Review: Ludwig Supralite steel-shell 15×5 and 14×4. I recommend both highly on account of aggressive tone, long-duration clanging rimshots, and utterly pro-quality—amazingly priced under $200 US.

the Ludwig Supralite, supra-cheap snare drum is a professional level snare the Ludwig Supralite, supra-cheap snare drum is a professional level snare

Ludwig quietly introduced the Supralite steel-shelled series, which includes, from what I can divine, the review 15×5 and 14×4 drums plus drums I’ve yet to see: 14×5 and 14×8.  I can’t speak to the latter two since I’ve not touched them or even confirmed their existence. The Ludwig website, at time of posting, doesn’t utter a peep about Supralite snare drums. I phoned around and reached my old friend Jim Pettit, founder of the Memphis Drum Shop. He’d heard good things from his customers but couldn’t shed any further light on the issue. Maybe we’re part of the market testing process. Whatever, let’s go to it.


The Supralites caught me my surprise. Even though it’s my job to keep up with the industry, I’d never heard of the new Ludwig line. So imagine my surprise when I walked into Dave’s Drum Shop and, instead of walking right out with the intended (drum) head in hand, I lingered. I’d spotted a couple of the new Ludwig Supralites on the shelf. I did the deed: tapped it, eyeballed it, and sweated a quick decision. My car sat in a tow-away zone. Should I exercise prudence or go for my gut feeling about this well-chromed pair of (nowadays) slightly eccentric sized steel drums? I went with my hunch, made the money shot, and I’m glad I did.


I should note, as a pitch for Dave’s congenial flexibility, although I purchased the 15×5 Supralite, I had second thoughts a week later. Dave kindly exchanged it for the 14×4.


Frankly, I’d suggest that you buy either one—before Ludwig corporate HQ, or someone down their signal chain, awakens to their mistake. Drums this well-built, harnessing this much attitude and raw projection are rare and virtually non-existent at this price point. Two C-notes. A couple of cases of beer and a bottle of Scotch.


Statement of bias


As a point of comparison, although all things are not equal, I prefer both Supralites to any of the many Supraphonics I’ve owned and half of my cherished brass Ludwig Supers. Invariably, except for my 1920s brass Ludwig, I buy these thinking they’re good but end up horse trading them for something else.  Compared to more familiar Ludwig metal drums, I find the Supralite exudes personality. It is not bland or tentative. The drum is at once throaty in tone and more stable under stick. For example, the familiar complaint was that Supraphonic tension rods loosened the moment you played rimshot backbeats, rarely making it through a set without detuning wildly. Drummers from the sixties onwards would discuss remedies such as applying plumbers’ tape to the threaded rods or, later, Lug Locks. In the few weeks since I’ve purchased a Supralite, I’ve barely had to adjust a tension rod for slippage, just for musical reasons.


Attitude and pitch


The Supralite drum, from what I’ve seen and gigged, is the drum you take to when everything else seems boring. Notably it’s also the the drum I go to when I want to play snares-off and hear a distinct, almost-tuned pitch. No matter how tight I crank bottom and top heads, the drum retains this sensation of contributing a note, not just a thud, which makes it a good choice for singer/songwriter settings. And this pitched-thing doesn’t dissipate when snares are on. The pitch audibly contributes to the pleasing rimshot and snare sizzle. I realize this is sounding a little flaky. Check it out at a store, however, with snares off then on. You’ll see.


Background on dimensions


It helps to know the lay of the land. I am familiar with 15” diameter heads and 14” drums measuring below 5” in depth. As it happens, I own a 15” Rogers Tower, my high school concert band snare, which was my introduction to the feel and robust tone emanating from more head-room, as it were. I’ve recorded tons of tracks with a 15×5 Ludwig & Ludwig, a nice drum for organic roots music due its gentle but persistent demeanor. In addition, I’ve always kept a Leedy & Ludwig 14×4.25 snare or a Gretsch 14×4 Progressive Jazz (an earlier 3-ply model) at hand. These drums, like the Supralite, balance quick response with ample tone—they don’t get sounding like a pipe drum.


