I noticed straight off and mentioned to Sean Browne. Indeed, the “point” of the bearing edge has shifted a few millimeters towards the center of the drum, thus fostering a floating head, or “Dresden effect”. That extra sustain is money in the bank, as far as I’m concerned. If you don’t appreciate healthy sustain, read no further. Or purchase hydraulics.

Here we have at thick oak shell, relative to the garden variety Yamaha Oak Custom, which will be subject to Yamaha scrutiny in the very near future. More I cannot say, mum’s the word.

Just how prominent are these plentiful harmonics?

Overtones may be generous and diverse but they are well matched; there’s no dissonance, nor is there any awkwardness when playing a fill around the toms. Each drum flows from the next, as it were, very much in a family way.

In addition, in the video I wing it with the observation that these drums blend particularly well with the Paiste cymbals I’d set up. I lied: the top hat was an old Turkish K, heavy, while one of the rides, at least in video-1, was a 22” Zildjian K first-version “Bill Stewart Ride”.

Back to attack, so to speak, I note that there are brands out there that have founded careers on similarly emphatic attack. With the exception of certain Brady kits, a whole different level of discussion and execution, I would state on record that the Yamaha Live Custom smoke the competition on sheer personality. All these diverse overtones, good sustain, immediacy of response, etc add up to, well, something that you can’t add up. But that character, that personality, in my opinion leaps out of the video. Frank Sinatra would have said, “Run for cover, run and hide!”

I’ve made no attempt to bolster tone, certainly not with board EQ since you’re hearing the Zoom and only the Zoom, and there might be a single 1” slip of black fabric tape on the snare where my sticks falls on 2 and 4, to remove a little clang from the rimshot, which I love but is not the average drummer’s benchmark backbeat tone. Speaking toms and bass drum, the batter heads were tensioned right in the middle: your index finger could press an inch max before stopping. Maybe only ½ an inch.

This snare drum is a work unto itself. I would have thrown it into my car trunk had Sean not beat me to it. He told me that a prominent Yamaha artist had tried a similar kit, during the beta-testing stage, and claimed that the 14×5 was “the best wood drum he’d ever played”. Might have been Tommy Aldrich. If it was, this is no wisp of a snare drum. Broken are the meek for they shall inhabit the dumpster.

I own a lot of snare drums and this standard 14×5 with fully 10-lugs apologizes to none of them. It’s easily as sensitive as a Yamaha orchestral snare except when you clobber it with a rimshot. In fact, I strike hard, firm rimshots but release the stick immediately upon impact. To this end, the combination of the aforementioned bearing edge and a triple-flanged, mid-weight metal hoop, I believe, is the optimum one since it allows the already decent attack to bite a little more—while excluding the possibility of a boxy 2 and 4 sometimes fostered by zinc die cast hoops.

I’ve shortened this review by over 1,000 words because I didn’t want to come off as one who is in the pocket of Yamaha. In fact, I’ve been a little distant from the company since my dear friend Hagi, guru design and artist rep, retired in 2004.

Okay, the hardware. Was it up to scratch?

I worried that without Hagi around, the company might relax his obsession with durable and functional hardware. What is ball-and-socket tom mount? Indeed, in festival backline episodes this summer and last, I played a couple of Yamaha kits that fared well drum-wise but were sketchy in terms of stands, mounts, etc. This year I remember clearly having to over-tighten the large Yamaha wing nuts on two tom mounts—and both still slipped, something unheard of in the “Hagi era”. Someone suggested that Yamaha, like other companies, had moved, however briefly, to Reliance hardware (long story, ubiquitous Asian brand, good stuff) and got off on the wrong foot.

