My Drum Tuning Method
When I was about 20 years old I was in my first serious band and my bandmates and I were having serious conversations about gear and how to get the best sounds, how we were going to get signed, all that normal “serious” band talk. Well, none of that ended up happening for us - the band split up after we released our first album and we’ve all gone separate ways. However, one thing stuck from that year and a half - I learned a way I loved to tune drums.
I remember having conversations with our drummer about drums - about different tone woods, the differences between heads, cymbal weights, everything. In our online research, we stumbled on the Holy Grail of drum knowledge aptly named “The Drum Tuning Bible.” I can’t tell you how many times we’d read that together and talk about how much our minds just got blown. Anyway, what we learned from that website changed everything for us and from those times researching and tuning together, and from watching a DVD called “Trust Your Ears” by Jeff Ochletree, I developed a way I love to tune drums and I’d like to share that with you now.
I’m going to assume that everyone reading this is a drummer.
So, doesn’t it suck when you play drums that feel great and sound like trash or play drums that feel horrible but sound killer? I believe there’s a way to get both a killer sound and a great feel on any type of drum - here’s how I get it.
It’s probably worth mentioning that a great drum sound comes from having some good drums, good player, and good heads. I’ll write about drum heads in the future, but here’s how I’d tune whatever you have.
Step 1 - Tune the batter head for feel
I like to start with finger-tight tension rods. Then, I tighten each lug equally, checking frequently to ensure each lug has the same pitch when it’s played. I tighten the batter head for feel, so play the drum. If it’s a snare, I like it to be tight enough to make ghost notes and roughs easy but not table-top tight. On toms I like the head to give a bit when I strike the drum. That’s the beauty of this system - you can make the drum feel however you prefer it to feel.
Once I have the batter head feeling right, it’s on to the next step. Just remember, the drum might not sound great at this point - it may have some ring, might not be the right pitch - that’s ok.
Step 2 - Tune the resonant head for pitch
I found that I have an incredible amount of control over the pitch and tone of the drum by tuning the resonant head, so that’s the second step. Think about the drum type, what style of music you’re playing, what you like from that particular drum, then start to tune it.
It’s important to note that tiny turns in the lugs on the resonant head will make a large difference in the pitch of the drum, so take it slow. Also, just like with the batter head, we’ll make sure to get all the lugs in tune with each other. Each drum also has a sweet spot for tuning, and it’ll be apparent when you’ve reached it - the drum’s going to resonate a lot, maybe too much, but that’s ok too - we’ll address that next.
Step 3 - Treating the drum
I know this may go against a lot of people’s preferences, but that’s alright with me - this is how I like to tune drums and the way I can get the most from the drums in both a live setting and recording session.
There are many ways we can treat the ring that’s happening on the drum right about now since we’re in that sweet spot of resonance on the drum. If the pitch is right, and the feel of the batter head is right, all we have to do is address the ring.
There are a lot of great products out there to address this, and I keep a couple of them on hand all the time. The first is a roll of gaff tape. By taking a couple thin strips of gaff tape and folding them slightly in the middle (see my video for an example), we can focus the drum more and reign in some of that ring. The second thing I have on hand at all times is a package of Moon Gels. I’m sure there are other products like this, but this is what I use. I find that the gels can reign in that ring a lot more than the tape, but remember to use your ears. If the drum gets too dead sounding for you, find another solution - try cutting the gel in half, or laying it partially on the rim of the drum to get less contact with the head. Think outside the box.
If I’m wanting a really dry, fat sound, especially on a snare drum, I love to fold up a small piece of paper and tape it directly onto the head close to the 6 o’clock lug. I find this takes a lot of that excess ring and kills it. That’s a borrowed trick from a lot of the great record producers who would use tea towels on kits and/or just dropping a sheet of paper on the snare drum. I just find that the paper lasts a lot longer when it’s not getting hit with each snare hit.
Step 4 - Enjoy playing your drums
Hopefully, after giving this a shot, your drums feel great and sound great too, so go enjoy playing them!
If this method works for you, I’d love to hear about it. Also let me know if you have questions and I can try to walk you through a solution. We’ve also shot a few videos on tuning your drums that you can see the whole process. Enjoy, and feel free to share this with your friends if this works for you!
The Drum Tuning Bible
Jeff Ocheltree "Trust Your Ears" DVD