LEARN HOW TO TUNE DRUMS. THIS IS SO IMPORTANT TO DRUMMERS OF EVERY LEVEL OF DUM KIT PLAYING WHETHER IN METAL, ROCK, JAZZ, POP, LATIN, OR ANYTHING ELSE.
So many times I hear students tell me that they need a new snare drum or that their toms are terrible. Sometimes it might be true but before they raid their parent’s bank accounts I always offer to check out their existing drums. Often it’s a simple case of an a poorly tuned drum.
If anything does need replacing, it is generally the drum head rather than the drum. Heads reach a point where they are impossible to tune and this will happen more quickly if you’re a hard hitter.
When selecting heads, there are many on offer but discussing this in detail is for another article. As a general rule, the thinner heads resonate more freely and therefore offer more tone. These are better for recording purposes and include the likes of Evans G1, Remo Diplomat or Remo Ambassador.
Thicker heads offer more durability so if you’re practising at home, or doing rock gigs and can’t afford to keep replacing your split Ambassadors, these are worth checking out. For recording purposes they are less useful as they lack the tone and vibrancy of their thinner counterparts. Such options include the Evans G2, Evans EC2, Remo Emporer, and Remo pinstripe.
The bottom head is known as the resonant head. So to allow it to resonate, it is much thinner. Remo Diplomats and the like are great for toms. With the snare drum, some drummers use batter heads on the bottom but many will use the purpose made resonant heads offered by all the top brands.
Before putting the new head on, make sure you have cleaned the debris and dust from the inside of the shell and around the bearing edges. Check that the bearing edges are in good condition as any imperfections will result in impossible tuning. If they are damaged, find a music shop that will recut them.
1. Place the head on your drum, place the rim on the head and slot the tension rods down into the lugs. Some people lubricate the tension rods with Vaseline.
2. Tighten each tension rod with your fingers. Always move across the drum and never to the tension rod next to where you started. If you begin at the 12 o’clock position, the next tension rod to be tuned is the one at 6 o’clock (see diagram above). Next you do the one at 1 o’clock, then 7 o’clock, etc. This allows the tension to be spread evenly around the drum.
3. Now, using the drum key start back at 12 o’clock and turn it 180 degrees. Now go round the drum, crisscrossing again with the half turn on each tension rod.
4. Repeat step 3 until the drum is close to the pitch that you want. You will want to do much smaller increments when it is close to the desired sound. Consider a 90 degree or 45 degree turn on each tension rod.
If it is a new head you will want to seat the drum head. Place one hand on the centre of the drum palm down. Place the other hand over it as if giving CPR. Push down fairly hard until you hear a terrifying splitting sound. Now relax, you haven’t broken the head. You’ve just broken it in, allowing the bond between the glue and the rim to stretch to the shape of the drum. This would have happened anyway once you started smacking it with a wooden stick and it would have gone out of tune. Now tune it back up and it should stay there.
We are now close to being fully tuned but there is one more stage. To fine tune the drum you must tap the head an inch in from each tension rod. The pitch should be identical on each. That means the drum is evenly tuned. If one area is different in pitch, tweak it with the drum key and use your ear to listen until each part of the drum sounds even. Voila!
Generally considered the most important drum of the drum kit, it is also very personal. Listen to ten great drummers and you will hear ten different snare sounds. This is affected by the snare drum shell material, snare heads, bearing edges, tuning, snare strand tension, playing style, and so on. You must find the right head combination and tuning for your own playing.
If the snare is buzzing, there are some solutions you can try:
1. Detune the lugs either side of the snares. You must then tighten the other lugs to compensate. This is the snare (bottom) head only, not the batter head.
2. Tune the batter head, or snare head to a different pitch.
3. Retune the high tom to a different pitch if that drum is causing the sympathetic frequency response.
4. Some drummers tape the snares to the drum head at either end. Experiment with this.
5. If all else fails, smash it with a sledge hammer in an uncontrolled fit of anger and then calmly begin to tune your spare snare drum and hope for better results.
These require the same technique as above but the relationships between each tom is important here. Many drummers tune toms a fourth apart. You can use a piano to get an idea of how this interval sounds. Some drummers are very specific and tune to exact pitches whereas others are happy with the approximate sound of the fourth. At the piano, hit a C note. Then go down and hit a G and then finally the D. That is the sound you want to aim for.
The relationship between the resonant and batter head is also important and, again, down to personal preference. As a general rule, the batter head primarily affects the tone, while the resonant head affects the note length. If the batter head is tensioned differently to the resonant head, it will decrease the resonance but may cause a pitch bend effect in the note sustain, which can be undesirable. Tuned to the same tension and the resonance might be too long. It’s a case of trial and error to find your preference.
In many styles, the bass drum is the easiest to tune as us drummers tend to muffle it to get that thud sound. Some drummers simply finger tighten each lug so that the wrinkles are only just taken out. Some use the drum key and go much tighter. Regarding muffling, some heads such as the Evans E-mad have their own integrated muffling systems. However, often something is placed inside the drum to achieve that dead sound depending on how much boom each drummer wishes to retain.
This might be a pillow, a towel, an EQ cushion (which is basically a more expensive pillow sold by drum head manufacturers) or a dead body (just testing if you’re concentrating!). Play around and see what works for you in your particular setting.
TO TAPE OR NOT TO TAPE?
Over the years many different materials have been placed upon drums to achieve certain sounds. These range from gaffa tape, paper towels, wallets, cigarette packets, tea towels, and anything else that does the job. Purpose made solutions include the O-rings and Moon Gel both of which should be part of any drummers tool box to help control unwanted overtones if and when they arise in different studios or concert halls.
My opinion is that you shouldn’t get caught thinking that the use of such techniques are needed in reaction to your inadequacy to tune a drum. If it helps achieve the best sound which ultimately helps you to offer the best drum track that the artist, producer or client is looking for, then do it. Every room causes the drum to react differently and your combination of drums/heads might just need a little helping hand for certain styles in certain situations. Do what you can to get a great sound.
I hope this guide helps a little but there really is no substitute to learning your own way through trial and error. Put in the effort to discover what works, make your mistakes, and learn from them. Whatever you do, don’t shy away from it or your drums will never sound their best.