Part 2: Fundamentals of Tuning

1. The batter head controls attack and ring while the resonant head produces “resonance” and aids in sustain, it has a major effect in the overtones and enhances the timbre of the drum. While the drummer focuses on the sound coming from the batter side, an audience hears something completely different and many times, something inferior to what the drummer hears. If using microphones, this problem is lessened to some extent because the microphone is usually placed on the top. But without mic’s, the audience hears a reflection of what the resonant head produces, more so if you are sitting above the audience, such as on stage.

2. When the drum is hit, the ear hears mostly the attack and the fundamental pitch of the drum, overtones are washed out at a distance. Overtones are also an essential component to making the drum sound carry through other instruments and to the audience. The drummer should focus on the sound they create, as the audience would hear it rather than how they hear it in an otherwise quiet and stale environment. High-pitched overtones are essential to making a dull drum come to life in the audience.

3. A drum placed upon a soft surface, such as carpet, and tapped very lightly allows you to hear the point of clarity in a drum and isolate the overtones and point of resonance.

4. The most inherent sound created from any given head will be heard by placing a head of identical specifications on the resonance side. This is due to the ability for polymers of equal thickness (specification) to vibrate reasonably equal to each other, thus eliminating phase cancellations, which can cause a tight head to sound dead or lifeless.

5. As you tune the drum with one side either higher or lower, you go through “zones” producing one of either clear pitch, phase cancellation, no sound or a Doppler effect. “Doppler” is where the drum when hit, descends in pitch from the point of initial attack to a lower pitch. This also becomes more pronounced when the head is of a different specification (weight/thickness) and the batter head is higher/lower in pitch than the bottom head.

6. If the drum is tuned wrong or “seated” incorrectly the first time a head is mounted, you will likely ruin the head beyond its use or it will never sound its best. Seating wrong does not always mean uneven tuning, such as one side tighter than the other. It can also mean the utilization of bent or distorted hoops and/or poor bearing edges. Even though the drum has been equally tensioned (such as that of using tension devises, which measure lug torque or head tension), inferior hardware and shells problems cause unequal stretch of the head polymer and/or force the head out of round.

7. Generally, you do not use anything other than single ply on the resonant side, but there are exceptions.

8. Coated heads are considered “warm” or “mellow” sounding meaning generally void of the real bright overtone associated with the “clear” version of equal brand and specification. Clear heads are considered “bright” or “clear” sounding meaning they bring out as much of the high-pitched tones of the stick attack and resonance of the drum.

In between these two coated and clear heads in tone quality is the “ebony” series of heads and is often described as being a “thicker” or “darker” sound than that of a clear head of equal specification. Ebony colored heads, while usually chosen due to aesthetics, has the virtue of being both warm in the overtone area, yet bright in the stick attack. Coated is probably required if doing brushwork.

9. Even if you know how to tune, you may not be able to achieve the pitch and/or resonance desired due to drum sizing and shell weight. Any given shell has a fundamental pitch and timbre associated with it and you cannot change that without major alterations. Head selection can only make the most of the natural character in the drum. Your job when tuning, is to find that “fundamental” shell pitch and enhance or detract all the inherent sounds of that particular drum, it’s character.

10. Timbre and note/pitch are not the same. Timbre refers to the overall character of the drum vs. the fundamental note, which is the point at which the drum is likely to be most “open” or “resonant” in tone quality. Know that pitch can be raised or lowered in reference to say a note on the piano, but the shell resonance doesn’t really change. So a 12″ drum of a given material and depth may produce a note of G up to say a D-sharp (“pitch”), but it may really stand out around an A-flat (“fundamental” note of shell). The fact that one drum is “brighter” vs. “warm” is the Timbre.

11. Most Important step in tuning is seating the head. When the head is first mounted, the objective is to get the head to seat itself in the hoop and form that all-important bond between the bearing edge of the drum and the head itself; this is called seating the head (explained in great detail below). If the head is pulled tighter on side or is forced out of round, it is no longer centered and will not vibrate correctly, meaning evenly in tune at all points around the shell (“in-tune with itself”).

12. Bearing edges are hidden from view, little understood by most drummers and are, without a doubt, the single most important aspect of the ability (or lack thereof) for the drum to produce a clear, resonant tone. Even cheaper drums can produce acceptable tone, provided the bearing edge is true, flat and properly formed. The most expensive, high-tech set available will produce poor tone is a bearing edge has been damaged or poorly tooled.