The adage "garbage in garbage out" takes on added meaning when it comes to recording drums. An out of tune drum can ruin any recording session. Unfortunately, very few people know the basics of drum tuning — including drummers! Many studio sessions involve drum heads that are covered with muffles and drenched in reverb, resulting in a sound evocative of cardboard boxes being hit with spoons. Although I've been playing drums for a long time, it was only in the past several years that I've gotten a proficient handle on tuning. The following provides a primer aimed at anyone who wants to capture better drum sounds without taking years of trial and error. Since the topic of drum tuning can quickly expand to materials, construction designs, and physics, I've tried to limit the scope of this discussion to a recording situation. I've listed a few resources at the end of this piece for those wishing additional detail.

 Set Up: 

1. New Environment

When the kit is first brought into the studio, check to see where the drums have been. Were they sitting in a hot car? Left in a shed over a winter's night? Kept in a garage during rainy season? If there are significant temperature and environmental differences try to let the drums rest as long as feasible. Have the drummer set up the kit, get mics out, go over the session plan, etc. During this time it's good to talk with the drummer to learn a few things. First, does this person know how to tune the skins? If the answer is yes, life is good. However, even an experienced tuner will need time to acclimate to your acoustic space, so the battle isn't over. Second, find out what kind of sound they are looking for. Ask if they have a CD with drums they like. Knowing their goal will help you avoid issues during playback. For example, if the drummer wants the wham-boom of a Gene Krupa jazz kit, but brings in a set with Power Tom 2000 Deep Dish Shells using triple- muffled power dot heads, you'll have your work cut out for you.

2. Assess the Heads

Speaking of heads, now is probably a good time to assess the gang. Most people have difficulty when it comes to knowing when it's time to change heads; they either never change them, or they blame poorly tuned drums on the heads and change too often. This is subjective, so here are some tips as a guideline.

The head probably needs changing if:

  •  There are holes or cuts (other than front kick heads with ports, of course)
  •  There are dimples, dents, or indentations
  •  A coated head has lost a significant amount of the top layer 
  • The head won't seat or stay under the rim 
  • The head is so stretched that it won't tune no matter what 
  • The middle of the head is "mushy" compared to the outer part of the head 
  • The head was put on more than two Presidential Administrations ago

Conversely, the following are not necessarily reasons to change a head:

  • The batter surface is dirty 
  • The batter surface has lots of stick-smears 
  • You think new heads 'magically' tune themselves

3. Check for Buzzes, Rattles, and Squeaks

Now is a good time to check for loose lug screws or other items that can buzz or rattle. Most lugs have an internal spring that holds the rod screw. Sometimes these springs vibrate. An old trick is to stuff the screw with some cotton or cloth to dampen the vibration.

 Tuning: 

1. Tools

The market offers many tools for the aspiring drum tuner. In my opinion, some are better than others. The most basic is a standard drum key. These look like a little metal "T" and are designed to fit over the tension rod. They are relatively inexpensive, so have several on-hand. Some companies offer a cordless screwdriver drum key attachment. These are life savers when you need to take a head off, but can be a problem if used to tune. At about five bucks each, have one around. A few drummers swear by a ratchet key, which is just a drum key with a built-in ratchet. These can be pricey, and they don't take heads off as fast as a screwdriver attachment. Torque keys promise to keep a drum in tune by tuning each rod to a consistent tension. In theory, if the drum has good bearing edges and all rods have smooth fittings, this device should work. In practice, however, the tension of the lug is not always the same as head tension. I find these types of keys to be inconsistent from drum to drum. A head surface tension dial is pricey, but very useful. (See review in Tape Op #34). This device rests on the head and measures the surface tension. I recommend these dials for different reasons. First, if you try to tune by ear and use the dial only when you are at an impasse, you will become a better...

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