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Drum Tuning Guide

So, you want to tune your drums huh? Good idea! Below is an excellent drum tuning method that has been used by countless drummers, including myself, for many years.

It'll give you a much more musical sound from your set, and you'll be amazed at the difference it can make. Tuning can get very detailed and complex, but here we will try to keep it as simple as possible.

It might be a good idea to read through this whole page before you start to follow the guide. This way you'll know what to expect and will have an understanding of how this method works. But, it's your choice of course.

And, I highly recommend The Drum Tuning System DVD, mainly because you can see and hear exactly what to do step-by-step.

First, we'll cover a few fundamental basics that you need to keep in mind when using this or any other method.

The Basics

Room Acoustics

Room Acoustics - The room that your drums are in will change how they sound in a big way. When you move them to a much bigger or smaller room, you might be suprised just how different the sound is.

Smaller rooms will restrict the deep bass waves from forming, but larger rooms will let them spread and therefore the sound will be much deeper and more boomey.

So, if you aren't getting the sound you want - it might be not be because of the tuning method, it might be because of this. Also, changing the location of your drums in the room can make a difference. Experiment and see where they sound best.

Drum Size - The diameter (width) of your drum is the biggest factor that determines its pitch. The wider the drum is, the lower its pitch will be. On the other hand, the depth of your drum will control the length of the note.Drum Shell The Deeper the drum shell, the longer the note will be.

Lastly, the thinner a drum shell is, more resonant it will be. However, thicker shells are less resonant but have more projection and volume.

So, if you have a small, shallow, and thin drum - you won't be able to get a really low pitched, long and loud note from it no matter what tuning method you use.

Wood - Different woods give different sound qualities. Here's a summary of the main wood's used:

  • Maple is generally warm sounding, and it resonates very well. It has an even tone and is fairly good at reproducing a drums frequencies. It's one of the most popular materials for drum construction.
  • Birch has a more attacking, bright sound. It has more mid-range presence, but slightly less low-end. Again, a very popular wood.
  • Mahogany has noticeably more low-end than maple or birch, and is very warm sounding. Perhaps even a little bit dark. It's reasonably common, but isn't used as much as the two above.
  • Oak is quite uncommon as it's difficult to make drums with due to its hardness. But, this hardness gives it a tough, attacking sound with lots of projection and mid-range presence.
  • Poplar is a cheaper wood, used often on budget and beginner sets. It has a bright sound, similar to birch, but doesn't give the same quality.
  • Basswood is another cheap wood that sounds similar to maple or mahogany. It has a more low-end sound, but again, it doesn't give the same quality and resonance as more expensive woods.

Fundamental Note - Most drum shells have a fundamental note. If you take off the heads and hoops, put the shell on it's stand or mount, then tap it with your knuckle - it will give a quiet note. By listening carefully to it, you can use a keyboard or guitar to find out what the note is.

If you want, you can then adjust the tuning so the heads match this fundamental note. This will bring out all the best qualities and potential of the shell's sound. But, if you don't want to do this, that's fine. Tuning the heads to any note you like will still produce a great sound. It's optional.

Bearing Edges - The bearing edges are where the drum heads make contact with the shell. They Bearing edge can be cut at different angles to influence the sound. A standard bearing edge is 45-degrees. This increases resonance and gives a more energetic, and brighter sound.

Other common bearing edges include 30-degrees which is less bright and more controlled, and then there are rounded bearing edges which are more short and dull sounding. Basically, the sharper the angle, the brighter the sound. Do you know what bearing edges your drums have? It's influencing the sound - if you know it or not! So keep this in mind when using any tuning method.

Timbre and Pitch - A lot of folks get these two mixed up. So did I until I made an effort to learn the difference. Pitch is the actual note that the drum produces when struck. For example, you could tune a floor tom to the note G on a piano. The timbre refers to the character of the sound. For example, bright or dark, hard or soft, fat or thin. Adjusting the drum tuning can alter both pitch and timbre to a degree.

