Drum Tuner: The Pursuit Of The Perfect Pitch

I once played a gig on a backline kit that had athletic socks duct taped to the underside of each batter head at dead center. The kit was in decent shape, so the decision to slap a quarter pound of cotton directly below every striking surface seemed odd. I decided to ask the sound guy about it before passing my know-it-all-drummer judgment.

He explained it was the only way to make the drums “sound good without having to tune them.” I had to assume he hadn’t heard that loads of tuning aids have been designed to help us poor, impatient bashers easily, efficiently, and consistently achieve a more desirable sound.

DRUM! wanted to know more about these tools, so we found five of the most popular units on the market and set out to identify the pros and cons of each. Here’s what we discovered.

RhythmTech Protorq Precision Drum Key

Unlike the other tuning aids in this feature, the Protorq is also a tensioner – it’s actually just a modified drum key that responds to rod tension rather than head tension or pitch.

The design is fairly simple. One side of the Protorq features a dial mounted to the top of a threaded, adjustable post. The dial is marked 1—8, with each digit representing an increasing level of resistance on that particular rotation of the dial (1 being the least and 8 being the most). The dial can rotate several full revolutions, offering different levels of resistance using the same eight digits, kind of like notes within an octave. I was able to turn the dial on the Protorq a full three times, giving me 24 unique torque settings.

Now, that brings us to how that dial translates into a tuning aid. Beneath the dial’s threaded post is a rotating arm. That arm is attached directly to the center of the key. When the key encounters the amount of resistance selected on the dial, it snaps over to the default side to indicate completion. The process is then repeated for each lug, theoretically applying the same amount of tension to each rod, creating an even tuning.

So, how did it perform? Well, on snare drums, which usually demand tighter heads than the rest of the kit, the Protorq was pretty handy. I went through a couple of settings on the dial to eventually find a sound I liked, wrote those settings down, and was then able to retune to roughly that same tension without any tapping or ear-checking the next time I set up the drum.

However, each time I tried this process, the lugs were not entirely even. This identified two of the product’s main drawbacks. First, it’s just too easy to accidentally keep turning the key after the action arm has snapped into place, and that can create inconsistencies from lug to lug.

Secondly, the slightly uneven results reminded me that not all rods and lugs move the same way, even on the same drum. If any rod is misaligned or more or less lubricated than the others, it will offer a different amount of resistance. This, in turn, affects the Protorq’s ability to accurately apply even torque, again creating inconsistencies.

One other issue I encountered was that the action simply wasn’t sensitive enough to dial in loose tunings on bass drums and toms. Even on the lowest resistance setting, the key wouldn’t activate until the heads in question were much tighter than I preferred.

Despite those issues, I actually found myself choosing the Protorq over the other options for speedy snare tunings at gigs and rehearsals.

With my ideal numbers written down, I could quickly retune a drum without making any noise. Plus, it’s only slightly larger than most drum keys, so it travels well.

It may not have produced flawless results, but as the least expensive item in this roundup, the Protorq Precision Drum Key could definitely be a helpful tool for gigging drummers.

Pros: Great for finding ballpark estimates for snare drums or medium to highly tensioned toms; very portable; functions as a conventional drum key as well.
Cons: Slightly inaccurate; struggles with lower tunings; susceptible to flaws created by differences in tension rod movement.
Price: $40.95
More info: rhythmtech.com

DrumDial

Probably the most well known of the products selected for our roundup, the DrumDial has a great reputation among many drummers and drum techs. The device uses a very intuitively designed scale to identify the tension of a drumhead at a particular point. With equal tension in front of each lug, the drum should have an even tuning, free of most unwanted over or undertones.

If you’ve never seen a Drum-Dial in action, the mechanism is very easy to understand. A retractable tip extends beyond the bottom of the device’s cylindrical base, and when placed on a flat surface, that tip retreats into the body of the dial, measuring the resistance provided by the surface below. The measurement is represented on a standard pressure gauge with hash marks numbered 0-99. Surfaces with greater tension will send the needle to a higher number on the dial face.

In practice, the DrumDial is placed in front of each lug about .75" away from the rim. Thankfully, the DD comes equipped with an Edge Gage (their spelling, not ours!), which is a flat piece of metal that sets the distance from the rim to ensure consistent measurement. Per the instructions, the user finds the highest reading from around the drum, then tunes the other lugs to that number.

For the most part, the end results were very favorable. There were a few tonal inconsistencies around each drum, so I did have to do a bit of extra tuning, but not much. This led me to use the DrumDial around the whole kit in much the same way I used the Protorq on snare drums – I found the numbers that gave me the sound I wanted, wrote them down (in the included booklet), and used them as my tuning template. That way, I was able to tune in silence at shows and rehearsals, then fine-tune with a couple quick taps.

I did encounter two minor problems with the DrumDial. Principally, the readings were less consistent at lower tunings. Presumably, that’s because the looser head provided a surface that was too unstable for the device to accurately measure tension. This wasn’t insurmountable, though. It just took a few rounds to get it right.

The other issue I noticed was a bit harder to pin down. Every so often, the DrumDial would have trouble reading coated double-ply heads. I would guess that the extra weight of the second ply and coating material might have created a slightly stiffer head that was more difficult to gauge.

The DrumDial proved to be the device I reached for most frequently during our testing period. It got me close enough to eliminate guesswork, but left enough room for my ears to get in a few reps. Not perfect, but very helpful.

Pros: Expedites the tuning process with mostly even results; easy to use; clear instructions; fits in an accessory bag; includes recommended tuning guide with additional blank spots for user’s measurements; Edge Gage makes placement easy; includes carrying case.
Cons: Not entirely accurate; struggles with lower tunings; occassionally inconsistent with coated double-ply heads.
Price: $89.95
More Info: drumdial.com

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