Part 6: Tuning And Seating the Heads

This tuning procedure works on all drums, toms, snare and kick. Below, after this Tuning and Seating the Heads section, are specifics related to each drum. That is, a section for toms, kick and snare that gives specifics about the tuning tricks and head selection.

To get to know how this procedure works, I recommend you typically start with a 12″ drum. Do not get learning how to tune confused with the tuning of the set. When tuning a whole set, you may want to begin differently and that is covered below under “Tuning Sequences, Suggested”, but first you need to understand how to get the most out of your drum. That is the focus.

Learning How, Resonant Side Tuning

Assuming you have inspected your bearing edges as described under of all things the section entitled “Bearing Edges”, you can begin as follows:

1. Pick the heads you wish to use from the section related to Toms, Kick or Snare Drum.

2. Read that section completely, then return to this section and apply any specifics you wish from the respective Tom, Kick or Snare Drum section.

3. Remove both old heads completely, it’s important for this procedure to work. Once you know the relative tuning capability of the drum, you will not always have to remove both reads. Remember, the objective is to find the true capability and tuning range of each drum.

4. With heads off, thump on the shell with your hand or butt end of a stick and trace down any abnormal vibrations. If the lugs buzz, you can remove them and see if stuffing cotton (backed by some felt if the spring or lug threads are exposed) into the lug retainer will help stop the buzz. You can also look at putting some thin sheet rubber or felt and placing it between the lug casing and the shell.

5. Set the drum on a carpeted surface, batter side down and either put the bottom head on or proceed as follows.

6. It’s important to tighten all rods just to the point where contact is made with the washer or rim. If your lugs move freely, you can use your fingers here or in the case where the lug is manufactured where there is resistance in the turning of the lug beyond a few turns, you’ll have to use a key. In any event, once contact is made with the washer/rim, back-off 1/4 turns.

7. Next, take two keys 180 degrees apart and tighten in half turn increments together until you’ve put 3 complete turns on all rods of the drum. We are now “Seating” the head, the musical note is not important.

8. Lift the drum up a few inches and hit the head once and see if it is a distortion free sound. If not give each lug another 1/2 turn and repeat until the drum is distortion free. Do not be afraid to really tighten the head above a normal playing pitch, it is essential that the head produce a clear undistorted tone before proceeding.

9. Next, with the drum back down on the carpet, tap with the drum key, lightly, about 1 to 1-1/2″ from the edge, in the same place at each lug. LISTEN to the resonance of the tap and even out the lugs so the head will be “in tune with itself”, the order is not very important here. DO NOT EVER TUNE DOWN TO A NOTE, TUNE UP. By this I mean, if a lug is too high detune below what you are trying to achieve and then bring it back up to pitch.

10. If your heads are not made by REMO, go to the next step. If you are using glued heads such as the REMO heads, remember the current pitch the head is currently at. Now push down with light force directly in the center of the head to crack the glue joint. You aren’t trying to push the head through the drum, so ease up. We’re talking about maybe a ¼” depression here. Then tune back up to that pitch you so willingly remembered and even out the head so it’s in tune with itself again.

11. Next, either let the drum sit 12 hours or take a hair dryer and warm (not real hot) the perimeter of the skin. Go around 2 to 3 revolutions with the dryer on high with the dryer about 2-3″ off the surface. It should take maybe 8 seconds to go around a 12″ drum one time with an average hair dryer. This sets the skin/hoop/collar and finishes the “seating” process. Note this makes a difference, especially on 2-ply or thicker heads, try one with and one without and I think you will agree.

12. Once set and cool, with the drum still on the floor, loosen as you tightened with 2 keys in ¼ turn increments just to the point of no resonance.

13. Place the drum up in/on its stand or hold by the rim. Begin tightening evenly and successively on each lug in 1/4 turn increments. Go around once, even out by tapping and then strike once in the center. Don’t be afraid to use 1/8 or 1/16 turns either. We’re looking for the point where you tune just until you get a low and clear tone. STOP AT THIS POINT. For the head you selected, this is the lowest pitch this drum will ever go. If you haven’t got a clear tone, go back to step 5 and tighten it up higher and reseat the head. If you’ve gone around several times and the head is moving up in pitch but the tone is distorted, something is wrong. Either it’s a bad head, bearing edges or the head didn’t seat. I’d leave the head under tension for 24 hours and try again. I have found that the problem goes away many times overnight, I don’t know why. If you can’t wait, try another head or try taking the pitch way up and use the heat again before you tune it back down. In any event, if you achieved to lowest clear note, STOP! I suggest you not tune any higher than this lowest note at this time.

