The Lost Art of Drum Tuning
Photo by kamalaboulhosn
Greetings, fellow halfstepup.com readers. Today I’m going to tackle a subject that often mystifies, intimidates, and infuriates: drum tuning. Properly tuned drums are absolutely essential to a quality performance, whether live or recorded, and are significantly easier to play. Unfortunately, many drummers are clueless when it comes to tuning, and resort to all sorts of nonsense in attempts to make their drums sound halfway decent. (Tampons on the floor tom? Please.) Luckily, with a little patience and persistence, anyone can learn how to tune a drum set properly. Your engineer and band mates will thank you.
Step 1: Replace Your Drumheads
Despite what manufacturers will have you believe about wood types, rim types, mounting hardware, finishes, and other things, 85-90% of a drum’s tone is due to head choice and tuning. Drumheads are engineered to take a lot of abuse, but they still wear out over time Drumheads are engineered to take a lot of abuse, but they still wear out over time… and need regular replacement for your drums to sound their best. How much mileage you get out of them depends on your head choice and playing style; in general, if the head is dented, dished out in the center, torn, or broken, it’s well overdue for replacement. Be sure to replace your bottom heads too, as they naturally stretch out and lose tone over time. Proper head choice will be tackled in another article; for now, if you’re not sure what type of drumhead suits you best, ask your knowledgeable drum store clerk. Be sure to tell him what style of music you play, how often you play, and how heavily you hit. Smaller stores often have more knowledgeable sales people – ask here first, before you spend hard-earned cash on specialized heads you don’t need.
Step 2: Get Ready To Tune
Find a nice, quiet location to tune your drums. (The green room in the back of a noisy club right before show time is not a solid choice.) First, unscrew your tuning rods and remove the old top and bottom heads. Take a dry, soft cloth and wipe down the bearing edges (where the drum meets the head) to remove stick shavings and dirt. Once clean, set your drum on a flat, level surface; a glass coffee table is perfect. Make sure the drum sits evenly against the surface and does not wobble; if the drum does not sit flat, it is “out of round” and will prove very difficult to tune. Consult your local drum shop for repair or replacement.
Step 3: Tune Up
Start with the bottom head. Set your drum on a carpeted surface or towel to protect the bearing edge, with the bottom facing up towards you. Place the new head on the drum, making sure it sits evenly on the bearing edge. Place the rim over the head and tighten all the lugs BY HAND until they are finger tight; don’t use your drum key yet! Once finger-tight, tighten each lug a quarter turn using your drum key. Move in a clockwise, opposite lug pattern. For example, if your drum has six lugs, first tighten the lugs at 12 o’clock and 6 o’clock, then at 2 o’clock and 8 o’clock, then at 4 o’clock and 10 o’clock. Continue in this fashion for several rotations until the wrinkles in the head disappear. Tap the head lightly with the edge of your drum key approximately 2” from one of the lugs; if you hear a pitch, stop. If you hear buzzing or flapping plastic, continue tightening until you can hear a pitch. The goal is to find the lowest tension where your head produces a tone.
Step 4: Match Pitches
This step is where most drummers get frustrated and give up. Be patient and work slowly! Once you get the hang of things, you’ll find this to be significantly easier the next time around. Once you get the hang of things, you’ll find this to be significantly easier the next time around. We have to get the drumhead in tune with itself, by achieving equal tension at each lug. Start at 12 o’clock again and tap the head 2” from the lug. Listen to the tone. Mute the drum, then tap at 6 o’clock and listen again. If one lug sounds higher in pitch than the other, tighten the lower-pitched lug 1/8 of a turn, and loosen the higher-pitched lug 1/8 of a turn. Tap and listen again. Repeat the procedure until the lugs both sound the same pitch. Once finished, move on to the next set of lugs. Use your 12 o’clock lug as a reference; try to match this pitch with the next set of lugs, tightening or loosening them by 1/8 of a turn until they match pitch with each other and your first set of lugs. Continue around the drum in the same clockwise, opposite lug pattern until the head is in tune with itself.
Now, repeat the process for the top head. Place the drum, bottom head side down, on a towel or carpet to keep the head from vibrating, and follow the same steps. Once the top head is evenly tensioned, you’re nearly done!
Step 5: Raise Or Lower Top And Bottom Head Pitch To Taste
Finally, we need to raise or lower the pitches of the top and bottom heads in relation to one another. When raising or lowering pitch, be sure to tighten lugs as before, in a clockwise, opposite lug pattern. Small amounts of tension can affect pitch more than you might think; work slowly and in 1/8 turn increments. The relationship between the two heads is up to you, but general guidelines for drum types follow:
- Toms: For a nice, open sound with a defined note, try to match the top and bottom heads as closely in pitch as possible. For a fatter sound, try tuning the top head slightly lower than the bottom. For a brighter sound with more attack, tune the top head slightly higher.
- Bass drum: Bass drums can be tricky to tune, as the pitch of each head is low and harder to hear. Try to match the beater and front heads as closely in pitch as possible; you’ll know you have it right when you can feel the kick drum in your chest as you play.
- Snare: For a deep rock sound, keep the top and bottom heads tuned just above the lowest possible pitch, and in tune with each other. For a nice open tone, tighten both heads until they are both at a higher pitch, yet still in tune with themselves. For a bright, crisp sound with lots of attack, tighten the bottom head slightly, and then tighten the top head until it is significantly higher than the bottom. Experiment with snare wire tension, too.
Tricks Of The Trade, And A Few Words On Muffling
Photo by eyeliam
At this point, your drums should be sounding pretty good. Try to dial in your drum’s “sweet spot” where it sounds the most open and resonant. Experiment to find in what ranges they sound best; for example, some drums tune up high just fine, while others sound choked and unnatural. Likewise, some drums sound great at lower tunings, while others sound flabby. The quality and type of construction of your drums greatly influences your available tuning range. If you’re having difficulty matching pitches, try tuning below the desired pitch first, then tuning back up to it.
Also, think about tuning the kit relative to itself; the bass drum should be the lowest note, followed by the floor tom, middle tom, high tom, and then snare. Turn the snare wires off so you can more easily discern pitch.
Properly tuned drums should require no muffling to sound “good,” aside from bass drums. (Unless using specialized heads, a pillow or folded blanket that rests against no more than 20% of the front and beater heads is perfect.) However, there may be situations where you want less sustain; in these instances, the use of muffling is acceptable. I prefer MoonGel , as it is easy to apply and remove, and leaves no residue on drumheads. You can also use pre-sized plastic rings that sit directly on the head. In a pinch, a SMALL piece of tape attached near the rim of the head is acceptable In a pinch, a SMALL piece of tape attached near the rim of the head is acceptable, but try to avoid it (and the aforementioned tampons) if at all possible; it tends to take off the head coating when removed and leaves behind a sticky mess. That’s not very professional, is it? If you find yourself reaching for muffling often, consider purchasing a thicker batter head, which naturally lowers sustain; again, ask your knowledgeable drum store clerk for recommendations.
Drum tuning is very subjective; what sounds good to one drummer may sound terrible to another. Take the time to experiment with your drums, and learn how to dial in the sound that you want. With the techniques in this article, you should easily be able to duplicate your results, instead of resorting to trial-and-error. You might even find that you don’t need that new expensive drum set yet, now that you’ve heard the true sonic potential of your current kit. Stay tuned for more installments on how to get the best sound possible out of your drums… until then, happy tuning!