Studio Skillset: Drum Tuning Essentials

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Tuning opposite lugs one half-turn at a time is helpful, but not guaranteed to keep you on track.

Some companies sell torque tuning keys that supposedly measure the amount of tension on each lug.

These are essentially useless.

We want to make sure that the tension of the head is even all the way around. The lugs themselves have little to do with anything. This is especially true if the lugs are rusted or bent in any way. It’s even possible to have an evenly tensioned head and find that one or two lugs have very little tension on them. This is even more likely with drums that have many lugs.

The Drum Dial helps expedite tuning by taking measurements of the tension at each position on the drumhead.

There are two tools that will help measure whether a head is evenly tensioned:

The first and most valuable of these tools is your ears. Tap the head near the lugs and listen for a note.

The other tool is the Drum Dial.

If you’re serious about learning drum tuning fast, there’s no better complement to the fleshy gauges that come factory-mounted on either side of your head.

But be careful: The Drum Dial is extremely useful, especially in the learning process, and can even help you figure out what you’re listening for. It also, for some inexplicable reason, is routinely trash-talked by superstitious drummers who have never used one.

Place this device directly on your drumhead, one inch away from the rim, and it will give you a tension reading of the skin at each lug.

In addition to helping you keep even tension around the head, if you find a tuning you love, you’ll be able to write down the marking and easily return to it whenever you like.

MISSING INGREDIENT #4: KNOW YOUR GOAL

Even though the drum kit is considered a “non-pitched instrument,” each drum will speak the loudest and most resoundingly at one specific note. It’ll often sound plenty good at a small handful of other pitches too.

When you finally find a note where your drum really sings, do yourself a favor: Write it down.

First, hit the batter side with a stick while muting the resonant side with a pillow or something similar.

Sing the pitch you hear. Then, find that note on a piano or other tone generator. Write it down. If you have a Drum Dial, take a measurement of the tension at each lug. Write that down too.

You’ll begin to find patterns, and discover that certain diameter drums often sound best in a certain range of pitches.

For instance: A kick drum often sounds best around the lowest pitches it’s capable of producing. On a 22” drum, I often find this note is usually an F or F-sharp for the batter side, depending on the drum. I also know that the resonant-side of a kick drum often sounds pretty good when I tune it one half-step higher than the batter side.

Knowing the note ranges I’m looking for and the tension they will show on my Drum Dial makes the process quick and painless.

Similarly, I know that when it comes to a traditional 14” snare drum, I’ll often find a note I really like anywhere between A-flat and B. That’s the default range for me. I also know that these pitches start to show up at a fairly high tension: often over 85psi on my Drum Dial.

I tend to like my toms near the lower end of their spectrum, especially for rock. Based on my personal tastes, I’m likely to tune a 14” floor tom somewhere around an F. If I want to find this quickly on the Drum Dial, I know I’ll find it lower down, just under 75psi on the heads I like.

For my tastes, that range serves as a good all-purpose default. For a jazzy tone the toms might be tuned higher. For certain types of metal, I might drop them down until they’re practically flaccid.

I find that having great starting places doesn’t paint me into a corner. If anything, these quick and easy touchstones leave me with more room to explore. Having a surefire lifeline to familiar territory can have the effect of making us more adventurous.

With the heavy lifting already done, I can use my ears for the delicate stuff, exploring my options and fine-tuning the lugs to quickly get to the best-sounding pitch for that drum, with that head, on that day, on that song.

MISSING INGREDIENT #5: RELATIONSHIPS BETWEEN HEADS

Once you’ve found a batter-side tuning that works, it’s time to tune the resonant side.

For starters, try tuning the resonant-head to the same pitch as your batter-side head.

Sounds pretty alright, doesn’t it? Okay great! If you’re happy, you can stop there.

Want to try something else? Okay. You have two ways to go: Tune that bottom sucker up, or tune it down. Either way, you’ll start to get some pitch bend happening. Experiment! See what you like. If you get too far off course, you’ll always have your reference point: Tune back to unison and start again.

Kick drums tend to sound pretty good with the reso-head tuned a half step lower than the batter head. They can also sound cool with no front head at all, if you’re into that kind of thing.

Tom Tom resonant heads can sound nice and balanced at unison. You can tune them down a half-step or up a half-step to get some serious pitch-bend. Other pitches may work, but this tends to be a fail-safe starting point.

For snare drum, the traditional orchestral approach is to find a note where the top head works well, and then tune up the bottom head so that it’s a 4th or even a 5th higher. So, if your top head was an A, your bottom head might be a D or an E.

Moongel Drum Dampening Pads by RTOM

Tuning the bottom head up in this way causes the snares to be more sensitive. You should get plenty of crack and articulation, and will even be able to loosen the snare band a little.

If you want a fatter, slushier sound, try tuning the bottom head down instead. Just a little though. A 4th or a 5th is probably too low.

Tuning both heads to the same note can work great too. It’s a pretty classic sound.

If all of these sounds are open and resonant for you, you might like the old “funky drummer” trick: first, get to a good place where the drums speak well and have a pleasing sustain. Then, take one lug on the top of the snare and crank it down a half or full turn. You’ll lose a lot of that resonance and end up with a sound that’s a whole lot drier, tighter and funkier before you even touch a Moongel or a piece of gaff tape.

MISSING INGREDIENT #6: RELATIONSHIPS BETWEEN DRUMS

A lot of people don’t think of their kit as a pitched instrument. But the fact is, no matter where your drums end up tuning wise they are at some collection of pitches. Aren’t you better off picking ones that sound good together?

A good rule of thumb is to tune drums in 3rds, 4ths, 5ths and Octaves when compared to each other. As a general rule, really small intervals sound pretty silly, as do really big ones. Basically, stay away from any kind of 2nd or 7th and you’ll be fine.

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  • Very well written and full of good information.
    Thank you!

  • Anonymous

    Great article. Very clear and concise, though I think that drummers working in a live environment might appreciate more detail on tuning for the room; maybe a good idea for a followup.

  • Nickmeister

    Great article, man. Thank you.