MD Education Team Weighs In On: Tuning (UPDATED)
We asked the members of the MD Education Team to share their thoughts on how they prefer to tune their drums. Here’s what they had to say.
Tuning is a critical skill that must be learned. Regardless of what style you play, your personal drumming voice and character are shaped by how your drums and cymbals sound. It’s your musical signature—Don’t take it for granted.
Before I start tuning, I make sure the bearing edges are in good shape, that the drum isn’t out of round, and that the heads are in great condition. If problems exist with any of these, the drum will not tune properly. (Remember that bottom heads wear out too.) I also match the head for the drum. For example, if it’s a standard-depth 12″ maple tom, a single-ply coated head (I use Remo Coated Ambassadors) will always sound good. But also the type of music I’m playing, as well the venue and how loud I’ll be hitting, factor into my head choice. If I’m playing in a 12,000-seat arena, and I’ll be hitting the drums harder, I may switch to a 2-ply clear head (like a Remo Emperor).
There are a lot of methods and philosophies for tuning drums, and which one I use depends on the specific situation and how I want to sound. If I’m playing acoustic jazz with a piano trio in a small restaurant, I may use smaller drums and tension the heads a little tighter (higher pitch) so that I can still get a good sound without having to hit too hard. If I’m playing rock music with a ten-piece horn band at an outdoor concert, I may use larger-diameter drums with clear heads and tension them a bit looser. Advertisement
Here’s my standard quick-and-easy method that always produces good results. Starting with the resonant head, I tighten each tension rod a little at a time, in a star pattern, so that when I tap the head with my finger tip about 2″ from the edge of the drum I hear the same pitch. In order to hear just the resonant head, I muffle the batter by placing my hand in the middle and applying a little bit of pressure. The heads need to be in tune with themselves, so that they vibrate evenly, in order to produce the purest and fullest tone. I repeat this procedure with the batter head while muffling the resonant.
When both heads are in tune with themselves, I listen to where they’re pitched relative to each other. My starting point is to tighten the resonant head a whole step above the batter head. (For drummers who aren’t familiar with scales and intervals, I suggest singing the second and third notes of “Happy Birthday.”)
I start with the largest tom, like a 16″ floor tom, and tension that to how I want it to sound. Then I move to the next smallest drum (14″) and tune that a perfect 4th above the 16″. (If you’re not familiar with hearing a perfect 4th, use the first two notes of “Here Comes the Bride.”) Most kits that I play have toms that are 2″ apart in diameter, so I pitch them a perfect 4th from each other. If I’m playing a kit that has a 14″ and then a 13″ drum, I may adjust the interval between them to a major 3rd. Advertisement
For most playing situations that I’m in, I rarely muffle the drums, except for a little on the front head of the bass drum. And I don’t tune the bass drum or snare relative to the toms.
You should also consider the feel that various heads and tunings have. Double-ply heads on larger drums that are tuned to a lower pitch will not rebound as much as thinner heads on smaller drums that are tuned to a higher pitch. Consequently, arm and wrist fatigue must also be included in your decisions on tuning and tensioning.
The best advice I can give is to experiment and become familiar with the physics of sound and the construction of different heads and drums.
As with all facets of the drumset, tuning can be considered an art within itself. The direction one takes to tune a drumset can be related to the type of wood used in the shells, the sizes of the drums, the choice of heads, and—of course—the style of music.
For students who are just learning how to tune, a starting point I typically utilize relates to the difference between jazz and rock/pop styles. Rock music usually requires a moderate to tight snare drum, while all the other drums are usually on the lower side of the spectrum. For jazz styles, the tuning is usually the opposite, with moderate- to low-tuned snares and everything else (including the bass drum) being tightened higher. This is a very generalized and nonspecific set of rules, but it’s a good place to start. Advertisement
I begin by tuning the bottom heads first. Once the heads are relatively tight, it’s important to seat them properly. This can be done by pushing on the drumhead, or by tightening it past your desired pitch, to seal a crease into the plastic, which allows the head to sit onto the drum shell securely. My general rule of thumb is to have moderately tight bottom heads to allow for a healthy amount of resonance. Once the bottom heads are at a moderate range, I’ll place my pointer finger in the middle of the head and then tap lightly near each lug. You may notice different pitches being given off by opposing lugs. Continue to tap the head at each lug while adjusting the tuning until you achieve matching pitches. Once the pitches are matched, you should hear a solid tone.
