One of the best quotes I’ve heard regarding drums comes from superstar recording artist and Rock Hall of Famer Tom Petty, of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. In one of his videos, he said “the most important person on any record is the drummer.” Well that statement can be debated from all angles, however coming from a guy that has tuned the drums on Petty’s albums and live performances since the Last DJ which was recorded in 2001, I can assure you that if the drums aren’t tuned correctly, the overall impact and quality of the music will be quite poor and it will affect the way the other band members play and the overall sound of the music.
I remember sitting in Tom’s Malibu home studio, where he and Ryan Uylate the producer on several of his albums were discussing drum sound. At one point, Tom said “I haven’t gotten such good drum sounds on my albums since” (his head went down as he looked at the floor for a while) as he raised up he said “shit… forever!”
Well tuned drums make a definite difference both in the studio and in a live performance.
From experience, I can assure you that well tuned drums make a definite difference either in the studio or live. They can either make or destroy your music’s overall sound.That being said, how do you go about tuning a drum or a drum kit?
How to tune a single drum… First things first.
We’ll start with the theory of how to tune a single drum which can be applied to all of the other drums with the exception of the snare drum. We will cover the basic approach and technique, and at the end, I’ll give you the link to a free pdf that shows in detail how to tune your entire drum kit so that it really thumps.
The three main parts you’re dealing with when tuning a drum is the drum shell itself, the top head, and the bottom head. You have to take all three parts into consideration because they individually affect different aspects of the overall tune.
Many times the shell of the drum has or rings to a note of it’s own. If you remove both drum heads and hit the side of the drum with your hand, you’ll hear it ring to a note. Some drum makers like DW Drums actually have the note of the shell stamped or printed on the inside of the shell. This is a good starting point.
There are few things to keep in mind when tuning drums. The first thing is that the top head controls the tone, and this is responsible for the particular note that you hear. The bottom head controls the sustain which controls the length that the drum rings out. The key to a perfectly tuned drum is to have the top and bottom head at the same pitch in order to create the perfect tone.
These are the three basic ideas you’ll need to keep in mind to guide you through the process and dial in great drum sounds. These three things also make troubleshooting easy when there are problems with the sound.
In addition, here is something to keep in mind. After both of the heads are placed on the drum and tensioned, if you hit the batter head of the drum, and the sound has a short trail up, or seams a bit choked, that means that the bottom head is too tight and might need to be loosened. On the other hand, if you hit the drum and the sound trails down (usually a long trail), that means that the bottom head is too loose and needs to be tightened.
Let’s get started.
When you have both heads off the drum, to get started with your tuning, you’ll want to install the bottom head first. On certain brand heads such as REMO, the heads need to be “cracked” before installation. There is an area along the underside of the rim where the surface of the head is glued to the metal rim. If you press your four fingers and gently lift the surface area from the metal rim, you’ll hear it cracking. What you’re hearing is the glue between the rim and the mylar separating. There is a reason for this. If you skip this step, when you hit the drum after you tune it, the glue will crack then, and your drum will quickly fall back to being out of tune. Make sure you don’t break the welded seal on the metal rim while cracking the glue. Easy does it!
Once that is done, place the head or skin on the drum, place the metal rim over the drum head, and hand tighten the tension rods. It’s important to follow a star pattern when tightening the tension rods so that the pressure all around is even. It’s the same pattern as tightening lugs on your car tire when changing it. For instance, start with the tension rod closest to you, then go to the opposite tension rod. Next got to the next rod to the left or right and do the same. Continue in the same direction and pattern around the drum.
Once the tension rods are hand tightened, you can start using your drum key to tighten each tension rod continuing in the star pattern. A full turn of each tension rod should be a good start and should be decreased as the head gets tighter. You’ll want to tighten the head to “just to where you start to get a tone.” If you’re getting a thud, keep tightening the tension rod, always in the star pattern.
Next tap the drum head at or near the tension rods, here you’ll tell if the the head is balanced. You’ll want to hear the same tone or pitch at each tension rod. At this point adjust each rod until all of the tones that you hear at or near each tension rod is very close to the same pitch.
Once the bottom head is installed, follow the same directions for the top head. Once both heads are installed you’re at the point where you’ll hit the batter side of the head (the side you hit with the stick) and listen for the trail up or trail down sound.Usually if you tension the bottom head slightly tighter than the top head you’ll get a very nice ring or sustain. (not too long as to howl, and not too short as to choke the sound)
Things to remember.
Remember the thing that controls the tone is the top head, so if for instance the drum is ringing out too long, and you tighten the bottom head, this will reduce the length of the sustain, but will also affect the pitch of the drum. So you’ll have to compensate by slackening the top head to return to the previous pitch if that is what is desired.
It takes a while to get the perfect relationship working between the two heads, but if you remember that the top head controls the tone, the bottom head controls the sustain and when both heads are at the same pitch, your tone will be perfect, then it will make your tuning a whole lot easier.
Try starting with the bigger drums and then move your way towards the smaller drums when you tune. If you can get the largest tom to thump at the right tone, the others drums fall into place quite easily.
There are other things to consider like intonation… the correct tones between each drum. If you want to learn more about it, check out one of the best drum drum tuning manuals called “The Drum Tuning Bible.” It covers all of the details that you’ll need to know to get your kit sounding great.
If you follow this simple drum tuning process, you will eliminate the need for patch ups with gaffers tape, moongel, or bubble gum, or whatever people use to attempt to get their drum to sound great.
There is a song that Petty plays in his live show called “Don’t Come Around Here No More”, and it starts with a beat that Steve Ferrone, the drummer, plays. I remember Mike Campbell’s drummer Matt Laug of The Dirty Knobs came out to see one of the shows and afterwards when he talked he said that when Steve hit the toms on that intro, they were so powerful that his knees actually buckled… Powerful stuff!!!
Well the power, intensity, and musicality of a well tuned drums is an integral part of making your band sound great. As promised, here is the link to The Drum Tuning Bible. This will give you all the information you need to master the art of drum tuning.
If you need any clarifications, please comment below, or shoot me a message.