Podcast: Remo Belli, father of the modern drumhead :: Smithsonian Lemelson Center
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TRANSCRIPT: Podcast: Remo Belli, father of the modern drumhead

Drummer and entrepreneur Remo Belli changed the face (and head) of an industry.

A production of the Smithsonian's Lemelson Center. Written and audio production by Matt Ringelstetter. Art Molella, executive producer. Amanda Murray, podcast program manager. Joyce Bedi, webmaster. Remo Belli was interviewed by Kennith Kimery for a Lemelson Center Innovative Lives program at the National Museum of American History, November 7, 2009. Podcast released January 15, 2010. Music courtesy of REMO, Inc., featuring drums from the African collection.

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Matt Ringelstetter: Happy new year from the Smithsonian’s Lemelson Center. Over the course of this year’s podcasts we’ll be exploring a variety of places where invention and innovation have thrived throughout American history. We’ll hear about these places of invention through the words and stories of the people who actually shaped them.

In this month’s episode of Inventive Voices, we kick off the new year, and the new theme, with Mr. Remo Belli. Considered by many to be the father of the modern drumhead, Remo Belli revolutionized the music-products industry by perfecting the first practical, synthetic drumhead, known as the WeatherKing.

Last November, during the Lemelson Center’s symposium on hot spots of invention, Remo Belli sat down with Ken Kimery, executive producer of the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra and himself an established drummer. Belli retraced his development of the synthetic drumhead and discussed his experiences as a musician in 1940s Los Angeles. He highlighted how LA and its community of musicians led to his innovations in the making of percussion instruments.

Listen in as Remo shares his own place of invention.

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Remo Belli: Thank you, thank you, thank you. Are there any drummers out there?  You can’t get away from us, can you? I find drummers literally everywhere. Now that I have been at this for the 50 years that I have been at this, the thing I do not like is, “Oh yeah, my grandfather played your heads.” [laughter] Anyway, it is nice to be here.

Ken Kimery: Well, Remo, I kind of want to take this theme here with hot spot and places of invention and start really, 1946, in August if I am correct, was a move from this part of the country or close to this part of the country—

Remo: to that part of the country.

Ken: To that part of the country.

Remo: Yes, Route 66.

Ken: What took you there?

Remo: Oh. I knew that the true professional market at that time in history was Los Angeles. The professional market historically started in Chicago where there was CBS, NBC, so on and so forth. Then it moved from Chicago to New York. At that time in 1946 and that, the big opportunities were in Los Angeles, so I was looking for an opportunity to play at the top, so I went to Los Angeles. And I, like you, when I looked at New York, and I am originally from Mishawaka, Indiana, and I know all of you know where that is. So I said to myself, I cannot live in New York, so when I got to Los Angeles I loved it, and I knew that I was willing to pay my dues, whatever it was, I was willing to do that, so I stayed.

Ken: Now you arrived in Los Angeles but you found yourself in a short period of time actually on the road leaving Los Angeles. What precipitated that?

Remo: Money, a living. You do get hungry. So, no, professional career, professional drummer, you are ready to do whatever you have to do. My preference was jazz but when you have to eat you have to eat. When you pay the bills you pay the bills.

Ken: So this course—it was a short, fairly short period of time that you were away from Los Angeles—once again brought you back to Los Angeles for a really permanent residence there. So you were still using it as a home base for work.

Remo: To me is [it’s] key. There is an energy, and there was. It is not quite as much as it was at that particular time, but the energy of people and getting things done was in Los Angeles. I know, I toured, I played New York, I played Miami, Chicago, so on and so forth. Insofar as thinking and things to do and how to do, Los Angeles was very good. There were some wonderful musicians there.

Ken: Did you find that there was this critical mass of musicians based there because there was an industry there? The film industry, the recording industry that drew them out there?

Remo: Yes, film industry at that time, each studio had a symphony orchestra and out of that symphony orchestra they had three or four groups. They had an 18-piece jazz band. You made more working for a studio than you did with the New York Philharmonic or the Los Angeles or so on and so forth. So that is where the really choice of musicians came to at that time.

