(or at least what I know about it.)


This is just a simple guide to getting your drums sounding better than cardboard boxes. It is designed for the beginning drummer who is clueless about how to get drums to sound like drums. But I think even some experienced drummers may pick up some helpful techniques.

I will add more and more information as I learn and experience more about tuning. My main goal is to have the best information that can be accessed quickly by the slowest modems. I'm not interested in having a graphics heavy site with spinning logos and all the junk that makes you wait ten minutes to download. Besides, you've wasted enough time just reading this. :-p

I'm not interested in being a know-it-all about tuning. I always want to learn more, so please send me your comments, suggestions, complaints and/or compliments.

Mike Radcliffe
tuning AT mikedrums DOT com
you can email me at the address above,
but because of the ridiculous about of spam I get from phishing-bots,
you need to replace the AT and DOT, manually.


NEW
So, What's the Deal with the Drum Dial / Tension Watch?


Contents

Glossary
Tensioning Pattern
Seating a New Head

Tuning-

Bass Drum
Snare Drum
Muffling
Other Resources


Always wondered what size drums to buy? Or what kind of wood they should be? 
Check out how these factors effect the sound of a drum and decide for yourself which is best for you in my
DRUM SHELL GUIDE


Glossary:

Drum Head-- round membrane which stretches across a drum to produce sound.
Batter head-- or the TOP head: this is the head that is struck with the stick.
Resonant head-- or the BOTTOM head: the head that controls the drum's resonance.
Tension Rod-- the bolt that goes through holes in the rim, used to pull the head down across the bearing edge, and tighten or loosen for tuning.
Lugs -- The metal casings attached to the drum into which the tension rods screw to tune the head. (When discussing tuning, "lugs" and "tuning rods" are often interchanged.)
Drum Key-- A small T-shaped, wrench used to turn tension rods. Most often keys and rods are square-headed.
Bearing Edge-- the edge of the drum shell where the drum head lays. Like the part of a pot where the lid sits.
Rim-- metal hoop used to hold the head. Tension rods go through the holes and into the lugs to tension the head.
Hoop-- large rim for a bass drum; usually made of wood.
Zero-ring-- An O-shaped piece of plastic the diameter of a drum used to slightly muffle it, by laying on top of the head. Can be cut out of old heads or purchased.

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Seating a New Head

It's a good idea to "seat" new drum head before tuning. This sort of bends and stretches the plastic to conform with the drum's bearing edge. It also pre-stretches the head so you don't have to re-tune so often.  This isn't absolutely necessary, as it will happen over time.  But if not done, you will notice the heads going out of tune in the first hour or so of playing.  I highly recommend seating heads if you're in the studio.

Place head on drum. Make sure it can move or spin freely. Some drums are bigger than others; if it feels tight, rotate it until you find a spot in which it feels best. This usually isn't a problem, so don't get anal about it.  :-)
Set the rim on the head and line up the tension rod holes with the lugs. Place the rods in the holes and insert into the lugs. Finger tighten the tension rods until they just touch the rim. You can see the "play" in the washers tighten, when they just touch the rim.

You need to tighten the head quite a bit for this. It is important when seating a head, to tighten it evenly at all lugs. You need to learn the Tensioning Pattern for tightening and loosening a drum head, before going on to the next step.

For seating the head, using the pattern, tighten each tension rod a quarter to half turn. [When just learning this procedure, it's best to use smaller increments, so stick with quarter turns for now.] Keep tightening until the head is very tight. This will take several cycles of the pattern, so just keep going. You will tighten the head much tighter than it ever will be for normal tuning. But don't go so far as to break a lug or something. If you find yourself reaching for the socket wrench, you've gone too far. When you reach a dead, high pitched, tight, timbale-like sound, you can stop. Now place the drum on the floor (carpet is nice), and get down on your knees. Place your overlapping palms in the center of the head, like you're giving CPR, and push down into the head. Keep your balance and just push down with quite a bit of force. You can use all the weight of your upper body, just keep your knees on the floor. Don't worry; as long as your knees stay on the floor, you're fine (unless you can levitate or something). You will probably hear little cracking noises coming from the head, during all of this. That's normal-- it's the excess glue settling in the rim. If the head does come out of the its hoop during the seating process, it was a bad head and should be returned. [I've never had it happen.] Just push down into the head for a few seconds at a time, about half a dozen times, that's it.
The head is now seated enough to tune. Proceed with tuning!

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Tuning:
Place the drum on a carpeted floor or a drum throne. It's nice to have the opposite head muffled while tuning.
Assuming you have seated your new heads, proceed:

Do the following steps 1 and 2 to both top and bottom heads, one at a time.

1- Loosen head almost all the way, not quite so loose that tension rod washers lose contact with the rim, just enough to put some slack into it. The head must stay centered on the bearing edge, where it was seated, so don't loosen too far. The head can get plenty of slack without coming loose from the drum, if that makes any sense.

