Tuning a Snare Drum
This snare is not tuned. When I started recording drums, I didn't even really know what tuning a drum was. I didn't really know what a bad tuned drum sounded like. And it's actually really difficult to just go online and find that out. So, can I grab a stick from you? Maybe what I'm just gonna do, and hopefully you're gonna hear this well in the microphone we've got, is I'm gonna hit this drum, and then explain what sounds really bad about it. So, I've got the strainer on. So, I'm just gonna give the guy a second so that it's not gonna come through the lab mic. Here we go: (drum taps) So, maybe that already sounds really bad to you, but just to go through and explain, the way that a drum is tuned is you're using the lugs on each side of the drum to even out the tension across the skin. And what you're aiming for is a perfectly even tension, so that the drum kind of resonates at a single pitch. It's quite rare to hear drums that are really, really well tuned, except in a studio situatio...
n. When you put a microphone right up on a drum, you hear things that you don't hear in the room. And it's quite often good enough for live playing, it's just not quite good enough for a perfectionist in the studio. So really, the goal is simply getting the drum to sit very evenly, and to find a pitch. Once you've done that, either by tightening it or loosening it, that suits the sound. And you get a very different timbre from any drum if it's tuned low or if it's tuned high, and we kind of go through a tuning range, and show what that sounds like. So currently, this drum, I can tell because of the way the frequencies are kind of beating when I'm hearing it. It's like if you're tuning a guitar and the strings aren't in, you know, if you hold down the fifth fret on one string and then play the next one open, and then not in, you hear that kind of beating frequency. I'm hearing a lot of that around the head. It's also just kind of, it's kind of tuned low. It is really low in its range. And it's just kind of really flabby sounding. Because it's got a load of ring to it, the snare wires are also kind of resonating really awkwardly with it, like if I hit that again. (drum hit) I don't know if that's coming through up there, but I kind of just, yeah, it doesn't sound good. So, right now I'm gonna grab a tuning key from back here, and I'm gonna show you my general process for tuning, and we're gonna talk about how you can achieve consistency for tuning. Now, there's so many ways of tuning a drum. If you go online, you will find any number of ways of tuning a drum. And I've watched probably most of the videos that there are out there, trying to improve my craft and learn about it. Probably one of the best guys to learn about tuning from is Bob Gatzen, who is I think a very well respected figure in the drum world, and he has a lot of videos that he's done, promotionally for Evans, and also his own DVDs on tuning. And that's probably a really good place to start. It might be a little bit over your head if you're just starting, but it'll definitely help you get your ear in. It's also a little bit dated, perhaps, his DVD now, and the tones that he's going for maybe aren't quite so applicable for the style of music that we do, necessarily. But the concepts certainly are. So the general method that you use to tune a drum is just using a drum key. In this case, this is a magnetic key made by Evans. I really like this because once you get near to the lug it just kind of sits on very securely. I find when I go back to other keys, having used this, I'm always dropping it. This is a really unique little invention. And basically what you do is you go around and you try and tap the head very close to the lug to ascertain the pitch at that lug, and then you compare it to the other lugs on the head. So, (drum taps) as we go around we can very clearly hear, or I hope you can hear, that this lug here is a lot lower in pitch. (drum taps) So what I'm gonna do, is I'm gonna bring the pitch of this lug up. Actually, do you think I should start from nothing? Or should I fix this drum?
Well, typically when we're working on setting up for a studio session, we'll change the head, so it might be actually good to start from fresh as if you had just put the head on.