The forums are iffy, not quite ready to pull out the pickle and proclaim Supralites professional. They seek to distinguish between American and Asian-made drums, the Supralite aligning, apparently, with the latter. The fact is that every drum out there incorporates Asian parts—if, in fact, it’s not made entirely in China and simply badged in the USA (or Germany, the UK, etc). Let’s go on record as deigning the Supralite 15×5 and 14×4 review snare drums as fully professional.


Tbw recommendations


I suggest to young drummers that you couldn’t do much better than these. If your current gig is the school swing band, you’d opt for the 14×4, I’m thinking. Or the Ludwig Supraphonic 400, more polite…but costing double.


Any drummer making a dent in metal music would be insane not to audition Supralites, especially the 15” with its extra power. You might, like me, sway eventually to the 14” but both are contenders.


Note: I do not recommend these drums for drummers who use “zero ring” style muffling appliqués and who avoid rimshot backbeats. The Supralite performs best fully activated.


Watch the low ceiling


Note especially that if you tend to play predominately in rehearsal rooms with low ceilings or smaller clubs built from cinder-block, you better think twice (Vince Gill, “before you roll the dice”) about buying either review-sized drum. The biscuit tin rimshot will be a gunshot in such venues. It’s totally controllable providing you’re patient; I’m simply warning you. The drum gains its clanging tone from the diaphragm, not the nose. Despite my use of “clang”, this is not a thin, trebly drum. The rimshot is piercing, yes, but it’s a hearty shot rich in overtones that will hold its tone on the journey from stage to front-of-house.


There are a couple of sour notes


For one, if you decide to tweak the snare response and detach the strings holding the snare wire unit, perhaps administering one too many left turns to the fine-tension knob, you may find yourself unable to drop the snares fully. Just like the 1920s Ludwig Standard. It’s not terminal; nobody dies. You simply end up sounding like Tony Williams on “Footprints”, on which errant snare strands chatter away even when released from active duty.


A little patience goes a long way. Just like when adjusting the Yamaha blocky H-strainer, you want to get in there-tight, meaning don’t bother loosening unduly the strainer fine-tuning knob in order to take advantage of a few extra threads. You won’t need them. When messing with the strings holding the snares and reattaching them, don’t allow a lot of slackness. The way this strainer is configured you won’t be grinding the knob untimely to a halt. Get this relationship right and you’re good to go. The snare strands will drop free and clear.


The batter head, I felt, which comes with the Ludwig logo and no other hints as to its origin, is not well matched to the review Supralites. It’s not that brittle, mind you. Nor is it a total cheapo. For whatever reasons, however, I tossed it and reaped the rewards. Even a coated Ambassador, a head I usually shun, felt and sounded fine on the Supralites. An Emperor, my usual favorite was its usual self. Believe it or not, both 14” and 15” drums lit up with a coated Diplomat, Remo’s thinnest head.


Warning: this shell is so vibrant it may induce snare buzz


You should be aware that the Supralite steel shell is so bountiful in overtones you may find the snares rattling in certain registers and at certain familiar tension schemes where previously no snares buzzed. This is simply another example of the broad frequency spectrum at your disposal. Any extraneous buzzing is easily managed with a turn of a rod or two, coupled with a judicious nudge of the fine-tension strainer knob. Again, patience is indicated.


As we speak I’m looking at my Supralite 14x4it, fresh-in from yet another gig. It fell off a monitor on which I’d rested it for a moment. Nothing amiss, not even a dimple. It’s chromed better than most Supers and Supraphonics (duh) I’ve owned. Most of the post-brass Supraphonics pitted irrespective of what you did. A while back if you tried to apply chrome to aluminum, the drum suffered bad acne. Steel is a cinch to chrome, however, and this is a nice chrome job. I suppose this doesn’t matter but it’s another sign that care has gone into making this drum.


That spoken, while I suspect this drum is made to Ludwig specs, I have no idea if a Supralite is available under some stencil brand. All I can tell you is that it  behaves in the traditions of the best Ludwig metal drums I’ve owned and the rim profile is classic Ludwig.


At this price, you can’t lose, unless, perhaps, if you decide on quick resale. The word is out and, for the present, you won’t double your money. This drum is an investment in attitude. Tbw 3 Nov 2013