The Man Behind the Mallets
By Lauren Vogel Weiss
Percussionists today may take for granted the enormous selection of mallets available to them, from ones that can entice the softest soft to those that can produce the loudest loud. But as recently as 40 years ago, choices were limited to soft, medium, and hard. In 1976, one gigging percussionist in Chicago had an epiphany: “Why do I have to sacrifice quality of sound for quantity of sound?”
“I remember it very distinctly,” explains Michael Balter. “I was recording a commercial for Sears Paint at eight o’clock one morning, and no matter what I did, I couldn’t play softly enough. They wanted the marimba to have that Guatemalan-type sound, but the softest rubber mallet made at the time was the Musser M-1. Then at eight o’clock that night, I was playing marimba for Trini Lopez in a nightclub and couldn’t play loud enough! I said to myself, ‘There is definitely something wrong.’
“I started experimenting,” he continues. “There had to be a way to get the needed volume without sacrificing the quality of the sound.” During a show at the Empire Room with the Lettermen, the conductor complimented Balter on the perfect vibe sound and asked how he could replicate it at his next gig in Las Vegas. “I gave him my mallets, knowing that I could make myself another set.” And Mike Balter Mallets was born!
“Necessity is the mother of invention” could be used to describe Balter’s early efforts—similar to those of other early players/manufacturers already in the PAS Hall of Fame, like Vic Firth, Remo Belli, and Joe Calato. But before he founded Mike Balter Mallets in 1977, Michael Balter was first and foremost a drummer.
During the months before Michael was born in Chicago on May 7, 1952, his mother used to listen to big bands and a drummer named Gene Krupa. “There was always music in the house,” Balter says. “My parents often took us to concerts for the cultural experiences. When I was in fourth grade, I earned a high score on a music aptitude test, so it wasn’t a question if I should take up an instrument, but which instrument would I start studying. One Sunday night we were watching The Ed Sullivan Show on television, as most American families did at that time, and guess who was the musical guest? Gene Krupa! Right then and there I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I wanted to play drums.”
Like most young drummers of the early 1960s, Balter began his musical journey with a Ludwig practice pad, a pair of 5B drumsticks, and a copy of Haskell Harr’s Drum Method Book One. His first band director, Don Stahlberg, coached him through the first book and then the second. After six months, Stahlberg found his inquisitive young student a “real” percussion teacher, Tommy Frank.
“Tommy played a lot of casuals and club dates in Chicago at the time,” Balter remembers. “He said I had a lot of potential and they wanted me to study with some old guy by the name of Roy Knapp. But when you’re 12 years old, you don’t want to study with someone who’s close to 80!”
For his 13th birthday, Balter’s parents bought him a drumset. “It was a Slingerland drumset,” he whispers, still in awe at the memory. “About six months later, my parents took me to the London House, the premier jazz club in downtown Chicago, to see the Gene Krupa Quartet. We sat at the first table near the bandstand; I could literally touch his bass drum! Between his floor tom-tom and ride cymbal was a spotlight, and there was another one between his hi-hat and snare drum. When he played his solo, these two lights would shine upon Gene, creating a 12-foot shadow on the wall behind him, which was mesmerizing. Gene would do things that were not technically difficult—like four or five strokes with one hand while raising his other hand—but they were extremely musical and very showy. After the first set, Gene came over to our table and talked to me for forty-five minutes between sets.” Balter smiles at the memory.
“There are certain things that he said to me that I never forgot throughout my entire playing career,” he adds. “Gene told me that when you’re playing, look out into the audience; if people are not tapping their feet, clapping their hands, bobbing their heads, or swaying with the music, then you are not doing your job. You have to make the beat come alive.”
On the way home from that concert, Michael asked his mother an important question: Now could he study with Roy Knapp? “I knew Roy was Gene’s teacher and that I wanted to learn from him.” Mrs. Balter called Roy the next day and Michael and Roy began a long-lasting relationship.
As a freshman in high school, Balter challenged the first chair player in the varsity band, a position he quickly earned. “My parents instilled in me that there’s a fine line in life,” he says. “One side of the line is confidence and the other side is arrogance. You can go up to the line, but never cross it.”
