Part 10: Suggested Tuning Sequences

You have to know the center of your universe for playing and/or which drum is most important in the way of sound.

1. Lowest, fattest sound: Start with your biggest, meanest floor tom and do a fat tuning as described above under “Results – What They Mean”. No point in starting with the smallest drum because when you get to the low end of the range on the larger drums, the incremental tuning ability of the drums involved may make tuning the large drums impossible for the required interval. In other words, the floor tom won’t go that low and you’ll end up with a mismatched interval, so start low and work up in pitch to the small drum(s).

2. Punchy, top 40, rock, etc., your rack toms are what usually drives the sound. If you play 2 or 3 rack toms, pick the 2nd or 1st tom and get it where you want it, these are the center of your work. From here everything else will fall into place. Keep it melodic, play pairs of drums.

If you move in 5 note intervals you’ll find all drums sound bigger, fuller, sympathetic tones are complementary. Move in 3 note increments, they’ll sound a little thinner and drier; you might want this especially for a close mic situation. Tip: Don’t make the kick drum too low in pitch, keep it in the same 5-note relationship to the lowest floor tom.

3. Funk, the kick drives the groove: Start with the kick, snare and move on down from the snare sound again doing some grooves and a few top fills.

Interval and Drum Sizing

Here’s my thought’s on this subject, there are no rules other than the first 2.

1. Diameter means more for pitch change than does shell depth.

2. Shell depth equates to resonance and volume, it gives the drum its character. A 12″ x 10″ (as in Diameter x Depth) gives you a shell surface area of 370 sq. in. as opposed to the 12″ x 9″ which has 333 sq. in. So depending upon how you look at it, the 10″ depth has 11% increase in the ability to produce resonance (hence “power”), or the 9″ has 10% less.

The tone of the 10″ depth is ever so slightly deeper, but it’s the volume that’s the drum can create is the real difference. Regardless of diameter, a one-inch change in shell length, for a drum of identical diameter, generally translates into the same increase of 11% or decrease of 10%. So a 12″ x 8″ will be 20% less in surface area than a 12″ x 10″. Simply put, the depth of the “punch” will be more evident on the 12″ x 10″ than that of a 12″ x 8″ drum.

3. I find if you have a 12″ drum, its wise not to pair it with a 13″ unless you have a 14″ and really desire something in-between for pitch. Likewise, a 11″ drum is better paired with a 13″ with a 12″ as the in-between size. The common belief is that even sized drums produce better tuning qualities. I don’t know why this belief is out there, I find they can all be tuned if tuned as the shell/diameter allows. If you try to make a 13″ sound like a 14″ while pairing it with a 12″, you’re setting yourself up for trouble unless you want a small incremental note difference.

4. It’s more melodic to skip 1 or 2 sizes in diameter in between drums (see the section “Musical Notes for Tuning, Suggested”). For example the use of a 13″ or 14″ with a 16″ will likely be more satisfying than will be the use of a 15″ with a 16″. That is unless you have 14″ and want something in-between again.

5. Use a “Power Tom” as rack/mounted toms if the mounted toms are central to the sound you’re creating (i.e. Top 40), if you’re a “light” hitter or like big floor toms.

6. Use Fundamentally Accurate Sized Toms (“FAST”) if playing small venues, when size is a concern or when you just want less “power”.

7. Small drums tune “low” fairly well, large diameter drums don’t always tune “high” well.

8. I find any combination of drums in the following sizes tune well and allow room to add: (Expressed in Diameter x Depth) 8×8, 10×9, 12×10, 14×12, 16×14, 18×16, 20×16, 20×18, 22×16, 22×18, 24×18.

Musical Notes for Tuning, Suggested

I’m going to make an attempt to describe this in very elementary terms to make it easy. If you do not know what middle “C” is on a piano, take any keyboard (61 note, 76 note or 88 note) and walk up to it (or you can always take the short cut and ask the keyboard player). Right in the middle there are always 2 black keys surrounded by 3 black keys on either side of the 2 black keys. Pick the left black key of the black 2 key pair.

Slide your finger just to the left on to the white key sitting just to the left of the left black key. That’s it, middle “C”! Here’s why we found that key. Whether you know it or not, your typical 10″ or 12″ drum is usually tuned within 3 to 4 notes either side of that middle “C”. Your job is to find the note of your prized drum and tune the others around it in 3 or 5 note sequences. Why? Because if you go to the trouble of finding that note, you’ll also see that from a musical standpoint, playing 2 notes together directly next to each other on a keyboard sounds pretty bad, for the most part.

