Birch is a classic drum material that was briefly overshadowed in a clamour for more exotic woods. However, birch was never the sort of wood to go quietly, and in recent years has regained much of its popularity. There are many drummers who not only appreciate, but actually prefer its tonal qualities.
The Mapex M Birch series replaces the old M Series range and as well as sporting birch shells, the kits are available in a selection of high-gloss lacquered finishes. Comprehensive hardware packs are available as standard. The kits also include a few features normally found on Mapex's higher ranges.
Dial M for birch
Although the name of the series might suggest that the shells are formed entirely of birch, the outer layer of ply is, in fact, maple. We're accustomed to companies mixing woods with the aim of creating unique-sounding drums but, in this case, the maple represents a manufacturing tactic that is gaining in popularity. The reason for the different wood is straightforward: it is quicker and easier to apply the coats of lacquer to maple than it is to birch.
When you factor in the economies of scale that a large manufacturer operates on, the time and costs saved become substantial. With the competition ever fierce and punters expecting higher specs for less cash, manufacturers are increasingly turning to lateral-thinking solutions such as this. The results are very impressive, both to look at and in terms of value - for a kit in this price band to be the recipient of an eight-stage lacquer process is quite a feat.
The finish on the review kit is known as Midnight Black and, as with pretty much any lacquer finish around now, finding fault with it is near impossible. The gloss has been immaculately applied, and the grain of the wood retains a smoky presence beneath the coats. Other finish options include Transparent Cherry, Honey Amber, Transparent Purple, Mustard Green and Transparent Sapphire. There are no lesser wrap options - only lacquers.
The kit supplied is made up of a 22"x18" bass drum, 14"x51/2" snare, and 10"x9", 12"x10" and 14"x12" rack toms. Mapex is marketing two other shell packs in conjunction with this set-up - a more dedicated fusion kit with a 20" bass drum partnering the same toms and snare, and a good old reliable rock-sized kit with 12" and 13" toms over the 22" bass drum and snare, while a 16" floor tom replaces the third rack tom.
All the kits are supplied with a set of Mapex's 550 Series stands and pedals, and include a throne. Individual drums are available as add-ons.
The Mapex M-bop
The shells (including the final maple layer) are a chunky eight plies in total, and have an overall depth of 7.2mm. Inside, they are untreated, but have been sanded smoothly, and the bearing edges are carefully cut at 45 degrees. The lugs are low-mass examples that differ slightly from the typical Mapex lug in that they are less stubby, but they are the more graceful for it. Like all Mapex lugs, they are fixed to the shell with a single nut, minimising both drilling and contact with the shell.
Further ingenuity is to be found in tom mounts. Mapex's Isolated Tom System takes the form of a bracket that attaches at the same point as two of the lugs. No further drilling is necessary to accommodate the bracket as it shares the same two nuts that hold the lugs. It's a clever and discreet system that would seem to offer good resonance without either penetrating the shell or adding too much weight to the drums.
The toms are hung by way of suitably capable ball and socket holders, which perform their task with quiet efficiency.
The post that carries the two bass drum mounted ball and socket holders is located in a socket on the bass drum, and penetrates the shell. Nothing too unusual there, except that on more expensive Mapex kits a pioneering plate mounted above the bass drum shell houses the tom post, keeping the shell intact. Clearly, the pricing of the M Birch series means that economies have to be made in some areas, and this is one of the few that we managed to spot.
A pair of matching wood hoops complement the bass drum and a pair of well-proportioned spurs kept it in place while gigging with the kit. The claws on the bass drum are not the most heavy-duty examples, but they held tuning across the aforementioned show. Similarly, the pressed rims found on the other drums kept tunings even throughout the night.
Mapex has built a good reputation for its stands and pedals, and the hardware pack supplied only reinforces such a positive view. All of the stands sit on hefty double-braced tripods, and include memory locks wherever necessary. The hi-hat stand is chain driven, has an adjustable spring, a solid footplate and a wide, swivelling tripod that leaves plenty of room for extra pedals.
The snare stand has a correspondingly smaller tripod spread to help accommodate pedals. The two cymbal stands - one straight, one boomed - are strong and steady, and feature Mapex's cymbal rubbers, known as OS Cymbal Accentuators (as does the clutch on the hi-hat stand).
A heavy tripod base makes the stool feel stable, but the cushion could have more padding. The bass drum pedal is quick with a sturdy air about it. The same large footplate found on the hi-hat makes it comfortable to play, while a nifty three-sided beater offers wood, felt or plastic surfaces.
Birch is renowned for delivering a mixture of high-end attack and bottom-end punch, and these drums perform very much along these lines. The bass drum is quite marvellous - it provides a deep and powerful note that seemed all-pervading on the stage. While suitably rich and bassy, there is a tautness to its response that is very pleasing and certainly helps it carry with the minimum of dissipation. Despite its enormous length, no dampening was needed.
The toms possess similar qualities. They are delightfully clean and bright without being too toppy, yet well rounded enough at the bottom to fill out without dissolving into subwoofer territory. Again, they offer superb projection, and cut through onstage sound with ease.
Tuning the toms was an absolute doddle, and the fact that the kit is supplied with a full quota of Remo heads can only influence the drums for the better.
The snare doesn't quite have the same authority as the other drums. Even when whacking the head up as tight as we dared, it didn't voice the rifle crack that we were after. In fairness, the woody clonk that it offered was not at all unpleasant - it just lacked the requisite venom that would have put it on a par with the rest of the kit.
With the majority of Mapex's drum ranges featuring maple, it's good to see the company turning its attention to birch. The outer layer of maple on the M Birch is unlikely to make a significant contribution to the way the drums sound so, to all intents and purposes, this is an all-birch kit.