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This is the "how to" article. For more perspective on this, click here.

Drum "Tuning"

Are you struggling with your sound? If you're not happy with your sound, you won't play freely, so let's get that squared away.

There are plenty of well-known drummers who have a great drum sound, who will say something like "I just tension (or "tune") them until they sound good."

I couldn't agree more. But... I think we can save young drummers some time, by being a little more specific than "loose", "medium", or "tight". I also think that, even if you tension the drums by ear, it might be helpful to write down what those "good-sounding" pitches are, so that you can quickly achieve the same sound again. With repetition, your ear is good enough without using pitches. Those are the only reasons I use pitch in this article, and hope no one becomes obsessed with it. (waste of time)

Typically, drummers aren't concerned with keeping their drums "tuned" to specific pitches. In fact, if a drum has a very obvious pitch, it may interfere with the music. It's more appropriate, in general, to project a set of high and low-pitched "tones". So, although I use pitch as a reference below, it's ONLY a reference. I chose to use pitch, because the terms "pretty taut" and "pretty loose" are vague. Don't obsess over pitch, though. Most drums have a "sweet spot" that tends to be in their middle tuning range, which works the best. Try putting the bottom head on first, gradually tensioning the head while tapping on it, and when you find the spot that sounds right, duplicate it with the top head. That will give you a good starting point.

The pitches I reference below are for the drums I play. If your drums are different sizes, and/or made of different material, you may have to do some adjusting. The intervals between your drums are more important than the actual pitches. Drummers with fewer drums tend to use intervals of 4ths and 5ths, and drummers with many drums tend to use smaller intervals, like minor 3rds, or even whole steps. If you're not familiar with these terms, just ask your keyboard player or guitarist for a little help. One approach to this is to (with the drum heads removed) actually tap the outside of the shell with your knuckle, and listen for the fundamental pitch, then try and tension the heads to that pitch. I've tried that, but don't use it as my method.

Realize that this entire discussion, like many in music, is subjective. You have to be happy with your sound, so look at the obvious things. There are a huge variety of drums, heads, sticks, techniques, microphones, effects, and room acoustics involved in creating "your sound". But, once you understand the basics of an acoustic drum, it's not that deep.

A drum is such a simple instrument... Although someone will always claim to invent a new construction method, new kind of head, new kind of stick, etc., there's really no reason to make it very complex. There are only two approaches to tensioning drums. You can have both heads the same, or one head tauter than the other. (top or bottom) So how do you know which is the best for you? Try it yourself, and see what you like. It's the only way you'll ever know.

Those who are technically oriented could devote an entire web site, or an entire book, to the subject of drum tuning. (or drum "tensioning", if you prefer) But... That's not because it's so complex. The sounds you get really depend on just a few variables, and the rest is details. The method I'm describing here is all about getting a great acoustic sound. I want the sound man to simply amplify the drums as required... NOT create my tone. We'll have a look at drums, heads, etc., later, but certain things are true, regardless:

  • The most common mistake made by inexperienced drummers, by far, is that they muffle the drums too much. When you have a great acoustic sound, from the audience point of view, they will probably sound like "too much" when you're up close. You NEED that resonance, because it is your POWER. You can always muffle the drums for a special effect, using your technique, but you cannot pull more resonance out of a dead drum.
  • The more air you have around the drums, the bigger they will sound. In practical terms, that simply means that the drums will generally sound great in a big room, but a bit "thin" or "tinny" in small rooms, or rooms with low ceilings. If you find yourself in a room with poor acoustics, don't let it get to you. Do what you can to adjust, (info below) but don't spend every break sitting on the stage with a drum key. You simply can't get a great sound in every room.
  • Your technique alone has the largest effect on the sound. If you play in a loose, fluid manner, letting the sticks rebound, you'll get the biggest sound. If you play stiffly, digging the sticks into the drum, you get a dead, higher-pitched sound. You can use that 'stiff" approach to create special effects, but in general, you'll want to save yourself some effort by playing in such a way that the drum is free to vibrate. Your heads will last longer, and you will save some wear and tear on your body.
  • Thick and/or multi-ply heads are more durable, but they don't have as much tone as thinner or single-ply heads. It's better to base your decisions on producing a great sound, than to try and save a few bucks. If you absolutely must use thicker (or muffled) heads, realize that you'll have to play harder, and you risk hurting yourself. You can be PLENTY loud, using good technique, good drums, and good heads. Too many people muffle the drums too much, which forces them to play harder, which forces them to use thicker heads, which forces them to play harder... You get the idea.
  • The same idea applies to cymbals. Even the small felt washer on a cymbal stand laying on the top of the cymbal, muffles a cymbal. Remove the (needless) felt, play the cymbal again, and you'll see what I mean. Mounting your cymbals loosely lets them vibrate freely, which (like the drums) gives you more power and projection.
  • If you've gotten in the habit of tensioning your drums very loosely, to get what seems like a "fat" sound up close, you'll think the tensioning methods here are too high-pitched. Before you decide that the drums are "too taut", record them with a microphone out front, or better yet, have another drummer play your drums while you walk out front and listen. You may find that (due to the resonance) the method below gives you a better sound than you originally thought.
  • Realize that a bass drum is no different from any other drum. So, give some thought to two things... First, don't just accept the "defaults" that your pedal came with. Consider the effect of using beaters of different hardness. Why use a felt beater on a bass drum, for example, when you're using wooden sticks on the other drums? And... Adjust your pedal so that the beater strikes the head in different places, and listen to the difference. Depending on the size of your drum and your pedal setup, sometimes just moving the beater an inch will make a huge difference in the sound. It's just like your other drums... relatively "dead" in the very center, and relatively "thin" near the edges. You probably want it somewhere in between.
  • If you have traditionally-built, or vintage maple drums, without a lot of hardware, then you'll have a warm, resonant sound. Multi-ply drums of any kind, especially birch, give a sharper attack, with less resonance. Hey, no matter what you say, they're "plywood". Compare a carved wood block to a chunk of plywood, and the tone difference is very clear.
  • Consider the floor... Buddy Rich, for example, always carried a piece of 3/4" plywood to set the drums up on. It enhances the "wood" sound, and serves as a reflector, giving you more power. Carpet robs resonance, and therefore, power. A bonus of using your own platform is that you don't poke holes in the stage, or damage it in other ways, which is something that venue operators will appreciate.
Special thanks to my good friend, drummer Fred Marcin, for contributing to this article. He's an educator, and is one of the columnists who will be contributing material for my Podcast series, beginning in November 2007. Click here for info on the Podcast series.

