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The Auto-Tune Story

The announcement of the Arbiter Auto-Tune drum kit is of great interest to all drummers. It's the first mass-produced drum available with an auto-tune system that dispenses with conventional head adjustment.

Whether or not drummers accept the innovation as a major breakthrough has still to be discovered, but there is little doubt that it is an extremely important breakthrough in drum design. Here Ivor Arbiter, the drum's creator, talks about the instrument.

How did you come to invent Arbiter Auto-Tune drums?

Having been around drummers for a very long while and having been associated with drum makes like Trixon, Ludwig, Gretsch and Rogers - I also designed Hayman drums from scratch - I felt that percussion was going forward in the area of stands, hi-hats and the metalwork generally, but I felt that in shell construction, there was very little to choose between the various makes. In many ways a drum is a drum. The heads that are being used on the majority of American drums are being supplied by one manufacturer and a lot that was said about different drum sounds was really just very personal. So I thought that the time had come for some new thinking about drums themselves, I was very interested in fibre-glass shell construction because so many of the great Latin players all believe in fibre-glass as a material - sound wise it projects beautifully. Rather than going through the laborious sticking on of pretty colours on to wooden shells, I thought it would be better to work in self-coloured fibre glass. I also have a boat that is constructed of fibreglass and that's survived a force 7 gale so I was convinced that fibre-glass is a strong material.

One evening I went home and I was having a meal and I was just thinking generally about what is new that could be done with percussion and there was a jar of pickles on the table. It occurred to me when I was closing the jar that surely the screw top idea was the way to tension the head - screwing the bottle top on. From that moment I couldn't get the thought out of my head. I thought why are we pulling down on the head when we should be screwing it down? Why don't we go around and have a screw type method?

So we set about trying to get somebody interested in making up some prototypes, using a fibre-glass shell and that was how it all began.

It must have been a problem finding the right method for the screw process?

At first thought it would seem a very simple process, but we had people like the Bournemouth School of Technology working on it and one of the biggest problems is that there are many tons of pressure exerted in this system. In the end, we came up with the most simple idea imaginable. We have one basic die-cast and one cog that fits all drums.

Can you explain precisely how the system works?

It appears to be a traditional counter-hoop. Instead of it pulling down and having holes drilled in it for tension rods, it has some flanges welded inside the hoop which meet flanges that are screwed onto the fibreglass shell and it is really any bottle top. If you look at any jar of pickles, you'll see the screw system and that's all it is. You put a ratchet on the cog, turn it around and it tensions.

What was the biggest problem you had to overcome?

When a snare drum is pulled up really tight, like the Scottish and Gaelice players like it, I think you've got four to five tons of pressure and the problem was to be able to tension the drum with a lever without going to the gym everyday to build your muscles. We also didn't want to complicate the mechanism with levers and small reduction gears. Keeping it simple was the main problem.

To what extent have you worked with drummers during the development period?

Well, during the Hayman period I worked very closely with drummers and I think I know the drummer's mentality, I think I know how they function. Over the years I've discovered they're not gimmick prone, it's pure function. The bigger the screws, the bigger the bolts, the bigger the nuts, the better. So really what I've done is tried to condense working with 20 drummers and I picked out Carl as a typical modern drummer. The fact that he's interested in the art of percussion as a whole is of extra help. He has a lot of pre-conceived ideas about how a drum should be and he's probably been the severest critic we've had. He'd like us to wait for another 12 months before we release them now, but that's where the business man in me comes out. I'm confident that what we produce in the initial stages will be perfectly adequate. Obviously as time goes by we will improve, like everything else.

Carl Palmer says that the drum is the most musical he's seen, was that in your head when you were designing the thing?

First of all we were thinking about sound. That is the first thing you learn in drums, they've got to sound as good as other drums. Fibre glass has always excited me as a medium for percussion because it's hard, the majority of good sounding drums are sprayed internally with various polyurethanes. I think the screw idea really started off as a cost saving experiment, commercially speaking. The fact that one didn't have to have all these chrome lugs - after all they're a complete waste of time, they stick out and what function were they performing? So it started off as a good sounding, cheaper to produce, modern idea. But what happened is that we found that we could get two octaves of tuning out of a drum instantly. The fact is that one could tune the bottom head easily as you sit behind the drums.

One of the things that I should have mentioned about the drum is that if it's a 13 inch drum then it's got a 14 inch shell to allow for the hoop going over, so it's got a larger volume of air in it than is usual at that size.

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


International Musician - Jul 1975

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