Great drum sounds start with great-sounding drums.
Today, we have more tools than ever to aid us in creating compelling drums sounds. So why is it still so rare and startlingly satisfying to hear great-sounding drum recordings?
The truth is that few drummers (and even fewer engineers) have developed a sense for tuning drums to speak with power, nuance and authority.
This is no dig on drummers. Just hearing the fundamental pitch on a drum can be difficult at first, even for players trained on melodic instruments. Because of this, alongside piano players, drummers are perhaps the only instrumentalists who are commonly unable to tune their own instruments.
Although some great drummers can get their kit most of the way there on ears and instinct alone, the ones who care most about this part of the craft often develop a system that helps them achieve optimal sounds quickly and without guesswork.
With reliable information and a little practice you too will be able to get your studio’s kit to a reliable starting point without fuss, develop a greater understanding of the potential of any drum, and just maybe save the day from time to time.
The basic process is straightforward, but there are a few essential ingredients many tuning guides leave out. Study up here, and while your peers are loading their sound replacers with sonically-homogenizing sample libraries, you’ll be reaching for a drum key like the badass engineer you are.
There are plenty of basic guides out there, but it’s hard to find great written advice on drum tuning.
In doing research for this article, I found that the majority of percussion books glazed over the subject, most articles painted half the picture, and nearly every web-forums was rife with inaccuracies.
At its simplest, drum tuning can be broken down into a few basic steps. So it often is. But, once you try and follow through them for the first time, don’t be surprised if you come to the conclusion that there may be a few missing pieces to the puzzle.
A quick web search will provide dozens of links that outline the basic process of tuning a drum one head at a time. The advice often proves too good to be true for neophytes with high sonic standards:
1. Remove the old drumhead and wipe down the bearing edges. [The “bearing edge” is the part of the drum that comes into contact with the drumhead –Ed.]
2. Put on the new head and finger-tighten all the lugs. Gradually bring the drum up to a good pitch by tuning opposite lugs, one half-turn at a time.
3. “Seat” the head by firmly pressing down on its center. Depending on the type of head, you may hear distinct cracking sound as it seats. [This “seating” process stretches the head out, causing it to drop in pitch now – instead of loosening up and dropping out of tune later – in the middle of the session!]
4. Bring the drum back up to the desired pitch and fine tune. Repeat this process for the drum’s other head, and then on all the drums in the kit.
Sounds simple, right?
Well, anyone who’s spent hours chasing down dissonant overtones, and unexplained buzzes and rattles, or tried to correct unbalanced timbres, or lack of power, clarity or resonance, can tell you that “simple” is the last word that comes to mind.
Guides like these raise as many questions as they answer, not the least of which is “Desired pitch? What the hell is that?”
Although the steps above are in fact the basic nuts and bolts of the procedure, there are a few missing ingredients that, once understood, make the whole process much easier.
MISSING INGREDIENT #1: THE ENVIRONMENT
Tune for the room you’re recording in! A tuning that sounds great in one space may sound lousy in another.
This is a lesson I had to learn the hard way. I once had a session in Power Station New England, a stunning re-creation of one of New York City’s most iconic A-rooms.
After our initial setup, the band, producer, and I found ourselves shaking our heads over the sound of the snare drum, in the room and through the speakers.
The band’s drummer was a capable player, but not confident about his ear for tuning. When he heard I was learning to tune drums, he asked me to have a stab at it.
We took the snare drum out into the small, tiled studio lounge. The rest of the guys drank coffee and chewed that fat while I re-seated the head and toyed with the lugs. When we finally settled on the perfect tone, we took the drum back into the live room, only to find it sounded worse than before!
What seemed warm, resonant, and well-balanced in the lounge sounded choked and anemic in the spacious wood live room. In the end, I had to go through the process a second time, retuning the drum in the tracking room.
MISSING INGREDIENT #2: THE RIGHT HEADS
A quick look around the marketplace reveals nearly as many types of drum-heads as there are drummers. The sheer variety can be dizzying, but don’t fear. For the purposes of outfitting your studio’s drums and holding onto some spares, the classic options are your friends:
In the studio, basic single-ply heads are the way to go.
While 2-ply or dotted heads can be great on tour where their durability and built-in muffling are assets, they often lack excitement, sensitivity, and flexibility in the studio. You can always dampen down a lively and resonant single-ply drumhead, but you can’t put life back into a dull 2-ply head.
For top (“batter”) heads, a single-ply coated REMO Ambassador, Evans G1, or Aquarian Satin Finish will do nicely.
This type of head has been the most popular choice for generations for a good reason. If you want a little more bright articulation and a little less low-mid resonance from your batter head, you can go with clear versions of these single-ply heads instead.
For bottom (“resonant”) heads, single-ply heads are also a good choice. They’ll steer you toward well-balanced tom sounds with ample sustain.
If you prefer a little less resonance, try a thinner single-ply head like the Remo Diplomat, Evans Genera Resonant or Aquarian Hi-Frequency.
For the bottom (“snare-side”) head of your snare drum, use the special snare-side version of either of these head types. They’re thinner, allowing the snares to vibrate more freely.
For bass drum, I’ll break my studio-wide prohibition on pre-muffled and even 2-ply drums. Feel free to use one if you’re a fan of tight, focused kick drum sounds.
For Tom Toms, please, please, please use the same combination of heads for each and every one. You’ll thank me later.
Once you feel you’ve become a true blue drum-tuning expert, feel free to experiment with new and unusual drum heads. But don’t be surprised if you keep coming back to the classics: a one-ply coated on top and one-ply clear head on the bottom is always a flexible choice, and a studio standard for a reason.
MISSING INGREDIENT #3: EVEN TENSION
One of the most crucial parts of the process is keeping the head in tune with itself while bringing up the pitch.