What I'll do, I think, actually, is I'll even it out, but I won't tune it up to like a decent pitch, then I'll de-tune it and start from scratch, as though I'm starting
from fresh. So, (drum taps) as I tune this up, you're gonna hear the pitch start to equalize. Hopefully you'll hear that coming through this mic and not this one. (drum taps) Now what unfortunately also happens on a drum, is, because this is a joined piece of metal that's creating the hoop, when I tighten this lug, this one is also coming up, together. So, if I just keep cranking this one, this one's gonna end up way higher. I'm just always gonna be chasing the pitch of that lug. So, it's always about kind of doing things in increments, especially for drums really out of tune. I'm gonna move and check what's going on on the lug on the opposite side. The two lugs opposite each other always have a very close relationship. So, it's always worth, if you think one lug is low, maybe try tuning it, but if it's not really coming up, check out the other side and see what's going on. So I'll do that now. (drum taps) So this one's a little bit lower over here. So if I tune it... (drum taps) We're already starting to get a lot more even. Hopefully you can hear that. This one to me is still a little bit low. And I should point out at this point it's quite an advanced skill to be able to hear really small differences in pitch. And it's something that only really comes with a lot of practice. So the best thing you can do is just, de-tune a drum, tune it again, de-tune a drum, tune it again, until it sounds really good. And that's what I've done, basically, for a few years, obsessively. It is really obsessive. All right, I'm gonna now just go around and hopefully you'll be able to hear what I'm doing while I do it. (drum taps) I occasionally won't use a stick, I might just use my finger or tap with the key. (drum taps) Now hopefully the pitch that you're starting to hear come out is that (voiced pitch). (drum taps) There's a lot of overtones going on as well, and the other thing that takes some practice is really zeroing in on the fundamental pitch of the drum that you're trying to tune to. It's also really gonna depend on the head. The head that we have on this drum is an Evans Heavyweight, it's a very thick head that's designed to be really durable. Thicker heads tend to exaggerate the actual fundamental note of the head. So, it can actually be really good for tuning practice, because if you move to a single ply head, there's so many overtones, and the fundamental is so much quieter, it can actually be quite difficult to hear the difference. Anyway, so this to me is already starting to sound more even. It's still quite low, but I'm just gonna do one more check, and then I'll actually hit it, and see what it sounds like. (drum hits) So the overtones are still kind of a little bit squirrely, but the actual pitch of the head is getting pretty even. So let's hear what that sounds like now with the snare wires engaged. (drum hits) So already it actually sounds a little bit drier, to use that terminology. When the lugs aren't all in pitch, they're kind of all fighting each other, and sometimes the sustain is exaggerated. Sometimes it goes the other way. Sometimes it's really dry sounding. But in general, I find that once you start to even out the pitches of the lugs, it starts to sound a lot more euphonic, like it's all working together. And even if there is a sustain there, it's far more pleasing on the ear. So what I'm gonna do now is... Am I gonna de-tune it, after it's sounding quite decent? Yeah, I'm gonna de-tune it all the way to nothing, as though I've just put this head on. So, it won't take me two seconds. = Yeah, I think it's good. Like I said, I mean, this is pretty much a brand new drum head that we just put on to secure, you know, the hoop, but, I think it's good to see, you know, from literally starting with nothing at all, seeing it actually tuned up is cool. And specifically for the tom, I think that could be great as well.
Yeah, the tom is already pretty de-tuned, so that's gonna be a good candidate for that.
Yeah, and then what about just, while you're doing that, what are your thoughts on the bottom head, specifically, like the reso head.
We'll get to the bottom head. The way that a snare works, the snare wires are actually sitting on a really thin head on the underside, and what this head really serves, like it's purpose, is to provide a surface for these wires to resonate against. So, the wires are also muffling this a lot. There's very little sustain to that head. So, the tension of this head mainly dictates the response of the wires. It does, to an extent, dictate the initial attack of a drum. And I do what most drummers do, which is to, what most people that tune drums do, which is to tune it really quite tight. And we'll get to actual pitch references, which is where I'm about to go with the top head. So that you have a general idea of where to tune that. But generally, I tune really tight on the bottom. I'm not too worried about the interval between the bottom head and the top head, but when we get to the toms, that's gonna be really crucial to getting a good sound. So, I'll just go back to the top head now, and I'm gonna introduce my tuning tool, which is my mobile phone. It's all the way over here, all right.
They're just good for everything.
