Drum Tuning Technique By R. Daniel Long, Jr.
“Make Sure The Drums Are In Tune!”
You’re joking, right?? (You can insert your own drummer joke here.) But seriously, what about that annoying little buzz coming from your snare strainer? Even worse…it’s your drummer’s snare. Or maybe it’s a pesky high-pitched ring you just can’t seem to control.
All jokes aside, a drum kit may be the most complicated instrument to learn to tune properly. There are so many factors which affect the tone and the tuning of your drums that it can be a little overwhelming to even know where to begin. No stress. If you’re reading this, you’re probably already on your way.
For a drummer, engineer, producer – or whatever your aspirations – there is no one handy device that tells you when you’re done tuning your drums — well, aside from your ears, and a little basic math and science. But this is music (wink-wink); so we’ll keep moving.
While it’s too broad a subject to cover every detail, what we do hope you find here are a few tips that will take you a long way towards achieving that perfect drum sound. Whatever it may be.
Have We Met?
You may have noticed, there are dozens of tiny pieces which are assembled to make each individual drum you use. (And how many do you have, again?! HA! If you’re like most drummers, the answer is NEVER ENOUGH!!! ) The selection of snare drums alone is a seemingly endless array of options.
Regardless of whether you’re looking at your first drum or have been collecting for years, the fact remains: There are a lot of little pieces to keep up with. So take some time; get to know your drums. Who made them? How were they made? Where were they made? What size are they? What types of woods are used? What types of metals? What kind of finish or wrap do they have? How many lugs? How are they constructed? The list goes on and on.
No two drums or manufacturers are exactly alike. Each type of material possesses its own unique resonant qualities. The same is true for methods of construction. Higher lug count usually means greater ability to fine tune. This, typically, means more raw material must be used; these drums are also, usually, considered to be of higher quality, which equates to a higher price tag. This is not to say that knock-off aluminum snare you found buried in the back of your church storage closet won’t become your go-to; but some materials are simply more expensive to use. Some methods of craftsmanship and design are more sound than others or more labor intensive. It is good to educate yourself on what you’ve got.
In addition, there are many options when it comes to head choice. You will find what works for you, but that’s another discussion altogether. We’re going to keep focus on the tuning aspect here; but take some time to explore what’s available. There have probably been more technological advances in the last 50 years with regard to drum heads than any other component related to drumming.
Finally…there’s personal preference thrown into the mix. What works for one group, song, or session, may not for another. First things first. Get to know your gear.
The best drummers always seem to have at least a little bit of gearhead, mechanic, or handyman in them. Before attempting to tune up your skins, make sure all the tiny screws, nuts, bolts, springs and wires are strung, tied, tightened, screwed-in, etc., and in working order. Remove any loose dust or dirt with a soft cloth. You may also find products for polishing and protecting your hoops and shells. This helps to ensure that your gear will function properly when you need it. Of course, the throw-off lever must be functioning, you must have all the lug screws for both top and bottom rims/hoops, and the rims should be fairly true or flat. Wooden hoops or metal rims that are overly warped create imbalance when tensioning the lugs, heads, and strainer and may damage your shells. They are nearly impossible to tune properly. As you can probably guess: When it comes to tuning drums, Staying organized is key.
[Note: If you decide to completely disassemble a piece, pay close attention to where things go. Use tape with removal-friendly adhesive. Label them as you take them apart. Keep them together in plastic bags, etc…]
This may go without saying, but cracked or broken shells and hardware should be repaired before use or re-purposed for killer lighting, coffee tables or something other than making music. Damaged snare strainers will always be problematic. If it’s only one or two wires, you may be able to carefully clip them out with wire cutters to eliminate unwanted rattle or buzz. If not, replace them. Old or over-stretched heads lack the resonance and flexibility to create a balanced and even tone. After all, that’s why you’re reading this to begin with, right??
Don’t Lose Your Head
If you suspect that a batter head (top) needs to be replaced, loosen all the lugs (going one half to one full turn at a time) using the star pattern tuning sequence below. If the batter head dips down in the middle when completely loosened, then it’s time to replace it. This can work for the resonant (bottom) side as well, though it is a much thinner head and will sometimes dip a bit before it’s completely shot.
[Note: Whether the resonant side needs replacing or not, you should always start with it first and tune both top and bottom sides.]
When replacing the reso head, first remove the strainer (tiny metal springs pictured) by loosening them from the throw-off lever and the fixed end using the appropriate tool. Then, follow the directions found later in this post for the star pattern tuning sequence. While the resonant head does not typically require replacement as frequently, a good rule of thumb is to replace it once for every second or third time you replace the batter head. I cannot stress how important the resonant head is to snare tuning, in particular.
Always trust your ears and hands when considering maintenance on your drums. If things sound and feel fine, there’s no need to jump the gun. I mean, we all have better things on which to spend our time and money–like practicing and buying more gear (ha-ha-ha).
Finally (and it’s about time), here are the tools and materials you will need for a complete re-head of your snare drum:
- New Batter head
- New Resonant head
- New Snare Strainer
- Snare Tape or Wires (for attaching strainer)
- Drum Key Tools to attach wires (usually a drum key or screwdriver of some sort)
- Soft clean cloth
Star Pattern Sequence
[Note:When you replace the new heads you will follow these steps in reverse to tighten the heads.]
