As Bill mentioned in a previous post the new line of NSL (Not So Loud) percussion instruments from the Remo drum company are interesting and provide another possible tool for music therapists. A minor point that I feel is being overlooked is the fact that percussionists have been exploring ways to control volume for decades often with much success and little expense.

Anyone who knows a percussionist knows they are a picky and obsessive group. A percussionist will spend hours tinkering and tweaking something as “simple” as a tambourine jingle searching for just the right sound. Often times these experiments pay dividends in new and creative uses for our instrument family. One of the more recent developments (about 30 years ago) was the use of vinyl (Napa) material on drum heads. The most widespread use of this material is found throughout Brazil in pagode ensemble settings. The pagode music is played in intimate settings where the entire crowd participates in the music making. The large bateria drums such as surdos and repiniques were way too loud for this setting so modifications were made so that the drums would be “not so loud”. The tan tan drum played the role of the surdo (bass drum) but was now fitted with one single napa head for a mellow bass drum sound that would not blow the doors off of the cafe.

Fast forward to today where the use of quiet percussion and modified percussion is par for the course in music therapy and education settings. So what are some ways we can modify some of our stock percussion instruments to make them not so loud?

1. Muffling: An old snare drum trick from the 1950’s and 60’s was the old wallet on the snare drum. If the band leader was commenting on the ringing snare drum the drummer would simply pull his wallet and rest it on the drum head. Muffling has become more refined with the invention of devices such as moon gel and pre-fitted pads that are manufactured to fit a specific drum.

16″ floor tom with Vinyl head

2. Modified head materials: This is currently one of my favorite methods taken directly from Brazilian drumming traditions. This technique works extremely well with any drum with head changing hardware (lugs). You simply buy a measure of vinyl about 4 inches larger than the drum head. I get huge sheets from JoAnn fabrics in any color you like so I have some on hand when I might need it. You remove the drum tuning screws, and remove the rim. Place the measure of vinyl over the head mounted on the drum and replace the rim and screws. Pull gently on the fabric so it becomes taught and tighten down the screws. Voila, you now have a hand drum, djembe, tom tom, conga, tubano, etc…that has a low fundamental and very few overtones. Your drum is now “not so loud”. This technique works surprisingly well on drum set. It will completely change the sound of the kit, however, I find the sound complex and interesting.

Lug tuned djembe with Vinyl head

3.  A drum hat:  Many craftspeople are making what some refer to as drum hats.  This is a tool that hand drummers use when storing or transporting their instruments.  This device is usually made of cloth and elastic.  This “hat” is simply stretched over the drum head to prevent damage.  Another way to use this tool is to play on the drum while the hat is in place.  Your drum will be extremely quiet and have no high overtones.  Drum hats are inexpensive and available for just about every size hand drum available.

The tambourine question…
Can one control the volume of a tambourine? I say yes! The tambourine is a wonderful tool but can easily get out of hand in a group. There are some modifications that can be made to take control of a tambourine. Again I use many ideas from the Brazilian drumming traditions of their tambourine called the pandeiro. More on that later I promise.

Brazilian pandeiro with jingle mufflers. Tape is used on the underside of the head to lower the pitch and control overtones.

Recycle and reuse. When a drum head breaks many people throw the used head in the trash. I use discarded heads tocreate tambourine jingle mufflers. Take a standard milk cap and trace it as many times as you like on an old head. Cut out all of the little circles. Drill a small hole in the middle of each disk and cut a slit going to one edge. You now have a tool that you can slip on or off the tambourine as you need. I find putting one disk between the jingles cuts the volume by at least 50% and the sound quality remains rather good.

A set of 6 tambourine jingle mufflers

If you have one of those tambourines with a removable head you can also try the vinyl method here.  You can find a tambourine like the one pictured at the end of the article for about $20 at most local drum shops.  I really like this technique since it allows for an extremely low pitched and quiet tambourine with the ability to bend pitch with extended techniques.

Tambourine with vinyl head and muffled jingles

As you can see this is really just the tip of the iceberg. What are some successful modifications you have done to your percussion instruments?