When he turned 16, Balter began working at the legendary Frank’s Drum Shop on Saturday afternoons. His association and friendship with owner Maurie Lishon lasted until Lishon’s death in 2000.
Upon a recommendation from Lishon, Balter attended the first Ludwig Symposium at Northwestern University during the summer of 1968. He had just begun studying mallet percussion theory with Knapp but had not played marimba until that week, yet his marimba rolls in Gordon Peters’ arrangement of “Greensleeves” during the student concert caught the attention of Bill Ludwig, Jr., who complimented the young percussionist. This was also Balter’s first exposure to players like Gary Burton, Bobby Christian, Roy Haynes, Joe Morello, and Dick Schory and the Percussion Pops. “Gary Burton was the first person I took vibe lessons from,” Balter states with pride.
About this same time, Knapp gave his star student an opportunity of a lifetime: He put him in touch with two former students currently working in Los Angeles. “My parents would send me out to California several times a year for a week at a time,” Balter explains, “and I would study with Louie Bellson and Lou Singer! Roy told them that I was his ‘last student that’s going to make it.’ Lou was a perfectionist who made me sightread violin concertos and flute sonatas, which was a great learning experience. I also got to hang out with Hal Blaine and Emil Richards in the studios.”
Following his graduation from Niles East High School in Skokie, Illinois in 1970, Balter decided to stay in Chicago in order to continue his private lessons with Knapp. He attended DePaul University where he studied percussion with Bob TIlles and Al Payson. When he was a sophomore, Balter asked Knapp if he could join the union. “I knew I could play club dates better than some other people,” Balter remembers. “But he kept saying I wasn’t ready yet. Roy didn’t want me to be pegged as just a casual drummer; he wanted me to be able to do it all.”
In 1973, Balter earned the top spot in the Disney All-American College Band, a paid internship for college student musicians. Choosing Walt Disney World over Disneyland, Balter spent the summer in Florida, playing as much as he could. “We started the day with a parade,” he describes, “plus I played percussion with the chorus eight shows a day. And in the evening, I’d play percussion at the Top of the World, which was like a supper club. The drummer there was Don Lamond.” His voice hushes in awe. “It was the best college experience.”
During his senior year in college, Balter finally got his chance to join the union. “I was working at Frank’s one Saturday,” he recalls, “and Maurie got a call at five o’clock that a band leader needed a drummer for a show that night. Roy, who was the adjudicator for the union, collected five dollars from me and said, ‘Congratulations! You are now in the union!’ I got to the gig just as the rehearsal was ending so the conductor talked me through the music. I ended up playing the show, for Kathie Lee Gifford, without a rehearsal. I sat behind the drumset and took command.”
Balter received his bachelor’s degree in performance and music education from DePaul in 1974, followed by his master’s degree in music education in 1976. (He also received an Honorary Doctorate from VanderCook College of Music in 2014.) “After college, I was working at the theater, teaching, and playing at nightclubs,” he explains. “Plus there were a lot of recordings and casuals during the day. It would not be uncommon for me to play eight shows, have three or four recording sessions, and play two or three extra gigs in a ‘normal’ week.” Over the years, he also taught at Governor’s State University and the American Conservatory of Music, as well as his alma mater.
For almost two decades, Balter was the house percussionist and drummer at the Shubert Theatre in Chicago. He performed in the orchestra pit for numerous National Touring Company productions of Broadway shows during their Chicago runs, including A Chorus Line, Pippin, Dancin’, Annie, Evita, The Wiz, Dreamgirls, Pirates of Penzance, 42nd Street, and Cats, to name a few. He has also played with such luminaries as Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, the 5th Dimension, Barry Manilow, Dionne Warwick, Bette Midler, Nancy Wilson, the Pointer Sisters, Patti LaBelle, Marvin Gaye, Doc Severinsen, Pearl Bailey, Johnny Mathis, Marvin Hamlisch, Rosemary Clooney, Tex Beneke, Sammy Kay, and many more.