There are probably hundreds of different approaches and opinions to top-head tuning. However, if you want to acquire a warm, full tone from a drum (especially a tom), chances are the top head will be tuned slightly lower than the bottom. However, if you want a more open, “twangy” jazz sound, you may have to have the top head exceed the pitch of the bottom.
You may chose to pitch your toms to specific notes on a scale to either have a consistent range of tones or to match the key signature of a particular song. I feel comfortable having my higher toms pitched to a descending C Major chord, with the 8″ at G, the 10″ at E, and the 12″ at C. This is a consistent sweet spot for those sized drums. Advertisement
There are so many different head type and combinations available that will enable you to find the proper sound. A general rule most drummers live by to use predominantly coated singly-ply heads on the entire kit for jazz styles and clear single- or double-ply heads for rock or more general full-toned sounds, with a coated head on the snare.
In my book, The Drummers Bible, I included a quick tuning guide based on four categories. These are a good starting point for drummers who need a quick universal overview. Here are the four descriptions.
Bass drum: low and open
Snare: medium or low and open
Toms: high or low
Bass drum: high and open
Snare: medium and open
Toms: high (sometimes very high)
Bass drum: low and muffled
Snare: medium to high, open or muffled
Toms: low, open or muffled
Bass drum: high and open or muffled
Snare: high (typically very high) and open or muffled
How I decide to tune my drums largely depends on two factors: the musical context and the acoustics of the venue. The two things I strive for when tuning are locating a sweet spot within the range of the drum and pitching each drum far enough apart from the others to increase the melodic potential of the instrument, which makes it possible to play clear and defined musical statements. Advertisement
It’s important to take into consideration that drums sound different where you sit when compared to where the audience is sitting. For this reason, I try to do what I can to get the best possible feedback regarding the sound of my drums from out front. In comparison to most other instruments, drums are fairly low sounding. This becomes apparent most often after you listen to a recording on which you thought your drums had a high tuning, but they ended up sounding muddy or obscured by the frequencies produced by other instruments. This has happened to me, especially in boomy-sounding venues. The key is to increase the tuning a bit, and the drums will project more clearly.
Another thing to keep in mind is that no matter how well a drum is tuned, the sound is in the hands of the drummer. Learning how to allow the drumhead and the stick to breathe when striking a drum will enable you to get the richest, most open and natural sound out of your instrument. Of course, music can call for all sorts of articulations and effects that will require that you adjust your technique at times. But that should be a conscious decision. If you can’t make a drum sing, you aren’t playing the drums—you’re just hitting them.
I definitely tune differently depending on the style and situation, but I do have a basic approach to get the sound that I like to hear from the drums. In general, for snare drum, I tune the bottom head very tight and the top head also very tight but a little looser than the bottom. The snare wires are at a medium tension. I have found that over-tightening the snare wires has an adverse effect on the sound of snare drum in almost every style. Advertisement
For the bass drum, I keep the batter head is at a comfortable loose tension, which is a hair tighter than the “just beyond wrinkling” tension that tuning guru Bob Gatzen often talks about. The front head is slightly tighter, and an Evans EQ Pad is always inside my bass drum. I don’t necessarily have it touching the heads all the time, but just having a little bit of cloth inside seems to eat up some of the nasty midrange frequencies that can bounce around inside the shell.
For toms, I like the sound of a medium-high pitch so that the drum rings in tune and presents a nice stick attack. Simon Phillips is my model for tom tuning. My bottom tom heads are fairly tight, while the top heads are a bit looser, with an interval of about a perfect fourth between the heads. Tuning the bottom head lower than the top produces a downward pitch-bend that I find to be unattractive. I have read about guys who tuned both heads to the same pitch, but I found that having the bottom head slightly tighter adds attack, presence, and a consistent pitch.
I am an Evans endorser, and I use a Power Center Reverse Dot and a Hazy 300 on the snare, EC2 or G2 on top of the toms with clear G1 bottoms, and an EMAD kick batter and an EQ3 front head with a 5″ hole. I spend a lot of time making sure that each drumhead is in tune with itself. This process can be frustrating, but as with many things, it requires many hours of trials to get good at it. Advertisement
If I’m playing in a jazz situation, my head choices would change and the pitches of my drums would go up, but my basic approach to tuning would stay the same. I don’t use any tuning devices, and I don’t attempt to tune to specific pitches or intervals. However, I have noticed that most of my drumsets tend to have good separation between the toms, which I attribute to a given size shell being happiest when tuned within a certain range. I believe that since drums are not pitch-specific, it is better to find a place where the shell naturally sounds best. When playing live in a rock situation or with one of my own projects, like 4Front, I tend not to muffle the toms at all. The snare could be wide open or have a little bit of Moon Gel on it.