Ken: So there is really kind of a real wonderful brain trust there of musicians, which will lead into this story that we are heading to, is why Los Angeles for this invention that we are going to be talking about and why not somewhere else? So if we can move to this point where you are actually a partner in a drum business called Drum City, which really was the beginning of the birth of this transition or at least those opportunities start to present themselves to you. If you can kind of talk about that Drum City and what that was like and the culture and how it further opened up your vision or peripheral vision of what was possible. 

Remo: Well, I and a fellow drummer called Roy Harte examined the conditions in the Los Angeles area professionally where you could get service, where you could get repairs, where you could get things done and buy what you wanted to buy, and we decided that there still was not established in Los Angeles that kind of a place. So we decided to open up a store we called Drum City. I will have you folks know that up until that time I had never heard the word “invoice.” [laughter] So you can see how trained I was to go there. So Roy and I opened up Drum City, and you talk about innovating and having to do, well that is what we do because we walked into a bare hall, cement floor, lightbulbs hanging from the ceiling, and that is where we started.

Ken: Interestingly enough, with moving in as a co-partner in this business and still being a performing musician, it still put you in touch with the manufacturers, which is a critical element in the story because the manufacturers were primarily based in Chicago. You were actually on tour, I don’t know if it was Betty Hutton, but tour and were able to combine a combination of performance and business at the same time.  If you could talk about that side because that really kind of interestingly talks about first thing Chicago, the business, why calfskin heads were so predominant.
Remo: Well, I can start historically. Mishawaka’s south bend is just a short south bend south shore ride to Chicago. So as a youth, as a high-schooler I went to Chicago. There was a famous shop there called Frank’s Drum Shop. The Ludwig Company was there, the Slingerland Company was there, and the Gretsch Company was there. So I began to meet people from these companies and then when I played and I went to Los Angeles I knew of the companies, and then when I went on the road and I played Chicago with Anita O’Day in 1949 I think it was, I went back there with Billy May in 1952, and then in 1953 I went with Betty Hutton. And at the time then, being in business and being a retailer, I was a good customer of the drum companies, so I would visit with Slingerland and with Ludwig, say hello, talk business, and carry on.

Ken: Now, at that particular time when you had visited the companies themselves, were they already, had been introduced to the concept of Mylar or had that, at least the possible application?

Remo: Interestingly enough, Mylar—DuPont developed Mylar in I think 1953, something like that. In their patent they had remarked that it was potentially for drumhead use. So I went, I visited with Bud Slingerland and Bill Ludwig, and when I went to visit them they had pieces of Mylar. 

Ken: And we have a couple of samples here just to get a sense of what it is you would— [shows sample drumheads on stage]

Remo: Yes, here. Mylar polyester film. They had some of this and when we talked they had indicated that they had not the slightest idea what to do with it. [laughter] And at the time I did not have the slightest idea what to do with it, and neither was I looking something to do with it because I was very happy being the drummer and very happy being a drum shop owner. So this was not something I was looking at, but I was introduced to Mylar, and this is a cloudy piece of Mylar. At the time DuPont made Mylar it was a little bit more transparent. They still do make transparent pieces of Mylar. Then what I did, in those days the predominant music trade show of the industry was in Chicago. There was nothing west, so we then got the idea at our drum shop to have a percussion fair. So what we did then each year is we transformed the drum shop for a whole month into a display, and we talked the companies into sending their latest instruments. So what I did is I took this piece of DuPont Mylar and I stapled it to a frame. At that time we used to have animal skins that we would what they called tuck. We would wrap them around what they called a flesh hoop literally. So what I did is I stapled it. I did this. So because I was looking for something to hang up so that you could see through it, and this was part of the display. It had no intention of being a drumhead. It was part of a display, until then we got the idea, “Well, what the heck. We have this, why not put it on the drum?”

