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Roy Burns Talks Tuning and Drum Head Science

Article by Sean Mitchell // December 16 2013
Roy Burns Talks Tuning and Drum Head Science

Roy Burns holds a unique distinction among drummers in that he has sustained a successful career as a player, clinician, author, educator and manufacturer. At 78 years young, Roy has amassed a knowledge base not on theories and assumptions, but on years of practical application and hard science. Roy and Aquarian's Director of Marketing & Artist Relations, Chris Brady, shed some light on the science of drum heads and tuning.

Gentlemen, let's first discuss a very common problem and its solution: pitting.

Roy Burns: I’ve got several observations. One is if the bead of the drumstick is round – like a ball end – it’ll deadhead like crazy.  An olive- shaped tip where you get more surface contact with the head is usually better. The other thing is in this era of electronics everybody’s trying to play louder. So when they try to hit harder, what they do is they lock their wrist. The wrist is a natural shock absorber like a spring, unless you tighten it up. You can test this if you make a fist and squeeze as hard as you can and then try to move your wrist– very hard to move it. Relax your grip and you can move your wrist very easily. Tightening up the wrist due to squeezing too hard to try to hit too hard is going to cause pitting.

The next thing is, we’ve always heard this old line about “pulling the sound out of the drum.” I don’t know if that’s accurate, but this much I do know; if you hit the drum and allow the stick to come back without holding it against the head or without being too aggressive on holding it too tightly—so your wrist can’t act like a spring, let the stick come away—that should help a lot.

Chris Brady: One thing I’ve noticed that can affect the pitting of the drum head is the actual angle of the drum – especially on tom heads. If the tom has a real severe angle – where it’s not more flat – then that can effect too. Especially, like Roy said, with a ball end and the stick is coming in at not necessarily a flatter angle but more drastic. That can speed up the pitting process.

We all have our formulas on this, but what is the best way to seat a head?

RB: Basically it’s a myth. What you’re doing when you over-tighten the head to seat it, if you’re stretching the head, that collar which is formed into the head will conform to the bearing edge of the drum. Aquarian overcame that by having a curve instead of a pre-formed collar so that the bearing edge of the drum actually forms the collar into the head like a calf head. That’s what I grew up playing on; that’s where we got the idea. We couldn’t make a mylar head as flexible as a calf head, but we could avoid that pre-formed corner.

So what happens when you get a wrinkle on one side, you can’t get it out and you over tighten it. Basically what you’re doing is stretching that pre-formed collar that doesn’t want to fit the bearing edge until you’re forcing it to conform to it.

Generally speaking, you get the head tightened up to where you want it, tap on it, you can play right away. Next day fine tune it and you should be okay. The business about seating the head leaves a lot of confusion cause nobody understands what the word means. Drummers do all kinds of weird things like sit on bass-drum heads, over tighten them, then take them off. Generally speaking, you shouldn’t have to do that.

CB: A feature of Aquarian heads that lends in with what Roy was just talking about is our safety lock hoop. It’s the way the drumhead film is placed into the aluminum flesh hoop.  The way we do it—have designed it—it basically resists any slippage, so when you put our head on you don’t hear any glue cracking noises or any of that stuff. That also plays into exactly what Roy was talking about with the seating of a drum. Especially with our heads, it’s just really not necessary.

RB: You know when you hit the backbeat really hard and the rim of the drum that you’re striking moves down a little bit and will release the tension on the tension screw? That’s why you’re always re-tightening that particular tension screw where you hit the backbeat. What you want to do is have a head that doesn’t stretch inside the flesh hoop because that throws your collar out of whack all the way around because you have a looser spot on one side than you do somewhere else. It gets severe enough you end up warping the rim of the drum.  We’ve overcome that problem so there’s no slippage inside the hoops; you get that wrinkle on one side that you have to contend with.

How important is the shape of the flesh hoop? Some are rounded; Aquarian's happen to be square. Is there a difference?

RB: The idea was a square is more rigid than a U-shaped piece of metal. Anytime you put a corner in the metal you strengthen it. That’s why you see beams at the top of a building they won’t be twenty-five inches of solid steel; they’ll be like an L-shape or a T-shape or an I-beam, where you get the strength without all the weight. What we did was make a square flesh hoop so it would stay in tune. When the head goes into the hoop where the holes are punched the resin goes through beneath that in another channel, which once that resin hardens up it can’t move, which means the drumhead above it can’t move, which means it can’t de-tune. That was one of our major contributions to the tuning problem.

Roy, you coined the term "tap test." What does tapping a head at the point of sale tell us?

RB: I’m trying to think – it’s years ago.  A friend of mine who was a very good drum teacher would tap on the heads to get one that sounded resonate. When I got to Aquarian I tried it and we noticed that some heads were more resonate than others. I didn’t know why it was happening, and my partner who was an engineer said he would do some work on it. What it comes out to be is, plastic is not as flexible as calf skin like we were playing on. So once it gets into a certain shape it’s going to stay there. Mylar is pretty strong stuff. What we had to figure out how to do was to get the dimensions equal; that means the collar height is equal, the level part of the head is equal, so that all dimensions are correct. If they are correct it’ll have a resonate sound right out of the box;  if you have an uneven collar, which means the tension on the head is not even, it gets flat. So all the tap test tells you is all the dimensions for a resonate head for a good sound are there to begin with. 

The other thing is you’ve got heads with wrinkles, with air pockets—in two-ply heads with wrinkles, that’s going to be a dead spot and you can compensate for it, but you can’t overcome it.