“I was always looking for sound effects that would enhance or embellish what was going on in the music,” states Balter. “I would always try to make the part as musical and interesting as possible. And I had to be creative, too. How do you mimic an old-fashioned Civil War field drum if you don’t have room for it? I ended up putting a snare drum right on the timpani and then playing on the timpani head with drumsticks, so the bowl acted as a resonator, dropping the pitch of the snare drum.” All of this practical playing experience began to pay off as Balter moved into the next phase of his career.
THE MALLET MAKER
After making his first vibe mallets in 1976, Balter told Maurie Lishon about the new endeavor. “I’m going to do you a favor,” Lishon told Balter when he ordered ten pairs for Frank’s Drum Shop. “I brought them in on a Saturday,” Balter recalls, “and the following Thursday, Maurie called to order ten more pairs. I told him that I didn’t have the materials to make more so soon. He told me, ‘Michael, you’ve got to make a decision. You’re either in the mallet business or you’re not.’ So that day I ordered more rattan. I had to buy the minimum of 2,000 pieces. My wife, Judy, said, ‘I hope you know what you’re doing since you ordered 2,000 pieces when you only need 20!’
“I started getting phone calls from the guys out in Vegas,” Balter continues. “I had made some for Lou Singer in California, and the word just started getting around. That first year, we had four cord models, eight yarn, and several unwound mallets.”
Thanks to a growing demand, more stores began to carry the mallets: Bob Yeager at the Professional Drum Shop in Los Angeles, Frank Ippolito at the Professional Percussion Center in New York City, Mickey Toperzer at Drums Unlimited in Maryland, Harvey Vogel at Lone Star Percussion in Dallas, and Steve Weiss [Music] in Philadelphia. “By this time,” Balter adds, “some of the distributors began contacting me. Then I get a call from the J.C. Deagan Company that they want to start putting my mallets in with their instruments.”
What began on the kitchen table in an apartment soon needed room to expand as the business began to grow. In 1992, Balter moved the business into an industrial complex. It wasn’t long before Mike Balter Mallets needed to move into a larger suite, and the company has continued to expand into neighboring suites. The business now occupies almost 6,000 square feet and has 14 employees.
“Remember those 2,000 pieces of rattan I bought to start the business?” Balter asks. “I am amazed how quickly we go through 2,000 pieces today!”
The product line consists of over one hundred different models—unwound (including latex covered mallets that create that “soft” sound he was looking for during the Sears recording in 1976), yarn wound, cord wound, and mushroom shaped. There are concert bass drum beaters, chime mallets, triangle beaters, timpani mallets, gong beaters, and marching mallets. Mike Balter Mallets, now sold in 25 countries, was one of the first brands to create specialty mallets such as the Louie Bellson Drumset Mallets (double-ended stick/brush and stick/mallet for quick changes) and the Emil Richards Sounds of the Studio Series, including slap mallets, conga mallets, rattle mallets, and even Super Ball mallets.
What is Mike Balter Mallets’ best innovation? “I have been asked this question before, and it is always hard to pick one,” replies Dr. Paul Buyer, Director of Percussion at Clemson University and a consultant for Mike Balter Mallets. “While I could say the versatility of the 23Rs, the feel of the Contemporary Series, or the innovation of the Louie Bellson Drumset Mallets, my real answer is the pride, commitment, and dedication to quality and excellence Michael puts into every product in his line. If you haven’t read his philosophy or personal guarantee on his website, it’s worth your time.”
Gordon B. Peters, a Past President of PAS, adds, “Michael’s imagination, ingenuity, and enthusiasm led to the founding of Mike Balter Mallets, a company that supplies percussion players with a great variety of sticks and mallets. Having visited the facility, I can attest to his most knowledgeable understanding of the needs of percussionists and an unusual attention to detail.”
MICHAEL AND PAS
There is one more important component of the man behind the drumset and the mallets: the man who gives back to the percussion community through the Percussive Arts Society. “Funny story,” Balter says, the same way he begins so many of his tales. “When I was 16 years of age, Maurie Lishon told me that if I wanted to be serious about percussion then I must join PAS. So I’ve been a member of PAS for 47 years.”
