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.
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.
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 drum tuner. Second, once you tune a drum to where you like it, use the dial to document the tension settings. This can be invaluable when trying to recreate a drum sound at a later date. Keep a log of settings and head combinations that work out. I don't recommend using the dial to tune from scratch because you won't get better that way.
2. Before we go any further:
- Stuff No One Told You
Before discussing the tuning process, there are some important tips to understand. I learned many of them the hard way.
Following these guidelines can radically improve the tuning process.
- Quiet, please — the tuning environment must be as quiet as possible. You will have a hard time hearing subtle overtones and pitches in a noisy space. Turn off the stereo — send the band for burgers, whatever it takes.
- One head at a time — It's bad enough that a drum head has six or more lugs to deal with. Don't make matters worse by tuning both heads at once. Set the drum on the floor, on the drum throne, or put a towel on the opposite head.
- Shell mount vs. free ringing — Often you can get a drum sounding sweet off the kit, but as soon as you mount it things get nasty. Unless the drum is mounted by a suspension system that keeps the hardware from penetrating the drum (e.g. Gauger's RIMS or Yamaha's YESS mounts), there will be a big sound difference between a drum that is on or off the stand. I suggest getting the drum to be as in tune as possible away from the kit. If problems occur after mounting, you'll need to fine tune with the drum mounted.
- Lug vs. opposite lug — Sometimes you'll think a particular lug is the problem, but the culprit can actually be the opposite lug. If you're stuck at one lug, look across the rim for an answer.
- Ask an expert — When a drum drives me crazy, I ask for help. A local engineer, Sean McDonald, is one of those guys who can tune a drum, talk on the phone, and discuss the problems with the Steelers' defensive secondary all at the same time. (Like those perfect-pitch types, we're jealous of this sort of drummer, but in awe of their ability.) Don't let your ego get in the way. If you know such a person, beg them to teach you. Buy them pizza. Ask them to explain as they go. You'll learn a ton.
- Across the room vs. right there — It's possible to get a drum sounding good from the perspective of the drum throne, but across the room things deteriorate. From a recording standpoint, listen to the kit from where you place mics. Or, the obvious, place mics where the kit sounds good.
- Start at the lowest drum — When tuning a kit, start with the lowest tom and work up to the highest pitched drum. I find it easier to obtain a good range this way. If you start at the top, it's easy to tune too low, leaving you little room by the time you get to the lowest toms.
- Top to bottom head relations (part 1) — Drum heads can be like condiments. You can get the top head in tune (mayonnaise), muffle it, and get the bottom head in tune (peanut butter), then you pull the muffle and try to combine that into a drum sandwich.... BLECH! Should this happen just keep the one you're hungry for and retune the other.
- Top to bottom head relations (part 2) — Tuning the bottom head higher than the top will produce a bright tone with longer sustain. When the bottom head is looser than the top, the drum will have a throatier sound and decay faster. Getting both heads at the same tension will produce a very balanced, round tone.
- Drum to drum relations — Sometimes a drum can be in tune with itself, but be fighting with a neighbor drum. Check the drums in pairs to verify that they don't fight with one another. Some folks tune their drums to a particular musical pitch. If you can pull that off, bless you. I don't think you need to go that far; just make sure that no drum phase-fights with another.
- Tune up, not down — If you need to lower the pitch at a rod, detune then come back up to your target tension.
- Start all over from scratch — Never be ashamed to back off all of the rods and start over from scratch. Nine times out of ten, starting over can resolve an impasse.
3. The Tuning Process
The following process applies to all drums.
- Step 1: Remove the existing head. Clean all lint, dust, and crud from the rim. Check each tension rod. Make sure each rod has a washer. If necessary, gently lubricate each rod with a small dab of petroleum jelly. Inspect the drum's bearing edge by running your finger over its circumference. Having consistent contact with the bearing edge is crucial to tuning. If you notice any nicks, dents, or cuts, you may need to take the drum to a shop to have the bearing edge re-cut. Trying to fix a damaged bearing edge yourself is like home dentistry; please don't try it. In a pinch, a small nick can be filled with candle wax.
- Step 2: Seat the head. Place the head on the drum. Spin the head a few times to make sure the head and the drum have contact and are in round. Place the hoop over the head and line up the rods with the lugs. Finger tighten the lugs until the washer no longer moves freely. Try to use the same amount of tension from lug to lug.
