Tuning a Doumbek
I often see new drummers that are playing a doumbek that has a buzz within the doum, or has too much ring in its teks, or sounds muffled somehow. The drummer gets frustrated, because no matter how hard they practice, they cannot get anywhere near the same sounds as that guy online, or the instructor, or their other friends. And, just like that, another drum goes into the closet or the attic, and another potential drummer gives it up and starts playing kazoo. (No offense to the fine and noble art of kazooing, but the world needs less kazooers and more drummers. Kazoodalists? Kazoonians? I give up, and my spellchecker just had a nervous breakdown.)
Here is a quick and dirty guide to tuning a doumbek, and getting the best possible sound out of it.
- Define what YOU mean by “Best Possible Sound”:
Some drummers prefer the high, sharp, ringing teks. Others like a deep booming doum that has a lot of sustain. Maybe somewhere in between is best…
Keep in mind that all drum heads will have a slightly different sound. They vary in thickness and consistency just like anything else. There are a lot of different options, from the straight mylar heads that have a sharp and bright tone, to the various SimSkyn heads made by drum manufacturers that produce more natural and warm tones.
Experiment as much as you can, because at worst, you just put the old drum head back on…
Here is what I know for sure: If you don’t like how it sounds, you won’t play it. Always, always, always own and play instruments that you enjoy. Always. You will pick it up if it looks good and feels good in your hands, and you will fall in love with it and try hard to make it sound even better.
If you know what your target sound is, you have a much better chance of hitting it.
- Get your tools and work space in order:
You will need the allen wrench for the bolts, a damp cloth/rag, soap, a cloth/rag for drying, some masking tape, a small plastic cup, and maybe a metal file and some fine (120+ grit) sandpaper.
You need a flat space that can hold the drum body, the rim, the drum head and the small plastic cup to hold the allen bolts without losing them.
- Step 1: Removing the rim and drum head:
Take two small pieces of tape and place one on the drum body and one on the drum rim so that you can line the bolt holes up when you put the rim back on. These drums tend to be hand drilled, and so they are not evenly spaced. If you lose track, the trial and error of lining the holes back up and tightening it all back down is a huge pain. Trust me, use the tape.
Once the tape is in place simply unbolt the drum rim using the allen wrench. If the bolts are super tight, and the razor thin allen wrench is cutting your fingers off, wrap the handle of the wrench in on of the rags, and use it that way. Make sure to keep the bolts secure. A quick word on the Houdini like qualities of the bolts…They find holes in the ground, dash under sofas, and in general act like goblins the moment they fall off a table. Keep track of them!
Take the drum head either out of the top rim, or off of the inner rim of the drum body, depending on which it stuck to.
- Step 2: Cleaning the drum body, inner rim, top rim and drum head:
Give all of the parts a good cleaning with the damp soapy cloth. It can get grimy, dirty, greasy and gunky, so be prepared for a bit of gross. Be careful when scrubbing, because many of the cast drums will have rough spots, jagged burrs, or sharp edges. Anything that is rough, jagged or sharp should be lightly filed smooth. Also, do not accidentally clean off the two bits of tape you put on a few minutes ago. (I have done that myself. I am a pro, clearly.)
Clean and smooth every part of the drum. It all matters. Protrusions and dirt get in the way of sound.
The inner rim’s top edge should be flat, smooth and ever so slightly rounded. Sharp edges on that rim will lead to faster drum head wear and tear, which is a bad thing. You can turn the drum upside down, set it on the table on the inner rim, and check for flatness by looking for any light peeking under it. No light is a good sign. See if it wobbles. No wobbles are a good sign. An uneven inner rim will lead to a lot of sound problems, usually buzzing, or a deadened tone, or both.
Once you have cleaned the gunk and filed/sanded stuff smooth make sure that you dry everything very, very thoroughly.
- A quick word on Buzzing and Ringing:
Buzzing is usually caused by gaps. The gaps might be in the drum body itself, (from either a crack or a bad pour of the metal into the mold when it was first cast) but are usually found in the connection between the rim of the drum head and the inner drum rim. Making this connection as smooth as possible, and proper tuning, will usually remove any buzz from the drum.
Ringing is a function of the drum itself. Doumbeks are meant to have a high, clear tone. But some drummers do not like the higher end sustained ring of a tek or ka. Simply tuning the drum a bit looser should take care of it, but if it really bothers you, you can muffle that ring with a thin bit of soft cloth, cut into small strips. Place two or three between the rim of the drum head and the inner drum rim to soften the drums tone. You will probably need to experiment a few times to get the sound where you want it, but that is the fun of tuning your drum to begin with. (I personally have never tried this, as I tend to use the ring when I want it, and muffle it with my off hand when I don’t.)
(The balance between no buzz, no ring, warm tone, and sharp sounds is pretty much the entire point of learning how to tune your drum yourself. It takes time, and patience, and a good deal of trail and error, especially the first few times you do it. Keep practicing, it is worth it.)
- Step 3: Putting it back together:
Put the now clean drum head onto the now clean inner drum rim. Push it down as tightly as possible, all the way around the rim, with your fingertips. Just like sealing Tupperware, but more important.
Place the top rim carefully back into place, lining the two pieces of tape up.
From here on out I will call the bolt hole closest to your tape Noon, as if on a clock-face. (No, not a digital clock…)
Thread the Noon bolt in, and tighten just enough for it to be threaded in the grooves of the drum body, but not actually tight. Do this for each bolt, just barely tightened. The drum head should still be quite loose and dead sounding.
Here is where it gets fun!
- Step 4: Tuning the Drum:
That dead sound on the loose head is your starting point.
(I am going to assume your doumbek has six bolts. If not, adjust these instructions accordingly.)
Let’s call the six bolts Noon, Two, Four, Six, Eight, and Ten, again going with the clock-face motif. (No, not a digital clock…drummers…)
Start at Noon, and tighten a few turns. Not all the way down. Now go to Four and repeat, then Eight, then Two, then Six, then Ten. Those of you that worked on your bicycles as kids know this drill already from tuning your bike rims. Same deal here.
After each full rotation of bolt turns, play the drum.
Try a doum. Listen to the sound.
Try a tek and a ka. Listen to the sound.
The tighter you turn the bolts, the higher the tone should be. You are literally stretching the drum head tighter and tighter. The reason to rotate is to be sure that you are stretching the drum head evenly, and avoiding wrinkles and dead spots. You can choose to tune a doumbek unevenly, but I don’t recommend it. It can lead to wrinkles and tears in the drum head, and really reduces the life span of the drum head. Some drummers will, as an example, keep the Noon and Two bolts a bit looser, which will deepen the tone of the tek between those bolts. Personally, I vary my tone by varying my striking style and technique, and let the drum tuning stay the constant.
- How often should I do this?:
Keeping the drum head clean contributes amazingly to the sound of your doumbek. It is unbelievable the amount of difference a little bit of dirt, grime and gunk makes to the tone of your drum. Tuning the doumbek from time to time also allows you to check for wear and tear on the drum head, and decide if you need to replace it. Generally, if you clean and tune your drum, and the sound stays the same, it might be time to replace the drum head.
Because I use a mylar drum head I tend to clean and re-tune my drum every three months or so. I have yet to need to replace the original drum head, and it is going on five years at this point, which might be because of how much care I take in keeping it clean to begin with.
And that is it, pretty simple. Intensive, in that it takes about an hour the first time, but well worth learning how to do.
Now you can not only tune your doumbek, but you can clean it, change heads if needed, and also be known as the “Drum Whisperer” by all your friends when you start tuning their doumbeks for them.