Timpani Tone & Tuning

Timpani Tones and Tuning
       by Paul T. Jackson

   Problems that a timpanist must solve or overcome are many.  And I'm not covering problems or issues of sticking and mallet type changes such as wood, hard, medium, soft to achieve appropriate sound for the music.
From determining which pitches to set first on which timpani, to figuring out which timpani will sound best for the later pitch changes coupled with the equipment's particular features and other sticking requirements, can be daunting
   Much modern band music for timpani seems to be written as if the timpanist has a row of tom-toms in front of him instead of just two, three, or four instruments, which most ensembles use.  There are available for purchase sets of five matched timpani and if one included ALL sizes of bowls available; 32, 30, 29, 28, 26, 25, 24, 23, 22 inch bowls, one would indeed have available more than a full octave.  We all know the latter wouldn't work well, and economically it would be difficult. At some point in my musical career I thought someone who needed more than three timpani was a rank amateur, but more recently I've been confronted with music that requires seven pitches and four instruments…and five might work better.
   I hope this article will be instructive and will bring understanding to the issues of tuning and will help the director to better determine whether problems with tuning are instrument or player related.


  Bowl sizes
are generally geared to best play or sound a range of pitches.  And the optimum sound or tone for each pitch relies heavily on the unencumbered bowl and heads used.  More on heads later.
  Some timpani bowls have tension rods inside; others considered better acoustically have all the rods outside.  Some of the latter have attached tuning gauges that introduce bolts and nuts to the inside possibly negating the acoustical advantage.  More expensive timpani suspend the bowl via a ring so bolts don't have to secure it to the struts leaving the bowl to its pure acoustical tones.  There are also "cambered" bowls, copper and fiberglass, designed for a variety of issues.
   There is an article by Vic Firth on buying timpani. It is a good article although I differ with him on the tuning gauges. It's part of the SBO (School Band and Orchestra) magazine "How to Buy Series." There is a small cost to this: http://www.sbomagazine.com/howtobuy.html
   Ranges for bowl sizes are approximately, from low bass clef: 32", E to Bb; 29", A to C or D; 26", Bb to F; 23", C to A; 20", E to C.  Manufacturers mostly indicate each bowl is set to play tones for a fifth, or DO to SO for optimum sound.  Head tension determines the lowest note and highest note available, as pedals determine the span of tension available.  You can't push the pedal into the floor, nor release total tension without unscrewing the head.  I have played on drums with bowls with dimensions other than those above, like 25 ¾", 27 ½ and such.  These seem to be older timpani and actually sometimes have a better sound than some of the newer "standard" sizes.

Heads come with all sorts of choices including rims or flesh hoops of aluminum or steel and plastic/mylar heads are opaque, translucent, or clear.  Matching the dimensions of a head to that of the outer tension ring can be interesting. We just replaced a head for a 32" timpani with a 34" or nearly 35" head because of the large extended tension ring (counter hoop) on the timpani.  There are still calfskin heads available and are most mellow and can be tuned near to true pitch because of their elasticity but they are impractical as they have to remain moist, or they will split in dry auditoriums or storerooms.  REMO has come out with the "Renaissance" heads that are designed to approximate a calfskin head tone and are the clear winners for tone quality. Like calfskin they do tend to change tension, thereby pitch, during a rehearsal or concert as they warm up and stretch. So while using these, one needs to be cognizant of this and be ready to adjust a pitch quickly.

