Autotune - An Introduction

The Autotune kit was invented by Ivor Arbiter in the early 1970s. The kits first went on sale in 1975. They incorporated a unique tuning system, where the rims of the drums screw on rather like jam-jar lids. With a single tuning lug it was possible to tension the head over the entire range in just a second or two and to replace a head and retension it in about 30 seconds, hence the name Autotune.

Autotune Drum Kit

It wasn't just the tuning system that made the drums unusual, though. The lack of lugs and the huge chrome rims gave them a unique appearence. The drum were made of fibreglass and the shells were oversized. That is, the diameter of the shell was much greater than the diameter of the skin. The effect was a little like a barrel, fatter in the middle than at the ends.

The drums are also very rigid and heavy. All of these factors contribute to the kit having a unique sound. Some people claim the Autotune was the loudest kit ever. Well, there are several other kits from history that may claim this, too. Fibre glass Staccato and North drums for example, but these are single headed. Since the Autotune comes in both single and double skinned versions I'm pretty sure the Autotune has a good chance of being one of the loudest double headed kits ever!

Here is a picture of a 12 inch Tom without its rims. The diameter of the shell is much greater then the diameter of the skin.
The Tom Tom has a twelve inch skin...
...but the shell diameter is 13 inches.
This 12 inch Tom Tom weighs in at 14 pounds (about 6.4 kilos). The 12 inch tom off my Mapex kit is just half the weight.

Every drummer should play an Autotune kit at least once in their life. You can learn more about drum tuning in 10 minutes on an Autotune than you could learn in days on a conventional kit.

It is possible to tune any head (top or bottom) whilst sitting on the drum stool and hitting the drum with the other hand. You can hear exactly what the bottom skin does to the sound as you tension it up and it is very easy to find the 'sweet spot' where the drum has maximum resonance. You can easily tune up six toms and the bass drum in less time than it takes to do one conventional tom.

The heavy, fat, fibreglass barrels are unique to the autotune and nothing has, to my knowledge, ever been produced like them.

"In the future, all drums will be made this way"
Autotune sales brochure, 1975.

Well, clearly something went wrong!

Alas, the Autotune was not the success Arbiter were hoping for, and production was ceased after just a few years.

I am not in a position to say why. My knowledge of the kit is limited to what I have learned by owning one and the little I have read. Nothing more, so this is mostly presumption on my part.

In an article in Rhythm magazine about the new AT drums, it is claimed that the Autotune drums were 'plagued by technical problems'.1 See 'Fine-tuning' for more information! It goes on to say that Ivor wrote off his investment in the project.

I suspect that it simply wasn't economically viable to manufacture fibreglass kits to a high enough standard at the price drummers were prepared to pay. My reason for thinking this is that the development of the kit seemed to centre around removing all the good bits and replacing them with cheaper components. (The engineered metal rollers with nylon blocks, the good quality Rogers cast hardware with welded up steel plate, the classic swiv-o-matic holder with an appalling bit of tube with two bent bars fastened in it, ultimately replacing the fiberglass with wood...)

I'm sure the fine tuning could have been fixed (Mounting the rollers on metal plates that could be adjusted up or down with grub screws, perhaps?) or just omitted altogether (the Autotune AT and Flats manage perfectly well without fine tuning) - but all the development seems to have been poured into cost cutting. Ultimately I suspect the last kits produced were probably getting a bit cheap and nasty - a long way from the high end professional quality the first kits were aiming for...

There was another big problem. Drummers are a conservative lot. I've seen a lot of drumming friends turn their nose up at the 'look' of the kit. It looks to weird for many tastes...

Of course, some people like weird, otherwise no one would ever have bought a Staccato! But I think the kits were simply too far from conventional drums for most drummers to cope with. Asking them to purchase not only a unique tuning system but also a strange looking kit, with a unique shell design and one made from fibreglass, was perhaps asking too much.

Autotune kits are now something of a rarity, only just very occassionally appearing at drum fairs or on eBay, and becoming very collectable.

1) Ref: Rhythm magazine. http://www.arbitergroup.com/atdrums/rhythm.html

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