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Workshop: How To Tune Drums In Four Steps

Fine-Tuning Toms. Now you have the necessary elements to tune all the toms in your kit. You can tune the smallest one first and progress to the largest, or tune the largest drum first and progress to the smallest, or start in the middle and work you way outward — it doesn’t matter. Just remember that each drum has a range of pitches where it sounds best and if you try to force a drum to tune higher or lower than its range, its sound will be less than optimal. For example, if you start with your smallest tom and tune it too low, by the time you get to your largest tom, the pitch may be too low for that size. You may need to get a larger tom or tune all your toms higher.

Take a tom whose heads are seated and in tune with themselves. Tune the top head close to the final pitch you desire by raising or lowering the tension rods as equally as possible. Tune the bottom head using one of the three top/bottom head relationships described earlier. Seat either head if necessary.

The most difficult of the three top/bottom head relationships is tuning both heads to the same pitch. Tuning in opposites is helpful in this situation. If the top head is higher, loosen it and tighten the bottom head. If the top head is lower, tighten it and loosen the bottom head. Seat the heads and get them in tune with themselves as necessary. Repeat this process until the top and bottom heads are the same pitch.

Mount the tom to your kit. The weight of the drum on the tom mount may change the tuning slightly so compensate accordingly. To hear the pitches more clearly, I touch the center of the head lightly with a finger while tapping the head at each tension rod.

A lot of drummers like to tune their toms the interval of a fourth apart. If you sing the “Bridal Chorus” (Here comes the bride…) the interval between “here” and “comes” is a fourth. Once you have your intervals, try to get the resonance and sustain to be as similar as possible so your toms sound like boom, boom, boom, boom, and not boom, boom, blat, boom.

Once you find pitches you like, it’s a good idea to identify them by using a piano or other pitched instrument and write them down. This way, you can tune your drums to their former glory the next time you change heads.

Be aware that drums sound lower as you move away from them. You may have a killer sound in the close confines of your garage but in a real-world situation -- like in a club or on stage where your sound has more room to mature -- your drums may sound muddy. If possible, have someone play your kit while you listen from the audience’s perspective and tune them if needed.

The goal of getting your toms in tune with themselves is to eliminate annoying overtones so you can play them wide-open without muffling. However, if muffling is needed, “ring type” mufflers like Remo RemOs, Evans E-Rings, and Noble & Cooley ZerOrings are very effective in reducing or eliminating unwanted overtones. Self-muffled heads such as Remo Pinstripes, Evans EC2, and Aquarian Performance II are also excellent.

Fine-Tuning Bass Drums. The bass drum can be tuned the same way as toms with the same top/bottom tuning relationships: both heads tuned the same, the back head tuned tighter than the front, or the back head tuned lower than the front.

I personally tune the resonator head (front head) lower than the batter (back head) to get depth while maintaining good rebound from the tighter batter head.

Bass drums usually require some sort of muffling to control sustain and the simplest mufflers are pillows or blankets. However, if you want a cleaner look, visit your favorite drum store to see and test the wide variety of self-muffled drumheads and other types of mufflers that are available.

Fig. 7: Placement of airhole

It’s also popular to put a hole (Fig. 7) in the front head to reduce the amount of “boom” and/or to allow a microphone to be put into the bass drum. As a general rule: the smaller the hole, the fatter the sound; the bigger the hole, the flatter the sound.

Fine-Tuning Snare Drums. Put your snare drum on a snare stand. I use a hose clamp (hardware or auto-parts store variety) as an improvised “memory stop” on my stand to allow the basket to spin like a turntable for easy access to the tension rods.

Tune the top head to the approximate pitch that you want, get it in tune with itself, and seat it if necessary. Like toms and bass drums, you can tune the bottom head three ways relative to the top. Most drummers tune the bottom head tighter than the top; however, experiment with the other two tuning possibilities to find which one you like best.

Fig. 8: Wrinkles in snare head

Speaking of the bottom head, the bottom bearing edge on snare drums has two “cut-outs” called snare beds that allow the snares to lie flat against the head for optimal snare response. When tuning the snare head, you’re likely to encounter wrinkles at the snare beds (Fig. 8). There are two schools of thought on how to deal with them. One school says, “Tune the head to itself, and if you get wrinkles that’s OK.” I’ve heard of symphonic players tuning this way and using a hair dryer to take the wrinkles out. The other school says, “Tighten the head tighter at the snare beds and take the wrinkles out even if the head is not in tune with itself.” Both ways are valid, however I prefer the second method, and taking the wrinkles out. Try both methods and see which one works best for you.

I always tune my snare drum to the same pitches: I tune the snare head to the “G” above middle “C” and the batter head to the “E” or “F” below the “G” depending on my mood. I got these pitches from Paul Yonemura, a good friend and a great drummer who has perfect pitch. While listening to Ed Shaughnessy and Joe Morello tune their snare drums, he discovered that both tuned their snare heads to “G” and that Morello tuned his batter head to “E” and Shaughnessy tuned his batter head to “F.”

Just for fun, try giving these pitches a try. If they work, great! If they don’t, at least you’ll have a starting point to find pitches that you like better.

With careful tuning you should be able to play your snare drum wide-open. However, if you need muffling, you can use one of the ring mufflers mentioned earlier to eliminate unwanted overtones.

Final Words. Practice tuning to get proficient and fast, and experiment with different heads, muffling, and pitch relationships to build a mental “encyclopedia” of sounds. There will come a day when a musical director, bandmate, or producer will ask you to get a particular sound and when he or she does, you’ll be ready.

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