On many Hudson Music video shoots, I’m able to sit behind different artists’ drumsets to get a sense of their tuning. For his DVD, Keith Carlock played his bass drum wide open and at a medium pitch, which was almost the way a bebop player would tune, only on a larger drum. Keith’s bass drum sounded amazing for his playing, but I would hate it for my own. I’m also a huge Jeff Porcaro fan, and Jeff muffled his kick drum heavily and buried the beater almost all the time. Even though Jeff is one of my heroes, I prefer to let the beater come off the head, and I like my bass drum to have some bottom end, which I feel is eliminated when you use heavily muffling. Of course, the way Jeff tuned for his own playing made him sound amazing. The point is that you need to experiment to find what works for you.
I would like to close with a shameless plug. I am extremely proud of the drum sound on 4Front’s latest album, Malice in Wonderland. I used Tama Bubinga Omnitune and Starclassic maple kits, and I was finally able to achieve the drum sound I have been hearing in my head, with the help of composer/guitarist/engineer Zak Rizvi. You can also hear my approach to tuning a variety of different snare drums for different styles in the sample videos I did for Tama’s SLP line. Check out my website, www.joebergamini.com, for links to those. Advertisement
This is a very big and important topic. I’ll offer some techniques that I use that might be different from the usual solutions.
To start, I use Remo heads, with Coated Ambassadors on top and Clear Diplomats on bottom of the toms, and a Powerstroke 3 or Renaissance on the bass drum.
For toms, I like to tune to a pitch, which I usually get by checking with a piano. I like to have a perfect fourth relationship between the floor tom and the rack tom. To get a nice, low and sustained tom sound, I find that you don’t have to crank up the top head very much. Just enough so you get a sustained note. Then I tighten the bottom heads a little tighter.
I’m chiefly a funk and jazz player. I’ll change my bass drum tuning depending on the gig, or I’ll change the bass drum itself to make it easier on myself. For jazz, I use a 14×18 drum with both heads on. I crank up the beater side fairly tight, which gives a good boom and also good rebound for the foot. After I find the tone I want on the beater head, I tune the front head a little tighter. This gives a fuller sound and makes the drum resonate more.
I find that an open tuning can also work on lower-volume funk or jazz/funk gigs, especially if you’re playing in a smaller club where the drums aren’t miked. There will be some ring to the bass drum sound, but that gets lost quickly in the crowd. From their point of view, it’s more of a punchy, low-end sound. Advertisement
I’ve found that even though I hear overtones when the drum is played by itself, when the band is playing, the overtones get swallowed up. If you dampen and muffle the bass drum too much, the fundamental note gets lost and all you have is attack.
Here’s a muffling technique I use for a jazz/funk bass drum sound with both heads on. I call it the JP Muffle Cloth. Cut a piece of cloth to about 5″ by 6″. (Dishtowels or t-shirts work well.) With the 5″ side on top, place the cloth to the top part of the beater head and then fold the top of the cloth on an angle so that it hangs straight down on the left side of the head but doesn’t get in the way of the beater. Now tape the cloth to the drumhead at the top.
Since the cloth is only attached at the top, the head does not get choked. The cloth flies off the head when you strike the drum, and then it falls back onto the head to cut out some of the overtones. If you need more muffling, try using a bigger patch or a thicker cloth, or tape more of the edges to the head. Advertisement
Another simple muffling method is to roll up a towel into a cylinder about 6″ or 7″ long and 2″ to 3″ in diameter, and then place it between the two uprights of the bass drum pedal and the beater head. Billy Martin used this technique on a record I produced for Medeski, Martin and Wood, called It’s A Jungle In Here. There’s a commercial muffler, called Muffbone, which uses this principal and works really well.
For funk, I often use a 20″ or 22″ bass drum. I’ll either take off the front head or use a ported model. I put a moving blanket inside the drum and press it against the batter head until I get a thuddy sound. I have found that if you add a weight on top of the blanket, you’ll get a fuller sound. Round mic stand bottoms or small sand bags work well for this.
