On the surface it
seems somewhat silly: a drum is a shell with a vibrating membrane covering
one or both ends; when the membrane is struck a sound is created. The characteristics
of that sound depend on many factors: shell, membrane ("head")
properties, striking velocity, striking area, head tension, and the room
acoustics. "Head tension", or tuning, is the subject of this
page, and the silly part is this: the basic principle behind the acoustical
physics of a drum might seem to deny any complexity - a struck head will
produce a sound - however, the range of types of sounds any given drum
can make are unlimited.
One major factor
in this variance is the tension of the drum head - the tuning. Shell composition,
size, and depth all play a factor in the timbre, volume, and sustain of
the resulting tone, but head tuning impacts the pitch, resonance, attack,
decay, and tone - as well as contributing in a large part to the final
timbre, volume, and sustain. No other single factor affects your drum's
sound, and no other single aspect of drumming is as overlooked by the majority
of amateur and semi-professional drummers.
The reasons are myriad:
ignorance of tuning techniques, lack of practice, insufficient realization
of the range of subtle and dynamic changes simple tuning methods can elicit,
and - the biggest, I think - fear. Fear of changing the current sound of
the drum because
- The drummer doesn't understand how
that sound was arrived at, and
- He or she is afraid he'll never get
that sound back.
I've listened to
many drummers, and played many other drummer's kits. There is, almost without
exception, a distinction in sound between a "professional" drummer's
kit and a "non-professional" drummer's kit. But, this doesn't
have to be. The techniques the "pros" use are available to anyone.
The best things a drummer can do if he wants to understand and learn drum
- Experiment, and understand that nothing
you do to your drums can harm them, and that a better sound is always waiting
for you to take some risk.
- LOSE YOUR FEAR.
It doesn't get any
simpler than this: the head is held against the edge of the drum shell
by a hoop; the hoop is held in place by nuts. Tightening the nuts moves
the hoop closer to the drum shell, stretching the head tighter against
the shell edge. The tighter the head against the shell, the higher the
pitch the head returns when struck.
There. Is that enough
information? That's basically it!
What causes the wide
range of variation in sounds from one set of drums to another (even identical
makes and models) is how this basic principle is used, as well as some
other special tricks we'll get into later.
If you're never tuned
your drums before, the best thing you can do is take the heads off your
drums and do it from scratch. You can use your old heads, but the results
will be better if you get new heads. If you don't know what size head you
need, simply measure the diameter of the shell: that's the size of the
head (usually in inches).
Remember the position of the hoop befoe you remove it (eg., which lug hole
straddled the mount). The hoop has formed itself to the shell over time,
and it will sit best in this position.
So, you've taken
me up on my challenge, and you're sitting there with your heads off your
drums. Great! Throw them away and get the new heads out. If you're using
a top and bottom head, you may want to consult Heads
to see how each type differs. For now, you're going to put the top head
on first. In order to prepare for this, you'll need some very fine sandpaper
(jewelers works best) and some parrifin (this is assuming you're using
wood drums: if you have plexiglass, fiberglass, or metal drums, forget
the sandpaper - just the parrifin will do).
[While you have
your heads off, you may want to give each drum a thorough cleaning - inside
and out - before re-heading them. You might also want to get a screwdriver
and check to make sure all the hardware is tight (don't over-tighten these
screws, especially if you have plastic shells!).]
First check out the
edges. Are they smooth? If not, run the sandpaper over them lightly to
knock off any rough spots. Don't go too crazy here, or you may damage the
edges by making them uneven. You can check the evenness of the edge by
placing it on a thick piece of glass (that's resting on a flat surface).
If the drum rocks a bit, it probably isn't flat and you may want to fix
before you decide you want to correct this!
Is it really bad? If not,
leave it alone.
If it is, take it to a
music store that does repair.
Don't get into serious
edge repair unless you know what you're doing!
OK. You've smoothed
out the edge. Now, take the parrifin and run it along the edge, just enough
to deposit a thin layer of wax. This will allow the head to move over the
edge more freely, preventing areas of the head to be looser than others.
Don't put it on too heavy.
