Sorry about the tongue in cheek title for the post, I couldn't resist. Anyways this is going to wrap up the posts about getting yourself a set of congas to play rumba with. The subject of this post is going to be about the large manufacturers of congas and other instruments, namely; LP (Latin Percussion), Toca, Tycoon, Pearl, Meinl, etc, etc.
I would like to start of with a positive note and describe the advantages of getting these kinds of drums. The big one is availability. You can find these drums anywhere, online or in stores. The big music stores usually have several models and makes and the little stores almost always carry a few examples of these drums. You can buy them with little or no waiting period. "Corporate congas" are also relatively cheap, especially for the quality you can get. The mass manufacturing and overseas fabrication keep the prices down, and sales and discounts are all over the place, especially for web shopping. With these kinds of drums it is a simple thing to try out the model you want in a store and then buy it for hundreds less online. However don't forget to support your local music store in other ways, if you use this tactic. We need those music stores.
Corporate congas are almost always well manufactured and durable. In addition spare parts are easy to come by should you need them. Every conga player has seen these kinds of drums, played on them, heard and are comfortable, experienced and used to them.
Now for the disadvantages. First is sound: while mass produced congas don't sound inherently bad, it is my opinion that artisan drums sound better. It's like comparing a Chevrolet to a Porsche. They both drive well, but one gets you there with a little more performance. Good sound can be a very fickle thing. Sometimes an LP with the right skin or a few adjustments can just sound phenomenal. If your playing outside, concrete can make your Skin on Skin not sound as great anymore. So sound can be fickle. Also most mass produced drums are designed more for salsa, latin jazz and other more mainstream types of music that use congas. Sometimes these kinds of drums just don't have the folkloric sound.
There are the exceptions coming out however. Toca and Pearl seem to be making some models with the "traditional" player or rumbero in mind. Pearl has their "folkloric" series and Toca is making their traditional models. They have some different features that are supposed to appeal to traditional players over their other models and be better for traditional styles of music. However, they are still just new and different models put out by a mass producer of instruments.
I always put a lot of stock in feel, how the drum feels to your hands. The mass made congas will feel a little "off-the-rack" to your hands versus a "well-tailored" feel of other kinds of drums.
Many, many rumbas and rhythms are played on mass produced drums. Most of the rumba and conga classes provide these corparate congas if they supply drums and many of my friends own them. You can produce fantastic music on them. You do see them everywhere however, posters, cd covers, and sometimes they seem a little generic, look a little plain and usually have a sound that just doesn't seem to recall the solars and barrios, streets and tenements, of old Havana or Matanzas in Cuba.