How To Tune a Darbuka
Caring for and maintaining your instrument is an essential part of being a musician. When your instrument is in tune, it will sound significantly better and allow you to create a more beautiful sound. For example, have you ever heard a piano out of tune? It sounds terrible! So much so that even someone who is not a musician will quickly understand that something is wrong. A Darbuka, being a percussive instrument, allows for a little more leeway. However, it is still essential to keep your Darbuka in tune and sounding perfect.
Note that this article refers to tuning a metal Darbuka, not a ceramic Darbuka. A ceramic or clay Darbuka is tuned via an intricate roping system which usually requires an expert to do. A metal Darbuka, on the other hand, can easily be tuned by anyone. If you're interested in learning about the various types of Darbuka, read into our blog post covering a few.
Table of Contents
The Darbuka tuning process
The Darbuka tuning process
In order to tune a standard Egyptian Darbuka (like a Gawharet El Fan Darbuka), you will need a 5mm diameter Allen Key.
Before you start tuning
Before you start tuning, you will need an idea of what exactly needs doing. There are typically three problems that someone might have that would require them to tune their Darbuka:
1. The Darbuka sounds too high pitched or sharp
Problem: The Darbuka sounds sharp or high pitched. The Tek strokes have lost their ring because they are being "choked" by the tight tuning on the Darbuka. The Doum strokes are sounding flat because the skin is so tight that it can't vibrate properly.
Solution: To fix this problem, we have to tune the Darbuka to a lower pitch, by loosening the tuning bolts.
2. The Darbuka sounds too low pitched or boomy
Problem: The Tek is not ringing correctly because the skin is too loose. The Tek's pitch will resemble more of a church bell, and may even sound bassy (note that the Tek should never be producing bass sounds!). The Doum shares similar problems; it will sound very boomy and bassy, overly so. The skin is so loose that the skin will vibrate way too much when a Doum is played.
Solution: To fix this problem, we have to tune the Darbuka to a higher pitch, by tightening the tuning bolts.
3. The Darbuka sounds unstable
Problem: Instability occurs very regularly with cheap drums from Arab markets and the like. It can also happen when someone who doesn't know what they are doing has tried to tune a Darbuka. In this scenario, the Darbuka sound is unstable. The Tek is not ringing properly because the head is uneven. The Tek is also changing pitches as it rings (it should typically ring in one clear tone). The Doum may have a little bit of an unhealthy bounce to it, as the head is uneven (but this may not always be the case). It is usually much easier to spot any instability from the Tek (or Ka).
Solution: In order to fix this problem, you will first need to identify the cause of the problem:
1. Your Darbuka's head might be fitted unevenly. You can assess this yourself by looking at the distance between the head and the Body of the Darbuka.
If the gap is uneven, for example, it is larger on one side of the Darbuka than the other side, then your head has been fitted unevenly, and your first point of action is to stabilise the Darbuka skin by tightening or loosening the tuning bolts until this gap is entirely even around the entire circumference of the Darbuka.
2. If this gap is even, and your Darbuka still sounds unstable, you will have to replace the Darbuka skin. This is because the plastic molecules in the skin have set unevenly, such as because of excessive heat exposure. You can purchase a replacement skin from Amazon, a local drum store, or our website. If you need advice about Darbuka skins, look no further than our Complete Guide to Darbuka Skins.
The tuning process
Once you have identified what needs to be done, you have three tuning actions you can take. You either need to tighten, loosen, or stabilise the Darbuka skin.
To tighten or loosen the Darbuka skin
- Place your Allen Key on the first tuning bolt
- Loosen (anti-clockwise) or tighten (clockwise) by 1/4 of a turn on the first bolt
- Go around the Darbuka and loosen or tighten each bolt by 1/4 of a turn
- Keep going around the drum and repeating steps 1 to 3 until you reach a sound profile you are comfortable with (read on in this article if you need help choosing a sound profile)
To stabilise the Darbuka skin
- Identify which bolts you need to loosen, and which bolts you need to tighten to ensure an even gap between the head and the body around the entire circumference of the Darbuka (if there is a large gap, you need to tighten, if there is a small gap, you need to loosen)
- Tighten the necessary bolts and loosen the necessary bolts by as much as needed to make the gap even
- Now re-assess the tuning to see which of the three scenarios above that you are in. If it's too loose or too tight, follow the steps to adjust the tuning. If it is still unstable, you will need a new Darbuka skin
And there you have it, by following these steps, your Darbuka should be nicely in tune!
Top Tip: Tuning to the Ka
Here's a top tip when it comes to tuning a Darbuka. In our opinion, the Ka is by far the best stroke to tune to when tuning the Darbuka. The reasons for this are below:
- The Ka is played with the non-dominant hand, which means you can tune with the dominant hand while repeatedly playing Ka strokes to see how the sound changes with the tuning
- If the Ka is in tune, the Tek will be in tune. And the Doum will almost always be in tune if the Ka is in tune. The Doum usually falls into tune the easiest.
When tuning to the Ka, you hold the drum on your non-dominant leg, as if you were about to play. You then hit the Ka repeatedly to see what it sounds like. If it sounds too low, you start tightening the screws by a quarter turn around the drum until you fall into tune. If it sounds too high, you loosen. You use your dominant hand for the tuning.
Top Tip: Finding your perfect sound
It is crucial to find a sound profile you like, and you are comfortable with. It is also important to remember there is more than one way to tune a Darbuka, and that each Darbuka will have a slightly different sound profile based on its size, it's quality, it's build material, it's skin type, etc.
For example, a Sombaty Darbuka is bigger than a Standard Darbuka, so it will have more powerful Doums, and may also have more powerful Teks depending on it's tuning. If you try to get a standard Darbuka's Doum to sound as powerful as a Sombaty Darbuka, you will have to tune the Doum quite low, which will jeopardise the Tek and Ka. This is an excellent example of a reason it's essential to tune to the Ka, as mentioned above.
Typically, people have different sounds that they like. Some people prefer a slightly lower sound with a bit more of a bell to the Tek. Some people prefer a tighter tuning with more of a crispness to the Tek. If you tune slightly lower, your Tek will have a slight bell to the sound, but your Doum will be very powerful. If you tune slightly higher, your Tek will sound crisp and strong, but your Doum may suffer a little.
You should ask yourself whether you prefer a slightly higher or lower tuning, then tune your Ka to that pitch. Listening to someone else's Darbuka which is in tune will help with this.
The best of both worlds is possible when the perfect size Darbuka is created using high-quality materials by an expert craftsman. We take pride in saying that all of our Sombaty Darbuka models meet this standard as some of the best Darbukas available on the market. The Standard models, while also fantastic drums, are just slightly too small to maintain a strong Tek as well as Doum. Our Sombaty Darbuka models, on the other hand, are perfect. Check out our Sombaty collection here. To read more about our expert manufacturing process, click here.
Top Tip: Avoiding extremes in tuning
It is particularly important when tuning a Darbuka to avoid extremes, such as tuning too low or tuning too high. It will very clearly sound out of tune and may damage your Darbuka skin.
For example, if you tune a Darbuka way too tight, you will not be able to loosen those bolts very easily, as the molecules in the plastic skin have been stretched too far and have "set" in that position. As such, we wouldn't recommend tuning too tightly.
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