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Sonor Days 2010 - The Sonor Factory Tour

Sonor Days 2010 - The Sonor Drum Festival Factory Tour

It’s not every day that an iconic name in drums throws open its factory doors for all to see, but at the end of May, Sonor did just that.

As part of the two day ‘Sonor Days’ 2010 event, the Sonor factory tour invited you to take free reign in wandering around the machines and examining the tools of one of the great drum manufacturers, and personally chat to the people that manage that equipment. Right from the assembly line staff to the admin team, the people of Sonor were everywhere to share experiences and answer questions.

If you missed Sonor Days this time, don’t miss it next time! The very chance to go on this tour with like minded curious drummers was a treat in itself. A group of 10-20 people left every hour from the quality control area to take in the sights, sound and smells of the unique manufacturing facility that’s here in this remote area of Westphalia.
As you enter and pass from sunlight to factory shade, you can see, in a glance, a ton of maple ply wood, bass drum hoops veneered differently inside and out, bins and bins of spare parts, shelves of metal snare shells, a glint of something gold, an office packed full of interesting memorabilia. You have the feeling that you’re going to enjoy having a snoop about this place!
Sonor have been at this particular site since the middle of last century, longer just on this site than many other manufacturers have existed for in total. Having been perfected over many years, the sense of order and purpose to the facility is quite overwhelming. We were told the factory here mainly produces tuned percussion, marching drums and S-Classix, Delite and SQ2 drums. A wide variety indeed.
From the quality control area we journeyed into the temperature controlled atmosphere of the veneer storage racks. Here we saw some of the veneers used in Sonor drum production, especially SQ2. The veneers and materials are sourced from sustainable wood providers such as Theodore Nagel - a wood yard that has been in existence since 1837 and now in its 6th generation of family ownership. You can’t help but feel humbled by all the experience and skill surrounding you in here - an 1875 drum company with products from an 1837 supplier!
Some of the more complex wood veneers like Walnut Roots and Tribal come from a state of the art modern Italian facility called Alpi. Here, modern veneers are made by stacking hundreds of sheets together in a big book, compressed and then cut at different angles to produce different effects.  I leafed though some of the veneer sheets and really got a sense that Sonor drums are a real fusion of vintage and modern ideas. 
For those of you not quite in the know just yet, SQ2  (Sonor Quality Squared) is one of the most modern drum ordering system where (amongst many other things) you configure your drums online, just like a new car or a pair of trainers.  On the website you can even select a different type of Sonor veneer for the inside of the shell as to the outside. It’s from these very racks your configuration choice is pulled out and married with your Sonor shell size and material later on in the build process.
We really found out that Sonor isn’t all drums as the tour swung by the wood store for tuned percussion items. Here sustainable Brazilian Rosewood is dried and stored prior to sawing and cutting for xylophone bars. Percussion items such as glockenspiels, marimba, Cajon and xylophone represent a large percentage of production output for Sonor and there is a whole division called Orff Percussion to front it. Orff Percussion, developed back in the 1960’s, pioneered a revolutionary technique of teaching music in schools. Chances are if you root through a school music cupboard, you’ll find a piece of Orff in there, still working 50 years on. Believe it or not, lots of people still don’t know that this has been a big part of Sonor since the late 19th century!

Clever thinking is part of all Sonor products. Tuning note bars is done by shaping the wooden bars and by drilling the metal bars. It is highly skilled and takes an apprentice ages to perfect.

You can see our guide in front of the machines which shape these pieces and if you look closely, you’ll see an oscilloscope for measuring the pitch.

The notes are drilled to tune them - drill the ends to sharpen the note and drill the middle to flatten a note. I hope I’ve got that the right way round. Clever anyway!

Sonor is famed for its tough hardware and we passed a small area put aside for hi-hat manufacture.  You can see here the quality brass threads for the spring adjuster on the 600 series pedal, and laid out on the table part of the lower pedal assembly. All very neat and orderly, and ready for the worker (who’s probably out front serving coffee and cake) who downed tools on Friday to pick it all up again on Monday.
Now the best bit, and into shell manufacturing we met Johannes Lutter, one of the Sonor shell makers, of which there is only a handful. Johannes has been making shells for 40 years at Sonor. Chatting briefly about his work, he said this is where the Sonor sound comes from, the fact the shells are only formed by pressure from the OUTSIDE of the shell (unlike most other companies who use pressure from inside).

We could see the little ovens where the core plies, outer and inner veneers are curved round in a cross laminate fashion. The oil inside the outer sleeves of the oven is heated to 100 degrees, and this sets of the glue between the plies. Et voila; a Sonor shell!

It sounds simple, but each ply is measured to 1/1000th of an inch and cut to form the circle diameter of its place in the ply stack. This means an inner ply is cut shorter than an outer ply. Not something you can try at home with your jigsaw and WHSmith ruler folks! All the measurements are held on small pieces of ply wood and not on computer. Some things are still done best the traditional way.

Once the shells are constructed, they have their bearing edge cut by hand on a router and then go through to the lacquering dept. There was nobody demonstrating this today as it requires 100% concentration, and the last thing the cutter needed was me tapping him on the shoulder and asking for a go!

