Drum Tuning - How To Get a Perfect Sound
Posted in Guides And Tips | Last Updated on August 16, 2018
This article is divided into 5 sections:
- 12 Short Tips
- What Music Do You Play?
- Getting The Head "In Tune"
- Top/Bottom Head Relation
- Tuning The Bass Drum
- Tuning The Snare Drum
Before you can start banging on your custom drum set, you need to set it up first, so without further ado.
Here’s how you do the drum tuning:
1. Lay out all the drums and accessories in your work area. Place them on carpeted surface, rugs or foam to avoid scratching.
2. If not yet attached, lay the drum head on the top or batter side of the drum, right above the drum-shell rim. Then fasten the metal hoop on top of the head and attach it to the lugs using the key rods. It would be best to dip each key rod in lithium grease before tightening as this stretches the drum head over the shell.
3. On the bottom side, called the resonant side, fit each drum with the second head using the same process as above.
4. The bass drum would need two spurs to stop it from rolling around. The ends of the spurs should be resting on the floor.
5. With the footplate facing upwards, position the bass drum pedal on the floor right in front of the drum, attaching the pedal base to the rim. To keep it in place, tighten the clamp.
6. Place all of the other hardware like cymbal stands, snare drum stand, hi-hat pedal and stand, and the drum throne. Sit on the throne placing your right foot on the bass pedal.
7. Position the hi-hat stand in such a way that your left foot can reach the hi-hat pedal while your right foot rests on the bass drum pedal.
8. Arrange the two cymbals beside the bass drum, one to the left and one to the right. Make sure that the stands are not touching the bass drum.
9. Depending on your preference, fasten the tom holders to either the base drum or the cymbal stands. Some arm-like tom holders will insert into the upper surface of the bass drum while others clamp to the cymbal stands on either side.
10. Attach the smallest tom tom to the left, ensuring the drum head is parallel to the ground or slightly angled towards you.
11. Then attach the next smallest tom tom on the right, positioning it similar to the one on the left.
12. The largest tom—the floor tom—comes with metal legs that you attach to it so it stands on its own. This is usually situated to the right of the other toms, or directly beside your right thigh. The batter head should again be either parallel to the ground or slightly angled towards you.
13. The snare drum stand rests in between your right leg whose foot is on the base pedal and the left leg whose foot is on the hi-hat pedal. Assemble the snare drums on top of the stand and tighten the arms.
14. Hi-hats usually come in a pin secured by a clutch. Loosen the clutch and release the hi-hat pair. The lower cymbal should be placed on the hi-hat stand facing up.
15. The clutch has felts in the center. Place the upper hi-hat cymbal in between these felts. Replace clutch on the hi-hat pin.
16. Approximating about an inch of depression, press down slightly on the hi-hat pedal and secure the hi-hat clutch on the pin at the same time. When you release the pedal, the upper hi-hat should go up and produce a space between it and the lower hi-hat.
17. Should there be any remaining cymbals, assemble them on their own stands making sure the felt base cushions it and the felt ring rests between the cymbal and the wing nut on top. Typical setups situate the ride cymbal to your right, while the crash cymbal can go to your right or left.18. Start making the beats and enjoy playing!
Tuning your drums the right way can make the most of any drum kit, yet drum tuning is an art that is often neglected! Why don't we show love to our sound? It's like a model not doing her hair or make-up; yes the clothes will look good on her, but the total package will not be nearly as spectacular!
What Music Do You play?
I ask this question a lot when it comes to gear and sound because musical choices dictate sound choices. If you play louder rock music, you won't tune your drums the same way a jazz drummer, a hip-hop drummer, or even an extreme metal drummer might tune them.
Musical style will dictate how low/high your tune particular voices of your kit, and how you tune the top head in relation to the bottom head.
For Example, rock drummers tune their drums low. In general, they tune the top heads of their toms and kick drum very loosely, almost to the point of wrinkling while still maintaining some sort of tone. Some drummers, like Stewart Copeland from the Police, achieve that low sound by tuning the bottom heads very low, and then tuning the top heads high (for better rebound). The sounds that these two methods create are not identical, but are both very useable and sound great. These low tones have a musical reason in rock: to provide low, punchy "attack" to the bass player's low notes, and percussive rhythm that sits under the band, and supports it from the bottom.
Jazz drummers, on the other hand, go for very high pitched drum tuning. They tune both sides of the drum tightly, with varying intervals between both heads. This makes the drums quieter not only "higher", but also takes them out of the frequency range of other acoustic instruments like pianos and double basses. Jazz drum sounds tend to drive the music from the middle or the top of the frequency ranges.
