Replacing Timpani Heads

Many people view the process of replacing timpani heads as a somewhat complicated and sometimes even mysterious undertaking. However, once you are familiar with the proper steps involved, you'll find that it is a relatively simple procedure. The following suggestions may help when it comes time to deal with the inevitable; replacing those old timpani heads. Since the mounting of plastic heads and calf heads each involve a different method, the focus of this article will be on plastic heads only.

As many of you may know, the process of putting heads on a Ludwig or Yamaha instrument (a drum with a free-floating pedal) and a Dresden-type instrument (a drum with a pedal/clutch mechanism) is quite different. However, there are a few things that you should do regardless of what kind of instrument you have.

First, keep in mind that heads need to be replaced on a regular basis. Some people will replace a head only when it has been broken or severely dented. Depending on their use, most timpani heads should be replaced every one to two years.

When removing the old head, make sure that the pedal mechanism is secure. A piece of wood can be wedged between the toe of a free-floating pedal and the frame to prevent the pedal from moving. For Dresden instruments, make sure that a block of wood is underneath the rocker arm (the horizontal bar underneath the frame) to prevent it from falling down when the head tension is released. With Dresden instruments, I normally set the pedal to the lowest pitch when a new head is being mounted.

After removing the head, inspect the inside of the timpani bowl for dents. Small dents can be removed by using a rubber hammer. I usually put a piece of wood on the outside of the bowl while hammering the dent from the inside. This will prevent you from hammering the dent through to the other side of the bowl. Always try to hammer out the dent from the edges; gently moving your way inward.

Make sure that the lip of the bowl is clean. Years ago, most timpani heads were lubricated with some kind of paraffin (wax), graphite, or cork grease. Very fine steel wool and solvent can be used to remove the old lubricants and any dirt that has accumulated. After the lip is clean and dry I put on a layer of teflon tape (manufactured by 3M). I prefer to use teflon tape because it doesn't dampen the head. Also, if it is put on properly, it can last forever - putting an end to the cycle of cleaning off an old lubricant to put on a new one. A roll of teflon tape costs about $30.00.

Now the drum is ready for the new head. Although there are a few different brands of plastic heads to choose from, I prefer Remo heads. Several years ago, Remo started producing heads with a synthetic "backbone" (see diagram below). This backbone line indicates the direction in which the plastic was stretched during manufacture and will provide the player with an appropriate beating spot. Remo also manufactures heads with insert rings (steel or aluminum). These help to serve a better "seal" around the lip of the bowl and produces a thinner bearing edge due to the sharp angle that is created. Keep in mind that if you use a head with an insert ring that your counterhoop (the top rim) will be slightly higher than if regular heads are used (see the illustration below).

Place the new head on the drum and place the counterhoop on top of the head. Make sure that the collar (the distance between the lip of the bowl and the counterhoop) is the same distance all the way around the drum. Screw the tension rods (by hand) at opposing points and tighten as much as you can with your fingers. With a Ludwig or Yamaha instrument, you will need to use a tuning key to place each drum in its proper playing range (see chart below). Turn each tension rod with the key (the exact same number of turns) at opposing points. With Dresden instruments, you may get the drum in range by tightening the master tuning key or fine tuner. Under normal conditions, I like to make sure that the rocker arm is level to the floor when the pedal is placed in the middle of the ratchet bar.

Examine all areas of the head for any wrinkles. If wrinkles exist you may need to take up the tension a little bit in that particular area. However, if wrinkles are present in the collar area, you have a couple of choices. If the wrinkle is not too bad, you may want to leave it alone and, with time, the drum will adjust itself to that area. If you feel that the wrinkle is affecting the sound of the head dramatically, some timpanists will gently remove it with the use of a heat gun.

To make sure that the head has been mounted evenly, many timpanists will measure the height of the head from the counterhoop at each tension rod. There are many ways to do this - I use a dial-caliper (found at any hardware store) to get an exact measurement. This will insure that at each tension rod point, the head is being pulled down at exactly the same tension.

Now that the head has been properly positioned, leave the drum on a high pitch for 24 hours. It is best if you can store the instrument in a warm area (at least 75 degrees or so). This will allow the head to conform to any irregularities of the bowl. After this 24 hour period has elapsed, you'll find that the pitch of the drum may have lowered a little bit and you may have to tighten the head again to place the drum in its correct playing range. If the instruments are moved on a regular basis you might want to use a permanent marker to mark where the bowl touches the head. I usually mark it along the top of the head at each tension rod point. YouÇll be able to tell immediately if the head has shifted (this usually happens if the drum has been moved incorrectly).

At this point, try to refrain from making any fine tuning adjustments. Playing the instrument on a daily basis will help to mature the sound of the head. After a few weeks, tap on the head at each tension rod area and make the necessary adjustments to ensure that the pitches at each tension rod are identical. The plastic head will continue to sound better with each passing day.