How to tune drums

written by Jay Kahrs of

Brown Sound Studios

Morris Plains, NJ


Let me start by making a few disclaimers. #1 I'm not a drummer, I learned everything by watching and doing. #2 There is no "right" way to tune drums. There are guidelines you can and should follow, but to each his own. I'm going to approach this novel with the idea that the drummer will let you mangle his/her kit with brand new heads.

Let's start with the kit. You can make almost any kit sound great. The worst one i've ever recorded was a set of DW's. The drummer had a $2500 5 piece kit that wasn't tuned well, plus he put new heads on as soon as he came in, but i'll talk about that later. The next week a drummer came in with a set of Pearl Exports that recorded themselves. Why? Because he knew how to tune them. Having a good set is mandatory. Every major manufactor makes a decent set that's under a grand. You want something along the lines of a Tama Rockstar or a Premeir APK. The Mapex Mars kit's are also really good for the money. I prefer small drums to large drums. Small drums will actually sound deeper and bigger on tape. The main reason for this is that you can tune a small drum lower and keep tension on the head. A big drum tuned low will give you a "thunk" or have a nasty curve to it, almost like a really crazy vibrato. My prefrence is a 16x22 kick, 9x10, 10x12, and 12x14 toms and a 5x14 snare. This is a nice middle of the road kit that can be tuned well for a variety of rock, pop, metal and jazz sessions. A thinner, lighter shell will resonate more then a heavier thicker shell. Also, lighter hardware is better, but you don't want junk on there. The biggest thing that affects sustain is the amount of holes drilled in the shell and the quality of the hardware. The less the better and the cleaner the installation the better. Also, make sure the bearing edges (the edge of the plywood that the head sits on) are smooth.

Ok, let's talk about heads for a little bit. A thinner head like a Diplomat will have a higher fundamental pitch and longer sustain then a thicker head like an Ambassador. A coated head won't have the sustain of a clear head. A clear head will also give you more attack. A pinstripe is two heads put together, so obviously it'll have less sustain, and a lower pitch which makes them popular for live work. 6 out of 10 drummers will put clear Ambassadors on the top and bottom of their toms. The rest of the guys will use pinstripes or something similar.

Ok, now that we've picked our heads, let's put them on. We'll start with the first rack tom. Take the drum off the mount and place it on a flat surface like a tabletop or a floor with shag carpet. Take the old heads off and save them unless their really beat. If you have coated heads, you don't want to see through them. If you have clear heads, change them before they get cloudy. You want to change both the top and bottom heads. Even though you don't hit the bottom head they still wear out. After a few months, they stretch and dry out and you lose tone. The top head will affect the attack and the inital pitch. The bottom head will affect the overall pitch and sustain of the drum. Let's move on to the fun stuff.

Ok, take the bottom head (clear ambassador) and put it on the drum. There are three methods to tightining the lugs. #1 would be to tighten every other lug. #2 is to crank them in a star pattern. #3 is to tighten opposing lugs. Which ever way you choose, you want to keep the tension on the head even and make sure that there aren't any wrinkles. Take the head and crank it way past the point that you want it. This will stretch the head out and seat it against the bearing edge. You want to hear the head snap and crack a little bit. After it's cranked, hit it with your stick once and listen to the pitch. Now, push down on the center of the head and all around the edges. You'll hear it crack again and the pitch will drop. Congrats!!! You're strecthing the head out. Tune it up again and repeat the process 2-3 times. Now flip the drum over and repeat the process for the top head. Now that you have both heads strecthed tighter then a b-cup bra on Pamala Anderson, we'll attempt to tune the drum.

Now we get to the hard part. Flip the drum over to the bottom head. Loosen the lugs so that there's almost no tension on the head. Tune them up usuing one of the above methods. Bring the head up to a nice medium tension and lightly tap next to each lug with your drum key. Go around the drum and listen to the pitches. You want each lug to produce the same pitch. Loosen the lug and the pitch drops, make it tighter and the pitch goes up. Now that they're close, hit the drum and listen to the overall pitch. Is it even or does it bend? You want it to be even, if it bends the tension isn't right and you need to check the lugs again. Bring the drum to the pitch were it sustains naturally and dosen't sound choked. Every shell has a pitch that's it's happiest at. On DW kits they actually stamp each shell with the resonate pitch. Now that the bottom head is tuned, flip the drum over and start on the top head. Prep the top head in the same way as the bottom. If you want to hear the attack and the "smack" of the stick hitting the head, you want the top head loose. Usually the top head should be looser then the bottom. If you want less attack, crank the top head a little more. Now that you like the sound of the top head, pick the drum up off the table or floor and lay it on it's side. Hit the top head. Do you like what you hear? If you do then great!!! Move onward and tune the rest of the toms. If you don't like it, then try to figure out what you don't like before you start to play with things. Don't like the pitch? Go to the bottom head. Too little attack? Go to the top head. Play with it untill you like it.

Let's move onto the kick drum. I like to see a Powerstroke 3 on the beater side, but you can also use a clear Ambassador. I don't like pinstipes here, but you gotta pick what you like. A Powerstroke is really thick and dead so you get a nice low fundamental and very few overtones. I also like the Evens EQ3. The standard front head is a black ambassador with a 6-8" hole. The hole is best slightly off center, you'll get more tone that way. Put the heads on in the same way that you did with the toms. I like to hear a nice smack from the beater, not a heavy mental (g) click, but a smack. So I like the beater head really loose, just tight enough that the wrinkles are out. I like the front head loose too. If it's too tight then you'll get lots of sustain. You can always put a towel in the drum against the front head if you need to cut down on the sustain. Wrap it up and tape it in there to keep it from moving, but make sure it's barely resting on the head, you want to dampen it, not choke it.

Chris from adds:    "I was taught that after you get the drum in tune with itself, have the drummer (the drummer should just play the kick drum, not the rest of the set)and bass player play a song together,  Listen to the bass guitar and the kick drum. If the kick drum is out of tune with the bass you will be able to hear some of the "overtones" that you were talking about in your article. I have had the bass drum so out of tune with the bass on live gigs to the point that everybody in the band thought the bass player was out of tune. Usually the bass player checks the tuning after every song and can never figure out why he is getting all those looks from the rest of the band... it's because the kick drum is causing an overtone on the whole low end of the spectrum, making the bass sound "warbled" or out of tune. It is enough to drive musicians and sound engineers mad! I've heard that at a lot of rock shows.    Anyway, with a lot of practice, you will be able to pick this up and tell the drummer "tighten all the tuners a quarter turn", or "loosen up the head a tiny bit.." depending on how far off the kick drum and bass are."

Snare... Oh boy, here's a can of worms. Everyone like's a diffrent snare sound. I like to hear a nice crack. How do you get it? Let's start by putting the heads on with our favorite method. Use a snare side bottom head. This is the one time that you want a really thin head. The standard top head is a coated ambassador. Remove the snare from the bottom of the drum. Tune the bottom head to a medium pitch and make sure it's even the whole way around. Now we'll go to the top head. If you want a nice crack, crank it up!!! The tighter the head is, the more crack your going to get. The rule of thumb here is to keep the top and bottom heads close to each other pitch wise. The snare should be tight, but not choked. If the snare has any broken strands or it's twisted or pulled, just replace it.

Congratulations!!! You've just tuned a drum kit. I can go into a lttle more detail if anyody want's me to, but this should be a good starting point. Remember, practice makes perfect, especially with tuning drums. The more you do it, the better you'll get.


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