Drum Tuning and Conditioning

By October 9, 2016Drums, Miking, Music, Recording

To get good drum sounds, it’s necessary to be familiar with drum tuning and dampening techniques. A bad-sounding drum is nearly impossible to get a good recorded sound from. A good-sounding drum can make your recording experience much more enjoyable. If the drum heads are dented and stretched out, cancel the rest of your appointments for the day. You’ll be spending a substantial amount of time getting an acceptable drum sound.

If the drums aren’t high-quality instruments, there’s a good chance that the shells aren’t smooth and level, and there’s a possibility that the drums aren’t even perfectly round. If this is the case, the heads won’t seat evenly on the drum shell and there’ll be a loss of tone, detracting from the drum sound


Often, the primary difference between a good-sounding drum and a bad-sounding drum lies simply in tuning. The standard approach to tuning involves:

  • Tuning the top head to the tone you want.
  • Making sure the pitch is the same all the way around the head by tapping at each lug and adjusting the lugs until they all match.
  • Duplicating the sound of the top head with the bottom head.

If the head isn’t tuned evenly all the way around, it won’t resonate well and you’ll probably hear more extraneous overtones than smooth tones. Many drummers tune each tom to a specific pitch. In fact, inside the shell some drum manufacturers even stamp the name of the note at which the drum is designed to best resonate.

When tuning drums to a musical note, keep the configuration of the band and the type of music in mind. In a guitar band, the most common keys are E, A, G, D, and maybe C. If the drums are tuned to notes that are common to those chords, such as A, D, E, and so on, the toms will typically have good tone but the fact that the guitars and keys play those notes often will result in strong sympathetic vibrations. Although the vibrations are strong, they will reinforce the tonality of the music and they’ll blend well with the mix. Jazz bands typically play in keys with a lot of flats (Bb, F, Eb, Ab, and so on). In this setting the drums might blend better if tuned to common notes in these keys, such as Bb, F, Eb, Ab, and so on.

It is possible to minimize sympathetic vibrations by tuning the drums to notes that don’t sympathetically vibrate as strongly in the normal genre-specific keys. For example, tuning the drums to F, Bb, Eb, and Ab in a guitar band would minimize the ringing toms. The only problem with this approach is that the pitch of the drums might fight the tonality of the music—the listening audience could feel like something was always a little off, or that the vocals or primary instrument was out of tune.

It does matter how the drums are tuned. Every great drummer will be aware of how the drums are tuned and how they interact with the rest of the musical ensemble. In addition, every great recording engineer must be equally aware of the drums, their sound, their pitch, and how they fit with the rest of the group in the mix.


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