1980’s, Premier “1026” Snare Drum. Some notes on adjusting the replacement gut snares, tensioning the heads, and on using a digital DrumDial

The heads and gut snares on my Premier “1026” drum have had a while to stretch out. Although I may wait until I have a few other drums in the kit to tune up as well, before I set the heads at a “final” tension – I want to check that the gut snares at least function normally, and also wouldn’t mind a quick “preview” of how the snare might sound under different tunings. I’m reminded that you don’t supposedly “tune” a drum – a lot of the “musical” tone is “preset” by the diameter of the drum itself. I think the preferred term is to “tension” a drum. The actual sound produced is a combination of many different percussive and resonant tones, produced from the initial hit, and as the air between the two heads moves around inside what is effectively a sealed container. Striking the batter head produces one, sharp, sound, but as the pressure waves travel through the drum to vibrate the resonant head – they also pick up tonal characteristics from the reverberation of the metal shell. Basically – when you tension drum heads – you’re trying to balance all of these different sounds, reverberations and resonances, and how they interact with each other.

Premier “1026” Snare Drum – Strainer with gut snares fitted

And, of course – on a snare drum, there are also the snare wires to consider. The snares are placed to literally bounce on the surface of the lower, resonant head – and they add yet another characteristic to the overall sound of the snare drum. The gut snares I’ve fitted to the drum should offer a slightly softer, “drier” rattle than more modern, wire alternatives. Right now, they’re stretched as tight as they’ll go – to get them to “stretch out”, and to get rid of any curl they had settled into, when packaged up. Their optimal operating tension will depend upon the eventual, settled tension of the resonant head – but right now, I need to check that the throw-off mechanism works properly. The snare tension needs to be properly adjusted, so that the wires produce a good sound when the throw-off lever is “on” – but drop away from the lower head completely, when the lever is “thrown-off”.

“Snare on” – Snares shown tight against the reso head and lower hoop

I’ve set the gut snares to stretch out, so that they’re super-tight when the throw-off lever is up, and “on”. Although they’ve been held under tension for some time now – there’s no sign of any significant slackening, and although the loose ends at the strainer side ended up a little bit untidy – the clamp is clearly holding on well, and I don’t see any real benefit in dressing the loose ends up at all. Nor is there any real point in trimming them shorter – since that will only make any future adjustments potentially harder.

“Snare on” – Snares shown slackened as throw-off lever is operated

The tensioner is currently set to approximately mid-way between it’s maximum and minimum travel. In order to get the snares loose enough to operate properly, I need to slacken the tensioner knob off, so that the snare wires are slackened, and begin to drop a small distance away from the lower head. Currently, with the throw-off lever up, there’s way too much tension to be actually able to turn the adjustment knob – so the lever is temporarily thrown-off, and that slackens the whole system enough to be able to turn the adjuster more easily, and set the snares to a looser setting. The lever is then lifted again so that the snares are set back to “on”. I can then gauge what sort of effect a certain number of turns has achieved, and work out approximately where I need to set the tensioner for things to work properly. The reso head is currently set to a “medium” sort of tension, and it only takes about 5 to 10 half turns before I start to get a proper response from the snares. (I have about 25-30 half turns maximum, before the strainer will drop off the adjustment screw completely). I could opt to partially slacken the wires manually at the butt plate, and set them to an operating tension, with the strainer set a little higher in its’ travel – but that probably wouldn’t end up giving me much more in the way of operational “bandwidth”. The current setup, once adjusted properly, should provide enough flexibility just as it is, and if the gut snares ever should slacken, (with stretching over time, or perhaps moisture in the air), there should still be sufficient leeway to tighten things up again, easily enough.

(It should be noted that the images above show the drum inverted – for illustration purposes, of course. The snares should always be tested with the drum in the proper orientation – ie: with the snares suspended underneath the lower, resonant head. On this type of drum in particular the snares, when slackened, fall away from the resonant head under gravity. A balance point has to be found where the snares vibrate to the desired effect – but where the operating tension still allows them to drop far enough away from the head when they’re “thrown-off” – so that they don’t accidentally bounce back, as the drum vibrates).

