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Basics for beginners

Tuning drums well takes a lot of practice but you have to work at it the same as your playing to become proficient and allow your instrument to sound as good as it can.

There are many different types of drums and just as many methods for tuning them. Here we’ll show you a preferred method for tuning kit drums.

Drum kits can vary enormously depending on the style of music they are used for and the individuals preferred set up. Price range for drums can vary as much as the set ups themselves.

The basic tuning method used for each drum in a kit is similar but we will explain the differences as we go.

Let’s look at a basic and common set up for a drum kit. This will comprise a bass drum or more commonly called a kick drum, a snare drum, one or two rack tom toms (normally mounted on the bass drum) and a floor tom tom. Although the correct name for the latter two is tom tom, they are commonly referred to as just ‘toms’. The set up will also include a set of hi-hat cymbals and usually at least one crash cymbal and a ride cymbal. Again, this can vary enormously. One other really important component of a kit is something to sit on while you are playing! A stool, more commonly called a 'throne' is a staple element of a drum kit.

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The drum

Although it may seem that a drum is just a shell with a head on it that you hit and get a sound from, it is actually so much more. The tone and pitch of a drum is determined not only by the tensioning of the head but the shell itself. The shell diameter, the depth, number of plies, thickness and the type of timber it is made from play an important part. This has to be considered but correct tuning can mean the difference between a bad sounding kit and a great sounding kit. When drums are recorded in a studio, hours can be spent getting them to sound right. It can take as long to get a good recorded drum sound as it does to record the rest of the band but the effort is worth it.

When playing live, a badly tuned kit can be a nightmare for a sound engineer just as a well tuned kit can be a pleasure to mic up and mix. The result is a pleasure to listen to.

Each drum in a kit is different. There are different diameter shells, different depth and different materials and thickness of construction and different heads. All of these factors come into play when tuning correctly.

The first basic rule to understand is that each drum has its own ‘resonant frequency’. This will determine the optimum tuning of each drum to get the best sound out of it. There is a whole science behind this involving audio dynamics and physics but we won’t go into that here.

Basically you need to tune the drum heads to get the best sound out of them.  With any given drum it has a set diameter, depth and thickness. The only things you can change easily are the heads and the tension of the heads. A good well tuned head on a lower quality drum can still achieve a good sound.

Let’s start with a few basic ideas.

A drum is basically made up of a shell, a rim, a head and tuning lugs.

Depending on the type and quality of the drum, the number of tuning lugs will vary. Most drums have an even number of lugs but some cheaper drums may have 5 lugs on the toms. The more tuning lugs, the more accurate you can tune the drum and the more likely it will hold its tune.

                                                                                                              

                                                                                                                

Drum heads

Choosing the right head can be daunting with so many varieties on the market. There are clear, coated, pin stripe, spotted, hydraulic and more. There are many different brands but the two most popular for amateur and professional alike are Remo and Evans.  Within each basic type there are variations such as the Remo clear or coated Ambassador, Emperor, and Diplomat etc. 

If you are a beginner the best bet is to speak to your drum dealer and tell them what type of music you generally play and they will suggest the best options on the right heads for you. 

To get the right heads that suit you best, you should experiment over time with different types and you will find what works for you.


Tuning

Once you have your heads, let’s get tuning. It is best to start from scratch, which is to have the lugs, hoops and heads completely off the drum.

Start with the small rack tom. Check that the rim or edge of the drum is flat and smooth and, while you’ve got the heads off, check that all of the hardware screws are tight.

Just nip them up with a screw driver. Be careful not to over tighten though as you may damage the metal cast lug housings.

Place the drum shell bottom down on a carpeted floor or on the table on a thick towel. Place the top or batter head on the drum rim making sure it fits correctly with little or no side ways movement. Place the hoop over the head and push firmly down with your hands on opposite lugs moving around the drum. This will help seat the head.

The basic principle is to tighten opposite lugs. The diagram below for a 6 lug drum shows the order in which the lugs should be tightened. Use the same method when removing heads. This will prevent possible warping of the rims.

                                                                                                                                       

Install the lug screws and finger tighten them evenly. Now start at lug No. 1 and with your tuning key, turn each lug one half of a turn. Now place the heal of your hand in the center of the head and push firmly down. You may hear the drum head crack a little. This is OK. This cracking is the head stretching on its rim. If you stretch the head now it will not happen as much in the course of playing and will hold its tune better. Turn each lug in order a ¼ to ½ a turn at a time until no wrinkles or creases are evident and the head is smooth. 

You should now tune the head to itself. This is to ensure even tension at each lug. With a stick, tap the head about an inch or 25 mm in from each lug. Listen to the pitch at each one and adjust so they are all the same. At this point, small adjustments may be necessary at different lugs that may not need you to work with the ‘opposite lug’ sequence. Sounds easy but it takes practice to hear the slight variations that can occur. Once the head is tuned to itself, push again in the center of the head with the heal of your hand. If the head cracks again re-check the pitch at each lug ensuring the head is still in tune with itself.

Now, lift the drum by the mounting bracket and hit the drum in the center of the head. Like how it sounds? Time to experiment a little. Tighten the lugs further a ¼ of a turn at a time in the order shown above. Hit the drum again. You may need to vary tensions until you get the pitch that sounds right. If need be, loosen the lugs off again but keep the tension even and in the order as above. The important thing is to regularly check that the head is still in tune with itself by tapping close to each lug and ensuring an even pitch.

