Learn to Play Drums/Tuning Drums

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Drum Tuning is the process of changing the tension of a drum head using a drum key or similar device. Drums are tuned when the heads are changed, when the head loosens over time, or when a certain tone or pitch is required. There are significant tuning relationships between the two heads on the same drum and also with the other elements of a drum kit.

Materials and Construction[edit | edit source]

When a drum head gets to the point that it cannot maintain a single tone or is disfigured, it is usually considered worn out and in need of replacement. Regardless of what of head type or kit quality, old heads that are past their best will not tune well. A reasonable rule of thumb might be a change of resonant heads with every third or fourth change of batter heads. Fresh heads give the best drum sound.

Single ply heads provide the best model for illustrating the overtones used in the tuning process. The same fundamental tuning principles are applied to all drums in a drum set, although kick drums and snare drums involve additional considerations.

Checking the integrity and condition of the drumshell[edit | edit source]

When the heads are off any drum it is a great opportunity to give it a check. Bearing edges and shell condition are the primary areas of concern as outlined below, however it is also a good idea to check the hardware, finish, and at the general condition of the drum.

The two factors which most affect the tunability and sound of the drum are the bearing edges and the shell.

Bearing edge[edit | edit source]

Strip the old heads and hoops off the drum to reveal both ends of the drumshell. The ‘bearing edges’ are the sharpened edges at the top & bottom of the shell over which the head is stretched. This edge normally has a 40-50 degree main angle and is offset toward the outer side of the shell; there is a long diagonal 'cut' towards the centre of the drum and a similar but much shorter cut on the outside. Some drum makers such as Brian Spaun [1] cut a double 45 degree bearing edge with the 'peak' in the centre of the shell's width - they say this is for improved accuracy in tuning and purity of tone.

The bearing edge is critical to a drum’s sound as it is the only place on the drum that the head is in direct contact with the shell. It forms the boundary of the vibrating membrane and the vibration transfer point into the drum's shell. It can influence the character of that drum to a significant degree.

Flat spots, cuts, nicks or other damage to the bearing edge may cause any number of the following; overtones, harmonics, rings, buzzes or general difficulty in obtaining a single pure tone. The only standard exception to that rule is the resonant underside of a snare drum which has a shallow flattened snare bed cut into the bearing edge [2]. This enables the cable or strip ties to hold the snares more closely to the head. The wires themselves muffle the snare's resonant head so the negative effects of a flattened edge are severely mitigated.

The bearing edge should be very definite and sometimes can be felt to be sharp; sharpness and hardness of material brings fragility. To check for damage, one should look closely at the edge. With eyes closed and running a finger around the edge. It should be smooth and even. If not, then examine the variation. Mark the damaged area lightly and continue checking around the drum.

Repairs to bearing edges are either straightforward or not, small areas of damage may be ignored, slightly larger ones could be carefully filled & sanded, if the edges are more severely damaged you will need to have them re-cut by a suitably equipped and experienced technician.

If the bearing edges are in acceptable condition, proceed with checking the shell for torsion before embarking on the re-heading process.

Torsion[edit | edit source]

When you have checked the bearing edges, place the drum on a surface that you know is level. Plate Glass or polished granite are recommended, but any flat surface is good enough for a quick check. Set the drum on the bearing edge and look at where it touches the table's surface. A ‘true’ drum will touch the surface at all points and no light should be seen coming through. It is surprising how many drums are out of true. What is commonly seen is torsion, a slight twist in the shell. It is most likely caused by the natural movement of the wood in the instrument over time but can be caused by being kept in an extreme environment.

Any drum where the shell depth is much narrower than the width, snare drums particularly, are particularly prone to Torsion and it is a significant problem. To repair it properly involves re-cutting the top and bottom of the drum so that it is square, and then re-routing the bearing edges, perhaps moving lugs and leaving extra holes. It's a drastic measure that should be avoided unless you are absolutely convinced it is necessary. For the most part torsion can and probably should be left alone, a less deep drum will be more prone to future distortion.