Balter attended the early PAS Days of Percussion in Chicago, including the first one in 1971 held at DePaul University. “Over the years, I remember talking to Bill Ludwig, Avedis Zildjian, Vic Firth, Remo Belli—a ‘Who’s Who’ of percussion! They were so nice and always answered my questions; I knew that if they were the type of people in this industry, I wanted to get involved. That’s why when someone comes up to me at PASIC, I will always give them as much of my time as they want because it’s a way for me to say ‘thank you’ to my predecessors who were so kind to me.”
His fledging company was one of only 36 exhibitors at PASIC ’77 in Knoxville, Tennessee and since 1982, Mike Balter Mallets has been a fixture every year at PASIC. Balter himself has attended every PASIC except 1986 when his second son, Benjamin, was born.
In 1988, he was elected to the Board of Directors and served four two-year terms, followed by another two-year term in 1997. In 1991, Balter was elected to serve on the PAS Executive Committee as Treasurer, a position he held for an unprecedented 16 years. “When I started my term as Treasurer, PAS was $25,000 in debt; when I left office, PAS had over $3 million in assets. All the changes we made were for the right reasons, and it made the society stronger.
“I approached PAS the same way that I approach everything in life, by doing the right thing,” continues Balter. “It’s a volunteer organization, and it’s all about the people. It’s about how we instill the passion, love, and desire that we all have for what we do into the next generation. When I’m asked, ‘What is PASIC?’ I tell people it’s not a bunch of drummers getting together, it’s more like a family reunion.”
Paul Buyer, a former student, elaborates on that idea: “The night before I was to speak to the Emerging Leaders at PASIC 2013, Michael asked me what I was going to talk about. He kept saying, ‘What is PAS about?’ I gave him what I thought were all the right answers, but he just kept saying no. As I listened intently to his wisdom, experience, and passion, he finally said, ‘It’s all about the people.’ I ended up changing my talk.
“I think Michael’s greatest contribution to PAS is the impact he has had, and continues to have, on so many people,” Buyer continues. “I saw it firsthand working at his PASIC booth for over 25 years. He always gives his time to people and genuinely cares about them, whether you are a world-class artist or a middle school student buying your first pair of mallets. Another great contribution, of course, is his extraordinary leadership and service as PAS Treasurer for so many years.”
In 2007, after his term as Treasurer ended, Balter returned to his role on the Board of Directors, still keeping a wary eye on the budget as well as contributing his sage wisdom and advice to the society. That same year, he received the PAS Distinguished Leadership Award, the only recipient of this honor in the organization’s history. In 2014, the last year of his second eight-year term, the Board of Directors was changed to a Board of Advisors.
Michael Balter is joining four of his teachers—Knapp, Bellson, Payson, and Bobby Christian—along with countless mentors and friends in the PAS Hall of Fame. “It’s surreal,” Balter admits. “I helped develop the current guidelines and protocols that we use today and even inducted 17 Hall of Fame members during my time on the Executive Committee. I never thought that I would be in the Hall of Fame; I’m just a guy who tries to make everybody happy by giving them the tools to develop their own sound by creating a tonal color palette for percussionists.
“The reality is that when somebody hired me to play percussion,” he continues, “they didn’t hire me because I’m a nice guy. They hired me because of my sound. And I always try to make my sound the best that it can be. Being in the Hall of Fame is an honor that I didn’t think would ever happen. I’m almost at a loss for words. It’s humbling to know that you’re well respected by your colleagues.
“What I find to be really ironic,” Balter says with a wry grin, “is that my entire musical career was ‘study, study, study’ and ‘practice, practice, practice’ so I could be known as a drummer, percussionist, and musician. But most people don’t know about my musical dexterity or the people that I’ve played with or even the fact that I can play.
“Six months after I started making mallets,” he remembers, “Louie Bellson was in town and we went to see the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Big Band. Mel comes over to the table afterwards and Louie said, ‘Mel, I want you to meet a friend of mine. This is Mike Balter.’ And Mel said, ‘Oh! You’re the guy making those great mallets!’ After just six months, I was known as ‘Mike the mallet maker’!”
When asked how he would like to be remembered, Balter replies without hesitation, “As Jacob and Ben’s father!” When pressed for a musical legacy, he sighs. “I guess I’m known more as a businessman—I’ve been making mallets for almost 40 years—but down deep, I consider myself a drummer.”
PASIC15 Hall of Fame Induction Video