Shop Talk

Get the Sound You Want From Your Drums!

Part 2: Drumset Tuning

by Dave Ribner

Shortly after introducing the tune-bot electronic drum tuner in 2012, we were flooded with phone calls and emails asking how to tune different brands of drums or how to get the sounds of various well-known drummers. Analyzing thousands of drum hits in the course of developing the tune-bot, we gained considerable insight into drum acoustics and also discovered a useful relationship between the primary pitches of any two-headed drum that simplifies tuning. To free ourselves from answering tuning questions, we developed and posted the Tuning Calculator tool on our website, tune-bot.com. We also introduced a free Drum Tuning Calculator app for iPhone and Android platforms.

The first installment of this series (December 2014) focused on how to vary the sound of an individual drum. This article will go into how to select pitches for your entire drumset that sound good together, using the Drum Tuning Calculator. We’ll also discuss snare and bass drum tuning.

Tuning Basics Review

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Before we get started, let’s summarize some specifics that were described in the first article. When playing, you normally hit drumheads in the center to get the fullest, most resonant sound. The dominant sound you hear is the fundamental pitch, which is produced by the batter and resonant heads vibrating in unison. The fundamental is the most important pitch and should be the first thing to consider when tuning. For a set of drums, it’s the fundamental pitches that should be tuned to a musical relationship. If you want to tune your drums to specific notes, you should be adjusting the fundamental pitches, not the overtone pitch you get when you tap near the lugs.

Altogether, three pitches are involved in tuning a drum: the fundamental pitch and the lug pitches for the batter head and resonant head. Hitting the center of either head will give you the fundamental, which is the lowest and loudest pitch of the drum. Both heads need to vibrate to produce the fundamental pitch, so make sure that neither head is muted in any way when you tune the fundamental.

Hitting near the edge will give you the lug pitch of the head you’re striking. The lug pitches of the batter and resonant heads are independent of each other, and you can mute the opposite head when tuning these pitches. Muting one head will inherently mute the fundamental pitch. You can also mute the fundamental pitch when the drum is on a stand, by gently touching the center of one head and tapping near the edge.

In addition to having the desired fundamental pitch, a drum should have uniformly tuned heads in order to produce the best possible sound. This means that the batter head lug pitches should match each other, as should the resonant head lug pitches. So after you get a drum to the fundamental note you want, work on matching the lug pitches on the batter head and then the resonant head. After doing this, you may have changed the fundamental pitch. If this is the case, you will then need to readjust the tuning by uniformly tightening or loosening each of the tension screws.

For a given fundamental, there are unlimited combinations of batter and resonant head lug pitches. The relationship between the batter and resonant head lug pitches has a big influence on a drum’s sound characteristics, including resonance, timbre, and attack.

Drumset Tuning

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Although a drum can be tuned over a fairly wide range of fundamental pitches, the range of pitches where it opens up and produces a clear, resonant sound is limited. If the heads are too loose, the drum will sound dead; if cranked too tightly, it will sound tinny or choked. The optimum pitch range depends mainly on the diameter of the drum, as well as the thickness of the heads and the type of shell. You’ll have lower pitch ranges for large diameters, thicker heads, and lighter shells, and higher pitch ranges for smaller diameters, thinner heads, and heavier shells. You can explore the range of a drum by starting at the lowest head tension you can get without wrinkles; gradually increase the tension while listening to the drum at each setting. Table 1 shows typical pitch ranges for toms ranging in size from 8″ to 16″, and 14″ snares.

To tune your kit, you’ll need a set of pitches that sound good together as well as individually and that fit the type of music you play or the sound you want. You also need to consider the sizes and number of drums in your setup. If you have just a few drums, you’ll probably want to have a wider gap in pitch between them. For instance, if you have two toms, you might tune them to a wide interval, like a perfect fifth. With six drums or more, however, you’ll usually need to tune to a smaller interval, such as major thirds, or even to a scale; otherwise some of the drums would be forced beyond their tuning range.

Although drums are percussive and not melodic instruments, it turns out that a melodic series of notes sounds great on a set of toms. If you want your drums to be evenly spaced in pitch, use a set of pitches in uniform musical intervals. (A musical interval refers to the pitch difference between two notes. Intervals are measured in semitones, also known as half steps, which are the twelve notes used in Western musical scales. For example, the difference between C and C# is one semitone.)

Common intervals used for drums include minor thirds, major thirds, perfect fourths, and perfect fifths, which correspond to pitch differences of three, four, five, and seven semitones. (See table 2.)

