Tips Of The Trade: Tune Vs. Tone

This one time after a gig at The Sunset Tavern in Seattle, the renowned Santana drummer Michael Shrieve came up to me and said, “John, you sound great, but your drums sound like s__t!” It angered me and hurt my ego a bit, but he was right. The next day, I called Gregg Keplinger, Seattle’s Obi Wan Kenobi of drums, and asked for a lesson in tuning.

As I began to do more studio work, I started to realize the importance of being able to tune my own drums quickly — and appropriately — for whatever style of music I was recording. Eventually, I got so adept at emulating drum sounds, my tuning prowess became a big reason my phone would ring for sessions.

There are hundreds of videos on YouTube showing you how to properly tune your drums, so what I’d like to focus on is the importance of using your ears and referencing recordings to achieve whatever sound you or the producer are going for.

Time spent alone with your drums tuning them to sound like recordings is time well spent. Copy everything from Motown and funk to metal, grunge, and programmed drums. Listen for pitch, resonance, and any characteristics that define a specific drum sound. Assign adjectives (descriptive terms) to the drum sounds you are listening to — words like dry, wet, gushy, beefy, piercing, dirty, clean, or trashy. Producer Sam Spiegel (Maroon 5, Yeah Yeah Yeahs) asked me to make my drums sound “dusty” on the Spirit Of Apollo record from indie hip-hop band N.A.S.A. He played me old drum breaks from ’60s and ’70s Brazilian funk records that he would love to have used but did not have the budget to clear the samples. A light bulb went off in my head and I realized that I had found my niche market.

Something to remember is that the most expensive drums are not necessarily the best drums. Most often, it’s the pawnshop drum I got for $30 that gets the desired sound. You can learn a lot from looking at photos of recording sessions from different eras of music. What kind of drums were they using on those old funk records? How about those single-headed concert toms in the ’70s and ’80s? Check out the different types of heads that were popular at the time of the recording. You’re going to get a vastly different vibe from single-ply coated heads than you are from double-ply hydraulic heads. Many times a beat-up old head or one so loose the tension rods are almost falling out have the exact vibe you are looking for. There are no rules.

Remember: You will sound like yourself no matter what drums or heads you use. While we may identify Steve Gadd with the sound of Ebony Pinstripe tom heads and a Zero Ring on the snare, I guarantee he could play a toy kit and still sound like himself. Use your ears — it will pay off.