Drums are one of the most challenging instruments to tune, because they have so many different components which all affect the overall sound – a drumhead has 5, 6, 8 or 10 tuning lugs, doubled up on both the batter and resonant sides. Not to mention that each drum in the kit deserves to be tuned to its own particular pitch, so that drum rolls and phrases sound stylistic and musical. Even some of the most experienced drummers admit to finding drum tuning hard, which is why it’s often referred to as a dark art. Not to worry, if you pay attention to the sound of your drums and understand what positive changes you can make with the drum key, you’ll embark on a journey towards becoming an expert drum tuner! Here are some tips on the most important things to consider of you are going to become a drum tuning pro. We will be exploring all the best drum tuning tips and ensure you know how to master drum sound.
1 Learn about the Concepts of Drum Sound
Drums appear at first to be quite simple instruments, because you just have to hit them and they make a sound. But behind that facade is a complex musical device with a sound that can be tuned and toned for a multitude of styles and genres. There’s no simple solution – to get good at drum tuning, you need to learn a little about how drums actually make sound, and what sonic characteristics you can control with the drum key. The single most valuable thing to know about drum sound is that drumheads give off two very distinct frequencies, one when you hit the drum in the middle – ‘BOOM’ – and one when you hit the drum at the edge, which sounds more like a ‘PING’! These two characteristics of the drumhead make up a huge proportion of the drum sound we hear when they are played, and they are the two things that can be manipulated by tuning too. The centre boom defines the fundamental pitch of the drum, which is what we hear most when the drum is played as part of a groove or fill. The edge ping sound gives the drum some unique character and it’s also very relevant when considering if the drumhead is tuned evenly or not, which we’ll come on to in a moment. If you want to learn more about the acoustic principles of drum tuning, check out our free online ‘Drum Sound and Drum Tuning’ course here (www.idrumtune.com/learn)
2. Finger Tight Plus a Quarter Turn
Regardless of how much you know about drum sound, you can’t go far wrong if you employ the ‘finger tight plus a quarter turn’ approach! This is just as simple as it sounds and will get you a great sounding drum with very little effort.
Start with all the tuning rods on the drum completely loose. Now with just your fingers only, tighten each tuning rod until you cannot tighten it any more. It’s often best to tighten two lugs opposite each other at the same time, one with each hand, or tighten each lug a little and then go around the drum for a second and third time if necessary. Once you have tightened the rods by hand and can tighten them no more with your fingers, you can now be sure that you have a fairly even tension applied to the drumhead at each tuning lug, though the drumhead will no doubt be too loose to play properly. You can do this for both the batter (top) and resonant (underside) drumheads.
Now, with the tuning rods just ‘finger tight’ the drumheads will still be too slack to vibrate properly (you no-doubt see some wrinkles in the drumhead), so you need to tighten each one a little more before you can get the first reasonable sound from the drum. With a drum key, give each tuning rod a quarter or half turn of the key – 90 or 180 degrees. Don’t go around the drum, jump opposite in a star-formation to ensure that all sides of the drum are kept similar at all times.
Do this quarter or half turn on both the batter and resonant sides of the drum. The exact amount will depend on the type of drumheads you are using, but if you have applied exactly the same approach to every tuning rod, then the drum should already sound great. Simple as that!
3. Experiment with Pitch
You can only find the right pitch for your drums by experimenting with a few different setups. If you have your drums at ‘finger-tight-plus a quarter-turn’ then you can start to judge if the drum sounds about right or not for your preferred genre or style. If the drum sounds too low or boomy when you hit it in the middle, then give each tuning rod another small turn. Remember to give each rod the same attention each time and do the same to both the batter and resonant drumheads. This keeps everything on the drum pretty even and within sensible ranges. Drums generally only start to sound bad if one part of the drum is tuned considerably different to everything else. If the resonant head is really slack and the top head really tight, this won’t sound great. If one lug is really lose, the drum won’t sound great either. So always aim to keep everything as even as possible and give all tuning rods the same attention.
If you follow this approach you can now take the pitch of your drum up or down to find your preference. It should sound pretty good at all pitches, but obviously you’ll have a preference that suits you best. It’s great to know you are in control of the drum and can tune it high and tight or low and slack depending on what you are aiming for.
4. Clear the Drumhead
With all the best intentions, it’s possible for a drumhead to become tuned unevenly. This means that some parts of the drumhead are tighter than other parts of the drumhead, so everything needs evening out. The result of an unevenly tuned drumhead is a warbling decay to the sound, caused by different frequencies on the drumhead all interacting with each other. We sometimes call evening the drumhead ‘clearing the drumhead’, ‘equalising the drumhead’ or simply ‘lug tuning’, because we evaluate the evenness of the head by tapping lightly around the edge at each lug position.
The aim is to listen to the drumhead around the edge at each lug position and decide of it sounds the same in every place. If some places sound a touch higher then these tuning rods need loosening, and similarly if any positions sound lower than others, then these rods need tightening. Unfortunately clearing or equalising the drumhead is actually really difficult, and human ears are not very good at judging if one sound is higher or lower than another on drums. Some drummers get really good at this, but many others struggle. If you find this aspect of tuning difficult, you’ll probably like the iDrumTune Pro app’s Lug Tuning feature, which is able to take a microphone reading at each lug point and tell you exactly which tuning rods need tightening and which need loosening.
