5. Drum Tuning 101 - Back to Basics
Updated: Oct 14, 2020
Drum tuning can be quite daunting for any new drummer, and for many experienced drummers too. Don’t be ashamed of this! It takes a number of years for most drummers to develop the required understanding and hearing skills in order to tune drums unassisted. It’s really valuable to understand a little bit about the fundamental (F0) and overtones (F1) of a drum before attempting any tuning, which is why the previous tutorials spent some time explaining those acoustics concepts. But now that you know that the fundamental (F0) frequency is heard when we hit the drum at the center, and the overtone (F1) is heard when you hit the drum at the edge, you’re totally ready for all aspects of drum tuning. Everything mentioned in this tutorial post is also shown in the video below, so feel free to watch, read on, or do both!
Drum tuning is really difficult at the start, and the best approach is to keep things very simple before moving on to finer tuning. Thankfully, the iDrumTune Pro app can help you to tune to accurate and repeatable settings, experiment with new tuning setups and to assist you in gaining expert skills in drum tuning. iDrumTune doesn't tune the kit for you, it helps you to learn all the concepts and listening skills required to understand tuning and get the best out of your kit. Over time, what seemed difficult at first will become more obvious and easy - it's a reflective learning process that all drummers go through in order to find their own personal sound and style.
The best way to get to a good starting point is very simple. If you are tuning a drum kit for the first time, or you are putting a full new set of drumheads on your kit, it is best to start thinking about tuning when you first put the tuning rods into the lugs on the drum. So, with all the tuning rods removed, place the drumhead on the drum shell, place the rim over the edge of the drumhead and drop a tuning rod into each tuning lug. Be careful to ensure that the drumhead sits flat and evenly on the bearing edges of the drum shell. Now with just your fingers only, tighten each lug 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 lugs just ‘finger tight’ the drumheads will still be too slack to vibrate properly (you no-doubt see some wrinkles in the drumhead), so we need to tighten each lug a little more before we can get the first reasonable sound from the drum. With a drum key, give each lug a quarter or half turn of the key – 90 or 180 degrees. Don't go around the drum, jump opposite in a star-form every time to ensure that all sides of the drum are kept similar at all times (see star-form tuning diagrams below). Do this quarter or half turn on both the batter and resonant sides of the drum.
At this point, if you hit the drum in the middle, it should sound ok, not too bad. The lugs are all about the same tension because you set each one with your fingers, plus a quarter or half turn on each. So we don’t need to get too worried about the lug tensions just yet. Equally, the drum’s overall sound is less sensitive to the tuning of the resonant head, so let’s not worry about that for the moment and just stick to tuning with the batter head initially.
The first thing is to find a good pitch for the drum – which basically means tuning the F0 fundamental frequency, heard when we hit the drum in the centre of the batter head. So use Pitch Tuning mode on the iDrumTune app and take a reading - hit the drum gently on the batter head in the middle with the app microphone held just an inch or two away. You now have a reading of the drum's fundamental frequency. Now, there is no right or wrong frequency - rock drummers tend to tune low and jazz drummers tend to tune high, so this is where a bit of experimentation comes in. See how high you can take the drum by making similar adjustments to each lug as you did before, again this keeps the tension guaranteed to be fairly consistent at each point if you turn each lug by the same amount. You'll probably want to be somewhere in the middle of the range between too slack and too tight, but this differs for every drum and drumhead and genre and style etc, but sounds good at many different frequencies.
You can use the F0 frequencies in the iDrumTune app’s Preset Manager as a guide, and we’ve posted some suggestions for frequencies to aim for in previous posts. A later tutorial on tuning for different music genres will also add some guidance here. The diagram shown here is from a previous post and gives a good indication of what frequencies to aim for. As an example, if you're using a 13-inch tom, try to tune the pitch to 100 Hz and see how that sounds.
OK, now you can control the drum's overall pitch, it's time to check how evenly it is tuned around the lugs on the batter head. So go to Lug Tuning mode and take a reading at one of the lugs. Hit the drum gently at the edge near the lug and hold the microphone close to the hit position. Now take a reading at each lug point around the drum (note from the previous tutorial how important it is to move the microphone to near the hit position each time, otherwise you will not get an accurate reading of the lug vibration frequency). No doubt, you'll see that some lug frequencies are a little different to others, and you can nudge some positions tighter or looser with the drum key to get a more even result. This can take a few attempts going around the drum, but if you are within 1-2 Hz then this is really pretty good.
Of course, nudging the lug frequencies might change the overall pitch of the drum, so now you need to double check that and bring everything up or down again if it's gone away from your preferred sound. The thing about drum tuning is that ‘everything affects everything’, so there is always a little backwards and forwards involved in getting a great tuning, setting the pitch, then checking the lugs, then the pitch again, but once you have the hang of it you’ll do this all quite quickly and instinctively.
Now that you have a drum with good pitch and equal lugs, it should sound pretty great - and we haven't even touched the underside yet! In fact, if you want to stop there, then do so, the resonant head doesn't need tuning to the same level of accuracy as the batter head, for a number of reasons explained in our specific posts on the subject. However, if you want to flip the drum over and check the lug tunings of the resonant head, then that doesn't hurt.
Once you have the hang of all that, then (and only then) do you need to start worrying about the relationship between the batter and resonant head, and the tuning of the resonant drumhead. This is quite advanced and does make a valuable difference to the sound, but it’s not a deal-breaker – if you followed the steps above your drums should be sounding really great already. There is really no need to overcomplicate things with tuning, especially once you understand the core concepts - Rob Brown has some excellent videos on drum tuning too, and he always promotes the idea of keeping things simple, quick and easy, which we totally agree with.
Have a look here for an example of Rob Brown's tuning in action: https://youtu.be/lLEjrq_TFRg.
In the next tutorial we will dive right in on the concept of tuning with the resonant drumhead, first discussing why it is even there, and then looking at how iDrumTune can help make sense of the relationship between the two drumheads, and how to control and tune them for a brilliant overall sound.
If this info was all brand new to you - congratulations on tuning your first drum!
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.