Batter Head - The batter head is the top head that you hit with the sticks. It determines the immediate pitch that you hear, the feel when you hit it with your stick, the percussive 'slap' sound of the stick hitting it, and some overtones. All these factors can be changed by altering the tuning.

Resonant Head - The resonant head is on the bottom. This is a big part of the sound. It determines the prelonged pitch and tone, it aids the drum to sustain it's sound, it alters the timbre of the sound, and has a big effect on the overtones. Again, the tuning will change these factors.

Seating the Heads - This an important step in any tuning method. The idea is to get a good, tight contact between the new head and the bearing edge of the drum shell.

The process basically involves putting the head on the shell, then tightening the lugs untill the head is quite tight.

Next, you put pressure on it with your hands to stretch it in. This will form the head to the shape of the bearing edges, and ensure that the head will vibrate properly and produce an even tone.

We cover exactly how to do this in the step-by-step drum tuning guide below, but for now just make sure you understand why it's important.

Tuning - Step by Step

Ok, here's the tuning method. You can use this for your snare, toms, and bass drum.

STEP 1 - First, take off the old heads and the hoops, then clean the drum shell with a dry cloth.

STEP 2 - Make sure there is nothing rattling like a loose screw or lug. If you find something, tighten it up.

STEP 3 - Place the drum batter side (top) down on a flat, soft surface like a rug or towel.

STEP 4 - Now take the resonant head (bottom) and lightly place it on the shell. Make sure you put it on dead centered. Put on the hoop and use your fingers to tighten all the tension rods until they just make contact with the washer/hoop. Then, unscrew all the rods by 1/4th of a full turn.

Drum Lugs

STEP 5 - Take two drum keys and put them on opposite lugs facing each other (180 degrees apart). For example, lugs A and B on the picture to the right. Tighten both the lugs by 1/2 a full turn at the same time.

Then, put the keys on lugs C and D and do the same. Move around the drum (however many lugs it has) doing the same thing until you have turned all the lugs 2 full turns (4 times around the drum).

Don't worry about the sound at this point, just concentrate on keeping the tension even across all the lugs.

Note - if your drum has an odd number of lugs, for example 9, use one key in a star shaped pattern instead of two keys at the same time. For example, A then B then C and so on.

STEP 6 - Lift the drum up and hit the head. If it doesn't give a clear, undistorted note - tighten each lug by 1/4th of a turn and try again. Do this until you get a clear note without any rattle or deadness. Don't worry about tightening the head too much, if you need to tighten it alot to get a clear note, then do it. Just make sure you have clear note before you continue.

STEP 7 - Put the drum back on the rug or towel with the resonant head (bottom) facing up. This next part can take some practice and requires you to really listen. It's an important tuning skill.

Drum Lugs

Take a drum stick and lightly tap the head in front of one of the lugs, about 1.5" (2.5cm) from the edge. Listen to the sound. There will be many different elements to it. For example, the sound might have high, middle, and low frequncies. Pick one of these frequencies (I'll use the high frequency as an example).

You will now need to tap at the exact same point in front of all the other lugs, with the exact same force. Adjust each lug so that they all have the same frequency and tone.

As with any tuning method, make sure that you never tune down to a note, always tune up to it. If there is a lug that's already higher than the pitch you want, detune it below the pitch you want and then tune it up. The reason is that it's much easier to hear the pitch this way.

Hit the head again to make sure that you still have a clear sound. If you do, continue to step 8 below. If not, tighten the lugs in 1/4th of a full turn increments until you do.

STEP 8 - Now we'll seat the head. Put the palm of your hand on the center of the head. Then, put your other hand on top of the first. Lightly push down in the center the head so it moves about 1/2" (1cm). Do this 2 or 3 times. This will crack the collar of the head and form the head to the shape of the bearing edge of the drum. you might hear a cracking sound when doing this - don't worry that's fine.

Making sure the head is seated properly will help make sure your tuning efforts aren't in vain.

STEP 9 - Next, put the drum on it's stand/mount, or just leave it where it is if it's the bass drum. Detune the head by using the two drum keys opposite each other, in 1/4th turns like you did earlier. Keep going and stop when the head isn't resonating anymore and gives a nasty buzzing, distorted sound.

Now tighten each lug by 1/8th of a turn, hitting the head inbetween every 1/8th turn. Keep going until the head gives a clear and undistorted note again.

STEP 10 - Even out the lugs, like you did in step 7, so that they all sound the same.

STEP 11 - Turn the drum over and repeat the drum tuning steps 4 - 10 for the batter head. When both sides of the drum have been done, it's time to fine tune them. If you can, leave the drum for an hour or two first. That will give the head time to settle. But, if you don't want to wait, go straight to the fine tuning.

Fine Tuning

Ok, you've got your drum in reasonable shape, but it still doesn't sound perfect. Let's get it really zoned in and sounding sweet.

STEP 1 - First, check that the drum still has a clear, resonant tone when you hit the resonant head (bottom). If it does, continue to step 2 below. If it doesn't, tighten every lug by just 1/16th of a full turn and check if it has a clear tone again. Repeat this until you do have a low pitched, clear tone. Then, even out all the lugs like you did in step 7 above. Check that the tone is still there. Remember, don't tune the head any higher - stop when you have a clear, low pitched, undistorted sound.

STEP 2 - Now, do the same for the batter head (top). Again, make sure that you stop when you have a clear, low pitched, and undistorted sound.

STEP 3 - What you have just done in the two steps above, is find the lowest tuning that this drum can possibly reach. If you've tightend the lugs many times, but the head is still distorted - the head might not have seated properly. If you can, leave the drum with the head on for a few hours, as this will often give it time to settle into place. If you can't wait, tighten the head up a bit higher and repeat step 8 above (seating the head).

STEP 4 - Next we'll tune the drum upwards and see what sounds it can offer. Start with the batter head (top) and tighten each lug in 1/16th of a full turn increments. Hit the head after each lug is tightend and listen to the sound. Also, make sure that all the lugs are in tune with each other (as you did in step 7 above) at regular intervals.

Here's what will happen and what you should listen out for. As you tighten the head, the sound will be good for one or two 1/16th turns on each lug, then it might sound bad for the next two 1/16th turns, then sound good again. You will reach a point where the drum just sounds dead and has a lot of ringing overtones. At this point, no matter how much higher you tune the batter head (top) - the drum will continue to sound lifeless. So, detune the head in 1/16th full turn increments until it sounds open and good again.

STEP 5 - If you want the tuning to be a higher pitch than you have at the moment, you will need to work on the resonant head (bottom). Tighten each lug in 1/8th of a full turn increments, hitting the batter head (top) after each lug is tightened to check the sound. Again, make sure all the lugs are in tune with each other at regular intervals (as you did in step 7 above). As you keep tightening, you will reach a point where the drum sounds dead again. You will need to go back to the batter head (top) and work on that again if you want the pitch of the drum to be higher still.

Again, here's what will happen and what you should listen out for. As you alter the tuning like this, going from the batter head (top) to the resonant head (bottom), the drum will go through 3 distinct sound phases:

  • 1 - First is the 'descending phase'. Here, the drum will have a descending sound when you hit it. This happens because the batter head (top) is noticeably higher in pitch than the resonant head (bottom).
  • 2 - As you tune the lower pitched resonant head (bottom) up higher, the drum will move out of the 'descending phase' and into the 'even phase'. Here, both the batter (top) and resonant head (bottom) will be about the same pitch, so the drum will have an open, even sound when you hit it.
  • 3 - As you tune the resonant head up higher still, the drum will enter the final phase - deadness. Here the resonant head (bottom) is noticeably higher in pitch than the batter head (top). This makes the drum sound lifeless. You will need to go back to the batter head and raise its pitch to take it out of the 'dead phase'.