Take your drum tuning key and start with the lug of the highest pitched harmonic. Once you find it, place a hand or a small piece of tape to mark the lug bolt where you start. [Note: You can test this by lightly resting your finger in the center of the drum to dampen ring and tapping about one and a half to two inches in from the outer rim of the drum and directly next to each lug with your drum key or a stick.] Loosen (counter-clockwise) that lug one quarter to one half a turn.
Next, move directly across the diameter of the drum to the lug on the opposite side, and repeat. You can also use two keys at once opposite each other, if you feel confident you can maintain consistent turns. Now find one of the two lugs most perpendicular to the two you’ve already done and do the same with them.
Continue with this pattern until all the lugs are loose and the head is free of tension. Once you remove the old head, dump out any debris which has collected, look for any loosened screws or hardware, and wipe around both the bearing edge of the drum and the hoops to remove dirt and collected stick particles. This will allow for better seating when you attach the new head and also keep your drum from slipping out of tune as easily during play.
In The Hot Seat
After placing the new resonant head on the bearing edge of the drum shell, press with your fist around the center of the drum head gently in a ring to break in the head. There are a few ways to do this, but this seems to be the most widely used. Now, replace the hoop or rim and re-insert all of the lugs. [Note: If you are working with the resonant side, make sure you line up the openings in either side of the hoops with the strainer attachments.]
Next, hand-tighten the lugs. This simply means to tighten all the lugs with your fingers until they are as tight as you can get them. Finally, taking your drum key, begin tightening (clockwise turns) using the same star pattern sequence you used for loosening.
When tightening the resonant head, make sure it is nice and high (think of a timbalé- tight and high in pitch with a nice ring). This will help negate that unwanted buzz from the snare strainer by allowing better transfer of energy. Somewhere in the neighborhood of two full turns on each lug should do it, but use your ears as this varies depending on the particular drum you are tuning and what heads you use.
You’ll notice (by ear and feel) at a certain point the tension will start to even out. The overtones in front of each lug will start to tend more towards one common pitch. Mind the tension as you go so as not to overtighten. Overtightening may result in a choked tone, broken head, or crushed shell in severe cases. Be aware.
Once you find a pitch that sounds good with your particular drum, make sure each lug is tuned as close to that same pitch.
[Reminder: To test this, once you have gotten your reso head close the the pitch you want, again, tap next to each lug about one and a half to two inches in from the outer rim the drum with a stick or key placing a finger in the center to dampen ring.]
For the batter head, you will follow the same steps for break-in and seating. The difference comes in the amount of turns used. You will use less here, as the batter head should be lower in pitch than the reso head. Start with one full turn. Find a good clean interval- often a perfect third, fourth, or fifth- and carefully match the other lugs on that side to the pitch. You may find that a piano or other handy melodic instrument helps with this; or your ears may be the perfect tool.
It may not be necessary to replace the strainer (wires). If it is, take them off first. Replace them last. Flip the drum over so the bottom faces up. Set throw-off (the screw-thingy on the side of the shell pictured in different styles above) to the loosest setting. Also, place it in the off position.
Thread the string or tapes through each side of the strainer and then through the cut-outs on each side of the resonant hoop.
Now, center the strainer on the bottom of the drum between the the two opposite sides of the bearing edge.
Attach the wires. (Try to avoid leaving too much slack, but if you keep the throw-off loosened, they do not need to be super tight at this point.)
Once you have attached the strainer, you can flip the drum back over and adjust the tension to create the desired sound. [Note: Try and find the perfect balance between too loose and too tight with your strainer. Too loose and your drum may sound rattly or mushy. Too tight and it may choke the resonance and tone of your drum.]
If you simply find yourself in need of a re-tune (but not a replacement) you can still follow the steps outlined here with a few amendments. You will still start with the resonant head.
With the snare throw-off in the off position, flip the drum upside down. If there is enough space between the strainer and the head, you can place a stick in between (across the diameter of the drum from rim to rim) to hold the strainer off of the head. If not, keep it upright and work from underneath; or use your fingers and hold it away from the head. Dampen the batter head with a hand or cloth and follow the sequence for tuning. Then move to the top.
If you are working on toms or other drums without snares, you can still avail yourself of the techniques described here. However, the interval relationship may be a bit different between batter and resonant heads. Some prefer them to sound in unison. Some prefer an interval above or below from the resonant side. It all depends on the type and dimensions of the drum and, again, personal preference. [Note: Ultimately, you will still want to play all of the drums together to make sure they all sound pleasing in relation to each other. At this point, you can make any final adjustments necessary.]
You’re All Wet
Adding tape, cloth, or other accessories to control resonance is called dampening. Dampening can help to control overtones and help you really dial in a particular sound. While the best tone always comes from getting the drum as close as you can without it; you may still find a little dampening is necessary. Some older drums are fitted with internal dampeners which use a lever or screw tensioner. External dampening is achieved by placing tape, cloth, Moongels, Slapklatz, Snareweights, etc., onto the head at specific points to control certain overtones. With a little experimentation, you will learn how to create the tone you are hearing in your head.
Is That All?
There are, of course, many of other tools and approaches you may find to sweeten a particular sound, once you know what you are going for. There are specialized drum keys, like the Drumdial, which may prove helpful. There are a myriad of different sticks, cymbals, pedals, hardware and accessories. Learning about these will also help you craft your sound. If you plan to transport your gear, a good set of cases is essential. The point is: the more you dig in, the more you will discover; but, hopefully, this will be enough to help get you a little further down the road.
Down The Rabbit Hole
Here are a few links that may lead you, who knows where…
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