This is where the full beauty of a Sonor drum comes out. The drum is sanded and lacquered up to five times for some finishes, something that is very labour intensive but completely necessary if you are looking for the utmost quality.

I should just mention here that the smell from one part of the factory to the other was great and added to the whole experience of the tour. From the heavy, dank pong of the metal bins to the damp air of the drying rooms and the dry warmth of the wood working room, it felt like I was back at school in the Tech Block! No need to mention how heady you start to feel in the lacquering room. I reminded myself not to breathe in too deeply.

We were now nearing one of the most crucial stages of drum manufacture, and possibly the most overlooked area if you’re not Sonor - fittings.

All the lug fittings on SQ2’s are attached using Torx head screws which self tap into the lugs for the most secure bond. Sonor recognise that it’s all very well having a posh shell, but if you don’t attach the fittings correctly, they will eventually shake loose, rattle around and give sub-standard performance.

After the fitting attachment is complete, the drums are tuned on a separate work bench, given a last look over for any minor adjustments and sent off to be boxed. The snare drums are tuned to Middle C. It means the shop keeper and customer can enjoy the drum straight away after un-packing.

It’s in this area of the factory where we came across all sorts of oddities - a galvanised prototype drum with a metal shell and wooden reinforcing hoops, a 20x14 bass drum prototype with six lugs and Jeff ‘Tain’ Watts’ drum kit (left) ready for some shiny bits.

We neared the end of the tour as we headed into the storage warehouse and racks and racks of product ready for market was stacked up for shipment. The drums and hardware are stocked by type for easy picking and all coded accordingly.

I hope Jo Jo got his snare drum in time - the paperwork had his name on! It was a nice size; obviously got some fat back beats in the offing! You can see here that from start to finish your German drum order is accompanied by its very own order sheet ensuring there is absolutely no confusion as to what has been entered into the SQ2 configurator. 

All this makes the Sonor Days Factory Tour a unique must see event.

The tour combined with all the other activities such as Artist Workshops, chats to staff and Live Performances make it quite an experience. If you can start saving now for the next event then I urge you to do so. You won’t regret it and how often do you see drum companies completely opening their doors to welcome you in?

I left the back door of the factory (the same way the drums have left this site for 70 years now), seriously impressed and with a warm feeling that I knew a little more about the drums I play.

Jeff Davenport – June 2010

To read the weekend report, click here

Why I play Sonor Drums with Benny Greb, Gavin Harrison and Dave Languth

During a Sonor Days backstage drinks break, I caught up with the guys to ask what made the handmade German Sonor SQ2 drums the weapons of choice.

Benny Greb:

JD:  You look so at home on your kit.  What eventually brought you into the Sonor family?

BG: Well, in Germany, Sonor drums are “The Drum Company” and you grow up hearing and seeing the drums. It helped by being a fan of Steve Smith and Jack DeJohnette too. As a teenager I had Yamaha toms and bass, but my drum teacher had a Sonor HiLite kit and I used to think “I can’t get that sound!”

JD: Your kit is an SQ2 Vintage Beech set up. What would you say are the best things about it?

BG:  Well they are easy to maintain... it has a genius hi-hat... good sound... easy to tune... makes me play better!  Myself and the Sonor sound are inseparable.

(Bennys own kit is an SQ2 Vintage Beech in White Marine Pearl. Picture kit is Delite Maple)

Gavin Harrison:

JD:  Gavin, what’s been your route into playing Sonor drums? You used to play Pearl drums for a long time didn’t you?

GH: Yes, but I was on tour in Australia with Claudio Baglioni and met Tony Italia the Australian Sonor Distributor. He really got me hooked on the idea and sound of Sonor. I got back to the UK and got in touch with Ian Croft the UK Sonor rep who sent me a White Sparkle Sonor Designer kit... and Sonor is where I’ve stayed! And that is what my new 12x5” Signature snare is based on, the Maple shell of Designer range.

JD: What''s the kit you tour with Porcupine Tree?

GH: That’s normally a Maple SQ2 kit in the Tribal finish but I have one in the Earth finish too!

(Picture kit is a factory Delite)

Dave Languth:

JD: Ok Dave, so what''s the story behind your Sonor tubs?

DL: Well, it was while I was at Berkeley College studying music that I found the sound. I was walking down a corridor in the college and I heard this kit being played and I thought “What the ****!?” That kit sounds incredible!” I didn’t know what it was at all, so had to check it out. It was a Sonor kit! My ear just picked out something that I hadn’t heard before, something I couldn’t get out of my own drums and so later I eventually hooked up with Scott Atkins from West Coast Music (Canadian Sonor Distributors) and got a kit organised.

JD: And what''s the kit you play now?

DL: SQ2 Vintage Maple in a sparkle fade with my new Signature Snare.  Sonor made me a custom SQ2 for my home studio too, a Gloss Birdseye Amber with Gold Hardware which nobody plays but me!

(Picture kit is SQ2 Vintage Maple in Silver to Black Fade with reversed hardware, Dave Languth Signature Snare and 12x5 Artist Series ‘Art Design’ etched veneer snare)

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