“Tensioning” the batter head

Like the snare wires – the drum heads have been “stretched out” under tension for a little while now – and whilst I check the snares, I may as well take a look at how the drum behaves as the heads are adjusted. They’re currently under a sort of “medium” tension, and so the first thing to do is to slacken off the tension rods for the batter head, until it’s held centrally on the bearing edges, and the rods are all “finger-tight”.

Now – bear in mind this is actually the first drum I’ve ever tried to “tension” properly. Prior to this – as bass player in the band – I’ve mostly only ever offered occasional, supportive “heavy lifting assistance”, as the drummer wrangled the contents of his various boxes into some sort of mysterious playing configuration. I’ve occasionally witnessed them tapping away with mallets, and stretching the skins out with turns to the lugs – so in my more guitar-oriented mind, I suppose I originally thought that all of the different drums were supposed to be tuned to particular pitches. Checking “The Idiot’s Guide to Tensioning Drum Heads”, however, I quickly realised I could do with a whole new education – or at least some basic, practical, “how to” advice. Cue time spent researching various online articles, and watching numerous YouTube videos on this, and other related subjects. There’s a lot of different opinion and experience about all of this, but after actually dealing with the issue first hand – on this particular steel-shelled drum – I realise that on top of all the basic technical tips discovered, I’ve also begun to understand the whole thing differently…

…The way I see it – I don’t think there’s a particular right or wrong way to tune any particular drum. At least – there’s no real set of “correct” settings that can be proscribed for any one instrument. Controversial perhaps? – but there – it’s said. Instead, I see it more of a balancing act as, in setting up the drum for play, you begin to discover the inherent character of the instrument, and adjust it to suit – based around what it’s fundamentally capable of, and how you, as the player, want it to project.

A steel-shelled drum like this has a particular, basic characteristic. A sharp crack, with a certain amount of ring from the metal shell. Without it’s snares – it’s really just a steel tom drum. It’ll produce a piched sound based on the diameter of its’ shell, and the depth of the drum will have an effect on the projection of the sound. The snares add a little extra fizz and rattle to the percussive whack from the top head, and they require an additional, separate head to vibrate against. That second head also imparts a resonant characteristic to the sound produced. Without a reso head and snares – it’s a 14″ metal concert tom. It’s the interaction of the two heads, (which effectively form the lids of a sealed cannister), which starts to make things interesting. Pressure waves from the initial strike are effectively trapped inside the shell – where they bounce around and interfere with each other. Once the tension of the batter head is set to a point where it can vibrate more evenly, it’s capable of producing more distinct pitched notes and harmonics. These can sometimes begin to reveal themselves in unwanted ways – as the sounds produced interfere and interact with those sound waves produced sympathetically, by the resonant head. This phenomenon usually reveals itself as undesireable, ringing overtones which persist after the first, percussive strike. These “ringing notes” are generally more prominent around the edges of the drum, and the further out towards the rim you get – the more the overtones are usually noticed. This effect might actually be desireable for some purposes – (but then again, it generally seems to be frowned upon in the compressed world of modern “pop” music). Usually, any prominent ringing needs to be eliminated – perhaps only tolerated when the drum is deliberately played right out towards the rim. It all comes back to that basic fundamental point – what’s the drum capable of, and how do you want it to project?

And that’s where consideration needs to be given to what the drum is actually being used for. If you’re using the drum to practice rudiments, and are playing it in separation from the rest of the kit, and even other members of a band – a much tighter tensioning of both heads might provide some extra detail in the sound. However – play the drum as part of a kit, or alongside other instruments, and the sound you want may change – as the drum is heard in context with other sounds, and is required to both “cut through” and “fit in”, in equal parts.

So – all things considered – tensioning the drum heads correctly, seems to me to be an exercise in controlling and balancing all of the extra elements and layers of sound – beyond that initial, percussive strike. (Or we may as well just use a log, or a cardboard box… Worked just fine for Skiffle). To me – it makes sense to deal with the beater head first – where the fundamental of the strike is generated – and to deal with that before factoring in the effects of the reso head and snares. To help focus on the top head alone – it would therefore be logical to completely remove the resonant head for now, along with it’s hoop and tension rods – but in this case, that means removing the, (meticulously hand-tied), snares again. As a compromise, I de-tension the reso head completely, and leave it slack with the snares immoveable, and still stretched to maximum tension.