Now you're ready
to put on the head. You'll notice when you first lay the head on the shell
that it will rock from side to side a bit, like a see-saw. This is normal,
because the head probably isn't flat. Rotate the head until this rocking
motion is minimalized. Now put the hoop over the head. If you put the hoop
back in the same position it was before you took it off, it sould be OK.
Otherwise, you'll have to repeat the rocking test for the hoop (make sure
you don't rotate the head again!).
as flat as it can be. Put the lugs back into the hoop and finger-tighten
them down until you just begin to put tension on the hoop. When you're
finished replacing the lugs, you can then begin tightening.
Much has been written
about the proper method of tightening a drumhead. The basic rule of thumb
is to tighten opposite lugs. The following diagrams show the tightening
order for 4-, 6-, 8-, and 10-lug drums. Follow these orders! Don't just
go around the drum.
When you begin tuning
a new head, you should put a medium amount of tension on it, distributed
equally across the diameter of the shell. The head should return a good
pitch. Then, with the drum on the floor, place your palms on the head in
CPR fashion and press firmly. You'll head a distinct "cracking"
sound (don't be afraid to really lean on it: the head won't break!). This
does two things:
- It "cracks" the head, loosening
the stiffness where the head attaches to its lead-like rim - heads will
loosen up naturally as you play them: doing this now will minimize loosening
in the future, helping the head stay in tune.
- It centers the head on the edges:
if the head isn't quite centered and you tighten it, you'll notice one
area will always be loose next to the edge; this "cracking" helps
center the head and evenly distributes the sound.
[This "cracking" technique
also has a purpose when tuning: it helps to get the head in tune with itself.
More on this later.]
Now you're ready
to start "tuning". The first thing you want to do is get the
head in tune with itself. Leave the drum on the floor: this will allow
only the head your tuning to sound - not the shell or the opposing head
(if you're using a top and bottom head). Strike the head lightly about
one inch from the edge next to each lug. You should hear a slightly different
pitch from each lug. Tighten or loosen the lugs until you have a single
pitch coming from each lug.
I use the "cracking"
technique again here, alternating between tuning the head to itself and
pushing; I do this about 3 - 4 times (notice the drum returns a slightly
lower pitch after pushing on the head).
Once the head is
tuned to itself, you can now tune it to a specific pitch. Everything up
to now has been pretty standard: everyone uses these techniques and works
towards these results. Now, we get subjective.
- Paul Griffiths of St. Albans, England
I have a tuning tip for you - this
came from my tutor, Erik Stams. When tuning around the head, trying to
balance the pitch adjacent to the tuning bolts, use a soft headed mallet
instead of a stick. It takes all the attack out of the sound and makes
it much easier to hear the pitch. Also, as you tighten the bolt you can
hear much more easily the head coming into tune.
Also, when tuning double headed drums,
rest the drum on a folded towel to eliminate the sound of the head you
aren't tuning. This works better if the drum is on the floor (instead of
The pitch of the
head will depend on the pitch of the shell, the pitch of the opposing head,
the relative pitches of the other drums in your kit, and your taste (the
acoustics of the room you are playing in usually doesn't affect pitch -
it affects tone).
The pitch of the shell
This will impact
the tuning dramatically. Each shell will vibrate at a certain frequency.
You can determine that frequency by picking up the shell without heads,
holding it loosely, and striking it with a soft mallet (you can also do
this with the heads on, striking the shell with your knuckle, but it's
harder to hear the tone the shell produces without some practice). When
the head is being tuned, try starting at a low pitch and gradually increasing
the tension (make sure the head remains tuned to itself during this process).
You'll notice that some pitches ring right out, while others seems dead.
What's happening is the resonant frequency of your shell (the frequency
at which the shell vibrates) will either contribute to the vibration of
the head, or else it will cancel it out. It's basic wave physics:
The object is to
find those pitches where the shell and head will work together within a
range. There should be more than one (maybe even three or four), depending
on the quality of the shell.
The pitch of the opposing head
This is very important.
Add another wave to the images above, and you get the picture of the complexity
a bottom head can bring to the picture. For this reason, some folks just
don't use a bottom head. However, the bottom head - if used right - can
be an important tool in creating and developing your sound.
You have three options
when it comes to the tuning of the bottom head:
- The same pitch as the top head.
- A higher pitch than the top head.
