“My 9/11 Memorial Glass Drum Kit by Orlich Percussion Systems”
A little over 13 years ago, I came across a picture of Alan White (YES) playing what looked to be a set of glass and brass drums. Being a drum nerd, my curiosity got the best of me. Were these gimmicks, art, or perhaps something more? I became obsessed with finding out more... So in 2001, I contacted John Orlich to learn about Orlich Percussion Systems. I later had the opportunity to speak with Alan White and Tris Imboden (CHICAGO) about their Orlich glass drums. After that, I was hooked. I wanted a set of these drums! But let me tell you the whole story from the start…
John created his first glass drum shell prototype in 1988. Over a three-year period, John worked to further improve and perfect his unique drum design. In 1991, he introduced Orlich Percussion Systems to the public, unveiling his handcrafted, glass drums at the PASIC and NAMM shows. The design is truly ingenious. The Orlich glass drums are constructed of 3/16” thick and 1 ½” wide beveled glass, with brass supporting each bevel. For the snare drums, the snare side has a deep recessed snare bed. In the initial series, John used Yamaha double-tension, parallel strainers. The current version is now adapted to use the Trick GS007 strainer. Die-cast hoops are fitted on the snare drums and triple flange on the toms. The “bearing edges” are steel construction, attached perpendicular to the supporting brass framework. The bearing edge frame is slightly set back from the hoop, a feature I believe adds to the drum’s sensitivity. Parallel with the bearing edge frame, there are two outer brass hoops that act as a “lateral pressure system”, absorbing most of the force and tension exerted, keeping it away from the shell. When the tension rods are tightened, the “L”-shaped brackets (which are part of the tuning lugs) force outward, and keep the “L”-brackets in place. So in essence, it is a free-floating brass and steel frame over a glass/brass shell. John stated, “I knew from my acoustical studies of glass, that glass was nearly a perfect resonator. It will not flatten the sound in a lifeless manner indicative of the see-through acrylic drums, but it could also ring too much with unwanted overtones if not dampened by just enough structural material holding the components together. It is important that the sound movement within the shell to be completely unencumbered.”
So these drums looked quite impressive by design but I was curious how they sounded. John Orlich was kind enough to put me in touch with both Alan White and Tris Imboden. Here are some excerpts from my telephone conversations from 2001:
Can you tell me a little bit about how you met up with John Orlich and his glass drums? “John Orlich was obviously a fan of the band and had obviously listened to our music for along time. In fact, he knew a lot more than a lot of people do about the music. I believe it was through the internet we first kind of met. Then he came to a gig and presented me with a snare drum which I thought was quite unique and quite incredible. But when I actually saw the drum, it was like something you’d never seen before. I told him I would actually work with it a little bit. I got into tuning it and when he was at that gig that night, I used it on the encore numbers for the band - which he liked a lot. Then I started getting a feel for it. It was very bright as you’d expect, but you could really finely tune it and get it within a certain area where you wanted it. So obviously being a custom made kind of thing, it’s appearance alone made you sit back and go ‘oh well, this guy spent a long time doing these drums. Obviously they had a good ear for it.’ I took it back home and worked with it awhile. Then John called me to say he was making a whole kit for me. So we took it to that point and he got the kit to me here. I worked with it and got it tuned to where I liked it and it started sounding really, really, really good. Unfortunately, I can’t really use it that much on stage, but I intend to try and use it on the next album. However, it is going on exhibit at the EMP museum in the next few months (Seattle). It’s not quite that economic to take (the kit) on the road. However, the snare drum is and I intend to try and use it in the studio.”
I heard rumor that you used it on the Ladder album. It that correct? “Yes I did. I used it on two tracks. I used it on ‘Homeworld’. I can’t remember the other one. But I know I used it on ‘Homeworld’ because I remember Bruce Fairbairn at that time absolutely went ecstatic about it. He said, “Call right now, I want to buy one of these things!” He enjoyed it so much. Bruce was the producer. Unfortunately, he died at the end of the album. He was an excellent producer.”
How would you describe the Orlich glass snare drum? “It’s just a unique drum. It’s got such a crack to it. It’s a drum that’s very easy tune. When you’re in the studio, you have this kind of very fine area where the snare drum interferes with vocals as far as frequencies go. But with this drum you can kind of, within each track, very finely tune it around where the vocal is leading. It seems to always be able to cut through it even if you don’t have to turn it up. You can leave it at level, but you can always hear it. Sometimes, a snare drum gets clouded out by vocals; but especially with some of the harmonies in YES, I found this drum unique in that respect – it cut through. It was very easy to get to a pitch and level where it could be heard without turning it way up high."
Did you feel that the drum stayed in tune well? “Yes. I never had any trouble with the lugs coming loose or anything like that - which I like a lot. Sometimes when you get into a piece of music, especially longer pieces like YES plays, its annoying when the lugs start coming loose halfway through the song and you have to tune up again."
