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Need help to keep my drum skin taut - Djembefola - Djembe Forum

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By Wadzi
#44399
I recently bought a Ngoma drum, with cowskin on the head. I'm trying to find ways to keep the skin taut for longer periods so that i do not have to warm it everytime before playing. Or is it normal for it to slacken everytime i put it back into the house after sometime in the sun?
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By batadunbata
#44458
Hi Wadzi,
To answer your question, no it's not normal for a skin to slacken significantly like that. But I can think of some possible explanations (which is why DrTom asked you to be more specific, and suggested a photo or two would be very helpful to diagnosing the cause), and I hope this can be solved, as that sounds terrible!
The most likely right off the bat is that it's not tuned up enough, but check my list first, in case it's not that, because it's not good to overtune a drum - that's asking for it to pop!

Keep in mind, it is normal for a drum to sound -better- when it's extra dry and crispy, like in the sun, or on a dry day. So humidity does affect the skin pitch, but it's not enough for it to sound out of tune when it returns to normal from being in the sun. Just a bit less zesty, if that makes sense.
However, if it gets very humid, like if it's raining and you're outside but under an awning or something, it could lose some pitch after a while. It would regain the pitch when it returns to normal humidity for a while, however it's not great to play a skin when it's very humid because it can stretch it out a bit, so it wouldn't regain all it's pitch (but would regain most of it).

1. If it's a new skin, and especially if it has a lot of fat content (i.e. a well-fed cow, not a skinny one) it can take a while to stay tight. A bit like how nylon strings on a classical guitar or ukulele don't stay in tune at first, and you have to tune them back up until they "settle in".

2. Depending on how the skin is held on (lug/bolt/key-tuned, rope tuned, hide/sinew tuned, peg tuned, or simply tacked on in a fixed position) there is a variable amount by which the skin can be tightened. Rope and key-tuned skins can be brought properly to pitch. But if it's held on by hide or sinew, or tacked on, it will not be possible to make it very tight, and so it will tighten and slacken with exposure to heat/dry or moist/cold conditions. This is why it is traditional to dry them by the fire, but it only lasts about 30 minutes. Also, peg-tuned skins can be tightened, but not as much as rope or lug-tuned.

3. It may simply not be tuned high enough. If it's rope or key tuned, and it stays tight out in the sun, but drops in pitch when you bring it inside, that sounds like it's simply not tight enough. It should stay tight even without the help of being "extra dry" from heat or low-humidity. For example, at average humidity of 55%, ~70 degrees. As humidity drops (below 45 especially) skins will slowly get tighter. In fact, they can even pop if you leave them in very hot dry conditions, such as in a vehicle in the sun, or even sitting in a sunny window on a hot day in a dry building.

4. If it is rope-tuned, it could be that the skin is actually too flexible, and is slipping through the rings. This could be because it's thin and spongy, or fatty. I've encountered some very thin soft skins, where it is necessary to actually glue the excess flap/foldover onto the skin just below the rim, like sealing an envelope. So the flesh ring becomes trapped inside, and the skin can't slip (don't glue the ring through, so you can free it later). Some skins are very supple, almost like a thin layer of smooth dense felt, rather than stiff. You can tell by picking at the edge of the skin. Regular skins feel hard, like plastic. If it's soft, like fabric, that could be the problem.

5. Stretchy rope. If the rope is poor quality, the combination of the sun tightening the skin, and you playing, could pull the rope just enough that when the drum goes back inside, the rope is effectively looser because it's been stretched out. This seems less likely, as it wouldn't hold a good pitch anyway, but it's quite a common money saving device, so again, seeing the drum would be helpful, and knowing it's origins/price also.

6. Humid house or region. If you're taking it into a house where people are cooking over a stove all day, or growing certain medicinal plants... ahem, there could actually be a high humidity (test with hygrometer). Also true in the pacific northwest or any other very humid location. The sun could be drying it out, and then when it's in the shade, it loses that drying assistance. That is why a lot of PNW players prefer synthetic heads over natural skins. They lose pitch too easily in that weather. But I did start a topic a while back about ideas for ways to waterproof a skin. I believe a waterproof or water resistant skin would sound better than synthetic, so that's what I would try if I had that problem.

7. And last because it's least pleasant to bring up: Sweaty hands and hard playing.
[/u ] It might sound weird, but there are people who sweat so much when they play guitar, that they have to have coated strings, or they corrode after one gig. So, it stands to reason, if someone sweats onto the skin, and plays hard, they could stretch it a bit. Wet skin stretches much more easily. And then when it dried, it would have lost some tightness.
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