- A lower pitch than the top head.
Each of these options
produces a different sound. It's important to remember when raising or
lowering the pitch of the bottom head relative to the top head that only
a slight variance is necessary! If the two heads are too far appart in
pitch, they will cancel each other out and the sound will be dead.
The two heads the same pitch
This will produce
a warm, round tone with lots of sustain. "Bong." The attack can
be sharp (depending on the tension of the batter head), and the decay will
be long, with no variation in pitch as the sound dies. Overtones are usually
The bottom head lower than the top
The decay and sustain
are diminished somewhat, the sound is rounder, and the tone deeper - even
if the pitch is the same (remember, when you raise or lower the pitch of
one head relative to the other, the pitch of the entire drum - when struck
while suspended - will either raise or lower. To keep the pitch the same,
you will have to change the opposing head in the other direction). The
pitch will remain constant through the decay. Overtones are minimized a
The bottom head higher than the top
Here's where things
get interesting! The effect is similar to bottom head lower in terms of
sustain and overall tone, but the pitch of the drum will drop somewhat
through the decay! This is how you get that cool "bwow" sound!
(There is another way to do this - see Special Effects below). Overtones
are minimized a bit.
Rob Varro, drummer
and educator from Ontario Canada, e-mailed me and explained why this happens:
When you strike the
top head of a drum, the air inside the drum is immediately compressed.
This causes the bottom head to resonate. The top head, for a fraction of
a second, is muted slightly by the stick contact. Therefore the bottom
head actually produces a full tone before the top head. So if the bottom
head is tuned higher than the top head, you will indeed hear the pitch
of the bottom head first, followed closely by that of the top head, giving
the effect of a pitch bend or "bwow" (I love that word).
Relative pitches of the other drums
Each drum will impact
its neighbors. Sometimes this impact is very subtle and will go unnoticed
to most listeners. Where these intertonalities affect your sound is when
you strike more than one drum at a time. You can use this effect to your
advantage, and whether the drums are tuned to a particular mode or scale
depends on what type of tonal interaction you're after.
Taste develops and
changes over time. This also depends on what type of music you're playing,
and the venue you're in (eg., a jazz tuning probably won't work in a heavy
metal band!). Here's where experimentation comes in; the more you play
with different tunings, the broader the range of musical styles you'll
be able to play. You may have to re-tune your drums from time-to-time (especially
if you cross genres alot), but once you get the hang of it and get over
your fear, it should be no problem.
I use one the same
techniques you talked about... top head first, then bottom head higher
than the top. I find the pitch for the drum on the top head and then tune
the bottom head a natural fourth above the top. And for any of the drummers
that might be reading this and doesn't know what a natural fourth is. [The
first two notes of "Here Comes The Bride" is a natural fourth.].
Anyway, after you
tune your highest tom to the forth you tune the next drum a fourth apart
from that (but also a fourth from it self). This creates a more tonal sound
when you hit the toms together. And go around the toms...because your using
natural tones, you get a more musical overall sound. I should tell you
that my drums are set up with a 3" drum size difference. 10"
13" 16". If you are using a traditional rock size set up - 12"13"16"
- you might not be able to get the toms to create the forth intervals.
But in that case you can tune them in thirds. Another good reference for
a third is the horse race trumpet call: "dun dun dun dut diggadaga
dut diggadga dut dut dut duh.... the first part is the third "dun
dun dun". Both the forth and the third are very musical ways of tuning
I use an Aquarian
Super Kick One for the batter when I want a longer tone. And a Super Kick
II's when I want a more punchy rock sound. I found with the Aquarian, you
don't have to use any muffling on the drum if you use the regulator resonant
head on the front. Toms I use Coated Double Thins on the top with Classic
Clears on the bottom. And you don't have to seat the head like you do a
Remo. I.E. no "cracking" and the drum will stay in tune longer
and won't go out of tune as much. My snare is a Texture Coated with a power
dot with a 3" piece of mylar ring I cut out and lay it on the head
freely to kill a little ring but not the drum. Well every one has there
own way of doing things and this is the one way I do it for my funk and
rock sound. (with some variation).
