The subject of timpani mallets is quite vast and during my travels and with my international students I have seen and tried many different sticks. The problem is that the commercial sticks more often than not, are either of inferior quality, badly made, or made in a commercial fashion, which logically results in the easiest and cheapest way to fabricate something. The handcrafted mallets offer in general more quality and a personal feel. In Holland we had a maker, Sprangh, who custom made many mallets with the craftsmanship of the old days. Basically every pair had a personal sound and balance, because he would let the balance and weight of the bamboo determine where the pair would turn into. Furthermore, his heads were beautiful made, with the utmost care. When he died, I tried to follow in his footsteps, and endeavored to make my sticks with the same zest I use in my playing.
Going back in history to the start of using more than one pair, in the early times, it was normal to use a pair of wooden sticks for the loud passages, and a pair of softer ones for the soft passages. The wooden sticks brought in ff a quite slim, compact, but clear sound and the softer ones [covered] in pp a round but unclear rhythm. The choice was made based on the atmosphere of the sound the mallets brought. Since then the use of mallets has undergone a lot of changes and now we usually follow the opposite way.
I have never been happy with the standard set of mallets that is offered nowadays. Especially the harder mallets take so much from the bass sound away. In my experience as a player/maker, I discovered many interesting things. The main point is that it is not necessary to choose mallets only by the head.
The thickness of the stick has a strong influence on the sound. Thin stick, thin sound, Thick stick, rounder sound.
The weight of the stick has an equal influence. A thick, but light stick will produce a quite clear, but warm and easy to produce sound. Is the stick heavy, than the rebound is more difficult to control, the contact with the head will be longer and therefore the sound will be deep, and consequently not so clear. The heavy stick has what I call, a strong personality, which means the stick dictates your sound . It is difficult to colour through technique with a stick that has strong aspects of sound itself. It can only function properly with a loose grip, otherwise it will have a double heavy result.
The length of the stick [and consequently the position of the grip] will influence the sound. A too long mallet will sound dumpy, too short will lack presence. If you want to have a clear rhythm, don't make the stick to long.
The material of the stick colours the sound and gives the playing comfort. Wood is more stiff and gives a darker colour than the more flexible bamboo. Any other material has not convinced me yet.
Then we have the playing spot . I like to use the complete range from the rim to 7.5 inches from this to clear the rhythm or colour the sound. We have the dampening pads and often in pp passages I will use a 1 hand[1 or 2 fingers] dampening , while playing a 1 hand rhythm [e.g. Scherzo, Bruckner 9th].
Basically one can use the principle of nature in the use of mallets. Heavy, will produce a heavy sound. Light, light sound. Short, a staccato, fast sound. Long, a slow and dark sound, etc. An excellent length of the stick is around 15.4, 15.5 inches. Traditionally we will use a “neutral” mallet in Amsterdam . One, which does not have a strong personality, but one with which we can colour through our technique and so bring in all the delicate expressions we want to realize by changing grip, tension, finger and wrist/arm control.
In the RCO we have always strived to keep the pitch very clear, and consequently chosen for softer heads and bamboo shafts. For the more clear, rhythmical passages we will first try a lighter or thinner or shorter stick and in difficult cases turn to the “black magic”, a stick with a cork core, a felt layer and finally a leather or artificial[ thinner] leather covering, to combine pitch with a surface sound, which at a distance gives a very clear rhythm. The problem of clarity in our sound is realistic, on the other hand, we do sit far from the conductor, we do play a bass instrument, so how far should we go? From a Tuba or Contrabassoon player will not be asked to make their sound more clear. Of course we have a rhythmic responsibility and this makes our efforts greater than with the other bass instruments, but I think our responsibility towards the most beautiful sound is also a reality and am of the opinion that if we play with the right timing, the right colour, the right character and a beautiful sound, most conductors will be happy.
For all colleagues who are interested in the Dutch type of mallet, the process of making them has been taken over by my former student Seungtae Ku from Korea and I do recommend his sticks to all of you as his craftsmanship is very fine. Seungtae sticks are available at Pustjens Percussion Products in Amsterdam