With torsion you may notice shorter sustain or a strong harmonic in comparison with the rest of your drums. This can be mitigated a little by the use of flanged (standard) hoops which are much more forgiving of shell inconsistencies than die-cast hoops. Sometimes the torsion has no audible effect, either way, consider the available options carefully before embarking on an expensive and destructive course of work, particularly on a favourite instrument. Sometimes there are things that just have to be tolerated, and sometimes things need to be retired gracefully.

Applying and seating the drumhead[edit | edit source]

Preparation and initial positioning[edit | edit source]

Assuming that you are content with the shape and condition of the shell from the previous section, place the batter head over the shell. Give it a spin and check that it moves freely around the drum. Orient the head so that it lies centrally on the drum and that the collar extends evenly beyond the bearing edge on all sides. Different drum manufacturers interpret the sizes 10" 12" etc., slightly differently, particularly with custom drums, expect the fit can feel tighter or more loose on different drumsets.

To give consistent reference point, orient the drum shell in the position you would see when you're playing the kit, position the logo on the heads at 12 o’clock which will normally match either the position of the manufacturers’ logo or the tom holder. Not only is this aesthetically pleasing but it also gives a marker for when you move around the drum during the tuning process.

Place the drumhoop over the head and lower the tension rods into the lugs. Check that each lug allows its tension rod to turn freely, sticky lugs can be a real pain, use some lug lube or graphite oil to loosen sticky lugs. Give the drum a small shake to ensure that everything is sitting freely and naturally.

Grip the threaded part of each rod and tighten clockwise until the washer just touches the hoop and no more, do not start to tighten the hoop down on top of the head yet, we are just making sure that everything is starting from an even position at this point. Re-check around the drum to ensure that everything is centralised and stable. Give it another shake.

Seating process[edit | edit source]

The order in which you tighten the lugs is important. Similar to tightening the wheels of a car, you must equalise the tension across the drum at all times, so you should work in small increments, back & forward across the drum. Depending on the number of lugs on the drum, you will normally have up to 6 pairs (12 lugs) to deal with; from a tuning perspective, the more tuning lugs there are, the more accurately the drum can be tuned.

Following the appropriate tensioning pattern for your drum as illustrated more examples at tunadrum, hand tighten both opposite lugs of pair one (lugs 1 & 2) simultaneously until you feel a slight resistance or bite, move to pair two (lugs 3 & 4) and continue with subsequent pairs turning them until you feel the same resistance. Return to pair one again and tighten again to a point of greater resistance, do this for the other tuning pairs in sequence 3 or 4 times around the instrument until you can't finger-tighten any more.

Tap the centre of the drum, do you hear a tone? This is the low end of the tuning range for that drum.

Using your fingertip, a drum stick or the end of your key, tap the head about 1” in from the rim at each lug point. You should hear the same low, flat tone at each node. If there are any variances, finger tighten the appropriate tension rod(s) to achieve a single tone. Because the lugs are already at finger-tight, pressing lightly on the hoop as you tighten will help.

Opposite lugs of each pair will deliver roughly the same tone as each other. Adjust each lug of a pair evenly to maintain even tension across and around the instrument.

Place your drum key(s) on each tension rod of pair one and rotate them through 180 degrees (a half turn), move around the drum following the pattern you have been using. When you have finished the last pair, check again for evenness of tone. This time you will notice a much more resonant tone. If the drum is in good condition, the tension rods move freely and you have been accurate in your tightening of the tension rods, you should have pretty much the same note at all the points around the drum but with a different timbre in the centre of the drum.

When one tuning point on the head is at a different pitch to those adjacent, you will find that the situation is mirrored at the opposite tension rod of the pair. If one pair is at a lower or higher pitch than all the others then you need to adjust the tuning at those lugs to bring them into line. At this point, very small turns at each lug can easily be too much.

Move each lug of the pair by the same amount. If more than one pair are out of sync, aim for the purest note of them all. You will find that in doing this you raise the overall pitch of the drum and that other adjustments become apparent. Keep going until you have consistent tone, we're not concerned about pitch at this point just an even tension across the head.

When making tuning adjustments, you should tighten lugs instead of loosening them. Loosening requires the head to slip fractionally back over the bearing edge which is not always reliable. If you do need to detune, loosen to below the required note, press gently on the head and then tighten up to the desired pitch.

