Drum Tuning Advice for Recording and Gigs

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While there is plenty of room for personal preferences when it come to drum tuning, there are standard techniques and rules of the trade to go by

This post on drum tuning was excerpted from The Drum Recording Handbook © 2009 by Bobby Owsinski and Dennis Moody. Published by Hal Leonard Books, an imprint of Hal Leonard Publishing. Reprinted with permission.

drum tuning advice from the pros

Step 1: New Heads
There is nothing like a new drum head to give you great tone to work with. I prefer the sound I get from thinner heads such as Remo’s Diplomat, FD and Thin/FD lines. The disadvantage to thinner heads is that they tend to wear out quickly. A general-duty head, such as Remo’s Ambassador line, will last longer and, if new, should sound nearly as good. For recording purposes, avoid heavy-duty heads, such as Remo’s Emperor, PinStripe, PowerStroke, and the Black, Clear or White Dot series. These are all great heads, but they are designed more for live performance and tend to constrict the sound, making it a bit flat sounding instead of bright and exciting.

Save yourself a lot of studio time and mixing grief by getting a new set of heads for recording and saving the extra-thick heads for gigs.

“I just kind of move the combination of drumheads around to get different things. If I want a heavier sound, I’ll use a thicker head. If I want it brighter with more attack, I’ll use a thinner head. I usually don’t go any thinner than an Ambassador and I usually don’t go any thicker than an Emperor.” – Ricky Lawson (Anita Baker, Babyface, Chet Atkins, Roy Ayers, John Beasley, Michael Jackson, Bette Midler, Lionel Richie, and many many more)

Step 2: Head Configuration and Tuning Basics
It seems like there are a million choices when it comes to how drummers “personalize” their kits. Some, however lend themselves to a better studio sound than others. For example, should the tom-toms have a bottom head or not? Personally, I always record floor and rack toms with both top and bottom heads on them. In the “old days,” it was the style to use a tom-tom with only a top head and the bottom head removed. You might want to try both ways and decide which one helps you achieve the sound you’re looking for and serves your recording best. If you like the sound with the bottom heads off the toms, then by all means go for it. Having both heads on does require a bit more tuning time, since it’s important to tune both of them.

“What I try to do between my three toms, the 12-inch, 14-inch, and 16-inch, is to have them maybe a fourth apart in pitch and that way you don’t get an octave between the highest tom and the lowest and they sound musical together. Now if you have a lot of toms, then maybe tuning them a major third apart could work, but with three toms, I think a fourth is good because all three are tuned within the same octave, and a fifth is too much because they’re outside the octave.” – Bernie Dresel (Brian Setzer, David Byrne, Ringo Starr, and many many more)

“I tap the side of the shell to see how it will sound in the room, then I tune it accordingly so that the drum is working at its maximum value in relation to the room. I do that everywhere I go, whether it’s a ballroom or a wedding or Studio D at Village Recorders or Conway (famous Hollywood recording studios), or The House of Blues or the Gibson Amphitheater. I always tune the drums for the room. My idea of a good-sounding drum is when you can just throw a mic in front of it and it works without any EQ or processing, which engineers love.” – Johnny “Vatos” Hernandez (Oingo Boingo)

“I tune to where the drum sounds good. You can take a drum and you can tune it out of the range of what it likes to be in, so I just try to find the sweet spot for that drum with the combination of heads that I’m using. I like the top head a little bit tighter and then I use the bottom head just to bring in some tone.” – Ricky Lawson

“There’s a lot of different theories about how a drum should sound, but the one that works best for me is when the top head is not exactly the same pitch as the bottom. The top head I tune about a minor third above the bottom head when you’re just barely tapping it right on the edge near the lug.” –Bernie Dresel

Tuning the Snare Drum
A key component to getting a great sound is getting the snare to sound right for the music. Here’s a point where you get to make some artistic decisions. Does your song call for a deep, rich, low-tuned snare or a higher-pitched, tight, “crack”? Do you want a more open, ringing tone or a deadened, heavy thud?

Listen to the snare drums on a CD that you like. Do they ring like Alex Van Halen’s on Van Halen’s first album or do they have the heavy thud of a late ’70s Motown disco hit like Thelma Houston’s “Don’t Leave Me This Way.” I’ve noticed that most jazz drummers have a more open sound as compared to dance music that has a deader sound. And in rock music you can find examples of almost every snare tone imaginable. The choice is up to you. Get creative!

To get that flat, thudding sound, I recommend placing a 4-inch piece of duct tape on the top head in a spot where it won’t get hit by the drummer. Usually this means on the top part of the head next to the rim. You can even experiment by taping down a wad of paper towels or tissue paper to deaden the drums, but take care that you don’t over-do it.