2- Getting the Slack Out

Why did we just put slack into the head if we're going to take it out again? We are trying to find the lowest possible tension at which the head will produce a nice tone, and that's an easy way to start. Continue...

Choose a starter rod (as you did in the seating process). Slightly tighten each rod-- one at a time, (using the tensioning pattern is a good idea) in the following way. Tighten about a quarter to half turn. While turning the rod, use a stick or finger and tap the head about an inch in from the rod you are turning. Listen to the sound it makes. It will be all floppy at first until you reach a point where the head gets the slightest bit of tension and produces an actual tone with a little resonance. Do this with each lug just to the point where there is only an eighth to quarter-turn difference between a "floppy" sound and "a tone with a little resonance." This should take very little time, unless you loosened the head too far in step 1.
This should be the lowest tension that the drum will produce a drum-like sound.

[You should have done Steps 1 and 2 to both the top and bottom heads.]

3-Getting Even Tension on the Head

After step two, you should have a very open boingy, maybe oscillating, sound-- boow-anga-wanga-wanga. This is not a very usable sound. Now tighten each lug of the batter head just slightly-- about one sixteenth of a turn (like from 9 o'clock to 10 o'clock-- I know, that's one twelfth, but you get the point.) Hit it again and listen. It probably cleaned up the sound tremendously. Maybe not. If step 2 was done very accurately, the head should have very even tension, already. But, this isn't always the case.
You should make sure the head has even tension at each lug. Just tap around the outside of the head, next to the rim by each lug, and listen for obvious high or low notes and correct them. Use a stick or your finger. You can actually just touch the head and you will hear a pitch. Do what works for you. Loosen the lugs that are high and tighten the low ones.

Now, to throw a wrench in the works. You always should tune "up." When a lug is loosened, the head may not always slip back from the bearing edge. Sometimes they bind slightly. To avoid this, you should always loosen more than you need to and then tighten back. For example, if you need to tighten an eighth of a turn, loosen a quarter-turn and then tighten back up an eighth. I think this is done with guitar strings, too.
Slightly tighten the low lugs and slightly loosen the high ones, until they are close to the same pitch. Even it all out, but don't get too anal about it. You will never get them all to match perfectly. The physical properties of the whole drum thing just don't make it probable. It's not really that necessary, either. Just listen for obvious or gross differences and get them close. The head should now be evenly tuned, or in tune with itself. The head has even tension at all points-- or pretty darn close.

At this point, the drum will still sound pretty low, since you've only tightened it slightly above the "floppy" stage, and evened out the tension, right? It may still sound warbley, just like at the beginning of this step. Now that you have even tension, you just need to make the same adjustment at each lug to raise or lower the pitch of the drum. Very slight adjustments, again, even just one sixteenth of a turn, will make a big change in the pitch. A very slight tightening of each lug will clean up a warbley sound. Before choosing a pitch at which to tune the head go to step 4 to learn how the individual tensions of the top and bottom heads affects the sound of a drum.

4-Adjust Relative Tension

The relative tensions of the top and bottom heads is what controls the resonance of a drum. Usually, you tune the top head to the general pitch you want the drum. Then you tune the bottom head to produce the desired resonance.
There are three ways to set the relative tension of the heads and each affects the resonance differently.
A. Top and bottom heads are the same. This will usually produce the most sustain, or resonance. It also gives the drum the most pure tone or pitch. This depends on the depth of the shell. Sometimes you will need to go slightly tighter with the bottom head to have this result. Speaking of tighter...
B. Bottom tighter than the top. Depending on the depth of the shell, this may increase the resonance if it is slight. But as it gets tighter, it will start to choke the sustain.
C. Bottom head lower than the top. Less sustain the looser it gets. Again, going to an extreme will choke the drum.
In B and C, there is a difference in the relative tension of the heads. Anytime you tune this way, you can get "pitch bend" in the sound of the drum. This is just another option in sound, it is either good or bad, depending on your preference. However, pitch bend will only occur at lower tuning ranges.

To hear the relative tension of the heads, strike the batter head and then the bottom head separately to hear the tone of each. Sometimes it's difficult to hear the difference because you are hearing all the overtones of the drum. You may need to put your hand on the other head to dampen it so you can hear more clearly.

It only takes a slight adjustment of all tuning rods to change the relative tension of the heads. In fact the process of steps 3 and 4 is usually within a half turn of the drum key, once you get better at seating and evening the tension of a head.

5-Finding a Tuning Range

This is totally a matter of personal taste. While there are no real rules in tuning there are some norms. In general, rock, funk, and blues drums are usually tuned in the lower ranges; often with some pitch bend that you can get down low; sometimes thuddy and boomy. Traditional jazz, however, is about opposite-- higher ranges with clean, defined tones.