To find a sequence of notes in a particular interval, start with the lower note and then advance through the twelve-note musical scale (C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, G, G#, A, A#, B) by the number of semitones for the interval you want to use. The numbers listed after the notes in table 1 indicate the octave. Every time you go past the note B, you’re moving to the next-higher octave, starting with C. For instance, a series of perfect fourths starting at F2 (i.e., F, second octave) would be F2, A#2, D#2, G#2, and C#3.

Here’s an example. Let’s say you have a drumset with four toms (10″, 12″, 14″, and 16″), and you want low-pitched floor toms and a fairly wide overall pitch range. Your largest tom is 16″, so the lowest note from table 1 for that size is C2. To cover a wide pitch range, you might want to use perfect fourths as the interval between drums. This gives you, from lowest to highest for your four toms, C2, F2, A#2, and D#3. Checking table 1 again, you’ll notice that these pitches are within the range for each drum, which means you’ll probably be happy with the final sound.

If, on the other hand, you want lower pitches for all of the toms, you might use a smaller interval, such as major thirds. In that case, the notes for the toms would be C2, E2, G#2, and C3. If you want the drums a little higher in pitch, you could start with the 16″ tom tuned to D2 and use major thirds, which would give you D2, F#2, A#2, and D3. Appropriate interval choices for a small kit with two toms are perfect fifths or a full octave, like E2 and E3.

A good alternative to uniform intervals for three drums is to use the notes of a major chord. As shown in table 2, this consists of a low note, a middle note four semitones higher, and a high note another three semitones above that. For example, you might tune a kit with 16″, 13″, and 12″ toms to a D-major chord consisting of D2, F#2, and A2. Another popular sound is the melody from “Call to the Post,” the tune played at the start of horse races. For the same four toms, “Call to the Post” would be C2, F2, A2, C3 or C#2, F#2, A#2, C#3 or D2, G2, B2, D3, depending on the pitch you want for the 16″ floor tom.

These intervals, chords, and songs provide numerous tuning options that work well for just about any drumset and type of sound you want. After you make a decision on the fundamentals and intervals you want to tune to, go ahead and adjust the batter and resonant heads until you get the desired notes. Then uniformly adjust the batter and resonant head lug pitches to obtain the clearest tone possible.

Tuning Calculator

The Drum Set Calculator in the tuning app can guide you in selecting appropriate fundamental pitches using a musical interval, chord, or song melody that works for the drum sizes in your kit. In addition, the calculator automates the tuning process by determining the required batter and resonant head lug pitches that will provide the desired fundamental pitch at a variety of resonance settings. As explained in the first article, the pitch difference between the batter and resonant heads controls resonance. Figure 1 shows the Drum Set Calculator set to tune six toms with minimum resonance and with the resonant heads higher than the batters.

Figure 1
Figure 1

After you push the calculate button, you’ll see the recommended fundamental pitch and the batter and resonant lug pitches for each drum (figure 2). For the six toms, the calculator recommends tuning in major thirds starting at a first-octave B (B1) for the largest tom. All you have to do is uniformly tune the batter and resonant head lug pitches to the values shown, and you’ll be close to the desired fundamental pitches.

Figure 2
Figure 2

Snare Drums

Most 14″ snare drums sound good with a fundamental pitch in the range of E3 to B3. Some drummers like to have the fundamental pitch of the snare follow the same interval relationship as the toms, while others prefer to tune the snare independently. It’s ultimately a matter of personal preference.

Figure 3
Figure 3

A good relationship for the snare is to tune the lug pitch of the resonant head a perfect fifth higher than the batter head. This combination works well for a couple of reasons: a higher-pitch resonant head improves sensitivity, and a lower-pitch batter head produces a fatter sound. When tuning to higher fundamental pitches (above G3), it’s a good idea to keep the resonant head from exceeding a lug frequency of 400 Hz, to avoid stretching or choking. Resonant heads tend to be only 3 mil thick and can easily deform or break when over-tightened. For tunings with a higher-pitched batter head, simply reduce the interval between the heads to perfect fourths, major thirds, or even seconds. Figure 3 shows the Snare Drum Calculator screen and recommended tunings from the app.

Bass Drums

A lot of factors go into tuning a bass drum, including the type of heads, the use of cutouts in the resonant head, and the type and amount of damping. A
good starting point is to tune the lug frequency of the resonant head a perfect fifth higher than that of the batter head. Some people prefer the opposite, while others like the heads to be closer in pitch. Again, this is a matter of personal preference, and some experimentation will pay off.

Figure 4
Figure 4

If you’re playing jazz with a small, unmuffled bass drum, try tuning both heads close in pitch. If you’re looking for a bigger rock sound, you’ll want a larger drum with some damping. Figure 4 shows the Bass Drum Calculator along with recommended tunings for achieving a fundamental pitch of D1.

In the next article we’ll go into tuning for different musical styles, and we’ll take a look at some artist tunings.