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Drum Dial tension, consistent all over the head, or no?

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Sep 19, 2020 - 10:00:47 AM
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Eric A

USA

840 posts since 10/15/2019

When I first got a drum dial, I made an assumption that the reading should be consistent all over the head. Like 90 everywhere. Or 91, or whatever your favorite number for that particular banjo is, for best sound. It just seems rational and logical.

But what I'm finding is that I get a better, deeper, "growlier" 4th string response if I back that corner off by about a pound. In that corner near the tailpiece and the armrest. For example, if I have everything else around 90, I'll back that corner off to 89, and the 4th string really comes alive. If generally 91, then I back that corner off to 90.

Is anybody else seeing this, or anything like it? Any other special tweaks with the Drum Dial that people use?

Sep 19, 2020 - 10:30:17 AM
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272 posts since 4/14/2017

I've never tried that, but I find it interesting. About ten years ago, I had a snare drum, good old one, probably a Ludwig, and I never tensioned anything on it, although I had a drum key. This was years before I got a drum dial. I used to play along with records with that snare on a stand, and I taped a piece of paper to the top because I liked that sound. I found that I could find low, high, and medium "notes" by hitting different parts of that drum head. I was getting pretty good with my own set of tones, and I never used the full Tama set I'd bought and set up in one room, not being a real drummer. Then my friend Mike came to visit for a week, and he wanted to replace the cheap snare that came with the set with this old Ludwig. Being a real drummer, he took the key and tensioned the Ludwig evenly, and from then on, it only got one tone. I never tried detuning it, lost interest and my short drumming career was over. That's enough evidence for me that you can accent higher or lower tones with varying tensions, and you have kept it very conservative by only changing it by one pound. There has been lots of discussion of whether to tension a banjo head Before or after tensioning the strings, but you've given me something to think about when doing my next head.

Sep 19, 2020 - 10:33:09 AM
Players Union Member

Eric A

USA

840 posts since 10/15/2019

I usually read in 6 spots. If the neck is Noon, then either side of the strings by the neck( call those 11 and 1 o'clock), either side of the tailpiece (5 and 7 o'clock), and then about 9 and 3 o'clock. So, the one down around 7 is the one I back off a bit.

Sep 19, 2020 - 12:32:03 PM
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11135 posts since 6/2/2008
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I take readings at every hook, except in the vicinity of the tailpiece where I can't get the DrumDial close enough. I want the same number everywhere to the extent I can achieve that.

Sep 19, 2020 - 2:04:30 PM

2362 posts since 12/18/2004

What Ken said works for me the best!
Don Bryant NC banjo luthier

Sep 19, 2020 - 2:30:05 PM
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Players Union Member

Eric A

USA

840 posts since 10/15/2019

Well, I don't want this thread to devolve into an argument about the correct way to measure with your drum dial, just simply a question of "do you always try to have it even all the way around, or do you sometimes tweak one spot deliberately?"

So far, I think we have two for even tension all around, and one who is open to the idea.

Continue.

Sep 19, 2020 - 2:39:12 PM
Players Union Member

Eric A

USA

840 posts since 10/15/2019

My discovery moment came when I took the flange off my RK R30. Basically the same operation as changing a head, and you have to tighten it back up again. These things often take a day to settle and then you check it again.

So, I thought I had it up around 90 all around. Sounded ok. Next morning I pick it up and the 4th string is really popping. Excellent. So, I check with the drum dial and see that it's still all about 90 except that corner which for whatever reason had slipped to 89 overnight. So it settled a bit, ok. So I promptly tighten it back up to 90 all around. Play it and ??? what happened to that wonderful growly 4th string I had? Gone. So I put that corner back to 89 and it was terrific again.

Recently had similar experience with a 2nd banjo. So now it's a thing. For me at least.

Sep 19, 2020 - 4:06:35 PM

11135 posts since 6/2/2008
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The people who make DrumDial say to get the same reading at every hook. Here's their video demonstrating how they say to use DrumDial on a banjo.

I'm not saying that disparate readings don't work for you. I'm just pointing out how the manufacturer believes their product should be used.

