How to Tune a Drum Set: Get the Sound You Want

Musical literacy and drumming skills do not necessarily mean the ability to tune instruments. Making a drum sound the way you want it to be is an art that takes a lot of time to master and requires patience. If you ask ten drummers how to tune a drum set, you’ll get ten different answers. Each musician has their own methods, but there are general guidelines that are worth listening to. Otherwise, you can focus on your feelings and ear for music. In this article, I will share with you the techniques I use in my work.

Drum Tuning Guide

Before you start tuning a musical instrument, you should understand how drums work and which elements they consist of. Once you learn their “anatomy,” you can better understand how exactly to get the sound you want.

Parts of a drum

All drums have a roughly similar structure. They are wooden cylinders (shells-resonators), on which plastic (or other materials) membranes are stretched from both sides. Additionally, they are equipped with metal fittings such as tension rods, lug casings, hoops, screws, etc. An instrument’s sound directly depends on how top (batter) and bottom (resonant) heads are tuned together. The key to the right alignment is correct “seating” of the heads and uniform tension across the area. The sound is also influenced by shell material, edge shape, drum height, and rim material.

How to tune your drums? Step-by-step

While each drum implies some tweaking and tuning nuances, there are generally four basic steps you need to take for it.

Step 1: Preparation

Drum tuning is needed when you change heads. You should do it regularly when they are worn out, or the dents will appear on them. Remember to take proper care of your instrument and clean it periodically, so it will last longer.

Also, tuning may be needed when you change a room in which you are rehearsing. The size of a site has a significant impact on the perception of sound. Also, you may want to try different heads to find the one that works best for you. So, remove all the bolts, old plastic, and hoop from the drums. Before installing a new head, wipe the drum’s edge with a clean cloth to remove dust and accumulated dirt.

Step 2: Heads seating

Place the head on the drum and twist it in different directions. Find the place where the plastic most easily rotates around the shell, place the hoop on top. Fit all the adjusting screws and tighten them with your fingers until they touch the rim and stop. For even tension, it is recommended to tighten the bolts in pairs, that is, those that are opposite each other. Next, take a key and start turning it by a quarter of a turn; work in a cross pattern so that the tension is even. If you hear a crackling sound while stretching the plastic, don’t worry; new heads often crackle during the process.

After tightening, tap on the plastic (use your fingers, sticks, or a key) near each screw to ensure that the plastic is evenly tensioned. Continue tightening the bolts until the sound is slightly higher than what you aim for, as the plastic will stretch a bit.

Step 3: Tuning drumheads

After seating the heads, you need to adjust them as accurately as possible while avoiding unnecessary overtones. Tuning is done by tapping on the head near each bolt and tightening them where the sound is lower. Always adjust a higher pitch by tightening the screws, not loosening them. If the sound gets too high, lower the entire tuning and start over, pulling up to the desired sound. Tighten the bolts very carefully so as not to over tighten them, turn the key about 1/8 of a full turn. Do the same for the second side. The goal is to achieve uniform tension, that is, the same sound when tapped anywhere on the plastic.

Step 4: Fine-tuning

It allows you to tune the head lower or higher while maintaining the overall sound. There are three ways to create harmonious sound with drum set tuning pitches:

  • Tune both heads to the same resonant frequency. The result is a clean tone and long sustain. A more open sound is provided by transparent plastic;
  • Adjust the top head above the bottom one. This solution allows you to tune the drum to a low sound but still have good drum stick bounce. You can get a “fat” sound if you adjust the resonant head to the lowest tone, then tune the batter side;
  • Tune the top head below the resonant one. This setting will produce a shallower sound and shorter sustain. For a bright attack, the resonant head should be tuned 1 to 3 notes above the drum one.

person tuning a drum

Step 5: Using a drum kit tuner

A tuner can be a great assistant in tuning drums, especially for beginner musicians. You can really make a quality setting that meets all the parameters. However, it does not guarantee that you will enjoy the resulting sound. Each drummer should still be guided by their own feelings.

Almost all drum tuners measure tension or torque but should not be trusted entirely. For example, tuners that measure head tension can give incorrect data if you tune heads of different thicknesses. However, they can save you time. You can adjust the drums manually, measure the readings with the tuner, and then use this data for subsequent adjustments (provided that you use the heads of the same thickness and the same manufacturer).

I know some aspiring drummers are interested in what notes to tune drums too. In my opinion, there is no universal answer, and it depends on the style of music and even the mood of a particular song. Some experienced musicians tune their drums for each track when working in the studio. However, you can find standard drum tuning notes on the internet to help you make your instrument sound in harmony.

Tips for tuning different drum types

Now that I have introduced you to general guidelines on drum tuning, I would like to dwell a little more on each drum type’s tips.

