Drum tuning refers to all aspects of optimising the sound of a particular drum kit. Generally, the word tuning is used to refer to the setup and optimisation of any system (we can tune an engine, an algorithm and a musical instrument!). So, drum tuning refers to everything you can do to optimise a drum kit’s sound, from applying just the right amount of tension to each of the drumheads, controlling the damping of the drumhead frequencies, and choosing the correct drumheads to help achieve the sound you are aiming for.
What are the main aspects of drum tuning?
Drum tuning has four main steps:
- Tuning the fundamental pitch of each drum in the drum kit
This involves setting the tension of the drumheads so that the drum gives exactly the tone you are aiming for. Jazz drummers tend to tune drums to a relatively high pitch, whereas rock drummers often tune their drums quite low. An exception is the snare which works well tuned high or low for all musical styles.
- Equalising the drumheads to give a clear and smooth tone
When the drumhead is tuned evenly, it will vibrate with a smooth and consistent profile. All drumheads give off a higher overtone frequency at the edge of the drumhead, so evaluating the overtone around the edge of the drum enables the tuning to be uniform and equal at all locations.
- Relative tuning of the batter and resonant heads
The batter and resonant drumheads vibrate together, in unison, to create the complete tone and sound of the drum. It’s possible to change the pitch of the drum by changing either drumhead’s tension, and this alters the relationship of the drum’s fundamental and overtone frequencies too.
- Controlling the decay and damping of the drumhead
Some drummers like their drums to ring out for a relatively long time after they are hit, and some prefer a tight sound that decays quite quickly. It can also be beneficial if all the frequencies of the drum decay at a similar rate, to give a consistent sound. There are many methods to control the decay of a drum, and none is more impactful than choosing the correct drumheads for your preferred sound and style.
How does drum tuning relate to drumhead vibration?
In the world around us, large heavy objects tend to vibrate more slowly than small lighter objects. Tall buildings sway from side to side very gently every few seconds and large lorries have heavy suspension systems that bounce up and down in response to bumps in the road. In comparison, a dinner knife from the cutlery draw vibrates thousands of times per second if you hold it at the end and hit it on a hard surface, emitting an audible ‘ting’ sound as it moves. Some things don’t vibrate at all or stop vibrating very quickly, such as a cushion or a rubber toy – if you hit these types of things they make a dull thud sound, but don’t really vibrate after the initial impact has completed.
Since larger things vibrate slower and at lower frequencies than smaller objects, it should be no surprise that a large diameter drum gives us a low-frequency sound, and a small diameter drum generally has a higher frequency. This applies equally to guitar strings, where the thinner strings give higher vibration frequencies. In musical terms, we refer to the strongest vibration frequency as the pitch of the note being played. The tension of a string or drumhead also affects frequency, so tighter strings and drumheads vibrate at higher frequencies than if they are set up with a lower or looser tension.
What is drumhead tension?
The tighter the drumhead, the higher the vibration frequency. So, by tightening or loosening the tension rods positioned at lugs mounted around the outside of the drum, we can increase and decrease the frequency to achieve our preferred sound or pitch.
Correctly, we apply torque to tension rods (or tuning rods), which means applying force in a circular motion, though with drums we often use the term applying tension to refer to tightening the rods; this phrase makes sense because the result of applying torque to the rods alters the tension of the drumhead, in the same way, that applying torque to a guitar machine head changes the tension of a guitar string.
Why is drum tuning important?
First and foremost, tuning can help to get the absolute best sound out of your drums and drum kit. If your drumheads are too slack or too tight, then the drum won’t project sound as well as it can. If a drumhead is tuned unevenly 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 drum kit can do for a drummer!
Secondly, it’s valuable to find the perfect sound for your drums that is best for the songs 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 musical phrases around the kit. Conversely, rock drummers tend to tune quite low and powerful to bring a deep tone and style to the performance. With this in mind, it’s quite possible to suggest ranges of tuning frequencies for different styles and kit setups.
Additionally, like all instruments, it’s important to be consistent – to sound the same tomorrow as you do today, and to be in harmony with the other instruments and the song you are playing. It is possible to tune drums to musical pitches, and this can sometimes be valuable for songs that have big tom fills that need to be harmonious with the bass guitar or synth line. 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!
Perhaps drum tuning is most important when in the recording studio because it is there that a sound will be committed to a record that will hopefully be heard by audiences all over the world and for many years to come. Getting a great drum sound is essential in many recording sessions, and maintaining consistency through different takes and days, and when changing drumheads, can be really important too. If the drum setup is correct, the recording session can move swiftly and efficiently, which can also help the mixdown process too.
How to get good at drum tuning?
It takes a number of years for most drummers to develop the required understanding and hearing skills in order to tune drums unassisted. Many drummers, even those with lots of professional experience, find drum tuning a challenge, and find it difficult to understand what physical changes in the setup or tuning will achieve the sound they are looking for. Don’t be ashamed of this, drums are one of the most challenging instruments to tune and perfect the sound of. It takes a very thoughtful drummer or sound engineer to manage and control the sound of drums but having some knowledge of the fundamental pitch, the value of uniform tuning, and the relationship between the two drumheads makes it possible for anyone to tune drums with control, accuracy and consistency.
Drum tuning is quite difficult initially, but, 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. Drummers and sound engineers also develop their hearing skills with respect to percussion sounds over time, and understanding a little of the science behind the sound makes it possible to develop these skills more quickly and to eventually be able to tune without any significant help from tuning aids.
Check out the drum tune ‘Learn Drum Tuning’ course to get more details on the four different aspects of drum tuning. If you apply these concepts with the iDrumTune Pro app, you’ll realise that your understanding of drum sound will increase rapidly and your ability to hear the difference between poor or well-tuned drums will increase greatly too!
You can also find further information about drum sound and percussion acoustics from the book Drum Sound and Drum Tuning by Rob Toulson, which has a thorough companion website at www.drumacoustics.com