I have gotten lots of questions from people who want to build their own tubulums or PVC instruments
and I’m sick and tired of having to answer you all individually! D:< (jk) so I have created this FAQ to give you easy access to my best possible and most detailed answers to your most common questions!
Of course, if you don’t see your question answered here, leave a comment below (read the comments too, they’re interesting) or send me a message on my facebook or YouTube and I will get right back to you!
I absolutely support and encourage you building your own tubular percussion instruments! If and when you finish your PVC project, send me links because I want to see them! 😀
1. How do you make your tubulum heads/reeds?
First, just a matter of naming, I call them heads. This is because, although they do kind of look like organ reeds, they actually function more like drum heads because they are struck directly to agitate the air inside the open tube. What you call them is up to you, but I’ll call them heads from here on.
My heads are made from a solid piece of PVC pipe, mitered at an angle on one end, with a foam-duct tape sandwich acting as the striking surface. As far as the exact angle of the cut is concerned, I chose a measurement and just rolled with it. For your project, depending on how tall it is going to be, how tall you are, etc. I would encourage you to experiment with different angles of miter to see what works best for you! How does that work? We’ll get to that in a moment.
To build a head, you first need a means of cutting them at your predetermined angle. If you have a chop saw that can clear your pipe, congratulations! If you don’t (which I didn’t) you will need to build a custom miter box to accommodate your pipe and cut at the angle you need. Miter boxes can be made out of plywood, and there are plenty of tutorials online on how to make them from scratch! Find one, follow the directions, and voila! Miter box! The one difference between most boxes and the one you will build though, is that while they will have standard 90 and 45 degree angles, yours will have your custom angle, going straight through the center, so everything remains aligned. The objective is to be able to place your head halfway into the box, and cut your angle so that it goes through the very middle of your pipe, as will be explained in a bit.
Once you have your miter box complete, you can start cutting heads.
*CAUTION Any PVC cutting should be done in a well-ventilated area using proper eye and breathing protection. If you are a minor, always have parental supervision while cutting. Most importantly, do not cut your fingers off. Can’t say I didn’t warn you.*
There are two things to keep in mind while cutting your angle. First, only cut halfway through the diameter of the pipe; with the playing surface covered (the angled part) there should be a perfect semicircle of open pipe. This is needed to achieve a decent sound. Second, make sure the pipe does not move while you are cutting. If it does, the head will not be level and it will be more difficult to seat the duct tape.
Finally, seating the duct tape. My heads are made with two layers of duct tape (white on the outside, for style) with a layer of floor underlay material between them. You can use any thin, closed cell foam material you can find. Make the outer layer of duct tape long enough to wrap around the head, and the inner layer long enough to hold the foam, but short enough that it won’t get in the way of the adhesion of the tape to the head.
And you have built your very own tubulum head! Congratulations!
The duct tape and foam head is a relatively inexpensive solution, though it is possible to use just about any airtight, elastic material to cover the playing surface. The best materials will be soft, but rigid enough to efficiently transfer energy from your drumstick into the tube.
2. What diameter pipe do you use?
My tubulum is made with 4-inch diameter drainage grade PVC. Theoretically, a thicker pipe will preserve the pressure wave more efficiently, but any form of tube works for a tubular percussion instrument.
It is possible to make part (or most) of your tubulum out of flexible 4″ PVC. I haven’t tried, personally, and I’m not sure what the differences are in sound produced. It has however been done successfully before and is a viable alternative! The only advice I can give you is to make sure you don’t buy the perforated variety! 😉
*Also, to the best of my knowledge, having more or fewer bends in your pipe will not affect the sound in any way.
3. How much did that thing cost to build?
I have no idea. Really, I don’t.
The best estimate I can give you is based on the most expensive part; the PVC. Specifically the elbows. So if you would like to know approximately how much the majority of a Monster Tubulum cost to build, go to your local hardware store and price out 82 45° elbows, 35 90° elbows and 8-10 lengths of PVC.
The best ways to lower that cost would be to use flexible PVC, use fewer elbows, or plan to build fewer notes (or higher notes). It all depends on what kind of monster you want to build!
