Veteran drummer Mike Fitch offers advice on how to choose the right drum heads and get your drum set in tune in five simple steps.
By Mike Fitch
The DrumDial Drum Tuner helps make the process of getting your drums in tune fast and simple.
Choosing Your Heads
There is a truly incredible selection of drum heads available today for nearly any conceivable drumming need. Before the late 1950s, a drummer's head choice was simple: calfskin was the only option. The advent of plastic and Mylar "skins" resulted in drum heads with a vast diversity of different sounds and looks. Generally speaking, jazz players usually prefer single-ply (one layer) heads for their resonant, singing tone and dry feel. Rock and funk players often prefer thicker, double-ply heads for a wetter, heavier sound. For the head-bangers and heavy hitters out there, nearly indestructible Kevlar heads are a good choice. A few examples of single-ply heads would be Remo Ambassador or Diplomat heads, Attack Thin-skins, or Aquarian Vintage heads. Some double-ply heads include Remo Emperor, Aquarian Response II, and Evans Hydraulic heads. Ham-fisted drummers should check out Aquarian Powerhouse or Remo Falams K Series.
Most players prefer a coated or textured-top snare drum head, which gives a controlled sound that responds equally well to sticks or brushes. The bottom or snare-sid head is always a thinner, transparent head that vibrates against the metal snare wires which are stretched across the bottom. Clear or coated heads work well on toms, and many heads are available with thin sound rings or dots on them that will dampen the excessive ring that many players don't like.
Bass drum heads are a world unto themselves. The rear bass drum head-the one that the footpedal beats on-is a single-ply or twin-ply head that takes a fearsome beating from the beater night in and night out. Most drummers put a patch of moleskin or impact pads from companies such as Slug or Remo on the head where the beater hits the head. This provides a rounder, mellower sound and protects the head from excessive wear. There is a time-honored practice of resting a pillow or blanket inside the bass drum against the rear head to muffle the intense ring that an undampened bass head generates. There is currently a wide variety of bass drum dampening products available, including Remo's bass drum muffling system, Aquarian Studio Rings, or Evans EMAD heads.
Five Easy Steps
Ok, now we'll assume you've selected your drum heads, put them on the tops and bottoms of the drums, and tightened the heads down evenly over the bearing edges with finger tension only. Unlike instruments such as guitars and horns, drums can be tuned to any pitch you desire. Some players like to tune their drums to specific notes, but most prefer to tune the individual drums in relation to each other rather than to other instruments. Generally speaking, the various sized drums sound best tuned in 3rds or 4ths apart. The larger drums are tuned to lower pitches, while the smaller drums are tuned higher.
1. Let's start with the bottom snare drum head. Turn the snares off, take your drum key and tighten a tension rod down (clockwise) until you feel some resistance. Give the drum key another half turn, then go to the tuning rod directly across the drum head and repeat. Moving clockwise around the drum, continue tightening the rods, always turning the rod straight across from the one you just tightened. When you have worked your way around the drum head, repeat this process, turning the rod a full turn only each time. Continue this cycle two or three times until you have a nice, even, musical tone when you tap the head. If it becomes very hard to turn the tuning keys, you're high enough, maybe even too high. Make sure there are no wrinkles in the head and that the rim of the drum head is evenly seated on the head, showing an equal amount of space around the circumference of the head when you look down on it from the top.
2. Turn the drum over and repeat this whole process until the top snare head is tuned fairly close in pitch to the bottom head. At some point during tuning you will likely hear an alarming crack as you turn the drum key: don't worry, you haven't broken anything, it's just the plastic rim of the head losing its slackness. Some players prefer to tune the bottom head slightly higher than the top head, some slightly lower. This is a matter of personal preference, though some drummers make a case that you get better stick rebound from a tighter top head.
3. After you have tuned the snare drum to a fairly high and musical pitch, tap the drum all around the head with your stick about two inches into the head from each lug. The notes you hear should be identical in pitch. Fine-tune the drum by tightening or loosening each rod accordingly.
4. Go around the kit and repeat steps 1, 2, and 3 with each tom and the bass drum. Use the snare tone as the ceiling, tuning all the other drums lower. Every drum seems to have a tuning that allows it to "speak" best. The tone should be even and clear without excessive or oddly pitched overtones. If a drum is tuned too tight it will sound choked; if the tension is too loose, the drum will sound dead or floppy. The center of the drum should be a "sweet spot" that really sings when you hit it.
5. Fine-tune the kit as a unit. The snare drum should have a nice, cutting crack to it when the snares are on, and a high-ringing tone that integrates well with the toms when the snares are released. When you play a roll around your toms, the sequence of notes should sound musical and sweet, moving from singing highs to thunderous lows. The bass drum should sound punchy and round with a satisfying low thump that you feel in your chest.
Now you've tuned up your drum set and you and your kit are ready for a lifetime of jammin'. Get to it!
You'll find a large selection of drum keys and tuning tools at Musician's Friend.