I have been building frame drums for shamanic drumming since 1989 and I have learned a few tips for how to buy the best frame drum. There are three things to look at when buying a frame or hoop drum: tension, balance and whole attention. Here are examples of each from my newest drum.
A visibly even tension is perhaps the most important factor to consider. Deer hide is like fabric--it has a bias. The skin from the sides of the animal is thinner and more stretchy than the skin along the backbone. This means that if the hide is stretched the same amount over the hoop, the hoop will bow or warp when the skin dries because the different amounts of tension in the skin were not taken into account.
The first thing I want to do when a new drum is dry is this--to look across the drum's face and see a flat playing surface. In an odd way that is good advice for much of life, to obtain an even result sometimes one must at first be intentionally uneven.
Balance is the second critical factor. When the back of the drum is uneven in its construction, it is likely that the voice of the drum will also be uneven. By this I mean the drum's playing surface will have dead spots and areas of reduced harmonics.
This tying technique, which results in a flower-like pattern, is a Passamaquoddy design I learned when I made my first drums while living in Nova Scotia. It is easy to see that the entire drum is balanced if the flower petals are equal in size and shape.
The third factor I call whole attention. Every part of the drum, and every part between the part, is whole. Every part deserves the same level of attention.
When the knot work the wraps the hand hold in the back of the drum is even in tension and well balanced in the thickness of the doeskin thong used, then the finished result will be firm and durable.
Of course the best indicator of a good frame drum for shamanic drumming is the sound of the drum. The voice should be layered with a good range of overtones and bass tones. The drone of the drum voice is the tone that continues after each strike with the beater. This tone is called "the good horse" and its continuous sound is used to propel the drummer into the spirit world on a shamanic journey. The "finish" of the voice should be long and even so that a drone continues from one strike of the drumstick to the next. If the voice "falls off" between strikes, creating a brief pause between beats, then the skin is too thick or the stretch is too tight.
The drum being played was made as a celebration of Death. You can purchase this drum in my Etsy webstore.