How do I simulate a timpani without buying one?
September 20, 2016 10:54 PM   Subscribe

For home recording, I want a big booming timpani sound — but I can't afford one nor do I have extra space for one. What is a good alternative?

One thing I've been doing is hitting a tambourine with a mallet and then using a pitch shifter to sound more like a timpani, but it's a little too fiddly and not quite right.

Short of buying a $1500 timpani, are there other drums with a sound that deep and resonant but are much smaller (I live in a one-bedroom apartment in the city) — thanks!
posted by critzer to Media & Arts (16 answers total)
Um. How often do you need a timpani sound? How much control do you need over the way it's played? Because has your back, if you are okay with someone else whacking a real timpani for you and sampling it.

But maybe you need to record it yourself. If I were in your shoes, I would hit up my local community orchestra and ask 'em if I could sample their timpani.

But maybe you really need to play a big, resonant, boomy sound at a mic in your apartment. Ooookay... and you don't want a timpani. Do you want to buy a drum, or make one? Because you could replace your tambourine with a bodhran, which would be basically the same thing but bigger and boomier and having no annoying cymbals. But simulating a kettle drum with a frame drum is never going to be really satisfying, I think.
posted by BrunoLatourFanclub at 11:26 PM on September 20, 2016 [3 favorites]

As a practical matter, you can buy or download much better samples than you could ever record yourself.
posted by rhizome at 11:38 PM on September 20, 2016 [3 favorites]

I agree that you can buy far better samples than you are likely to record. Logic is said to include some timpani sounds, and other DAWs that include sample packs may as well. Otherwise, look at symphony-oriented samples packs.

If you still want to record your own sounds, a large frame drum may get closer to the timpani sound that you want. You may need to layer on a custom FM bell sound to capture the shell resonance.

Finally, check with your local middle and high schools to see if they have any timpanis that you could stop by and record.
posted by b1tr0t at 11:52 PM on September 20, 2016

Maybe you want a physical-modeling drumsynth?
posted by BrunoLatourFanclub at 12:07 AM on September 21, 2016 [2 favorites]

I am not a musician or a sound engineer, but I have been a computer programmer. In this day and age, I would be astonished if there's not some way to get really excellent timpani sounds with a drum pad and some software.

Or perhaps the drumsynth referenced above.
posted by Bruce H. at 1:57 AM on September 21, 2016

Would this do?
posted by hawthorne at 3:43 AM on September 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

If you don't want to use samples, you might consider rototoms. We used to bring them on high school band trips, because who wants to take three big timpani on a bus? The Wikipedia entry suggests that timpani students use them for practice for exactly the reasons you describe.

Of course, if they sounded as good as real timpani, no one would use real timpani. But they might be good enough.
posted by MangoNews at 4:46 AM on September 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

If you're on a Mac and can do MIDI input, Mainstage is a more affordable option to Logic, mentioned above. I use it constantly for theatre pit gigs, where I can't fit an actual live timpani, grand piano, string section, alphorn, whatever. :)
posted by jeffjon at 5:53 AM on September 21, 2016

Thanks guys, good stuff so far (and just to clarify, I play all instruments by hand and a lot of it is improvised and a little free jazz-like so electronic samples isn't what I'd be looking for)
posted by critzer at 7:31 AM on September 21, 2016

Make a packing tape drum?
posted by at at 9:39 AM on September 21, 2016

Given that it has to be a physical instrument, I suggest a large-headed frame drum or a metal-bodied zarb/tonbak (in either case, with a synthetic head not a skin head). Frame drum will have the lowest sound relative to the space it takes up. Zarb will be most resonant.
posted by kalapierson at 11:02 AM on September 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

I do a lot of improv electronic stuff; in your shoes, I'd pick a physical modeling drumsynth and a pad. But I've been doing that for decades, now, so if you are the sort of person who is not into setting up your midi drum pad to trigger your synth, then you want to make a drum. A

What we did ten years ago was we scanned the free section of Craigslist until we found an empty 55-gallon drum that didn't smell like something gross, then we bought a drumhead that fit it. Somewhere, I have the samples of the extensive angle-grinder work that we did on it. You could try the same, but in your apartment-dwelling shoes I'd go for the sixteen-gallon model.
posted by BrunoLatourFanclub at 12:15 PM on September 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

Ahh, a resonant 16 gallon drum with a drum head might actually do the trick - thanks!
posted by critzer at 12:33 PM on September 21, 2016

Regarding the Rototoms mentioned above, most Rototoms are sold in racks of two or three with small heads, but they also make a single large-head Rototom, which has a nice "bwow" to it from what I've heard. They are kinda expensive and hard to find, but not as expensive or maybe as nice as a real Timpani. I myself would be kinda tempted to get one if I could find one for a decent price.
posted by ovvl at 5:10 PM on September 21, 2016

Have you tried a Korg Wavedrum? It is a sample based drum synth with a real drum head. It looks like any version will include the Timpani patch. The only downside is that it doesn't have MIDI out, but the upside is that the internal sensors probably work with more than 7 bits of MIDI resolution as a result.
posted by b1tr0t at 7:38 PM on September 21, 2016

Yeah, the Wavedrum! Costs a hell of a lot more than a 16 gallon drum and a drum head, but rather more versatile. I don't think critzer is worried about MIDI connectivity. :)

Um, er, it seems that Korg released a "Wavedrum Mini" while I was paying attention to being a dad instead of paying attention to gear. Probably available on the used market for not much more than an empty drum and a drum head and the associated hardware.

One of the real advantages of a true tympani is how easy it is to tune with the foot pedal. So one hack you may consider is to have some kind of pressure on the head to tune it. I mean, you do have to figure out some way to affix the head to the metal drum. I did it with a bike rim and a bunch of c-clamps. That held the head on, and I could laboriously tune the thing the same way I would tune a snare head.
posted by BrunoLatourFanclub at 9:58 PM on September 21, 2016

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