It’s true that different people have different ideas of what constitutes a great sounding drum kit, but in the studio it usually means a kit that’s well-tuned and free of buzzes and sympathetic vibrations. Free of sympathetic vibrations means that when you hit the snare drum, for instance, the toms don’t ring along with it. Or if you hit the rack toms, the snare and the other toms don’t ring along as well. The way to achieve this is all in the tuning and the kit maintenance, but first it’s worth checking some of the other keys to a great sounding kit.
Key 1: Drum Construction
Just like the wood used in a guitar, this matters more than many think. Among the things that make a difference include:
- Shell size. The larger the diameter, the lower the natural pitch, although you can obviously change this a bit by tuning the heads.
- Shell depth is mostly responsible for how loud the drum will be and, to some degree, the articulation of the sound.
- Shell thickness. Thinner shells actually are more resonant since they’re easier to excite because they have a lower mass than a heavier, thicker shell.
- Shell material used to make the drum shell is the most responsible for the tone of the drums.
- Bearing edges means the cut at the edge of a drum shell where the hoops are attached.
- Hoop type and the number of lugs used to seat the drum heads
Key 2: Drum Heads
If there’s one simple action that you can take to improve the tone of the drums, it’s to replace the old heads with fresh new ones. Even normally good-sounding drums will sound wimpy and dead when played with old heads that have dings and dents in them. That said, all heads are not created equal, so it’s best to get experiment to find what really works with your kit.
Key 3: Drum Tuning
Tuning the drum head is critical to getting a great sounding drum kit, but it’s not as simple as you might think. Tuning between the top and bottom heads (if there is a bottom head), and between the other drums must all be taken into consideration.
When is a drum kit really tuned? Drum sound nirvana comes from not only having each drum just sing when it’s hit, but also from not having any sympathic vibrations between the drums. In other words, hit the snare the toms don’t ring. Hit a tom and you don’t hear the other drums ring with it. Easier said than done, but having a kit that’s well-taken care of with fresh heads, and a little experience, will get you there faster.
Here’s a list of tips for the most common problems found with each drum of a typical kit from the ‘The Drum Doctor’ Ross Garfield”.
If the snares buzz when the toms are hit:
- Check that the snares are straight.
- Check to see whether the snares are flat and centered on the drum.
- Loosen the bottom head.
- Retune the offending toms.
- Use an alternate snare drum.
If the snare has too much ring:
- Tune the heads lower.
- Use a heavier head, such as a coated Remo Emperor.
- Use a full or partial muffling ring, or add some tape or Moongel.
If the kick drum isn’t punchy and lacks power in the context of the music:
- Try increasing and decreasing the amount of muffling in the drum, a sandbag, or try a different blanket or pillow.
- Change to a heavier, uncoated head, such as a clear Emperor or Powerstroke 3.
- Change to a thinner front head or one with a larger cutout.
If one or more of the toms are difficult to tune or have an unwanted “growl”:
- Check the top heads for dents and replace as necessary.
- Check the evenness of tension all around on the top and bottom heads.
- Tighten the bottom head.
A great sounding drum kit revolves around these 3 key items. That said, fresh heads and knowing how to tune them goes a long way.
You can read more from The Recording Engineer’s Handbook and my other books on the excerpt section of bobbyowsinski.com.