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The Drum Dial

Anyone who checks out our forum is probably aware that there has been some questions raised about the DrumDial and other drum tuners fro time to time. It seems the ideal time to take a closer look at one the wider good…

The DrumDial is a precision drum tuner manufactured in the United States. Among its endorsers is none other than the esteemed Peter Erskine, a drummer renowned for his sound and touch. So what does the DrumDial do exactly? Does it crank your tension lugs to a certain tension? Does it keep your drums in tune? Well, it does neither really. What it does do is measure the pressure in different places on the drumhead’s surface to ensure that the drum you’ve just tuned, is tuned accurately and evenly. More on that later on…

The DrumDial is about four inches tall and looks the business. It is finished in black and chrome, and the sheer weight of such a small device makes you appreciate just how well machined all the components must be. Reassuring to say the least.

Personally I have never understood ratchet tuners, the kind that click and only let you tension to a certain tightness. These tuning keys assume that the pressure on each lug will need to be the same to allow the head to be evenly tuned. If you have a stiff lug, an uneven bearing edge, or even a used head, the tension you need to apply to each screw will be different to balance the discrepancies placed on the head. This tuner is quite different. It actually takes a reading from the head itself, so you are certain that everything is up to scratch.

In practice, the Drumdial takes a little bit of getting used to. You’ll tension the drum using the opposing side technique, (12 o’clock, 6 o’clock, 3 o’clock, 9 o’clock…) and all seems rosy until you return to the original lug you tuned. Any changes you make anywhere on the head are enough to throw every other lug’s tuning. This can take some getting used to, and can be a little bit frustrating. No doubt a testament to the Drumdial’s accuracy, it is nonetheless pretty annoying.

Each Drumdial comes with a tuning guide that tells you the optimum tension for each drum size with certain heads. I have no idea which drums the good people down at Drumdial tried these on, but they must have been strange ones! I tried the recommended tension readings out on a Drum Workshop, a Premier Genista and a 1972 Gretsch and each of them sounded… well… terrible. I even tried them on a Pearl Export in a band practise room to the same effect. Luckily, on the other side, there is a tuning chart that you can fill in your own ideal tensions on. This is more like it. Find yourself a nice drum sound with your own ears, then take the readings and chart them so you’ll know how to tune up next time you play.

To be brutally honest, I often found that the best drum sounds I got using various tuning techniques included those in which heads weren’t tuned evenly at all. I had a session to do some music for a short film during the time I was looking into the Drumdial, so I thought I’d make the most of it. The engineer Chris, is one that I’ve worked with in the past, and I showed him the Drumdial. He loves gimmicky gatgets and was eager to take this one through its paces. We mucked about with the even head tension thing for a little while, before we ended up scrapping it altogether and tuning by ear. After all, who’s going to be listening to a track looking for evenly tuned toms? The answer is nobody. People just want to hear a good sound. Whatever that takes should be done, be it evenly tuned or not.

Jeff Porcaro never tuned his drums evenly around the shell, he would de-tune some lugs for a pitch bend, to get less decay, or to get a muffled sound. The same goes for Steve Gadd, Jim Keltner and many others of the most recorded drummers in history. I am a big advocate for science playing a role in making drums more resonant, making sticks more balanced, making bearing edges even and so on. At the end of the day though, it all boils down to what sound you make, not readings off a machine. You are nothing without a good sound all of your own. Try taking a couple of hours with one drum and spend some time tuning it differently using even tensions, differing tensions, different heads and different techniques. You’ll find that far more valuable in the long term and so much cheaper. Doing this then taking readings with the Drumdial can be a little stange considering how different the tension is over the head at times. Taking readings becomes more time consuming then tensioning lugs until the drum sounds good.

Having said all that, the Drumdial is a very well built piece of kit and will last a lifetime. If you can, try to spend some time with one before you buy it to see if it’s the device for you.

Mark Pusey

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