Premier “1026” Snare Drum – Studio SD Batter, Clear SD Reso and gut snares

Generally speaking – the beater head on any snare drum can be tensioned slacker – (where the sound produced is more of a percussive “whack”) – or tighter, which tends to bring out a much more detail, and higher pitched, more musical “taps”. The basic percussive element of the sound of the beater head, is a natural product of the overall dimensions of drum, and the materials involved. A big drum will, of course, sound deeper than a small one. Mylar heads sound crisper than ones made of hide. Thin heads are more “detailed” than ones made from thicker materials. Metal drums tend to sound a little bit “harsher” than ones made of wood – etc. The depth of the drum shell also acts as a natural amplifier. Consequently – deeper drums will tend to “project” more than shallower, “pancake” drums. Beyond all that – the basic adjustment and tightening of the head creates a firmer and more resistant surface for the drumstick to strike. The main question is – “how tight is right?”

One answer might be – “whatever sounds right to your ear” – and basically, that’s the approach I figure will be enough to get the job done. “Try it and see – then adjust and fine-tune”. However – the tension of the head can also be measured and quantified, and expressed as a figure, (“relative tympanic pressure”). In theory – this offers the “newbie” and the “technician” alike – the possibility to “tune” and exactly preset the drum to a particular, desired state. There are now various devices available which are supposed to act as helpful “drum tuners”. Speaking as exactly that newbie and wannabe drum technician myself, I’m naturally intrigued by exactly what tuners like this can offer to help better understand the tuning process – so I take the opportunity to pick up a second-hand digital DrumDial at a bargain price, whilst I’m dealing with this very issue. As new, and still in it’s foam-lined custom hard case. However, I quickly discover that there’s much, much, more to tensioning the head, than simply just popping the tuner onto the drum head and then “dialling-in” the desired tension…

“Tensioning” heads using a mechanical, (or digital) gauge

It’s at this stage I have to acknowledge the really helpful online article by AdmiralBumbleBee, entitled The Problem with the Drum Dial, and How to Fix It. No point in reproducing any of it here – follow the link and read it yourself. It’s highly informative, and well worth reading – especially if you’re considering buying a Drum Dial or similar device. The most useful concepts – especially those regarding the way lines of tension are created across the heads, and between particular pairs of tension rods – went some way towards answering my immediate questions, as to why the dial tends to offer different values at different points on the head. From other tuning guides, I’d assumed that the process was to try and tune the drum head evenly, so that the tension was the same all over the surface of the head. In reality – it actually turns out that the tension tends to be greater in lines running in different directions across the head, and between various adjacent rods around the rim. Adjust the tension adjacent to one rod, and you simultaneously change the tension, to different degrees, at other points across the head.

Usually, there’s a distinct line of tension between opposite lugs – and that explains why it’s usually suggested, that you tension rods in pairs across the drum head. But there are also secondary, (and tertiary), lines between adjacent lugs – and on, furter around the rim. I think it’s generally assumed that to use a tuning dial, all you have to do is place the dial next to a lug and then crank it up until the dial displays the correct required tension – repeating the process then, for all of the lugs around the drum. However – in practice, it soon becomes apparent that in tightening the head at one lug – the tension is raised, by differing amounts, at points close to all of the other lugs. (Some more so than others). The whole operation becomes like trying to tune a Stratocaster without locking off the tremolo first. Take a reading and set the tension at one lug – everything changes when you move onto, and change the tension at another. Dealing with eight lugs becomes like trying to wrestle an octopus off a lino floor, one leg at a time. Understanding the basic concept of the main lines of tension, helps to build an approach which factors-in adjustments at other likely locations, when working on any one particular lug. Ultimately, I find the Drum Dial approach to be useful only in addition to a traditional, logical, gradual tensioning of the heads.