Basically, you will have to keep switching which head you are tightening, whilst taking the drum through these phases. You are aiming to get the drum up to the pitch you want, but also to be in either the 'descending phase' or 'even phase' - which ever sound you prefer. Just avoid the 'dead phase' as your drum will sound horrible.

Hopefully, if you've followed the method accurately, you'll have a great sounding drum. If not, see the tips below that may help you. In fact, even if you have got a great sounding drum, still read the tips.

Hints, Tips, and Advice

Frustration, Anger, Disapointment - Learning and getting to grips with any tuning method can be a very frustrating and anoying experience - especially for beginners. It can take a lot of time, and you will almost definately fail on your first try. Don't worry! Everyone has to go through this difficult learning curve before they get good at it. Even though we've given you all the steps, you still have to develop an ear and feel for tuning - and that means practicing and trying again. So, if you feel like giving up - don't! I was the same when I started, but I just kept on trying, and if you do the WILL get there.

Dampening - Adding some dampening to your drum can help get rid of those unwanted ringing overtones. Moon Gel is a great product to try, just put on as much as you need to get the sound you want. But remember, it's best to place it at the edge of the drum. Also, Remo O rings can do a great job too.

For bass drums, I've used an EQ pillow to cut down on the boomeyness and help to focus the sound a bit more.

Ears - I've sometimes spent hours playing around with drum tuning methods. But, doing it for that long can have a really negative effect on your ears. As you've been really listening hard to the sound, your ears will become tired and start to be less effective at picking out the pitch properly. It happens to everyone and there isn't anything you can do about it, other than stop and give your ears a rest for a while.

Recorded Drums - When you hear drums on a cd, mp3, or on the radio, they have usually been mixed, produced, processed, and had many effects applied to them. My point is that you can't get live drums to sound like that. You can still get your drums to sound great, but don't keep banging your head against a wall trying to get that perfect recorded sound. Just accept that live drums don't have a perfectly EQ'd sound - no matter what tuning method you use, or whatever heads you use.

Warped Shells, Bearing Edges, And Hoops - Shells, bearing edges, and hoops need to as close to perfectly round and straight as possible to ensure the best sound. If you've been having trouble getting a drum to sound good no matter what head you try or tuning you use - it could be because something is warped or not fully round. Here's how to check if this is the problem:

  • Shells - To check if the shell is out of round, take the heads and hoops off it. Then, take an accurate ruler or measuring tape, and measure from one lug to the one opposite. Do this for all the lugs on the shell and compare the measurements. Are they all the same? If they are, then the shell is fine. If the measurements are noticeably different, I'm afraid your shell isn't very round. This means it isn't a good drum, tuning it will be difficult, and it won't sound as good as it should.
  • Bearing Edges - To check if the bearing edges are accurate, take the heads and hoops off the shell. Then, put the shell down on a very flat surface like a counter top, preferably near a window. Look for any light that shines through under the bearing edges. If you can't put the shell near a window, use a flash light. Turn the shell around and check all angles, also check the other side too. If there are gaps where the light is shining through - your bearing edges could be damaged or the shell might be warped. In either case, you might have problems with this drum, tuning it could be tough, and you should consider having it fixed.
  • Hoops - To check if the hoops are warped or bent, place them on a very flat surface. Put one hand on the left side and the other hand on the right. Try to rock the hoop by pushing down on the left side then the right and so on. If it rocks a lot, it's warped. Also, use a ruler or measuring tape to check if its out of round (as you did when checking the shell above). If its warped or out of round - you guessed it...whatever drum tuning method you use, it'll probably give you bad results.

I'm not going to be able to tell you exactly how to solve these problems as you might make them worse if you try to fix them yourself. I'd advise taking it to a drum store, or a craftsman who will be better prepared to try and sand, bend, straighten or do whatever else needs to be done. Just be aware that any of the problems above could make your tuning efforts a waste of time.

Well, that's about it for the tuning info on this page! I really hope it has helped you get a great sound from your drums. And remember, if you learn better by watching and listening, The Drum Tuning System DVD could help you alot.

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