The Rototom is a drum developed by Al Payson, Robert Grass, and Michael Colgrass, that has no shell and is tuned by rotating. A rototom consists of a single head in a die-cast zinc or aluminum frame. Unlike most other drums, this type has a variable definite pitch. Composers are known to write for them as tuned instruments, demanding specific pitches. Rototoms are often used to extend the tom range of a standard drum kit. They were commercialized by the drumhead company Remo Inc., of North Hollywood, California.
Drums and drumheads
Remo currently markets Rototoms in seven sizes — 6" (15.2cm), 8" (20.3cm), 10" (25.4cm), 12" (30.5cm), 14" (35.6cm), 16" (40.6cm) and 18" (45.7cm) diameters, each tunable over an octave's range or more, although the company notes that “the practical range for fullness of sound is approximately a sixth interval.” Each size can produce various effects, depending upon the drum head and its tuning.
Rototoms are furnished with "Controlled Sound" Black Dot drumheads as standard, where the reinforced black central sound area is said to provide ”compactness of sound with minimum ‘overring’ plus great durability.” Other heads, each of which may offer distinctive tonal differences, are also available, including Pinstripe, which offers “a dampened tom-tom sound — wet, flat and funky”, FiberSkyn, which produces “a round, dark tom-tom sound...especially suited for recording use and in tuned tom-toms for general orchestral use, and Timpani, intended for “purity of sound and consistent performance.”
Rototoms can be tuned quickly by rotating the drumhead, which sits in a threaded metal ring. Rotation raises or lowers the tension hoop relative to the rim, which increases or decreases the pitch of the drum by increasing or decreasing the tension of the drumhead.
Rototoms can replace more specialized drums and, when equipped with timpani drumheads, replicate the timpani's range and timbre but with a distinctive tone. Jazz, rock and studio performers use Rototoms both as a solo voice and as conventional tom-toms; they can be rapidly tuned to produce glissando effects and can be arrayed for a virtual percussion keyboard. For concert and marching band programs, Rototoms combine rapid tuning with portability and sound quality, working both as concert tom-toms and as practice timpani. For stage bands and jazz ensembles, drum kits are fitted out with batter heads. When tuned to the mid-range, they have an indefinite pitch with fewer harmonic overtones than conventional tom-toms; tuned to the high range, they produce a latin percussion sound instead.
Rototoms can assist students in ear training and in developing their timpani techniques and — because of their portability, storability and relatively low cost — are often used by professional performers as practice instruments. They are also used as definite-pitched instruments in elementary music programs, such as Orff Schulwerk, where their sound quality, pitch stability and rapid tuning are assets.
Published percussion solo and ensemble literature calling for ”tuned drums” or “small tom-toms” may be appropriately performed on Rototoms, and some composers, such as William Kraft and Michael Colgrass, have written works specifically for Rototoms.
Drummers who used rototoms include Bill Bruford (of Yes, King Crimson and U.K.) and Terry Bozzio (of Frank Zappa's band and the U.K. band). Duran Duran's drummer Roger Taylor used rototoms extensively on their self-titled 1981 debut album Duran Duran. Roger Taylor of Queen has used rototoms since the early 1970s, most recently in the cover of "Let There Be Drums" on the live album Return of the Champions. Bev Bevan of Electric Light Orchestra used rototom, most notably on the albums Discovery (1979) and Secret Messages (1983). Nick Mason of Pink Floyd used rototoms to record the distinctive introduction to "Time", from the 1973 album The Dark Side of the Moon. The intro to Curtis Mayfield's "Pusherman", heard on the Superfly soundtrack, makes prominent use of the drum's pitch-sliding feature. Phil Collins used rototoms early in his career. Taylor Hawkins of the Foo Fighters includes several rototoms in his drum kit. Alex Van Halen of Van Halen used rototoms extensively on the album 1984. Composer Sir Michael Tippett used a total of 38 rototoms - tuned chromatically, spanning across 3 octaves - in his last large-scale orchestral work, The Rose Lake, based on a lake he spotted suddenly transforming from light green to translucent pink while on holiday in Senegal.
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- Emil Richards (studio percussionist)
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- Chad Smith of Red Hot Chili Peppers
- Jürgen Rosenthal of Eloy
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