Ken: Let me back up a little bit, too. As you had mentioned to me, you were actually also a master in taking calfskin or hide and tucking it.

Remo: Yes, I am very good. [laughter]
Ken: From the industry, musicians used to come and call upon Remo to actually tuck the hides, which is a real skill if you think about it. When you look at it, it is not an easy thing to do and to do it where it is even, to see that you have that skill.

Remo: Well, especially tympani heads. That is very, very delicate. You really have to know what you are doing. 

Ken: So here you were, steeped in the tradition, making money at it. There is a business side, we have to say about that, but also then there was this opportunity to lease this new product that was coming out here that started to look at or at least give the option of another direction. What was the [push] then to finally say okay, it is no longer just a novelty piece, but really invest or at least figure out how to solve this mystery or this dilemma here with then taking Mylar and making actually a usable, functional drumhead.

Remo: Well, I do not know, there are a lot of you here, I saw a lot of hands. For those of you who are not acquainted with it, the use of an animal skin as a membrane started maybe 20,000 years ago, I do not know. But the difficulties were that it is susceptible to all kinds of weather conditions, changes, and so on and so forth. And then animals being different, what they are, etc., there was just not a real big supply to begin with, and secondly the caring of it was a problem. You just did not have a drumhead on a drum. And if you depended on it to produce any kind of sound and earn a living with it especially, you had to learn a little bit about it. So anybody, the military, the army, the navy, the marines, anybody that had to play outside, forget it. Anybody that had to travel. When I played Atlantic City, New Jersey, I could not hear my bass drum, it was so sloppy and so on and so forth, and this is what it was. So when you think in terms of convenience or inconvenience, it was a dream to have something that would overcome that possibility and be to some degree consistent, so it was amazing that DuPont developed something like Mylar that had tonal properties and that had physical strength that you could make a drumhead with.

Ken: So when did you turn that dream into a reality and what were the steps that you had to painstakingly go through to create that reality?

Remo: Fortunately for me there were so many great professional players in Hollywood. For me to call up or to talk with a Shelly Manne or a Louie Bellson or whomever it may be, they would very conveniently drive down and I said, “Try it.”  And since I was already part of the group of drummers they knew me, they knew I could play and so on and so forth, and I was not kidding them when I said I think there is something here that may have some kind of potential. So that is what we did. Then I had my bookkeeper, the guy that took care of our books at Drum City, I showed it to him and I said, “Sid, I think I got something here that is of real value.” And there were other people making synthetic drumheads. We were not the first ones to think in terms of synthetic drumheads. They had been around for awhile but they never were successful. And then Sid said to me, “Remo, I know a guy by the name of Sam. He is a chemist and I think we should ask him to see if there is anything he could do to mount these on a hoop somewhere, where they could be conveniently used.” So the person that developed the real serious technology of 
utilizing a piece of Mylar was a guy by the name of Sam Muchnick that was associated with me. I in turn told him what the limitations are, where we should go, how we should go, what we should try to do, and we would work from maybe 6 in the evening to 2 in the morning.

Ken: And this was in your garage.

Remo: Yes.

Ken: So this was one of those wonderful stories where it is a thought birthed out of the garage, being a practitioner, and then going through this process of figuring out how, which is critical in how do you adhere that to something that will hold, withstand the tension. Now to talk about the earlier experiments, and a lot of the earlier experiments were still dealing with the traditional sense of wrapping it around a hoop, which failed miserably. You had mentioned that by taking the drum and tacking it, this would definitely not afford the ability to—

Remo: No, it would not hold.

Ken: It would not hold.

Remo: Under a whole lot of tension and playing it will just pull out.

Ken: So there had to be some way to be able to take that Mylar, shape it of course, but also put it into some hoop or mechanism there to give it that strength. How did that come about?

