Vintage View - Noble and Cooley Star Series
Vintage View: Noble & Cooley `Star'' Series
The Star set was unusual in that just about all of it was made in a completely different and old-fashioned way. We''d been seeing prestigious and expensive N&C snare drums (including eventually Zildjian’s cymbal alloy version) over here in the UK since 1983 imported by small wholesalers and shops; but, a large distributor called FCN decided to become involved with the American company and invest heavily in importing their whole range of drums.
Noble & Cooley started out making military drums in the mid-nineteenth century in Massachusetts, but for most of the intervening period they''d been responsible for producing hundreds of thousands of toy drum kits for American kids.
Originally these drums were made from wood with rope tensioners (which is where they learnt their present craft) but for more than sixty years they were made from metal with spring rod tuning systems. N&C continued quite happily building their toys until 1976, when a local restorer enquired as to whether they could possibly make him a one piece shell for a damaged Slingerland `Radio King'' snare drum he was working on. For the uninitiated, the `Radio King'' like all but the largest N&C Star Series drums was constructed from a single piece of solid maple steamed and bent to shape in a press, then fitted with strengthening rings at each end. This being different to ply shells which make up 98% of drum shells and are much cheaper and quicker to make.
Fortunately Noble & Cooley still possessed the necessary equipment to carry out this tricky work and built several shells for the collector who was so pleased he suggested the company started to produce them for real. After much trial and error they were satisfied and in 1984 their `Classic SS'' snare drums were finally put on the market. The next logical step was to build complete sets and after a great deal of research and development these finally came into being in 1988.
The manufacturing process for Noble & Cooley''s Star range was extremely time consuming. The shells took three to four months and thirty-seven steps to make, with a good percentage of wastage so therefore it couldn’t come cheaply. A ply shell by comparison takes minutes to make and hours to finish.
The raw wood was specially selected whilst still growing, the maple tree was then felled and the green wood planed and inserted into a pressure-cooker for something like eight hours. The pliable wood was then bent into a circle, and held under pressure in a former that gave it its exact shape. The shell then had to be dried and cured for a period of six to eight weeks whereupon it was deemed ready to have a great deal more meticulous work applied to it.
The N&C join was taper-lapped over a distance of something like four inches so as to become pretty much invisible and this I was led to believe made the join at least as strong as the shell. The company used solid reinforcing rings to strengthen the drum and these were also steamed and bent. They were `screamed'' into place under pressure and the drum was finally accurately cut to the required shell depth. [Initially these glue rings were fitted to the very top and bottom of the shells and the bearing edge was cut into them but, N&C discovered that the shell breathed better if they were set on the nodal points thus supporting the single posts of the tuning system. More of this later.
N & C shells were said to be an improvement on the old Slingerlands in that they were thinned down to an even thickness with sharpened 45 degree bearing edges on the inside, and a much smaller chamfer on the outside, to give less head contact. Even the bed on the snare drum had been completely changed. They''d worked hard at making all the edges more consistent and accurate, and since many of these delicate operations were carried out by hand, a great deal of time went by before the shell was ready to be either stained and polyurethaned, or colour lacquered with a very special flexible polyurethane. I was told this wouldn''t chip as if the shell took a bang the finish would flex with it. Both of those finishing operations were carried out by hand. The snare bed was cut with a saw and the edges were trued up meticulously also by hand. When all the tests had been carried out to ensure the accuracy of all those important edges, they were waxed and ready for the installation of the hardware.
The hardware too contributed greatly to the sound of N&C drums and I once described it as being naively uncomplicated. Certainly there were a great deal less fixtures and fittings than we were used to seeing on a modern drum and I’d say most manufacturers learned a lesson from them! The nut-boxes themselves were a throwback to those tube lugs which Ludwig and other manufacturers were using seventy or eighty years ago which featured an un-sprung metal tube. This tube was tapped at both ends to accept square headed tension screws, and held in place by turned posts bolted to the shell. However Noble and Cooley improved a little on this by making the tubes out of brass and attaching them to the shell by way of a single, small, wedge shaped, brass block which took the place of the two eye-bolts. These blocks were mounted close to the bottom head at the points of least vibration on the shell that are known as nodal points, and this more or less deters the fittings from having any adverse affect on the overall resonance of the drum.
Having told you all that about the solid shells I now have to tell you that the bass drum wasn''t made like that at all! Try as they might, N&C were unable to successfully cure then bend a solid inch thick piece of wood measuring 16" x something like 69" (in the case of a 22" diameter bass) into a perfect circle to produce a bass drum. So, they took the next logical step and built it from 8 plies of maple in the normal modern way like just about everybody else. Then they fitted shallow 8 ply glue rings at the outside edges like many of the more esoteric custom manufacturers. Indeed, N & C''s less expensive `Horizon'' drums were all made like this. Incidentally, Star''s bass drum hoops too were made from 10 plies of maple glued together the thought being that the hoops wont make too much of an audible difference.
Noble & Cooley’s Star series toms were something else. They arguably started a revolution that may have been due to Bob Gatzen’s involvement with the project. They were a great deal shallower than usual at a time when ‘Power’ toms were still happening (man). The reason behind them, and any shallow drum, was that since the heads were close together they would respond more quickly.