With the head evenly tuned, start at your '1' again and give each rod a further ½ turn using the key, after working your way around the drum, check for pitch in the centre and at each of the lug points; adjust as necessary. Repeat this procedure twice more with ½ turns and until the head is tuned above where you would normally tune that size of drum. . The glue in the head will probably be heard to crack on the way, this ‘settling’ and is perfectly natural and expected. The idea of this is to place tension through the head which is greater than the normal playing tensions, this sets up the drum for seating.

Seating[edit | edit source]

Seating for a drummer is similar to a guitar player 'stretching' new strings to ensure that they don’t de-tune drastically under playing conditions. It takes up slack across the drum head but in particular, it shapes the drum head to the bearing edge of the rim. The most common way of seating a head is to apply weight.

Place the drum on a solid surface or the floor. Put both hands (like CPR) in the centre of the drum and gently increase the weight on the head until it starts to take your full bodyweight, 'bounce' gently 2-3 times. (NB if you are a more substantial guy or gal, kneeling in front and leaning forward will suffice). The glue will very noticeably be heard to crack at this point if it has not done so already, this is normal.

The act of seating the head fulfils 2 critical functions.

  • It stretches the head so it doesn’t need constant re-tuning; and
  • It shapes the head to the bearing edge, thereby ensuring accurate and much easier tunability.

If you tap the head now you will find that the pitch will have lowered markedly from the pre-stretch tuning. Tune the head up once more to the higher pitch and re-apply your weight. This time it will have stretched less and should probably remain pretty close to being at the same pitch.

Having seated the head, loosen each pair of lugs in sequence by intervals of ½ a turn. Tune the head in the low tuning range again.

Tuning a drum's main batter head[edit | edit source]

Tuning the batter is similar to the process used to ensure even pitch across the head when seating. The main goal in this case is to match the heads' tension to create one single pure sustained tone. When beginning to tune, it is important to understand the different tones a drum creates. A vibrating head will create one fundamental tone and a number of overtones depending on the tension across the head, the difference of tension between the top and bottom heads, and the condition of the drum. Overtones can be deceptive, and confusion during drum tuning can often be attributed to confusing overtones and the fundamental tone.

Starting at the '1' point again, use ½ turns all around the drum, then ¼ turns, then gradually smaller turns of the key until you reach your desired pitch with the tensions pretty even across the drum.

Tap the drum in the centre and listen for how many tones you can hear. Tap at one of the lugs, is it the same as the centre? Yes is good, no means it needs to be adjusted. Work around the lugs to identify the worst offenders. You will probably re-adjust every single lug during this process.

Tap at each tuning point, 1” in from the rim and listen for the overtone mix. Some points may have one single clear note, others will be a mish-mash of tones. Listen carefully for modulations in the tone called 'beat frequencies', you will be able to hear the sound waves beating like 'wah-wah' oscillations or moving variations in the pitch.

Compare the pitch at this lug to the overall fundamental or to the pure-toned lugs that are your target. Using very small increments either loosen or tighten the lug. Just before you adjust, tap the tuning point on the head and listen to how the ‘beating’ of the waveforms changes as you turn the key. If they get faster / closer together then you are going the wrong way, if they slow down or 'flatten out' then you are going the correct way. Be sure to change each lug of the pair by equal amounts.

You may find that the waves get flatter and then start to become more active again, similar to tuning a guitar. This is because you have more lugs out of tune, just ensure that each pair has the flattest possible waveform and continue working around the drum adjusting the worst. This takes practise and the development of your 'ear', the more you do this, the better you will hear the beat frequencies and the better you will be able to tune the drum. You know that the drum is in tune when no matter where you hit the head you get one single solid resonant note that sustains.

Resonant heads[edit | edit source]

The resonant head is named according to its function. Although it is not struck, this head is critical to how your drums sound, affecting pitch, duration & movement or pitch bend of the sound.

Rest the drum with the top head face down and touching a small cloth or tissue. This stops the two heads resonating together when you want to hear only one.

