How To Tune Your Drum
If your drums are a year old or more, then the sound they make will have changed since the day you bought them. This is entirely normal and has nothing to do with the quality of your drum. The natural skin head reacts to the moisture content of the air. The drum head will loosen and soften on a wet/cold day and your drum will sound dull and muffled. But the skin will tighten and harden if the weather is dry and warm and your drum will sound much brighter. After a series of weather cycles, the skin will have loosened, no matter what the weather is.
Depending on the quality of sound you are looking for, it is essential to know how to “tune” a drum, especially when a drum is “young”, the skin will be elastic and stretch easily.
How drums are tightened
This process finishes by stretching the hide permanently, and older drums do not need tuning so much. There are different systems for tightening a drum. Originally holes were directly punched through the skin in order to sew and attach them to the body of the drum. Some -like in the case of the Irish Bodhran- were glued onto the drum shell, some -like the Japanese Taikos- were nailed onto the wooden body, some used wooden pegs driven into the bowl of the drum. Drums using these same techniques of fabrication can be found in many cultures. But these ways gave little margin to tune up the drum. Holes pierced straight into the skin can tear and do not provide a strong way of dramatically changing the pitch of the drum. Similarly, securing the skin directly onto the shell with glue or nails do not leave any movement to tune the drum. These techniques of drum-making produce drums with a small and unpredictable range of tuning, and sometimes: none at all. They suit certain types of music and traditions. Other traditions looking for a wider range of percussive sounds in their music, gave birth to new ways of tightening up drums. The modern system used for the Cuban Conga for example is a very efficient arrangement of nuts, bolts and metal brackets that pushes down or releases the drumhead in a mechanically systematic manner. It makes for a highly tuneable drum.
The tuning system I choose for my drums
I choose a tuning system that sits in between these two techniques. It is the modern tuning system used for the Djembé drum from West Africa. Following the success of the touring African ballets in the West in the 70s, djembé-makers abandoned the traditionally tuning system of wooden pegs and natural ropes to replace it with a modern system of metal hoops and synthetic ropes. The explosive sharp sound of a Djembé -along with its allure- is what makes it such a popular drum all around the world. Achieving such a tight loud sound would simply be impossible without that modern technique of fabrication.
The Diamond Weave
For my drums, I use a mixture of mounting techniques. The tightening rope links the crown hoop (top hoop) to the bottom of the drum. Depending on the style of drum, sometimes the skin is pierced, sometimes it is “sandwiched” between two metal hoops. For the bottom of the drum, sometimes there is also a metal hoop (like for my ashikos). In the case of double-headed drums, like the Songbong or my children drums, the bottom skin is directly sewn around a thick rope and the top skin is trapped between two steel rings. It all depends on the purpose of the drum and the sound I am looking for.
Regardless, the tuning system remains the same for all of them.
A horizontal cord folds the main vertical cords over each other. This pulls the drum head downwards more effectively than if you just pulled on the main cords with your hands. You magnify your strength, if you like. This is a simple macrame roping system that allows for a “tune up”, and you can rapidly and easily tighten your drum up till it resonates nicely, even on cold mornings.
This system of tuning is called the “Mali weave” or “Diamond Weave“.
However, this tuning system can be slightly confusing when you first try it. I made a drawing for you as a reference.
You can download the printout here.
How to tune your drum (video)
Your tom should always be set up so that once you untie the spare tuning cord, there is a “diamond” ready to pull. One diamond probably won’t be enough though, so you’ll need to set up and pull a few others.
The good news is: this work is totally reversible. If “your” diamond doesn’t look like mine, you can un-do it and try again.