INDe Drum Lab 15×5.5″ Snare Drum Review

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I’m very excited to share this review. I first spoke with Josh Allen of Independent Drum Lab last year in an interview for DRUM! Magazine‘s Meet Your Maker column. If you’re not familiar with Meet Your Maker, we feature a quick interview each month with an up-and-coming or boutique builder working in the percussion world. I’ve been writing the column for a few years now, and as a result, have gotten to interview (and learn from) a lot of drum builders.

One thing I’ve noticed is that there are a lot of very smart, very focused people creating drums, cymbals, and percussive instruments. Even after completing almost 40 of them, I always learn something from these interviews. It’s a pretty cool gig.

My interview with Allen was different though. From the moment we started talking, it was clear that Josh had no “sell” in the way he talked about his drums and his company. Everybody has “sell” in these interviews. It’s not a bad thing. It’s just a kind of forward approach that (I think) naturally comes out of people when they have a chance to talk about their work. I feel like most of us are at least a little inclined to want others to know why and how we’re good at our jobs, especially when asked.

But like I said, Allen was different. He told me about his history with drumming, engineering, and working in the industry with a cool efficiency that reminded me of a research scientist. When we moved on to his approach to design and building though, I was genuinely captivated. As we went through his clinical breakdown of each component’s impact on the drum, he spoke with the confidence of someone who knew his methods were sound. There was no debate in his presentation. He wasn’t trying to convince me of anything. That’s because he knows his shit.

I won’t get into a lot of Allen’s history here because it’s been well-documented elsewhere. I will point out that he held a prominent engineering and design position at one of the larger drum companies, and that he left because he wanted to pursue building drums in an environment free of bottom line-driven oversight. That led to his founding Independent Drum Lab (INDe Drum) in late 2015.

Earlier this year, Allen was nice enough to send over a pair of snare drums for review. We’re going to start with the 15″ x 5.5″ maple model.

Onward.

Specs
• 4.7mm, 5-ply maple shell
• Full roundover bearing edge
• Roughly 4″ wide, medium-depth beds
• 2.3mm triple-flange steel hoops
• 8 low-mass lugs with brass clips
• INDe lever-style throw and butt combo
• 20-strand steel wires
• Steel badge doubles as 1/4″ vent hole grommet
• Aquarian Vintage single-ply batter and Classic Clear snare side heads

Price
$329 Direct at indedrum.com

First Impressions
At first blush, INDe’s drums have a fairly simple look. The hardware and fittings are sleek and beautifully styled, but have a slim, modest shape that didn’t immediately draw my eye. Our review model and the rest of INDe’s maple drums wear subdued, matte finishes that appear expertly applied by don’t really overwhelm visually (Allen does offer custom finish work, but for the sake of this review, I’m addressing the stock finishes available as purchase options on the INDe site). Much like Allen himself, the drums have a pure, no-bullshit vibe about them that’s really refreshing. Our review piece was no exception.

Finish

The solid black, matte finish had a kind of wet chalkboard appearance that looked great next to any kit it anchored – including my walnut brown-finished set, which made me very happy considering the countless warnings I’ve heard about mixing black and brown. Those slick, arch-style, one-piece lugs added a modern touch while the company’s simply designed throw had a somewhat vintage aesthetic that still looked right at home.

But my favorite part of the drum’s appearance is the combination badge and grommet. The single 1/4″ grommet hole is capped by a chromed ring with a small, tasteful INDe logo stamped into a metal strip across its face. It’s a clean looking unit from top to bottom.

Appointments
INDe snare drums ship standard with 2.3mm, steel, triple-flange hoops; 8 cast lugs; the company’s proprietary throw and butt combo; steel or bronze wires; and the buyer’s choice of Aquarian drumheads. This drum included a steel 20-wire set, a Classic Clear Snare Side bottom, and a Modern Vintage batter.

The company’s lug design is proprietary, and in my opinion, pretty remarkable. The single-piece lugs have a roughly square half-inch footprint at each end to minimize contact while protecting the shell. The rest of the exceptionally light, low-mass lug floats far enough away from the shell to let it breathe, but is still plenty strong enough to stand up to lots of outward tension.

Lug and Clips

But one of the coolest elements of the INDe lug is the brass stabilizing clip at the base of each lug nut. These small rings keep the receivers in place without the need for a spring or gasket.

And that brings us to Allen’s crusade (probably overstated on my part) against rubber. Take a peek at this graphic which sums up his argument pretty well. Allen is insistent on his drums not utilizing sound-absorbing gaskets of any kind. And that’s why he uses those dope brass clips.

On the inside, all lug and butt plate contact points are held in place with a Phillips/hex-head bolt, a flexible ring washer, and a larger flat washer. The throw, because the adjustable bolt heads are anchored on a track in the unit itself, get a hex nut, flexible washer, and flat washer combo. All of the installations were firm and easy to loosen.

The 20-strand, steel wires were straight, soldered cleanly at both ends with no poking wire tips, and held in place with grosgrain ribbon. No fuss and no problems. Similarly, the proprietary butt plate is a very cool little piece with a small footprint and two vertically oriented bolt receivers for install. It’s got a sort of reverse conical design that broadens to a flat-faced node just wide to fit the strap. Like so many other parts of this drum, it’s simple and cool looking.

Finally, the INDe throw is a stylishly designed piece with easy action and a couple of really nice features. First, the slim, lever-style release is comfortable in hand, and operates fluidly while still holding firm against very heavy play. The tension knob is almost an inch in diameter, making it very easy to adjust on the fly. Its tensioning mechanism has incremental stops throughout its range to help hold position which is something I understand but never really enjoy. I get very finnicky about wire position, and prefer a throw with an uninterrupted dial. That’s just a preference thing though. I totally get why people appreciate that feature.

