How to Tune a Drum Kit
Yes, how to “tune” a drum kit...
Most folk aren’t aware, that drums do have a “note”, and can be tuned.
This is not 100% about tuning, I’ve thrown a few extra things I’ve learnt during chatting and observing drummers No. 1-1,000
Look Mum – lots of drums!!
First thing – if a drummer comes in with 2 bass drums, 8 toms, including his favourite 6” tom, 13 cymbals, a 29” crash... shoot him!! I know it’s against the law, but any judge in the land will see it your way, you’re just trying to preserve equilibrium in an otherwise crazy world.
A small kit is a good kit – Ringo got it right – if you can rule the world with 2 toms, why do you need 3.
The less drums and cymbals you can record with, the less mics you’ll need, and thus, less phasing problems, which will mean better definition in a stereo mix of cymbals and toms with less leakage from mics, and generally a tighter sound on the recording.
Don’t forget, on a CD, no-one can see your drum kit, so if you get a BIG drum sound, everyone will think you’ve got a BIG drum kit... job done!
Don’t turn up to a session with a piccolo snare and say you want a big snare sound – if you want a big snare sound, get a big snare drum!
I personally think that some time in the 90’s all the drum shop assistants in the world got together, had a meeting in Greenland or somewhere and agreed to sell these mischievous little items to young unsuspecting drummers as an “in” joke. So when these young drummers come to the counter and ask for thick skins for their piccolo snares so their piccolo snares will sound bigger and fatter, these assistants would email each other and tell such stories at their annual meeting.
Whenever I see odd items on a drum kit, I ask why and it’s always “the guy at the drum shop said...”. Then I say “No – the guy at the drum shop had too many and now he has one less”.
I’m a star!!
Don’t do a 15 minute drum solo for a sound check at a gig or at the studio. The band won’t be impressed, they’ve heard it before, your girlfriend won’t be impressed, she’s chatting up the guitarist and the engineer won’t be impressed because he might even be a better drummer than you are.
So when asked to do a drum check, just play a groove, hit everything once every four bars to give the engineer/sound guy a fighting chance of getting you a good drum sound and DON'T SPEED UP! Try to impress him with your great sense of time and groove, your consistency with hitting drums with equal volume, your patience, your attention to detail and professionalism. Look at him for instructions – he is your best friend for the next while – look after him!!
Top and bottom.
When I was touring I found it a great idea to buy the same skin for top and bottom skins of my tom-toms, that way, when the top skin bites the dust, I’d get a new skin, put it on the bottom, bring the bottom skin to the top and your toms always have two fresh skins, not one fresh and one 3 years old. That’s got to sound better!
Usually I find that drummers don’t change their bottom skin. A drum has two skins, and each skin is equally important. Just because you hit only one of them, don’t ignore it’s unstruck brother. Also I found through the years that for some strange reason a drum never reaches its full potential until you have relieved it of all the original skins. It’s disheartening to see a kit of drums come through my studio with a bottom skin from the drummer’s 1969 Vietnam tour of duty. Get rid of the original skins as soon as possible.
Bass Drum front skin
Why do drummers have Pearl, Tama and DW on their front skin? I’ll never know... I can understand if the skin says “Platypus” or something, being a specialty drum brand with only 5 kits in existence at a million dollars a kit. You might want to show that brand name with pride. Otherwise, get the name of your band on the front skin ASAP. How many times have you heard a mate say “Ah – I saw a great band last night”. “Oh yeah what was their name?”, “Gee I don’t know”. A classic missed promotional opportunity.
With the name of your band on the bass drum skin, at least there’s a 50/50 chance of someone remembering the name instead of “Oh – let’s see, there were 3 bands before my Mate’s Band. They were called “Tama”, “Pearl” and another band called “Pearl” – wow – man that’s weird! 2 bands with the same name – oh yeah – the last band – I remember now – the last band was called “Remo”.
Led Zeppelin 3
Check out “Since I’ve been Loving You” from Led Zeppelin 3. Now that Led Zep have been re-mastered onto CD, it’s an example of great drumming, and an even better example of a well recorded squeaky bass drum pedal.
Oil your drum bass pedal and check there are no rattles in the kit, and no, you won’t notice these noises at a gig when you’re setting up with a DJ pounding away.
Tuning your drum kit
What I’m talking about here is how to tune for a general good solid pop/rock drum sound. Jazz/fusion sounds might need lighter skins; blues/roots sounds might need thicker and weirder skins, but for 90% of drummers, this is the way to go.
Tune a tom-tom
A good start is a Remo clear Ambassador or Emperor, for a slightly thicker sound on top and bottom. A clear Ambassador on the bottom has a slightly more open sound, but refer to rule 4.