Did you have any problems with the physical stability of the drum? I mean the big question everyone will ask is can Alan hit that thing like hell and not crack it. “Absolutely. There is no question about that. If you actually pick the drum up, I don’t know exactly how much it weighs, but it weighs a lot. It’s a heavy drum. The glass is thick which gives it the weight. But there is no question that anything would break on it.”
How do you feel about the kit? “I’m not quite used to the kit, however, the times I’ve worked with tuning it, I’ve always gotten a great feeling out of it. I’ve got quite a few drummer friends around here and they’ve all said that these (Orlich drums) sound absolutely amazing.”
I heard through the grapevine that you had an Orlich glass snare drum. What is that like to play? “Something that blew my mind was when Rob Riley (Orlich Percussion Systems) contacted me via email telling me about this glass snare drum. He wondered if I'd be interested in trying out and giving my opinion. First of all, I couldn't picture how they could have accomplished this. I could not believe how beautiful it was and how ingenious the construction was. It was just amazing to me, the whole brass thing on the outside. When I first hit it, I was cringing a little bit because I was expecting this huge real top-end kind of sound, but it wasn't like that at all. There was plenty of top-end, but there was so much warmth to this thing. It was like a baseball bat on a birthday cake. I was blown away.”
Can you get rim shots on this thing though? “Oh yeah. You'll know it's glass when you do that just from the sound. I'm not saying it falls apart, just the sound. It's got cut that redefines cut. Long story short, I used it on this project I'm doing with our guitarist, Keith Howland. It was a tune that we wrote with Robert Lamb, just this little instrumental piece and they both thought the snare drum sounded incredible. It records like crazy. I'm really excited to try it in a variety of different situations too. It's definitely in my snare drum arsenal now.”
I bet it's pretty heavy. “It is heavy, but it's worth any strain it would put on your snare stand. It's such a unique sound.”
So hearing such high praise from my drum heroes, Alan and Tris, I really wanted to experience these drums myself. John and I started some discussions about building me a glass snare drum. It was now the end of 2001 and the whole devastating 9/11 experience was still very fresh in my mind. A co-worker had lost her brother-in-law in one of the twin towers. The first fatality was Father Mychal Judge, N.Y.C. fire department chaplain and coincidentally the priest who presided who presided at my wife’s roommate’s wedding. I decided to have this drum customized to commemorate those who had lost their lives in that terrible disaster. I asked John if he could etch the outline of the twin towers in each of the glass panes. John sent me the following response: “Bob, here is a design I feel preserves 9/11, but not so pictorially as to look souvenir. The motif is tower-like with two on each of the twenty-seven plates to represent the twin towers of the Trade Center. Space permits only a 5/8” flat plane on the glass in which to etch. For aesthetic reasons, etching should not enter into the beveled edges of the glass (7/16” in width). The etching would be done on the back (inside) of the glass. Either the motif or the background within the 5/8” flat area could be etched – a nice effect either way. Etched area is frosty white and crystalline in appearance… Let me know if the etched design meets your expectations.” Indeed, the design was wonderful and we moved forward.
My Orlich 7 X 14” snare drum with die-cast hoops lived up to expectations and more. It truly had such a unique sound, very fat, yet a higher pitched crack to the sound. As Alan White said, it really could cut through the vocal mix. After experimenting a bit, I thought it sounded best with thicker heads such as Remo Emperors or Pinstripes (strange as I’m generally a Remo Ambassador fan). I played it at length with my band, The Fallen. It never detuned at a gig and held up perfectly well. Every show, at least one drummer would ask me what snare I using – they loved it. While it was not the lightest snare in my arsenal, it was not a back-breaker – 18 lbs., significantly less than the weight of my Paiste/Ocheltree 2002 bronze and that one I would not lug to every gig! When we went into the studio to record a 3-track demo of our originals, I brought my Orlich glass snare. It sounded so good that the sound engineer asked if he could borrow it for other recordings. Yes, it was that good… A year later, I asked John to make me an entire kit using the same design (8 X10”, 9 X 12”, 16 X 16” toms; 18 X 22” bass drum). It arrived in wooden crates, one drum at a time over a period of some months, but it was worth the wait. It was fabulous in design and the sound was incredible - so much warmth, punch, depth and projection. The only downside was that they were extremely heavy! Not for the bad back or routine gigging. However, I had my dream kit and a fitting memorial to 9/11. I honor their memories in my music and never forget their sacrifice. Thank you, John Orlich.
Update from John Orlich: “Future upgrades include removable bearing edges with a choice of profiles for the drummer to use depending on the acoustic situation. Drums may also be available with copper hardware in addition to brass.”