   The tone both of the bowl and head vibration relies on equal head tension around the bowl, for which there are bolts (T-rods or Key-rods, or sometimes called lugs) to tighten or loosen on the tension ring/counter hoop.  It is important that a head is tuned so that hitting near the edge at the point of the bolts will produce the same tone and pitch at each strut.  Getting this to happen well also requires that there are no nicks, dents, or cuts…or tape or stickers on the head.  Basically these things skew the tone and resultant overtones so that a near true pitch is never achieved. It's also important that dirt or grit around the edge under the head is cleaned and that the edge of the bowl is finely sanded or steel-wooled so there are no nicks or burrs to catch the head when it is tightened or loosened.  Finally, if the head is old, it's probably less elastic and very stretched than when new and can affect the range of timpani.  These should be replaced, as it will affect the ability to tune both musically and mechanically.  Some suggest that heads be replaced every second or third year.  Well, it's like a piano.  When do you decide to tune it…it's usually done when you can't stand it or when you can afford it. Unfortunately, timpani, in my experience, are the most neglected instruments when it comes to maintenance, because they make noise regardless of the condition, whereas other instruments would not make a sound if a pad or valve were not working. Working with and playing on bad heads will reduce the musical experience to frustration.
   It's important that this above tuning happens after every move of the timpani. Another check to find if you're tuning correctly is to hum over the head the note you require, and like a violin tuning, move the pedal back and forth until you reach the point where the timpani is reverberating with the same pitch. If this is not clear, your tension rods need to be adjusted.

   GP and REMO have good articles on changing plastic heads. I would recommend both.
There is also a good article about calfskin heads and also it discusses the fact that head condition effects the range of the timpani at:
The following bibliography is all about tonal quality of drum heads, including timpani heads:

Tuning gauges

   My experience with tuning gauges are that these are unnecessary add on features designed to collect more money from the purchaser of timpani, and can be a real distraction for the player.
   First there are those that have a solid rod mechanism.  This rod will limit the pedal action for pitches that might be needed beyond the normal 5th or 6th interval on a given timpani at a particular time for a particular piece of music when the other two or three timpani have to be set to other pitches.  There are also cable gauges that are less intrusive to the mechanics of setting pitches, but as soon as the head is loosened, stretched or otherwise changed these mechanisms have to be reset or adjusted. You can't do this during the playing of a piece. In a school setting it is unlikely the pitch pointers will remain where they need to be, some student will possibly change them.
   Finally, looking at gauges instead of the music or the conductor and listening for the correct pitch of the orchestra or band ensemble can produce an out of tune instrument. Having a tuning devise, I feel, is a crutch instead of a help to learning to hear intervals and can only slow the process of learning to listen to and for intervals that the player will ultimately require. 

Tuning Pedals

   My opinions aside, pedals create the most problems of which many may be unaware.
   Tuning with modern timpani is easy for early classical music, since composers wrote with the fact in mind that timpani could only be tuned by hand.  There are still hand tuning mechanisms around, but one, oddly is coupled with timpani having a pedal mechanism that I call a ratcheted pedal.
   These "ratcheted" pedals are "spring loaded" from the tension of the head and can only be set with a lever that engages teeth at the side of the pedal. Modern designs vary from the original Ringer style used on Berlin timpani.  In order to change a pitch, one has to move the lever sideways while pushing or allowing the pedal to come up to select the pitch desired, then allow the lever to swing back, thus engaging the nearest tooth.  Sometimes the tooth is somewhat beyond where the pitch would be, so to fine tune, the player must reach over to the back of the instrument and turn a rod with a key to bring the pitch up or down slightly to be in tune.  I've seen some timpani with this fine tuning rod near the player side, but could easily be in the way of the timpanist.  This tuning might work with some classical music but rarely with fast moving modern band music.
   In addition, the ratcheted pedal on the lowest or largest drum has the "kick" lever on the left side of the pedal, all the other drums have the lever on the right side of the pedal, so if one happens to need to change the second largest drum with the left foot, the lever will come into the arch of the shoe and the player must move the foot even further to the right than normal in order to release the pedal.  Here the player must use the foot in two different ways to attain a pitch.  Difficult? Yes! Finally, the teeth and the stop on the ratchet wear out and sometimes don't engage at all, so the player has to keep the foot, hopefully in position to maintain the pitch.
   Another popular pedal used is what I call the "lever" pedal.  The lever rides on a perpendicular shaft and by releasing the lever with a pedal forward, the player then pushes down or allows the lever to rise to the proper pitch, then sets the lever by bringing the pedal back from its forward position like a rocker switch.  This, like the ratchet, requires a three-step event for tuning a single pitch.  In addition, the lever moving up brings the players knee up and creates a balance problem for the player whether sitting or standing.  The knee also can become an obstacle for one's head leaning over the timpani surface to hear the pitch. The pedal on the lever can also be inadvertently bumped with the foot or leg and thus releasing the lever and changing the pitch.  Sometimes this happens with a bang.  Mechanically the clutch that holds the lever or the shaft can come loose causing additional tuning problems.
   Of course one of the reasons for these above pedal designs was for the purpose of making sure the pitch didn't vary while playing, which happens sometimes with what is known as the "Standard Balanced" pedal.  These pedals include a screw-spring mechanism in front of the pedal that is turned for balancing the pedal against movement that the tension on the head would otherwise cause. Most of this movement problem results from extended or stretched heads that should be replaced, or the heads may be too tightly stretched and the bolts on the counter hoop need to be loosened. I suspect it is possible for the screw mechanism to wear, strip, or lock up and cause problems, but this would be somewhat rare. The most disruptive problem for a timpanist with this pedal is that the drum will roll forward away from the player as he/she applies pressure on the pedal…because of cheap or non-working brake systems on the casters. Duck tape holding wheels to the floor or riser works fine. Even better is a 1" rubber bumper attached under and at the heel of the pedal arm.

