1. Why Bother with Drum Tuning?
It’s a good question, but one most experienced drummers will be very aware of the numerous answers to. Drums and drummers often receive a hard time from other musicians, because they are so ‘straight-forward’ in comparison to many instruments – you just hit them and they make a noise! But, actually, drums are much more difficult to tune than a guitar or violin, for example. Guitars have one single tuning head for each string, which you turn until the exact musical note you are looking for comes up. OK, you might not have perfect pitch hearing, but you can listen to a piano until the guitar string and the piano note you are looking for sound the same, or more often use an electronic tuning device that tells you exactly when the note is reached. Now that’s simple!
But drums have a whole bunch of different things to consider. Firstly, there are potentially 5, 6, 8 or 10 tuning lugs on the drumhead, which all individually can affect the sound. But that’s doubled by the second drumhead on the bottom, which also has 5, 6, 8 or 10 tuning lugs too. Add that to the fact there are a number of drums in the kit, each of different sizes and depths and a multitude of drumhead styles to choose from, not to mention the fact that each song and music genre potentially requires a slightly different drum sound. If you're playing drums in a big reverberant space, then you might need to dampen the drums too, so that the reverb in the room doesn't ring on forever after you hit the drum. Before you know, it there are just too many permutations to make sense of!
So, we’ve established that tuning drums is a difficult task, though many experienced drummers get really good at it over the years. But we haven’t answered WHY bother to tune drums yet; there are lots of reasons…
Firstly, to get the absolutely best sound out of your drums and drum kit. If your drumheads are too slack or too tight, then the drum won’t resonate and project sound as well as it can. If your drumhead is tuned unevenly (for example tight on one side and loose on the other), the drumhead won't vibrate smoothly and will choke the sound or introduce warbled artefacts to the sound. It’s amazing what a well-tuned drumkit can do for a drummer – it’s often better to hear an average drummer play simple on a wonderfully tuned kit, then to hear an amazing drummer hitting sublime grooves on an awful sounding set of drums!
Secondly, it’s valuable to find the perfect sound for your drum that is best for the song you are playing, the music genre and most importantly for your own personal style and character. It’s not uncommon for Jazz drummers to tune their drums really tight and high so that musical notes ring out from their toms and they can play amazing musical phrases around the kit. Equally, Rock drummers tend to tune quite low and powerful to bring a strong tone and style to the performance. But there are no rules, and you can develop your own style too, if you can play high tuned toms in a melodic rock band then go for it, and chances are you’ll be noticed for doing something different and unique too!
Additionally, like all instruments, it’s important to be consistent – to sound the same tomorrow as you do today, to be in harmony with the other instruments in the band and the song you are playing. We use tuning of instruments to take a record of our settings and then remember for next time. It’s easy with guitar and other instruments, because if a string is tuned to a specific note (E, A, G etc), it’s quite easy to remember. But drums don’t have to be tuned to exact musical notes, so there are an infinite number of possibilities for how you might tune your drums, and hence it’s much harder to identify exactly what your previous sound was – especially if you’ve just changed drumheads or are on tour moving kit around day and night. Having said that, it is actually possible to tune drums to musical pitches, and this can sometimes be valuable for songs that have big tom fills that need to not clash with the bass guitar or synth line. Equally, tuning to musical pitches can help with deciding on the different tunings for each drum in your kit – so if each is tuned to a different musical frequency, then you can be sure a fill around the kit, or a repeating pattern through the toms will sound pretty cool!
While we’re talking about recording tuning settings, drum tuning is perhaps most important when in the recording studio, because it is there that a sound is being committed to record that will hopefully be heard by audiences all over the world, for years to come. Getting a great drum sound is essential in many recording sessions, and maintaining consistency through different takes and days, when changing drumheads and performing overdub takes can be really important. Great drums can really define a record, and legendary music producer John Leckie (Muse, Radiohead, The Stone Roses) is quoted as saying:
“The two things that identify a record are the vocal and the snare drum”
So producers tend to spend a long time getting a good drum sound before starting a recording session, often taking the first day or two just focusing on the drums, tuning and microphone placement, which can sometimes account for 15 - 25% of the whole recording session.
Hopefully you agree, playing drums to a good level is really important, but it’s a huge asset if you can tune drums and get a great sound out of them too, which is equally applicable for studio engineers who regularly record drums. We’ve seen that beginners really need help learning about the concepts of drum tuning and putting their knowledge into practice and developing the skill quickly – it takes a long time to learn and to develop your hearing to the point where you can tune without any help or feedback of some kind. But we’ve also seen that professional drummers often need to tune quickly, repeatably, to an extreme level of consistency between sessions (for example on a big tour where the sound must be exactly the same every night). And, equally, our ears are only so good – we humans can only hear to an accuracy of a few Hz, and yet drums tuned to higher accuracy than our hearing can still vibrate and give a smoother sound, particularly if tuning to very specific music frequencies or trying to equalise a drumhead to perfect consistency.
We know therefore that drum tuning isn't easy, and it's not something anyone should feel embarrassed about or inadequate if they find it hard. Most drummers will admit it took a few years before they felt truly confident with drum tuning, and others we have spoken to have spent all their careers (some very successful careers!) and still, after 20 or 30 years, they are not 100% confident with drum tuning. So, we're trying to demystify the 'black art' process once and for all. To make it a little more palatable, we suggest to break the act of drum tuning down into four specific tasks:
Tuning the fundamental pitch of each drum in the drum kit
Equalising the drumheads to give a clear and smooth tone
Relative tuning of the batter (top) and resonant (bottom) heads
Controlling the decay and damping of the drumhead
So, this is the first post of a complete course and blog series by the makers of iDrumTune Pro – an app which is able to listen to the drum you are tuning and offer some help and assistance in learning the skill and achieving the sound you are looking for. During the course we'll discuss in detail each of the four tuning tasks mentioned above, and explore lots of other relevant topics too related to drum tuning and percussion acoustics. Of course, we’d love you to try the iDrumTune app, but moreover this is developed after many years of university level research by acoustics professors, drummers and music producers, and so there is some valuable information to be shared with the drumming and music production community. Much of this has been published in academic journals, at international conferences, patents and the like, but it’s important to boil it down to a more accessible form which drummers, studio engineers, students and music teachers can easily understand and enjoy learning about. We hope you find the series interesting and valuable, and it will cover many aspects of science and creativity with respect to drums and the sound of drums, and the use of the iDrumTune Pro app in drum tuning. As a taster, here's a speedy overview video of iDrumTune Pro, showing all the features that are built into the app:
If you want some more academic reading along the way, then we’ll highlight some of the things we have published and come across through the years. For starters, some of the information mentioned here in this post was first published by iDrumTune inventor Professor Rob Toulson at the 2008 Art of Record Production Conference in Lowell, MA, and subsequently published in their journal and online here:
Happy Drumming and HAPPY TUNING!