the box

In 2010, I built a giant plywood box in my very small basement in an attempt to play a very real drum set in a very real townhouse. We didn’t really know how to build things, and we definitely didn’t know how to design them. This is what happened.

(remixed outtake from an Elementary recording session)

Did you know drums are loud? Well, they are.

Drums are very, very, very loud — even louder than you’d probably think, if you’re not the kind of person who puts a drum set in your house. In my case, I had known this for a while. When I was a kid, I was lucky enough to have two friends and bandmates with parents who inexplicably put up with our incessant drumming (and terrible guitar/bass playing, juvenile songs, cursing, etc.) for literally years. Even when we left for college, it was only temporary. Eventually Christmas would roll around and we’d be back at it, just as bad as before except somewhat out of practice.

At some point that party had to end, and for me it was when we graduated from college and moved out of our parents’ respective homes. I moved into a Boston-area apartment with Steve, our drummer, and was introduced to the brutally unsatisfying world of 2004-era low-end electronic drums. It was pretty bad, but I still got a lot better, and every couple of weekends Steve and I would simply drive back to his parents house and play there. We never really solved the problem; we just sort of mitigated it. 

About a year after that I got married and moved into a place in Providence, RI with no drums of any sort; I had to settle for a mid-90’s drum machine that at least I could program. It was even less satisfying, but the performance was a little better. When my wife convinced me to move out to Cleveland so she could take a cool job offer, one of my bribes was a basement of my own in the midwest-cheap Ohio suburbs and a drumset. We bought it before our (admittedly terrible) furniture even arrived, so for a few days I had an iMac, a half-inflated air mattress, and a drum set sitting in my basement, which pretty much set the tone for my time in Cleveland. 

I loved playing drums there — I’d play for hours and hours since I had all the time in the world, no friends, no money, and extremely inconsistent employment. Our basement wasn’t soundproofed at all, so it sounded like a construction site down there whenever I played. Our cats got used to all of the instruments — guitars, bass, vocals out of a PA system — except those drums. One squeak of the kick pedal and they’d scatter up the stairs. 

Finding a home for our drums

In 2008, we moved to D.C. and my life got demonstrably better. I had a real job I liked, and as cool 20-somethings with two incomes and no kids, we lived in a nice apartment in Vienna, VA that we could actually afford. But it was no Cleveland house, and getting a single family home in the NOVA/DC area was way out of our price range (and might always be). I returned to my drum machine, and wasn’t thrilled with it.

Two years later, we moved just slightly further west to the town of Reston, and into a townhouse. It wasn’t much bigger (or any bigger, really) than our apartment, but technically, it had a small basement. On top of that, Steve returned with his wife from a series of worldly adventures to a condo just outside of D.C., and desperately wanted to play drums again. Drums seemed very unlikely to work in my townhouse, but were an absolute no-go in his building, leaving us without a viable option.

Then, we had an idea.

Thinking inside the box

Being bad, amateur punk rock musicians, Steve and I had both experimented in soundproofing a number of times in the past. These experiments were all pretty much total failures, but we were undaunted. We found some well-thought-of soundproofing products from Audimute (located, ironically, a few miles from my house in Cleveland, although I wasn’t aware of it at the time), but did the math and realized that covering my basement in soundproofing was prohibitively expensive. We could try to just cover certain walls, but that started to sound like an expensive version of our previous failed experiments. Then, we had a thought — what if the room we needed to soundproof wasn’t so big? What if it was a sub-room INSIDE the basement? What if it was… a box?

While neither Steve nor I had any construction experience whatsoever, we were both very stubborn and I lived pretty close to a Home Depot. So we sketched out exactly what we thought we’d need, and quickly calculated the total soundproofing coverage required for a small box designed to fit nothing but Steve and a drum set. I asked Steve to do the calculations, since I recalled him planning on being an engineering major for about 3 days during his freshman year of college.

“This could be off, but… 20,000 square feet?”

We were in business.

Walking to Home Depot

All we had to do now was build a huge-ass box in my basement. We went to Home Depot and started loading up on plywood and 2x4s, only to quickly realize that neither of us had cars big enough to carry the largest pieces we needed. When renting a truck became impossible (I guess they only have like, one truck and it’s out a lot), we simply commandeered one of the orange Home Depot carts and walked it to my house. Then we walked it back. No one noticed or cared.

Construction wasn’t too bad. We threw up a frame of 2x4s, and I cut a spot for a door out with a cheap circular saw I bought. Then, we simply hoisted up the big sheets of plywood we had bought, and nailed one to the inside, and one to the outside. Between the two, we jammed in a bunch of sound insulation from a theatre in Alexandria that Steve had found was going out of business — we stuck it in bags because it was probably not something you’d want exposed. Then, after nearly sealing ourselves inside by accident, we were basically done. We bought a giant metal hinge and attached a door, and started drumming.

Play Video

Life and death of The Box

So… did it work? Not really. The box made a huge impact (we tested), but I underestimated just how picky my neighbors really were, and the impact of their annoying high-school-aged son who always claimed to be doing his homework. At first I felt really bad about making so much noise, but I got several noise complaints about “the drumming” when I hadn’t tried playing for literally months, and that started to make me more skeptical. I’m pretty sure they were just grumpy neighbors, but that was pretty much the kiss of death for live drums in my house.

To make matters worse, it was also a difficult environment to play in. Steve is well over six feet, and would bump his head on the roof whenever he wasn’t sitting. Plus, it could get incredibly hot in there (especially when you were drumming), and sometimes I worried I might end up slowly killing my friend in a haze of cheap lumber.

Still, I loved the box once I figured out what I could realistically do with it. It was an extremely tranquil place to write songs, record very loud guitar, and try out crazy vocals without having to see your friends and bandmates laughing at you. We recorded all of the guitars and vocals for two Elementary records, most of the first Defendents record, and all of my vocals (and saxophone!) for two Six Foot Machine records, all in that box.

So maybe the box wasn’t perfect, or even particularly good at what we designed it to do. But we had fun building it, and using it, and talking about it. And when it came time to dismantle it when we bought a house less than a mile away, it broke my heart a tiny bit.

You were a great box.