   My preference is for the standard balanced pedal, because they allow for tuning on the fly more quickly than the other types, and with proper adjustments, they will hold the pitch. I just recently had to rehearse with just two timpani, the largest and the smallest of a set of four.  I had been rehearsing with four, and my penciled notes for tuning were for four instruments.  With the standard pedals I was able to change pitches properly for all but one piece of music. I did have to loosen the head a bit on the smallest drum to achieve a better tone for the lowest note used on that instrument. This sort of thing can only be done sitting, with both feet on the pedals.  I've always used a stool. An inexpensive height adjustable swivel stool is available from IKEA, the Ringo Bar Stool. It has a turn screw like piano stools.  I've attached a photo in the sidebar that has an added cushion.  Some string bass personnel use this tall stool as well. I believe there is a much more expensive medal screw throne available as well that would be tall enough.
   All one summer I was able to use the ratcheted pedal type (Dresden), so with fast pitch changes I faired better by summer's end, yet, not with the kind of confidence I have with the standard pedal.
The following link shows some close-up drawings of timpani mechanics and the standard pedal. http://www.ludwig-drums.com/education/care_timp.html

Tuning: learning and exercise

There are a number of methods used to learn how to tune timpani, i.e., find and set the right pitch on the right drum. I like to use intervals. Using an A440 tuning fork I set the low drum to A and tune the others by intervals, usually A, C, and E, and F (if four drums) then adjust for the piece of music at hand, tuning with the ensemble. If tuning with an ensemble, I tune to their note, bands use Bb, and orchestras use A.  Once I set Bb for band, I tune for fourths in both direction, F and Eb and then F on the high drum.   The best method, I feel, for learning and hearing intervals is the vocal sol-fa system. Working with keyboards or a nearby xylophone to learn to hear intervals will also work much better and likely be more accurate for the student and the ensemble than using tuning gauges. And there is no substitute for learning the action of one's instrument by practicing, so tuning with the pedal can be quick as well as quite accurate. One method I've used is to practice playing the Soldier's Chorus theme from Aida on a single timpani, thus learning what intervals are needed and developing the sense of how far the pedal needs to move to attain the correct interval.
   Here's an interesting exercise that could also be helpful.

[Mr. Jackson is a former timpanist with the Anchorage (Alaska) Symphony and Faculty Orchestras, Interlochen (Michigan) and currently plays timpani in two community concert bands and an orchestra in Washington State.]