Here's the traditional method I use for a good general sound.

I've been in "niche" bands, like most people... say, a "Funk" band, for example, where you probably want the same sound all the time. Today though, I play jazz, rock, blues, country, etc., every week. I'll describe how to I quickly "fine tune" the drums occasionally, but as a rule, I never touch them. All of my recordings on this site were done with the drums setup as below, so you can hear what it sounds like.

Here's what it sounds like, using my own playing as the example:


Click for 4 bars at medium volume, in a 350-seat theater.


Click for a loud 4-bar "rock crossover frenzy" sort of fill.

Both clips are from the same concert, so nothing was changed. There are no effects on the drums. It's simply the nice natural sound of a big room.

Give this a try...

I use white-coated Remo "Diplomat" heads on all the drums, with no muffling whatsoever. (clear "Diplomat" snare-side head) The bass drum has white-coated "Ambassador" heads, with a 3-inch wide piece of thin felt behind each head, running across the inside of the drum head at about 1/3rd of the way in from the edge. No other muffling.

SNARE

Top head: B to C

Btm head: E to F# (higher)

9 X 13 TOM

Top head: C to D

Btm head: (same)

16 X 16 TOM

Top head: F to G

Btm head: (same)

14 X 24 BASS DRUM

Batter head: G to A

Front head:  A to C

I prefer for the bottom head on my toms and bass drum to be slightly tauter than the batter head. If you start with the pitches above, especially using thin heads like "Diplomats", the batter-side head will stretch over the first few days, and you'll end up with the bottom head tauter, automatically.

A quick fix, when you need it...

Suppose you show up for an audition, rehearsal, or performance, and right away, you feel that you need a more "classic" sound, or a more "rock" sound. The method above provides what I'd call a "general" sound, although there are some who would call it a "vintage" or "jazzy" sound. If you want a more "pop" or "rock" (flat) sound, the answer is simple. You can probably leave the snare drum alone. On your toms and bass drum, simply loosen the top head about 1/2 turn (180 degrees) at each lug, and voila! Instant fix. Listen to the 60-second example below, to hear the difference.

The example above is from a performance at the Buena Vista Palace, at Disneyworld, Florida, with a "show band" I was in, in about 1984. It's the same setup as above, except for two things. First, I was using Remo (clear) "Pinstripe" heads as the batter head on the toms and bass drum, and second, (to try and get some more resonance) the toms and bass drum are one step lower in pitch. Notice how flat and "dead" the Pinstripe-equipped drums sound, compared to the Diplomat heads? In this case, the drums were close-miked, and the sound man was adding some reverb to the mains. (This recording was made with a portable cassette recorder simply sitting on the floor near the drums, on stage.)

This is a method that a lot of us were using in the 1980's and early 1990's. If you have good mics and a good sound man, you can get by with this, letting the sound man create the "tone" you want. It was adequate for the pop music, but "clunky-sounding" in other settings. As I said above, it's not possible to pull more resonance from a dead drum.

Obviously, it works both ways... If you're a drummer who likes the sound of very loose heads, you may find that a simple turn (tauter) of the drum key will make your sound more appropriate for the blues, jazz, or funk gig that you're filling in on. It only takes a minute, so if it's appropriate to make the adjustment, then just do it and get on with the show.

An opinion about "breaking in" drum heads

When you install a new drum head, tension it evenly around the drum, so that the pitch you hear, when tapping it lightly near each lug, is the same. That puts the head "in tune with itself", and that's helpful, whether the head is taut or loose.

I've heard a lot of people recommend that when you install a new head, you should tension it tauter than normal, to break it in. I disagree, and here's why. Look at the simple graphic to the right. If you believe that tensioning (or playing) a head produces "creases" at the point where the head touches the shell, then think again about this over-tensioning approach. If you over-tension a head to "break it in", then loosen it to play it, you are allowing those creases to move inside the drum's diameter.

I remember an interview with Buddy Rich, who made these remarks when the interviewer asked him why the drums sounded unusually loose. He said, (paraphrasing here) that the heads were new, and that he'd play them for a few days, to let them "sink in". He then said that "when they're pulled up, they're perfect". Buddy knew how to produce a great sound, and he certainly knew how to install a drum head! So, his approach was to "let the heads sink in" for a couple of days, then "pull them up". If you think in terms of these "creases" at the edge of the shell, it makes perfect sense. After the heads "sink in", you're then pulling these creases outside of the shell, which simply makes more sense to me. That's how I've always done it, and I think it produces better results.

Experiment!

Don't ever read anything, whether it's here or anywhere else, and consider it to be "the end".
YOU have to try these things for yourself, vary them from time to time as your mood and needs dictate, and experiment with those things that are "new" to you. Have fun exploring!

This page will expand, as time goes on... More audio, etc.

 

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