Drum Tuning Technique Explained
If you think you don’t need to tune your drums or aren’t sure how to tune them the right way, your sound is definitely suffering.
A drum that is out of tune will make a sound, but a well-tuned drum will make a sound that is so much more pleasing. A properly tuned drum allows the acoustics of the instrument to work like they’re designed. While all parts of the drum affect its sound, the drumhead is the primary tone component. You’ll know when you’ve got it right because the drum will really start to sing. Also, a tuned drum creates a uniformity of tone, regardless of where your sticks strike the drumhead allowing you to create a consistent sound. Drumheads can also be tuned to better match your style of music or a new performance location. Whatever the reason, it’s important to keep your drums in tune and it’s pretty easy to do.
When to Replace Your Drumheads
Drumheads take quite a beating (literally) and always wear out over time. With regular use, most heads will last a few months. While they may still be usable, an older head will stretch out, causing it to have a dull or dead tone. Maybe you’ve already broken a head and need to buy a replacement. If you are frequently breaking heads, you may need to switch to a heavier-duty model.
If you’re planning on recording in the studio, a new set of drumheads can help get the best sound out of your kit. Microphones pick up overtones and unwanted sounds that may not be an issue during a live performance. If you do replace your drumheads before hitting the studio, it’s a good idea to play on the new heads a few times before you’re ready to record to allow the heads time to stretch out and settle into place.
What Type of Drumhead to Choose
First off, make sure you’re looking for the right size drumhead. If you’re unsure, measure the drum’s shell. Drumheads are sold in standard sizes, so once you know the correct size, you’re done with the easy part. Deciding which type of drumhead is right for your situation is more difficult. If you’re unsure where to begin, find other drummers that you like and see what they are using. Also, keep in mind the style of music you’ll be playing, the types of sticks you use and the setting in which you’ll be performing. All of these aspects will be important when choosing the right head.
Drumheads come in a wide variety of styles. Common variations include the head coating, thickness, number of plies (layers) and muffling. The top head of a drum or batter head is usually thicker and the bottom head or resonant head is thinner. Be careful not to go too thin on the resonant head as you may lose sustain and resonance. While many of the characteristics will overlap, it’s easiest to focus on the type of drum for which you’re buying the replacement, as it will help narrow down the requirements.
Snare Drum – get a lot of use & abuse, durability and a good tone are vital.
Clear / Coated
- Most snare drums have a coated head on the batter side which adds durability and creates more subdued overtones and a clear head on the resonant side. If you’re a jazz drummer using brushes, a coated drumhead is essential for the proper sound.
One-ply / Two-ply
- One-ply has good resonance, sustain and tone, but is less durable.
- Two-ply is more durable and has a dampened, but warm tone.
- Some snare heads come with built-in muffling. While convenient, I generally don’t like pre-muffled options as they allow for less adjustment to your sound, once they’ve been installed.
Toms – distinct sound, finding the right tone is especially important.
Clear / Coated
- Clear drumheads have a brighter sound with more attack.
- Coated heads have a thicker warmer sound and are usually more durable.
One-ply / Two-ply
- One-ply has good sensitivity, resonance, sustain and tone, but is less durable.
- Two-ply is more durable and has a dampened, but warm tone.
The Evans G2 series features a 2-ply design for consistency and durability.
Bass Drum – backbone of the drum set, offers a variety of options to vary their sound.
- The porthole is an opening in the resonant head of the bass drum. A porthole increases the drum’s projection, but reduces resonance and tone. Since most drummers muffle their bass drums anyway, the loss of resonance is usually not an issue. Maybe the best part about a porthole is it allows easy access into the inside of the drum, so you can adjust muffling, like when using a towel inside the drum, as needed. Though many drumheads come with the porthole already installed, you can also add one yourself. A 3-5” circle is ideal and do-it-yourself kits are available to help you through the process.
- Many bass batter heads come with built-in muffling. I prefer using an internal dampener, such as a towel, as it can be easily adjusted to different situations. However, I you like a more muffled sound, a pre-muffled head is an easy option.
The Evans EMAD2 bass drum batter head features the Externally Mounted Adjustable Damping (EMAD) system which allows the player to adjust attack and focus.
Check out our selection of drumheads.
Optimal Drum Tuning Method
Now that you’ve chosen the right drumhead, it’s time to get it installed and tuned. While this may be the tuning method that I like, each drummer has their own process they prefer. The key is finding the best sound possible, so experimenting is important, to see what works best for you.
- It’s easiest to tune both drumheads, batter and resonant, at the same time. If you’re only replacing one, it is still a good idea to re-tune the other head too. Find a safe flat surface, like a table covered with a soft towel, or tune the drum right in its mount.
- Once you have loosened all the lugs and removed the old head, wipe the drum’s bearing edge, the inside edge of the hoop, inside the drum shell and the underside of the new drumhead with a cloth to remove any debris.
- Center the new drumhead on the drum and lightly tighten all the lugs with your fingers. The drumhead should lay smoothly on the drum’s bearing edge with the hoop aligned equally on all sides.
- Work your way clockwise around the drum as you tighten all the lugs just using your fingers. Once you’ve tightened all the lugs, press firmly on the center of the drum and a few wrinkles should appear.
