Evenly tune a drum head by following the numbers

With any recording project, there are certain things to think about before you get started. When it comes to recording an electric bass for example, you might want to consider whether you will be recording through DI or mic to amp as well as any preamps or effects. If the task is getting down some outstanding vocals, you’re going to have to decide on what microphone is going to suit your singer best, not to mention making sure that your vocalists knows all of the proper techniques for recording voice. Now, when it comes to drums, there is a whole slew of options one should consider before they even move on to the task mic placement or finding the right levels – let alone actually recording the thing.

Today, that’s exactly what we will be discussing – things to think about doing before recording a drum kit – and there’s actually a lot more that goes into it than most actually realize. Did you know you have to tune your kit? What about how many mics should be used on a standard drum kit? Is there even such a thing as a standard drum kit? Anyways, by making sure you take care of a few important details with you kit before you even hit record, you can give yourself the best shot at a truly outstanding drum mix! So, let’s get to it.


A Standard Drum Kit

When it comes to recording a drum kit, every kit is its own case. As far as a standard kit goes, there really isn’t any sort of set standard per se, but an average drum kit should consist of at least one kick drum, one snare drum, one rack tom, one floor tom, a hi-hat, a ride cymbal and a crash cymbal. Larger kits might have something like three times as many drums and cymbals along with anything from cow bells, wood blocks, tambourines, gongs, etc. And if you want to get into that Neil Peart territory, the sky’s the limit! Anyways, for this article, we will be focusing on an average kit, although by the end of this series you should be able to apply the same techniques with larger kits as well.


Looking at the Big Picture

When it comes to recording anything really, it’s a good idea to know what you’re aiming for. Take a moment to imagine how you want your particular song to sound – the entire song – instead of simply recording every instrument and seeing how it sounds together later on. It might sound a bit tough for some of the newer home studio producers out there, but it’s not so hard once you start seeing your project in a different light. Think about everything that goes into the process of recording a song even before you actually record anything; things such as the key of the song, the tempo, structure and arrangement. Think of it kind of like backwards engineering; imagine how you want the final product to sound and work towards attaining it.

Unfortunately when it comes to drums, most of us probably don’t have the luxury of having multiple drummers with multiple drum kits that can yield multiple styles of play – meaning that you have to work with what you have. But even with that said, one drummer with one kit can still create more variety than you might think, especially once you consider how much certain things like your choice in mics, mic placement and mixing will affect the overall sound of the kit, not to mention post production techniques such as EQ. Anyways, before we can go on a talk about some of these techniques that can alter the tone of the kit towards something of your liking, we have to make sure the kit is in its best possible shape, which brings us to…


Tuning Your Drum Kit

No matter how many lugs on your drum, always tune evenly

When it comes to tuning drums, different musicians might attack it from different angles and it is certainly true that many different methods to tuning drums exist. Some of you out there might be thinking if tuning a drum head might be just like tuning a guitar. Well, kind of, sort of… but not exactly. First of all, if you or your drummer were thinking of buying new drum heads for the old kit soon, now’s probably the best time to do it. Why? Much like strings on a guitar, a fresh set of drum heads simply sound better than the used up ones, but more importantly, a new set stands a better chance at being perfectly tunable.

You might have heard of some drummers tuning their toms to a particular set of pitches. There are even some manufacturers that actually print the note name on their drum shells that correspond with the center pitch of that drum. If a certain song that’s being recorded happens to heavily feature the drum toms – especially certain techniques such as a tom ride or ostinato (repeating the same sound/pitch over and over using the same musical voice, in this case toms) – tuning your toms to a particular pitch might be just what the song needed by making the them a part of the harmonic coloration and not just the rhythmic back beat. But other than this particular type of case, tuning your drums to a certain set of specific notes – just as one would do with a guitar – isn’t the best way to make your kit sound its best (which is the main point of tuning your drums).

Unlike most other instruments, finding a that perfect pitch for a drum requires you to take into consideration the conditions under which it will be played – specifically things like the acoustic conditioning of the room, the spot where the drums will be played, how loud the drums will be played as well as the striking method (i.e.: sticks, brushes, etc.) as well as any other variables.


Tuning the Toms

It is usually a good idea to start the tuning process for your toms from scratch, that is to say, with both the top and bottom heads removed. It will be much easier to hear the little differences we will be looking for if you start this way. Alright, so we need to start with the bottom head. You’re going to want to slowly and methodically bring up the pitch of the head by evenly tightening each lug using small quarter inch turns. By taking a look at either of the images above – specifically noting the numberings – you can see exaclty what sort of pattern you should be going for. It is very important that you do this as evenly as possible. Take your drum stick and tap near each of lug and listen carefully to its pitch. Match the pitch from lug to lug as you make your way around the drum. Similar to how a new set of guitar strings must be stretched out before they can retain a good tune, brand new drum heads must be stretched out as well. You can properly stretch out your drum head while searching for that perfect pitch as well.

How do you know when you hit that perfect spot? It will probably sound pretty obvious but in case you need some guidelines, if the drum is tuned too loosely it will sound very floppy while an over-tuned drum will sound very chocked. When you do find that sweet spot, slowly keep going beyond this point, just don’t go overboard. About two full turns for each lug beyond the desired pitch is good. After you do this, you can lower it back to its perfect pitch. By doing this, you should have stretched the head enough so that it won’t go flat once you start playing. Alright, now that you have your bottom drum head tuned, you can follow the same exact steps for the top one. If you tend to like the pitch-bending tom sound where the pitch of the drum descends as the sound decays, tune the bottom head tighter than the top head. If you’re looking for something a bit more traditional with a full-bodied even tone, tune both heads evenly.

And here’s something to think about; while you’re tuning your drums, you might find that you just can’t seem to get them to sound right. It might be that you have old drum heads or even something such as working in a location that is causing one or more of your toms to resonate in an unpleasant way. Anyways, there are a lot of different products out there that can help you battle just that called drum mufflers, so keep that in mind if you think you might have this problem.  


Unfortunately, that’s all the time that we have left today but come back tomorrow when we will continue with more tips on getting your drum kit primed and ready for recording.  We will of course be starting off tomorrow with tuning the snare and kick drum as well as tips on drum positioning, microphones, miking techniques and plenty more. See ya then!  

[UPDATE: Check out Part II right here!]