The biggest thing that affects the sound drums make is the type of wood the shells are made from. Every drum kit is made from one or two types of wood and each wood has distinct sound qualities. Two of the main woods used in drums are birch and maple.
Why are these woods so popular and what features do they offer? I’ll discuss that in details below.
Before that, if you just want to know the main differences between birch and maple drums, here it is:
Birch drums sound brighter and punchier than maple, and with more attack they cut through the mix easier. Maple drums sound much warmer and offer more sustain. While birch drums bring out the mid-range, maple is known for its deep bass. Lastly, maple kits tend to cost slightly more than Birch drum sets.
Birch wood makes a drum kit have a bright tone. It brings out the mid and high frequencies, giving the drums a punchy sound. When playing on birch kits, you’ll notice that the toms have a lot of attack, meaning they’ll cut through mixes a lot more easily than other woods will.
Birch drum kits will typically sound better when tuned medium to tight. This is because the tighter the drums are tuned, the more attack they’ll have, emphasizing the qualities of the birch wood.
Birch drums also have short sustain which means they won’t ring for very long. The sound of a tom gets out the way very quickly after hitting it.
I teach drums on a Yamaha Stage Custom, and I’m always pleasantly surprised at the punchiness of the toms. I found that even when my beginner students hit them, they sing out incredibly easily. Usually, when beginners play drums they don’t hit confidently, so the tom sound is quite mellow. Not with the birch kit.
Lastly, birch drums are a lot more common to find than maple drums. These are the most popular birch drum kits currently. I’ve personally tried and liked the Yamaha Stage Custom Birch. It’s a fantastic kit for the price. If you’re looking for a more premium option, you can’t go wrong with the Pearl Session Studio Select.
Drums with maple wood are a lot warmer, sounding great when tuned low to medium. There’s a lot more bass to each drum, giving them that earthy sound. Maples drums tend to blend into mixes if they’re not tuned tightly.
Maple drums have the potential to have a huge sound that works well for hard hitters. They also give the drummer a lot of control over their tones.
The sustain is long, especially when tuned loosely. The toms tend to ring a lot longer than the ones that are made from birch wood.
Maple drums aren’t made as frequently as birch drums. But they’re still loved for their tonal characteristics.
Another notable maple kit to mention is the Tama Superstar Hyper-Drive Duo. I’ve been using this as my main gigging and recording kit for a few years. I love the sound the toms make, and I’ve found they translate very well through microphones.
Maple is pretty good for doing drum recordings. My Tama kit has been the center of all my Instagram and YouTube drum videos, and the maple shells have served me incredibly well.
Styles of Music
The tonal differences between the two kinds of wood are very slight, meaning only seasoned professionals will be able to hear the difference. However, each wood does cater better to certain styles of music. This is because the instrumentation in a particular musical style will determine how loud or soft, or how bright or warm the drums need to be.
One style of music that a lot of drummers play is rock. Both kinds of wood will work well in most rock settings, but birch will be better in settings that require fast playing with tight drum parts.
You’ll need a birch drum kit if you plan on playing a lot of intricate drum fills that need to cut through a mix. Hard rock and metal are styles where birch would be beneficial.
If you’re looking for a looser rock sound with a huge impact, maple would be a better option. The ringing toms will make quite an impact on any stage.
Maple drums work better in jazz setups, thanks to their earthy tone and long sustain. Even though jazz drums need to be tuned high, the warm tone of the maple makes up for the lacking high-end.
I’ve played a few jazz gigs with birch kits. While they work perfectly fine, I did feel that I was missing the round sustain that a maple kit would offer. There’s a rich tone that I’m used to that just isn’t there with a birch kit.
I find it slightly easier to play fast chops on birch kits. The drums seem to have a slightly quicker response, so they cater better to faster playing. I’ve noticed a lot of Gospel drummers using birch kits. They’re all about the chops, so a birch kit is the perfect tool for them.
The most important aspect of recording drums is having the ability to control the sound from the mixing desk. This is why dry cymbals with a short sustain work best for recording. They’re easy to control and they get out of the way fast. You’d assume from this then that birch drums work best for recording since they have short sustain. That’s not entirely true.
The earthy tone of maple drums tends to work a lot better in recording studios. The warm tones sound fantastic when picked up through mics, giving you a wonderful drum sound. One of the ways that recording engineers get around the long sustain is by muffling the drums with tape or gels.
However, this doesn’t rule birch drums out completely. If you’re recording music with fast drum parts, birch may be a better option.
I also found that maple drums have a seriously wide tuning range. The recording studio is all about versatility. Studio producers will typically have one drum kit setup that will be used for tracking all kinds of music. They’ll swap out snare drums and cymbals, but the toms and kick drum will stay the same.
The wide tuning range works perfectly for this situation. I’ve had quite a few recording engineers tell me that maple drums are the answer when it comes to tracking bands.
Birch wood is a lot more accessible than maple, meaning you’ll find a lot more kits on the market that are made from birch. It’s fairly common to see some entry-level birch kits being cheaper than maple.
Maple is most commonly seen in kits that are priced for intermediate and advanced drummers. You’ll find some birch kits in this price range as well, but they’re often combined with other woods to make the drum shells.
A few maple kits that I can think of that are under $1,000 would be the Gretsch Catalina and the Pearl Decade. These are two drum kits that provide a fantastic affordable platform for anyone jumping into higher-end gear.
Price ranges for the two woods will be the most varied comparison out of everything I’ve spoken about. While the general rule is that birch is cheaper, I’ve seen some Sonor SQ1 birch kits that are seriously expensive.
Drumheads and Sticks
An important point to note is that the tones you get out of the drums are heavily dependent on the types of drumheads and sticks that you use. So, your overall drum tone will be thanks to a combination of the type of wood and the type of drum head. The attacking sound will be dependent on the type of drum stick.
Single-ply heads will produce more sustain and more ringing tones from the drums. They’re typically used for jazz playing, especially with maple drums. Putting single-ply heads on birch drums is a great way to increase their sustain.
Double-ply heads are thicker and more muffled. They control the sound and last a lot longer than single-ply heads. They word fantastically on both birch and maple drums. However, they’re a better option for birch drums if you want a tight sound.
Nylon tips and wood tips on sticks both sound the same on birch and maple drums. Specialty sticks such as roots and brushes will have a slight difference in tone, but nothing that is easily noticeable.
I’d suggest trying all different kinds of combinations to see what you like. If you have maple drums, you may love the sound of single-ply heads on them. If you have birch drums, you might find that double-ply heads bring their tones to the next level.
The thing I love about drums is that we’re spoilt for choice when it comes to sounds. You can make a birch kit sound more like a maple kit with certain heads and vice versa.
I found that the big difference between nylon and wood sticks comes from the cymbals. A nylon stick will have more attack. So, don’t worry about what type of drum wood you have when choosing sticks.
Hopefully, you’ve seen that the difference between the two kinds of wood is very slight. This means that one isn’t better than the other. Your choice of wood should come down to personal preference and depend on the style of music you’re playing.
If you’re going to use the kit to record albums, it may be better to get maple drums. If you’re going to be playing live and you need the sound to cut through mixes, birch drums would be better.
A lot of drummers like to have both, so that could be an option to look into.