How to Tune Your Drum Set
What’s in a Drum Set?
When drummers start learning how to play the instrument, an important and often overlooked aspect is learning how to tune and maintain the drums. Learning how to tune drums is something that we as drummers should all be capable of handling on our own. There are many factors involved when it comes to tuning, and in this article, we’ll touch on some of these very key and essential tools that we should all know and understand. Before tuning, you should have a brief understanding about the different woods and heads that can comprise a drum set in order to tune it properly.
Once upon a time, drums were made using only a small selection of woods, we are lucky enough now to have access to a vast selection of wood for our drum shells; maple, birch, oak, cherry, mahogany, walnut, bubinga, and many other woods. In some cases, woods can be combined to create a sonically beautiful sounding shell referred to as a hybrid. Personally, I think hybrid drums are similar to a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup: chocolate and peanut butter are great separately but when you combine the two, it’s delicious!
What’s in a Drum Head?
As far as drum heads are concerned, they come in different layers, referred to as a ply, and the ply comes in different thicknesses, referred to as mil. Single and double ply heads are the most common types of drum heads used. The layers and thickness of the heads are important because they determine the shells feel, tone, sustain and durability. When choosing a drumhead regardless of the brand, it is important to know what type of sound you are looking for.
Double-ply heads are thicker which increases their durability. They tend to have a more controlled sound, fewer overtones, shorter sustain, and a more defined attack than single-ply heads. Examples of these types of heads would be Evans G2, Remo Emperor, and Aquarian Super-2.
Pre-Muffled heads help drummers achieve a much more controlled, muted sound without the need for any additional muffling. Examples of these would be: Remo Powerstroke 3, Evans EC2, and Aquarian Studio-X
Coated heads have a textured surface and produce a warmer tone than their clear version counterparts. Coated Examples would be: Remo Coated Ambassador/Emperor, Evans G1/G2, and Aquarian Texture Coated.
Now that we have discussed the different types of drumheads that are available, let’s talk about why we are here: Tuning! While the same tuning principle applies, snare drums, bass drums and toms are all tuned according to their specific drum type.
Tuning Your Drum
1. If you are removing an existing head and replacing it with a new one, the first thing that you have to do is use the drum key to turn the tension rods counterclockwise on your drum and remove them from your hoop. Then lift the hoop (rim) off of the drumhead.
2. Next, take off the old drumhead and place (seat) the new head right onto the shell. Assuming you have the right size head, it should fit perfectly.
3. Now, place the hoop right on top of the drum head. Make sure that all of the holes on the hoop where the tension rods go are lined up properly with the lugs on the drums so that you can reinsert the tension rods.
4. At this point, before using your drum key, finger tighten all of the tension rods (I suggest finger tightening two tension rods at the same time). Whichever tension rod you start with, also tighten the rod directly across from it at the same time. This will help ensure balance all around the drum. Do this technique around the entire drum, top and bottom.
5. Now, using your drum key, we will begin tightening the drum. Again, I like to use two drum keys tightening two tensions rods directly across from each other. The key to this is to tighten the head and work out all of the wrinkles because you don’t want to see wrinkles in the head as it will affect the sound and playability of your drum. While tightening the head, you may hear some snap, crackle, pop type sounds; this is normal when putting on a new head it’s just the head stretching out. At the same time, we don’t want to over tighten the drum head because that could possibly lead to damage. Once you’ve worked out all of the wrinkles from your drum head, this next technique will help you get the pitch of your drum to its sweet spot where it wants to resonate freely.
6. The following is a very helpful and easy technique that can be used on toms (top and bottom), as well as on bass drums. After you’ve put on your head and worked out all of the wrinkles as we did in Step 5, choose a tension rod to start from. Make a fist and place it in the center of the drum head and apply pressure. While applying pressure with your hand at the tension rod of your choosing, detune that tension rod until you see a wrinkle in that spot. (It’s best to do this in good lighting so that you can see the wrinkle in the head). Now, slowly turn the tension rod until you see that wrinkle disappear. Once you see that wrinkle disappear, stop turning! Do this all the way around the drum for every tension rod (top and bottom). This technique is one way (and probably one of the easiest ways) to help you to get your drums to the proper pitch without over tightening and choking the resonance of your drum shell.
7. Whether you are using a stick or a mallet, you always want to hit the drum right in front of each tension rod to hear the pitch that the drum is making to ensure that everything sounds even. Remember that all you need to do sometimes is a very slight turn to tweak the drum. You don’t need to make extremely hard turns with the drum key. Sometimes the slightest turn is just enough to get your drum to where it needs to be.
8. You always want your toms to go in a descending order in terms of pitch, (high pitch, medium pitch, and low pitch). If you have a standard five piece kit, you would want your first rack tom (which is the smallest) to be the higher pitched tom, your second rack tom (which is slightly bigger) to be medium pitched, and your floor tom to be the lowest pitch.
9. Snare drums are a little different because they contain snare wires. The snare drum is the only drum that has something called a throw off switch which is on the side of the drum. This is a lever with a dial that turns the snare wires on and off. The dial controls the tension of the snare wires hitting the bottom head. If the dial is turned loosely you will hear the wires rattling and shaking and this position will not give you a tight crack. Snare drums can be tuned high or low. The depth of the shell will many times determine what the pitch will be. This is not to say that you can’t tune a snare drum high or low, but you have to be realistic about what the size of the drum is capable of. Metal snare drums have a different tonal quality than wood. Metal drums produce a certain type of ringing after you strike them which is a different characteristic from wood snares. One is not better or worse than the other; they are just different. I have found that if you want a tight snare crack, tuning the bottom head tighter helps to achieve that sound. You have to find the right balance between how tight you are tuning your snare heads and the tension of your snare wires. If your wires are not set properly this will 100% affect the sound of your snare drum.
10. Lastly, the bass drum. This is the biggest drum on your kit, so you most likely will want this to be deep and punchy. The way to achieve that is to not go overboard tightening the heads. I tend to tune my bass drums slightly above wrinkling, and yet at the same time, tight enough on the batter side (the side the beater is striking) so I get a good feel/response. Refer to Step 6 once again.
Now that your drums sound fantastic, what about capturing that beautiful sound? Is there a best way to do it? Check out this helpful video for more information.
And at the end of it all, with perfectly tuned drums and perfectly placed mics, here is the result:
Tuning is something that takes practice, patience, and lots of experimentation to get just right! Remember that every drum head will give you a different sound. It’s good to try different heads to find out what will work best for you. What works well for you, may not work well for someone else. There are many ways to tune drums; the technique that I explained in this article is a very simplified way for anyone, no matter if you are a beginner or if you are someone who is more advanced, to achieve a good sound with minimal effort! Happy Tuning!