Monday, March 22, 2010

My Approach to Tuning

There are a number of factors that go into getting the sound you want from your drums, some of which you can control and some which you cannot.

Let's start with what you cannot control:

  • Diameter and depth
  • Material from which the drum is made: various wood types, metals, plastics and fiber; i.e., acrylic, carbon fiber, etc.
  • Bearing edges
  • Number of lugs
  • Snare beds (for snare drums)
What you can control:
  • Head type
  • Snare wires
  • Hoops
  • The Room
In my experience the shell material is not nearly as important to the sound as the diameter and depth, bearing edges, head type and the room.

This excellent video produced by Drum Supply House is bearing edges 101 and will show why I believe the bearing edge is an important factor in achieving your sound:

About heads: I play low volume music, mainly acoustic and electric jazz and blues, so my head selection may be vastly different from yours. However, you may find these two posts about head selection for brush playing to be a starting point for understanding head selection. First is about selecting good heads for brushwork, and the second covers a few heads I neglected to mention in the first post. I also have a brief post about snare wires that discusses this important element of sound. To understand snare beds I have found Ronn Dunnett's excellent article to be a good starting point for understanding this often overlooked aspect of a snare drum. Another excellent article on snare beds is Snare Bed Theory. If you actually want to understand how to cut one, Drum Foundry's companion article, The Down and Dirty of Snare Beds, is a great tutorial.

The room where the drum(s) will be played is the one variable that bedevils most drummers. A kit or snare drum (and cymbals) that sound great in one room may sound horrible in a different room.

A good starting point to learn about tuning is the Drum Tuning Bible. While it contains excellent information, remember that your personal sound will come from your intimate knowledge of your instrument and where that instrument will be played. While the Drum Tubing Bible will give you the foundational knowledge of your instrument and some excellent tips, it's up to you to personalize your sound.

My starting point with tuning begins with some idea about the room. The placement chapter in the Drum Tuning Bible gives some excellent advice and guidelines that you should follow. I also like the approach Mike James takes in Drum Tuning. Another approach is to think like a sound engineer. Alex Case's Recording the Snare is highly recommended reading.

I don't use muffling aids, such as bass drum pillows, Moon Gel, or gaffer's tape. The only thing I do is lightly attenuate my bass drum with felt strips (I use Gibraltar SC-BF Bass Drum Felt Strips), but otherwise, my drums are tuned open.

My personal approach is to have a basic tuning, and tweak for the room once the kit is set up. I always start with tuning the reso heads first to get the pitch I want, then the batter side for tone.

A trick I use is the two key method where I simultaneously tune opposite tension rods, then move clockwise to the next pair. I also start by backing off the tension slightly before tuning, and use feel to ensure that the tension rods are tensioned about the same. Of course, this is somewhat unscientific and highly subjective (and can be thwarted if you don't occasionally use a light lubricant on the rods.) However it works for me.

I listen for changes in pitch as I tap around the head near the tuning rods - I usually tap about 3 inches away from the rods so I can hear some resonance - and do fine adjustments according to what I hear.

When I am tackling the bass drum I do the initial tuning and have someone hit a few notes while I stand back about ten feet. Often the bass drum will still be too lively and resonant for a room, so I use a full turn at a time on the resonant side tension rods to correct it. Usually I only need one full turn to tame it down, and often need to back off a quarter of a turn.

The drums that give me the most trouble are square ones where square means the diameter and height are the same. Since I play traditional sizes, this means floor toms. Depending on the bearing edge you can either dial one in after some trial and error, or remain frustrated. Like my other drums, I start with the reso head to get the pitch, then work with the batter. If I cannot get a floor tom dialed in to my satisfaction, I will compromise by retuning the rack tom so that I can get an octave between the two and suffer through the tone. Life isn't always fair.

If you are new to tuning (or even drumming) I recommend grabbing a copy of Drum Tuning: The Ultimate Guide. Although this book/CD combination isn't nearly as comprehensive as the Drum Tuning Bible, it is simpler and more straightforward, and the biggest advantage is the CD that comes with it. One can read about tuning, but there is nothing like hearing examples, which the 29-tracks on the accompanying CD provide.

In ending, my approach may or may not work for you, but I hope it serves as a catalyst to get you thinking about the many, interrelated aspects of drum tuning that you can factor in when pursuing your own sound.

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