5. Choose the Right Drumheads
While all drumheads can be tuned low and loose or high and tight, nothing affects the tone or timbre of the drum more than the choice of drumheads. Drumheads can be clear, coated, single-ply, double-ply, damped or baffled, and they all sound very different. Even a battered old drum kit can sound good with great drumheads and accurate tuning, whereas the most expensive kit in the world can sound terrible if it has the wrong heads on it for the style of music. You can find lots of information on the different types of drumheads and their different sound characteristics form both manufacturers’ websites, and also from our training post on the same subject, here: https://www.idrumtune.com/post/the-wonderful-world-of-drumheads
One of the things drumheads have the a big influence on is the decay and damping of the drum sound. If your drums ring out too long and you don’t like the sound of them, then it’s a good indicator that you are using the wrong type of drumheads for your preferred style and sound. You can make some short-term improvements by adding a damper ring or some damper gel, but these are rarely the best solution when compared to purchasing a full set of well damped drumheads. The reason being is that drumheads with damping systems built into them act very evenly around the whole drumhead, whereas anything you add external to the drumhead usually causes some other negative imbalance to the way the drumhead vibrates. If you have the right drumheads on your kit, you should not really need to add any other damping at all!
6. Respect the Resonant Drumhead!
The resonant drumhead has a huge influence on the drum sound. What’s great is that if you choose the right resonant drumhead then you shouldn’t have to worry too much about it when tuning. Thinner drumheads vibrate at a higher frequency then thicker or heavier drumheads. The same principle applies to guitar strings! It’s fairly common to have the resonant drumhead giving a higher overtone frequency than the batter head – this makes the drum sound rich with more interesting frequencies coming off it. So if you have a thin drumhead on the resonant side, and you tune both drumheads with the same approach, it will give you a higher frequency overtone for free! This is great and means you don’t have to worry too much about the resonant head unless you really want to get more into the science of the situation (if you do, check out our tutorial post on the resonant drumhead here: https://www.idrumtune.com/post/tuning-the-resonant-drumhead-what-why-and-how)
The other thing you can do with resonant drumheads, is potentially choose a head with a damping system integrated, if you think the drum is giving way too much overtone. If you want your drums to sound really dry and thud-like, you can try a coated resonant drumhead too, but usually this approach starts to take the sparkle out of a drum if you’re not careful.
7. Let it Breathe!
It’s virtually impossible to tune a drum accurately if you stop or choke one of the drumheads from vibrating with a cushion or by placing it on a drum stool. You see, a drum is really just a single instrument and all its components work together to make the drum sound we hear when it is played. If you constrain any vibrating part of the instrument then it becomes a completely different instrument with a completely different sound! It would be lovely if you could tune the batter head independently and then tune the resonant head independently, but they are never independent since they work together to create the drum’s fundamental pitch and tone. With this in mind, you really need to tune the drum in the situ as it will be played to get sensible results – this is fairly easy for snares and floor toms. For tuning a rack tom, a good compromise is to take it off the kit and position on a snare stand, so you can easily rotate it and then flip it over to tune the underside, without changing its acoustic characteristics.
8. What’s your Benchmark?
There’s no point in tuning if you don’t know what you are aiming for! Guitarists know exactly what to tune each string to, so they know when they’ve achieved their target. Drums are much more subjective, but over time you can start to find your own benchmarks for what sounds good and what works well in different situations.
While it’s well known that an even tuned drumhead sounds better than an uneven one, it’s also worth learning a bit about what fundamental pitches work well for what genres and styles. It’s fairly common for rock drummers to tune their drums low towards the slack and boomy end of the scale, with considerable damping applied. Whereas jazz drummers like to tune their drums tighter and more resonant, so they ring out with more ‘musical’ tones. There are no rules though, and there are many music genres in between. John Bonham of Led Zeppelin was a great example of a rock drummer who tuned his drums quite tight and musical, developing his own signature sound and style in the process. Only you can decide what your own benchmark should be, and you should keep experimenting until you find the sound that perfectly defines you and your musical style.
9. Take Readings to Achieve Consistency
Once you know what you are aiming for, it’s really valuable to develop the ability to tune your drums the same every time, night after night, for different purposes, or whenever you change drumheads. Some drummers are fearful of changing drumheads, worrying that they may not get back to the perfect sound they had before. Unfortunately our ears are not great for holding such fine-tuned memories, so it’s hard to be 100% sure that your drums are tuned the same every time you sit down to play. One thing you can do is make a recording of your drum kit, and use this as a reference point for tuning to in the future. Another option is to use the iDrumTune Pro app, which can take a frequency reading of each of your drums and store it for reference on a later date. So if you are in the studio, changing drumheads or tuning regularly between gigs and in different bands, you can quickly and easily get back to the exact sound you had previously.
If you want to know more about the underlying science of drumheads and drum sound, and learn more creative approaches to drum tuning, check out the free iDrumTune ‘Drum Sound and Drum Tuning’ course at www.idrumtune.com/learn
Author Professor Rob Toulson is an expert in musical acoustics and inventor of the iDrumTune Pro mobile app. He is also an established musician, sound engineer and music producer who works across a number of different music genres. Download our iDrumTune Pro app below: