In order to tune or tension your drums for the best possible sound, start out with no muffling. The exception to this rule would be the bass drum where virtually all drummers use some muffling to achieve either a low, full sound or a dry, “pop” type of effect. Some small-group jazz drummers use an 18″ bass drum with little or no muffling. The degree and type of muffling for the bass drum will vary depending upon the musical situation.
Tap at each tension screw one inch in from the rim of the drum. Keep adjusting the tension until you have approximately the same pitch all the way around. Test by tapping at each tension screw as you go. When the pitch is about the same all around, the head is in tune with itself. If you are having difficulty tuning tom-toms, it may be necessary to place the drum on a towel to muffle the head that is not being tuned. This makes it easier to hear the pitch on the top head. Then turn it over and tension the other head. If it is a single-headed drum, it is easier to hear the pitch since there is no vibration from a bottom head. Now you need to decide whether you want the top head looser or tighter than the bottom head. There are several schools of thought on this depending partly on the drumheads and the style of music involved.
Snare Drum Tuning
Most players tune the bottom head tighter and higher in pitch, with the top head looser and lower in pitch. For example, if you are in a rock group, you would most likely have the top head fairly loose to achieve a broad, fat type of sound. The jazz drummer would have the top head somewhere near medium tension—loose enough so that the top head gives when pressed on with the thumb. This will produce a full sound, not especially high and tight sounding. If the top head becomes too tight, it will produce a high-pitched, ringing rimshot sound that very few drummers prefer today.
A symphonic drummer, who plays few if any rimshots, will have the top head tighter than the jazz or rock drummer. This is to assure an articulate sound at any volume level, including extremely soft. If the head is too loose, it will be less responsive. However, a loose to medium top head will produce more volume than a very tight head.
If you need to change the tuning on your snare drum, try to limit your adjustments to the top head only. The top head doesn’t really make the drum sound crisp. This is achieved by a fairly tight bottom head and reasonably tight snares. The top head will change the stylistic sound of the drum in terms of sound character by changing the volume, the pitch and the length of sound.
If the snares buzz too much when striking a tom-tom, try changing the tuning of each drum slightly. Loosen the bottom head of the tom or tighten it slightly. Then loosen the tension screws on the bottom of the snare drum on either side of the snares at each end. This will help to reduce the tendency of the bottom snare head to vibrate sympathetically with other sounds. By changing both drums slightly, much sympathetic buzzing can be eliminated by tuning alone. Additional muffling might produce a dead, over-muffled sound.
Some drummers tune the toms similar to the snare drum, that is, with the bottom head tighter and the top head looser. This will produce a nice, fat sound, but you will have to strike the drum fairly hard to get a clean beat. Again, the type of heads being used will influence how tight or loose you tension them. Experiment until you find the sound you want. Heavy heads such as Pinstripes, dotted heads or oil-filled heads usually sound best if they are not too tight.
My personal choice for tom-tom tuning is to tune the bottom head slightly lower and looser. This tunes out some of the ring naturally so that less muffling is needed. It also means that you can get a clean attack sound on the toms at virtually any volume level. It is not necessary to strike the drum quite as hard and yet a deep sound can be achieved easily.
Some players tune the two heads to the same pitch or as close as possible. It is not a method that I prefer, but some very successful drummers use this method with good results. If there is a thinner head on the bottom of the toms, it is difficult to match the tuning of the heads. My personal observation is that a richer, fuller sound is achieved if the two tom-tom heads are not tuned to the same pitch. Most drummers I’ve talked to prefer a thinner head on the bottom of the toms if a heavy or reinforced head is used on top. This seems to prevent the drum from sounding too “tubby.” However, this choice is very personal and I have heard any number of head combinations that work. A great deal depends on the player, the style and how hard the musician strikes the drum.
Bass Drum Tuning
If the drum has two heads, most players tune it similarly to the snare drum, that is, with the playing head a little looser than the head facing the audience. You can also adjust the two top tension screws on the playing head. If you loosen these two, you get a flat type of sound which is closer to a rock sound. If you tighten these two tension screws, you get a more mellow type of boom sound.
Ed Shaughnessy uses this method to adjust his bass drum sound on the Tonight Show. Ed often has to play a wide variety of styles on any given night. This method of adjusting the bass drum sound and response helps Ed change styles quickly with a minimum of hassle.
The best muffling effect is achieved by muffling the drum from the outside. Internal controls are generally not recommended. Most studio players simply re move them. A small piece of felt, tissue or tape will produce better results than internal mufflers. The internal muffler prevents the head from moving naturally, and reduces volume response and tone quality. A small piece of felt or tissue taped to the head near the edge will eliminate the high ringing sound without reducing volume or response.
It is best not to place felt strips under the head of any drum except the bass drum. The bass drum sound presents a real challenge. Without muffling, it is difficult to achieve any definition, especially if the drum is 22″ or larger. When placing a felt strip in the bass drum, avoid placing it across the center of the head. It will tend to “buzz” and can be a real problem when miking or recording. Place the felt strips off center for best effect.
If you are playing a single-headed bass drum, make sure that the tension casings do not buzz or rattle. Many players use a pillow or rug inside the drum in order to get a very definite attack sound. In a rock situation, it really does help the drum cut through. In a big band or small jazz group, a somewhat more mellow and longer sound is more appropriate. This is best achieved with two heads.
Cutting a hole in the front bass drum head is quite popular with many players. This sound is halfway between a double-headed sound and a single-headed sound. Muffling can be achieved with felt strips, foam, or a pillow. When it comes to the bass drum, players have strong personal feelings. Whatever works in the musical situation and whatever pleases you is most important.
Remember that you cannot retune your drums to get them to sound good in a bad room. All you can do is use a little more muffling if the room is too live or use less if the room is too dead. At any rate, there is no substitute for a hall or club with naturally good acoustics. Tuning and muffling are very personal decisions and care should be taken to experiment before reaching any final conclusions. However, don’t confuse tuning and muffling. Muffling a bad sound will mute it, but it won’t correct it. Only tuning will improve the sound. To repeat, if you are having problems, tune the drum first. Try to get the pitch, resonance and feel you want. Then apply muffling as needed to eliminate unwanted ring and unwanted overtones.