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Workshop: How To Tune Drums In Four Steps

Fig. 6: Seat the head

2. Seating The Head. Tap the head, and this time, memorize the pitch. Press the center of the head with the palm of your hand like you’re giving the drum CPR (Fig. 6). You may once again hear cracking sounds from the head — this is normal. Tap the head again and compare the pitch you just heard to the pitch you memorized a second ago. Did the pitch drop noticeably? Are there wrinkles in the head that weren’t there a moment ago? If you answered yes to either question, the head needed seating.

Retighten the head and remove the wrinkles if any are present. Press the center of the head and compare the pitch again. Repeat until the pitch drop is minimal and the wrinkles don’t reappear. (When this is achieved, the head is seated adequately.) Turn the drum over and seat the head on the other side.

Be sure to control your strength when seating heads. If you push too hard you can dent the head or even cause damage to the drum. Start with light pressure and apply only enough to do the job.

It’s also important to know the strength of your heads. The thickness of heads is measured in mil; 1mil equals a 1000th of an inch. To put this in perspective, a typical sandwich bag is 1mil thick. The thickness of Remo’s thinnest head is 2mil, and though Remo’s material is a lot stronger than a sandwich bag, it’s still very fragile. I recommend seating 2mil, 3mil, 5mil, and 7.5mil heads by pressing on the counterhoop instead of direct pressure on the head.

Heads that are 10mil and thicker can be seated with direct palm pressure, but again, start with light pressure and apply only enough to do the job.

3. Tune The Head To Itself. Once the heads are seated you can proceed to the next step and get each head in tune with itself. The goal is to get the same pitch all around the head to achieve a clean tone with the least amount of annoying overtones.

Method A: Tap the head at each tension rod and listen to the pitches. If the pitches are the same all around the head, the head is in tune with itself and you’re done with this head. Chances are, however, some pitches will be high and others will be low relative to each other. If they are, do the following.

At each location where the pitches are “low,” tighten the tension rods by about an eighth of a turn. As your tuning skills improve, you’ll develop a feel for how large or small your adjustments need to be. As you zero-in on the final pitch, only tiny adjustments are required.

Tighten only the tension rods where the pitches are “low.” Don’t make any adjustments to the tension rods where the pitches are “high.” I normally don’t seat the head when bringing the head up in pitch; however, it doesn’t hurt to do so. I always seat the head when bringing the head down in pitch.

Tap the head again at each tension rod and listen to the pitches to see if the head is in tune with itself. Are the pitches the same? If yes, the head is in tune with itself. If not, repeat the steps until the pitch is the same all around the head.

Note: The pitch of the head will get higher and higher as you repeat this process and the final pitch may be higher than you want. We’ll adjust this later.

Turn the drum over and tune the other head to itself by following the steps previously described.

Method B — “Tuning In Opposites:” I learned this method from a drummer named George Rutter and it works by lowering the pitches that are “high” and raising the pitches that are “low” until they meet in the middle at a common pitch.

As in the example above tap the head at each rod and listen to the pitch. Some are likely to be "high" and others will be "low." Then you loosen the tension rods by about an eighth of a turn where the pitches are “high” and tighten the tension rods by about an eighth of a turn where the pitches are “low.”

4. Fine-Tuning. should be able to tune the head up or down and still keep it in tune with itself by turning the tension rods tighter or looser to the same amount. An analogy is a zoom lens on a camera: Once it’s in focus, you can zoom in or out and still be in focus. However, it’s nearly impossible to turn tension rods with 100-percent accuracy, so it may be necessary periodically to get the head in tune with itself.

With two-headed drums, there are only three ways to ensure that the top and bottom heads are tuned relative to each other:

1. The two heads can be tuned to the same pitch.

2. The top head can be tuned tighter than the bottom.

3. The top head can be tuned looser than the bottom.

Tuning the top and bottom heads to the same pitch gives a pure tone and relatively long sustain. Tuning the bottom head lower than the top allows you to tune to your drum “low” while still maintaining good stick response off the tighter top head. Additionally, the sound will “pitch-drop” or “growl” as the drum is played harder. Tuning the bottom head tighter than the top produces a “shallower” sound and shorter sustain. The sound will also “pitch-drop” or “growl” as the drum is played harder.

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  • This is one of the best and most practice articles I have seen on drum tuning.  As a custom drum builder I have tuned countless drums over many years.  It took me about five years before it became second nature. I hesitate to say that because sometimes I still mess up. So lets say mostly second nature. I completely support every point made in this article. I also learned something new. I never new about the g above middle c thing as a starting point for snares. Shell thickness is also a major factor for wooden snares and toms. Ron Siegel RJS Custom Percussion.