4. Where did you get your plans?
TL;DR: I made them.
I did search for information on how to build a tubulum, and there
are were at that time a few DIY tubulum instructions out there, but beyond the general concept, I didn’t end up using any large part of them. It wasn’t the easiest way to do it, but the entire design is basically a collection of solutions to potential problems, and figuring out what the dimensions needed to be.
One of the things I encountered during the design was the mystery of how long it was going to be. I actually didn’t know how much space the tangle of tubes would take up. So I left that measurement out until the end, disassembled everything, cut it to size, added wheels and the final deck, and reassembled.
Another design difficulty was the exact routing of the tubes. I had very little concept of what it was going to look like before I started building. The process of routing the tubes alone took months. If you are planning on building a tubulum using hard elbows and want to route them in an enclosed space, the only way I have found so far to plan ahead is to map them in a 3D design program. But, if you (like me) aren’t a computer aided design wiz, then it will be pretty hard.
My best advice on building an instrument is to first take into account your most important measurements, such as the height at which you want to play it, what the dimensions of your playing surface will be, and (possibly most importantly) how you will fit it through a door if you need to. Next is your choice of materials. Wood is accessible to me, but if there is another material that would work (and if you are or know a welder) go for it!
5. What is going on with your note layout?!
The way the pipes are set up doesn’t really lend itself to any conventional note setup. Also, it is greatly affected by the way the instrument is played.
So, taking this into consideration, I created a layout that allowed me to play the things I knew how to play at the time most effectively. This also happened to be the same way the note layouts on the first BMG PVC instruments were determined.
If nothing else, it’s unconventional, and I encourage yours to be unconventional as well!
P.S. … Unless you know music theory. As I have learned more about music, the more this layout just feels weird. So if you are familiar with music, take that into consideration. If not, just have fun with it! 🙂
6. How is it tuned?
The tubulum acts on the property of a hollow cylinder of a given diameter that is open at both ends producing a wavelength as described by an equation I didn’t really understand in a physics class I took several years ago. Actually, I kind of wish that article existed back then; that makes so much sense now…
I’ll see if I can explain it here:
The formula goes like this: f=nv/2l
f is the frequency you want to get (frequencies of musical notes), n is the node you are calculating for (which will always be 1 in this case), v is the speed of sound in meters per second (about 343.2), and l is the length of the tube (in meters!).
So, to write it out, it looks like this: Frequency = the speed of sound / 2(length).
For our purposes, we need to solve for length (l), so we rearrange the formula like this:
l = v/2f (we can drop the n because it will always be 1 anyway)
So now all you need to do is drop in your values for v and f, and you have a formula that gives you a more or less accurate length! (hope this helps!)
You can use that formula to more or less determine how long your tube needs to be to achieve a given note. The catch, however, is that it is very difficult to calculate the incorporation of elbows into this formula. I tried. There were spreadsheets. … So many spreadsheets. Essentially, you can use that formula to get close, but the more elbows you plan on having in your instrument, the less useful it will be.
The method I used, and the method I would recommend is to buy one or two sacrificial lengths of PVC to act as a “test tube.” Using that, and a tuner, you can begin to get a basic idea of what length produces which note at your elevation and air temperature. This also gives you an opportunity to work out your head design!
The tuning of a PVC pipe is mostly like the tuning of an organ pipe, or a flute, or a trombone, or a garden hose (yes, I have seen someone play a garden hose). Basically, the longer it gets as an uninterrupted more-or-less hollow cylinder, the lower the note will be. In my experience, the longer it gets, the more the length needs to change in order to move the frequency a whole tone!
7. What happens when you blow air into it?
This. … It’s not incredibly effective, at least in its current configuration.
8. Have you tried playing with mallets?
As you would expect, mallets soften the attack of the note, but as I demonstrate in the last phrase of the video, they aren’t very good for playing quickly 😛
You are now a tubulum expert.
P.S. read through the comments for answers to things by people, some of whom are me!
P.P.S. Also, if you build a tubular percussion instrument, send me links! I want to see them! 🙂