There are as many
different heads out there as there are drummers. Remo, Aquarian, Evans,
. . . many different head makers, and within each manufacturer many different
head types: single-ply, double-ply, hydraulic (fluid-filled), coated, clear,
opaque, woven, . . . .
Just a cursory glance
through any drum catalogue can confuse even a drummer who thinks he or
she knows it all. However, despite the dizzying array of heads out there,
some basic rules apply.
- Thick heads will have a lower pitch
than thin heads.
- Coated heads will muffle out unwanted
overtones better than uncoated heads.
- Dotted heads (heads with black or
silver dots on them) will also muffle overtones.
- Double-ply heads will produce a rounder,
warmer tone than single-ply heads, and will also muffle overtones better.
- Fluid heads will produce a rounder,
warmer tone than standard double-ply heads.
- "Woven" heads will withstand
more punishment than standard heads, but will require more work to generate
the same sound as a single-ply clear head.
- Heads with "Sound Control Rings"
(Remo Powerstroke3, Evans Genera with Muffle Ring) will drastically reduce
So, what kind of
music do you play: something needing a light, high, bright tonality, like
jazz? Pick thin heads - coated or uncoated - and make sure you use coated
on the snare so you can hear the brushes (ever try to play brushes on a
clear head?). You want that big, boomy rock sound? Go for the thicker,
double-ply, or hydraulic heads. Anything in-between is your call.
Of course, rules
are made to be broken. Try something different: experiment. Mix up different
type on double-headed drums; how does the sound change with a double-ply
batter head/single-ply bottom head as opposed to a coated batter head/double-ply
And, since this is
my drumming site, you should know that I currently use Evans Genera Coated
with Muffle Ring on the snares, Evans Hydraulic Oil on the toms, and Remo
Powerstroke3 on the batter side of the bass (this is an excellent bass
drum head: the muffling ring built in to this head provides all the overtone
eradication you need, making possible minimal internal muffling, which
allows for a really big, boomy bass sound). The front bass head is a manufacturer's
signature head (made by Remo) with a six-inch hole cut off-center protected
by a plastic Holz ring (highly recommended!).
This is my head setup
for rock music. These heads work for this style of music. When I play jazz I switch
to Remo Coated Ambassadors on the toms and snare, tuned to higher pitches.
When I play country I switch to Remo Pinstripes on the toms (same tuning
as rock), and leave the Evans on the snare. The Powerstroke3 stays on the
bass drum for any style of music.
If you have an old bass head floating about somewhere- cut it in half and seperate it from the rim as close to the rim as possible. Take off your existing batter head and mount the half head inside your batter head- kinda like the old drum head ring concept, except using the shell and lugs to keep it tight. You have to align it carefully and maybe use some small foamies to eliminate any extra plasti-slap, but the sound is monster! Full, thick and tight, with minimal loss of volume.
The snare drum is
a another matter. Many factors impact a fundamentally different approach
First off, the drum
is smaller - more like a timbale than a tom - and is usually made of different
materials than the toms, usually metal. Secondly, the snares require a
unique approach to the tuning of the bottom head.
Let's start here.
The bottom head doesn't have the impact on the top head tone as it does
on the toms; that's not it's purpose (this is why a timbale - essentially
a metal snare without the snares - doesn't have a bottom head - it doesn't
need one). The bottom head of a snare drum is there to provide a vibrating
surface for the snares; that's it. So, tuning the bottom head is mostly
about snare vibration.
[I should state here
that tuning the bottom head to the same pitch as the top head will help
"open up" the tone of the drum - the effect isn't as dramatic
as in the toms, but it's still there.]
The rule of thumb
- The tighter the bottom head, then
more the snares will vibrate.
- The looser the bottom head, the less
the snares will vibrate.
Tune the bottom head
to get the desired snare effect.
As a sidebar, keep
in mind that the snare vibration is also affected by the tightness of the
strainer - the tighter the strainer the shorter the duration of the buzz;
the looser the strainer, the longer the duration of the buzz. You can use
this to interesting effect, depending on the type of music you're playing.
(See below under
Special Effects for ideas to help eliminate snare buzz.)
The tuning of the
top head is more of an independant taste thing, again depending on the
type of music you're playing. If you're playing rock which requires a lower,
fatter sound, then tune the top head more loosely. Music that requires
a higher, articulated sound would see the top head tuned very high. But,
of course, this is all a matter of personal taste - some of the best rock
drummers tune their snares very high!
