12. Kick Drum Tuning
Updated: Oct 14, 2020
The kick drum (or bass drum as it is often called too), is a bit of a beast on first sight, and that makes kick drum tuning seem a little daunting to many people. But actually, with some very simple techniques and a little knowledge on drumhead vibration, kick drum tuning can be a very simple task that doesn’t need to be overcomplicated. Getting straight down to it, the physics of the drum allows three different approaches to tuning a kick drum, and each approach will suit different drummers, different music genres, different drum sizes and different drumheads. The three approaches all relate to the balance of the impact power and the fundamental tone of the drum, both of which can be controlled by damping either built into the drumheads, or additional damping added to the drum. The preference, ideally, is to use a very standard approach to tuning a kick drum, i.e. the same method as for toms. So, considering the kick as an extra-large tom, we know that the diameter and drumhead choice have a big impact, and generally we shouldn’t need to add additional damping. However, if your drumheads don’t give the sound you are looking for, a bit of extra damping can improve the situation. Extra damping can also be useful if you want the drum to have a high and fairly musical pitch, but you don’t want every hit with the pedal to ring out for a long duration.
Let’s have a look at three simplified kick drum waveforms to help explain some suggested different approaches to kick drum tuning:
Option 1. Low and Loose
Low and loose is a great option for drummers who want a sudden and powerful sound to their kick drum. The low tuning essentially refers to tensioning the head just to the point where the wrinkles are gone and it vibrates properly, but no further. In the waveform diagram above, we see Option 1 giving a low frequency peak with no ongoing vibration, the resultant sound is a deep thud that starts and stops very quickly with little overtone. This is generally only possible to achieve with heavy drumheads that have built in overtone control. Low and Loose works great for rock and metal drumming, but you’ll find it in all kinds of music where the kick drum sound drives the song significantly.
Option 2. Tight and Toneful
If you tighten the batter and resonant drumheads to a higher tension, the fundamental tone of the drum starts to vibrate and gives a more musical sound. The waveform diagram shows Option 2 with a tighter frequency peak and some ongoing vibration profile of both the fundamental and overtones of the drumheads. This drum sound still has a powerful impact, but with some character and tone that carries on after the initial hit. It’s no surprise that jazz, folk and more classical drummers tend to use this approach, but some also rock and pop drummers like to be musical with their kick drum and experiment with this approach too.
Option 3. Damped with Tone (hybrid)
The third option sounds like a hybrid of both Options 1 and 2. The drum is tuned higher to give some tone, but is heavily damped (either by using damped drumheads, or some additional damping applied to the drumheads) in order to keep the impact quite sudden and powerful, and to significantly reduce the overtones of the drumheads too. The sound has a controlled tone that can be tuned to suit the style of music or to give some character without causing big boomy sounds that comprise a performance or recording. It works particularly well for indie, pop and R&B genres and has been adopted conceptually for electronic music too, where synthesized kick drum sounds are designed to have both impact and musicality.
The drumheads used are really important for getting the kick sound you want, and if you use the right drumheads it should be possible to get the sound you are looking for without any need for additional damping. As with tom and snare heads, there are a huge range of options with kick drum heads to consider. If you are aiming for the Low and Loose tuning, then you will want heavy drumheads on both the batter and resonant side (either coated or 2-ply) and you’ll want some overtone control built into the drumheads too. For the Tight and Toneful approach, you can use the same drumheads, just tuned up tighter, however, you may find that at the fundamental frequency you are tuning to, the drum just doesn’t sound bright enough – if you are looking for a bright toneful sound, then use a single-ply clear drumhead on the batter side and this should give a little more overtone. Again, built-in overtone control may be what you want, even for Tight and Toneful, in order to keep the balance of the fundamental and the overtones fairly equal, but you may prefer a slightly softer or more subtle overtone control system to those designed for rock and metal setups. There's a great video over at Drumeo which shows the subtle sonic differences for a huge number of different kick drumheads, here: https://youtu.be/OwUXsddhkqA
For the hybrid Damped with Tone approach, you can use almost any drumhead, and so this is a good approach if you have got yourself a drum kit and you have no funds to splash out on a new kick drum batter head. That said, investing in good and suitable drumheads is the single best thing you can do for your drumkit, above anything else. Ideally, you can achieve the Damped with Tone sound without using any damping or muffling other than that which is incorporated into the drumheads – if you use a 2-ply or coated batter head with overtone control then you should be able to achieve a toneful-yet-damped sound. A good approach is to, as with Option 1, tune the batter head to the point where the wrinkles have just gone and the drumhead is just able to vibrate properly, and then go no further. From this point, slightly increase the tension of the resonant drumhead to find the tone you are looking for. If you don’t have heavy or muffled drumheads, then you can get a similar effect with some additional damping in the form of a cloth, blanket or some foam positioned inside the drum and gently resting against one or both of the drumheads. Adding damping inside the drum both obstructs the coupling between the two heads (which dampens the fundamental tone of the drum) and if the muffling is touching the drumhead at the edge then this also acts as an overtone damper. Start by just damping the resonant drumhead with a little contact from a blanket inside the drum, and if the drum still rings out a bit too much then move the blanket to dampen the edge of the batter head too. Some drummers have also experimented with a small towel or cloth wedged behind the kick pedal to dampen the overtones, but this is a bit of a last resort solution – it’s much better to get the damping you need from the drumheads than from something inside the drum, and if you need damping inside the drum then it implies you are using the wrong drumheads! The use of a cloth or other material inside the drum brings two or three compromises; firstly it obstructs the air movement inside the drum and stops it vibrating as it was designed and intended to; second it adds damping to just one small location of the drumhead (rather than uniformly around the drumhead in the case of dampers built into the drumhead), and thirdly, the sound of the kick drum is different every time you move the drum kit and while you play, because whatever is inside the drum will always have a different type of contact with the drumheads and can potentially move during a performance too.
