By Philip Van Peborgh, courtesy of {{Christian Musician}} Magazine

There is a distant hope of drummersa holy grail, if you willthat playing the drums does not mean you have to buy a station wagon to transport your kit. Your kit always feels and sounds fantastic and is never too loud. You are never the last person out of rehearsal, and your back never aches from carrying big, heavy cases up and down stairs. Are your eyes welling up with the dream of utopia? All right, maybe Im overstating the case a little, but Flats by British drum company Arbiter may be the answer to a few of those perennial drummers problems.

There have been shell-less drum kits before: Leedy flirted with the idea in the 30s, Flat Jacks in the 50s and, more recently, Purecussion in the 90s. The problem was that they never sounded quite drummy enough; never felt quite solid enough. Plus, youd have to be very thick-skinned to show up at a gig with them. The theory behind all of these kits is valid enough. They offer the drummer portability, a very small setup space (because you dont need 22 inches of fresh air in front of you for your kick drum), a reduction in volume (because there are no shells to project the sound), and the feeling and majority of the tone of real drums (because youre playing real heads). The two main reasons that they never took offaside from the fact that drummers didnt want to be seen behind something so, well, um, flatwere hardware that made Weebles look secure, and how do you tune them if there is no shell to fix the tuning lugs to?

This is where our story returns to Arbiter Drums. The story goes that Mr. Arbiter was tinkering with the engine on his boat and he noticed that the high-pressure joints were held together using a V-shaped ring. Now Mr. Arbiter, being a clever man, investigated the method further and thought, I can attach drum heads to drum shells with this system and leave the drummer with only one tuning lug! So the AT, or Advanced Tuning, system was born.

Basically, the drum shell has a collar fitted to it that goes around the outside of the shell, leaving just enough shell showing to make a bearing edge for the head to sit on. This collar has half of a V-shape with the edge of the collar pointing up. Next, the head sits on the bearing edge, and a counterhoop is placed on the head whose half V-shape is pointing down. The half Vs form a flange which, when tightened using the V-shaped ring, cause the head to be tensioned between the counter hoop and bearing edge. Its as simple as that. To tune the head higher you tighten the lug, to lower, loosen the lug. There is almost even tension around the head because there are no individual lugs to over-tighten. Not only does this mean that you can tension quickly and evenly both top and bottom heads and replace them in seconds, but the need for a shell to mount hardware on suddenly disappears. Bring on the Flats.

They arrive in a small cardboard box just big enough for a flat kick drum. The kit I had to review consisted of a 22 kick, 10/12/14 toms and a 14x2 snare drum. The first thing you notice is how heavy they are considering they are just a head and some tensioning hardware. The mounting hardware is superb, well engineered and flexible. The kit comes complete with tom holders which have the tom arm mounted on ball joint, just like Premier and Tama, which you can clamp to your existing cymbal stands. The drums themselves have just enough wood to mount the collar and mounting bracket to and also provide a wooden bearing edge for the head. This small circle of wood is one of the great advances of Flats over the kits that have gone before. Unlike the Purecussion RIMS which relied on pre-tuned heads, Flats sound and tune just like drums, without the shell and bottom head.

So having grabbed your hardware from your other kit and mounted the Flats you begin to tune them. You grab the really cool drum key that comes supplied, fit it on the tuning lug and tune. It really is that easy. The kit comes with Remo Pinstripes which work very well because they are damped enough to reduce overtones but, on this kit, live enough to be useful. The toms are great: up front attack lacking in warmth but you can go through any number of different tones all with the ease of one tuning lug. Changing heads is easy, takes about one minute and youre back up and running.

Ive been informed by a reliable source that a set of Remo Ambassadors and some Moongel (another must for drummers when you havent got time to figure out why your floor tom sounds like an opera festival being buzzed by a small plane!) will give a range from jazz to big band tones. The snare is just fabulous: very crisp, cutting and dry, but it has no snare strainer. Now, I wasnt convinced about this omission. There is mounting for the snare, so why not a strainer? Having said that, I didnt miss it. Its a great sounding snare drum for any playing situation, unless you want to turn the snares off!

The only weak point for me was the kick drum. Dont get me wrong, its solid enough and sounds fine. It just doesnt sound like the kick drums were used to hearing. Its just a bit, well, how can I put this, flat. We have been so indoctrinated into what a proper kick drum should sound like that it is virtually impossible to recreate that without 22 inches of depth to give it punch. However, it is perfectly useable. The revelation came when I put a mic in front of it. It still lacked a bit of low-end rumble, but produced a very useful thud. In fact, all the Flats mic up very well, giving a wonderful open tone more than sufficient for all but the most demanding of playing situations.

So, there you have it, all the playability, plenty of great sounds, sounds superb micd up, half the volume and you can fit it in the back of your mothers new Beetle. Is this the Holy Grail I see before me?