Published on August 7th, 2013 | by Wade Hunter
The Ultimate Drum Tuning Guide
Learning how to properly tune a drum is a vital skill for anyone involved in music. For drummers this is obviously something that must be learned as part of mastering and getting the most out of their instrument, but it also important for sound engineers or anyone else who works in the studio to ensure that the drums are putting out the best sound possible. Even musicians who do not play the drums should have a basic understanding of this skill should a situation arise where they might be required to assist in dialing in an out of tune kit. The concept is a simple one but also one that will take time, practice and patience to master. In this guide we will outline the basic concepts, terminology and practice of getting the best possible sound out of your drums.
Drum heads — which are often erroneously referred to as skins due to the fact that they were at one time made literally from animal skins — are the Mylar surfaces that make up the faces of the drum. The head that is struck with the stick or bass drum batter is called the batter head, while the head on the bottom that is not stuck is called the resonant head. Both of the heads are seated on the drum’s bearing edge, which is the edge of the drum shell. The angle of the bearing edge has an influence on the sound that the drum makes, and this angle is typically 30, 45 or 60 degrees. The pitch of the sound that is made when the batter head is struck is dependent on how much tension is applied to each of the drum heads. This tension is applied via the drum hoop which is a metal or wooden hoop that pulls the heads towards the shell via the tension rods. Tension rods are the thin bolts that are fed through holes in the drum hoop and fastened to the lugs, which are attached solidly to the drum shell. These parts form the basic assembly whereby the tension of the drum heads can be adjusted by loosening or tightening the individual tension rods.
The sound that the drum makes is influenced by many factors. These factors include but are not limited to the type of wood that the shell is made of, the thickness and lamination pattern of the shell, the angle of the bearing edge, the style of drum hoop and the nature of which the lugs are connected to the drum. But the biggest factor by far in determining what sound the drum puts out, is the choice and tuning of the heads themselves. This is the reason why it is so important to become familiar with the various types of drum heads and the proper method of getting the correct pitch and tone of the drum. You could have the best drum kit in the world but if you’re not able to properly tune the heads, you’re not going to get anywhere near the best sound that the drums are capable of producing.
Choosing what heads to put on your drums is an important extension of the instrument itself. Different types of heads on the same drums that are tuned exactly the same will sound very different, so careful consideration of head selection is crucial in getting the right sound out of your drums.
- Single-ply heads are made of a single layer of Mylar and will give you an open, bright sound with increased resonance and overtones. Single-ply heads are naturally thinner than double-ply and as such are less durable and more suited for lower volume playing like jazz or soft rock. Noteable single ply heads include Evans G1, Remo Ambassador, and Aquarian Classic Clear.
- Double-ply heads are made of two layers of Mylar and give you a more controlled sound with less sustain, resonance and projection. Double-ply heads also give a quicker attack and a more punchier sound than single-ply. These heads are used more in louder music environments like hard rock, metal or any other scenario where loud, pronounced drum sounds are preferred. Notable double-ply heads include Evans G2, Remo Emperor and Aquarian Super-2.
- Coated Heads come in various forms but with each different type, a coated head will lower the resonance to produce a mellower, warmer sound. They are suited for mellower musical environments where warmer, softer drum sounds are required.
In some cases, a combination of of head types is used. For example, a popular combination is to use a double-ply for the batter head, with a single-ply for the resonant. This gives you the best of both worlds with the added attack and durability of a double-ply batter head with the open, resonant projection of a single-ply resonant head.
Now that you have an idea of what head selection will be best to suit the sound you’re going for, it’s time to go over the most important part: tuning the drums. Before you begin, run your fingers along the bearing edge of the shell and ensure that there are no nicks or imperfections. If there are, it will make it very difficult to get a proper sound out of the drum no matter how much effort you put in to tuning it. You’ll want to tune each head on it’s own, without the influence of the other head. Obviously for the first head this won’t be a problem, as it’s the only head on the drum, but for the second head, you’ll want to totally kill the head that isn’t being tuned. You can do this by setting the drum on your drum throne, or any other surface that totally dampens the resonance of the head not being tuned.
Start by seating the drum head on the drum and make sure that it is centered and seated properly. Over time, a drum head will stretch from the tension applied by the hoop, so to reduce the amount of stretching that happens after the head has been installed and tuned, push down on the center of the head once it is seated to stretch it out. You might hear some crackling as the head stretches. Once the head is properly seated and stretched, put the hoop on, making sure that it is also centered and seated properly. Fasten the tension rods to the lugs using the cross-pattern method to the point where they are just starting to touch the hoop and apply tension to the head (roughly finger tight). This is generally the starting point used for finding the right pitch of the drum and will ensure that you are starting with a near-even tension across the whole head. Tighten the the tension rods using the same cross-pattern method and turning each rod the exact same amount. Depending on the drum you are tuning and the specific pitch you are going for, this could be as little as one quarter turn on each rod to multiple turns. To dial in the specific pitch you want, just repeat the previous step by either loosening or tightening all of the tension rods the same amount.
At this point, you should have close to uniform tension across the head at the specific pitch you are trying to achieve. Now comes the fine-tuning to ensure that the tuning is completely even at each tension rod. In order to do this, you’ll want to apply gentle pressure at the center of the drum head and use your drum stick to tap between the center of the head and each tension rod, about two inches away from the outer edge of the head. This will give you the specific pitch that each rod is tuned to. Make sure you tap the exact same distance from each lug and use the same power on each tap. If you are not consistent with these factors, you will not get uniform results and it will make it difficult to determine if each rod is tuned the same. The sound you are going to be listening for is the overtone that comes after the initial attack of the sound. Note that each rod is partly influenced by the two surrounding it, so tightening or loosening a rod will influence the two adjacent rods as well. Patience and a critical ear will serve you well in this final stage of tuning the head.
Once this is completed, you should have a properly tuned drum head. Repeat this process for the second head, making sure to totally kill the resonance of the previous head while doing so. Experiment with tuning the batter and resonant heads to different pitches to see what sound works best for you. For example, some people like to have their batter head tuned higher than the resonant head, while others prefer the resonant head to be tuned higher than the batter head. There are countless combinations of tuning ranges that you can give to each head and drum for any number of sounds, and each time you change the tuning you will be getting that much better and faster at this invaluable skill. Generally speaking though, the closer the heads are to being tuned to the same pitch, the better.
- To increase the speed of tuning drums, use two identical drum keys. This will make the cross-pattern method twice as fast as well as leaving less room for error in turning each rod the same amount.
- A well tuned drum requires no dampening (save for bass drums which should require very little). An annoying ring usually means the drum is not tuned properly. Don’t mask it by dampening it.
- Always tune up to finish. If a specific rod is tuned too high, tune it lower than necessary and then back up to where you want it. This will help to ensure that it locks in and stays tuned longer.
- When changing heads, it is a good idea to give the bearing edges and drum hoops a good cleaning to ensure there is absolutely no debris that would compromise the seating of the drum head.
- The stick response on a drum is an important factor when finding it’s “sweet spot”. Pay attention to the rebound of the stick when it strikes the head and make sure it feels right as well as sounds right.
- When fine tuning, tighten and loosen in very small increments. It doesn’t take much to go right past the desired pitch, which can be very frustrating.
- Whenever you have a drum head off, it is a good time to check the screws that attach the lugs to the shell to make sure they are good and tight.
- When putting your bass drum hoop back on when changing heads, make sure to put the clamped area back at the bottom. This will prevent having multiple areas of the hoop marked up from the bass pedal clamp.