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Arbiter Auto-Tune


Bob Henrit of Argent has a go on the new Arbiter Auto-Tune kit.

TEST ON: Arbiter Auto-Tune
DATE November 1975
PRICE £642.40 Ex VAT

Over the past fifteen years, one person seems to have been almost solely responsible for dictating the popular taste of drummers. Ivor Arbiter's success has been astonishing to say the least. He started off in the 'fifties by importing an almost completely unknown German Drum kit from Hamburg. In a couple of years anybody who was anybody (and some people who were not) had one of Ivor's Trixon kits. The drums were extremely popular for five good years.

Ivor then became concessionaire for Ludwig, who by this time were fully prepared to crack the U.K. market. This coincided with the advent of the beat boom and Drum City were astute enough to steer Ringo Starr away from his Premier kit and on to Ludwig!

Ludwig were also fabulously successful with Ivor for five years. About 1966 Ivor seems to have woken up to the fact that the British drum industry was sadly lagging and could, with the right product, corner some or all of the home market for itself. Armed with ideas gathered over the years, Ivor and his team devised a drum set with a new look and a new sound. His round nut-boxes (which nobody outside America had seen before), American-style triple-flange counterhoops and revolutionary looking silk metallic finishes gave the new drums a distinctive look. More importantly, because their interiors were polyurethane sprayed, the drums had a very loud and very good sound. All of a sudden, here was a reasonably-priced drum kit with balls — and it was made in Britain! It couldn't fail and it didn't. Soon the Hayman Drum set (after George Hayman) was outselling everything in its path — not just in England, but all over the world.

The story becomes a little less cut and dried at this point. For roughly another five years, Hayman did absolutely marvellously until Ivor relinquished his partnership with the John Dallas Company, and moved off on his own to import Rogers drums from America. For one reason or another, they weren't ever seen to be as successful as his former ventures. Ivor Arbiter has again resurfaced with a revolutionary drum set which captures the imagination and shows all the signs of becoming another of Ivor's five year success stories.

The new Auto-Tune drums have been in development for the past two or three years and it's only now that the manufacturers consider everything good enough to begin thinking about production. Ivor Arbiter, as reported in these pages in August, got the idea for his new kit whilst looking at a pickle jar. After doing some experimental work on a Hayman snare-drum, he went to the Bournemouth School of Technology and told them what he wanted to do. The College came up with all the right answers and Ivor was back in business.

It's a little tricky to explain the principles of the Auto-Tuning technique, because it's an unusual percussion concept. Ivor Arbiter's own analogy comparing it to the pickle jar is probably the closest to the truth. The shell of the drum corresponds with the glass jar, the drum rim with the jar's metal securing ring, and the plastic drum head with the glass lid.

Briefly, the drum is tensioned by a screw thread running around the edge of the drum, and another running inside the rim. The two threads mate and as the rim is screwed down in a clockwise spiral, the head is tightened against the shell.

However, instead of threads we have several pairs of rollers, spiralled evenly around the shell of the drum and set about an inch or so from its edge. These pairs of rollers are one inch apart horizontally and roughly an eighth of an inch apart vertically, but each set is placed slightly lower clockwise than the one before it. This simulates the thread on a bolt. The counterhoop itself in this case simulates the nut, albeit a very large one. Inside the counterhoop and at the bottom are fixed several small flanges, protruding at right angles into its centre. These flanges correspond to the rollers and locate tightly underneath them. The very lowest of these flanges is actually a rack of 21 horizontal teeth which meshes with a cog or pinion with 14 teeth, which is fixed to the drum shell within a housing. Thus the rim can be moved round laterally clockwise to increase the head-tension simply by turning the pinion in a clockwise direction.

One complete turn of the pinion would move the rack along 14 teeth about two inches or so, which is enough to tension the head substantially, roughly equivalent to about three or four full turns on a conventionally tuned drum. These ingenious flanges are spot-welded on to the turned six-flanged rim. The rack is conveniently riveted to the rim in case it should be necessary to replace the mechanism. It's a very sensible idea, this, since there's an awful lot of pressure and friction on the rack and pinion and wear will be inevitable. Each different diameter drum has a specific number of these screw thread flanges which are situated underneath the five tuning screws - more of these later. The 12" drum has five flanges, the 13" and 14" six, the 16" has seven and the 22" bass drum has eight.