Notes on tuning a steel snare drum

So – here’s how I eventually setled a basic, “manual” procedure for tensioning the snare, with the additional help of the Drum Dial:

  • After completely slackening off the top batter head – the head is checked to ensure it’s sitting evenly, all around the bearing edge. The top hoop is centralised over the head, and the rods tightened to a point where most of the slack is taken up, but they’re still just loose.
  • The tension rods are then turned in pairs across the head, until they’re all just at finger tightness. It’s important to realise that any tension exerted by any of the lugs will tend to pull the hoop down more, on that particular side. (More so with stiffer, cast hoops). This will affect all of the other lugs proportionally – but especially the one opposite, where the hoop will tend to lift slightly, and the ones close by, around the edge. This can give the false impression that a lug is “already at the correct finger-tightness” – when in fact the hoop has deformed slightly, and is pulling the lug up. To counter this, it helps to spread the tension across opposite lugs by working with small adjustments only on opposite pairs together, and to gradually work towards the point where all of the lugs have all of their slack taken up as evenly as possible around the hoop. The slack is considered taken up when you can, no longer, easily “jiggle” each rod as it’s rotated. Just at the point when turning the rods any further begins to provide a positive downwards force on the hoop.
  • At this stage – the head can also be measured at each lug location, and a check made to ensure the head sits the same distance below the hoop, equally all around the drum. Rather than get too tied up in the precision of it all, I preferred to check the developing tension with the Drum Dial – with only a visual check, to ensure that the head was evenly seated. This “eyeball” approach, if done carefully enough, proves accurate enough for me – borne out by the Dial revealing relatively even readings, around the edge of the head.
  • The head is then further tensioned by giving each rod a quarter, clockwise turn. (Righty-tighty, loosey-lefty). Since I want to apply equal additional force all around – I only count a turn once the key has moved beyond any discernable “slack”, and when the turn feels “positive”. Since this is an eight-lug drum, I can’t work in the traditional “star pattern” sequence across the drum head. Instead – I tighten one rod, and then work on the one opposite an equal amount. Then, I move one lug clockwise from that, and then back to the one opposite… and so on. After all eight of the bolts have had a quarter turn – I can check the head, and see if it’s still tensioned equally all around.
  • To do this, many recommend a felt bass drum beater – tapping at the edges of the head, adjacent to the adjustment bolts. If you touch the head in the centre with a finger while you do this – many of the resonant frequencies are dampened-off and you can concentrate on the “note” produced by the head. Since the head is likely to be stretched tighter in some places – relative tight spots around the edge of the head can be detected when a higher note is heard. It’s important to ensure that the head is equally tensioned and, “in tune” with itself – since unwanted resonances can potentially affect the sound produced. You want the head, (especially on a snare) to provide a quick “crack”, with just a very short, resonant ring afterwards. If a drum is out of tune with itself – the sound can be quite disappointing.
  • After checking the notes produced adjacent to each tensioning bolt – I work out which is the highest, and then fine-tune the other bolts with tiny adjustments until the head tension raises all of the notes produced around the rim of the drum, to the exact same pitch. Of course – all of these adjustments raise the tension all across the head – so it’s vital to go around a few times to even everything out. It’s important to continue to tension the head equally across its’ diameter – and so if you tighten any one particular bolt – you need to also tighten the one opposite an equal amount. Gradually, by working around the head, and cross-referencing all of the note pitches at each of the bolt positions – the head is evenly tensioned and “tuned”.
  • That’s the theory anyway. This is where the Drum Dial really helps – since it demonstrates exactly how the tension at other, nearby and opposite, lugs is affected by the tightening of any one particular lug. It soon becomes apparent that the best way to tension the drum evenly is to do things slowly, and to gradually raise the tension across the head in small increments. A quarter of a turn at a time – no more – checking and fine-tuning all the time… …finally measuring with the Drum Dial to confirm what I think feels and sounds right, by following the manual method. By doing it this way – I begin to develop a picture of how each lug affects the head at different points, and which other lugs I may need to address, to begin to compensate for any one, individual input. It’s a slow procedure, but finally, after a couple of half-turns at each lug all round, and after periodic checks at each stage with the digital dial – I manage to bring the batter head up towards the bottom range for suggested tensions on a coated batter head. (The Dial is supplied with a helpful card displaying tension ranges for different sized drums and different type heads). Now I know, and can actually hear, exactly what a “low” tuning is supposed to sound, (and feel), like.
  • Another quarter turn all around follows. Then another period of equalisation using a sounding hammer, followed by the Drum Dial to fine-tune and confirm the state of play. Then repeat another quarter turn and more fine-tuning. I finally get the batter head balanced so it produces a pleasing crack, with nice detail and a “controllable”, resonant ring as the head is struck further away from the centre. It’s the sound I think this drum was supposed to make. It sounds authentic, and I think it’ll work well with the dry nature of the gut snares. Importantly – it sounds pleasant and “musical”, which will help to reinforce good technique as I develop as a player.

