Episode 27: Mike Martin of Predator Percussion

Chances are, if you’re reading this, you are a drummer. (Or you’re my parents.)

Many of us were first attracted to the drums because of an inspiration to play. To contribute to music making. And I can’t think of a single guest we’ve had on Drum Showroom who didn’t start out as a drummer. Being a drummer, for many of us, can become the defining characteristic of our identity. “I’m a drummer,” is a phrase that most of you listening may have even said today.

But what happens when you can no longer play? What happens to that identity? When you can no longer say, “I’m a drummer,” what do you do? Do you just put music and drums on the shelf and move on with your life? For many of us, that would be unthinkable.

And many of our guests: builders, craftsmen, creators, makers… they discovered that their gift was for making tools and instruments for making music, an art related to, but separate from making music itself. This week’s guest, Mike Martin, started his company, Predator Percussion in just that way.

Mike started Predator after a workplace accident took away his ability to play drums for extended periods of time. Five years ago, he began learning about building stave drums after reading about them on a Facebook drum-builders’ group.

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Mike didn’t just decide, in the fashion of the time, to purchase and finish prefabricated ply shells for his drums; he chose the difficult route: stave-constructed shells. Most drum shells are constructed with thin, overlaid plies of wood. Ply shells can produced less expensively and they can be made very thin. But this means in between each ply for wood is a layer of glue. And ply shells can go out of round, which is why some include reinforcing rings at the inner top and bottom bearing edges.

Despite Predator being two guys in a garage, they did something smart. They prototyped. You see, one of the first things you learn in developing products is that you need to give yourself time to make mistakes and refine your skills, process, materials, and designs. And that’s just what they did.

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After about 12 prototypes, Predator began shipping drums to customers.

Stave shells are constructed like a barrel, with vertical segments of wood, laid up next to each other into a rough circular shape, and then they are lathed down – just like a cymbal – into a cylinder in a breathtaking transformation inside and out. Stave shells can be finished to virtually any thickness, and they can make use of mixed woods including smaller pieces than could otherwise not be used for a drum shell, so the builder wastes less material. The other interesting characteristic of stave shells is that the grain can run vertically from top to bottom. And if you think about it, what’s happening in a drum shell, is when the drummer strikes the top head, that strikes introduces energy into the drumhead material that causes it to vibrate. That energy transfers through the bearing edge, into the shell, exciting the bottom head, and snares in the case of a snare drum. So vertical grain orientation is believed by some to create a more direct, less impeded sound. You can learn more about drum shell design theory and ply orientation in our season one interview with INDe Drums’ Josh Allen.

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Mike thinks and speaks like a workman. You get the sense talking to him that making drums in his mind is a skill to be developed and made repeatable. And it’s a different mindset from some of the people we’ve talked to who approach making things from an artist’s perspective, such as Ray Byrne of Byrne Cymbals. While Ray lets the metal help him decide where to take each cymbal, you get the sense talking to Mike that he’s a humble woodworker practicing a trade. He’s making tools in service of the drummers who play them. He even brings that same approach to the practice of cutting and shaping the all-important bearing edges where the drumheads make contact with the shell.

Mike tends to go for rounder bearing edges to promote a warmer, fuller sound.

Since we talked earlier about that vertical grain orientation on stave shells, I asked Mike about all that open grain contacting the drumhead. If you remember high school woodshop, you know when you sand a piece of wood with the grain, you get a nice smooth finish; but when you sand across the grain, if you use too much pressure, it can splinter.

Martin likes to use Drum Dial Bearing Edge Conditioner to create a “velvety” feel on the open-grain bearing edges.

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Talking to Mike Martin of Predator Percussion brings to mind a single word for me: humility. This is a guy who doesn’t spend a lot of time bemoaning a workplace injury that snatched away his ability to play the drums for extended periods of time. It’s not a guy who sounds like he requires a lot of external validation. Mike is a guy who’s just working away in his spare time in his New Whiteland, Indiana shop making beautiful drums at fair prices using an uncommon approach to produce uncommon results. Even his pricing his humble, starting at just $545 for a handcrafted stave snare drum. You can learn more about Predator Percussion at the company’s website and follow the company on Instagram and Facebook.

Listen to Drum Showroom Episode 27 here, and please subscribe and leave a review if you like what we’re doing. It would really mean a lot.


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Top image credit: Vintage Roots Photography

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