In Search of the Missing Fundamental: by Richard K. Jones
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Step No. 6

If the DrumDial™ or the Tama Tension Watch produce satisfactory results,  you should then be able to check, refine, and fine tune the pitch of your timpani with an electronic tuner. Using electronic tuners to temper or tune timpani can be problematic because most tuners require a sustained or periodic tone for optimum functionality. Because the principal tone tends to decay more rapidly than the other overtones or partials of the preferred modes, electronic tuners can easily register the pitch of second partial (mode 2,1) and not the pitch of the principal tone (mode 1,1,) unless the principal tone is strong (see Pleading the Fifth). Needless to say, finding a tuner that works well with timpani is paramount if you want to use this method.

Many types of electronic tuners can be used to measure and adjust the pitch of the principal tone (mode 1,1) at each tension lug. This principal tone (mode 1,1) is what defines the pitch of the drum.  The secondary preferred modes help to create the near harmonic overtone series of the timpano’s sound spectra.  An inexpensive tuner such as the Korg CA-20 (ca. $15.00) works very well for this process and saves the ear from fatiguing so quickly. The listener should focus on the pitch of the principal tone (sometimes referred to as the strike tone) only, not the overtones or partials. One must be mindful to not confuse pitch with tone. No two points around the circumference of the drum will have exactly the same tone quality, but they can still have the same pitch. i.e., a bright quality can be mistaken as sounding sharp while a dull quality can be mistaken as being flat. Pitch and quality must be heard separately and with practice, the ability can be cultivated.

The tuner needs to respond to the sound quickly, so make sure that the tuner has a fast mode or that it will respond immediately to low frequencies. If the tuner will not respond quickly to low frequencies, this process will not work and may produce an inferior result.

With the advent of smart phones, Apps such as the Cleartune – Chromatic Tuner for iPhone & Android can be extremely accurate for this process as well provided it is used in a totally quiet environment. The Cleartune App has different settings for how the needle responds to sound, so be sure to set the Needle Damping to II for best results. The Cleartune App also a frequency display option, which can be used to detect the missing fundamental.

The objective with this step is to to unify vibrating mode (1,1) at all lug points, which is the frequency from which the perceived pitch of the instrument is defined. This can be accomplished by exciting the lowest frequency possible on the drum, which is generally the lowest note of the MSR on a balanced action drum. If your drum has a master tuning screw, loosen the tension on the head to the threshold of pitch. When the pitch of the principal tone mode (1,1) at each lug point matches, a near harmonic series can be created. The motion of the head, the internal air modes, and the air baffling/damping process of the bowl create a Virtual Pitch, which produces a clear tone and well-defined pitch throughout the entire range of the drum. This process (see The Duff Clearing Process) can be achieved by using the ear alone, however, it takes years of experience to perfect the art.   The use of electronic tuners can the make the process less tedious as well as help to develop the ear with regard what to and what not to listen for in the spectrum.

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