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Vintage Views: Pearl Vari-Pitch

Pearl Vari-Pitch

Vintage View: Pearl Vari-Pitch

This month''s set isn''t so much a classic, it''s more of a `rare bird'' and therefore I think, highly-collectible. Vari-Pitch was the brainchild of an American drummer called Randy May who some years later was responsible for the MAY EA in-built miking system and various attachments for the lucrative marching drum market. He managed to persuade Pearl to produce something a lot of other players had been thinking about: regular drums fitted with RotoToms.

In the early to mid-seventies there was a great deal of interest in Remo''s RotoToms; firstly because they were reasonably cheap, secondly because they were highly portable, and thirdly because they looked groovy. But, unfortunately they weren''t particularly successful as add-ons within the set itself; they didn''t project too well and being shell-less, tended to clatter; although as tuned percussion instruments they were fine on their own. Having said all that, Bill Bruford and Terry Bozzio both incorporated them to great effect in their regular sets for many years. 

Vari-Pitch weren''t introduced to give gimmicky swooping effects by changing pitch as you hit them like pedal timps. The beauty of them was that you would have the instant tuning facility of `Rotos'', but with the projection and extra tone afforded by an actual shell. Randy May initially wanted Pearl to come up with some sort of universal fitment enabling them to work with any drum, but Pearl in their wisdom put them together with specially-produced shells and launched them in America in June 1978.

Pearl used their celebrated synthetic Phenolic shells, known to them as President, for the hybrid sets. Phenolic is a chemical-based substance similar to Bakelite, which Pearl were no strangers to because they''d already used it for some `domestic'' sets. They hand-wrapped the stuff in layers around a former to construct very smooth and vibrant shells. The material was also used as a shell material by Drum Workshop for their very early drums.

Phenolic is not quite the same as Remo''s `Acousticon'' which has wood-fibres suspended in its resin, but is nonetheless a particularly hard and resonant substance. Phenolic wasn''t as difficult, labour-intensive or even as dangerous to work with as Pearl''s other synthetic drum-shell material of choice: fiberglass. Incidentally the reason Pearl no longer make drums incorporating fiberglass is because, either they''re not allowed to by Japanese law, or they simply can''t find anyone to work with it because of its alleged carcinogenic properties.

However, going back to the Vari-Pitch drums, a cross-shaped, pressed steel frame was attached to four places inside each drum and in its middle had a tapped bush to accommodate the central thread of the regular Remo RotoTom. From the tuning standpoint this thread couldn''t be allowed to rotate freely, so once set was held fast via a flat steel locking arm with a hole in it to locate a stick pushed through the gap between the RotoTom''s rings. It sounds a bit Heath Robinson, but it worked!

They could even back it up with science

The RotoTom itself was invented in 1968 by Al Payson, the percussionist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, who put a couple of different sized cast rings together with a triple-flange hoop joined by a central thread and a handful of tension screws and that was that. One simply rotated the lower ring which screwed up or down the central thread, either moving towards or away from the top ring which sat on top of the thread, so tightening or loosening the head tension. The principle of a central-screw-tuning system was not new, it had been around before on cheap metal bongos, but the difference was Remo''s worked perfectly. RotoToms come in diameters from 6 to 18" and are capable of being tuned over considerably more than an octave if fitted with a thin timpani-type head; thus making them a definite pitched percussion instrument. Vari-Pitch toms though were fitted with Remo `CS'' heads as standard to get a thicker, more drummy sound, while the snare had an Ambassador to give it some crackle.

Vari-Pitch were (and no doubt still are) excellent for recording where instant changes in tuning to optimum pitch are important. Their advantage was the engineer and producer could listen as the player changed the pitch and tell him when it sounded best to them THROUGH the microphone. I always felt the mounted tom shells were a little too deep (although Pearl claimed standard shells didn''t add enough depth to the roto''s sound) but with the dimensions they finally happened upon, they accidentally came up with their first `power'' toms. The Remo company itself eventually made considerably shallower clip-on half and full shell acrylic `Reflectors'' for RotoToms in nineteen seventy something, to give them more projection, though I don''t believe they were seriously meant to compete with Vari-Pitch.

Inside detail

Pearl furnished the kit with their new, improved `900'' fixtures and fittings which had only just come onto the market. The bass drum had the company''s latest adjustable spurs which swiveled out towards the front and `parked'' in the rear position; but also, because for obvious reasons it didn''t need to be fitted with a RotoTom, it had the regular bunch of twenty of those wedge-shaped nut boxes, pressed steel claws, `T-handled'' tuners as well as synthetic, plastic-inlaid hoops.

Vari-Pitch came out at more or less the same time as Pearl''s tubular and cast tom holders which were a hell of an improvement on the old hexagonal ones they''d had based on Rogers old `Swiv-o-Matics''. Incorporated within their cast knuckle-joint they had a friction clutch which locked via a single drum-key-operated screw and unfortunately sometimes broke or stripped before it was eventually improved.  Of course the tubes mated with cast receiver blocks fitted to the bass and toms, and these were also the first Pearls to boast memory clamps called `Lock Stops''.

The snare drum was fitted with a `Roto'' too, but being double-headed needed the usual ten nutboxes to tune the snare head. I thought at the time that it would have been useful to fit a RotoTom to the snare side too for ease of tuning, but this would have been very complicated because, to allow it to move freely, Pearl would have needed to produce a new stand which gripped the SHELL, not the bottom rim.

Aside from the usual adjustable cross-member to retain the RotoTom, there was a triple-flange bottom hoop with slots for the metal snares attached via plastic strips to Pearl''s cast adjustable throw-off which released away from the drum like Gretsch''s `Lightning''. They actually fitted an under-head operating damper to the snare which, so it didn''t foul the radial struts as it turned, was sensibly mounted to the lower ring.

Vari-Pitch drum sets had a regular 22 x 14 phenolic bass drum, while the 12, 14 and 16" Cannon toms, all with 10." shells, were fitted with black coated rotos 2" smaller than their own diameters. There were three different 14" snares: 5" and 6" deep fitted with 14" rotos, and my favourite which was 5" deep with a 12" version. You could also buy add-on Vari-Pitch toms for your existing set because Pearl marketed two pairs of them complete with stands with 10 and 12", and 14 and 16" shell diameters.

I preferred the sounds of these drums when the heads were tuned slightly higher than usual. For some reason they were too deep and thumpy when tuned at medium pitch. The RotoTom principle should have suited the snare drum down to the ground, but unfortunately the sympathetic snare head tension depends a great deal on the pitch of the batter head. You can''t really drastically tune one without changing the other.

Initially Pearl did very few colours, the most popular being Green Flash (a British Racing Green), but they also produced an Orange Flash too. Eventually a chrome finish came along and I''m pretty sure black and white joined it a little later.

Pearl''s Vari-Pitch instruments were actually quite successful for a short time in the late seventies. Mainly because their concept was blindingly simple, they looked pretty damn funky, and they had a very strong fundamental which gave
them a particularly musical tone.

In 1979 they went for £730 but there was an anomaly. Vari-Pitch drums were built in both Japan and America, the only difference being that the Nashville-built versions had inverted plastic `U-shaped'' channel fitted to the raw edge at the top of the shell. This protected it from the ravages of the RotoTom, or more specifically the ends of its square-headed fine-tuning screws. I haven''t seen any Vari-Pitch advertised for sale for years so have no guide-lines as to price. But, I''d guess you should be able to find some at considerably less than that.

Bob Henrit

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