The resonant head is fitted in exactly the same manner as the batter head and all the steps outlined above in seating should be followed. The real decisions come when you have to decide upon the relationship between the two heads defining the movement and duration of your drum’s sound and decay.

Relative head tensions[edit | edit source]

Both heads can be tuned to identical notes, this means that the vibrations moving through the column of air inside the cylinder are reflected back off the resonant head at the same frequency as they are generated at the batter head.

Tuning both heads the same gives you the optimum sustain and resonance, it is however perfect for playing live and unamplified as your drums will sing and cut through the music. **The other instruments provide all the muffling you need**.

A second option is to tune the resonant head to a higher pitch than the batter, this will give a slight pitch bend as the sound decays. This bend is caused by the vibrations of the resonant head being a different rate. It is not particularly discernible with toms 12” & smaller.

One of the features of tuning away from the same pitch as the batter head is a decrease in resonance. The higher or lower you take the bottom head the less resonant the overall sound becomes.

The final option is to tune the resonant head lower than the batter head. This gives a more noticeable bend and is very clear on larger toms. The pitching down of the resonant head serves to reduce the amount of resonance or duration of the tone.

Really, the best way to find out what works best for you tuning and 'dynamic' -wise is by experimentation. Try different situations with & without musicians or with different musicians, see how each tuning fits your playing styles. One kit can have a hundred voices if you have a drum key and a stock of heads.

Snare tuning[edit | edit source]

The snare's batter and resonant heads are seated and tuned according to the method outlined in the previous sections. The pitching of the snare batter head under normal conditions is completely the player's choice, I've heard it all. As a rule of thumb, look for a pitch which is not an octave or harmonic of one of the toms so as to avoid unnecessary sympathetic resonance.

Resonant (bottom) Head

The resonant head of a snare drum is much thinner than a batter side head - do not mix them up! This thin-ness is the key to a good snare sound. Because of the [usually] higher pitched nature of the drum and the presence of the snare cables, there is a degree of ‘choking’ inherent in a snare. Choking occurs in conditions where the drum is tuned so tightly that it is an inefficient resonator, in this rare case, this is an acceptable and desirable quality of the resonant head of a snare drum.

This proximity does however bring additional difficulties. If a snare resonant head were to be allowed to resonate freely, the snare wires would be constantly buzzing. I recommend that you tighten the **snare side 'head' high**, or as one of the regulars on the RMMP drumming newsgroup said ‘until it’s screaming for its lawyer’. There is more on this later (**do not make the snare 'wires' tight**)

To compensate for the dip in the bearing edge on the snare side which accommodates the snare bed, you should slacken off each of the tension rods on either side of the snare wires a further ¼ turn, this helps the snares sit lower against the drum skin and will help alleviate buzz. I have heard arguments to tighten also and have had varied results from both settings so the best advice is to adjust it until you get a sound that suits you!

Adjusting snare wires

We want to adjust those wires to (A) make them sound great and (B) minimise their rattling caused by other drums or instruments. Put the snare throwoff in the ‘off’ position and turn the strainer adjustment to about 75% loosened. Fix the snare wires to the throwoff & butt using cables or strips as supplied with the drum. Ensure that the snares hang cleanly away from the resonant head.

Engage the throwoff and adjust the tension so that the snares sound ‘mushy’. Keep tapping the centre of the drum and adjust the strainer by tiny increments until you hear it snapping cleanly against the head. Stop! This should still be just above ‘mushy’. The largest 'killer' of snare drum sounds is over tightening the snare strainer to try and offset unwanted vibrations.

Lets take a second to think about this. We have an instrument that works [in part] using the principles of resonance. We then go and put a really thin, ultra-sensitive drum head on this particular drum, ostensibly to help it become more sensitive, we then add some curly wires designed to vibrate against the ultra-sensitive head and then we complain when they start to do exactly what they are intended to do!

Sympathetic resonance

The final consideration is that of sympathetic resonance. This occurs when the fundamental tuned tone of one drum shares pitch with the fundamental or harmonic of another drum, another instrument or other sound. The effect is that the second drum starts to vibrate and sound itself. This is really noticeable with snares which buzz mercilessly, but I also experience it with my drumset toms in the studio. Another reason to tune your toms to a chord!

