It seems most folks prefer their heads to be tightened to a Drum Dial tension of around 90. Does that only apply to mylar heads or skin heads as well? I just installed a very thin goat skin head (standard thickness calf skin wouldn't make it past the tension hoop) and I don't want to blow it out with too much tension. Should I keep the Drum Dial tension reading lower on this skin head?
Tighten it till it bursts then back the nuts off a quarter turn.
I think each head is different. I have been in the same predicament as you. Mind you, I have been installing heads (vellums (skins) and mylar) for decades. I have found that vellums are pretty resilient and can take quite a bit of tension.
Drum dials, numbers & formula for Mylar may not apply to skin heads. The usual advice of finding a good, voiced, taught drum tone can be subjective & confusing. Skin heads require some experience to find the right tone, & tension. One thing to consider is how much the bridge sinks into the head. A skin should be tight enough to maintain a playable string height up the neck.
Plus humidity or lack thereof will affect skin head tension--especially in more humid climes like here in the South--seasonal fluctuations in humidity, not so the much day-to-day. I tighten them up a little more in the summer and back off a little in the winter. That's just me...
When you're mounting a new skin, don't try to get "there" all in one go. Figure this is a process that will take a few days for the head (and strings, etc.) to ease into.
With a drum dial, I first aim to get even tension with a reading of about 82/83 all around, without strings. No worries with a natural skin if it isn't perfect, you can expect the reading to vary a bit as you go around from lug to lug, +/- 3 or so. That's because the skin itself isn't fully uniform, there are localized differences in thickness and tension characteristics.
Tighten the lugs small amounts at a time, no more than quarter turn. Between rounds of tightening, check also the tap tones with the eraser end of a pencil. Put one finger dead center in the middle of the head as you go around the circumference with your tapping. You are aiming for consistent tones all the way around. If you find a lower tone, give that lug a little tweak, go around again, don't try to make big adjustments all at once.
When you get consistent tones and close to uniform readings on the drum dial, go ahead and string up. Play it and see how it sounds.
What I have found is that the sound really starts to open up at a reading of around 85. When it begins to sound good there, play it for awhile and then set the banjo aside overnight.
Next day, the skin may have stretched a bit and need some more gradual tightening to get it back to where it was. Then you can work your way slowly around to increase tension further. Maybe you'll want to go for 87 this time.
Anyway, the process can be repeated over the course of a few days. Just taking it easy and not cranking on the lugs.
Personally I'm generally happy with the tone at around 88 or so, and reluctant to go higher. Every natural skin will be different, there are nuances, as well as your own tonal preferences.
In the world of hand drumming, there are those who think that heads should be tightened until they "scream". I do not subscribe to this philosophy. Rather, there's a point where the head sounds good and in balance with the characteristics of the drum. That is the same goal with the banjo.
Thanks to everyone - especially Silver Falls for the in-depth explanation. You BHO guys are the greatest!
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