Throw and Lugs
Better picture of the INDe throw courtesy of the company’s website.

I did have one more gripe with the throw, however. On all three INDe drums I’ve played, and on the separate throw I purchased to install on an old Ludwig Supraphonic, the tensioning knob rattled a little bit when the wires were disengaged. I play with the wires off a good bit, so I found this frustrating. It rattled much less when the wires were sitting at a tighter tension (still disengaged), but if you’ve got them low and loose, the unit will make some extra noise when it’s in the off position. It didn’t make any noise when the wires were engaged though.

Note: I spoke to Allen about my issue with the throw and he said that he’s already tightened the offending parts on all of his new units to make sure that’s not a problem moving forward. 

Shell Build
INDe’s maple drums feature very thin, 5-ply shells with a unique layup. For reasons that don’t entirely make sense to me because I’m dumb and studied books in college instead of practical skills like engineering, three thicker, horizontally oriented plies alternate with two thinner, vertically oriented plies to maximize resonance-boosting vibration (good vibes, dude). See Allen’s diagram here for a little more info.

Seam

Regarding stuff I can understand a little bit better, the build quality looks great. Staggered seams are clean and smooth, and I didn’t see any signs of blowout around the holes I checked. The shell’s rounded edges are silky and even on both sides. Roughly 4″ wide beds have an even taper and a medium-shallow apex.

I’m not sure, but if I had to guess, I’d say the inside is finished with a very light application of oil to help protect the wood without making the surface overly dense. Either way, it was smooth. There’s also a signed, numbered sticker inside. Nice touch.

Sound
Splat! Holy crap does this thing have some butt on it. I know some of that is to be expected given the diameter, but I was still surprised by just how much sound came out of this drum, especially in the lower-middle range.

I first threw the drum on the stand without adjusting the tuning at all. Both heads felt like they were in the 1 to 1.5 turns range, so the resonant-side was a hair looser than a normally prefer. With that setup, the drum let out a very long and pretty even booo note after each stroke. With the wires engaged, that lengthy sustain yielded more than one late wave of delayed wire buzz, which turned out to be a very cool sound.

That big presence in the middle would have been a distraction in a lot of drums, but the INDe unit offered up a huge, punchy attack at the top of each note that helped balance the almost woodwind-y sustain. With just a small piece of gel tone control on the batter-side, the drum settled well and gave me a broad splat with some vibrant ring around the edges. It was reminiscent of Matt Chamberlain’s snare sound on some of the late ’90s Fiona Apple records.

Throw and Edge

I’ve got to assume that the enormous spread I heard in the middle range is the result of Allen’s pro-resonance build techniques. The combination of a very thin shell, that unique ply arrangement, low-mass hardware, and zero-tolerance policy against rubber components really seems to have paid off. This drum packs and incredibly full punch. The sound really spreads out from every inch. It’s just tremendous.

When I brought the resonant-side head up about a half-turn, a lot of that low-mid sustain tapered off and then drum felt much more controlled. It was fat and full, and all of that top-end attack stayed afloat. All of that amounted to a really outstanding rock and country back beat sound. I’ll admit that I’m not super fond of Aquarian’s Modern Vintage heads, but in this case, the kind of slappy response they produce really bolstered the articulation of a drum that was generating just a ton of sound.

One thing I really liked about this snare is that the sweet spot was like three inches wide. I didn’t expect that from an 8-lug drum with a 15″ diameter. Everything I played near the middle was focused and punchy, and it felt great on my hands. I think at least some of that has to do with the full-roundover bearing edges. I also think those edges benefitted the control and punchiness as well.

Tensioning the wires to a medium-high-ish seat choked the response a little bit, so I ended up backing them off just a tad past where I normally like my snares to sit. The result was a lively, active chatter that was just a little washy – not enough to really impact articulation, but just enough to add some extra growl to softer strokes. At first I thought slightly deeper beds might solve that mild choking issue, but then I realized that the response is already fairly wire-forward. If I were to buy one of these drums (really, when I buy one), I’d probably outfit it with a snare set that has the middlemost strands removed to see if that opened it up at higher tensions at all.

Beds

Tuned in the higher range, the drum maintained a lot of its beefy middle, but had a shotgun crack that sounded great in a loud rock rehearsal. That brought it mostly into the medium-high range of a 14″ drum without sacrificing much meaty tone.

Expectedly, the thing is a big, boofy beast down low. It was gushy and fat with a shortened note due to the wire tension. Very satisfying. And that extra diameter allowed me to get that sound without having to go as low as I would have to on a 14″ drum, so it still felt great to play.

My only real issue with the 15″ INDe drum was that I found it a little difficult to tune evenly. Now, to be clear, I don’t think that was because of any flaw in the build or structure – everything I checked was round and tight. But, I do think snare drum tensions on a 15″ shell can be tricky, especially with only eight lugs. I imagine it would go against Allen’s reduced-mass philosophies, but I would love to play a ten lug version of this same drum.

Plusses
• Enormous sound
• Articulate and punchy
• Great range
• Exceptional build quality
• Very light
• Modest, modern look is very stylish

Minuses
• Throw tension toggle rattles when not engaged
• Somewhat difficult to tune (I’m nitpicking)
• Tighter wires choke response earlier than expected

Wrap Up
Allen and INDe Drum Lab are making some top-flight stuff, and to top all of that off, their prices are insane. The 15×5.5″ drum with a spec designed shell, throw, butt, wires, and lugs featured in this review has a direct sale price of $329. That’s outrageous. Go buy four.

And here’s one more quick demo video filmed at INDe HQ:

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