Your best bet would
be to spend an afternoon fooling around with the snare tuning and muffling,
trying all kinds of different combinations. You'll be amazed at the array
of different sounds you can get, especially if you incorporate the striking
position into your mix! (See Technique.)
Here's where things
get really subjective. Many drummers over the years have employed some
really wacky methods of muffling drums. The reasons for doing this usually
fall into three categories:
- Getting rid of that nasty ringing
- Muting the sound and shortening the
- Getting a warmer, rounder, "fatter"
tone out of the drum.
How is this acheived?
Tape, pillows, napkins, yarn, foam, wallets, goopy stuff, kleenex, sheets,
felt, packing chips, band-aids, blankets, paper, clothing, money, small
animals. . . .
The end is listless!
The muffling effect
depends on how much material you apply and where you apply it. To eliminate
ring, a small piece of tissue taped to the edge of the head usually suffices.
You can also get mylar rings to place over the drum to rid the overtones
and "fatten" the sound (or, as Geoff Kozma suggests, cut rings
from old heads - they do the same thing and don't cost you any money!).
Some people put foam rings or strips on the inside of the heads - I've
even seen people stick big hunks of foam to the top of the drum: I don't
know how they hit the thing!
- If all you want to do is kill overtones,
a small amount of material taped near the edge of the head will do.
- If you want to seriously limit (or
even kill) the decay, more material will be necessary; lots of gaffers
tape usually works here (take a look at the liner shots from The Beatles
"Let It be" album: Ringo put a towel or small sheet right over
the snare drum! Try it! Your drum will sound just like Ringo's!).
- If you want to make the sound warmer,
rounder, or "fatter" those mylar rings work very well. They can
usually make even the crappiest heads sound pretty good (no excuse for
not learning proper tuning methods, though!).
When playing rock
with the Evans Hydraulic Oil heads, I usually don't use any muffling on
the toms. When I use Remo Coated Ambassadors on the toms I use Mylar rings
to muffle the overtones and give me a warmer sound. Since I use an Evans
head on the snare with a Muffle Ring, I don't need any other muffling on
this drum. The bass drum has a small DW pillow - the hourglass-shaped one
- and is pretty potent; no more blankets or pillows, thanks to the Powerstroke-3
A good technique
I found that works good in muffling toms and snares is to just cut out
different sizes of felt with a hole in the middle and place them on the
outside of the head. You may need to secure them to the drum. Some kinds
of felt can glow in blacklights and in the dark. It is a cool visual sometimes.
Earlier on I alluded
to a method of acheiving that "bwow" sound - where the pitch
goes down during the decay - either without tuning the bottom head higher
than the top, or on single-headed drums. This is done by simply de-tuning
one lug on the top head, usually the lug farthest from you. You will have
to crank up the remaining lugs to get the original pitch of the drum back.
How much should you loosen up this single nut? Loosen it so that it just
disengages from the hoop, then tighten it about two turns so it won't loosen
anymore on its own and rattle.
Some drummers use
small chains on their cymbals for a sizzler effect. What would happen if
you used them on your toms? You'll probably have to tape them to the inside
of the bottom head so you won't have to worry about hitting them.
Most snare drums
come with 20-strand snares. You can buy 40-strand snares. These will give
you a wetter sound: more snares, more snare effect. it's not a doubling
of the snare action, but you can definately hear the difference. These
usually help with those deep drums: the deeper the drum the less snare
response you will get when you hit the drum lightly.
Try using small chains
instead of snares. Cut the wires off an old snare and replace them with
Before you put your
heads back on, lay down a small, circular strip of thin cotton on the edge.
This will diminish the attack of the head, giving the drum a softer sound.
Do your snares buzz
when you hit the toms? Two things will help (one or the other, or both):
- Loosen up the lugs that straddle the
snares on the bottom head .
- Put a small pad of kleenex between
the snares and the bottom head (close to the edge). Use only about two
layers of kleenex; this will diminish your snare response somewhat, so
it's a trade-off.
