Underlining the importance of drum tuning
One of the most common questions I am asked by fellow drummers is “How do you tune drums?” I also remember the days when I found myself asking this regularly too. You can get quite ambiguous responses to this question and there isn’t solely one technique to this sometimes elusive skill.
So how can I answer that? Or better yet how can I share the techniques that one requires to get the best out of your drums? Well, simply put, you just need to understand the tools at your disposal, the parameters of the instrument and environment and trust your ears.
Over the years I’ve come across many different methods of drum tuning. Some of these have contributed to the set of rules I follow and will share with you in this article.
Firstly, here are some common examples of the varying settings we can find ourselves in as drummers and some brief points on how that affects our sound. Without understanding how our environment affects this you will constantly run into difficulties.
Treated environments and close mic’ing a kit will pick up a lot of a drum’s overtones, snare buzz, ring etc. A drum’s natural tones come through in the studio more than any other live situation so a lot of preparation is needed when entering the studio. I like to keep dampening down to the minimum so as to retain a lot of the drum’s natural sound, but control is often required more in the studio than any other situation. Dampening the drums, as well as your choice of head, will be paramount to controlling the tone of your drums and the resonance that follow a drum being hit.
Bands can play venues with the capacity to hold anywhere from 20 to 200,000 people so let me define the two type of venue I’m referring to.
Venues that require the close mic’ing of drums: This is usually any venue big enough to require the whole band playing through a P.A and a stage big enough to house at least a three-piece band. This type of venue follows rules stated in a studio setting, often as severe. The close mics will again put your drum’s resonating tones under scrutiny and controlling these with the right choice of head and potentially necessary dampening techniques will be paramount.
Venues in which your drums are un-mic’d or use only a kick drum mic and/or overhead mic: I commonly find myself in this situation when playing bars, clubs and jazz gigs. In this situation making sure your drums carry throughout the room is important, which is not going to happen if you have dead drums or a large amount of dampening once you’ve found your desired tone.
It’s important note that the room you’re in plays the biggest factor in all the points stated, which in turn reflects how your drums sound.
This is just a quick piece of advice that I recommend doing if you find yourself stuck for space – ‘deaden’ the heck out of your drums! Some of us spend most of our younger years in a small bedroom and we can find ourselves putting in a lot of hours ‘shedding’. An untreated room with the four walls in close proximity can make a kit sound far too boombastic to you and anyone you’re sharing a house with. When I say ‘deaden’ I mean do something that is going to kill all natural overtones of your drums and give you a dead and direct sound. Some techniques I’d use would be to pack my toms with towels or lay towels over the heads, pack my bass drum full of pillows and lay towels across my cymbals. Purists will scream at the above, but I stress this unorthodox technique helped me when I was the proud owner of a kit that cost the best part of nothing and sounded dreadful in my tiny attic. In doing this my my kit was now completely devoid of rings and overtones and sounded closer to the recorded kits featured on albums I listened to and mimicked.
When it comes to choosing your drum heads today’s market can be quite daunting. Although each company boasts a large range of heads to choose from, these can be broken down into groups easily.
Single-ply heads are formed of a single layer and therefore are a thin head. This results in high resonance with more overtones being heard as well as a brighter tone. It’s also worth noting that with the head being thin, heavy hitters will find this head less durable. The sustain of this type of head is also shorter.
Double-ply heads give more of a controlled sound with fewer overtones. These consist of two layers and so are thicker, and give off an all round warmer tone. Also, double-ply heads compensate for a drum’s lack of tonality found in certain woods used to build shells.
As the years have gone on heads with pre-dampening have come into the market. This includes dots on snare drum heads for focused sound and metallic rings on tom heads to control ringing. Bass drum heads also come with foam dampening rings both on the surface of the head as well as below it, depending on the model. All these techniques are implemented to give the drummer less need for further dampening.
When it comes to choosing coated or clear heads, warmth and texture are the main differences. Coated heads are the warmer of the two due to the added coated layer, while clear heads offer a brighter sound with more attack as well as a clearer tone due to them being thinner.
Choosing your wood
It’s important to understand the different woods commonly used in drum manufacturing. Research into this is very important as it affects your sounds greatly. The common three woods we often see and hear are mahogany, birch and maple, although more are starting to be used as manufacturing techniques improve. The main differences between the three are of course their tones, with maple giving off lower tones and generally being a lot warmer than the others. Birch has a sharper tone, with more high-end tones coming through as well as much a much quicker note overall. Mahogany has more of a balanced tonal range, but a narrower tuning range. Commonly the drum is not as dense so sound doesn’t carry as well.
Firstly place both heads on your drum and tighten each lug finger tight. At first it is important to listen to the two heads individually so always place the drum on a flat surface in order to dampen the opposite head to that which you are working on. We will only require both heads resonating and working together later, once we fine-tune the drum.
After both sides are finger tight we can start tuning the first head, the resonant head. Each drum has a different point at which it starts to ‘sing’ and you need to have a grasp of the pitch you require. For example, A 16” floor tom will have a low pitch and the lugs will only need two or so turns before it begins to ‘sing’. You can also tighten a drum this size a lot more and it will maintain a nice tone without ‘choking’ the head, even though the pitch will undoubtedly be higher. A 10” tom, on the other hand, will have a slightly narrower range of pitch and will generally be tighter depending on how high you like the pitch.