As musicians, drummers or otherwise, we are merchants of sound. The more in tune we are with listening to the vibrations we create, the better. In that respect, I feel that understanding drum tuning is an incredibly important component of playing musically. Advertisement
I have my preferences for how I want my drums sound, which can vary quite a bit. There are many facets to what constitutes a good drum sound, including the style of music you’re playing, the room you’re playing in, and whether or not you’re working with microphones. Ideally, you want to have great drums that are well suited to the environment you’re working in, but you also want to have the wherewithal and experience to make the best of what you’ve got.
I recently compared notes on drum tuning with my friend Dave Jewell, the marketing manager for Yamaha drums. Here’s a blend of what Dave and I recommend for a basic approach.
I like to start with a naked shell, with no heads on either side. I’ll take a moment to wipe the bearing edges, rims, and tension rods with a soft cloth. It’s important to make sure there’s some lubricant inside the lugs before inserting the tension rods. I like to keep a tube of LP Lug Lube handy for this.
Whether you use two or twenty-two toms, it’s best to begin with the largest drum and work your way up to the smallest. Smaller toms can sound bigger (particularly to a microphone) when tuned lower. But if you start by tuning your smaller toms, this can create problems once you arrive at your largest tom because you might have nowhere to go, tension-wise, to produce a low-enough note to make it work with the smaller drums. Advertisement
I’ve also learned that it’s best to tune the bottom tom heads first. If you start by tuning the batter side, the sound is bound to change once you put the bottom head on. If I get the bottom head sounding nice, it’s usually quite easy to get the top head singing too, and I often prefer to have the top and bottom heads tensioned the same, at least to begin with.
Place the head evenly over the edge and gently spin the head around the shell. It should rotate smoothly and easily. If it gets stuck or is sluggish at a spot, it might be a sign that your head’s collar is warped or that your drum is out-of-round. Either could make the drum difficult to tune. A new head or some drum repair may be required.
If the head spins freely over the bearing edge, place the rim over the head and screw the tension rods into the lugs until each is finger-tight against the rim. Now push your fist gently but firmly into the center of the head tighten the tension rods just enough to get the wrinkles out. Depending on the drum, this is usually somewhere between one or two 180º turns of the drum key at each rod. I’ll make sure to tighten or loosen each lug back to finger-tight before tensioning it the first time around. I also prefer to use a cross-tuning method to distribute the tension evenly across the head. (I’ll tighten the lug at the 12 o’clock position first, and then jump across the to the lug at the 6 o’clock position. Then I’ll repeat the same steps from 2 to 8 o’clock, 4 to 10 o’clock, and so on.) Advertisement
Once the wrinkles are out, I’ll hold the drum by the rim with one hand and tap the center with a stick to hear the fundamental pitch. If I like the tone and it sounds pure, with no warble or distortion, I’ll move to the top head. If it still doesn’t sound clear, I’ll look to see if there are any more wrinkles that need to be tensioned out.
If you’re really under the gun, time-wise, or are in a noisy environment when you have to tune your drums, try a technique that Dave Weckl uses, called the 2 1/2 Rule. To do this, simply begin with the tension rods finger-tight and turn each lug 180º two and a half times. This will get your drums sounding decent and playable almost every time.
There are different stylistic approaches to tuning a bass drum. I once watched jazz/R&B great Idris Muhammad remove all the muffling from the bass drum on a house kit and then proceed to tune the drum as tightly as he could on both sides, which is something a lot of bop-era jazz drummers do. The sound I heard in the room was fat, deep, and funky, but when I played the drum myself after the gig, it sounded like a basketball hitting the floor. Conversely, the flat, funky sound that you get by having a bass drum packed tight with muffling is totally cool in the right context. JR Robinson’s bass drum sound on Michael Jackson’s hit, “Rock With You,” is an excellent example. Advertisement
I use basically the same approach for tuning the bass drum as I do for the toms, except that I tune the batter head first for tone and then apply the front head for resonance. I’m a Remo endorser and recently, with the guidance of manager of education, Bruce Jacoby, I’ve started using Remo’s Bass Drum Muffling System on my Yamaha bass drums that are outfitted for regular use on gigs that cover a variety of styles. The muffling system is similar to using rolled up towels taped against the inside bottom of the batter head, a la Simon Phillips. On my jazz kits, I use wide-open bass drums with no internal muffling. I choose from a mix of Remo Powerstroke 3 heads, in either the Suede or Renaissance versions. These heads eliminate some of the higher overtones and sound great when tuned up high.
