Sunday, November 5, 2017

Guide to Identifying a Super-Ludwig 400

by Ed Flack © 2017

The Ludwig Supra-Phonic is said to be the “most recorded” snare drum of the 1960s and 1970s. I don’t know if that is true but it is plausible, and why not? The Supra-Phonic is a great drum and Ludwig sold a lot of them.

The modern version of this snare drum went in to production in 1958 as the “Super-Ludwig.” The first drums named Super-Ludwig with the original Art Deco lug design were made available in 1936 using wood shells. The 1958 Super-Ludwig was made of one solid piece of rolled brass that was formed into a circle and welded. By 1962 Ludwig changed the name to “Super-Ludwig 400” (the significance of the number 400 is not known—likely added as a marketing gimmick?) The next major design and name change occurred in 1963 when Ludwig switched from rolled brass to a spun aluminum shell, calling it the “Supra-Phonic 400.” The aluminum shell has no welds and Ludwig introduced it as the “Acousti-Perfect” shell. At first look the Super-Ludwig and the Supra-Phonic can be mistaken as the same model drum, yet there are significant differences. Here are some specific features to look for if you want to identify a Super-Ludwig from a Supra-Phonic.

1. As already referenced, from 1958–1962 the Super-Ludwig was made from a rolled brass and welded shell. After the brass models, the Supra-Phonic shell material was made of spun aluminum with no welds. The evidence is seen in the bubbles, pitting, and excessive peeling of chrome from the surface of the early Supra-Phonic snares. Chrome just does not adhere well to an aluminum surface but it works really well on brass. Another obvious characteristic of brass is that it is much heavier than the Acousti-Perfect Ludalloy (aluminum) shell. The Super-Ludwig weighs about 10 pounds.

2. The bearing edge on both brass and aluminum shell models is 45º, these are created by rolling the top and bottom edges inward to form a collar or “flange.” This also serves to strengthen the shell and help support and maintain the shell’s circular shape. However, on the Super-Ludwig models, there is a second shorter flange at the final edge that curls back and slightly under the primary collar.

3. The famous Ludwig Keystone badge on the brass Super-Ludwig and Super-Ludwig 400 never had a serial number. Conceivably, there may be a very few early Supra-Phonics produced in 1963 that have no serial numbers? But since 1964, all Ludwig snare drums have a serial number on the badge.

4. The Imperial lug casings. This attractive Art Deco design originated in 1935 to commemorate the 25th year “Silver Anniversary” of the Ludwig company. The Super-Ludwig lug casings are heavier than the Supra-Phonic lugs. In addition, the design of the Supra-Phonic Imperial lugs was altered very slightly.

If you view an Imperial lug from the side profile you will notice that there are three flat plains or levels that appear as though they are almost stacked on to one another. They create ridges between each successive level so that the top or out-most shape is smallest, the middle level beneath is larger, and the third and final surface is the largest and it forms the bulk of the lug’s shape.

The Imperial lugs on both models are the same overall size, but each of the three ridged plains of the lugs on a Super-Ludwig are smaller than they are on the Supra-Phonic lug. The Imperial lugs on a Super-Ludwig have a smaller inside cavity and shorter spring resulting in more metal mass and lug weight.

5. The counter hoops of a Super-Ludwig are chrome over brass. The counter hoops of the Supra-Phonic are chrome over steel. A magnet will attract to the steel hoops but not to the brass hoops. The magnet test is not useful to differentiate the shells because neither brass nor aluminum will attract a magnet. However, it is possible to find some very early Supra-Phonics with one or both of the hoops being chrome over brass. It is possible to occasionally find an early Supra-Phonic with some or all of its Imperial lugs of the Super-Ludwig style. That is because when Ludwig made a design change, they gradually used up the leftover inventory of previous models resulting in some overlap of components.

6. The snare beds of the Super-Ludwig are crimped. The snare beds of an Acousti-Perfect shell appear less severe and not as obvious because they are gradually tapered away from the snare wire center position and there is no visible crimp to the bed.

7. The strainer on the early Super-Ludwigs and Supra-Phonics was the P-83 model and later models received the P-85 strainer. The oldest P-83 strainers were stamped “WFL” and they were gradually replaced with the same strainer showing the script style “Ludwig” logo. The butt plate (opposite side of the strainer) was also stamped “WFL” on the older versions and they also were gradually replaced by the script “Ludwig” logo.

How do these two iconic variations of snare drum compare where it really matters, that is to say, in sound and playability? In the opinion of this drummer, I would say both perform spectacularly well, I resist using terms like “warm” or “bright” but I will say the stick response of both shell versions is excellent from the out most edge of the head surface to the center. I attribute this in large measure to the fact that there are ten tuning rods per head.

Both drums have a good range of tunability from the low end of useful head response up to a high and tight tuning. I do recommend that if you have an early Super or Supra that you will realize the best feel and tuning when using a single ply, coated drum head.

One characteristic of these drums is that the snare wires are quite “buzzy.” Not just to sympathetic resonance from other instruments but also in solo performance. The buzzyness of the Supra-Phonic is easier to control with bottom head tuning than the Super-Ludwig. I think this may be because of the Acousti-Perfect snare bed design which is more gradual and less deep than crimped snare beds. The deep snare bed of the Super-Ludwig requires that the rods on each side of the snare beds need more torque in tuning to eliminate wrinkles in the snare head.

I have experimented with a variety of snare wires on both drums including standard Ludwig snare wires, Puresound wires and the Rhythm Tech “Active Snare System” which is sort of like a fake Dyna-Sonic snare bridge. Each of them have performed well, the differences are subjective but in my opinion, the Rhythm Tech does help dry up some of the buzzyness on the Supra-Phonic. I only use Ludwig wires on the Super because those are the snares the drum would have been designed to use and I want the most authentic sound possible.

So, if you do not own a Super or a Supra and you find yourself with an opportunity to get one in good condition, you should do it! The Supers are relatively rare and if they have not been abused or neglected they hold up extremely well. Even a 1960 Super can still look like new and if well maintained it will continue look good and serve well long after we are all gone.

The Supra-Phonic can look really terrible with the bubbling chrome finishes but that has absolutely zero effect on the sound and playability of the drum. Once upon a time, I considered that to be an ugly flaw and symbol of an inferior drum design but I am no longer so prejudice of their appearance. In fact, I think the pitting and bubbles lends a special character to those drums that is just cool. This may even work to your advantage as a buyer because most folks want to own the “pretty” drum. Another bonus of its distressed appearance is that you don’t worry so much about picking up a few extra scratches, making this drum a perfect workhorse for gigs.

Thank you for taking the time to absorb this tiny slice of Ludwig drum history. I am by no means the highest authority on this subject. I happen to own these two drums and as a valued part of my collection I conducted some personal research to better educate myself as to what I actually have. This brief article is all I can report with confidence in accuracy. Now go play your drums.

Follow this link to YouTube video showing press rolls played on Super-Ludwig:  
"The Circus Bee" by Henry Fillmore

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