Each drum will have a certain range where it can be tuned-- how low and how high. This is often directly related to the quality of a drum. Don't expect to have an incredibly vast tuning range from a $700 set of drums. But, don't ever think you can't get them to sound great, regardless. Even today's cheap drums will have a decent range in which to tune.

It's easy to run through the tuning range of a drum. You already found the low end, when you completed step 3. It's the point where the drum goes from sounding all floppy and warbley, to where it just starts to sing a little and sustain without warbles. All you have to do, now, is increase the batter head tension, slightly. This, of course will raise the pitch of the drum. Depending on where the relative tension of the bottom head is, the drum will either sustain longer or shorter. You either brought the batter head up to the same tension as the bottom head or you took it up higher. Now, make the same increase on the bottom head. The drum should sound much higher in pitch. This is a delicate game. Often, it takes only minute turns at each lug, or even every other lug, to change the pitch of a drum. As you bring up the pitch of both heads, in unison, you will move up through the tuning range of that drum. Minor tweaking of relative tension will be necessary to keep good resonance. At some point, you will reach the highest end of the tuning range and the drum will start to "choke." No adjustments in relative tension will fix it. That is the end of the tuning range of that drum.

6-Tuning the Drums to Each Other

Again, there are no rules. If you are familiar with keyed instruments and like to tune to specific notes, you can do so. Some like to tune toms at 4th or 5th intervals, for example. Some just play it by ear or have a certain song melody they tune to. Some tune each drum to the same area of tuning range, ie: lowest, or just below highest, etc. That way there will be a natural interval between the drums, if they have big enough changes in size (diameter).
When starting out, tune each drum to the same area of the tuning range, like just slightly above the lowest. See how they sound together, here. If you have the standard 12, 13, 16 inch toms that come with most kits, you will probably notice a much bigger difference between the middle and floor tom, than between the two mounted toms. It's obviously because of the jump in size difference-- three inches as opposed to one. If your middle tom is producing a nice tone, then just take the high and low toms up a little bit. This will put the low tom closer to the middle and the high tom farther from the middle. Whatever you need to do with changing the pitch of the drum, just don't forget to adjust the bottom head along with the top. Also, you can use the bottom head to change the pitch of the drum slightly, without losing resonance. This is the fun (and sometimes frustrating) part of tuning. Just experiment and practice different tunings. If you totally mess up the sound of the drum, just go back to the beginning-- loosen the heads all the way and start over. As with drumming, you will get better with practice.

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Muffling:

We went over bass drum muffling in the bass drum section. Snare drums require little muffling, if any, thanks to the way they are tuned. They are already pretty choked. However, you may find a high end ringing, similar to a timbale. IF you want to get rid of it, all it takes is a "zero-ring," a little tape, or a small pad of tissue with some tape, or these remarkable little sticky pads called Moongels: http://www.rtom.com/damperpads.html

Toms don't require much muffling. Remember, you can control the sustain of a drum to a large extent by adjusting the relative tension of the heads. With many less expensive drum sets, you may get some pretty nasty overtones, however. These can be controlled with a "zero-ring" or a small pad taped to the head, right next to the rim. The pad does not have to be very big-- maybe 1 x 2 inches. And it need not be taped down to the head. You can tape it to the rim and let it just rest on the head. Experiment with different things. A piece of denim taped to the rim, just floating on the head. A band aid. A credit card. Anything goes.

*** After years of trying different ways of dampening weird overtones, I have come to count on Moongels.  They are the coolest little stick-on gel pads.  The are only about 1 inch, square, but do a remarkable job in dampening just the right amount of overtones, but still leaving the drum with all the sustain.


What is the right way to tune my drums?

Yet again, it's up to personal preference. But more importantly, you need to make a choice based on what will fit the music. There are other musicians in the world and we all have to accommodate each other and suit each other. Don't rock the boat, unless that is the intention of the music, of course. The important thing to remember is that a drum is supposed to sound like a drum. With practice and know-how (which you now have), you won't need to plaster paper towels and duct tape all over the drum. And most of the time the little snare buzzing and weird overtones you hear, can't even be heard by your audience. If somebody says, "Hey man, your drums are ringing." Just tell them, "Yeah, that lets me know they're still drums."

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Other Resources

Much of what I have shared with you, on this page, was learned from watching a video by Bob Gatzen, "Drum Tuning-- Sound and Design." I highly recommend this video, because you can watch and listen to Bob's tips and techniques. Anyone who has taken a single drum lesson knows it is so much more valuable to watch and listen to what someone is teaching, than to just read it. The video is available in most mail-order music catalogs for around $20.

Larry Nolly also has a book out on drum tuning. The November '99 issue of Modern Drummer has an excellent, in depth, article on drum tuning.

--more to come--