Clear skins are preferable because they “sing” more and bring out the tone of the drum without presenting the tone of the skin as much. Using a drum stool, place the tom-tom on it. Unscrew the lugs totally, then tighten up the slack. If you have, say, 6 lugs, tighten them up one, then four, two then five, three then six. That is, opposite lugs clock-wise. The skin will firm. After the skin is firm, and with the opposite skin dampened on the drum stool, tap the skin near each lug lightly and tune all lugs to the same pitch.
So when that’s done, the skin will be equally tensioned at each lug. When you hit the skin in the centre, it should sing with a nice note.
Repeat for other skin.
For a punchy sound, it is best to tune the top skin lower than the bottom. The top skin will have depth and the bottom will provide the resonance.
Now the tricky part … Because the skins are now tensioned evenly, and thus should sing, we need to get the skins to sing together in harmony.
Set the tom on its side, mute the top skin, and lightly hit the bottom, then mute the bottom skin and lightly hit the top skin. These two notes will need to be harmonious to sing together or to resonate sympathetically.
It’s a bit tricky if you don’t know notes, but for an example, if one skin is in “C” and the other is in “C Sharp”, as you can imagine, two skins will fight one another and the note of the tom when struck will lack body and sound horrible. Which reminds me, I must ring my mother-in-law.
To hear what not to do, get your guitar player to hit two strings out of tune to one another, and that will give you the concept of how 2 skins that are out of tune with one another sounds.
You will need to find 2 notes to tune the skins to that “like each other”. Usually thirds or fifths are good. If you don’t know what I am talking about here, ask a muso mate who does. It’s not hard – walk the extra mile.
Once you have got the skins talking to one another, the toms will make a note. Find that note on a piano or guitar and there you are!! A tom making a note.
Generally, for most guitar bands, most songs will be in “E, A, G, D or C”, so I’ve found it best to tune toms to these notes.
If a tom is too high or low, simply tension or loosen the skins. It’s a bit of trick to know which skin to alter the top or bottom, but generally, if you need to tighten, tighten the loosest skin, and if you need to loosen, loosen the tightest skin.
Tune a snare
The best skin for a snare is a Remo coated Ambassador, with an Ambassador “snare” skin underneath. Make sure you don’t put a top snare skin on the bottom of a snare. The bottom snare skin is a way thinner style of skin.
Similarly to the tom, loosen the lugs and re-tension till pretty tight. Again, the top skin will be looser than the bottom, the bottom skin should be pretty tight, way tighter than the top skin or a tom tom skin.
Snares usually sound good around an ‘F’ to an ‘A’ note – try that for a start. If a snare rings too much, simply put a bit of gaffa on the side, do not use those stupid “ring-around-the-snare” things unless you make them really really lifeless...
Not too hard here. I like a clear uncoated skin on the batter side, and whatever on the front, with a hole on the side.
I think a hole on the side is better than the middle of the drum, because you get a bit more “poof” from the air coming out of the hole into the mic.
Pull everything out of the bass drum and start from scratch... put in some natural fibre “cotton, wool, etc.” like a bath towel or similar, I don’t like sponge or stuff like that. Make sure there is something lightly touching both skins. I usually use one or two bath towels, depending on how live or dead I want the sound.
There are 3 positions I use for the bass drum mic. With the mic flush to the skin, point the mic 1 at the beater; 2 straight ahead; 3 at the shell, away from the beater.
Weirdly enough, I find option 3 is usually the best and tightest sound. If you want an older sound, or more round sound, maybe add another mic pointing at the bass drum centre a bit back from the drum.
Tuning? Tension your skins totally slack, then tighten the lugs to take up the slack, then give them another half to three quarter turn. So now the skins are pretty loose, but not flapping. You might need to take them up another quarter to half a turn if it’s sounding too dead.
Mic-ing a drum kit
Well, this is how I do it.
Snare and toms: point the mic at a 45 degree angle, 2cm up from, and 2cm in from the rim. A bit further away and angle the mic more towards the centre of the drum if you want a rounder sound.
For a snare, always use a Shure SM57, or Beta 57 – the older the mic, the better. For bass drum, Beyer M88, AKG D112 (the Egg) Audix D6, and RE20.
Tom-toms: Senheiser 421, not an SM57. I use Audix D4’s – you can look this up on the net – everyone has an opinion. The ones I mention work.
Well, that’s pretty simple... not. Recording a Drum Kit and a Double Bass are the 2 hardest things to do in the Studio, so take you time + get your kit sounding GREAT.
Remember to watch the Youtube version of this (at the top of this article), where you can see me IN PERSON!!
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