I recently wrote a post with some ideas on How to record a great drum sound.
Point number 9 in the list was “Tune the kit“.
Firstly, I should say – I’m not an expert on this ! I’ve never tuned a drum from scratch in my life. Even so, knowing the basics of tuning, and in particular how to spot when a drum needs tuning, is a hugely valuable skill in the studio.
Some drummers tune their kit every session, some don’t. Some are taught the skill from day one, others aren’t. Some tune their kits to sound good to them, or to sound great in a live context. Neither of these necessarily guarantee the drums will record well.
I’ve been lucky to record and mix some outstanding drummers over the years, and in the process I learnt the harsh truth – if the drums sound bad in the room, they’ll never sound great recorded or mixed.
And the secret of getting a drum to sound great – regardless of how expensive – is to tune it well. Strictly speaking this is the drummer’s job, but in the real world it’s incredibly useful if you can spot a poorly tuned kit and tweak it to sound better – or gently suggest that the drummer does ; )
What is drum tuning ?
Roughly speaking, tuning is about making sure that the drum skin is evenly tensioned, and at the right pitch for the diameter of the drum. Drums can be tuned up or down, but need to be within a few tones of their “fundamental” or sweet spot pitch, to sound their best.
A well-tuned kit with every drum tuned to it’s sweet spot will sound better in every way – the drums will have power and punch, and have that fantastic “ring” to them, rather than just a dull thud, or the classic “cardboard box” dead sound. Once they are tuned, you may choose to add damping to reduce this ringing for recording purposes – but a well-tuned, damped drum will always sound better than a poorly tuned one.
Tuning drums takes time and skill, so many studios go so far as to purchase their own kit which they can keep set up and tuned as they please, to ensure good results when recording – kits can often be tuned differently for live as opposed to recording purposes.
But failing that, an understanding of how drum tuning works, and the ability to solve some basic problems, will be invaluable.
The video playlist above gives a great overview of the basics of drum tuning – make sure you check out the “For drummers only” tips at the end, too.
In particular, make sure you understand the process of listening to the sound of the drum near each lug – if you tap the drum with even pressure, a constant distance from the edge, the drum should sound the same all the way round. If not, the tuning needs adjusting.
Tuning experts disagree about exactly the best methods – should a new drum-head be pre-stretched, or simply re-tuned as it wears in, as suggested by Bob Gatzen in the clips above ?
For much more information on this and other issues, there is a great free online guide here:
which goes into far more detail on all aspects of drum tuning.
So now, all you need is a friendly drummer prepared to let you practise on their kit – or even better, give you lessons – and lots of hours to practise !
You can buy Bob Gatzen’s drum tuning DVD from Amazon, here, if you like. (Affiliate link)
Do you think about drum tuning when you record ? Have you ever tried tweaking the drum tuning to improve the sound ?