Remo: We made sure we brought everything along. I hope nothing is missing. So, Muchnick, Sam Muchnick was a surface-bonding authority who worked, actually from Philadelphia, and he knew adhesives. So what he did, he developed a system in which he punched holes around the periphery of the head, had developed and thought about this channel, an aluminum channel. We insert the head into the channel and then we fill the channel with a resin and the resin flows through the holes. And in fact what we have built is a trampoline. And a head, in order to sound, also needs vibration, so we received the patent on making it this way, and after 52 years we still make it that way, although obviously some improvements from along the way. This now is considered still to this day, if you want something to really sound, this is the way you make it, so we still do.

Ken: I am assuming though that in that process of discovery there was still a lot of back-and-forth between you and DuPont to continue to refine and work out those imperfections within the Mylar itself. 

Remo: Very much. I was, and I still am to this day very grateful that this huge company, DuPont, worked with this little dinky little thing in California and so on and so forth, and it was really amazing that they were so receptive to making a change for us because they did not think in terms of Mylar as something atonal. They did not think—they did not produce Mylar for something that had tonal properties to it. To this day, Mylar is still the preferred film, although there are many companies now all over the world making film, but they do not make film where the harmonics are usable. They make film where there is a lot of dissonance, and there are some types of Mylar that I cannot use. So DuPont in making their film, there were sections of the film that they made that they knew qualified for our use, and this is what we did. There is a certain amount of levelness to the film that we ask. There is a certain amount of other conditions and properties that we need in order to put the film through the processes that we put it through.

Ken: It is quite a departure from calfskin or skinheads where that inconsistency was part of what your experience was and you had to figure out how to modify or technically deal with that, where now you have a product here that allows the responsiveness, consistent responsiveness, which then to me is a vehicle to elevate the artistry also because now you can do a lot more with something that is not as temperamental.

Remo: Let me talk about historically. What we dealt with and DuPont, they made, the Mylar film that we bought at that time, the thickest film they made was 7.5 mm, and they made thinner films. They made 5 mm and 3 mm. So those of you that may be acquainted with our product, but I will explain it. We make the drumheads in different thicknesses in order to accommodate different uses that the drumhead is going to be subjected to. So we, the first head we made literally was a transparent head made of 7.5 mm Mylar. That is what we call the batter head, the one that fits on top of the snare drum, and then the snare side head we used a 3 mm film. It has to be thinner in order to reverberate when the pieces of wire that are on the drum that rattle, so they call that a snare drum. I am responding, I listened to the last lecture that went on with innovation and so on and so forth, and I think the thing that happened that had I not had the personal experience myself I would not have known what to do as well as I knew what to do. We had the thin film and the thin film could hold up under just so much impact, so it became apparent that I needed something a little heavier. So in order to accommodate that, I then utilized—I took both films and I put them together. So I put a 7.5 mm and a 3 mm together and I got a 10.5 mm head, and that held up considerably longer. 

So I guess the point that this is leading to that I think should be of interest to all of you, we would not have even come near growing to where we are now and doing what we are now had we not had the ability to recognize the nuances that we had to deal with because when you are dealing with music and you are dealing with artistry and you are dealing with playing and then sensitivities and emotions and so on and so forth, you have to be able to recognize what it is supposed to do. Drums that were invented wherever they were invented to accommodate the conditions that they were needed to be used with. So the drumming family is so enormous, so to really try to accommodate to it, you cannot do it with just a piece of Mylar. You really have to take a piece of Mylar and you have to work with it and you get what you have to get.

Ken: So the garage became something you moved out pretty quickly.

Remo: Yes.

Ken: And that moved you into a facility in North Hollywood?

Remo: Yes, we started off with 500 square feet, and then I moved to 1,000 square feet.  Well let me see, 500 square feet lasted three months. Then I moved into 1,000 square feet.  That lasted another two or three months. Then I moved, still in Hollywood, to 3,000 square feet and I thought, “Whoa, how am I going to fill this place?” So we had 3,000, and then I finally moved to North Hollywood to 6,000 square feet. That lasted a year or two years. Then the guy that built the building said, “I am going to build another 6,000 square feet next door,” and I said, “Okay, I’ll take it.” So over a period of years we grew to 170,000 square feet in the area.