Buddy Rich once said that the snare “is the instrument,” meaning it is the drum the rest of the set is built around. It can become, in the right hands, a signature of a particular drummer’s sound, as it was for Buddy, Gene Krupa, Tony Williams, Billy Cobham, Bill Bruford, Ringo Starr, Levon Helm, Don Henley, Steve Gadd, and many others. Each of those players have a distinctive sound that’s produced by the combination of the drum they preferred to play, the heads they used, their tuning and muffling choices, and their unique touch.
My basic snare sound is modeled after that of Tower of Power drummer David Garibaldi. David’s approach is to tune the drum tightly, until the bottom head is like a tabletop and the top head has a nice “crack” when you play rimshots. The snare strainer is tightened just enough so that when you play ghost notes you can hear the snares. As David explained, “If it sounds like a tom when you tap the drum softly, then the strainer is too tight.” Once he gets the tuning where he likes it, David then detunes one or two rods on the batter head to a point where he retains some crack but the pitch drops, adding more mid-range and low-end frequencies to the sound. Advertisement
Playing the Room
It’s important to get a drum sounding good by itself before worrying about how the drums sound together. If I’m tuning for jazz or acoustic gigs, I will typically tension the drums tight enough so that a lot of the low-frequency overtones disappear. This not only opens up more of the sound spectrum for the other instruments, but the drums will have a quicker response and more projection.
When I’m tuning for a pop-oriented gig where the drums are miked, I’ll strive to find a balance between a tuning that sounds good to me from behind the kit and one that will project through the room. Through experience, though, I’ve learned that regardless of how I might tune up my drums at home, I almost always have to make adjustments for the room once I get to the gig.
For heavier backbeat-oriented music, especially when I’m using a larger bass drum, I like a full octave range between the bass drum and snare. This leaves a lot of the frequency spectrum open for the other instruments. On a more jazz-oriented gig, the tuning of my snare drops and the bass drum is tensioned up for a more blended sound. The interval here varies from a minor third to a fifth. Advertisement
With my toms, it varies as follows. If I’m using a four-piece kit, I prefer a perfect fourth between the mounted tom and floor tom. If I’m using a five-piece configuration, with two rack toms and one floor tom, I go for a minor triad with the floor tom as the root. The middle tom is a minor 3rd up from the floor tom, and the smallest tom is a 5th higher than the floor tom. I think of the bass line from the first movement of John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme as my basis.
If I’m playing a five-piece configuration with one rack tom and two floor toms, I keep the perfect fourth between the rack tom and first floor tom and then tune the second floor tom to sound as deep and full as possible.
I’ve always used a similar approach to tuning my drums, whether it’s a drumset, timbales, or congas. I just listen to recordings I really like and then copy the tunings I hear on those recordings. Advertisement
I use Remo Clear Vintage Emperor tom batters and Clear Ambassador bottoms. My snare combination has always been a Coated Ambassador batter and a Clear Ambassador snare-side. I use the Powerstroke 3 on the bass drum.
When tuning the tom heads, I place my finger in the center of the head and tap at each lug while listening for the overtones. I adjust the tension rods until I get matching tones all around the drum. I don’t over tighten the head, but instead search for a sweet spot where the drum sings a natural pitch.
In my studio, I muffle the toms slightly to take care of overtones. This is usually accomplished by folding a paper towel into quarters and lightly taping one side of the folded towel to the rim. This allows the drum to sound fully when you hit it, and then the towel dampens the tone ever so slightly. Advertisement
Getting a great sound is a combination of several things: great drums, great heads, stick selection, technique, and tuning. Of those factors, I would say that tuning is the greatest variable and least understood of them all. This is the reason why many producers hire drum techs for sessions; there are many really good drummers that simply do not know how to tune their own drumset.
My favorite drumhead combination for toms is the Remo Coated Ambassador on top and the Clear Ambassadors on the resonant side. I love these heads because rather than color the sound, they let the natural tone of your drums come through.
I tend to tune my toms pretty low. I like the warmth and sustain of my Ludwigs down there. The tuning interval of the toms depends on the sizes. For drums that are 2″ in diameter apart, I tend to tune in fourths. I usually start with the smaller drum and just tune it to where the drum seems to resonate well, and then I move to the next drum. I don’t necessarily intend to tune in fourths, but that’s how it seems to turn out. Advertisement
I’m touring with a 10″/13″/16″ tom setup this year, and thusly the interval will be wider, more like a fifth. I tune the resonant heads just slightly higher, about a half step, than the batters.
