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spacerx img Tuning Your Drums

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If you do not yet own a drum set just keep practicing the way you have been. You will appreciate this lesson a little more when you finally get your drums. This lesson is for those students with horrible sounding drums.

I contend that even the cheapest drums may be tuned to your satisfaction. The secret is in knowing how to get the sound that you want. It needs to be noted that there isn't a specific standard-pitch for tuning our drums.

We tune to our ear. Inside our 'mind's ear' we must first imagine, exactly how we want the drum to sound; then we set about pulling that exact tone from the drum. No one should dictate to the drummer what their drums should sound like. We all tune to our own personal specifics. What pleases me may not please you at all . . . and vice versa.

When tuning a drumset, we must know what tones we are looking for and we must learn how to pull those specific tones from each drum. I have assembled the following pointers to help with that one objective in mind.

spacerx img The Snare Drum

Look closely at your snare drum and try to decide exactly what factors most effect the tonal quality. Notice the 'square headed screws' around the top and bottom rims of the Drum. We call these ‘tension rods' or 'tension screws'. We may tighten or loosen these screws with a tool called a 'drum key. A drum key can be purchased at any music store for a dollar or two. Adjustments to the tension rods with a drum key will effect the tension on the Drumhead.

A tight drumhead will produce more bounce for the drumsticks and a higher pitch, whereas less tension on the head will produce the opposite. A little experimentation will help you decide the exact tension you personally prefer. You will be tuning your drums to your own specifics and personal preferences.

Be cautious when adjusting the tension-screws around any drumhead so as not to warp either the drumhead or the rim. Do not over-tighten one screw while leaving another very loose. It is best to tighten the screws in a diagonal criss-cross pattern around the head. Cautiously turn each tension-screw an equal number of turns until you have achieved the desired tension. Doing so will help seat the drum-head evenly.

Now turn your snare drum over and look at the strands of wire underneath. We call these (plastic or metal) wires, ‘snares'. The ‘snares' produce the ‘snap' sound and give the ‘snare' drum its name. Without these ‘snares' your drum would sound like a tom-tom. The snare wires are usually connected on the bottom sides of the drum with a screw apparatus and usually a flip lever apparatus. The flip lever on most drums is usually designed to release the snares quickly, so that a tom effect can also be quickly achieved as a tonal option.

A flip-lever and/or screw-apparatus on the side of the drum called the ‘strainer' may be tightened to place the desired amount of tension on the snares (wires) beneath the drum. This will require some experimentation before you will discover the exact snap or (looser resonant) tone you prefer.

After tuning both heads and adjusting the Strainer you may find that your Snare Drum still emits an undesirable 'ring' or 'overtone' when struck a glancing blow with a drumstick. Too much vibration in the outer perimeters of the 'batter' (top) head will often cause this overtone, and some type of muffling device may be necessary.

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A drum muffler is simply a screw device that places a felt pad against the batter head from inside the drum. The muffler is usually equipped with a flip lever or turn screw that allows for easy external adjustment. Almost all older snare drums came from the factory with internal mufflers installed. In recent years the foreign drum set manufacturers have stopped putting them in the newer drums. (They need to know that those old internal-mufflers are missed.) The internal mufflers served an important function that is now being neglected. Almost any music store will install the older style internal mufflers for twenty or thirty dollars (per drum). Again it is up to you to decide whether you like your drum with or without a muffler.

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Check out the individual accessory courses (products) in the right column and bottom of this page! You can get ALL of them free, with a simple donation of $45.00 or more. Those courses will show you how to put the $45 right back into your own pocket, A THOUSAND TIMES!

Plus, you'll receive downloable copies of all these courses that may easily and instantly be burned to one or fifty CDs. No waiting for the postman to arrive. Simply do the downloads, then study at your own pace without being online.

