Tag: drum

…How your timpani has gone from sounding good to bad.

(Every Percussionist Should Know…)
…How your timpani has gone from sounding good to bad.

My intention with this article is to explain how your kettle drum works acoustically to create a harmonic pitch.  I have simplified everything considerably for clarity and brevity.  Once the fundamentals are understood you will then be able to find out what has happened to your drum, and come to the realisation that you really do need expert help!

Right at the very beginning, Preschool Paul, whilst out walking with his parents threw a stone into a pond and watched the ripples.



Because this pond just happens to be perfectly round, the ripples bounce back off the banks uniformly.  It creates a nice symmetrical pattern.  When applied to your kettle drum, this would represent the perfectly pure note.  The stone represents the timpani stick and I know a timpani is played at the edge, but that is because of more advanced acoustical reasons which do not contradict this acoustic model.  The ripples are sound waves.

However, if the pond was elliptical then some sections of the circular sound wave would be reflected off the bank before other sections.  Your drum now sounds awful because the interaction between the original and reflected sound waves are inharmonic. (This will be explained in another article if I ever finish it!)  The same thing would happen if your timpani bowl has been squashed and you have a flat spot.

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However it gets more complicated, because we live in a three dimensional world.  In the diagram below, the drum looks circular when viewed from directly above, but as the image rotates around the centre line as if to view the bowl from the side, it can be seen that the top half creates the expected ellipse, whereas the bottom half undulates up and down.  This could be because something has dropped onto the drum from above.  At the bottom left you can see the “acoustic” shape that this bowl would create.

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Because the bowl shape doesn’t vary when timpani are played, then any defect in the roundness of the bowl will affect the entire playing range.  It is relatively easy to return an elliptical bowl back to round – I do it every time I change a head, however if the bowl is egg shaped things suddenly get harder, and if it’s not flat they become harder still.

Timpani don’t just play one pitch, they have pedal mechanisms that adjust the tension of the head.  Now we know how to get a good note, it is easy to understand that if the tuning linkages are pulling one part of the head harder than another, then acoustically, this is like changing the shape of the bowl away from circular and harmonic.  This manifests itself when the kettle drum sounds good at one pitch, but gets worse as you move away from that pitch.

However, timpani always sound better at lower pitches, so a 26″ will always start to sound a bit iffy at higher pitches because they are no longer capable of working properly from an acoustical stand point, and anything smaller just doesn’t work.  As players, you will probably agree with me in wishing that composers would stop trying to get timpani to play top A’s and above – they would be better using a roto-tom!

…The Anatomy of a Kettle Drum

(Every Percussionist Should Know…)
…The Anatomy of a Kettle Drum.

Life is easier if you can tell the doctor that your left little toe hurts, from there one could get even more specific; the top right corner of the nail.  It’s the same when customers talk to me about their instruments.  Most instrument are pretty simple, but the modern timpani are not, so I thought it was time that I create a guide.

Below is a drawing I have reproduced and altered from an old Premier spare parts manual.  I have only used Premier because I had it readily to hand.  Regardless of the make and model, essentially the component parts of a kettle drum are generic.

I can’t be bothered learning all the various names or numbers that manufacturers come up with to differentiate themselves from the others.  If you need a part, explain what you need, and I will worry about part numbers – you receive what you actually need.