Yeah, they're great. This gets a bit of, a few funny looks. There's a lot of ways of preserving the tuning of a drum from one session to another. There's some really cool devices called drum dials, or similar things which actually sit on the head, and they measure the tension of the head at that point, and you can use that. It's not based on how the head sounds. My method of doing it is just to actually use a pitch pipe, which sounds really funny. It's like a kazoo kind of frequency, if I hit it now. (pitch pipe tune) I'll make that louder. And this is my tuning tool, and I just memorize the kind of tunings that work for, the kind of pitches that work for a size drum, a snare drum particularly or the toms, I kind of have in my head notes that I know generally work, and then I can move them about by a semi-turn at a time, if the drum isn't really resonating at that frequency. But, it means that at any point during the session, and probably you'll see later when we're tracking, I'm gonna be coming in here and touching up the toms, 'cause as Matt hits them, and the snare as well, they're gonna be de-tuning. So, I always have a reference, I know exactly what it was tuned to before, and I can get it back to that. So, in fact, I hit an E when I did that. To me, an E is a great frequency (pitch pipe tune) for the top head to be tuned to. And it's gonna be a lot tighter than it is right now. It's an E pretty high up. To me, that is kind of like the mid area of a drum, maybe just tending toward the top end of a drum. Now what happens when you're in the lower range of a drum, it's got a ton of attack. The head is moving a lot when you strike it, 'cause it's tuned looser, but the tone of the drum is very low, and it can sound kind of, it can sound trashy under a mic sometimes. Like, the attack is so prominent that you don't really hear a sustain of the drum, and it might not kind of cut. You'll see what I mean. I'll just tune it to a low note to begin with. As you go up, you start to get more and more of the tone of the drum, but there's a sweet spot. Once you start to go too high, you kind of lose the attack. The head isn't really moving very much, and you just really get the overtones of the drum. So there's a sweet spot, and to me an E is a great place to start on any drum. For some people, that might sound a bit high, but something we're gonna talk about is, to me, the pitches of the drums are actually probably gonna be a little bit higher than most people expect. Because I want the drums to have a definable tone, and that's actually gonna sound really fat by the time we're finished. If you start with drums that are tuned really low, they don't have the resonance, and it's difficult to get them to sound fat and big. That was certainly a misconception I had when I started out. I thought, big drum sounds have to tune really low. Really what it is is you have to get bigger size drums, and tune them in their range, which is probably a bit higher than you're expecting. So anyway, I'm gonna go around now and kind of show you what I do.
So that one's now de-tuned?
This is pretty, oh, I think I didn't quite get these lugs. I'll just go through and actually make sure all of these lugs are not connected.
Yeah, it's interesting how patient you have to be in certain ways through this process. I think, for me, I don't have a lot of that patience, because I'm a drummer, and I'm probably like just super rambunctious and wanna get on the drums and play.
Yeah, if I played drums I probably wouldn't have developed my tuning ability in the same way. This is kind of all I can do. Another thing I really like about this tuning key that I'm using is it has like a knurled top part, which you can use to finger tighten. The screw of the drum is often kind of covered in a bit of grease, to make it sit well, and you just get really dirty fingers if you're doing that all the time. It gets kind of annoying if you're tuning a lot of drums.
Yeah, it was the worst when I would go finger tight with the screws, you'd have to wash your hands afterwards.
So the first thing I'm gonna do is I'm just gonna partly eyeball and partly just use the feel of the key to get all of these screws just touching the lug there. And the pattern I'm using is a cross pattern, and basically you can find diagrams of this all over the internet. It's the standard way that people generally teach to go around a kit. You choose a lug, you go to the opposite one, and then you skip a lug, and on a ten lug drum like this one, you'll eventually end back at your starting point. And I've forgotten where I started, so I think this is gonna be my next one. It doesn't matter so much right now, 'cause I'm just gonna get everything kind of sitting evenly. And again, as before, because this is a rigid hoop, once I tighten one lug, you might find it's actually pulling down on the other lugs, and suddenly they're a little bit loose. Now you don't wanna start chasing your tail and just tuning the head up too quickly, but generally I'll go around a few times and just check that all of these are kind of feeling roughly the same. And right now, the pitch of the head is this. (low drum taps) If I take the strainer off: (higher drum taps) It actually does have a pitch. It's very low; if I hadn't done that you'd just hear like a slap kind of sound. The thicker the head, the lower the point it will start resonating. And also, the harder it's gonna be to really crank it up high, 'cause it's just gonna require a lot more tension. So, a single ply head, tuned finger tight, is probably gonna sound, well it might not have a tone at all. This head is already starting to have a tone. And actually, because I've just