In regard to your
advice on putting "a small piece of tissue (kleenex) between the snares,"
you might want to try using dryer sheets as an alternative. You can place
these on the top head, along the snares, or even inside of the shell for
unique muffling applications. Experiment by cutting the sheets into different
shapes. You can cut them in a crescent shape to fit along the edge of the
rim (so as to not interfere with sticking). To prevent the sheet from floating
away, you can add a little tape to it just to add weight. Plus, they can
make your drums smell nice when you and the rest of the band don't!
- Steve writes:
Since the toms are tuned to a specific "frequency", they will often cause a sympathetic buzz on the snare. One way to eliminate this is to first tune the toms in fourths or thirds (depending on drum size) and then tune the snare. The batter head should be tuned somewhere between the mid and low end toms, going back and forth between the tom and the snare batter until the "buzz" is gone, tuning only the snare batter. This will allow the player to come full circle without getting a "buzz." For lighter, jazzy styles, the snare batter can be tuned between the high and mid tom with the same result.
If playing live, you can tune with the bass player, leading to a complementary sound and getting rid of buzz from the bass or keyboard as well.
Getting that nice,
fat "thump" from your bass drum can be a challenge. Most people
usually resort to a big blanket or pillow. Proper tuning, however, is always
the best place to start. As with the toms, tune the batter head first.
A nice, low pitch will do: make sure the head is in tune with itself. Then,
tune the front head a bit lower, usually just tightening it past the point
at which it's completely loose.
A small hole cut
in the front head has three uses:
- It lets the air escape so the batter
head isn't too tight: this can cause the footpedal to bounce too much and
may result in unwanted double-kicks.
- It allows you to stick a microphone
in the drum using a goosenecked stand.
- It lets you adjust the internal damping.
As for the last item,
a well-tuned bass drum head will require a minimum of damping. Make sure
only a small amount of material is touching the batter head. I use one
of those DW pillows, and it works great! It doesn't kill the tone of the
drum like a blanket, but it controls the overtones. This is really all
One trick I have found is to do with the bass drum skin, I know there are special bass drum skins with like a nylon patch in the middle to get a better sort of "snap" but also bass sound out of the skin. Now since I'm extremely poor (I'm a musician by trade... so we can all imagine!) I couldn't afford one of these skins, so I tried some other things instead of a nylon patch. The best thing I found to work is a credit card. If you tape a credit card onto the side of the skin where you strike it with the kick pedal (so the credit card is on the side of the skin facing you) you will get a sort of snap sound to your bass drum which I must say beefs up the sound no end! I found if you use gaffa tape (the musicians friend) it sticks it too hard, you want to get a sort of resonance from it, so I found if you use ordinary sellotape on the top and bottom edges of the card you get a much better sound!
For bass drum tuning... I found the following to work best: In order to get that nice attack "thump" sound, tighten the batter head lugs finger tight only. Tighten them as tight as your fingers can get the lugs. Do the same for the front head, only use the drum key to tighten about 1/4 turn past finger tight. And as noted make use of porting the front head and use an EQ pad and/or EMAD or Power stroke head.
This method provides excellent attack and the little bit of muffling provided by the EQ pad and EMAD head (my personal preference), provide control over unwanted overtones and head vibration. I have found controlling the batter head vibration with an EQ pad or small pillow is paramount for consistency in using double bass pedals.
Sometimes if I am playing heavier music, especially death metal, I take a half dollar coin or a silver dollar, and tape it on the outside of my kick drum skin where the beater hits the skin. With the right beater (not the soft pillowy kind) it provides a 'clicky' attack to the kick drum that a lot of metal drummers are looking for.
When all else fails,
try hitting the drum with something other than a drumstick! You never know
what kind of sounds you'll discover.
I get alot of e-mail
from drummers all over the world, and the #1 issue they want answers to
is the area of tuning. That says something, doesn't it?
Also, please keep
in mind that room acoustics play an important role in a drum's sound.
Some rooms make my drums sound great, other rooms are very frustrating
to me: I can do nothing to improve the drum sound.
Remember: the more
experimenting you do, the less you'll fear the tuning process and the more
range of interesting sounds you'll get from your drums. Drop me a line
and let me know if this has been useful! Also, let me know some other tuning
tricks you've come up with and I'll share them here with other visitors
to my site.