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  1. Tuning key – this replaces the old T handles.
  2. Tuning bolt, not a T bolt – believe it or not they look like the letter T.
  3. Insulation washer.  I use PTFE, Premier have nylon semi-spherical washers.
  4. Indicies indicate the note or pitch on a tuning gauge (don’t worry most tuning gauges are simply rubbish – they are the bane of my life! (exaggeration)).
  5. Head, whether made of plastic or skin it is a timp head.  Skins were the thugs in the late 70’s that wore Doc Martins shoes, bomber jackets and had Nazi swastikas tattooed on their faces (I bet they regret those tattoos n6.  ow!)
  6. Bearing edge
  7. Tuning Lug.  Lug is a universal engineering term for anything that protrudes out.  I can’t stop thinking of the kid at school who had sticking out ears…
  8. Counter Hoop.  This holds the flesh hoop and enables tuning.
  9. Suspension Hoop.  It suspends the bowl.  Cheaper drums do away with this part and attach the struts directly to the bowl.
  10. Bowl.  Made of silver, copper, glass fibre, aluminium or ceramic, on timps a bowl is a bowl.
  11. Strut or Leg.
  12. Knee.
  13. Grip rod.
  14. Clutch.
  15. Pedal and pedal cover.
  16. Toe and more specifically the Heel.  Think about it, the toe’s stick out, and the heel is like that part of your shoe.
  17. Pedal Arm.
  18. Base Casting.
  19. Caster.  Premier have the Tilt Stem attached.  A wheel is a wheel, it’s the round thing, the complete unit is a caster.  Ask for a wheel, you get a wheel!
  20. Central Pull Rod.  Ignore all the clever names manufacturers come up with.  All the tuning rods converge at the spider which is attached to a central rod which is pulled down by the pedal arm.  Hence the name.
  21. Fine Tuner.  This changes location, on Premier drums it is called a crown wheel (probably because it looks like the Crown paint manufacturers logo).
  22. Tuning Rods.  These are the radial rods, the other ones are vertical rods.

Calfskin Bass Drum (Job No: 1267)



The very first thing that needs to happen is to un-rope the drum and see what lies beneath.  The heads have obviously been causing a problem because on has been screwed to the shell.

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The job is now straight forward, but time consuming.  Whilst I am soaking a head until it is really wet and pliable, the drum shell can have the star marks removed – it looks like these were stickers, because it is the glue that has been left behind.

I also treat the bearing edge a process I have detailed in 1233: Vintage Bass Drum (pt 2).

With everything ready I stretched the head onto the shell using my drum press.  Because neither head had a collar I did one side first then the other.

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With the splicing and whipping on the rope redone, I rope the drum whilst it is still in the press to maintain tension.  It also saves a lot of hard work pulling rope as hard as possible and the subsequent suffering with blisters!



Marching Snare Drum (Job No: 768)

FOR SALE  £250

Here is a very nice parallel action marching snare drum in full working condition.

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The shell has only minor scratching in the chrome, but it still looks great.

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The snare wires raise and lower parallel to the head as opposed to just at one side like snare drums that are used on drum kits.

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The top head has an internal damper.  The lugs are high tension fittings appropriate for marching snare drum heads.

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Brand new heads (I couldn’t get over the price of the batter head) means that this drum is ready for action.

If you have any questions, ask and I will see if I can help.

Military Snare Drum Hoop (Job No: 1234)

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I have two drum hoops off a military marching snare drum to be restored.  This is one of those open ended jobs that has been underway for a while.

As can be seen from the picture above, one hoop was bare wood, presumably stripped to be repainted which I have subsequently primed.  The second hoop is broken and obviously needs to be made whole again.

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It is often tricky clamping things together whilst they are being glued – creativity is needed with the clamping arrangements.

This simple repair of glueing the ends back together is essentially a butt joint.  It is sufficiently strong to hold the hoop round again, however it will probably break again as soon as any force is applied.  Because I already have to repaint the other hoop, I decided to insert a new section of wood across the break as reinforcement creating a lap joint which is a lot stronger.

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Then it was just a matter of painting.  In order to get a good colour match, and to achieve gradual decoloration over time I used oil based paints, the same that I would use for painting pictures.  It is a nice medium to work with because I can vary the shade subtly and create a more aged look with ingrained dirt.  The problem is that different pigments have different drying times, so care needs to be taken as to which colour goes on top.  In any case it took over a week for each colour to dry, so the whole painting process was a long one.

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Like any of these jobs, I learnt a lot and would do things differently next time.  I had major issues holding the hoop whilst painting, and initially I used the wrong type of brush.  It is one of those end results that is only okay; I can live with it, but it is not perfect.