used this technique, it's quite even, well, close to anyway. (drum taps) A little bit. So, what I'm actually gonna do now, and this is what I recommend always, is check the pitches, the relative pitches of the lugs, from the earliest possible stage. Instead of kind of getting a load of tension onto the head and then trying to even it out, a bit like I was doing earlier, that's a lot more involved. If you can start to get things really nice and even when it's at a very low point in its range, your life is gonna be so easy. You can pretty much just do it based on applying the same amount of turn to each lug from there. So, I'm gonna go around and just see if I can even out these frequencies. It might be a little bit difficult to hear up there. I'm very close to the head here, so it's a lot more obvious to me. So I'm just gonna do that now. (drum taps) And what I'm finding straightaway is very common. There's gonna be one pair of lugs or one lug, that for some reason is the culprit for putting a lot more tension onto the head. And you're going around and you're adjusting the other ones, and it's not really doing very much for the head, and then there's one, which when you hit, suddenly the pitch is changing really drastically, and that can be a real problem. If it's a lot tighter, it can be much more difficult to find out which lug that is. So I'm gonna keep going around and the tuning key technique that I'm using is actually to de-tune the lug a little bit and bring it up to pitch again. That's to prevent me from just keeping putting tension on every lug over and over and the whole head just going up and up in pitch, which I'm trying to prevent. I'm trying to keep it very controlled if I can. (drum taps) So that's gonna be good enough. These lugs do not feel like they're all at the same tension. And that's another really important thing I had to learn, is not to do everything by feel, because for one, as good a drum as this is, the rim might not be exactly flat all the way around. The head might not be exactly flat all the way around. The rim might not be exactly flat. Simply applying the same amount of tension to every lug might not actually yield a perfectly in tune head. So, from here I'm now gonna go and I'm gonna put about half a turn, so 180 degrees with the key. I'm gonna use the cross pattern and we're gonna see what pitch we're at there. Actually I'm doing more like a quarter turn. I guess I haven't really analyzed that before.
You find you have a muscle memory though, from all the practice?
Yeah, and that's something which you definitely develop, it's kind of tuning key technique. So, (drum taps) It's close to actually being in tune. It's very low, but this is because I evened things out on there, it's a little bit low. So I'm gonna do another round of evening now. (drum taps) I don't really use the cross pattern if I'm just doing some evening. It's kind of random, or I might just be going around in a circle. I really use that if I'm really trying to get the head up in pitch. I'll try and do that so I'm not putting undue amount of tension on one side of the head, and potentially stretching it. Well, they really are quite durable. So, now we're still very low, but it's even again. If I hit that: (drum taps) So, if I get my pitch pipe out, we can kind of figure out what that is. (pitch pipe tune) So it's kind of a D sharp, an E flat, but it's an octave lower than where I want it to be. (drum taps) It's kind of somewhere in between there. So, I'm gonna go around and I'm gonna just do this whole process a little bit quicker, I'm not gonna stop to explain everything, but it's gonna be just an iterative process, so let's do that. You can probably hear that the head is kind of responding, even just to the force of me putting the key onto the lug, which means it's really starting to get into like a resonating range, so right now. (drum taps) It's pretty good, let's go up more. (drum taps) So I think we're starting to get into the range where this would actually yield a decent enough snare sound. Let's see where we're at (pitch pipe tune), yeah, it's about a C sharp, that's kind of what I was expecting. (drum taps) That one's a little bit low.
It's funny how you know that it's a C sharp before you use the pipe.
That's just from doing it over and over and over, I don't have perfect pitch.
But you know what, I can even recognize that it's getting into the area where we really do use it, because it is, it's consistent. And this process, I think, if you do it this way, where you bring it up, check it, bring it up, check it, and use that kind of thing, it really is consistent, it works.
Yeah, it totally is. So for me, most snares start to become usable a little bit lower than this, at about B, so that's a whole tone lower than that, that's (pitch pipe tune), so imagine that an octave lower. But that's really low, I would never really tune a snare lower than that. C is roughly where we were tuning the snare during Juggernaut, we actually had a very low tuned snare on that, which in my opinion was, well it's not a mistake, I'm happy with how it sounds, but that was on the recommendation of the engineer whose studios we used. He was saying that, in his experience, the snare drum really reacted well with the room around that kind of frequency. But there was a couple of songs where we tuned it higher, and in hindsight, I think it sounded better, and I think you'd much prefer the feel with a higher tuned snare. I much prefer the sound now.
Sure, for all the dynamic range that we use on the snare, it's definitely good to have a higher pitch. And it allows for more balance and more natural movement of the stick to create those sounds.
