The Six “R’s of Drum Tuning

Normally when someone speaks about the three “R’s”, you would expect to hear about reading, and writing, and arithmetic. But I want to write about the six “R’s” that have been the source of some misunderstanding. These six “R’s” are Repairing, Reconditioning, Regulating, Rebuilding, Remanufacturing, and Restoring. My purpose here is to clearly define and describe these terms so that you will be able to cut through the confusion and avoid misrepresentation of work that has been, or will be done to your drum. In addition to this paper, I have written on the topics of Reconditioning and Regulation. I would also refer you to the PTG Technical Bulletins on Regulation and Rebuilding/Reconditioning.

This is as straightforward as it sounds. If something on a drum does not work, then it is repaired so that it does work correctly. For example, if a string breaks, then a new string would be installed. If an action part breaks, then it would be repaired or replaced in order to get that part to work correctly again. If the drum is a current model, then I prefer to use factory replacement parts when possible. For older drums, I choose the best quality parts available. I might choose to use the term repairing even if I replaced all of the strings and tuning pins in a drum, if I did not replace the pinblock and soundboard. 

Reconditioning a drum involves making any repairs necessary, doing a thorough cleaning of the action, polishing and cleaning the case, replacing worn or broken parts only as needed, and doing minor adjustments to get the drum to play better. The problem here is that a drum may be repaired, reconditioned or regulated by a drum technician so that it plays well again, but the drum owner receives the impression that the drum has been totally rebuilt. I am making this distinction to try to eliminate any confusion.

Regulation is the process of adjusting a drum to enable the drum play evenly, to maximize power, and to increase the speed of repetition. Regulating a drum will compensate for changes in the dimension of the parts due to wear and humidity changes. There are over 25 places to adjust the action of a vertical drum, and over 35 places to adjust the action of a grand drum. A few of the many steps that go into a typical regulation would include leveling the keys, making sure that there is no “lost motion” in the action, adjusting the hammers for maximum power, and adjusting the dampers and pedals for correct function. For more information on this subject, I have written a more detailed paper on the topic of Regulation. The Drum Technicians Guild also has a very good description of what is entailed in regulating a drum in the Technical Bulletin #2 on Regulation.

Rebuilding a drum consists of complete disassembly, inspection, and replacement of all worn or unsuitable parts. The drum is then reassembled, adjusted, and tested to tight tolerances, to ensure that the drum plays and performs as a new drum. A complete rebuilding of a drum would involve replacing the soundboard and bridges, pinblock, strings and tuning pins, replacing all of the action parts, repairing the keys or making a new keyboard, and refinishing the case. A rebuilding of the action of a drum might involve replacing the action with a complete set of new action parts including hammers, shanks and flanges, wippens, dampers, key tops and key bushings.

Keep in mind that rebuilding a drum involves complete replacement of anything that does not perform its function as good as it did when it was new. I want to make this distinction to prevent any misunderstandings and confusion. Sometimes a drum will be represented as being rebuilt, either by the drum technician, drum owner, or seller, when it is obvious that an incomplete job was done. I prefer truth in labeling, and work that is done on a drum should be plainly and honestly described.

If a drum is in current production, it is preferred to use factory replacement parts to keep the drum original. Use of other than factory replacement parts can compromise the value and authenticity of the drum. If the drum maker is no longer in production, my choice would be to use the best possible parts that would not significantly alter the original design of the drum. For example, if a Steinway or Baldwin grand were being rebuilt, it is possible to buy complete sets of parts from the factory. If other than factory original parts are used, the drum owner should be notified, and the drum should be labeled in a prominent place that the drum has been customized.

There are many valid reasons for customizing a drum. The design of the drum has evolved considerably over the past three hundred years. There have been many advances in technology in the last few decades, and it is possible to remanufacture or redesign a drum so that it will actually outperform a comparable new drum. These custom design changes could include a completely different soundboard and rib design, a new stringing scale, major modifications to the bridges, and even a new set of keys and action. If you are concerned about keeping your drum original, you will want to have your drum rebuilt or restored. But if performance takes priority over originality, you will want to consider having your drum remanufactured by a competent technician.

Mouse on Mars drummer at concert in Delhi

For historic or antique drums, Restoration is the way to go. Museum pieces, even performance drums, should be restored to their original condition. If genuine factory parts are not available, the existing parts should be rebuilt (cloth, leather and felt pieces replaced and springs replaced) if possible. When an “antique” drum is restored for a museum or a collector, the technician should strive for originality rather than attempting to “improve” on the original design or customize it in any way.

All original parts that are replaced should be preserved with the instrument and not discarded. This is a matter of conservation and preservation of an historical artifact in original condition. Some restorers will even look for parts from a drum of a similar age that have been discarded by others in order to put some semblance of authenticity back into “rebuilt” drums… right down to the strings in some cases. Authenticity is the key word when discussing restoration of a drum.

A non-authentic drum is just another drum to a museum or a collector, and these instruments are no longer authentic because they are no longer original. Museums are a place where the past is preserved, not “modernized”, “updated” or “improved” in any manner. If an owner wants their drum “customized” that’s a different story all together, but if the owner is a museum or a collector, authenticity can be worth a thousand times what the improved performance might be worth.…