To achieve your desired pitch use the following techniques; start with half turns of the key on each lug and move to the opposite lug to the one you’ve just turned, NOT the one next to it. This creates a balanced tension in the head, and you can rely on the tension of the lugs as a guide when it comes to fine-tuning. Reduce your half turns gradually, using your ear as a guide as the pitch increases.
Once you have the head sounding nice you can begin to even out the individual areas of the drum, this is the fine-tuning technique I mentioned. This is done by tapping the area of the head in front of the lug you want to turn, about an inch or two in from the bearing edge. Therefore on a six-lug drum you’ll be tapping six areas of the drum. We do this to fine-tune the pitch once we’ve got a tone we like. By fine-tuning, you are trying to even out the pitch of these areas and therefore the whole of the drum. You will be moving around listening to each area and ‘tweaking’ it in reference to other area that have the desired pitch. It’s also worth noting that the tension on your lugs should be very similar with no one lug being significantly tighter or looser than another. The opposite lug turning sequence mentioned before will make sure of this.
As you move around the drum and try to even out the areas sometimes you may find yourself obtaining optimum pitch in one area, but losing it in another. In this case listen to the lugs opposite one another and if they differ apply the opposite lug tuning method in this case too. You’ll find the lug opposite has an affect on the area you are tuning due to shifting the tension of the head against the bearing edge. This is a great final method that can quickly even out any uneven pitches.
Once you’ve done this and are happy with the pitch, turn the drum over and do the same with the batter side, bringing the head to the same pitch following the same method. You can continue to have the drum on a flat surface, but once you have your desired pitch can lift the drum up and listen to the heads react to one another. You’ll discover both heads play a big factor in the tone of your drum and this requires some understanding. Based on the instructions above you should’ve matched pitches on both heads so they are even. That works well with toms and enables the heads to move sympathetically to one another. If the resonant head is looser, or lower in pitch it will resonate more and therefore have a much longer ring with more overtones that can be uneven in pitch. If the heads are even there will be a ring, but it will be an even pitch and can be controlled/dampened to your own preference. Finally, if the resonant head is slightly tighter, the resonating note is shorter and quickly reduces in pitch as it decays. That resonant head acts as a subtle dampener whilst maintaining an overall tone that sounds warm and controlled.
This is down to preference and all of the above should be subtle variables, so please experiment with what suits you.
The main difference with the Snare drum is the resonant head is thinner than your batter head, e.g. around half the thickness. The ‘snares’ on the underside of the drum respond to the resonating thinner head. Start by tuning this side and in order to stop the snare wires interfering with your tuning, loosen the snare wires and rest a drumstick crossing the diameter of the hoop making sure it sits under the wires, therefore preventing them from touching the head.
A lot of people chose a specific pitch when tuning a snare drum. The pitch of A in a scale is often used or close to it (a range of G to B). Using your ear is okay and it’s good to practice developing that aural skill.
To tune we’re going to use the same method as the toms, utilizing opposite lug key turns and then the fine-tuning method discussed until you have the preferred even pitch. Then turn the drum over and do the same again. This time make the pitch higher on the batter head. Again, this does come down to preference, but the easiest way to get a full tone out of your drum is to make the pitch higher. Sing the note you desire based on the pitch of your resonant head (this time C if you continue to use the notes of a scale as a guide) and follow the same techniques stated above. As well as tuning, the tightness of the snare wires will reflect the tone and resonance so experiment with this.
With the bass drum we follow similar rules to the toms, but we are trying to find the lowest possible pitch in the batter head – the first head to start tuning on the bass drum. With the drum upright on a flat surface, tighten the lugs finger tight, then use your fist to lightly press down in the middle of the the head, this highlights the wrinkles on the slack head. Get to a point in which these wrinkles disappear when you remove the pressure of your hand, by ever so slightly tightening each lug. You should hear a low but resonating pitch at this point. Once you are happy with the pitch, bring it up a little more with a quarter or half turn more of each lug, listening closely to the pitch. Bringing it too high is easily done and takes out the bottom end in the tone.
Do the same with the resonant head, or ‘front’ head in the case of the bass drum. Tune it the same way as the batter head, a little higher than the lowest possible pitch. Once this is achieved your fine-tuning is then done by setting up the bass drum and attaching the pedal. Play the pedal against the drum and fine-tune the front head, usually bringing it up slightly until you’ve got an even pitch, using the same method instructed on the other drums. This drum has a narrow range and requires a lot less lug tightening than the other drums on a kit.
Finally, whether you dampen the bass drum or not depends on the size, setting and mic’ing as discussed earlier. Dampening can compensate for a nasty overtone and control prolonged resonating. This is down to preference and often the quality of craftsmanship of the drum. Attack and bottom end are both important in a bass drum so experiment with achieving that by varying the amount of dampening and the use of a commonly seen small hole in the front head.
Drums are not a tuned instrument, like, for example the guitar. This is often the reason we can feel a little lost. We can’t rely on a tuner and some of us feel we can get away with playing a badly tuned drum set. Although we are aware of the necessity of this skill, many of us choose to ignore it. In order to truly become comfortable with this skill, please understand that like all other aspects of learning an instrument tuning requires practice and trial and error. Make sure you leave allotted time in your practice for this and if you’re gigging regularly make sure you go into every new room with the notion that re-tuning upon arrival will always be necessary.