Studio Skillset: Drum Tuning Essentials

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If you start with the highest drum in your kit and work your way down, you may end up painting yourself into a corner by the time you reach your floor tom. I strongly recommended you start low and go high.

Begin with the kick and find a note that works. Let’s say you’re working with a 22” kick that sounds good at an F.

Now, let’s say your next drum is a 14” tom that sounds pretty good at an F (one octave up from the kick), an F-sharp, or a G. Which note do you think we should tune it to?

If you said “the F one octave up”, you’re damn right. If you also said that the other options would probably sound stupid in context, you’re even more right.

Here’s one of many possible tuning options that may work with some standard-sized drums:

22” Kick: F (Root)
16” Tom: C (5th up)
14” Tom: F (4th up)
12” Tom: B-flat (4th up)
10” Tom: D (3rd Up)

If you’re kicking yourself for never taking a music theory class, don’t worry. You too can tune drums in a perfect 4th or 5th without thinking very hard about it.

Do you remember 2001: A Space Odyssey?

Yes, the one with the monkeys and that big obelisk thing.

Good. Can you hear those iconic timpanis in your head? You know, the ones that go “bum-bum bum-bum bum-bum bum-bum.”

Yeah, so can I. That’s a 4th down.

Now hum the melody. Those first two notes are a 5th up!

If you tune drums to have nice round relationships like those, they’ll work in any style of music.

MISSING INGREDIENT #7: HEARING PITCHES IN DRUMS

I have to warn you. If you start talking about tuning drums to specific pitches in front of certain drummers, you will get dirty looks from some of them.

Initially, some drummers resist the idea of figuring out what pitches they’re tuning to. Often, this is a self-defense mechanism. Why? Because trying to learn this skill requires that we admit two things.

1) It’s hard.
2) We’re not sure if we can do it.

At first, figuring out the pitch of a drum can be very difficult, even for those of us who play a real instrument, not to mention drummers.

(Kidding, kidding. I get to make one drummer joke, right?).

If you’re having trouble guessing what pitch your drum is at now, chances are your digital guitar tuner will be as confused as you are. However, if you’re smacking away at a drum and just can’t get a solid feel for what the fundamental note is, I have some good news for you:

Jaws can save your life.

Try this: First, mute one head with a pillow. Hit your drum once, then quickly crank up the tension enough to hear a real difference, and hit it again.

With any luck you will have unleashed the minor 2nd, an interval that just happens to be the building block of the Jaws theme. You know the one:

Da-dum…. Da-dum….. DaDumDaDumDaDumDaDum…

If you had trouble finding the fundamental note by itself, this new contrast should make two choices for your fundamental note stand out. Pick one of these notes, hold it in your mind, and tune all of your lugs to match that note. (Remember that it’s always best to tune up to your desired pitch, not down).
Whenever you get lost, just remember that contrast often allows us to hear the hidden fundamental pitch.

Jump into the mouth of the shark and be saved!

TUNING TO THE KEY OF A SONG

By now, you’ve probably heard that some producers like to tune their kick drum to the key of the song. Does this mean you should have a complete arsenal of a dozen kick drums, all ready to be pulled off the shelf at a moment’s notice?

Of course not.

What it does mean is that if you have a kick drum that sounds great at F or F-sharp, and you’re playing a song in F, you’re probably better off tuning to the F.

If the key was D Major, that same kick drum might just sit a whole lot better in the mix if it was tuned to an F-sharp.

Food for thought.

A CAVEAT

I’m not trying to convince you that your drum kits should sound note-y or melodic. None of the drums we’ve discussed here are timpanis or roto-toms. Even at best the pitches on a standard drum kit are subliminal and relative.

If you did a great job tuning your kit, we’ll be subconsciously aware of the musicality and balance you’ve developed across your kit – It won’t smack us in the face.

MUFFLING AND DAMPENING

A lot of songs don’t benefit from an enormously ringy giant Def Leppard-style snare drum.

Although I recommend tuning first to a place where each drum has a good balanced resonance, once you’re there, moongels, gaff tape, tea towels, packing blankets and the like can all be your friends.

The idea is that you never want to be hunting down awkward and dissonant overtones with your muffling tools. That’s what tuning is for. Approach it backwards and you can be sure your drum sounds will suffer.

CONCLUSION

Many drummers tune instinctively, and that’s fine. Few drummers are trained in pitch recognition and many are reluctant to learn on their own. That’s okay too. It just makes your new skills more valuable.

The truth is, whenever we tune drums instinctively, we’re creating musical relationships on the fly. When those relationships are sounding good there’s no problem; Without even knowing it, we’re often following the guidelines laid out here.

But, whenever we run into problems it can be helpful to stop and look at the map.

I hope this little map has been valuable to you. If it was, please share it!

Now get tuning.

Justin Colletti is a Brooklyn-based producer/engineer who works with uncommon artists, and a journalist who writes about music and how we make it. Visit him at http://www.justincolletti.com.

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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.