But play any combination of notes by counting 3 or 5 notes apart and it becomes very melodic. Hence your drums will sound better and can also sound bigger due to complementary vibration from drums, which are sympathetic to the one being struck. This is not an absolute rule. But in general, you should try playing your drums in combinations of 2 and try to make them melodic so they produce kind of a 2 or 3 finger cord when struck. Make notes of these types of things when tuning for different venues.

I need to stress that the idea here is not to try and match cords used for songs so much as keeping the whole of the drum set from clashing. Although, if you have the time when recording, try tuning for the song and you may find that the result is far superior. Somewhere along the way, you’ll find a sequence that fits your style and model of drum.

For example, I know my drums will sound best tuned as follows:

10″x 9″ tom: D sharp

12″ x 10″ tom: A sharp

14″ x 12″ floor: F

16″ x 14″ floor: C

22″ x 16″ kick: Batter F (octave lower than floor); Resonant E

Main snare 14″ x 6″ YAMAHA Anton Fig: G above the 10″ x 9″ D#, both heads the same

How I know this is by working through all the same steps I’ve outlined in this “Bible”.

How to Tune – Once You Know the Basics

The procedures learned in the various sections should teach you what to expect in the tuning process. Knowing this on your particular drum, the condition of the bearing edges, etc., is a very key component to now re-tuning a drum or tweaking it night-after-night, day-to-day.

Most drums drift down in pitch. Moving them from cold to hot or visa versa causes expansion and contraction, stiffness or more flexibility on the playing surface. Common sense should come into play here. The environment matters. So if the drum is cold, don’t expect great things and try to refrain from attempting to tune until the temperature of the hardware adjusts and the heads, hoops, etc., match the temperature of your environment.

Because drums drift down in pitch, the need is to bring them back up in pitch, uniformly. For some unknown reason, most drummers assume the drift down only occurred on the upper or batter head, not so! So here’s a method to re-gain control of the drum and bring it back to pitch once the heads are on. Note it does not matter if the drum is on the stands or not, but it cannot be laying on the floor or a carpeted surface.

Method 1 – Drum On Stand, Not On Floor

1. Tap at each lug of each head and only raise pitch on the lowest pitched lugs until the head is in tune with itself. For the set I own, it’s easy to completely rotate the tom to gain access to the resonant head, and you cannot ignore this head for long. Over time, the head will just keep drifting until the tuning becomes very difficult and the batter head has become disproportionately tuned to the resonant side. So whatever you do, do not ignore the resonant head.

2. Strike the drum and see if the pitch is now correct, if so just stop. If not, proceed.

3. Tweak each head, at each lug a very small amount, maybe 1/16th to 1/8th of a turn on each lug. Strike the drum and see if the pitch is now correct, if so just stop. If not, proceed.

4. On the resonant head, take one lug and while striking the batter head, slowly turn that one lug no more then one complete turn. If while doing this the drum comes to pitch, you now know it’s the resonant head and should back the lug down to its original pitch and tweak all lugs up in pitch small amounts until you get the pitch you want. If it does not make any difference, return the lug to original pitch and repeat this procedure on the batter head.

5. If this method does not work on a given drum(s), proceed to Method 2. If you simply want to raise pitch, see below.

Method 2 – Drum Off Stand, Sitting on Carpeted Surface.

1. With the drum on the carpet, batter side down, tap at each lug of each head and lower the pitch on the highest pitched lugs until the head is in tune with itself. Remember to go down past the pitch and then back up to it.

2. If the drum does not have the clear high pitched tone as learned in the procedures, raise pitch until it you achieve the clear note. Repeat on the batter head.

3. Strike the drum and see if a clear pitch has been obtained. If so, just walk the drum up through the zones. If not, proceed.

4. On the resonant head, take one lug and while striking the batter head, slowly turn that one lug no more then one complete turn. If while doing this the drum comes to pitch, you now know it’s the resonant head and should back the lug down to its original pitch and tweak all lugs up in pitch small amounts until you get the pitch you want. If it does not make any difference, return the lug to original pitch and repeat this procedure on the batter head.

5. If this has failed, then something has happened to the seat of the head, temperature has become a factor, the environment has drastically changed or simply gone out of whack and you should either try running a hair dryer around to warm it up and begin again, or re-seat the heads and retune.

To Simply Raise or Lower Pitch: To simply raise or lower the pitch on an otherwise good sounding drum, I find it far more effective to tweak the lower head up/down rather than the batter head up/down. One major benefit from doing it this way is that it helps retain the same feel on the batter surface. If you use common sense and work with small turn/tweaks of the lugs, you’ll immediately know when you’ve gone outside the zone and can respond by adjusting the opposite side.