“I’m not afraid to tape up my kit if I need to get it to fit better with the song because you have to tune your drums for the microphones. Sometimes the drum kit might not sound good in the room after you tune it, but it might sound amazing when you play it back. This can be very deceiving for young kids, especially. A young drummer might have his kit tuned so they sound just wonderful live, but you tune it differently for recording. Sometimes I’ll use tons of duct tape. I’m not afraid to tape up drums or pad them down to get a nice tight sound if that’s what the producer is looking for.” – Brian MacLeod (Madonna, Tears For Fears, Seal, Chris Isaak, Melissa Etheridge, Pink and many many more)

“I don’t think it’s good to tune the snare drum on the snare stand. It’s better on a table or floor so it’s laying flat. You make sure you get your head on flat if you have to change one, then tighten each lug so that it’s barely touching the rim, then just finger tighten the lugs (crisscrossing as you go) so you make sure that you don’t over-tighten one. Then you can start using the drum key.” –Bernie Dresel

When it comes to deadening, a little goes a very long way. What might look like even a moderate amount of padding might make your drums sound like cardboard boxes. But, then again, that may be the sound you’re looking for. Just realize, it doesn’t take a lot to get there.

Tips to reduce snare buzzing
If there are any “rings” or “rattles” that you hear when you stand in front of the drum kit while someone is hitting the heads, the mics will surely hear them too. Use some WD-40 to get rid of any squeaks coming from the bass drum or hi-hat pedals, unless you want them for a desired effect such as replicating John Bonham’s squeaky pedal in “Houses of the Holy.”

One of the attributes to a well-tuned kit is the fact that there’s not much snare buzz when you hit the other drums. Obviously this should be one of the main goals when tuning your kit since it makes the whole kit sound way better.

Here are a couple of tricks.
• Tune the top and bottom heads to different pitches.
• Tune the offending tom to a different pitch.
• Detune the lugs on either side of one or both ends of the snares (on the snare side head). This, in effect, makes the snare side head to be out of tune, so its resonant frequency won’t be as strong.

If you want to refine this a bit, on the snare side of a ten-lug snare with a stamped hoop, detune both lugs on either side of the snare where it attaches to the shell until the head ripples. Then tune it back up until the ripple just disappears. This means you will have detuned four lugs. Now, compensate by over-tightening the remaining six lugs (three on either side of the snares).

What this accomplishes is the head is only tightened in the middle of the snares. The worst area for snare buzz is the place on the snare where the steel plate is soldered to the wires. It consequently has a small gap that causes the most offensive buzzes. The snare head around this area is completely detuned: no buzz! You will notice that the drum now looks out of round on the bottom. It is not. Only the snare side rim is bent.

The bendability of a triple stamped hoop is why it is so accurate for tuning (though there are also advantages to owning a die cast hoop).

Tuning tips from the famous “Drum Doctor”
If you’re doing a session in Los Angeles and you want your drums to instantly sound great, then your first call is to the Drum Doctors to either rent a fantastic sounding kit, or have your kit tuned. Ross Garfield is the “Drum Doctor” and you’ve heard his drum sounds on platinum recordings from Alanis Morissette, the Black Crows, Bruce Springsteen, Rod Stewart, Metallica, Marilyn Manson, Dwight Yokum, Jane’s Addiction, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Foo Fighters, Lenny Kravitz, Michael Jackson, Rage Against the Machine, Sheryl Crow, Nirvana, and many more. Not many people know as much about drums and drum tuning as Ross, as the following tips were learned after years of experience working closely with the likes of Jeff Porcaro, Jim Keltner, Charlie Watts, Terry Bozzio, Jeff Hamilton, Steve Jordan, Charlie Drayton and Peter Erskine (to name just a few), so check out his suggestions below.

How Long Does it Take to Tune a Drum Kit?
If I have to change all the heads and tune them up, it’ll take about an hour before we can start listening through the microphones and that’s even on a cheap starter set. I try to tune them to where I think they should be, a little on the high side for starters, then after we open up the mics and hear everything magnified, I’ll modify the tuning more to the song.

The Tuning Technique
Most engineers (and even a lot of drummers) don’t know the proper way to tune their drums, but it’s really not that hard. For a proper tune job, you’ve got to keep all of the tension rods even so they have the same tension at each lug.

You hit the head an inch in front of the lug, and if you do it enough times you’ll hear which ones are higher and which are lower. What you want is for the pitch to sound the same at each lug. When the pitch (the tension) is the same at each lug, you should have a nice, even decay when you hit the drum in the center.

Tune the top and the bottom head to the same pitch at first, then take the bottom head down a third to a fifth below the top head.

Should the Drums be Tuned to the Key of the Song?
Usually I just tune the kit so it sounds good with the key of the song rather than in-pitch with it because if one of the other players hits the same note that the snare or kick is tuned to, then it might cover up the drum and it won’t cut through the mix.