- (Step 2a: If you are using a new head): Modern drum heads are pinched into their hoop and fastened with glue. You'll need to 'break the glue seal' by pressing on the head until you hear a slight crack. Don't press too hard, but don't be afraid to apply pressure. At this point you will need to let the head stretch. There are three ways to do this. First, you could tune the drum each day for a week. Clearly, this isn't practical in a studio situation. The second way is to warm the head with a hair dryer. Circle the perimeter of the head using a low heat for about a minute. Hold the dryer about an inch from the inside of the hoop and make several passes. The third way is to tighten the head very tight until the drum has a timbale-like sound. Leave the head to sit at that tension for about ten minutes. Go to the next drum or get a soda. When you return, loosen the lugs all the way and go to the next step. I prefer this option because I don't like the idea of applying heat near the drum shell.
- Step 3: Once you have each rod finger tight you're ready to begin tuning. Place the key on a lug and tighten one full rotation. Move to the next lug until you've moved around the drum once.
There are a few ways to move the key from lug to lug. Back when heads were made out of actual skin, it was important to get equal tension as the head seated. This was accomplished by tuning a lug then moving to the opposite lug. This is known as the traditional method. As manufacturing materials and techniques improved some companies advised moving in a sequential pattern around the drum. This is the modern method. A permutation of the two is the dual key method. Place two keys on opposite lugs and tune. Move to an adjacent lug and it's opposite and continue until the drum is in tune. I prefer this dual key method because it speeds tuning and it blends the first two approaches. The following diagram shows the tuning sequence on an eight lug drum using each of these methods.
After completing one pass use a stick to tap near each lug.
What to listen for: At this stage listen for the articulation of a tone. If the head makes a flap or dud sound, go back and do another tightening pass. Continue tightening the head until the lugs hold a tone. Hit the drum in the center as a final check.
What to listen for: hitting the head in the center at this point will give you the rough pitch of the drum. Continue until the drum is near your target pitch.
Step 4: Once the drum is near the desired pitch it's time to fine tune. Hit near each lug to hear the pitch. Isolate the lug by placing a finger of your free hand on the center of the drum. Keep your touch light, similar to playing a harmonic on a guitar. Pick the lug with the best sound and tune the others to it. What to listen for: You should now be listening for the decay at each lug. Compare adjacent lugs. If you hear a warbling decay, tighten one of the rods until the pulses slow or stop. Continue until the lugs are similar in pitch.
Since this is the most difficult part here are a few tips. If you are using a clear head, you can watch the reflection as you compare lugs. The closer in tune, the less the reflection will shimmer when the head is struck. If you own a Tension Dial, now is an ideal time to use it. Make sure you test your ears first, then use the dial to confirm or deny your hunches.
Once you are comfortable with the head, turn the drum over and repeat these steps to tune the opposite head (if the drum has one).
Step 5: After you get both heads in tune you'll need to see how they interact with one another. Hold the drum off the ground by its rim. Strike the batter head and evaluate the drum. What to listen for: if the attack is sharp but the decay sounds like a moan or a warble, you'll need to evaluate the bottom head. Conversely a nasty attack followed by a smooth decay indicates the top head could be the problem. If the drum makes a pleasing, round sound, congratulations.
The steps mentioned above are generic and apply to most drums. However each drum also has special considerations.
If toms are single sided, then tuning is a bit easier. Make sure the interval between toms is musical and different. When toms have at least a two- inch difference in diameter, this is a little easier. Drums that are the same diameter or just an inch apart are trickier to space well.
Resist the immediate urge to stick a pillow or blankets in the bottom of the kick. A well-tuned bass drum will give your recordings low-end for days. In general, use the batter head to achieve ring and attack and tune the resonant head for decay. Some drummers like to tape a quarter to the head where the beater strikes. Not only will this provide a sharp attack, it will wear a nice round hole in the head. To achieve a sharp attack, use a hard beater or purchase a specially made kick patch. If the drummer has a front head, or one with a small port, the drum will have a wider range of tuning possibilities versus no head or a head with a large hole. A thundering dark kick sound can be obtained by tuning the front head to it's lowest note, then slightly detuning two lugs. A boomier thump can be brought out by tuning the front head slightly tighter than the batter. If none of these work out, try using one of the muffling options discussed later.