N&C made drums measuring: 10 X 6”, 12 X 6”, 14 X 7” and 16 X 8”. All had the reinforcing rings mounted at their bottom nodal points with 6 tensioners per head on the smallest drums and 8 on the largest pair. Noble & Cooley''s rims appeared to be somewhat old-fashioned. They were cast and straight-edged, and with what used to be called a `stick saver'' bead at the very top. N&C bought the dies for these from the defunct Milestone company of Canada, and according to articles I''ve read on the subject, they may never have been able to afford to produce their drums at all if they hadn''t found them - to tool up for something like a rim is a ridiculously expensive operation.
These drums were absolutely built with RIMS mounting attachments in mind. For those who don''t know instead of attaching a mounting block to the shell and arguably decreasing some of its vibrations, they attach a rail to the tension screws through rubber grommets and attach the normal mounting block to it. N&C supplied the rails for all four toms in the price but no mounting blocks.
The snare drum was not included in the price I''ve quoted. Star snare drums had all the same attributes as the toms: one piece shells, nodal point mounted glue rings, single bridged lug posts, cast hoops and so on, as well as ten tensioners and a graduated snare bed.
The snare throw-off also looked like it could have been invented years before but wasn''t. In principle it worked on a hinge which unlocked away from the drum, rather like your average Gretsch or Pearl strainer. It was made from brass (and lacquered) in three pieces one of which joined to the shell via three smallish screws, while the other pieces, (including the lever) were hinged together and joined to it by a knurled screw that adjusted the tension of the snares. The outside of this mechanism was a cast, shaped box stamped ‘Noble & Cooley’ with the screw operated clamp for snare strings or plastic strips hidden inside. The lever mechanism hinged through almost 180 degrees to allow easy adjustment.
The butt-end was also brass and substantial with a typical screw-operated clamp joined to the shell by another couple of bolts. The only other thing joined to the shell was one of the prestigious, elliptical, brass badges engraved ‘Noble & Cooley’ to be found on the rest of the drums. This one was attached to the shell just above the nodal line by a large brass collet that served as an air hole and let the air escape after it had done the work of causing the bottom head to vibrate in sympathy.
The drum I played with the set was a 3.5" deep piccolo from the SS range but the company made 14" diameter Star snare drums that had 6 and 7" depths. There was also something called a Drumbali that was a cross between a snare drum and timbale and measured 12" by 6. At the time that size of snare was pretty revolutionary.
The first time I tested N&C drums they were fitted with Remo heads but the Star set had heads that I was informed were the result of a collaboration with Evans to produce some new heads specifically for their own drums. Both sides of the toms had `UNO 58'' 1000 gauge coated heads, the snare had coated `Generas'' while the bass had Studio Generas. These bass drum heads were the original heads which many others have been based on - ones designed to make a double headed drum thump like a single header filled with blankets, stage-weights
More or less the only other things to comment upon were the actual sounds of the drums. Twenty-five years ago I wrote:
”Just about any laudatory adjective you can come up with will do to describe them. The snare is sharp, crisp, breathy, ballsy, snappy, and so on. The bass drum is meaty and thick but still with penetration, and the toms are simply wonderful. Their slightly shallower shells give a distinctive, almost timbale-like sound which still sounds like a strong, cutting and colourful tom. But above all these N&C drums are responsive.
When I reviewed the snare drum on its own,I said that even with the very slightest tap it sounded amazing and when you hit it hard its sound was unbelievable. Successively harder hits simply added more and more of the middle frequencies to the sound and really strengthened it.
Having played the whole set now these comments apply to the toms and bass drum too!”
The outsides of the drums were impeccable and you could get them in beautifully lacquered clear or honey maple finishes as well as white, black, red, or blue catalysed polyurethane. The interiors were quite a bit more funky looking than we were used to, but this was done on purpose. The insides weren''t heavily lacquered at all, but finished just enough to equalize atmospheric interference on the shell and stop warping. I''d say this factor also had a profound affect on the colourful sound of N & C''s.
Obviously at this high price those drums weren''t going to be available everywhere and FCN were talking in terms of Ferrari-type concessions: just half a dozen retailers would carry them.
Drums are of course still available from Noble & Cooley although not the maple-shelled, fast-sized Star Series. But you can get steam-bent oak-shelled drums with 12 x 8 and 14 x 12 toms and an 18 x 14 bass drum should that be what you’re looking for.
Check out their website which (unsurprisingly) is at: www.noblecooley.com
I actually have one of these sets.I think there was one other tom that you didn't mention. 6x13. I tried to order this later but by that time they had discontinued the line and had moved on to the Horizon series. Also are you aware of the sets they made before the star series. Right after putting out the SS Snare drum they made a set that also had one ply shells. All the drums except ( again ) the bass drum which was plies. The toms were more tradition sizes. 10x8, 12x9, 13x10, 14x12, 14x14. The 14x14 was discontinued because of problems with keeping a shell that size in the round. So they ended up only offering the 14x12.I think only about 10 of these sets were made. I still have the catalog with prices.Would have loved to have gotten my hands on one of those. I did however purchase two of the later CD Maple kits. Really nice drums that a lot of people don't really know anything about. As of now a small family owned and operated business.They make really nice equipment.Also owned one of the Muppets drum sets. That's right the Muppets .( the drummer-Animal )That was also one of their kits.They made a lot of the toy drums on the market.But don't let that fool you. Their top of ther line drums are FAR from that.
Larry Scott, 7 May 2012
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