So, now you have the right drumheads and you know what sound you are aiming for, how do you get started? Well, as with all drums, it’s pretty simple – just get all the tuning rods finger tight and then tune them up a bit until you get the sound you are looking for. Rob Brown has some excellent videos on drum tuning and very much promotes simplicity and non-complicated approaches to tuning (see https://youtu.be/FTdXOWKIQc4 for example). Rob’s approach to kick drum tuning is a really good one; once you have the drumheads to finger tight, put a weight (or press down with your hand) in the middle of the drum and make a turn or two at each lug until the wrinkles smoothen out at each point, then just back off each lug a half turn or so. We suggest using a star form tuning, tightening at opposite lugs each time rather than sequentially around the perimeter of the drum, because it is valuable to keep the drumhead uniform on all sides as you tighten up from finger tight – this avoids causing the beating effect which we saw in the Lug Tuning tutorial post. Once you have the two drumheads above the point where the wrinkles smoothen out, you can use the iDrumTune Lug Tuning feature to make sure the overtones are all fairly even around the edge. At this point, have a listen to the drum, if it sounds good then stop, you are done! If you are looking for a particular fundamental frequency, then use the iDrumTune Pitch Tuning feature and hit the drum in the centre of the batter head with a mallet – you’ll see the fundamental pitch of your drum and will know how much further to tune up in order to get the pitch you are looking for. Remember, the fundamental pitch is affected by the tension of both the batter and resonant drumheads, and often with the kick drum it’s beneficial to tighten the resonant head first if you are trying to take the overall pitch of the drum higher, this way you get the damped and low tension response of the beater on the batter head, but the resonance and tone from the influence of the resonant head.
In terms of tuning range, you’ll see that the fundamental frequency can be anything from around 60 Hz to around 80 Hz for a standard 24”, 22” or 20” kick drum, and potentially even higher for a small 18” or 16” kick drum that can be found on some jazz club kits. In each case you’ll find the overtone works well at an RTF value of 1.4 – 1.6, as with standard tom drums, resulting in overtone frequencies between around 80 Hz – 120 Hz. Because the fundamental is often heavily damped with kick drums, sometimes you find this both hard to hear as a pure vibration, and hard to read with iDrumTune, but not to worry, the most important thing is to ensure the overtones are fairly even with Lug Tuning and if it sounds right, then it is right!
The image below shows a 22” kick drum tuned to a fundamental F0 frequency of 67 Hz with an F1 overtone at 94.5 Hz, and all lug positions tuned to within 1 Hz of each other. You may find that, depending on the drumheads and the tuning, iDrumTune picks up either the fundamental or the overtone more powerfully, regardless of where you hit the drum – this is for two or three reasons, firstly because different kick drum heads give very different balance between fundamental and overtones, secondly, if the drumhead is tuned very low, it may not be vibrating much at all, so there isn't any real frequency oscillation to read or latch on to, but also, the low fundamental frequencies are approaching the low limit of a mobile recording device. This is not a problem, it just means that you may need to use iDrumTune’s Target Filter mode when tuning a kick drum.
There are a bunch of other concepts related to kick drum sound, but none more important than the drumhead tuning described above. But here’s a couple of other points to mention which you might research further or experiment with:
To get a more ‘snappy’ or ‘clicky’ attack to the kick sound, use either a coated drumhead or attach a firm or plastic dot where the beater hits the drumhead. A firmer kick pedal beater (composite plastic or wood) gives a sharper attack than a felt beater too.
The depth of the kick drum has a big influence on the sound – conversely deeper drums do not always sound bigger! The deeper the drum is, the less reflection there is from the resonant drumhead, so the sound energy gets lost a bit. On the other hand, shallower kick drums can vibrate for longer because of the strong coupling and so you might need more damping. Generally shallower drums are more ‘responsive’ and you can feel the energy moving inside the drum more with the kick pedal, especially if you are playing a hard and fast pattern.
We often use a hole in the resonant drumhead to let a bit of energy dissipate as an equivalent to drumhead damping, and conveniently to allow a microphone inside the drum when recording. The hole allows energy to escape, but if this is well designed into the drumhead, it can help to enhance and boost the low frequencies of the drum too by an acoustics phenomena called the ‘Helmholtz Effect’ (a technique also applied to loudspeaker design) – look it up if you are interested, it’s the same acoustics theory that causes a half-full beer bottle to make a sound when you blow over it!
Whatever kick drum sound you are looking for, it’s worth experimenting with the approaches outlined above, to understand the influence you can have over your kick drum sound and to explore the sound that suits your personal style. Use a mallet when tuning rather than trying to work with the kick pedal, a good drum mat is also recommended, not only to protect the floor, but to add a bit of damping and to reduce the vibration coupling with the floor too. Every little helps when you are looking for the perfect sound!
By Professor Rob Toulson - Professor of Musical Acoustics and Inventor of iDrumTune Pro.
iDrumTune Pro is available in the Apple and Google Play App Stores for iOS and Android.