Doesn’t matter. The hardware that came with the Yamaha Live Custom was a dead-serious collection; I speak of everything from lugs to receivers to floor tom legs, clamps, etc. The wing nuts, threads, tom holder Neoprene balls and the chromed metal chambers that hold them, the long bass drum rods (I would have preferred T-rods to drum key ones but there you go), and the floor tom brackets—all were, if it were possible to pass judgment on the basis of a single 3-hour recording session, equal to any Japanese-made hardware I’ve seen in the past. And the aesthetics obviously nod to this rich heritage. The 10” and 12” toms, standard depths, didn’t even move an inch when I laid into them; and one of them, given it was off in left field, Dave Weckl style on a stand (leaving the bass drum “virgin” as they say, forgetting, of course, about the ten lugs and metal spurs bolted to the shell!) I decided to crank the batter on the 10” table top tight and use it as a “timbale”. From medium to tight and tighter-still, it offered something musical. I enjoyed the bright, full response and the inherent stability. Same goes for the 16×15 floor tom, which I’m fond of versus the 16×16, which seems to provide a little too much air to get moving if I don’t crank up the bottom head. This sucker, with bottom head a baby’s breath tighter than the top positively sang—tuned either slack, in the mid-range, or above. I did not tune it up to bop range, as with the 10”. It seemed a little silly given the earthquake like tones I was getting, at one point, as I remarked in a review that will be published in a Canadian drum magazine in a month or so, dislodging a full cup of Janet’s (Bova’s partner in life and Bova Sound, Sage Electronics). Splatt, all over the gobo—a a few drops on the floor tom as well.

The bass drum I tested measured 22×18. I like 22 kicks as much as 20s, 16s, and John Good’s (DW) 18” X-shell, a killer. Whether or not this one deserved a full 18” depth, is hard to say.

But I have to admit a wee error in judgment: my fault, not the kick

I brought to the studio, as is my wont, several bass drum heads—front side heads with various-sized holes/ports. I invariably settle on a large hole as I did in the current instance. I reckoned that given but 3 hours, it was best to go easy on the engineer and let him get his hand up there inside the shell to do his devilish work.

That was wrong under the circumstances, given with the supplied front head, with Yamaha logo, no-hole, the drum was sounding monstrous yet retaining the attack that defined the toms. Sure enough my big-hole front head went on and I had a few problems. Nothing terminal mind you. I tweaked a bit, cranking the batter up to see if pitch was the issue that puzzled me; loosened it to the middle range then to papery-low to go for attack. I never quite got it. I just know had I brought an Evans EQ1 coated that bass drum would have done the job and more. As you can hear, but barely see (sorry, I’ll get video together, I promise!), the bass drum tone was fine. Good, even.

 

But, truth is, I ought to have let you hear what the MF-ing kick sounded like with the supplied Yamaha no-hole front head. It’s not as if it’s a Bonham tone—more like Bev Bevan when he was The Move, Hal Blaine in “Danger Man” or Jim Keltner on “Alone in the Dark” or Questlove on “The Fire”.

Chock one up against me, two if you count a couple of blown floor tom vs kick fills and lapses in time. Ah well, you get the point. I hope.

 

Summary Yamaha Live Custom Review

These are not made-in-China Yamaha drums doing a credible job. The new Yamaha Live Custom are what it is, meaning true and blue Yamaha drums that meet standards set by Hagi. Sue me if I’ve made a mistake with regard to hardware durability and aesthetics. But I don’t think you’ll feel obliged to provided the kits that hit retail stores are the same as my review kit.

The Live Custom is a big sounding kit that remarkably works at pp, too. If the supplied silly clear heads were removed, or at least swapped out for clear Emperors, I’d have moved more than coffee cups. But the ultimate test of a drumset is a neutral, hard feeling head. Make that sound good and feel good, as did the Live Custom and, China or not, you’ve got a winner that follows a noble tradition uncompromisingly.

All that and the Yamaha Live Custom are instruments. More on them and other drums on this website shortly. But, as with any review I’ve done up for Modern Drummer, I stand by my words. I was kidding about suing. My pocket book couldn’t stand it. tbw