The fine tuning screws were fitted to compensate for wrinkling of the drum head when lateral tension was applied. Arbiter told me that drum-heads aren't of uniform depth from top to bottom around their circumference. This is of course irrelevent on a conventionally tuned drum because you can compensate for any discrepancies with a little extra tension on the tuner nearest to the wrinkle. However, with the Auto-Tune system, it's more difficult since we would have to increase tension all round to remove the wrinkle. This would of course mean that the pitch of the drum would go up substantially too.

The American square-head pattern fine tuning screws are sensibly longer than usual and screw through the counterhoop which is tapped to weave onto the fine-ring of the drum-head itself just above its "U" shaped metal rim. Since heads aren't supposed to be subjected to heavy pressure at this point, Arbiter have devised a thin dished ring of metal which goes over the glue-ring inside the counterhoop and protects it from damage. I'm not too sure of the longevity of these de-wrinkling screws, as there wasn't a very substantial thread through the 16 gauge counterhoop. However, the manufacturers assured me that after a plastic head has been de-wrinkled, it's no longer necessary to maintain the tension at the fine-tuning point since the "wrinkle" will have stretched forever under strain, it is possible, I discovered, to tune the drums by ear in the conventional way by taking the head close to the pitch required with the ratchet and then tapping in front of each of the five tuning screws until they sound the same.

The shells are made from moulded fibreglass and because of their shape are made in two pieces which are glued together later. A piece of "glass" is put inside a former or female mould and then some resin is painted on to shape and harden it, more fibreglass and resin are added until a wall is built up. This is exactly the same way that fibreglass sports car bodies and boat-shells are made. The present shells are made to a gauge which gives seven ounces of "glass" per square inch.

Originally the shells were made one sixteenth of an inch thick which resulted in a sound which was too much like ordinary plexiglass drums. This was not the sound the manufacturers were looking for at all and they thought it lacked projection. So they doubled the thickness of their shells, "roughened" the insides and fitted a reverse flange.

The shell itself is shaped in such a way that it fits into a standard size plastic head. To accommodate the screwing mechanism there is a one inch shoulder about an inch and a half down from the rim. The drum shell proper then begins. This means of course that a 14" head diameter drum actually has a shell of 16" in diameter and so on.

Bass Drum

The 22" bass drum had a very solid sound with both heads on but with one head removed (in seconds) a really authentic funky sound resulted. It wasn't even necessary to put any extra padding in. The drum comes fitted with Rogers spares and tom-tom holder and the fibreglass has been thoughtfully made doubly thick underneath these fittings. Because of their shape it is impossible to fit the foot-pedal directly to the rims of the drum, instead a rectangular piece of fibre glass is bolted directly to the shell and any make of pedal will fit onto this. The drum has eight fine-tuning screws per head and two tuning ratchets placed on the right hand-side for ease of operation. It's childs play to get a decent sound from this bass drum. One first adjusts the batter head to the required tension with the ratchet and then the front head by ear to round out the sound, all the while playing the drum from the normal position. What could be simpler?


So far the only available sizes are 12" x 8", 13" x 9" and 16" x 16" but evidently they're working on a 14" x 10" which should be available soon and also a 14" x 16" which evidently has an amazing sound. The company also plan 6", 8" and 10" tom-toms for the future which I think is a great idea. The drums had a very strong sound and were simple to tune and much more tonally accurate than normal drums. The smaller drums both had Swivo-matic holders on them and as on the bass drum, there was a double shell thickness underneath these fittings. The floor toms had Rogers "Knobby" fittings for its hexagonal legs. It's necessary to support the suspended tom-toms with your free hand when tuning them with the ratchet. Otherwise, damage to the shell could result. It really does seem to put an alarming amount of strain on the shells when the drums are tensioned but Carl Palmer says that the drums can definitely take the strain. We shall see what we shall see.

Snare Drum

A good sound, but perhaps a little difficult to get used to if you normally play a metal shell drum. It really does seem to have its own particular sound, completely different to anything I'm used to. At present the drum takes a 14" head with a 5" shell, but a 6½" shell model is on the drawing board at the moment and should be ready next year. I found the rim-shot sound to be a little unconvincing but I think familiarity would probably breed content. The drum is fitted with the very positive Rogers Dyna-Sonic snare strainer, a Rogers damper on the batter head and a 20" strand Rogers snare which settles neatly into an extra long snare bed. This drum has its two tuning ratchets placed diametrically opposite each other since the shell isn't deep enough to put one below the other, as on the other drums. We fitted a C.S. head to this drum and although it was more difficult to tune out the "wrinkles", the result was definitely superior to the sound produced by the Ambassador head.