Tenor drum

So, how to tune tenor drums? Their distinctive feature is that they have only one head and do not have wires. Besides, marching tenors are most commonly used in a four- or five-reel set. Therefore, it is important to tune each of them so that together they sound harmonious. Since they are all different diameters, you need to know which sound is correct for a particular size. I recommend starting with the largest drum and working your way up to the smallest.

When choosing the right sound, be careful not to let your tenors mix with a snare or bass drums. They should have a “clear” sound. A tuning scheme you choose should match the overall music style you play. Also, consider a place where you plan to perform. If a concert is going to be held indoors, you may want to muffle your drums. Additionally, pay attention to the selection of the correct mallets and sticks.

Bass (kick) drum

Now let’s move on to how to tune a kick drum. A bass or kick drum can be open on one side, closed, or have a different diameter hole on a resonant head. All this is your individual choice depending on the style of music. The hole in the front side allows you to get the effect of reflected sound, which, as it were, “shoots” through this hole, the most commonly used option nowadays. The absence of such openings ensures maximum beater rebound and boomy drum sound. The resonant head determines the overall result of tuning a kick drum.

In some situations, you may need to dampen the bass drum. If you play in a studio and use a big instrument over 24 inches in diameter, you’ll have to put a muffler inside (special pads, pillows, felt strips, etc.). By changing its location and the covered area, you can get a different sound. However, if you perform outdoors in front of an audience, it may not be necessary. Damped bass drums may sound great to you, but bass frequencies can get lost in the overall mix to listeners. For better resonance, you can place the kick drum as high above the floor as possible or as the pedal allows). Now you know how to tune a bass drum.

bass drum

Tom-tom drum

It doesn’t matter which drum you start with or in which order you tune the toms. It is essential to build on the fact that all drums have a limited sounding range. It is not recommended to go above or below this indicator. Therefore, if you tune the smallest (in diameter) tom low, going down to the large one, you may find that the sound is too low for its size. Then you will have to tweak all the other toms (including the large one) above. To make tom tuning easier, use the standard recommendations for notes.

The further you move away from the drums, the lower they will sound. For example, you tune the toms in your studio, and their sound suits you, but if you change a site to a larger one, they will sound vague and dirty. In such a situation, I recommend asking someone to drum while you walk to where the audience will be gathered and adjust the tuning according to the case.

Snare drum

The shell and wire selection largely determine the default snare tuning. Unlike toms, the snare heads are not tuned to the same frequency. A thin resonant side is in contact with the strings, which, together with the heads, determine the snare drum’s sound. It is the strings that are important here, not the acoustic features of an instrument itself. It is better to tune the resonant side rather high with the wires’ slight tension to increase the strings’ sensitivity and reduce the “crackle” of the drum.

To tune snare drums, remove the strings, adjust the heads, and put the wires back. Pull them gently while listening to how the drum sounds. At first, the snare will rattle, sounding rather dirty. Then the rattling will decrease, and the sound will become dry. After that, the sound will become warm, and you’ll hear slaps on the strings. Then the warmth will disappear; the articulation of the sound will appear instead. It is worth stopping at the last two stages; otherwise, the sound will become dirty.

Drum Tuning FAQ

I hope I have explained everything clearly in my guide. Here is some more helpful information in the form of answers to some popular questions.

What is a drum key?

It is a special tool with which you can tighten or loosen the tension rods. It is indispensable for tuning musical instruments. Drum keys come in a standard 1/4 inch size and fit any drum. They may differ in shape, but it is already a matter of taste and personal convenience.

How to tune your drum set?

The way a drum kit is set depends on its elements, the kind of music you play, and the sound you want to get. So, for example, if you play Funk, then you should start tuning from the kick drum since it sets the tone for the whole song in this genre. To get the whole drum kit to sound melodic, find a diagram of the ideal range for snare, toms, and a bass drum. The interval between the top and bottom heads should be a major third upward, and there should be a minor third between the toms.

How does a drum work?

A drum consists of a shell and two heads (batter and resonant). The first is responsible for the attack and ringing, and the second gives the after-sound and composition of overtones. While playing, a drummer hears the batter side, and the audience (especially if a stage is higher than the audience) hears a combination of both heads, and this mixture can sound many times worse. That is why musicians use drum microphones to correct this situation.

Get the Best of Your Drums

Now that you know all about how to tune drums, I’m sure your musical instruments will sound great. There is nothing complicated in this procedure; the main thing is to know the basic principles and follow the recommendations. Experimentation is the key to drum tuning success. You will achieve the desired sound only with experience. Many professional drummers share their advice with fans, so you can read their interviews to learn some more useful tips.

Please share your experience with other readers and me. How do you start tuning drums? How often do you do it?

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