By Dave Perlowski
Pictures by Marc-André Lauzier
My dad, one of the most practical and logical guys to walk the planet, is not a musician but it took me many purchases of inexpensive drums before I understood what he meant that cheap tools cost more in the long run because they are replaced quickly for poor performance or failure.
When you think about it, hand drums are pretty simple instruments: wood, hardware and natural/synthetic heads. Before laying hands on a MOPERC drum one might be forgiven for believing that the only difference hand drum manufacturers is the price they charge for their product and we have been asked many times by the uninitiated why MOPERC drums seem to cost so much more than even the best products sold by large manufacturers. The answer is simple: details! Let me explain.
Before the manufacturing process begins, selected and kiln dried wood from North America and Brazil is sourced and delivered to the MOPERC shop in Canada. Each delivery is carefully inspected to assure a straight and uniform grain because any variation with this characteristic can lead to product failure. Even within a single wood delivery we sometimes encounter differences in color and pattern, so once the wood is brought into the shop and we begin the precision work of cutting staves and gluing shells we are careful to allocate the staves around the shell for uniform weight and sound.
And speaking of uniformity, did you know that you can have an entire set of drums made from a single slab of Genuine MAHOGANY wood?
So, this would also be a good time to talk about wood species. There are some who might argue that the type of wood used for a drum makes little difference in its tone, but this could not be further from reality and why congas are not made from soft wood, though some have tried. Every species of wood has a unique density that vibrates in its own way and because sound is nothing more than vibration the instrument used to produce that vibration and the material used to make the instrument imparts an individual quality upon the sound. Ask a luthier for an opinion about tone wood and be prepared for a lengthy dissertation.
On conga drums, the shell itself has a specific frequency response, fundamental note and harmonics. That might sound pretty scientific if you're not a soundman, so we’ll talk about that in another article!
While the majority of MOPERC drums are made from American Ash, many other options are also available depending upon the desired tone and appearance of the drum. Brazilian Mahogany, ash and Black Walnut are the current choices which afford our musicians a great deal of flexibility. By contrast, most other manufacturers take the Henry Ford approach to wood selection: Any variety (color) as long as it’s plywood (black).
Stainless Steel Hardware
Next up is the hardware. Crowns, side plates and hooks are all stainless steel and they are hand-machined in the shop – never outsourced. Stainless steel costs more than its chrome plated counterpart and the metal is more difficult to work with, but decades after it has been purchased, stainless steel remains strong, the threads intact and it looks great.
Gimme Some Skin
The last component, the skin, can spark a lengthy debate of its own which is why MOPERC maintains a large inventory from around the world to meet its customers’ and individual drums’ needs. It is laughable when some maintain that the skins from one supplier are far superior to those of another - they are all from animals, and like people some are thick-skinned and others are not. The bottom line though is that the skin that makes a requinto sing will not sound good at all on a large tumba and each head that is applied to a MOPERC drum is carefully matched to the individual drum.
There are more than 1500 steps taken to assemble a set of three MOPERC conga drums! Nothing is automated, it’s all done by hand and what that means is that quality control is not simply an event to be performed at the end of the assembly process. Quality control is step by step which allows the manufacturing team to correct an issue that might otherwise go undetected with mass production.
Few people realize the role that precise angle cuts and gluing play, but they are perhaps the most important steps in the manufacturing process because even the sound of a conga drum with the best skin and hardware will be significantly compromised by open joints or staves separation. MOPERC staves are individually cut and precisely glued to create a smooth, seamless appearance for the shell. More importantly, the precision taken in this part of the process assures the integrity of the shell for decades and it is significant that in its 30+ years of operation, MOPERC has had only a few drums returned for defects that were not immediately apparent.
Once glued, the shells are lathed, bearing edges are routed, drums are hand painted in the spray booth, hardware is attached and skins are selected and hand stretched. When dry, the heads are tuned and the drums go through one last quality check before MOPERC owner, Francis Mercier, personally plays every drum before it leaves the shop. To assure their safe arrival, MOPERC drums are packed in custom-made double layer boxes and shipped to any of the 25 countries serviced by MOPERC within a couple days. To assure safe delivery, a signature is required and MOPERC accepts 100% responsibility for loss or damage by shipping and the company will work quickly to resolve any issue that may arise.
Granted, this is an oversimplification of a very lengthy and detailed process, but the point is that there is not a single step that occurs without close observation and no drum leaves the shop that is not 100% perfect.
All of this discussion about good manufacturing practices would be pointless if the instrument didn't sound good; but ask any MOPERC owner to describe the tone of the drums and they will likely give you a one-word response: PURE. Controlled and balanced overtones. Deep bass notes, distinct opens, cutting slaps and huge tuning ranges. Right out of the box these drums sound pure only to get better with time and use and that’s why world-class players like Poncho Sanchez, Eric Perez or Juan de Marcos Gonzalez have Stepped Up to Moperc…
Still think they're expensive?
Custom, handmade anything will always cost more than its mass-produced counterpart simply because of the care and attention to detail that only a human can provide. A handmade bass guitar from Alembic, for example, runs $12,000-$15,000. New guitars from the Fender Custom Shop are advertised at $35,000. Sure, you can pick up instruments for a fraction of those prices but expecting them to play and look like their more expensive counterparts is just fantasy.
The quality built into every MOPERC drum, and the tone created by the instrument are characteristics that combine to create an excellent investment. Because owners of these drums are so happy with their purchase, you will rarely see the Instruments advertised on the secondary market, and when you do, they are listed and sold for prices close to new because, well, supply and demand. MOPERC drums in good condition improve their value over time, clearly making them the less costly choice of any hand drums on the market today.