Tightening the snare wires will help to reduce the effect of resonances caused by other sources, but after a point it starts to make the whole drum sound lifeless, choked. On the other hand, under-tightening the snares will give you a drum with annoying buzzes from itself and from the drums and instruments around it -clearly the whole question that you should be considering is one of balance.

If you do find that a particular drum in your set is triggering the snare buzz, then that is something that you can tweak. You should try to eliminate it by changing the pitch of the snare and not the toms. Toms generally are tuned as a set to relative pitches with matched sustains, you don't want to readjust each tom. Using gut or sympathetic gut snares instead of wire snares can reduce the sympathetic buzzing.

Re-adjusting the tension on the snare wires also works within the parameters discussed above, but first you should try re-tuning the pitch of the snare batter head. Often 1/8 turn at each lug is sufficient, if you do tighten the snare side head, you will have to adjust the snare strainer to achieve the same degree of crispness as before.

Kick Drum Tuning[edit | edit source]

The kick drum is at the heart of a kit, it does not get even a fraction of the attention it deserves when it comes to tuning, pitching and treatment (muffling), yet it is the main pulse-giver that the rest of the music and your audience rely on.

The kick drum is tuned similarly to toms. Because the tension on a kick drum head is very low, it is not strictly necessary to seat it although I do seat them as a matter of habit.

Tuning the Kick batter

Hand-tighten the batter head and ensure even tension. Tighten in pairs until all the wrinkles have disappeared from the head and then give each tension rod a further ¼ turn or more to taste. You can tune somewhat higher which will give a tom-like sound. Jazz players may tension their kick drum heads to a higher pitch than is found in a kit tuned for general usage in other styles of music.

Kick Resonant (front) head

The resonant head operates in exactly the same manner as the resonant heads on your toms, thinking of a kick drum as a big tom will give a much greater understanding of how you set it up. Up until a few years ago, it was common for kick drums to be sold with huge holes in the front heads, the unfortunate effect of this was the loss of all resonance and warmth, a clicky sound. Contemporary kick drum heads have an offset circular 5”-6” hole, or no hole at all. A small offset hole preserves a lot of the resonance of the drum when compared to a large hole, but not as much as an intact head.

The main benefit of the hole is to allow a sound engineer to insert a microphone and it allows you to adjust your muffling, if you use any.

Tuning is similar to the batter head, just past wrinkles but then give each tension rod ¾ turn instead of ¼. Tune to personal preference. That extra tension compared to the batter gives extra tone to the drum which keeps the strokes musical, experiment and find out what suits you best.

Muffling[edit | edit source]

Some drummers muffle their drums using special drumheads like double-ply heads, "control ring" heads, and "hydraulic" heads, or various materials placed on the drumhead like o-rings, duct tape, muffling clamps, and a product called Moongel which is a blue, sticky, gel-like substance also used to dampen cymbals. Drummers may also place foam, pillows, or blankets inside the bass drum to reduce "boom" or ring, especially in recording environments.[1]

Drum set tuning intervals[edit | edit source]

Drummers, have the habit of tuning their drums to particular musical intervals. This means that the distance (the interval) between the tuned note of one drum and that of another is recognisable and consistent. This does not mean that it is needed to tune to specific chromatic notes but rather that no matter where they choose to start, they can guarantee that the tonal relationship between one drum and its neighbour is constant from any starting pitch.

There are as many tuning opinions. The majority will centre around major chords and the diatonic major scale which is most usefully explained in terms of 'Solfege' or as Julie Andrews would say "do, re, mi, fa, so, la ti, do".

The relationship between do and mi is a third and do-so is a fifth. Playing those two notes together gives harmony as does playing all three together. This is known as a major triad. If you tune your drums to these intervals then rolls, flams on two toms and the general tonality of your kit will be harmonious and tuneful.

Further reading[edit | edit source]

Learn to Play Drums
Previous: Other topics Tuning Drums Next: Reading Sheet Music

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Caldwell, Lyle. " Drum Treatment - Muffling " 1999