Their instructions work for me. Except the low number to which they set the head in the video.

In the several years I've been using DrumDial, whenever any of my banjos seems to be losing the sound I prefer, if it's not strings getting old it's head tension -- as measured by DrumDial -- growing loose or uneven.

Sep 19, 2020 - 4:27:29 PM
Players Union Member

Eric A

USA

840 posts since 10/15/2019

I'm going to keep stirring the pot. I think in the old days people would talk about the voodoo and mysticism of tap tones of G#, or dime tests. In reality, you weren't doing that at every hook and so at the end of the day that got you in the ballpark but it all depended on your ear anyway. So if your banjo was really killing it, it was quite possible, or even likely, that there were different drum dial tensions in different corners in play even then. But you didn't have a drum dial, so how could you know?

Edited by - Eric A on 09/19/2020 16:42:44

Sep 19, 2020 - 4:54:20 PM
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139 posts since 3/26/2015

Oh the mysteries of the old “five “. When you find the magic combination on one enjoy it. Many factors to the sound. An interesting point though about exactness in the old days. Sometimes they just have it.

Sep 19, 2020 - 4:59:10 PM

Alex Z

USA

3950 posts since 12/7/2006

"so at the end of the day it all depended on your ear anyway."

Agree, that's the whole idea.

I use a drum dial to

  -- even the tension all around the head, with the strings off

  -- set an approximate, even tension a little lower than the estimated desired tension.

After that, strings back on, same rotation of each nut on each pass around, no more than 1/8 turn.   Toward the end of the adjustments it is 1/16 turn.  This preserves the evenness of the tension.

Eventually the banjo comes to life, and then optimizes.  The spec at that point for me becomes the tap tone, which hardly ever is a standard pitch -- more like "G plus a quarter tone,"  or  "Ab minus a teeny bit."

In my experience the optimal point is never an even number on the Drum Dial or an exact standard pitch.  The Drum Dial appears to have a small error band in multiple readings, anyway, maybe + or - 1/4.

We have to keep in mind that the head at one spot is connected to all the other spots.  So when one reading goes up or down, tension is affected -- somewhat less -- in other places, but the Drum Dial may not be sensitive enough to measure it. 

By trial and error, the poster has come to a system that optimizes for the sound he likes.  Interesting system.

Sep 19, 2020 - 5:33:51 PM

2175 posts since 2/7/2008

This is interesting. I would like to get some more growl in my 4th.

I think I’ll try it, but I’m wondering...

Would this eventually distort the tension ring?

Won’t the head try to equalize over time?

Sep 19, 2020 - 5:42:07 PM
Players Union Member

Eric A

USA

840 posts since 10/15/2019

Over the long term, I don't know, maybe? I thought in theory, how can it be different? One membrane. A tweak at 3 o'clock has to tighten 9 o'clock as well, right? But in practice, if you haven't checked with your drum dial in a while, you find that this, that, and the other spot has to come up or down a bit. You set it at 90 all around, but now you find 89 here, 90ish here, 91 in this one weird spot. And you sit there with your wrench and fix it all. But how could such a situation have developed and persisted in the first place?

This is the gist of my whole point.  What I would think rationally, logically, that even tension all around is proper, and even more that a head would tend toward even tension because it's all connected, is not what I'm seeing in practice.  And more inflammatory, is not even optimal.

Edited by - Eric A on 09/19/2020 17:48:00

Sep 19, 2020 - 6:41:33 PM
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Alex Z

USA

3950 posts since 12/7/2006

"But how could such a situation have developed and persisted in the first place?"

The head sitting on the tone ring is not frictionless.  The DrumDial may register 90 at each hook after the head is adjusted, but may not the head slip further over a couple of days in some places, or over a couple of months?

When I first set a head (without strings) to even tension, I let the head sit at least overnight, then check and tweak as needed.  The head slips, but not necessarily by the same amount near each hook.

On guitars, the top vibrates in a different pattern depending on the frequency of the note plucked.  Some areas are nodes, with little movement.  Other areas may move a lot.  This could be happening on a banjo head as well, where an adjustment in tension in one area magnifies the amplitude of vibration in that area that corresponds to a note being played on the 4th string.