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spacerx img Improving Snare Tone

If you are still dissatisfied with your tone at this point, you should look at the batter head (top head). Batter heads are manufactured at varied thicknesses or weights ranging from thin to thick. Thin heads are designed for very light, snappy, crisp tonal qualities but have a tendency to break under heavy use. Thick drumheads will withstand a great deal of punishment but some tonal quality will be sacrificed, (in my own opinion). The choice is yours. I prefer a Remo Ambassador Coated head on my snare drums. It is a medium thickness that allows for great tone and lasting durability as well. The rougher surface of the coated-heads will allow for more 'snap' and sizzle' when using brushes with softer music styles.

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spacerx img Remo 'Weather King' Ambassador Coated Snare head

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spacerx imgTuning the Toms

Now that you have your snare drum tuned to perfection, we will tune the remainder of the set. Begin with the smallest tom . . . It will often be situated directly next to and a little above or even flush with the Snare. This should be your highest pitched tom since it is the smallest. The larger toms should be graduated in both tone and size in clockwise fashion, around you. When tuning your toms, try first to imagine all the tones you want. Then seek to achieve those tones. Remember that tight heads produce higher tones and loose heads produce lower ones. You may wish to experiment with combinations of tight top heads, loose bottoms for one effect or vice versa for the opposite. Some drummers choose to eliminate the bottom tom heads completely. Search for the sound that you like. Drum mufflers will help eliminate any undesirable ‘ring' or 'overtones' in your toms.

Many high tech solutions to drum tones have appeared on the market in recent years. Experiment with some of the following options:

  1. Black Dot: This is a tom head designed with a circle or dot of double thickness of head material in the center of the drum. The double thickness tends to help eliminate some 'overtones' as it enhances the life of the head.

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  2. Pinstripe: Pinstripe heads have a double thickness of head material around the outer perimeter of the drum where most overtones occur. I prefer this type of head.
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  4. Hydraulic: Hydraulic heads involve the sandwiching of an oily substance between two thicknesses of head material. Many drummers swear by them. The overtones are greatly reduced and the heads are very durable. My opinion is that they do not project very well in a large room. The tone tends to fall flat a short distance from the drum. Microphones can solve that problem though.
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If you like your bass drum loud and ringing, that is easy! Simply tighten both heads down and do not try to muffle them. Most drummers prefer a solid "thud" or "poof" sound.

We may get a solid "thud" or "poof" effect in the following ways:

  1. Place a 6" x 26" piece of cloth (felt is suggested) between the drumhead and shell of your bass all the way across the drum. You may even choose to cover the entire circular area with thin cloth. Remove the drum rim and head, place the cloth over the hole, then replace the head and rim and pull them to the desired tension. Finally, trim away the ragged edges of cloth.
  2. Many drummers prefer to eliminate the front head and rim entirely and place different articles of padding inside the Drum (pillows, foam rubber, etc.) until the desired muffle has been achieved.

Here is an interesting, tongue-in-cheek, and somewhat controversial article, concerning How and Why Many Pro-Drummers Muffle their Bass Drum.

Money-Saving-Tip :
Place a small patch of duct tape at the point where the Bass Drum Beater-Ball makes contact with the bass drum head. This will have little effect on the tone but it will inhibit wear on the head, prolong its life and save money.

If you are still dissatisfied with your tone at this point, check around and listen to other drummers until you find one who has found the sounds that you like. Then ask how to get that sound. That is precisely the way I acquired these few tricks that I am sharing with you now.

Tonal Losses:
Brand-name Mylar (plastic) drum heads rarely lose their tone.
However; tonal losses may occasionally occur as a result of lug-screws vibrating loose. A lock-washer should be in place between the screw and where it makes contact with the rim of the drum. The lock-washers will prevent the lug-screws from vibrating and backing-out of their position, loosening the tension on the drum heads.

Also; some of the 'cheaper' mylar heads will dent as a result of very heavy playing. This can eventually result in tonal fluctuation and loss. As the dents (or bubbles) in the drum head begin to effect the tone of the drum, the heads should be replaced with quality, brand-name heads like 'Remo' or 'Evans'. Quality drum heads rarely lose their tone.

WARNING FOR NEWBIES: It's easy to spot a 'green' drummer onstage. The less experienced drummer will constantly try to tune and re-tune their drum set in the middle of their gigs. If you are one of those you should understand the following reasoning . . .

