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How to Tune Drums
For a ready reference in tuning your drums, follow these simple methods and recommendations for calming sound control.
The pitch of a drum's shell, created by its thickness, size, and makeup, can be heard by tapping its side with a fingernail, top and bottom heads lightly tensioned or removed. This is the fundamental point of resonance, as well as being a point of reference for tuning. Sound quality and tone also come from the drum's heads. There are now so many varieties and formulations of these that their descriptions and applications could easily fill pages.
Briefly, a combination of single-ply, medium weight coated heads on the top or batter side and clear, single-ply, medium heads on the bottom or resonant side provides a reasonably focused attack, natural sustain, and warm tone that works well in acoustic settings. Adding another layer or ply increases the low end of the spectrum and adds depth to toms and bass drums,
complimenting amplified situations. Coating and thickness both affect sustain, generally decreasing the amount of it in proportion to the added mass of the head. Sustain can be enhanced by using thin to medium clear heads on the resonant side of drums. A black dot (an extra layer of hard plastic in the center of the head) emphasizes attack.
After making a selection, place the head on the drum, making sure it is evenly seated and centered. Place the rim over the head, lining up the holes for the lugs on the rim with the lug receptacles on the drum, centering the head with both shell and rim. Screw in each lug with fingers or key until each is just making snug contact with the rim in the same manner. Turn each lug an equal amount (a full revolution or so) from opposing positions-visualize a clock: 12-6, 9-3, 10-4, 8-2, etc. Note: turning a lug too many revolutions at a time can pull the head away from its collar on the opposite side. Tap the head occasionally to check its pitch until reaching a ballpark area, place one finger in the center of the head with a slight amount of pressure and tap near each lug to check the pitch relationships. Ideally, they should all be about the same. The goal is to have an even amount of tension around the drum. Fine-tuning from lug to lug should bring about the desired tone. A new head can be stiff at first and pressing down on the center of it (once tensioned, of course) will allow it to expand further, while also slightly lowering the pitch. Bring it back up by evenly re-tensioning slightly. Let the head break in a bit before tightening more to avoid stretching.
The resonant head's pitch is dominant, working with the pitch of the shell to create the drum's tonal area. The batter head can be viewed as the fine-tuning element of the drum's pitch in relation to the resonant head. Tuning the batter head lower produces a quick response from the resonant head, reflecting its tonality, as the sound seems to bounce back. Tuning the batter higher than the resonant produces an after tone, or even two distinct tones, as the sound seems to pass through both heads. The relationship of both drumheads, combined with the pitch of the shell and choice of rims, (yet another subject) work together to produce the sound of the drum.
Experimenting with different kinds of heads and tuning is part of developing your unique concept of sound and your own voice, as well as fine-tuning your ears. A well-tuned set can further inspire your desire to play, enhance your ideas, and transform your drums into a fine instrument that is indispensable to the music being made.