If there’s a ring in the snare, I might try to get it to ring in the key of the song though, because sometimes that really sounds good.

Tuning the Snare Drum
The snare is probably the most important drum in the set because it’s the voice of the song since you hear it on at least every two and four, so it’s important to get the snare tuned to where you want it first.

If there are a few snare drums available, you should first try to pick the right snare drum for the song. I like the ring of the drum to decay with the snares.

If the snare drum has too much ring:
• Tune the heads lower.
• Use a heavier head like a coated CS with the dot on the bottom or a coated Emperor.
• Use a full or partial muffling ring.
• Use an alternate snare drum.
• Have the edges checked and/or recut to a flatter angle.

If the snare drum doesn’t have enough ring:
• Tune the head higher.
• Use a thinner head like a coated Ambassador or Diplomat.
• Use an alternate snare drum.
• Have the edges checked and/or recut to a sharper angle.

If the snares buzz when the tom-toms are hit:
• Check that the snares are straight. Replace as needed.
• Check that the snares are flat and centered on the drum.
• Loosen the bottom head.
• Retune the offending toms.
• Use an alternate snare drum.

Tuning the Kick Drum
I always find the kick drum to be pretty easy to tune because you tend to muffle it on almost every session and when you do, it makes tuning easier. What I would recommend is to take a down-filled pillow and set it so that it’s sitting inside the drum touching both heads (if it has a front head). If you want a deader sound then you push more pillow against the batter head, and if you want it livelier then you push it against the front head. Another way is to take a bath towel and fold it so it’s touching both heads. If you need it deader, then put another one against both heads on top of the first one. If that’s not enough then put another one in.

Kick Drum Tuning Tips
If the kick drum isn’t punchy and lacks power when played in the context of the music, you can try the following:
• Try increasing and decreasing the amount of muffling in the drum, or try a different blanket or pillow.
• Change to a heavier, uncoated head like a clear Emperor or PowerStroke 3.
• Change to a thinner front head or one with a larger cutout.
• Have the edges recut to create more attack.

Tuning the Toms
The kick and snare are the two most important drums, and I tune the toms around them to try to make sure that the rack toms aren’t being set off by the snare.

I like the toms to have a nice even decay. Usually I’ll tune the drums so that the smallest drums have the shortest decay with the decay getting longer as the drums get bigger. I tend to tune each tom as far apart as the song will permit. It’s easy to get the right spread between a 13- and a 16-inch tom, but it’s more difficult to get it between a 12- and a 13-inch. What I try to do is to tune the 12-inch up and the 13-inch down a little. If one or more of the tom-toms are difficult to tune, don’t blend together, or have an unwanted “growl,” try the following:

Toms Tuning Tips
• Check the top heads for dents and replace as necessary.
• Check the evenness of tension all around on the top and bottom heads.
• Tighten the bottom head.
• Have the bearing edges checked and recut as required.

If the floor tom has an undesirable “basketball-type” after-ring, try this:
• Loosen the bottom head.
• Check the top heads for dents and replace as necessary.
• Loosen the top head.
• Switch to a different type or weight top or bottom head (like a clear Ambassador or Emperor).
• Have the bearing edges recut to emphasize the lower partials.

From The Drum Recording Handbook © 2009 by Bobby Owsinski and Dennis Moody. Published by Hal Leonard Books, an imprint of Hal Leonard Publishing. Reprinted with permission.

Build your own home recording studio

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Recording Drums With A Click Track — Yea or Nay?
How To Record a Bass Drum in Your Home Studio
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Recording Tips For Producers, Engineers, and Musicians

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5 thoughts on “Drum Tuning Advice for Recording and Gigs

  1. what if you have a ring after you hit a tom.how do you get it out.what if you got a snare bong.how do you get it out or a buzz.i got another question.are peavey snare drums[500s and 750s]harder to tune then regular snare drums.i got a 750 had the other one.how do you get it to sound right.i tryed every thing.i heard don brewers peaveys and i liked them how do you get the snare or set to sound like them.i liked it so i tryed some peaveys.those snares sound like crap.their low or like a tub.maybe you just go to get the 1000s.i like a high pop or a high thud.

  2. Very helpful. Snare buzz can be really difficult to control, lots of good ideas here! Can’t wait to try them.

    Thanks-
    Tim Smith
    The Soundscape Recording Studio
    Royal Oak, MI

  3. Hi!

    Thank You for actually trying to help us learn more instead of a focus of “Sell, Sell, Sell” to the point of tuning people off.

    Dow the way when I am ready to find someone to “Ready” my projects I will be thinking of you. I am truly grateful for your efforts to help us be better musicians and make better recordings.

    Blessing To Your Company, in Jesus’ name, amen.

    Charles R. Batchelor
    c/o A “Higher Call” To Artists
    and “Higher Call” the music group

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