- Now using a drum key, work your way around the drumhead tightening screws about a ¼ turn at a time until all the wrinkles are gone. A cloth can be used to smooth out any wrinkles. Press firmly on the center and if wrinkles appear, repeat the process again. Double check that the drumhead is properly centered.
- Now it’s time to seat the drumhead by over-tightening the lugs and slightly stretching the head. Not all drumheads require this step. Typically, Evans drumheads do not need to be seated or stretched, but Remo heads often do. Check any instructions included with the drumheads and follow the manufacturer’s recommendations. Seating the drumhead will help it fit better, making it less likely to shift, and also improves the tone. Tighten the lugs using ½ turns, and this time, alternate to the opposite side of the drum after tightening each lug. Once the head has been tightened beyond its normal tuning, leave it overnight or at least a few hours to allow it time to stretch. Drumheads can break, so take caution not to overly tighten the head in this step, a little extra stretch will do.
- Now that the drumhead has been seated, loosen all the lugs back to where they are only finger tight.
- Start with the resonant head first. The resonant head has a huge impact on the overall tone of the drum, so getting it dialed in first will get you off to a great start. Work your way around the drum tightening each lug using ¼ turns until all the wrinkles on the drumhead are gone. As a starting point, I like to tap the side of the drum shell and note the tone it creates. This is the tone I’ll try to match for the drumhead. The goal here is to have even tension across the drumhead which will create an even tone and smooth decay. To test this, tap the drumhead near each lug, a couple inches from the rim. You want to listen to the tone and find areas that don’t quite match the overall tone. Tighten or loosen lugs to bring each section of the head in tune.
- Once you’ve tuned and cleared the resonant head, time to repeat the same process detailed in step 8 on the batter side. I like to tune my batter heads with the drum already in its stand or mount. Deciding on the relative tuning between the batter and resonant heads is a matter of personal choice. Most often, the two heads will be tuned to the same pitch or the resonant head will be tuned up or down by a third.
- Once individual drums have been tuned, try playing them all together and compare the pitch and tone of one drum to another. If sympathetic vibration is an issue, when one drum causes another drum to ring because of the similarities in their pitch, try tuning one of the drums up or down a step. This issue is most common between the snare and the smallest tom, as both are high pitched.
Super-Quick Tuning Method
If you’re really in a rush or find yourself in a situation where it’s too loud to tune your drums as described above, here’s a no-nonsense way to get you up and running fast.
- Center the drumhead and finger tighten all lugs.
- Press firmly on the center of the drumhead with continual pressure.
- Work your way around the lugs tightening until the wrinkles disappear in each section, all while pressing on the center of the drum.
- Repeat on both heads and you’re ready to go. It may not give you the ideal tone, but will always work in a pinch.
Extra Tips & Tricks
Since each drum in your set has different uses and quirks, here are a few tips for each type.
- Many drummers tune their snares to a higher tension than other drums to achieve a higher pitch and “crack”. This is especially true in heavy metal music.
- The resonant side of a snare is typically very tight. This increases the response from the snare wires and creates a sharper sound. Be careful though not to over-tighten; the resonant head is thin and can easily break.
- Once you’ve tuned both heads, also check the condition and tension of your snare wires, as they can also stretch over time. Tight snares create a snappier sound, but don’t over-tighten as it can choke the tone. Be sure to mount the snares straight and ensure they lay smoothly against the head.
- Higher pitch tunings give a punchy sound that projects well. Many metal drummers prefer lower tunings for their toms and a little wrinkle on the floor tom is even preferred.
- Toms usually have the least muffling. For toms, I prefer muffling options like tape or gel that can be easily adjusted, as needed.
- With toms, the relative tuning between the batter and resonant heads is especially important. If the resonant head is tuned too high, it can choke off the sound of the drum. On the flipside, if the resonant head is tuned too low, it won’t resonate properly.
- A tighter batter head provides more bounce, but can also be damaged more easily. Usually, the bass drum batter head will be one of the looser drumheads in a set.
- A tighter resonant head will cause the bass drum to deliver more punch. Removing the wrinkles from the resonant head is a good start.
- If your bass drum has too many overtones or too much sustain, a small towel works well as a simple dampener. Place the towel inside the drum so that it is lightly touching both the front and back heads.
- If you’re using a double bass pedal on a single drum, be sure to place the pedal carefully so that both beaters generate a near identical tone. If using two bass drums, take care to make sure they have identical pitch/tone.
- An impact pad, which sticks to the beater head, can be used to create the “click” sound popular with many heavy metal drummers. Using a wood or plastic beater also helps accentuate this effect.
If you’re more of a visual learner, here’s a great video from the Drum Professor’s awesome YouTube channel. In it, he details both his manual ear-tuning technique and using a digital tuning tool. Lots of great info!
Learning to tune your drums can be a complicated process. New locations and acoustics will provide unique challenges to get the best sound out of your drum kit. Practice makes perfect, so getting in the habit of paying attention to the tone of your drums and tuning them accordingly, can help make sure they sound great. If you’re looking for additional helpful info, be sure to also check out our previous article Essential Drum Set Positioning Tips , our How-to Videos and Lessons sections. Any questions, please email us at Sales@OnStageMusicSupply.com .