Drum Tonality: What You Should Know About It

Posted in Learn | Last Updated on October 4, 2018

The basic idea behind tonality of drums is applied mostly to studio tuning. However, the basic concept can and should be applied to live stage tuning as well. The idea is to get the toms tuned to pitches and tones that best compliment the music being recorded. In a live situation, it would be very difficult to keep re-tuning for every song because of the amount of time it would take to re-tune. Even with electronic drums, it would take a considerable amount of time to re-tune. Most electronic drum setups have preset that you can program ahead of time with the sound you want. Having those presets would somewhat enable you to keep in close tune with the music your performing.

The methods I’m centering on are used for the conventional drum set and its tuning. In a live situation, try to keep the drums tuned within the tonal limits of the drum. In addition to a tuning key, you might want to try a Torque Wrench. The torque wrench is a wrench used to tighten (torque) all the lugs of a drum to the same tension, which is what you want to accomplish. It has tuning points marked right on it. Proper use of a torque wrench will cut tuning time way down. For example, Tama has the "Tension Watch" ™ which measures the tension right at the head and not from the lug being tuned. This improves greatly, the ability to get a great sounding drum.

These tuning instruments help to keep each drum within its tonal range. For instance, say you tune your 12”, 13”, and 16” toms with a torque wrench. First, you would choose the tonal range to tune to; low, medium, or high. Then you would tune each drum to the same tonal setting. After tuning each drum, the tonal range is automatically achieved. Each drum would progress down in tonal range according to its size in diameter.

If tuning by ear, which is something all drummers should learn to do, be sure to keep the pitches in the tonal range of the drum. So many drummers tune either too high and "choke" the drum or tune to low and make the drum sound like cardboard. Toms are normally tuned from the high toms to the low toms. I personally, tune the highest tom first... then I tune my lowest tom and octave below the highest and then I tune all the toms in between from highest to lowest. Be sure to tune each drum, in succession, to a different pitch. Try putting a towel over the toms not being tuned so that “sympathetic ring” (ringing caused by striking other drums) does not hinder you or fool your perception of pitch. Keep tuning until a pitch and tone quality is reached that is even and in tune to the situation your performing in.

Another way to tune is to the root chord of the music. As you hear that chord, tune the toms to the area that sounds best to your ear and the chord. then fine tune on your own. Usually, toms are tuned to octaves, perfect fourths or fifths. Sometimes to sixths or thirds. Try to stay away from seconds or sevenths since sympathetic ringing can cause problems.

Kick drums (bass drums) sound best if tuned as low as possible being careful not to lose the tonal quality. Kick drums can be tuned surprisingly low and gutsy.

Snare drums are variable in tuning, crispness, and width of sound. An important thing to remember is that no matter how high or low, wide or tight the snare drum is tuned, the life should always be in the drum, not in the sound system. The top and bottom heads work together with the snares to produce the sound of the snare drum. The tightness of the snares regulates the width and can affect the pitch by dampening the bottom head if they are to tight.

Sometimes the top head is de-tuned almost totally at a lug to help eliminate ringing. Don’t use this method unless absolutely necessary. It is not a good way to tune a snare drum or any drum for that matter. I call it the "lazy drummer's" way to deal with overtone.

In a live situation, the snare should be tuned to have as much bite as possible without losing the bottom end. You will find that often the snare drum will buzz when a tom-tom is struck. This is normal. If it is really bad, try re-tuning the toms before you start adding tape and padding everywhere. Remember, tape and padding just adds mass to the head and takes the life out of the drum.

To sum it up, the idea is to get the toms tuned to pitches and tones that best complement the music recorded or the music you performing in a live situation. The drum can sound great by itself and lousy once music is added. No matter what style of drums you may want, the tuning of the kit will make the difference. Don’t kid yourself into thinking that just because you buy a good drum that they will sound good. They will only sound as good as you are able to make them sound through proper tuning and good playing techniques.