The snare is the drummer's calling card. Phil Gould says a snare drum should either go "clock" or "durf". Talk to the drummer to see what they want. I've seen two main tuning mistakes. The first is the guy with a piccolo snare who wants a deep stadium sound. He barely tightens the heads and gets a tubby "blaaachhh". The other is the guy who tightens both heads until they are about to pop. The result sounds like a British gentleman going "tah!" The best approach understands the range a given snare is capable of. The top head is kept rather tight, but loose enough to allow the character of the shell to speak. Rim shots should allow the drummer to say, "Hey, I can hear that maple" or "Wow! That brass shell really cuts through the mix." The bottom head should be very tight. A trick to tuning the bottom head is to release the snare tension, then slide a stick beneath the snares and prop the stick on the rim. This keeps the snares from rattling and pulls them off the head.
If you choose to muffle, there are many options available.
- Mylar Rings — These lay on the outer edge of the drum, providing non-permanent muffling. Various widths are available depending on the amount of deadening desired.
- Pillow, blanket, or other padding — Often used inside a kick drum to control overtones. Covering about a quarter of the batter head and a little of the front head can keep the tone much sharper and accentuated. Use more or less to taste.
- Duct tape — Tape can be used alone or in conjunction with other materials.
- Maxi pads — These pads have peel off adhesive. Cut to desired size; using a whole one is overkill.
- Foam Weather Stripping — Available at home improvement stores, weather stripping has a foam strip backed by strong adhesive. A word of caution: once placed on a head, the adhesive is difficult to remove.
- Gel-type stick-ons — These are cool. They're little gel squares that can be placed anywhere on the head. You can move them around and reuse them indefinitely. If the adhesive starts to wear off, it can be revitalized by washing the gel in some soap and water.
- Internal mufflers — Snare drums used to be built with internal mufflers. Conventional wisdom holds that these push against the head, interfering with the tuning.
- Clip on mufflers — Non-permanent pads that clip to the drum's rim. Users can set the desired pressure levels.
- Adjustable mufflers — Similar to clip on mufflers, these devices have an adjustable threshold before they begin to muffle the head.
Miscellaneous Hints, Tips, and Tricks
Over the years I've picked up the following tricks and tips.
- Cheap Kick Muffler — Tape the top edge of a wash cloth on the inside of the kick head. The tape will act as a hinge. When the head is hit, the towel will flip up then slap back down, muffling the head. Experiment with the size of towel and location.
- Free Dampening Rings — Don't throw out old heads. Use a razor to cut out muffle rings instead of buying them.
- Wash heads — You can actually wash drum heads with a mild soapy water solution. This will remove dirt and grime. However, stick-smear marks (abrasions of the stick hitting the head), aren't likely to come off.
- Heads to have on-hand — Always have a 14-inch coated snare batter head on hand. If the drummer comes in with a terrible head you'll have a spare. Tell the drummer to bring you an exact replacement to avoid selling the drum head. If you can afford it, it's good to have a 14-inch snare bed head and a 22-inch kick batter head, too.
- Drum First Aid Kit — Have a supply of rod washers, felts, snare mount string, and other miscellaneous parts on hand. For about ten bucks you can be loaded for bear and prepared should problems arise.
- Study Recordings — Keep recordings of drums kits you like. Listen for snares, toms, and kicks that please you. Analyze various types. What makes a "good" drum sound?
- Practice — If you have a studio kit, or if you know a drummer, get in as much tuning practice as you can. Tuning is a skill; the more you do it the better you'll be.
For additional discussion I enthusiastically recommend two resources:
- Drum Tuning: The Ultimate Guide by Scott Schroedl. This is by far the best book on the market. It also comes with a sample CD. At a street price of $12.95 this is an outstanding investment. (www.halleonard.com)
- The On-Line Drum Tuning by Scott Johnson. This detailed treatise is written for the drummer who also records (so take the recording tips with a grain of salt). (www.drumweb.com)
Unless an out of tune "donk" is the objective, we owe it to our clients to get the best sounds we can. Too many new recordists obsess over microphones and preamps, when the fundamental truth is that a well-tuned drum kit mic'd with common dynamic mics will always trump a poorly tuned kit recorded with tons of expensive gear. This is one area where great results don't cost a lot of money. But they do require that you invest your time and patience. Good luck!