So, What About the Drum Dial / Tension Watch?

There's a lot controversy surrounding the Drum Dial or Tama Tension Watch. Maybe not controversy, really, but the opinion sure seem to be polarized. I've written quite a bit about these devices in my many posts to the internet newsgroup So, I decided to dig them all up and edit together a little Drum Dial FAQ, if you will. The two most asked questions are at the top, with some general info to follow...  


I own both, have used both extensively. Recently I have done some tests with both and have found the DrumDial to be a better instrument. Even though the Tension Watch seems to be a little more sensitive, I have found the DrumDial to be more user friendly. Couple that with the lower price of the Drum Dial and it's a no-brainer recommendation. (more details below)

In a word, YES.
Please read the rest of this info to find out if it's right for you. If you are already an expert tuner, you've never had any trouble getting your drums to sound great, you can tune up a set of drums or change out a new set of heads in no time flat, using just your ears and a drum key, then don't bother with the DrumDial. You don't need it-- it will probably sit on the shelf in your practice room.

If you fall anywhere outside of the above description, at the very least you may find the DrumDial to be a very useful, helpful tool to aid you in the tuning process. At the most, you may find that DrumDial will help you go from a totally clueless cardboard-box-sounding-drum player to skilled tuner playing drums that have a wonderful, resonant tone, with defined pitch and full sustain. Of course, a tool without knowledge will be about as useful as jigsaw puzzle without the box top. :-)

To help you learn the process and techniques of tuning drums, you can visit my drum tuning pages.

The DrumDail is actually a device known as a Dial Indicator which actually measures distance. In this case, the manufacturers have attached it to round aluminum block base. A dial indicator measures distance in extremely fine increments. The marks on the dial are indicating Ten Thousandths of an inch (correct me if I'm wrong on that, you engineers out there).

The reason the DrumDial works in giving a measurement of tension (ambiguous, but useful for the application), is because of the spring used in a dial indicator to push the needle out of the dial housing. It was never designed nor intended to be used to measure anything with "give" to it, like a drum head. The spring has enough strength to push against the pressure of the drum head, enough for the needle to move the drum head away from the surface of the aluminum base. It doesn't have enough strength to push a hard material like glass or metal away from the base. The dial scale is indicating is the distance of the drum head from the surface of the aluminum base, not the tension. Since increasing the tension of the drum head decreases the amount of pressure countering the needle spring, the distance decreases and is reflected in the reading on the dial scale.

So, in a conveniently indirect way, it is measuring the tension of the drum head. The resulting measurements are ambiguous and unscientific, but extremely accurate and reliable for us for our purpose.

The Tension Watch and the Drum Dial both use different dial indicators, which employ springs of different strengths. When placed on glass or metal, they will both give the same reading or zero, because they have been mounted in the aluminum base so that the dial reads "0" when the tip of the needle is even with the bottom of the base. When placed of a drum head, however, they will have different readings because of the different strengths of the springs.

A quick comparison of mine shows the drum dial reading units higher than the Tension Watch. I have found that the Drum Dial is much more sensitive, probably due to having a weaker spring? I don't know, I just know it shows smaller increments in pressure than the Tension Watch, which makes it more accurate.

In a word, distance. The DrumDial measures 1/10th of an inch for every revolution of the needle. So each small line on the dial indicates 1/1000th of an inch. The Tama Tension Watch is metric and measures 1 millimeter for every revolution of the needle. So each small line on the dial indicates 1/100th of a millimeter, or 4 10,000ths of an inch. This means that if both the Tension Watch and DrumDial were to measure the same movement of distance, the dial readout needle on the Tension Watch would move 2-1/2 times as far as the DrumDial. Or, the Tension Watch would move 2-1/2 small marks for every 1 small mark on the DrumDial.

This is confirmed when I measure the same turn of a drum key with each device. This tells us that the Tension Watch is more sensitive, so it must ne better, right? Not necessarily-- more on that later!

But what good does a measurement of distance do for us?
I suppose we could pretend the numbers are "tension units." :-)

I almost wish they didn't even have numbers on there. And I'm glad the scale can be rotated around to change the position of the numbers. Sometimes, I'll just rotate it to get a more convenient number to read. It could be tiny pictures of zoo animals, for all I care.
I like my toms right between the White-Handed Gibbon and the Yellow Spotted Amazon River Turtle. :-)

The numbers are completely ambiguous to us but they make nice reference points for those who want to log their results, to quickly attain "repeatable" results with the next set of heads.
"Zeroing" the DrumDial on glass or marble is only important for this purpose.