My favorite head combination for the snare is a Remo Coated CS batter and an Ambassador snare-side. The Coated CS has the warmth I like from an Ambassador, but the underside dot adds durability. My kick drum head of choice is the Remo Powerstroke 3, which is the most versatile bass drum head that I know of. You can run it wide open and it has tons of low end and sustain, but you can also throw a pillow in the bass drum and achieve punch and a great feel, while keeping the low end you need. I use a black or white Powerstroke 3 as my resonant head and cut a hole in it using Remo’s hole template.
As far as muffling, I use very little. I think about the resonance of my drums the way a vocalist thinks about reverb; It’s going to get eaten up in the mix by the electric guitars, so you will want more that you think. Most of the time I run my snare and toms wide open with no muffling. Occasionally, when I’m looking for additional focus, I will use a quarter or half piece of Moon Gel. Advertisement
Learning to tune you drums well is an important and marketable skill. Think of tuning as an extension of your drumming craft, and you will be making strides to becoming a more successful musician.
Feel free to check out my video on tuning here.
A player’s approach to tuning the drumset is a personal one. The style of music I play determines the tonal range for each drum in my setup. The photographs below illustrate two common patterns used to tension a drumhead.
Most players’ tension their drums so the heads feel good to play and produce a resonant tone. I like to test the drum at different dynamic levels, from very soft to very loud. I also strike the drum at different areas, such as near the rim or in the center, and play it with sticks, brushes, and mallets.
The bass drum helps establish the foundation for your beat. It is often tuned low with some form of muffling, like a pillow, blanket, or felt strip, resting against the batter head to help decrease overtones. The more muffling that touches the head, the less pitch the drum will produce. Many bass drums come from the manufacturer with a 6″ or 8″ hole pre-cut in the front head. Having a hole decreases the amount of resonance but allows for easy access inside the shell to adjust muffling and to position microphones. Advertisement
A more traditional approach is to use little or no muffling and to keep both heads intact. This approach produces a full sound with plenty of resonance. For jazz, I prefer my bass drum to have no hole cut in the front head. For contemporary music, I place a pillow or blanket against the batter head to help shorten the note. Many contemporary drummers use this method of muffling because of the staccato nature of contemporary music.
The snare drum is the centerpiece of my kit, and there are many ways to tune it. Some drummers tune the bottom head higher than the top, or vice versa. I start by tensioning the top head until there are no wrinkles around the outside edge. Once the top head is resonating, I start working with the bottom head. I tune it between a minor third and perfect fourth higher than the top. This method produces a crisp sound, whereas a lower tension on both heads generates a sound that is more legato and deep.
I adjust my snare strainer tension by starting with hardly any tension and slowly tightening the snares while tapping the drum lightly with my fingertips. I continue to tighten until there’s no snare buzz present. Advertisement
I tune the top and bottom heads to the same tension. Then I slightly raise the batter head, since it will lose tension from being played upon.
If your toms or snare lose resonance or seem out of tune after several hours of playing, check to see that the rods closest to you are still tight. These rods tend to loosen over time.
Experiment and choose what sounds best for your musical situation. If you’re currently not playing with a live band, listen to your favorite drummers on recordings and try duplicating their sound.
When I bought my first drumset, the sales person at the store came over to set them up and tune them. I had no idea what he was doing, and I thought once he was done tuning, that was it. I figured I would never have to use a drum key again. Wrong! It’s not like putting new tires on your car, which should last for years. Drums need constant attention in order to sound good, which means regular tuning. Once I set up my kit at the gig, I usually start making minor tuning adjustments get them to sound good.
For those of you who are a little scared to pick up a drum key and experiment with your own drums sounds, I hope the tips below will make you feel more confident and comfortable. This information is what I provide for all of my students.
Batter (top) head—This is the head that is struck with the stick.
Resonant (bottom) head—This is the head that controls the drum’s resonance.
Tension Rod—The bolt that goes through holes in the rim, used to pull the head down over the bearing edge for tuning.
Lugs—The metal casings attached to the drum into which the tension rods screw to tune the head. (When discussing tuning, the terms “lugs” and “tuning rods” are often interchanged.)
Drum key—A small, t-shaped wrench used to turn the tension rods.
Bearing edge—The edge of the drum shell where the drumhead lays, like the part of a pot where the lid sits.
