The best way to make your drums sound great is to tune them in their natural range. Everything that goes into making a drum — the wood, the hardware, the bearing edges — all come into play in determining each drum’s natural range. Put simply, if you try to make a 10" mounted tom sound like an 18" floor tom you’ll be probably be unhappy with the results.
Listen to the drum as you raise and lower its pitch. Ask yourself, “Does it sound dead and choked or does it sound full and open?” As you use your drum key, feel the tension in the rods and listen. Notice how little it takes to significantly change the sound of your drum. Sometimes all it takes is a little tweak to make the drum sing.
This is one of the most confusing concepts for beginning drummers. Single-headed toms (also known as concert toms) get a dry fundamental tone with very little lasting resonance. However, two-headed toms really resonate. Both send vibrations and resonance into the shell, back to the heads, into the shell, and back again so the whole drum is reacting and resonating just like a fine violin.
Start with your smallest tom and work with it on your lap, not on a stand. Tap around the outside of each head first to make sure the head is evenly tensioned. Avoid muting one head to tune the other; you need to hear how they work together at all times. You’ll find the bottom head has a huge influence on the depth of tone and the top head has an equal affect on overall pitch.
To the common question of which head should be tuned higher or lower, my answer is that it’s different for every drum. I often wind up with both heads at around the same pitch because I feel that gives the maximum resonance with the lowest amount of stray overtones. However, I’ll adjust my tuning to the drums to suit the project I’m working on. Be flexible and let your ears be your guide.
Most likely, you’ll want your snare to provide maximum sound with minimum effort. Since the snare is designed to be in a higher frequency than the rest of the drum set, don’t be afraid to tighten it up a bit. You’ll want your bottom head fairly tight as well, since the snare wires need a crisp surface to dance on. The throw-off also has a huge impact on the overall tightness of a snare drum. To check your snare tension, tap lightly close to the rim of the top head. Do you hear the snares responding? If you do, that’s good. If not, then you might want to loosen the head, the throw-off, or both. Here’s another tip: Hit a rimshot with the snares off. If you hear a satisfying crack with a well-defined pitch, then you will have a great sound for your backbeat when you put the snares on.
A bebop jazz drummer and a funk player need very different bass drum sounds. While jazz drumming requires a more resonant, open sound, you’ll need a little muffling in your bass drum for most modern pop music to get rid of stray overtones and help create a good fundamental, punchy sound. If you don’t have one of the commercially available muffling pads, use two small towels or a really flat pillow barely touching both heads (Fig. 12). Don’t overdo it, or you’ll just have a dead and unsatisfying poof sound rather than the needed thump.
You’ll also find that you’ll need significantly less tension on the bass drumheads than you do with your other drums. Try getting the drumheads just past where you don’t see any wrinkles on the head surface and try playing it. Increase the tension slowly until you hear what you like.
There are two good reasons to change your heads. First, heads resonate, respond, and just sound better when you change them periodically. And, second, the type and thickness of the drumhead you select will have a huge impact on your sound.
Which heads should you use? Well, thinner single-ply heads are good choices for lighter playing and softer music. You can get a lot of sound with very little effort from thinner heads. On the other hand, thicker single-ply and double-ply heads are good for louder music and produce a heavier sound with naturally less overtones.
I use medium weight single-ply heads on the top and bottom of my toms and top (or batter) side of snare, a double ply head on my bass drum, and the thinnest head possible for the bottom snare side. But I won’t hesitate to switch to a different drumhead to accommodate the music I might be playing at a given gig. As a matter of fact, it’s fun to try something different just to make it interesting.
The only way to really learn setting up and drum tuning is to just do it. Try different setups and different tunings and pay attention to the way your drums respond. Believe it or not, the sound of your entire kit will change when you alter the sound of one tom. That’s because the drum set is one big resonating instrument. Good tuning can help you, your drum set, and your drumming reach their highest potential.