For us touring drummers, how does weather affect a drum head?

RB: It’s the same as a plastic suit bag when you go out in the cold weather and it gets rather stiff; you take it inside and once it warms up it gets real flexible. The drumheads are the same thing; if you leave the drumheads in the trunk of your car, bring them in to play a gig, like say a dance, start playing right away, you can break a drumhead or even a cymbal. It’s so cold it’s less flexible than it would be if it got up to room temperature. It’s a good idea to get your drums out of the cold, get them inside and out of the cases and let them warm up. It will save you money on cymbals as well as drum heads.

Let's talk about tuning, Roy. How does one properly tune a head?

RB: Number one, forget about tuning across the head. It’s a waste of time to tinker with plastic heads. It may have served some purpose at some time with calf heads but it doesn’t really apply now. What you need to do is finger-tighten the head down, and then tighten it up enough that you can get the same pitch at each tension screw. Gradually tighten it up till it gets to the point where you want it.

On any drum with two heads you can’t get an exact note—you get high, medium or low. Even on a timpani in an orchestra, if you hit the drum in the center you can’t hear the note 'cause you hit it near the edge—and that's with a single head. So with a two-ply tom head playing around in a hurry you’re not going to get an exact note. What you want is that the heads are in tune with themselves and that avoids distortion. If you tap at each tension screw and have the same pitch all around you’re going to get a pleasing resonate sound.

The next trick is to tune the bottom heads first (or the audience side). Tune that head medium, then going around in a circle about a quarter of a turn apiece until it comes out to the pitch you want. Then go back and fine tune it and you should be all set. That’s real simple. I learned that from doing so much studio work because if you did have to change the head you didn’t have all day to do it—you had to do it right now. So the key is getting the bottom head tuned first.

The snare drum—you want the bottom head tight enough that when you press on it with your thumb about an inch in from the edge it gives a little. It doesn’t feel table-top-hard but it doesn’t feel spongy; it feels tight. Then you start to tune the top head, you just bring it up to where you want it. The top, it can be tuned loose, tight or medium. It’ll sound good as long as the bottom snare head has been tuned first. The reason you set the bottom head first is it has to work with the snare. If the bottom head is loose and you tighten the snares up to get it crisp it’ll prevent the bottom head from moving and the drum will be choked. The bottom head has to be tight enough that it doesn’t move so much that it interferes with the natural response of the snares.

Once that is said, if the bottom head is tighter than the top it doesn’t get behind the vibrations of the top head. The bottom head only reacts to the air call. You’re not hitting the bottom head, so if the bottom head is looser or the same as the top head it’s going to get behind and you’re going to get constrained responses from the drum. If the bottom head is tighter it always vibrates faster than the top head and it will always keep up. That’s the theory I’ve used for years and it works really well.

CB: One thing to keep in mind too is Roy, being one of the pioneers of clinics and whatnot, nobody has put more heads on drums and tuned drums more than Roy.

RB: I think I hold the world record for tuning the most drums. One time we went to Las Vegas and we were late due to a terrible traffic problem, and they had the drums out of the boxes for me. The audience is sitting there so I have to set up the drum kit, tune each drum and talk to the audience because they’ve been waiting an hour. I actually tuned the drums in front of them, sat down and played and they worked out great. They were very impressed with that. I was too busy working; I didn’t have time to fool around with theory. Guys that propose these theories often don’t play very well, have played hardly anywhere, and they come up with odd ball theories that sound really impressive. The truth of the matter is that if you’re a working drummer and you want to get your stuff to sound good, you need a method that works right away.

How often should you change the heads?

CB: That’s a hard one because it is really individualistic. Even if a guy is playing a lot but let’s say he’s playing a combo jazz dinner set material, he may be playing as frequently as another guy but obviously he’s not hitting with the same velocity. So at that point, heads could last a year or more. But now another individual playing the same amount of time but playing a rock or heavy-hitting kind of thing, he’s going to cycle through a head a lot quicker. At some point, even if you’re not hitting hard, heads lose their resiliency and they just need to be changed out. I think bottom heads don’t need to be changed as frequently as top heads. I think it really is personal, and you have to know with your ears or by feel when it’s time for you to change them.

RB: If it feels dead, that’s your first clue. We get drummers playing in a blues band – not playing heavy metal but playing pretty hard—and he likes the sound of a single-ply head. He’s going to go through heads faster, but he doesn’t care because he loves the sound and is willing to sacrifice the durability for the sound. It's like a durable 8-inch splash cymbal; it doesn't exist.

One other factor, you take a really skilled drummer, regardless of the style of music, he strikes the drums and gets the maximum sound out of it without pushing into the heads. When you try to hit too hard you push a little bit instead of snapping it and let it come away. A really skilled player will be heard through the band better than a guy that’s hammering away because if he pushes them with that locked wrist or heavy grip he’s going to dull the sound – that dulls the head and dulls the resonance. The drum won’t speak like it does with a really skilful player. So how you play does make a difference.

For more info on Roy or Aquarian products, please click on the link below.




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About the Author
Sean Mitchell

Sean Mitchell has been an active participant in the drumming industry for over 20 years. He has studied under Crash Test Dummies drummer Mitch Dorge and Drumming's Global Ambassador Dom Famularo. Sean is also a songwriter and regularly performs with his wife (and singer) Jill Mitchell. Sean proudly endorses Aquarian Drumheads.



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