Rim—The metal hoop used to hold the drumhead. Tension rods go through the holes in the rim and into the lugs to tension the head.
Hoop—A large rim for a bass drum that’s usually made of wood or metal.
Muffling ring—An O-shaped piece of plastic used to slightly dampen a drum’s sound by sitting on top of the drumhead. These can be cut from old drumheads or purchased from various manufacturers. Advertisement
Here are some thoughts on tuning the different pieces of the drumset.
The bottom head of the snare doesn’t have the impact on the overall tone as it does on toms. The bottom head of a snare is there to provide a vibrating surface for the wires. The rule of thumb is this: The tighter the bottom head, then the more the snares will vibrate. Conversely, the looser the bottom head, the less the snares will vibrate.
You want the bass drum heads to be tuned pretty loose. Start out with the batter head just tight enough to take out any wrinkles. This will give you a sound that’s thick and fat, with that hit-you-in-your-chest feeling. If you’re not getting enough rebound from the beater, try tightening two or four tension rods on the batter side. Sometimes that’s all it takes. Tightening the front (resonant) head can also give the batter head more rebound.
More often than not, you’ll want to cut a hole in the front head. This allows air to escape the drum very quickly, so the front head will resonant less. A hole in the head that’s more than 6″ will yield the same result as having no front head, and the head will barely resonant. Advertisement
You have three options when it comes to the tuning of the bottom head of your toms. It can have it tuned to the same pitch as the top head, or to a higher pitch than the top head, or to a lower pitch than the top head.
When both heads are tuned to the same pitch, the drum will produce a warm, round tone with a lot of sustain. The attack can be sharp, depending on the tension of the batter head, and the decay will be long, with no variation in pitch as the sound dies.
If the bottom head is lower than the top, the decay and sustain are diminished somewhat, the sound will be rounder, and the tone will be deeper. The pitch will remain constant through the decay, and the overtones are minimized a bit. Advertisement
If the bottom head is tuned higher than the top, the effect will be similar to having the bottom head lower, in terms of sustain and overall tone, but the pitch of the drum will drop somewhat through the decay. This is how you get that cool “bwow” sound. I personally tune my top heads slightly looser than the bottoms.
As far as the pitch relationship between the toms, I like to tune them in thirds. For example, on a kit with three toms, I would tune my floor tom to a C. The second lowest tom would be an E, and the third tom would be a G. If I have just two toms, I tune them in 4ths, using the melody from “Here Comes The Bride” as a reference.
I do a lot of different types of gigs, so my concept of tuning always stems from what the job needs. I keep a couple of different kits ready to go at all times, and they have different roles. One is my rock kit with bigger drums and double-ply clear Evans G2 heads on the toms and an EMAD on the kick drum. The other kit is slightly smaller, with Evans G Plus heads on the toms and a clear GMAD on the bass drum. And, yes, I do make a distinction between a bass drum and a kick drum. A bass drum in my world has a bit more of a note, and a kick drum is deadened more and tuned very slack. Advertisement
All bets are of when it comes to the snare. Depending on the gig, the snare may be tuned low and slack or high and cranked.
I don’t tune the toms to any particular note, just to where they resonate the clearest. By that I mean that they don’t produce any weird overtones or crazy pitch bends. I think each drum has a place where it wants to sing, and I try to find that. I lean more towards picking the proper drums and cymbals for the gig, as opposed to tuning a drum to a place it might not want to go.
Tuning is a lifelong pursuit, and personal taste, as well as musical trends, will always keep that elusive goal of the “perfect” sound just an inch out of reach. Good luck, and remember to have fun.
I tend to modify my tuning and overall drum selection per song, session, or gig. I have a wide assortment of drum sizes and prefer to let them live in their respective tuning ranges.
