The first instrument other than the human voice, drums have been constructed from just about any hard object under the sun. Today, drums are typically made with wood or metal, with wood being the favored material. Two common types of wood are birch and basswood. Drummers consider birch the higher-end material while basswood is used in budget kits. Both, however, have their distinct qualities. In general, manufacturers select the wood for the outer ply based on its looks and the inner ply for its effect on the drum's sound.
Second in popularity to maple, birch is slightly less expensive because birch comes from fast-growth trees and it has a brighter sound. Birch is a blond, dense, tough wood that holds up well to use. It loses about 10 percent in reproduction at the low end and gains 20 percent in the high end compared to maple, meaning it is a harder and brighter sound. Birch's tight grains mean they take stains, lacquer and poly finishes well, giving them an attractiveness as an outer ply in addition to the strength of the material.
Typical Use of Birch Drums
Musicians use birch drums in recording studios because they are "naturally equalized" with a timbre that hits quickly and dies off. They also use them on tour because they are highly durable, look good on stage and have strong overtones. The use of birch drums among touring professionals hit its prime in the 60s and 70s. This was especially true in the late 60s when the attack portion of the sound was a key element of recordings.
Basswood Drum Characteristics
Basswood is a less expensive material because basswood is plentiful in the United States and Canada, making it a favorite for budget drum kits. It is a softer wood than birch and is sometimes combined with other wood plies to mellow the tone. For example, some companies will add a maple or birch outer ply. Basswood is considered a higher grade than lauan or ramin. Basswood has a straight, uniform grain and many drummers say that it has a warmth and versatility even if it is lacking in punch and attack. The tones are mellower and lower pitched than those of drums made from maple or mahogany.
Typical Uses of Basswood Drums
Basswood drums are often designed for beginning and intermediate drummers because of the lower price. It can be found as a material in drums from such companies as Taye, Tama and Sonor. Also, because basswood is a softer wood, it absorbs sound rather than reflects it, giving it less resonance and a sound that is not sustained for as long -- something that is acceptable to beginning drummers but less useful in the recording studio. Taye also has a kit that combines birch and basswood; this combination allows for the gain at the high ends associated with birch -- also called its brightness -- and the low, mellower tones of basswood. This combination lets musicians play any musical genre, according to Taye.