Checking now with the Drum Dial – I’m getting a reasonably consistent reading of 85, (+/- 0.5) at all eight points adjacent to the tuning lugs. That’s supposed to be a “medium/high” tension. The tension measured with the dial in the centre is higher, and it drops away at points in between the “tension lines”, exactly as described in AdmiralBumbleBee’s article. This demonstrates the necessity to use the Dial in the exact correct positions on the head, relative to each tension rod. You can’t just plonk it on the middle of the head, and have it do all the work. The detatchable spacer supplied with the dial is a good idea – but means you’re forever having to rotate the thing to the correct orientation, so that you can actually read the dial without rotating the drum, or walking around it. In the end, after I’ve used the thing for a while, I decide to eyeball most of the dial placements anyway. (This may explain some of the 0.5 variances, occasionally encountered at one or two of the lugs). The thing with the Drum Dial, is that you quickly learn to accept a bit of tolerance in it’s digital readings, and begin to use it more as a general “mapping tool”. First to understand and visualise how the head is actually stretching – then further, to aid and augment the more usual, time-tested, manual methods.

“Tensioning” the resonant head using a mechanical, (or digital) gauge

With the batter head now tensioned – the exact same procedure is carried out on the reso head. The drum is inverted, the snares are set to “off” using the throw-off, and the head gradually brought up to approximately the same tension as the batter head using the same procedure as before. The reso head can be set at an number of different tensions in comparison with the batter, but it’s usual to tension it equally, or just slightly higher. The thing is – the higher the tension – the stiffer the head becomes, and the more it can begin to “choke off” some of the resonances it produces. There’s a balance point where the reso head works with the batter head to produce a good sound, with just the right amount of decay. (This drum doesn’t have a built-in dampener to help control that variable). Some of the higher, unwanted resonances – if encountered – can be “tuned out” by making the reso head slightly stiffer. However – too stiff, too tight, and much of the desired detail simply disappears, along with the unwanted ringing. The reso head also needs enough slack to allow the snare wires to “bounce” correctly. If the head is too stiff to move – the snare sound will also become “choked”. This time, the tensioning is not only a balancing act between the tension rods around and across the head – it’s also a balancing act between the two heads – and I need to make periodic checks on how the combined sound of the two heads changes the overall sound of the drum, whilst I work on tensioning the reso equally.

I know I have a little bit of leeway in the tensioner to make final adjustment to the snares, so I aim to get the reso head to a point where the “tone” it produces sounds just slightly higher than the note produced by the batter head. Another sequence of quarter turns at each lug – evenly raising the tension across the reso head, along with periodic checks with a sounding mallet, and also the Drum Dial. Repeat as necessary. Eventually – I get the reso head to where I think I want it, and it’s reading 87, (+/- 0.5), at all of the lug locations. The drum sounds like I’d imagined it might, and I figure that’s as good as I could possibly hope for.

Finally – the snares are switched “on” again, by raising the throw-off lever. By checking the sound produced as the wires are slackened by gradually turning the tensioning knob – I can eventually dial-in the desired response from the snares. It’s a lovely, characterful, dry, scratchy sound – which makes the drum sound great for practice. Crucially – the snares completely disengage when I use the throw-off lever, and there are no false bounces from the snare wires at all. The drum certainly sounds better than it did when I first obtained it, and the change of heads and snares has really focussed it’s sound. Maybe I’ll need something else when I eventually get a whole kit up and running – but by then, I’d hope to have at least a couple of my Premier “2000” snare projects complete. For now, at least – this renewed Premier “1026” has plenty of individual character, and provides more than enough positive feedback to aid my initial progress – both in playing, and fettling, a basic snare drum.

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