Sep 19, 2020 - 7:49:07 PM

260 posts since 10/4/2018

I don't have a drum dial so I have to rely on my ears hearing the same note all over. As far as the "corner" that you back off, how many hooks do you detune? Is it the one next to the tailpiece and the next one or the next two? I'll try it, but since you have the drum dial, can you make a recording of the banjo with even tension and then one that you backed off in the corner so we can hear the difference? And could you play all over, way up  the neck and down the neck and in between so we can hear how this affects the tone of the whole spectrum of notes at both tensions? That would be great.

Sep 19, 2020 - 11:04:29 PM
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Players Union Member

Eric A

USA

840 posts since 10/15/2019

I probably loosen the first 3-4 hooks, starting from the tailpiece. It only takes a little bit.

Sorry, I haven't delved into the tech of recording myself and putting it on this blog. If I do that, you all would be inundated with my stuff. It's probably for the best.

I don't do a lot way up the neck, aside from checking the tuning, but I just really like the sound on the 3rd and 4th strings, open, 2nd, and 4th frets mostly. Up and down that little part of the G scale. It just gets more clear and open as opposed to a bit "pinched" or muted. More of a "ring like a bell" tone, even on that low wound string.

Everybody has a different ear, but you know when your banjo is sounding it's best, and when it's not.

Just keep tinkering until you like the sound the best. At that point, you might find out that your head tension is no longer uniform everywhere. Or maybe not. That's banjo for you.

Edited by - Eric A on 09/19/2020 23:05:27

Sep 20, 2020 - 4:48:54 AM
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13207 posts since 6/29/2005

Definitely an interesting idea. 

Sep 20, 2020 - 8:58:45 AM
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Alex Z

USA

3950 posts since 12/7/2006

"I don't do a lot way up the neck, aside from checking the tuning, but I just really like the sound on the 3rd and 4th strings, open, 2nd, and 4th frets mostly. Up and down that little part of the G scale. It just gets more clear and open as opposed to a bit "pinched" or muted. More of a "ring like a bell" tone, even on that low wound string."

Good information.  Have an idea now -- the "normal," even tension was too darned high.  What you're describing is exactly what happens as the head is over-tightened:

  A.   dull sound -- too loose

  B.   tightening more -- notes start sounding clearer and have more depth and ring.  Keep going as long as there is improvement

  C.  over-tightening -- bass response drops, responsiveness decreases, banjo feels tight and sounds "pinched."

The difference between optimal at B and the beginning of C can be as little as 1/16 of a turn of the nuts.  The tension difference won't even register on a DrumDial, but the ears can hear it and the fingers can feel it.  

You have a working system for getting the head at the tension that gives you the tone you want at B.   This tension ends up less than the typical "90" or "91" that a lot of people use, which for you results in C.   

Sep 22, 2020 - 9:32:45 AM
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11135 posts since 6/2/2008
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quote:
Originally posted by Eric A

I'm going to keep stirring the pot. I think in the old days people would talk about the voodoo and mysticism of tap tones of G#, or dime tests. In reality, you weren't doing that at every hook and so at the end of the day that got you in the ballpark but it all depended on your ear anyway. So if your banjo was really killing it, it was quite possible, or even likely, that there were different drum dial tensions in different corners in play even then. But you didn't have a drum dial, so how could you know?


You're not stirring the pot. You're raising a potentially valid point. One that I both agree and disagree with.

Even though we didn't have DrumDial "in the old days," the set-up goal then -- and still today --  was even tension. One common tactic was/is to use the tension hoop as our visual guide, striving for an even tension hoop with its top the same distance above the head all around. Some do this by eyeball, some by actual measure, some by a rough combination: In my case, before DrumDial and when I was having trouble discerning a note, I  liked to see what I perceived as the same amount of exposed hook face all around. Maybe that wasn't a precise measure, but I think I was looking for something more easy to see as similar than an even hoop.