All of the accessories with the exception of the snare-drum stand are made by Rogers U.S.A. and as such have been well tested over the years. The Hi-hat stand is the Rogers "Supreme", it's a centre-pull, adjustable spring model which has a larger bore top tube than is normal. This tube has sensible grooved indentations pressed into it to locate the height adjustment screw. Because of this its probably the most sturdy model now on the market. It's fitted with Roger's famous top cymbal clutch which I have personally never had too much success with, but I suppose it works well enough.

The bass drum pedal is Rogers' Swivo-matic model with a one or two piece foot-plate and more than enough three dimensional adjustment to keep you happy (or unhappy) for days. I've had one of these pedals for years now and to be quite honest have never really found time to adjust it to its optimum efficiency. (I can't believe it works properly at the moment.) The tom-tom holder is ostensibly Rogers' normal Swivo-matic double-holder but it has been cleverly improved by Arbiter. The screws which lock and unlock the ball and socket mechanism have had their heads made larger. They're now the same size as the pinion nuts on the tuning mechanism. This may be of dubious benefit. Although it's more convenient to have the nuts on the kit all one size, it could result in too much torque being put on these tom holder screws and they could sheer off as a result. All of the Collets have been completely sleeved with nylon and this means that the hexagonal rods on the kit are now held much more firmly. Normally the rods are held by the nose of the Collet but Arbiter's improvement means the whole of the Collet grips them. The spurs too are Rogers disappearing and they also have this plastic-sleeve inovation. Full marks to the development engineers: it's a much more positive system.

The cymbal stands supplied are Sampson II, three stage, high rise models with Rogers' justly famous and positive ball and socket fitting mechanism.

The snare drum stand I saw was very difficult to evaluate since it was both a hybrid and a prototype. Basically it's a non-adjustable basket-type stand which actually bolts on to the drum itself. For my money it's not a very good idea, since this way the stand transmits the sound vibrations from the shell down to the ground and deadens the sound. I tried the drum on an ordinary stand and I'm certain the sound was somehow brighter and more open. Unfortunately, a normal stand will not take the strain of the force necessary to tighten the ratchet without the drum and stand toppling over. However, I would do most of my tuning with the drum off the stand and only put it back on for the final tensioning on the fine tuner-screws.

The supplied Arbiter stand had an ingenious fitting mechanism; it can only be described as an off-centre rotating clutch with a camber. As you rotate the drum, it changes the angle of the drum. Strangely enough the system works really well!


Ivor Arbiter has certainly succeeded in getting the drum world talking about his new innovation. So much so that Billy Cobham has been corresponding with the company and is evidently very anxious to get hold of a kit. It's a bit premature comment on stress and strain in the shells but, as mentioned earlier, Carl Palmer had a snare drum for a week and played it constantly. He claims to have given the drum six months wear and tear in a week and subjected it to the sort of hard tension normally only pipe band drummers use. Most people would find it impossible to play on a drum tuned this tightly! Before each practice session he took the batter head off and then put it back together again just to make it more difficult. The Auto-Tune drum evidently came through with flying colours. Personally, my heart was in my mouth when I was tensioning any of the drums, but the manufacturers say there should be no problems if you obey all of their rules. The drums must always be tensioned in a downward direction for reasons now obvious to me.

I would like to have heard the drums with C.S. heads on them and I think it would make a lot of difference overall. I can't understand why the heads weren't fitted in the first place, especially since they have a more modern sound than the Ambassadors. It also occurs to me that the Auto-tuning system would be the perfect vehicle for an all metal drum set — certainly as far as the snare drum is concerned.

It's very difficult to criticise such a new development since there are no real guide lines, but the Auto-Tune drum set is not a gimmick. It is probably the most logical development in percussion since the plastic head and possibly since the rope-tension tuning system.

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Roland SH3A Synthesiser

International Musician & Recording World - Copyright: Cover Publications Ltd, Northern & Shell Ltd.


International Musician - Dec 1975

Donated & scanned by: Mike Gorman

Gear in this article:

Drums (Acoustic) > Arbiter > Auto-Tune

Review by Bob Henrit

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