Drum Tuning Techniques Every Engineer Should Know

drum tuning techniquesThere’s no doubt that getting a drum sound is the number one priority for any recording that has a drummer. Sometimes you luck out and the drums sound great by just putting the mics in front of them, but other times they require more care in order to make them sound the way you want.

The first best thing that can be done is to change all the heads, but the drum still has to be tuned, and many times the drummer isn’t that much better than the engineer when it comes to making those babies sing.

Here’s an excerpt from my Recording Engineer’s Handbook 4th edition that describes the best method for tuning the drums.

“Unless you’re already a drummer, you probably aren’t aware of the proper way to tune a drum. The process is actually quite simple, but does take some time and experimentation. The idea is to make sure that all of the tension rods that hold the head on have the same tension at each lug. What you want is for the pitch to sound the same at each lug as you tap near it. Here’s how it’s done:

  1. Hit the head an inch in front of each lug of the drum. Is the sound the same at each lug? 
  2. Using a drum key, adjust the tension so that the sound is the same at each lug. Is the sound the same at each lug now?
  3. When the pitch (the tension) is the same at each lug, then when hit the drum in the center. It should have a nice even decay.  
  4. Using the same technique, tune the the bottom head to the same pitch as the top head. What does the drum sound like now when you hit it in the center? Is the tone even? Is the decay even? Are there any overtones?

TIP: For faster and more even tuning, adjust the lugs in a criss-cross pattern as shown on the left.

Tuning Between the Top and Bottom Head

 There are three ways to tune drums that use a top and bottom head: 

  • The top and bottom heads are tuned to the same pitch. This provides the purest tone and longest sustain.
  • The bottom head is tuned lower than the top. This provides a deep sound with a lot of sustain as well as a pitch drop or “growl.” 
  • The bottom is tuned higher (tighter) than the top. This also produces a pitch drop  sound, although it’s a bit shallower and has a shorter sustain. 

When the drum is first tuned, both heads are tuned to the same pitch. After the correct pitch for the top head is selected, tune the bottom head anywhere from a third to a fifth away from the top head if that’s the sound you’re looking for.”

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