However, it doesn’t need to be perfect, because the final stage of the process is antiquing.  The customer does not want a hoop that looks brand new, it needs to look old and “period”.  So once I have a painted hoop, I can start removing that paint, and applying grime effects to replicate the bashes, knocks and handling of a hundred years of use.

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Vintage Bass Drum (part 2) (Job No: 1233)

In the first half of the repair of this vintage bass drum (1233: (pt 1)), I wrote about making a new counter hoop, fixing the shell and making replacement tuning lugs.  The lugs are now back from the chrome platers, but more importantly, the drum is now needed by my customer at the end of the month.  In order for me to realise the deadline, and fit in with my delivery schedule, I need to finish the bass drum today so it is ready to be delivered at the end of the week.

After selecting a calfskin big enough and then putting it in to soak, I get everything ready to lap the head onto the existing flesh hood that I repaired.



I like to leave the lapping to dry for a bit, so that the skin becomes tacky and starts to stick to itself before I put it on the drum.  It will take 48hrs for the skin to completely dry around the hoop, but the playing surface will start drying quickly.  So as long as I keep the playing surface wet, I have plenty of time to do the drum and get the head on later in the day.

In 1233: (part 1) I made new barrels for the tension rods to screw into.  What I didn’t have was a tap long enough to put in a 2.1/4″ deep thread into the barrel.  I had to order these specially, so sent the stuff to be plated during the delay.  The video below shows the problem I had.  It is a bit boring (in both meanings of the word), but it shows how the thread feels like it is going on and on and on.



Once the threads are cut and checked, I can assemble the drum shell and start preparing to put on the head.

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I have mentioned putting on heads in other posts, and explained what I do.  This time I remembered to video it!



With both heads evenly set, the drum is now finished, and has plenty of time to dry before Friday.

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Today of course is polling day – time for us to support the essentially anti-democratic and self serving political system that we have here in the UK (and aggressively export).  We will all (well about 10% of us) go out and give a mandate for 650 corrupt, dishonest and dishonorable bloody idiots to avoid the big issues for another 5 years.  Politicians call it voter apathy (because they are a bit thick) but I think that they are wrong; it is not apathy, the general public is more political than ever (the one good thing that ukip have exposed).    In our democratic system we have no constitutional ability to change how the country is run.  The ability to do that is in the hands of the government, and mp’s won’t vote to get rid of themselves, they won’t even take a pay cut!  Rant over.

Small Bass Drum (Job No: 1257)

It is funny how that what I am repairing goes in cycles; this winter I was doing timps after timps, now it is all vibes and drums. Here is yet another little drum that needs a new head.

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As usual I forgot to take a before shot, but all I have done is put the new skin in the drink and taken the old heads off the drum. This is the old style fittings where both heads pull against each other, so the tension bolts are as long as the drum is deep, and the lugs are little eyes that they pass through.

Now I have the pieces, I cut the split head off its flesh hoop so that I can reuse the hoop, onto which I lapped the new skin. I do this first so that the lapping has a bit of time to dry out.

Next all the metal work, which is nickel plated, gets cleaned up, and the threads degreased. You know how oil can soak into your hands and make them stink, stained, dry and sore? Well the same happens to drum heads, because it is the same stuff (more or less) that we are covered in. DO NOT USE PETROCHEMICAL PRODUCTS ON DRUMS WITH NATURAL HEADS. If you come across a drum smothered in grease – it has been worked on by a moron!

With all the metal work finished, I now turn my attention to the drum shell. The critical part is the bearing edge, so this gets cleaned and lightly sanded, finishing with an almost polished surface. What I am wanting is a nice surface over which the skin will slide; what I don’t want are fibres of wood standing up like little spikes.