But in the larger sense, you're right. Visual evenness of the hoop was assumed to imply actual evenness of head tension. Maybe it did. Maybe it didn't. We didn't have a way to measure head tension so we didn't know.

Again: If your ear tells you your banjo sounds good whether the head tension is the same all around or varies from hook-to-hook, who am I to argue?

Sep 22, 2020 - 12:17:13 PM
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1194 posts since 8/7/2017

I'm going to give this a try, thanks Eric.

As a former Mideast-style hand drummer, for belly dancers, I know that that where you hit the drum (doembeck) greatly varies the tone and pitch: Hit the rim, get high pitch, hit an inch in, get lower, but high pitch, hit near the center get low pitch. Don't hit the center, get dull low pitch... I never measured head tension, nor experimented with different tightening schemes.

When I tap tune my banjo heads (opposite each bracket), it makes a huge difference where I hit the head. Like the doembeck, the closer to the rim, the higher the pitch. I use an 1/8" dia dowel to tap head, and I have a pencil mark 1" from the end of dowel to help me keep the hits close to the same distance from the rim. I've been trying for even tone all the way around...but I'm going to vary the bracket tension per Eric for an experiment with my most troublesome banjo. Some days it sounds marvelous, some days it sounds so bad I have to set it down; the only thing I've found so far is that some of the bracket nuts back off for some reason. Now to see if they are backing off for a reason, ie. the vibrations are especially strong in that area? Anyway, seems that there is more going on with the banjo head than I realized, Thanks Eric!

Sep 22, 2020 - 5:55:25 PM

DSmoke

USA

870 posts since 11/30/2015

While I like the thoughts behind this I only proceed with a comment for further discussion. If you have a breaking point, the tone ring, of an equal measurement around, what does it matter after that by such a small amount the plastic is pulled over it. And then you have to throw in the bridge weight and the pressure added by the strings to each side of the bridge with the correlation to the center point of the head. Correct me if I am wrong but all those will affect the drum dial that you are using to measure, if you are measuring with the strings at pitch. I can't imagine that the head will stay with the reduced measurement at that one point forever.

I use my drum dial more or less as an aid to record/remember what I like about a particular setup. I should probably state now that I work on tenors for Irish trad on 5 string setups.

Sep 23, 2020 - 7:57:59 AM
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majesty

Canada

295 posts since 3/20/2011

when I set my hooks to 90 exactly , a couple of hooks at the armrest area are squeaking, and ready to break. So now after a new head settles, I again set the hooks at 90, but this time I reduce the tension on the overtightened hooks, and check all the hooks for equal hand feeling tensions. The banjo comes back to life, not harsh, and cold. The hooks at the armrest area are now at 86-87. ??

Sep 26, 2020 - 2:21:03 PM

2 posts since 9/12/2020

If you keep the strings at tension and the bridge on, the area of the head nearer the bridge will be less flat, since the bridge distorts the head near it. So the drum dial "feeler" might show less head tension in that vicinity.

Has anyone first used the drum dial with no strings or bridge, setting the tension equal all the way around, and then put on the strings and bridge, tuned it up, and rechecked the tension with the drum dial?

Sep 26, 2020 - 4:47:01 PM

2175 posts since 2/7/2008

I want to try this to get more response form the 4th. If we were too number the hooks 1-24 starting with the hook on the treble side of the neck and going clockwise, which hooks should I loosen?

Sep 26, 2020 - 4:52:47 PM
Players Union Member

Eric A

USA

840 posts since 10/15/2019

quote:
Originally posted by Quickstep192

I want to try this to get more response form the 4th. If we were too number the hooks 1-24 starting with the hook on the treble side of the neck and going clockwise, which hooks should I loosen?


Start at the tailpiece and slightly loosen the first 3 or 4 on the 5th string side.  Let us know how it goes.

Edited by - Eric A on 09/26/2020 17:02:59

Sep 26, 2020 - 6:16:16 PM
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2175 posts since 2/7/2008

Thanks much.

To me, “slightly” loosen means 1/8 turn. I just made the change and I’m liking the result so far. I’ll see how it sounds in the morning after the head has had a chance to settle in a little.

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