Well that's something also worth mentioning, is the pitch of the head is gonna really drastically affect the playability. And the type of head; a single ply head is not gonna have as much tension at the same pitch. It's gonna tune up to this pitch a lot more easily, and it's gonna feel more flexible. So if you really wanna crank a snare, a lighter head is good. A lot of death metal drummers will use a thicker head and tune it really high, 'cause it's gonna have a ton of rebound. When your snare touches it, it bounces back almost as much.
Like the Hybrid heads?
The Hybrid, I mean even this head if you tune this up to much higher than we're gonna go to, it's gonna sound quite pingy, and you'll notice that sound on a lot of death metal records. And that's kind of just because that's what's really easy to play. Even really good drummers will often have to change the tuning of their drums to achieve a certain amount of speed if they're doing that. So, (drum taps) this would be a good tuning for like a rock kind of context. C sharp up to D, so that's like a D would be a little bit higher than this, it would be a semi-turn. (pitch pipe tune and drum taps) We're at C sharp right now. D, for example, that'd be like a kind of Dave Grohl kind of thing to me, like I saw a video of, this is gonna sound really sad. But when I started getting into drums, I would just listen to records, watch videos, of every style of music I could, every drummer I could think of, and try and figure out what pitches everything was tuned to. And that was hugely informative to me, to make sure that I wasn't like way off the mark. Now how you achieve that pitch when it comes to a tom, that's a whole different ballgame. But the snare, it's a little bit easier to figure out what pitches they're tuning to. So, I'll actually hit this drum now, at a C sharp, and we'll see what it sounds like. It should sound like a pretty decent snare. A pretty nice kind of rock sounding snare. (drum hits) That doesn't have any muffling on. I'm just gonna use my thumb to muffle it a tiny bit. (drum hits) So it's pretty low, you can hear it. The snare wires are doing something a little bit weird, ignore that for now. We'll get to the bottom head soon. But it's starting to get usable. This could be a really good rock sound, like with a big kit, might be great. I'll take it up just to a D, so you can hear that. D, to me, is where snares really start to sound good. They start to take on that kind of mid-tuning character where they have a really nice attack but also the resonance is coming through quite strong as well. So, let's see. (pitch pipe tune) (drum taps) Now, it just takes experience to know how much to put on these lugs to achieve that. It's a very small movement. I don't know if you guys could really see on the camera. You probably can, but it's like a tiny movement I was putting onto each lug, and it's incremental. If I just put enough tension onto this that I started to hear a D coming out of this lug, by the time I've done that with all the lugs it's gonna be really really high. So it's about moderation and just small movements at a time. And because we've maintained really even tuning throughout the range, it's still really quite in tune. I can probably hit this now, and it's not gonna sound bad. So, again, I'm gonna use my thumb just to muffle it a little bit. (drum hits) That's a really good range for a snare, to me. That could be really suitable for the song we're gonna do today, even. But I'm gonna take it up to an E now, which is what I always tune your snare to, every day, and to me that's like a really balanced snare tune. It's still gonna sound really big, loads of attack. It's still gonna be like a great rock snare sound as well.
It feels good.
