Molded Plastic – Some cases are made out of molded plastic which might be good for keeping the rain off an instrument but not much help under the repeated impacts of being loaded onto a truck.
Their weakness frequently is in the latches, which can break or come loose over time, and you don’t see plastic cases in very large sizes. Once again, molded plastic cases may come in an odd enough shape that it won’t easily pack in the truck.
There are ATA molded cases made, which are also mil spec for military electronic gear, but they’re really expensive and generally custom made.
Sandwiched Material – The strongest and most common road cases are the ones with sandwiched material and reinforced edges and corners, and these can be made of different materials for different types of transit. Most sandwich-type road cases are constructed in three main layers:
—An outer layer of a plastic-based laminate called ABS
—A middle layer of 3/16- to ½-inch cabinet-grade plywood such as birch, poplar or maple
—An internal shock-absorbing foam layer that corresponds to the exact shape of the instrument or piece of gear.
The edges of the case are reinforced with aluminum extrusion, and have steel or zinc corner pieces and recessed handles and fasteners.
There are generally two types of protective foam used in road cases. Polyurethane foam is very soft and provides a gentle cushion for any delicate item. It’s usually available in ½-inch to 10-inch thickness in ½-inch increments. The problem is that it’s so soft that it can be crushed by a heavy item, in which case a polyethylene foam is used instead.
Polyethylene foam is very dense and not very flexible, and the texture is almost like plastic. Frequently it’s used under a heavy item where polyurethane would simply not last due to the constant compression. Usually you want at least a half-inch of foam between your instrument and the outer layer of the case, although most people prefer one inch for added protection.
One thing that’s mostly overlooked with road cases is that the internal foam layer can have some negative chemical interactions with the finish of your instrument that can cause it to become dull and discolored over time. Nitrocellulose lacquer (like those used on vintage guitars), varnish and shellac are much more susceptible to this than the modern polyurethane and polyester type finishes. The way to prevent any interaction from occurring is to make sure that your road cases have a cloth lining over the foam.
Some companies use a velvet-like material layer mostly for cosmetics, but it will also protect your instrument from any finish damage from the foam. If buying a custom case, a cloth covering only adds a small amount to the overall cost of the case.
Remember, if you buy good quality cases, they can last for your entire career on the road, so go for the best and don’t cheap out.
Tip: When buying road cases, try to buy either cases already in stock at your local music store or pro audio dealer, or have them made locally. The cost of shipping them can sometimes be almost as much as the case itself. Almost every city now has a company that makes road cases, so finding one that’s local should be easy.
The good thing about the ATA-type road case is that they can be repaired. Just about anything can be replaced and the case will come back as good as new. In fact, there are companies that specialize in repairing road cases like Mobil Flight Case Repair, although just about any road case manufacturer can do it.”
You can read more from The Touring Musician’s Handbook and my other books on the excerpt section of bobbyowsinski.com.
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Bobby Owsinski is an author, producer, music industry veteran and technical consultant who has written numerous books covering all aspects of audio recording. For more information be sure to check out his website and blog.