So now I have got the bearing edge how I like it, I now seal it to stop water going in and lifting the wood fibres. Candle wax, being made from paraffin which is an extract of oil is exactly what I don’t want to use to seal the bearing edge. Beeswax would be OK, but I use tallow which is a boiled sheep. I rub this into the wood using friction to generate heat enough to melt the tallow so that it can run into all the microscopic gaps in the wood fibres. I go over the drum a second time but also go down the sides a little so that the inside of the flesh hoop doesn’t stick to the drum shell as it dries. Finally I use tallow to lubricate the threads on the tension rods, and where there is metal to metal contact.

With everything clean and slippery, now the easy part – I put the drum head on, and the job is finished.

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Vintage Bass Drum (part 1) (Job No: 1233)

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It seems like I have been occupied taking lots of small steps with large projects recently and have neglected to take photographs and write posts about them. This is one of those jobs that have been on the go for a while.

As can be seen this vintage bass drum has seen better days. There are several aspects that need to be repaired. First on the list to make a new counter hoop to replace the original which is in several pieces and cannot be practicably repaired.

I have never needed to make a counter hoop in wood before, the hoops I make are normally polished stainless steel. This lack of prior experience is never a problem, the reality is that I spend most of my working life going into the unknown, which is how I develop new methods and techniques to constantly improve quality. What I therefore do have is a lot of know how.

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So I started by planing a long board of oak to the depth of the hoop and cutting off a thin strip, in the above picture I am using the thicknessing sander I built to clean up the sides of saw marks and make the width uniform.

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There are two types of jigs or pattern used to make things; internal or external. A pie dish is an external mould. I made an internal mould to prevent the hoop forming below the correct diameter. Then I calculated the circumference which gives me the length of the strip of wood so that I could angle the ends to create a scarf joint.

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The long strip is then steamed (inside a long tube) until it goes floppy, then bent around the mould and clamped in place until the wood has cooled and set. The next day the hoop came out of the mould so that it could dry off for a while.

When oak gets wet, the tannins are pulled out and the surface of the wood (and my hands) get stained black. The moisture will also lift surface fibres. Both issues are resolved by sanding until that surface layer is removed. The final step before varnishing is to create the radiuses on the external edge.

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The next job is to make replacement barrels for the tuning lugs. These are solid with the thread cut into them, so to replicate them it is lathe work: drilling a small pilot hole a long way into a thin rod. This is a heart in the mouth process, if that drill bit snaps inside the rod, then it goes in the scrap bin; obviously there is a hole at either end. Patience, care and feel gets there in the end.

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With the barrels made, they can be sent to be chrome plated. In 1233: (part 2) I will assemble and finish the drum.

….How to look after vellum heads.

(Every Percussionist Should Know…)
…How to look after vellum heads.

There is a general steady return to using natural skins on percussion instruments, and I am not surprised.  There are many reasons for choosing natural over plastic, but sound quality has to be the primary objective.  The depth of the timbre is far greater from vellum heads than is produced from their plastic counterparts, so the overall sound heard has so much more richness.  There are however two “negatives” against choosing natural heads: cost and care.  This post is primarily concerned with the care aspect.

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The best way to understand what to do with particular instruments is to have an understanding of what is actually going on with this skin stuff.  One word that should be in every percussionists vocabulary is hygroscopic.  It refers to a material that can absorbs and releases water, and I can’t think of any carbon based material to which it doesn’t apply, including us.  If the weather is cold and dry, our own skin suffers, becoming dry and tight, prone to chapping.  Whereas if we stay in the bath too long our skin becomes soft and wrinkly, and feels loose.  So logically although their skin is slightly different, this also applies to cows, and goats, etc.  We utilise this property to our own advantage when we put drum heads on.

Skin is made up of squamous cells which have different shapes so therefore they expand and contract differently.  For us we can just think of a cow – the skin doesn’t need to stretch along the spine, because the cow is full size, but it does need to stretch around the belly, this means that the orientation of the drum head could be important dependent on the drum.  However younger animals still retain elasticity along the spine, so those skins will respond more uniformly.