It feels good too, which is very important. So, I'll just remind myself with an E. (pitch pipe tune) (drum taps) So let's just go around and hear that. (drum taps) We're pretty much at an E. Now, as you start to get higher, you might be noticing the fundamental pitch of the head is starting to get lost, and we're starting to hear more of the higher overtones. The higher you tune a snare, it can be kind of difficult to make out the fundamental pitch. And that's also a good way of kind of scoping out the tuning range of a drum. Every drum is gonna sound different, at different pitches. And you know one drum might have a load of fundamental pitch at an E, but maybe a little bit lower it doesn't, a little bit lower again it does again. And like, in my experience, metal snares tend to have better tuning range, like they tend to sound better at a wider range of tuning. It depends on what you're after. If you want a resonant snare sound, and less of the overtones, you might find that just adjusting that tuning a little bit is gonna yield a better sound. Anyway, let's see, this is roughly an E right now, I think. (pitch pipe tune and drum taps) Pretty close, you're probably hearing the overtone very clearly up in there, but that sure gets close to an E. I'll hit that now, and again I'll just use my thumb to muffle it. (drum hits) It's really starting to take on that real pop kind of sound, like the poppiness to the attack, which I think every rock drummer, Abe Cunningham's like snare sound is something that they look up to. He generally tunes a lot higher than this for most songs, but this is starting to get into that range, where it has that kind of character. So, the next thing that we would do would be to. Well actually, before I get into that, I'd say probably a snare, a four signet snare, you can get up to an F sharp, that's a whole tone higher than this. That's gonna be pushing it with most of them. About an F would be about as high as I would go. We've done higher than an F with a snare and recorded it, it sounds great. We did some videos with you recently, and I think two of those songs we tuned to an F sharp. Came across great, but you're just gonna have to hear the drum and see what that sounds like. At this point, since this is pretty much in tune, for what we're gonna do, I might apply some muffling to it, so I think we have a pot of Moongels just over there. I'm gonna grab these. So, Moongels are a kind of adhesive gel that you apply to the drum head, and that dampens the resonance of the drum. But as I touched on earlier, the more you muffle a head, the more of the higher overtones you take out of it. It can be good, you can get more of the fundamental sound of the drum, but it also takes out some of that kind of character, and depending on the kind of drummer you are and the kind of sound you want, you might be really averse to any kind of muffling. You might feel like that takes all the soul out of your drums. I generally like to use as little as is necessary. Again, in a studio context, when you've got a mic much closer to the head, you're gonna hear a lot more of the ring than you would from your drummer's perspective, or even in the overhead's mics, or anything like that. So for a live gig, perhaps you'd be great with no muffling and it sounds great. In the studio, you might find that it's just ringing too much, and especially if you're playing something busy, you're just gonna hear a very constant ringing sound underneath what you're playing.
Sure, and then for us, specifically, with the amount of, I think the dynamics we use on the snare with the ghost notes and things like that, we need something that's dry. With the amount of notes that I'm playing, if it were really really resonating, it would just blend together and have this weird tone, like a sheen to it that I feel like would take away from the actual hits that need to be there.
Definitely, the harder you hit the drum really changes the response. If you're hitting very lightly, and especially if it's off-center, you'll hear a lot of the tone of the drum. If I just do that now, like, (drum hits) I'll take the Moongel off (drum hits) as opposed to (drum hits). I'm not a drummer, as you can tell, and this is kind of an awkward position. They're good rim shots, but they're right-handed, and not very accurate, but it's good enough. So yeah, hopefully you could hear when I hit in the center, it's a drier sound, it's a lot louder obviously, but there's less of that kind of "bong", like ponky kind of character to it. 'Ponky', that's a new word; remember that one. So, I'm gonna chuck Moongel on now. There's a lot of different approaches you can take. You can use a pair of scissors to cut them up and kind of spread them across the drum. Sometimes that works really well. For now I'm just gonna stick one whole piece on the head. And we'll see what that sounds like. Now I'm not gonna have a finger on the drum to deaden it, let's see how it sounds. (drum hits) So it's really quite short now.
That was that sweet spot, that last one.
That one, yeah, I'll do one more (drum hit).
Yeah, there you go. You wanna get that nice round tone to it, you know, and that's sort of how I envision it. And a lot of drummers don't necessarily know how to articulate sometimes the sound that they want. So, you can like, I'll sometimes kind of be like, or come to you and be like, I want this, I want like: (popping sound) Like that, 'cause to me that's like a round sound, and it's kind of funny but, whatever you can do to figure it out, even if it's referencing other drummers or other records or things like that, I think it's good to sort of figure out a way to articulate the sound you want, whether you're learning how to tune it that way yourself, or you're working with a producer who's going to get that sound. I just know that's the sweet spot, because that sort of resonates with that kind of sound I envision for it.
It's funny, I think like, sounds in general are something that we internalize from everything around us, like sometimes, I don't think I've ever told this before, but sometimes, like a sound of a snare to me is almost like the sound of biting into an apple. Like that crisp sound that you hear in your head when you do it, like
It has that roundness to it.
Yeah, I don't know, it's just like a very cloudy kind of thing in my mind that I'm aiming for. And as a producer, you have to be able to have conversations like that, and figure out what each other one means, and it can be really helpful just to have some records and say like, you know, "What records have a snare sound that you really like?" And if you're using something like a pitch reference, and you've done your homework, and you can kind of hear what the snare is tuned to, you can use that as a starting point.