Ho To Tune a Drum - The Ultimate Guide
Posted in Guides And Tips | Last Updated on January 20, 2018
General Drum Tunning
It seems a common question that comes up with beginners to seasoned players as well is the topic of proper drum tuning.
The first thing to consider is; what type of sound are you looking for, what are you trying to achieve with your drums? This should always be re-evaluated every time you are not happy with your drum sound. It has happened where a drummer has said I want more attack out of my toms when ahead is suggested; the drummer will reply with, “No, I use so and so heads.” Sometimes it is not that obvious a point, but drumming as well as life is meant to be constantly re-evaluated, and where better to start the process than from the beginning!
So now, you have decided what drummers’ sounds you like and what type of playing situation you mostly are involved in. It is good to understand the physics of how a drum works.It is much like a speaker. A speaker has a driving force (magnet) then heavy cloth like material to push the sound.In a drum, your driver is the stick, and the heads are what produce the sound. In order to fatten up the sound, a second head (resonant) head was added. When the stick strikes the batter head, air is pushed out of the drum, with the bottom head in place, the air reaches the bottom head, which pushes the air back to the top head and back and forth until the air escapes and the sound is over. Without a bottom head, the air leaves the drum immediately, and the only sound is the initial strike. The bottom head is what allows the note to last for as long as it does.
So, if you wanted your drums to resonate for as long as possible the ideal situation is for the tension of the drum heads to be identical. In this case, the air comes back at an equal rate than it left the previous head (at least in a frictionless world). Air does escape the wood of the drum and energy does get transmitted to the wood, this is why the head does not resonate forever. The energy that is transmitted to the wood is where the drum characteristics play a factor in the sound of your drum set.
The opposite is true, if you want your drums to have a very short sustain, then you would tension your drum heads differently from each other.How much so, and which one should be tighter will be discussed later.
I prefer to start with the tone of the resonant head. When tensioning heads people generally use the spare tire method. That would be tensioning the lugs across from each other instead of going in a circle. I prefer to tune the resonant head without the batter side on. If you are in a hurry you can leave the batter head on, but it is a good idea to keep your finger on it or dampen it somehow when testing the pitch.
Tapping and Tweaking
The hardest toms to tune are the largest ones, so it is good to start there. So starting with the resonant hand tighten as described above. Then with your tuning key, turn each lug 1 full turn. With your stick gently tap the head next to each lug on the drumhead. For a floor tom you may actually be satisfied with one (or all if you are lucky) of the pitches given by the resonant head. Find the one you are most satisfied with and tune the other lugs to match that pitch. This will ensure even tensioning of the head and an even vibration of your resonant head. You will also find that some heads crack and pop when you put them on. This is not a problem at all, it is just the glue crackling a little, it is to be expected and is no way a defect. For heads that do this, I will tighten the lugs with the spare-tire method until it starts to crack, then I will put all of my weight on my hand and press into the head to get it to get all of it’s crackling out of the way. This is a good idea to do to ANY head as it breaks it in a little bit and it will stay in tune better. Then, I will loosen the lugs and start from the beginning.
Now add the batter head. You can use the identical method as above. When you find the tone you are happy with, then fine tune all of the lugs to sound the same. This will achieve maximum resonance out of your drums without a lot of overtones.
Personally, with the floor toms I like a really low and punchy sound. I have my resonant and batter heads tuned about the same and very loose. If you lean on the batter head, you will see a wrinkle or two, the resonant head is just a little bit tighter.
Now we move up to the rack mounted toms. These generally go a lot faster than the floor toms even though they are usually tensioned a bit tighter. Follow the steps that you did with the floor tom, Resonant then batter. Except after you have hand tightened the lugs, then given each of them a full turn using the spare-tire method, because you generally tension them a little tighter, it may be necessary to give then each one a half-turn again, with the spare-tire method, then maybe a quarter turn and so on. It is necessary that the tighter the head gets, that you give smaller and smaller turns while tensioning. This ensures that the head will sit properly on the head.As always it is a good idea to push the head with your palm and stretch it out, and then fine tune to the desired pitch. Tap around the lugs, finds the pitch you like and get them all the same by tapping and tweaking.
