Sound Advice: Snare Drum Lab 101

Calfskin drumheads were the only type of drumhead available until the 1950s when more durable plastic heads were introduced. You can still find calfskin heads at Earthtone (earthtoneheads.com) and Rebeats (rebeats.com), but unlike the heads of our great grandfathers’ era, the Earthtones are mounted on a metal rim and have a preformed crown that will sit on the bearing edge. Rebeats offers custom sizes for nonstandard drums including heads mounted on flesh hoops. The disadvantages of natural-skin heads is they can be affected by humidity, are less durable, incur the wrath of PETA memmbers and cost more than plastic heads. The advantages are incredible warmth and a fuller tone than you can typically get from a plastic head. If you want a truly vintage sound this may be the best way to get it.

Tuning

Before putting your new heads on your drum, wipe down the bearing edge with a soft cloth and inspect the inside of the drum for loose screws. You may wish to lubricate the tension screws with household oil. Seat the new head on the bearing edge, replace the hoop, and begin finger tightening the tension screws.

It will be easier to hear the pitch of the drum without the wires engaged. Tighten the lug at the 12 o’clock position a half turn with your drum key, then do the same with the lug opposite it at the 6 o’clock position, followed by the lugs closest to 3 and 9 o’clock, continuing with the remaining lugs just as you’d tighten the lug nuts on a car tire. Gradually bring the drum up to playing tension, tapping the head as you tighten it. Once your hear a pitch and have the tension close to where you want it, tap near the edge of the head in front of each lug and gradually raise the pitch of the lowest screws until they match the higher pitched ones.

Snare drums are usually tuned tightly to obtain their characteristic sound. Though most drummers don’t use tuners to tune their drums (and tune by ear and feel) if you’re inexperienced at this, tune your bottom head near the pitch of A, with the batter head tuned a step or two higher. If you’re the precise and analytical type you may be interested in the Tune-Bot electronic drum tuner (tune-bot.com) which reads the exact pitch at each lug. If you don’t want to invest much in a tuner, your current metronome may include a reference tuning tone of A = 440Hz.

Tune For The Music

Tight snare tuning is often chosen for faster, busier playing styles where articulation is needed and for those styles that have traditionally used high-pitched snares, such as reggae and ska. Other styles that often employ higher tunings include funk, punk, jazz-fusion, and progressive rock. Highly tuned snares project further, and ten-lug drums and smaller-diameter shells make this sound far easier to achieve.

Middle snare tunings are useful for more general-purpose playing and include pop, classic rock, alternative, country, roots rock, and folk.

Lower tunings are often selected for quieter songs with slower tempos and are favored for ballads or more introspective music and don’t project as well.

Tuning is ultimately a personal choice. Billy Cobham usually tunes his snare way up in the stratosphere and Billy Ward often tunes his snare so low you may suspect he’s lost his drum key. Both of these superb drummers have unique ideas of what makes for a great snare sound, and their radically different approaches reflect their particular musical needs and tastes.

Muffling Techniques

If your drum still has an excessive amount of ring you will need to muffle it or select a more dampened style of head. Unfortunately, many muffling methods reduce the brighter treble frequencies as they dampen the ring.

One of the common ways students muffle their drums is with drum ring products like Aquarian Studio Rings, Remo RemOs, and Evans E-Rings. These are Mylar rings that are laid on top of the drum to control and remove most of the drum overtones resulting in fat midrange snare sound. They work well but you may find they muffle the drum too much. Steve Gadd used a thick ring of this type duct taped to his snare head for countless hit recordings. It became a signature part of that fat ’70s and ’80s snare sound.

RTOM Moon Gel applied to batter head

RTOM Moon Gel damper pads are small soft self-sticking gel pads that can be placed on drumheads or cymbals to remove unwanted overtones. They work well and don’t leave residue behind.

Evans Min-EMAD muffling dampers are fabric strips that attach via Velcro to the drumhead and the drum rim to control overtones and vibration without changing the feel of the drumhead. Attach them closer to the edge of the head for less muffling and away from the rim for more.

Remo Active Snare Dampening System is an externally mounted mechanical drum gate that has a small pad on a rod/plunger assembly that attaches to your snare hoop and was developed in conjunction with fusion drummer Dave Weckl. When you hit the drum the pad and rod briefly lift off the drum allowing the drum to resonate freely and then drop to “gate” and cut-off the overtones. One advantage of this mechanical gate is it doesn’t affect the higher frequencies and can be adjusted to allow varying degrees of ring but must be removed when placed in a drum case.

The Drum Wallet is another free-floating “gating-effect”–type product that consists of a pouch filled with shot that’s anchored to two lugs.

Internal mufflers are often found inside vintage snare drums. These have a felt pad that is raised via a knob on the outside of the shell until they gradually make contact with the underside of the drumhead.

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