Ken: And also, not just in the United States, but also two factories, one in China. So it is interesting as you grew and as the acceptance embracing of the synthetic head, there was also then more demands on different sounds that you might get out of it, which then prompted you and your team to go back and start to look at how you could look at this Mylar and create different thicknesses, different ways of getting tones out of it, which birthed a whole string of drumheads. If you can kind of talk about some of those moments, like with Steve Gadd wanting, as you mentioned, a wet sound, what that meant to you.

Remo: Well, we were talking, again going back to DuPont, we used Tyvek. This is Tyvek and Mylar impregnated with a resin that we have developed, we patented this. This is Kevlar along with Mylar. There is nothing that, this cannot keep up with the style of drumming that is preferred by the drum corps and by the pipe bands and things like that.  They play on surfaces that are pretty much as hard as wood. So in order to accommodate that we did use Tyvek to Mylar, Kevlar to Mylar, and we use other materials for other purposes.

Ken: You are talking about Mylar. The snare drum all the way on the end there, which is actually a Highland drum, which is using one of the coated Mylar tops. If you think about bagpipes, they are very loud and typically any other instrument that wants to compete with them has to be able to have some volume. But also they have drums so you need to be able to have a pitch that is going to cut through. So Highland-style drumming required that you continue to increase the pitch to cut through, which meant that a material had to withstand that high tension, so those challenges of trying to do that was solved by using Mylar, I mean Kevlar. The flip was we had material so strong that it was doing what to the drum?  Destroying the drum.

Remo: It was breaking the drum.

Ken: So the manufacturer had to go back and figure out how to resolve that.

Remo: It has been about four times that the head broke, then the drum broke, then the head broke, then the drum broke, and now I think we are at parity. [laughter] I think we have shook hands and said, “Hey, enough is enough.”

Ken: Another thing that is really interesting that you mentioned, that being a professional musician myself and those of you also in this audience, we can pretty much go around as a drummer around the world and feel comfortable that we can find the necessary materials to do what we need to do. And that is a story that I did not realize came about because of this invention of the drumhead, if you would like to talk about that a little bit.

Remo: OK, let me go back just a little bit, rock and roll, the 1960s, the Beatles and so on and so forth. When that hit and became apparent what it was getting involved in, and speaking only about our country here, they could not keep up with the demand. So there were several resourceful businesspeople who went to Japan. At that time—this is 1960—Japan was still growing, doing what it had to do, so they started buying drums from Japan, and there was no way for Japan to make the amount of drums that it could make because they could not find the heads. There were not enough animal skins to go on. There were 23 manufacturers of drums, and they made about 24,000 sets of drums a month for the United States is what there was at that time. 

So what we had to do, literally what was interesting is like the nuts and bolts. We had to establish a size parameter that the industry had to go in. So we were able to do it, it took about five years to where we convinced everybody and anybody that this was what the size was, and if you wanted a different size I was not going to make it. [laughter] It is very interesting. And you only know that when you are the drummer and you are on the road and you are going somewhere and you need something and it will not fit. It is not a good experience. So we knew that and they knew that, and they began to recognize that. 

So historically, you and I as drummers, you and I can get the same item in New York as we can buy in Tokyo as we can buy in Istanbul or we can buy wherever you want to buy it, however you want to buy it, and it fits. And all the competitors that we have make it the same size as we do. So I am very proud of that, that we were able to set the nuts-and-bolts aspects for the industry, which caused the industry to grow. 

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Matt Ringelstetter: That was Remo Belli discussing how a place such as Los Angeles and a community of musicians can help inspire and drive the inventive process.

If you’d like to let us know what you thought of this episode, or any in the series, drop us a line at LemCen@si.edu. You can write a review on our iTunes page, or even take the anonymous survey found at invention.smithsonian.org/video.

For the Smithsonian’s Lemelson Center and Inventive Voices, this is Matt Ringelstetter. Tune in again next month for more interesting stories, people, and places in the world of invention and innovation.

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