A few months ago I bought the DrumDial, a device that was created to help drummers more easily tune their drums.
Tuning is an important skill for a drummer. Often overlooked, but clearly important. A great player with a not so great sound on their instrument translates into a so-so player. So it follows that you need to care about your sound as well as your playing.
But drum tuning seems a bit mysterious to many. In the beginning it certainly was to me. For melodic instruments, it all seems much simpler. A G is a G. A D is a D. Very specific. Not so for us drummers. There are no real notes to tune to as there are with melodic instruments (some will debate this and say that tuning drums to specific melodic pitches is both possible and desirable, but I have never been a fan of tuning my drums this way). So, just how does one learn to tune drums?
The first place to turn is a trusted drummer friend or teacher. I learned by having a teacher show me. But there are many other sources of information including books, videos and the web. Below are just two to get you started:
So, over time, I’ve become good at tuning drums, but I figure, there’s always room for improvement, right? Hence, my decision to buy the DrumDial.
The idea behind the DrumDial is logical: match the tension of each lug on the drum and you should get the basis of a good clear tone. This is what any drummer who knows how to tune generally does anyway. But without the DrumDial, we do it by ear.
Simply tapping the stick on the head an inch or so inside of a particular lug and matching that sound lug by lug is a common method of tuning.
But, the promise of the DrumDial is that you can get those tensions so perfectly even that your resulting sound could be that much better. Simply get the tension numbers, as measured by the DrumDial, to match to a specific tension, and you’re good to go.
Well, guess what?
It didn’t pay out for me. I spent a bunch of time tweaking the tensions on various drums to get them perfect by using he DrumDial, always following the instructions provided, and often the result was less than I had hoped for.
Frankly, I was able to make the drums sound better when tuning by ear. I also was able to tune much more quickly with out the Drum Dial.
Sorry, I love new drumming related devices. I really do, But this one was not a winner. Not recommended. Save yourself some time and trust your ears.
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anthony burdge says
Hi there i myself did all my tuning of my drums by way of ear, but a few months ago i got a device called Tunebot which is an electronic drum tuner by overtone labs, since the use of this device the tuning of my drums has come with more precision.I would recommend this device it does exactly what it states.
Mark Feldman says
Thanks Anthony— I appreciate your input. I may check it out….MF
Geoff Gill says
hey Mark — agreed on your assessment & another vote for the TuneBot!
from my experience w/ Tune bot and writing down all the settings as i tune, i can safely say that the Drum Dial will never be a 100% turn-key solution. but it will get you *close* given your heads are real consistent. You must do the final 5-10% by ear & feel. same w/ the Tune Bot most days, but i think lower percentages.
i have spread sheets on 3 different drum sets using the Tune Bot. each spreadsheet details head size, head brand / type, note / Hz, etc. same thing w/ DD, close but not spot-on every time. i think i can almost get spot-on w/ very BROKEN IN heads but not always. i found HUGE differences in Hz when i used different (especially new) heads. amazing tuning difference between Remo, Aquarian & the new Evans 360 heads. ultimately Remo won for me.
i should also mention that the method i have been using since the mid 90s is the resonant frequency of the shell. sometimes even removing the heads, hanging the shell & then singing a pitch-bend up / down until the drum vibrates / reinforces that note. or hitting the shell w/ a mallet. i put my whole head in there when i can as there is no doubt when you hit the note. once i have the note then i play w/ jazz or deep tunings.
Mark Feldman says
Hi Geoff —
thank you for your in depth comment. good stuff. tunebot….hmm….
To answer the blog title’s question, yeah, I think this thing does make tuning easier. It’s good to have in the arsenal, but by no means the one and only thing you should use.
A piano ultimately gets tuned by ear and a tuning key and not by machine-assisted calibration, but the machine calibration improves efficiency of the overall tuning process and does a lot of the initial labor. The machine gets things very close, maybe even mechanically precise, but what sounds good is still determined by feel and the human ear.
I think the Drum Dial’s major feature is its potential to educate. A good teacher can school a student on tuning drums correctly, but there are really very few drummers out there who pay attention to the tuning of their heads. Most drummers seem to ignore tuning because they just don’t know how. This machine can teach the basics and help someone get the fundamental sound in the right place.
