Complete Percussionist

Symphonic Tympani Head

By Vic Firth

Vic Firth joined the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1952 at the age of 21, and became solo timpanist and head of the percussion section at the age of 25. He is head of the Timpani & Percussion Department at the New England Conservatory of Music, and the Berkshire Music Center, Tanglewood. He has made many recordings with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Boston Chamber Players, and Boston Pops Orchestra, on RCA Victor Records. As a composer, he has several percussion works and method books published. 

On my 25″ timpani, after a year of strenuous abuse, a superb sounding head is about to be retired. The next head is carefully put on the drum. It is identical in every way, and is put on under exactly the same conditions. For no apparent reason, the result is unsatisfactory. I repeat the procedure with another head and still another. Either the pitch is still not well focused or the reverberation ends too abruptly. Something has to be wrong!
Can’t be me! Must be the head!

Not necessarily so! Suddenly the next head that I put on is great. What happened? What did I do differently? It turns out that I did nothing differently, but by chance I had applied the head a certain way which does make a difference. Chances are the previous heads would also have sounded good had they been put on the same way.

Let me explain further. The polyester film (Mylar) used in the production of Remo timpani heads, starts as a powder and liquid chemical which is worked together to form a large “glob”. It is processed, worked and stretched into a sheet by thousands of tiny fingers pulling and working the film in different directions. As the stretching process continues, and the Mylar is made ready for the roll, several different directions of stretch become apparent. It is the long stretch direction that deserves attention. The long stretch direction simulates the back bone line on the calf skin head. The “back bone” line on a calf skin head is the portion of the skin that rubbed the animal’s spine as he walked. Due to the friction created by his movements, the skin is thicker and harder at this point, and simulates the long stretch direction. When a calf skin head was put on a drum, we never played on this back bone line.

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You might possibly have played closer to the back bone than illustrated, but never right on it. If you did, the sound was thin, rough, and lacked reverberation—the same as an improperly mounted plastic head. The negative similarities become apparent.

Consequently, Remo has put a fine visible line on the head to simulate the back bone line of the calf skin head. It runs parallel with the long stretch line and you choose your playing area accordingly.

1. Room should be warm, 75° or more. This keeps the mylar soft and pliable.

2. Remove old head, being sure pedal mechanism is secure so as not to damage pedal, spring, or rocker arm (depending on what kind of timpani you are using).

3. Steel wool the lip of the bowl with very fine steel wool. Be sure to remove all dirt, old lubricants, etc.

4. Apply a thin layer of paraffin to the lip of the bowl. A strip of teflon tape can also be used. Naturally, all threads, rods, and bearings should be free of dirt and grime.

5. Place the head on the drum, with the playing area farthest from the back bone line.

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6. Replace the rods, and apply tension with your fingers—not the key. Take particular care to let the sensitivity of your fingers determine how much tension you apply. With the pedal in its uppermost position, I usually turn the rods as far as the finger tips can physically apply pressure. A little downward pressure on the counterhoop at the same point can be useful. However, be extremely careful that you exert the same pressure at each rod. Do this at opposing rods.

7. With all the rods now turned as tight as possible with fingers only, examine the head for ripples, wrinkles or soft spots. There should be none, but make minor adjustments if necessary.

8. The head should now have a very low but pure pitch. Now raise the head by means of the master screw . . . if a Dresden type instrument. If an American type instrument, turn each rod with the key, the exact same number of turns —again at opposing points.

9. Now bring the pedal back into play, removing the block from the pedal or the rocker arm.

10. Tune your four drums to the following pitches: 32″/Bb , 29″/C, 25″/F, 23″/G.

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Allow the heads to set for 24 hours in a warm area, 75° or above. This will allow the head to conform to any imperfections in the shape of the bowl and properly set itself. After 24 hours have lapsed, release the tension and return the heads to their normal position (usually tuned to G, A, D, E when not being used). Avoid any fine tuning at the individual rods for several days. The longer you can refrain from fine tuning, and the more you can play on the head, the better it will sound. At this point, playing on the head is the best thing you can do to round and mature its sound.

Correct and careful mounting of the head is of supreme importance. A well mounted head requires very little fine tuning adjustments—if any at all. However, if you feel that some fine tuning is necessary, (meaning fine tuning adjustments at each rod) adjust the pitch according to the following:

If the pitch is lower at one of the following points—3, 4, 5, 6, 7, or 8, raise it to match point 1 and 2 (don’t lower point 1 or 2 at any time, unless you are totally convinced that the head is true and uniform at all other points).

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A head tunes truer when applying tension, as opposed to relaxing the tension. Also, the backbone tends to be somewhat more rigid and less flexible than the outer points. Use points 1 and 2 as the basis for tuning the other points. It is reasonably safe to lower points 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8 to match points 1 and 2. The opposite is not true, so don’t try to lower point 1 or 2 to match the other points.

It is always better to raise the pitch whenever possible, to improve the pitch clarity within the head. As the head is sturdier at the backbone, it will usually be the high spot, so think and plan accordingly.

After you have allowed the head to set for 24 hours, it produces a certain level of response. At whatever level this may be, it improves itself by doing nothing more than playing it. I cannot overemphasize this point. So be patient, play on it, baby it, caress it if necessary. But your end result will be a round, warm sound with a clear focused pitch. I know it is possible (I do it all the time).