Over three decades Taiwanese company Dixon has built up an enviable reputation for supplying unpretentious but reliable hardware and budget drums. Then in the last few years Dixon has moved into high-end professional quality kits.
We played the last Artisan kit in September 2007 and were highly impressed. That was an Artisan Select with hybrid shells of Maple, Birch, Walnut and Bubinga. The Artisan line also includes Maple-Bubinga (MBS) drums and the more conventionally-structured, all-Maple TMS - Traditional Maple Series - reviewed here.
It's also worth noting that the Artisan now sits atop a full range of Dixon drums with the names Venom, Demon and Chaos.
The defining feature of these TMS drums is the shells of North American maple. Toms are 7-ply and approximately 5mm, while the snare and bass drum are thicker at around 8mm.
The 'A Grade' wood is selected by Dixon's own timber buyers and the shells are constructed in Dixon's Taiwanese factory by their own skilled artisans. Inspecting the inner shells and the bearing edges it's evident these artisans are making a great job of it.
The bearing edges are standard 45°, they are level and accurate, smoothly sanded then waxed for a snug, airtight fit. The lightly sealed Maple certainly looks 'Grade A'. In terms of shell sizes the Artisan is a custom kit, which means you can choose from a pretty wide range, with toms from 8 to 18-inch diameter and bass drums from 18 to 24-inch, all in two or three depths.
The PlayDixon website has an impressive gallery of possible Artisan configurations. Our review kit has three trendily shallow mounted toms measuring 10x6½-inch, 12x7-inch and 13x8-inch.
Then there is a 14x12-inch floor tom on legs and a massive 22x20-inch bass drum. The floor tom legs are unusually stout and clamped by a neat memory lock under the mounting block.
Completing the line-up is a 14x6½-inch snare, one of just two Artisan Maple snares on offer, the other being a 14x5½-inch. But the website also reveals a good range of alternative snares, in wood or metal.
The shimmering finish of the kit pictured here is reminiscent of some classic wraps. In fact this is one of four new glittering lacquers. Our kit is Stardust Grey, while the three other options are Stardust Black, Stardust Turquoise and Stardust Red.
Just as we accept that drums made in Taiwan are now as good as anything anywhere, we're getting used to their lacquered finishes being equally splendid. The Artisan glitter does just that - it glitters. And we particularly appreciated the way it is applied all the way around the leading edges of the bass drum hoops.
The metal work is unchanged, except that on the review kit it is in black nickel. This blends strikingly well with the Stardust Grey, but you can opt for conventional or black chrome if you prefer.
Lightweight mini-lugs are mounted on rubber gaskets, and both toms and snare are fitted with heavyweight zinc die-cast hoops. This is all classy, as are the enclosed bass drum claws which are set on thick rubber isolating gaskets.
Small toms are suspended by Dixon's steel Vibra-Bands and this was the only thing slightly blighting the look for us. Vibra-Bands have the classic four-lug support design and do the isolating task well, but they are quite obtrusive which detracts marginally from the gorgeousness of the drums. More recent design solutions from other manufacturers have been more discreet.
This layout has three small, shallow mounted toms and a shallow floor tom. Dixon has sensibly fitted pro-quality Evans batter heads and they make a big difference. The attack is, as you can imagine, fearsome. They positively beg you to try out your fastest rolls - and because they are small and shallow it's much easier to pick out double strokes and flams.
This clear enunciation is helped along by the twin-ply G2 Clear batters, which control the sound and bring out the darker tones. It's a tight sound, the more so because of the die-cast hoops. But the relatively thin, good quality Maple shells add zing and liveliness.
The four toms are also within easy reach, so you can rip around them with the greatest of ease, a prog rocker or fusion freak's dream.
In contrast, the huge bass drum and medium deep snare add power and gravitas to the overall balance of the kit. But don't think the snare is '80s-style thuddy. Sure, you can tune it as deep as you like and the die-cast hoops will hold it there, but those same rims tighten and control the sound, and the 10-ply maple shell and G1 coated batter add sharpness and clarity.
At mid-tuning the drum is quite dark and throaty, with a dry-ish centre backbeat. Accordingly we found ourselves tightening up the resonant head more than usual to enhance the response.
The workman-like Dixon side-lever throw-off and good looking snare wires do their job well without fuss. The maple naturally boosts the middle frequencies, the extra inch of depth at 14x6½-inch adds power, and the die-cast hoops bring it home with a solid clunk.
Remember, this is a custom kit so you could always specify a metal snare if you wanted that abrasiveness.
The bass drum with an Evans Emad batter and full black logo head sounded gigantic but manageable without any fine-tuning or padding. It's a big drum, but the combination of the Emad - with its variable damping rings - with the thin maple shell is enough to guarantee a fat warm sound.
Laying in to the bass drum at home, the house was juddering. Here's a kick that cries out for a double pedal.
We were pleasantly surprised by the Artisan Select a couple of years ago and we're even more impressed by the Maple TMS. Dixon needs to sort out the PlayDixon website and make sure all the information is up to date and easily accessible. But they obviously mean business.
There is still a perception problem for Dixon, being previously associated with budget percussion. But we urge you to put that aside and take an unprejudiced look at this kit.