NO. Not the way I see it... let me explain.

The Drum Dial is better because the Tension Watch is too sensitive.
I've noticed it takes me longer to get a head in tune with itself using the Tension Watch. It dawned on me that the reason for this is that I'm trying to match readings on each lug that are unnecessarily too fine. The Drum Dial gets each lug in tune with another at a much more course dial reading.
If one quarter turn of the drum key is more than enough to move a lug through a range of below pitch to above pitch, then the fact that the Tension Watch needle reading moves 2.5 times as far as the Drum Dial reading makes it completely unnecessary. No one needs to be trying to get equity in tension between 6 or 8 lugs, down to the 1/10th of a turn of the drum key.
(I'll try to explain this better in the future-- maybe with some illustrations.)




I'm right in line with all the skeptics who claim that we need to develop better ears for tuning. No one has ever claimed that the drum dial is a replacement for good ears. But I firmly contend that it is the best tool in helping newbies quickly develop good ears for tuning drums, along with learning the entire process.

The drum dial critics seem to think that people are using it with ear plugs on. :-)

Very often, when a beginner is trying to tune a drum, all he/she will hear is overtones and sustain and it's very hard to hear the actual note at each lug. It's very tough to train your ear to hear through all that, and filter out the note that is being produced. The drum dial speeds up that process of training your ear. I find the drum dial an invaluable tool in teaching how to tune drums. For young student who can't hear these subtle differences in tone around the head, having a visual reference to show them, greatly shrinks the learning curve.

Users of the drum dial are not somehow cheating or missing out on gaining the skills and trained ears required for tuning. The drum dial is a very helpful tool to "aid" in the tuning and learning process. It's not a replacement for feel and ears.


When one first uses a drum dial, the tendency is to get anal about it and you can go berserk trying to get the same exact reading on every square inch around the perimeter of the head. Not only is that completely unnecessary, it's not really the intended use of the tool. Besides, once you hit the drum, all the tensions change anyway, because the head is stretching, the tension rods are settling, etc. The goal isn't really to get each lug perfectly at the same exact tension.

It just so happens that the head vibrates most freely when it's at the same tension, everywhere. That's how you get a pure, clean tone that resonates well. But most drums/heads will achieve this long (relative term) before the head is actually at the exact same tension at every lug. (A fact using the drum dial helped me learn.)
The goal is to get them pretty close to each other, and that's your starting point. That's when most people set down the drum dial and turn things over to the real arbiter of tuning: your ears.
There is an acceptable range of tension proximity at which the head will start to resonate and have great sustain. This is well before "exact same." Besides, I find it is normal that the drum sounds "better," or that the sound you are going for is one in which the head is not at the same exact tension at each lug. This is the norm and not the exception.
In practice, after having tuned dozens of different kits with what probably amounts to a hundred different combinations, I have found the DrumDial to be much more accurate than it needs to be.

Getting the head to "relative tune" lighting quick, is how the thing pays for itself... for me, anyway. We're just looking to get a drum head to equal tension, very quickly. It's a tool to be used as an aid, and a mighty fine one, at that. It gets you accurate, repeatable results, very quickly..... then you fine tune the drum, using your ears as the final arbiter.

When I'm tuning with the DrumDial, I don't start with it, and I don't end with it.



Changing one lug effects the other lugs, especially the ones adjacent to and directly across. Compensating for that is just something you learn to do and you will develop the skill to do it, really without even thinking about it.

The DrumDial is not as effective on drums with die-cast hoops. This is sort of a misnomer. There is nothing magical about cast hoops that renders the DrumDial useless. It still reads the tension of the hoop with cast hoops the same as with triple flanged. Yes, the same. Cast hoops are so strong that, on certain sized hoops, you can actually have one tension rod completely loose, and still have tension in the head at that lug. The cast hoops are so strong that they can actually bridge that loose rod, and the two adjacent lugs keep tension across the middle (loose) lug. This isn't the case with every drum, but certainly with many smaller toms, where the lugs may be spaced closer together. So the DrumDial will actually read tension across the head, when the lug is loose. Of course, the tension is there, so it's not like the device is malfunctioning.