This is final part of a three-part series dedicated to exploring why the drums don’t make the drummer. Today, you’ll gain the foundational knowledge needed to understand your sound. A word to the wise: don’t stop after this article – go learn more form YouTube tutorials and other in-depth resources for each segment discussed below.
Your sound is all about hitting, tuning, accessories, and of course, your drum set.
I always enjoy watching drummers sound check or line check. It gives you a firm understanding of how a drummer will sound during the show. During the DIY touring grind, you will usually have local openers, and a majority of the time I watch their drummers check mics as if they are afraid of their drum set. They hit softer than a baby with a rattle hitting the floor, and it always brings a smile to my face. You need to HIT your kit. Repeat: HIT YOUR KIT. You should always sound check your drums as hard as you hit live. If you hit flimsy, just in general, you are truly affecting the sound of your drums and possibly you/your band’s overall sound. There is such a thing as hitting too hard as well, but to get to that point you have to be a pretty solid and confident drummer to begin with, and usually by then you understand the range of your dynamic capabilities.
Posture: Bad posture is far too common on the tour circuit. I literally cringe every time I see a drummer playing like a gorilla trying to climb a tree. Just c’mon now, how can that be remotely comfortable!? How you sit on your kit can not just affect the sound, but your physical well-being. Its easier to play over your drum set, so the higher you seat your throne the less energy you will exert in your playing. Gravity is a concept that few drummers think about, but when you are sitting too low and trying to hammer away quick double bass (or single bass) rhythmic patterns you’re exerting more energy than needed. You are also putting your knuckles at risk of being slammed against the rim of your snare, which sucks to deal with mid-set. Sitting higher gives you room to breathe and play with better consistency.
How you hold your drumsticks also determines how you sound behind your kit. Finding the fulcrum point of your drumstick is a great way to begin proper stick holding. The fulcrum of your stick is basically the area that can give you the most rebound, which is important as the more rebound you have, the less physical energy you need to put forth.
The best way to find the fulcrum point is to: Use the index finger from one hand (if R handed, use L index) and wrap it around a stick Use the other hand to bounce the front of the stick on your snare/practice pad Continue to adjust your index finger while bouncing the stick lightly When you get to the area of the stick where you have the most “bounce” you have found your fulcrum point.
Hold your sticks with your index finger and thumbs pressed firmly at your newly found fulcrum point, and practice/adjust until you feel comfortable.
Finding balance: With the fulcrum point found, now simply find a balance between wrist and fingers that works for you. Never over grip your sticks; that is a great way for your hands to freeze up mid set and prevent you from playing a clean set. Keep your wrists loose and use your fingers to control your playing.
Tuck that pinky in! Its a very bad habit for a drummer to play with their pinky stretched out. Unless you like smashing your pinky on the rim of your snare, or risking hand conditions like Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (AKA “A drummer’s nightmare”). Play loose. Give yourself time to warm up. Think about the physicality of your hand/footwork and general posture. Approaching how you sit behind your kit is integral for having energy and sounding great, and all it takes is to notice the flaws. Fix them and practice!!
Drum tuning is a grey area in the world of drumming that can be difficult to get a grasp on. For some reason every drummer thinks they are a master of sound, and seem to feel their drums sound perfect at all times because they have some type of divine power that allows them to hear perfect pitch in a club venue with concrete walls filled with rebound and resonance.
Its difficult to say what is right and wrong with tuning; we all hear things differently and want a different sound. Being on tour helps to develop your abilities to make your kit sound the way you want it to, but to start getting an idea of the way you want your kit to sound you need to make sure your ears can identify the sound you’re aiming for.
Tuning a drum set can be considered just as much an art as actually playing drums as well. Developing a fine ear for tuning takes time, knowledge, and patience. There are many styles when it comes to tuning – from having your basic drum key to having a drum dial. The options and tools for making your drums sound a certain way are endless. Before you can start tuning your drums you have to tune your ears to understand what pitch works best for the sound what you want. In this regard, don’t be afraid to ask drummers how they do things! Especially if you like their sound.
Tuning your ear: The best way to start tuning your ears is by watching other drummers play, and listening to how their kit sounds. Try to pay attention the following at your next show:
Quality of the heads: Are they older or newer? Are there dampeners all over them, or are they bare? Are their heads clear, or coated?
Pitch of the drum set: Does the snare sound higher or lower than your snare? Does the kick drum have more of a “thud” or a “slap” sound to it? Do the floor toms sound really big, or compressed?
Type of cymbals: How many cymbals do they have? What are the measurements of each cymbal? What kind of model/series are they using? How far apart/far away are the cymbals from that drummer (refer to Posture)
3. Accessories/Drum set
While each of these only make up a combined 20% of this chart, each are just as important. If you know how to hit and you know how to tune, then having the correct accessories and knowing the characteristics of what you’re playing will help you create the sound you like.
Accessories: The type of heads you apply on your drum set have a huge impact on how you sound. With all the different companies out there, heads are evolving constantly and allowing drummers to explore sounds that weren’t conceivable a few years ago.
When looking for new heads for your kit, try to consider the following:
Ply: The basic drumhead, more sensitive to tuning but less sustain than the other heads. More overtone and brightness in these heads.
Double Ply: Less overtone and more body for a “deep” sound. Very durable, with little sustain and little resonance.
Coated: Basically dampens the snare without having to add an additional dampener. Wears out over time depending on how much you play on it. Coated heads typically sound warmer with more “attack” to them.
Specialty: Calfskin, fiberskin, and Kevlar heads are prime examples. Kevlar heads are becoming very popular in metal drumming due to their long standing durability and pure attack. But there isn’t much sustain or pitch to them.
Resonant: Deeper sound with more sustain than the other heads. Usually combined with coated heads to make up for the lack of characteristics that resonant heads have. Resonant heads usually come in different levels of thickness.
Drum set: The shells of the drum set are what create the sound that all the other aspects of how you sound contribute to. In todays drumming market kits are getting pushed to levels of manufacturing that are creating powerful sounding pieces of musical equipment. Go to the drum section any music convention and there is always one company that has created the “evolution” of drums with a hybrid of “steel and maple” combined with “cutting edge” technology. There are so many different options and variations for drum shells I couldn’t even begin to list every single factor that goes into drum shells without turning this article into a short novel. For now, lets stick to the 2 basic types of material that are seen in the DIY touring circuit.
Birch: Bright and punchy, with short sustain. While birch is usually considered an entry-level style of shells, this is not because of quality. Its simply because its easier to shape birch wood than other woods, and it tends to be more in demand for younger drummers getting their first kits. Birch kits tend to be cheaper than other model kits, but that doesn’t mean they are cheaper in quality. Birch can offer great sounds if you know how to tune properly, and depending on the environment you’re in.
Maple: By far the most common type of shell. Very consistent tone, with a broad tuning range. Maple kits are easy to make sound great in any environment. Maple has been a solid fixture in drumming for decades now; its consistency and ability to hold its tuning makes it reliable when it comes to not wanting to constantly tune your kit every half hour when on tour.