Tuning problems often do occur as a result of room acoustics as we move our drums from room to room and from one venue to the next. This means there are very often many tuning and tonal factors that are beyond our immediate control, in such situations. The more experienced pro-drummer will know immediately that it isn't the fault of the drums, but more likely the uncontrollable fault of the room itself.

Try This Experiment!
Take your snare drum to the garage, the bathroom or any room with a lot of hard surfaces like concrete floors and cinder-block walls. Listen to the tones! Next, take the drum (as it is) into the living room or a room with an abundance of absorbent materials like, curtains, carpets, soft easy-chairs and couches. Strike the drum in those new surroundings. Notice the tonal differences! Next, take the drum outside and strike it again in the out-door environment. Notice the tonal differences there as well. The locational changes will have a great effect on the tones, though we've done nothing to the drum itself. We must accept this as a difficult to remedy fact.

This is something we may have to learn to live with to some degree. Yes, it can kill a gig completely. It's true with all instruments. Some rooms (or environments) are better than others when it comes to natural acoustics. We can tune and re-tune the drums constantly and usually the result will most likely be worse tone, rather than better.

In other words; tune the drums to perfection in a good environment, then leave them alone. Unless a lug screw has worked loose or other some obvious physical factor is effecting the tone, the drums probably haven't lost their tunings. It's most likely the room-acoustics that is bugging your ear and causing you to think the drums are out-of-tune. Accept the fact that we can't easily change or fix the environment. Sometimes we must accept the facts and learn to live with most acoustical problems that can't be controlled.

Solutions? What Can Be Done?
Are there possible solutions to such a dilemma as this? Yes, there are remedies, but they may often prove to be impractical.

  1. If we do have control over the environmental situation it's possible to re-decorate the stage or the room by adding or subtracting curtains, carpets and sound-absorbing materials, until the 'ears' become satisfied with the resulting sounds.
  2. Some drummers swear by 'Baffels'. They'll carry a Plexiglas-wall along to their gigs. A wall of Plexiglas surrounding the drum set, reflects the drum sounds back to the ear of the drummer, while serving as a muffling apparatus for the rest of the band and the listeners in the room. Such a 'Baffel' will allow the drummer to play a little louder and more comfortably without being offensive. The additional resonances created by the reflected sounds (off the Plexiglas baffels) will often help put the drummer at ease with the tones, tunings and other difficult to control environmental factors.
  3. Sound Monitors may also help. If a room or environment is especially dead, it may help to amplify the drums with microphones then place a monitor-speaker near the drummer's ear(s). Sometimes this will help and other times it may not. The older, more experienced drummer simply learns to accept the uncontrollable factors and play their best, no matter what difficulties the environment may offer.

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spacerx img Working With Music is Important!

It is my hope that by the time you have reached this point in your study. The thrill of playing to music (CDs, records, tapes, radio, etc.) has become your favorite pastime. If it is not, then something needs to be corrected before you go any further. There will be little need to study and perfect any of the beats, rolls and fills in the coming lessons if you are not going to adapt them to music.

If you are having problems adapting the dance beats to music, consider these two factors:

  1. You may need more practice with all the basic dance beats. You must acquire the ability to repeat each beat steadily and rapidly for durations of three to four minutes. Most popular songs are at least that long.
  2. You may not be listening close enough to the music you are trying to play. It is important that you listen DEEP into the BACKGROUND of the music and feel the beat the drummer is playing. If you truly feel the beat of the music and have thoroughly studied the The Basic Dance Beats:, then playing with nearly any and all music should come natural.

spacerx img Try Working with Headphones

Working with headphones will channel the music more directly to your ears and muffle your own drum sounds too. This will allow deeper concentration on the music being played. Beware of excessive volume! You can ruin your hearing for life.

Next Lesson (Suggestion):
RUDIMENTS, ROLLS and FILLS (Part 1): Boring rolls are not so boring when used as thundering fill patterns in mid-song. (Simplified for beginners!)

Back to Lesson Menu #1:

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spacerx img Copyright Bill Powelson 1994-2008-2014 @ all rights reserved.

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