If there is one drum that the sound is bothering you on, you need to narrow down the causes for this. It can only come from three places, resonant head, batter head, or the drum itself. To test which head the bad tone is coming from place your finger on the resonant head to the troublesome drum. Strike the drum with a stick. If the tone you heard before is gone, then you have a problem with the tuning of your resonant head. Of course, you can do the opposite to test if it is your batter head that is the problem. If you are unable to get rid of the bad tone, chances are your bearing edge may not be completely level and you have bigger problems to deal with. After you have discovered which head is giving you the problem, just “tap and tweak” until everything sounds good to you.
So that covers tuning your tom-toms. Now the bass drum and snare drum are both similar to the toms in the method you should use. Personally, I tend to tension the snare drum relatively tight on both sides and the bass drum fairly loose. Also, since bass drums typically are mic’d live, I muffle the resonant side with Remo’s Muffler Ring that consists of a 22” Circular foam piece and a plastic device to hold it in place. This gives the soundman complete control over my bass drum tone and allows no overtones from the resonant head. Also, by not using a pillow on the inside, the sound is even and projects better.
I think this covers the basics of tuning your drums. Of course, you will need to experiment to see what sounds best to you. All of these principles apply to any type of head that you may use; Remo, Evans, Two-ply, hydraulic, single-ply.
How Some Famous Drummers Tune
Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, most any big band drummer
- Snare - With the snares off, the drum should sound like a medium-pitched timbale with lots of ring and overtones. With the snares on, the *slightest* tap of the stick should produce a crisp snare sound.
- Bass - A "small marching bass" best describes a big band bass drum. The only muffling is usually a couple felt strips stretched across the inside of both heads.
- Toms - They should sing! Overtones are welcome here.
- Snare - Tensioned the same as Gene Krupa but twice as tight. The classic plywood batter head -- snare head almost as tight.
- Bass - Tensioned fairly tight, but still deep, normal rock muffling.
- Toms - Tensioned the same as Gene Krupa but twice as tight. Both heads tuned to the same pitch. No muffling. The extra tension will negate any need for muffling. It will also make the head last longer and harder to break.
- Snare - Tensioned fairly loose, muffled a bit with a donut. The snare head should be tighter than the batter head so it doesn't buzz mushily.
- Bass - Tensioned slightly tighter than wrinkled, lots of muffling. (Wooden or plastic beater to get that classic "crack!" attack.)
- Toms - You definitely need power toms to get his depth. Heavy heads like Emperor's or Pinstripes. Tuned to the lowest pitch possible before deadness sets in.
- Snare – Remo Ambassador Coated; tensioned the same as Gene Krupa but not so much ring, slightly tighter.
- Bass - Tensioned the same as Stew -- pretty much, a little looser.
- Toms – Remo Ambassador Coated, well-tuned to the drums' preference. Each drum shell has its favorite pitch where it will resonate most. Find it and don't muffle it. Bottom head same as top. Prior to the Test For Echo DW set Neil used Clear Remo Emperors tuned in the same fashion.
- Snare – Very tight on both sides. Remo coated CS with dot on bottom for the batter. Very ringy without muffling, Mike adds a muffling device to get rid of the ring.
- Toms – Remo Pinstripes – Tesnined fairly loose.
- Bass – Remo Pinstripes Tensioned just tight enough to eliminate wrinkles.
- Snare - Looser than medium, whatever that means. Snare head is about the same as batter head, slightly tighter.
- Bass - Same as Neil.
- Toms - As explained in his video “Back To Basics,” he tunes them just so the wrinkles are gone, then detunes a lug or two. His bottom heads may be a tiny bit looser than the batter heads.