For someone who knows nothing of tuning, the idea that a drum head should be at 72psi on every lug and that a head tuned to 72psi at every lug sounds better than a drum that’s totally out of tune is a step in the right direction towards developing the ear for a well-tuned drum.
I have one of these things. No doubt it’s not as fast as doing it entirely by ear, since you have to get a drum flat enough for gravity to let the Drum Dial sit straight enough to check every lug. Still, I like it. It helps me diagnose the why of my heads falling out of tune.
When something sounds a little sour around one lug, I’ve used the Dial to chart the tension. That helps make tuning easier because I know what to look and feel for when I’m tuning heads. I can track recurring tension issues and swap out lugs as necessary.
You can chart the frequencies with a tune-bot, but that doesn’t necessarily explain the mechanics of why you have a head a certain pitch. The Dial shines light on that part; this PSI = this hZ. You could use that to experiment with different tensions on top and bottom heads and chart the sounds and tones it gives you to get a drum that sounds the way you want and like, etc.
Obviously, if you’re taking it seriously enough to do that, you’re going to calculate variables like head wear and shell bearing edges and stroke indentations in the heads. And if you’re at that point of seriousness, you’re so far beyond basic tuning that no little machine, a tune-bot or a Drum Dial or an ergonomic lug key is going to be as good as your well-tuned ear and feel for the drums.
Thanks for your very thoughtful comment.
Geoff Gill says
very cool, Nate. tuning came up at last nights gig & was newly educated enough to mention psi RE Drum Dial (thought it was torque specs). topic was a new home studio & how to get a series of kits dialed in & how to maintain for fast, good tunings. bottom line seems to be prep work w/ these tools & having some numbers to refer to.
For sure. Torque is in the lugs, not the heads. Torque’ll vary from lug to lug depending on how well lubed the things are, how much they’ve been worn from use, air temperature, how much sweat has got in and salted and corroded the metal, etc. You’ve probably felt it in tuning before. Some lugs are hard to turn even when the head may be loose near them – torque of the lugs is not consistent with the sound a head produces near them.
On the Drum Dial site they say: DrumDialÔäó timpanic pressure meters quickly and precisely tune all drums by accurately measuring drumhead tension NOT tension rod torque.Tension rod torque can be used to tell you when you are over tightening a bolt to prevent thread damage, but is not accurate for drum tuning because of the difference in screw tolerances, plating, corrosion, and thread wear.
This is why using a torque-sensitive power screwdriver with a drum key bit doesn’t really work in practice. Your screwdriver may get it totally accurate, but it may still not be right. Same goes for trying to feel tension in a drum key as a way of tuning.
You can buy lug locks if you want to get super serious about this. I’ve not gone that far yet.
Yeah, bottom line is that these things are just tools. Reference points for good, fast tunings would be determined by taking measurements of everything after everything sounds good. And getting to that point is only done by ear.
Gary Dunham says
Hi guys just a quick note as I learn about my drum set (machinist by trade and guitarist with a set in the basement for those impromptu jams).
The DrumDial uses a Travel Indicator, a common machinist’s or Metrology inspection tool which in this case gives a measurement of distance in thousandths of an inch. 0.001″. The Tama Tension Watch is metric with units of 1/100th of a millimeter. Same principle different units.
Thus a numerical readout of “72” on the DrumDial indicates a travel of either .072″ or .028″ depending on whether movement is to the Plus+ or Minus- (right or left) of the calibrated zero position. Both the DrumDial and the Tama are used as a comparison of deflection instrument and do not measure PSI (Pounds per Square Inch) as mentioned above.
Thank you for all the wonderful music!
Oh. That’s wild. I’d just assumed PSI because that’s what I read elsewhere on The Internet. Drum Dial’s official tuning documentation doesn’t specify the metric, just the number. It just says tune to 72 or 75, and that’s that.
Gary Dunham says
You’re right Nate, for the intended use the units don’t matter. This rather ingenious use of tools tickles my brain somehow.