Batter Side Tuning

Assuming you have inspected your bearing edges as described under of all things the section entitled “Bearing Edges”, you can begin as follows:

1. Pick the heads you wish to use from the section for the Toms, Kick or Snare Drum.

2. Read that section completely, then return to this section and apply any specifics you wish from the respective Tom, Kick or Snare Drum section. Remove the drum from its stand and set it (now the resonant head) down against a carpet to void the drum of the newly installed resonant head from what else, resonating.

3. Seat the Head: Install the top head in the same fashion as you did the resonant head and seat the head. Remember to push on glued heads.

4. Detuning procedure: Loosen as you tightened with 2 keys just to the point of no resonance.

5. Set the drum on a carpeted surface, batter side down and either put the bottom head on or proceed as follows.

6. Hold the drum by the rim and hit it, ideally, it should sound the same once back on the holder. If it doesn’t, try extending the position of the tom out a little more on the holder. If this doesn’t help, you might be a good candidate for something like the aftermarket R.I.M.M.’s mounting system if it sounded better by holding in your hand.

Time to Zone

It’s time to proceed up through the tuning zones to get the most out of the drum. Focusing on the batter or top head, proceed and tune, never go in larger increments than 1/4 turn on the way up, 1/8 turn per lug preferred. Always stop and hit between a full round of lug tightening and make sure the heads in tune with itself. You will go through phases where the drum sounds good then sounds bad for a couple of turns and then suddenly the sound opens up again.

You can usually do this for 2 zones and then the top head will go dead and have a high overtone/ring. While pitch may continue to change, the drum continues to have no real life to it. At this point you’ve gone too far with the top head, back off 1/4 to 1/2 turn (again make sure you tune up to the pitch not down).

1. If you want a pitch higher than this “high” pitch you achieved, go to the bottom head and tighten each lug 1/8 to 1/4 turn each lug. After this you can increase the pitch of the top head again for another 1-2 steps. When tuning in this manner, you’ll experience the “Doppler” effect at certain phases in the tuning meaning the drum when struck will have a descending pitch. This tells the drummer/tuner that the effective pitch for that drum has yet to be achieved, but some like this sound and stop here. As you move up out of that phase of the zone, you’ll reach a point where the drum evens out, the Doppler is gone and the drum becomes open and even in sound. This is the point where both heads are or are close to being identical in pitch.

2. Beyond this point, the drum will go dead again and you have to repeat with the 1/16, 1/8 or 1/4 turns on the bottom or resonant head to effectively raise the pitch of the drum and move up again to another zone and repeat the procedure.

Results – What They Mean

1. Somewhere in the tuning there is a point where each drum will sound most resonant – when everything is related. At this point, that’s the fundamental frequency of the shell, the sweet spot. Each drum will have one of these. If two different sized drums are close in this fundamental pitch, you’ll likely better understand the importance of the increment sizing from one drum to another. You’ll likely have to compromise and change the tuning of both drums +/- in pitch as a result to make them the same in character.

2. Learn to tune to intentionally make the most resonant drum less resonant thereby eliminating muffling devices such as “moon gel”. That is, detune or raise pitch slightly on both heads. For example you might lower the batter and raise the resonant (or visa versus) by equal amounts causing a phase shift and the drum may go either deader or more open depending upon where you are in the zone. People often refer to this procedure as “loosen one lug”. Although I find it is better to move all the lugs by a certain amount. This way you don’t run the risk of destroying the head.

2. Taking the resonant head and tuning to the lowest note, and then detuning a slight amount (1/16 to 1/8 of a turn) creates a “fat, loose or dark” drum sound. The batter head is then used to alter the pitch. Note that the pitch for a “fat” tuning can be somewhat limited.

2. For more “punch or attack”, the resonant head is raised in pitch by a small degree (1-3 notes) over the pitch the batter head is at.

2. To create an “open, resonant” sound, both heads should be of equal pitch. Use of a clear head will result in a more “open” tone.