For a standard pop-rock scenario, I’ll employ a 12/16/22 kick and tom combination alongside a standard 5×14 metal snare. Coated single-ply heads on the toms and snare work well, as does a clear Powerstroke 3 on the kick drum. For a louder and more intense rock gig, I’ll switch to double-ply heads and a 24″ kick and 13″ rack tom. Each drum has equal medium tension, with slight muffling in the kick drum. Not only is this a great starting point for all general-type gigs, but it can be easily muffled to mimic the sounds of the 1970s (think Fleetwood Mac or Stax records) or tuned up for a more classic and open 1960s–style tone. Advertisement
On the funkier side of things, I’ll switch to a 10/14/20 combination and either tune up my 5×14 snare or swap it out for a specialty drum, such as a 6×13, 7×12, or 3.5×14. Again, coated single-ply heads work well, and the aforementioned sizes lend themselves to greater articulation while retaining some tone. With this setup, I can achieve two additional genre-specific approaches: a down-and-dirty P-Funk sound or a clean James Brown–type tone. For the P-Funk vibe, I’ll detune the heads to just above finger-tight, and I’ll add Moon Gels or Gel Clings (kids window decorations) to the heads. Not only will these muffle the tone, but they add an additional level of stick articulation as well. For classic funk, I’ll remove the muffling and raise the pitch of the toms and snare into a higher Max Roach–type range.
In a jazz setting, I’ll employ an 18″ kick drum that is tuned higher to the point where it sounds more like a tom. I’ll use two coated heads, with the batter being muffled by a thick felt strip. I’ll usually pair this bass drum with the 10″ and 14″ toms from the jazz/funk setup mentioned above, but a 12″ rack tom works well too.
Stick size also has an effect on your overall kit sound. A fat stick will produce a thick tone with a lot of sustain, while a thin stick will have a lot of attack but lack in broad overtones. Bass drum beaters also make a sonic difference. Wood, large felt, small felt, and plastic options will each change the tone of the bass drum dramatically. Advertisement
Now let’s talk about cymbals….
I get a lot of compliments on my tuning, and though great tuning alone won’t get you gigs, it’s certainly a plus. I’ve developed my system over years of trial and error. All you need is a decent student-model (or better) kit, a basic tuning key, and your ears.
When tuning a snare drum, I first crank the bottom head very tight. (The clear Remo snare-side Ambassador is perfect for me.) The bottom head is the articulator, meaning it determines how quickly the snares will rattle against the head. The snare beds pretty much nullify getting the head clear (in tune with itself from lug to lug), as the head doesn’t sit on a flat surface, but I do my best to match the tuning nonetheless.
Next, I tune the top head to the ideal response or feel for my personal taste. A standard Remo Coated Ambassador is all I use, and I actually prefer them worn in. I like my snare drums to be lower pitched and ringier, so I go just tight enough that fast rolls will articulate in the middle of the head without any trampoline effect ruining the articulation. No matter what tension you prefer, the most important thing is to clear the head, by matching the pitch from lug to lug, so that the head is in tune with itself. An out-of-tune head will choke and will potentially have some terrible dissonance. Advertisement
Finally, I tension the snares so that a pianissimo tap in the dead center of the batter head gets snare response that’s not choked off at all. Using this formula, every snare drum, from a $50 pawnshop cheapo to a $1,000-plus snare, will sound perfectly fantastic.
I start with the batter head (Remo Powerstroke 3 or 4) just tight enough that the lugs don’t rattle. Then the resonant head gets tuned a bit tighter to add a bit of articulation out front, although once a microphone is placed inside I don’t think the resonant-head tuning matters much. I always have a hole in the front head, and I have a pillow inside since most of the time I choose to bury the beater. (The hole allows more air to escape so that the batter head doesn’t fight the beater, and it allows for me to easily place a microphone inside and make adjustments to the pillow.)
The toms are the most “musical” instrument of the kit. I think of the snare as a choked-off, rattling noisemaker and the bass drum as a dampened thumper. A tom, however, is a resonating musical chamber that has the highest propensity for sounding bad without proper tuning. My tom tuning formula is simple, but getting it perfect takes time. Advertisement
I usually end up with the bottom head a minor 3rd higher than the top. (If you say “ha-ha” like the kid in the Simpsons, that’s a minor 3rd.) No matter what the interval, the key is having both heads perfectly cleared so that they’re in tune with each other from lug to lug. I always set the tom on my lap or a carpeted floor in order to dampen the opposite head so that I only hear the head I’m tuning. Once each head is cleared, and I have the desired interval between the two, I can then tweak the overall range. If the pitch of the drum is too high, it’ll choke off (Some drummers consider this a jazz tuning.). If it’s too low, it’ll get flappy and dull. As you bring the pitch of a head up or down, always do so by cranking up the lower pitched lugs or dropping the higher pitched ones. This helps to keep the head clear. After each tom sounds great individually, I tweak the overall tuning of the toms so that they sound good as a set, or in the same “key,” if you will. (Quotes were added since I don’t for for any actual pitches.) Take time to experiment—It’s well worth it!
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