Once you have the pitch sounding good it’s time to install the bottom head. Flip the drum over and rest the top head on the carpet or thick towel. This will now act to dampen the top head and minimize it interfering with tuning of the bottom head. You have three basic options on how you tune your bottom head. Each option will provide a different result of the overall sound. Experiment a little. 

  1. Tune the bottom head to the same pitch as the top.
  2. Tune the bottom head to a slightly higher pitch than the top.
  3. Tune the bottom head to a slightly lower pitch than the top.

My personal preference is to have my bottom tom head slightly lower pitch than the top. This way I get a fuller sound with slightly less sustain that works with rock drumming.

The three options will create a different movement of air within the drum and therefore varying vibrations of each head depending on the tension of the heads.

Follow the same procedure for the other toms. You may need to re-tune your smaller tom if you get a great sound from your next down tom but don’t have an even pitch variation between the drums. Leave the one that sounds great and adjust the others. If you change the tension of one head don’t forget to change the other as well to maintain the option 1, 2 or 3 you have selected.

 

The snare

When tuning the snare, it should be remembered that the bottom head is designed basically to give the wire or strainer something to vibrate on. It will effect the air movement within the drum but a snare is generally tensioned fairly tight. The bottom head should be tuned to obtain the desired snare effect. The tighter the head, the more the snare will vibrate. With the snare, my preference is to tune the top head quite high and the bottom head higher than the top. Use the same technique of opposite lugs and tuning the head to itself as for the toms.

To remove the bottom head you will first need to remove the strainer. When re-installing the strainer, adjust it to ensure that when you flick the tension release lever the strainer is actually off the head and will not vibrate against it. Try different variations of tension of the strainer to get the sound you prefer. Again, experiment a little to get the sound that best suits your particular drum and your style of playing.


The bass (kick) drum

This is a different beast again. Start with both heads removed. As with the other drums, this is a good time to check all of the hardware screws are tight. Place the drum face down on a carpeted floor. Place your new batter head on the drum. This is the side you will hit with the pedal beater. Install the rim and lugs finger tight. Tighten in sequence as with the toms to just past the point of being loose ensuring the head is sitting flat with no wrinkles. Tune the head to itself as with the toms. It is best to keep the kick tuned to a fairly low pitch.

Turn the drum over. Depending on the type of front head you are using you may want to install some dampening material at this point (see below). If you have a head with a hole in it and the hole is big enough, you can install dampening material later. A hole in the front head serves two purposes. Firstly, it allows a mic to be place inside the drum for recording or live playing and secondly, the hole allows the free movement of air from the drum when it is hit and minimizes the front head vibration. You will basically get the predominant sound from your kick from the batter head only.

When dampening your kick drum, for most styles of music, you will want a nice fat thump with no overtones. Again, the best way to get a good sound is with proper tuning and minimal dampening. When dampening is required it is best to use material lighter than a pillow or blanket which are a simple favourite. Use material such as Dacron or a light blanket folded and placed so it sits on the bottom of the drum, when in the playing position, and is just touching both batter and front heads. The advantage of this type of dampening is that it can easily be altered or removed if the room or sound you need calls for it.

There are many other alternatives and everyone will tell you their favourites. Ask around, experiment. Other types of dampening can be strips of felt placed under the head when installing or strips of gaffa placed on the back of the head inside the kick. There are also many different types of kick heads which provide varying levels of dampening in themselves.


Overtones

As with the kick drum, other drums in your kit may tend to give annoying overtones regardless of the effort made to tune them. Muting or muffling drums is a common practice for differing reasons. It can be done to eliminate or reduce overtones or ringing or to get a flat, less sustained sound and shorten decay.

Different types of heads will achieve this to a point such as pin stripe or hydraulic heads. They are designed to give you a flatter sound with less decay.

If you have a good quality kit it is quite possible to tune them, with the right heads, to not require any further dampening treatment. However, this may be required on occasions depending on the drum and the room it is played in. The room will affect tone but not pitch. If the room is bright it allows sound to bounce back off walls and ceilings affecting the overall kit sound. If the room is flat, that is absorbing the sound, less bounce back will occur and the drums will have a more ‘dead’ sound.

You have to be careful not to overdo the dampening affect as this will kill the natural sound of the drum. For toms and sometimes the snare, my suggestion is to keep this to a minimum by using small pieces of gaffa tape. Gaffa is the muso’s friend and no stage set up can be properly achieved without it. It is also the drummers’ friend for weeding out those nasty overtones.

Experiment with this. Place a small piece of gaffa tape on the head and over the edge of the drum rim as shown below. This will cancel some of the ringing or overtones by limiting the vibration of the head and shortening the decay but will still allow most of the natural tones of the drum to come through.

            

This will be sufficient in most cases but further dampening can be achieved with strips of gaffa placed across the edge of the head and over the rim. Again, it’s best to try and tune your heads properly to avoid the requirement for substantial dampening.

Another trick is to place a small piece of gaffa in the centre on the bottom head as shown below. Fold the gaffa in a ‘T’ shape with the tape vertical section hanging down from the head when the drum is in the normal playing position.

          


 Summary

  • When first tuning a drum, start with both of the heads off.
  • Use good quality heads.
  • Adjust the opposite lugs as you go, not sequentially around the drum.
  • Stretch the head during the tuning process.
  • Tune the head to itself with even pitch at each lug.
  • Tune the heads to the resonant frequency of the drum.
  • Minimal dampening only if required.

  

Keep at it. The more you practice tuning the better at it you will become and the better your drums will sound.                                                                           


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