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The first essential requirement is drum shell preparation.  The proteins in skin make very strong glue, and these are made sticky with water.  So the drum head must be prevented from adhering to the bearing edge.  I use lard on metal surfaces – lard is refined cow fat, so it marries up with the head used perfectly on a cellular level.  On wooden drums I need something that sits on the surface of the wood, as opposed to soaking into the fibres which is what lard would do, so I use tallow, which is boiled sheep in candle form.  Both lubricants are placing a slippery barrier between the skin and the drum which stops it from sticking, but also allows the head to move.

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By wetting the playing surface before the head is put on the drum, the skin will mould itself to the profile of the bearing edge and create a good contact.  If this is not done, then the head may buzz in the areas where there is a fraction of a millimeter gap.  Additionally, it can be easily stretched, so that when it is put on the drum, I can pull the skin down the sides of the drum and create a collar if required.

Now the skin is on the drum, as it dries it shrinks and becomes tight, and the pitch rises.  Here is the key thing to remember.  On a snare drum or timpani, achieving a high pitch is always the challenge when tuning with vellum, so give yourself every assistance – after playing take all the tension off the drums, so that as the head moves with moisture content, it is not being stretched, it is being encouraged to shrink.

However Bass drums, have the opposite problem, they need to have a low pitch.  Additionally the head is massive, and the skin is thick (or should be – Adams use exactly the wrong type of head on their drums) so the power in that skin is massive, and it always wants to shrink.  Therefore, before that drum goes away, crank it right up and retain that collar.  I know it’s a hassle, there are loads of tension bolts, but the quantity is needed to restrain the head, and is why they should be T handles.

The bottom line is that if you want to enjoy the sound of real skin be prepared to spend time tuning up before playing, and looking after your instruments when you are not.

Rope Tension Drums (part 3) (Job No: 1249)

In the previous part of this post – 1249: ropey drums (pt2) I was making up new lengths of rope and repairing the buffs, all preparation to do most of the drums.  However I was left with three drums that needed new buffs to be made because I have changed the rope to match all the others in two cases or there were several missing in the third case.

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As you would expect, there were also repairs to be made, whilst the drums were in pieces in my workshop.

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Flesh hoops had to be made the correct size for the heads to be lapped onto.

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But finally, having everything needed and repairs and parts made, I am ready to put new heads on the drums.

The first thing I do is to spray the heads with water to make the skin become soft and pliable.  There are a few reasons for doing this, skin (and wood) are hygroscopic which means that they absorb and release moisture.  If it is cold and dry, our own skin suffers, if we stay in the bath too long it becomes baggy soft and wrinkly.  Therefore we utilise this property to our own advantage.

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First of all by wetting the playing surface (but leaving the lapping dry), the strain is taken off the flesh hoop allowing it to flatten.  When the head is put on the drum, the skin will mould itself to the profile of the bearing creating a good contact.  If this is not done, then the head may buzz in the areas where there is a fraction of a millimeter gap.  Lastly, it can be easily stretched, so that when I put it on the drum, I can pull the skin down the sides of the drum and create a collar.

However, in use, the hygroscopic nature of the skin can be a problem,  well judging on what I see coming in for repair, it is a problem.  Therefore I have written a post in the Every Percussionist Should Know…   series called: …How to look after vellum heads.

Whilst the drum heads are softening, I prepare the bearing edge by lightly sanding it so that all the dirt and proud wood fibres are removed.  I want a nice smooth surface for the head to slide over when it is being tuned.  To further help the head slide, and to prevent it from sticking to the wood (the proteins in skin make exceptionally strong adhesives) I lubricate/seal the surface with tallow.

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Now it is just a case of threading the long bit of rope through the counter hoops and buffs, and tightening it up.

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The drum above is the shell that I painted to make it look, “as natural as possible,” as was the remit.  It has new rope and the new buffs I made above.  To remind yo what it looked like I shall end with a before after picture.

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