Getting The Head "In Tune"
What people sometimes forget about drum tuning, is that your drum heads need to be in tune with themselves. Our skins are slightly more complex than guitar strings, where you can simply tighten or loosen a knob and change the tension. With drums, there are several points of tension, each of which needs to be applying even pressure to the head for it to function optimally.
To get your head in tune with itself, you must create even tension at all lugs. There are different methods, but I personally like to tighten my lugs with my fingers first, and then proceed to tighten with a key in small movements (half turns usually). I follow the lug-order of the image below. One half turn at a time until I achieve the desired tension.
THEN, I make sure that the pitch of the head is the same at every lug. Placing the drum on a surface like a carpet, or my leg (so as to mute the side not being tuned), I lightly tap very close to each lug with a stick, to see if the head is "in tune" around each tuning point. Adjust your lugs accordingly, aiming for a uniform pitch around all parts of the head. Drum tuning is actually a lot like guitar or bass tuning in this respect. We are going for pitch clarity within the head itself.
Top And Bottom Head Relationship
The top and bottom head have a very sensitive relationship. Tuning a head very low or very high, on either end, will indeed produce an obviously noticeable result. However, when it comes to trying to tweak pitches, control ring and eliminate certain overtones for recording sessions or live micing (for example), the relationship of the tuning of the top and bottom drum heads becomes a bit more complex and harder to master.
The Top Head controls "attack and ring" (according to Wikipedia), while bottom head controls "resonance, sustain, overtones, and timbre" (also from Wikipedia). This is mostly true, but somewhat vague. As you can see, "sustain" and "ring" can be perceived as the same thing. In my experience, the top head does indeed control attack, but also "stick rebound". Tighter heads bounce better. Also, if you muffle the top head, the drum will sound very dead, especially if the mics are on top. So the top head does indeed control "ring and sustain" more than the bottom head, but mostly because we're hitting it!
Both heads control pitch; if you tune either of the heads really low or really high, the drum will sound low or high (respectively). In my experience, the top head's pitch will be more apparent to you from behind the drums, whereas the bottom head's pitch will be more apparent to the audience. Microphones change this situation a great deal, however.
If you've found an attack that you like, the bottom head can be tweaked to modify overtones that pop out. I've found that tuning the bottom skin fairly high will reflect sound back at you, the drummer sitting behind the kit. It's good for top-mic'd drums. Tuning the bottom skin too high with the top skin too low will create a "bouncing basketball" sound: a low thud impact with a really high pitched residual ring.
To go through all the possible combinations on this page would be a little bit insane, but follow the general drum tuning guidelines and experiment for yourself. Over time, you'll find something that you like.
Bass Drum Tuning
Bass drum sound is greatly affected by the skin choice.
But bass drum tuning has a big impact as well! Again, depending on the music, your tuning will vary.
Rock Drummers, or any other drummers looking for low-end punch and minimal ring, tend to muffle the bass drum heavily. This means putting towels, pillows, blankets, or anything else of the sort inside the bass drum. The more you push the material up against the batter head (skin you hit), the more muffled/dead/dry your sound will be. If you leave the front head untouched by the muffling material, there will be a dry punch of the batter head, followed by a slight hum of the vibrating front head.
Tuning of a heavily muffled head will change the pitch (i.e. the note the drum plays), as well as the feel on your foot (the "rebound" of the pedal), but not much else.
Jazz Drummers traditionally tune the heads higher, and muffle the bass drum very lightly, if at all. The high pitch goes with the theme of the rest of the kit being tuned high, mainly for the reason I stated before (getting out of the frequency range of the other instruments). Muffling with a rolled up towel, or a piece of felt placed between the bearing edge of the drum and the skin will help eliminate clashing overtones and prevent the bass drum from competing with other instruments for frequency space.
Open, high tuning like this means that a drummer needs to learn to play "off the head", and not bury the beater into the bass drum.
Snare Drum Tuning
The snare drum is a very particular beast, and it's easy and fun to discover new snare drum tuning options. The snare is really one of a drummers signature sounds. There are three "tunable" parts: the top head, the bottom head, and the snare wires.
I feel like there are so many "right" ways to tune a snare these days, that I will just tell you the couple ways that I tune mine, and then let you figure the rest out on your own. You're bound to come up with something cool sounding.
In an acoustic setting, in a boomy room, I tend to tune my snare drum higher, so that it will sound a bit quieter. In an ideal jazz club setting, (acoustic of course), I might tune the top head a little looser, but keep my bottom head tuned tightly, and the snares medium-tight to tight.
Mic'd up and louder, I like to loosen the snare and muffle it a bit (with a wallet or a muffling ring). For rock settings, I love the sound of a fat, loose snare hit right in the center.
I generally keep my snare wires tight for defined articulation and keep the bottom head crispy and tight as well.