TCM MASTERING: HOME MUSIC STUDIO – PART 18 TUNING DRUMS

TCM Mastering: Home Music Studio Tips and Information

Part 18 Tuning Drums

This week we’ll discuss preparing and tuning drums for a recording session. Tuning drums is an extensive subject in itself and if you’ve never done it before, it will probably take a bit of practice to get it right. Even if you intend to get someone in to tune the drums for you before a session, it’s useful to know the basic process – which is what we will discuss here. For further information on tuning, see the video at the bottom of this blog.

Next week we’ll get into the various microphone techniques for recording drums.

As part of their recording packages, TCM offer the services of professional session musicians. Troy Luccketta, drummer with Tesla is available through TCM Music Group and is also a Producer partner.

As Drum Kits Go – Recording Engineer’s Hell!

Recording drums in many Home Studios is not going to be the easiest task. For starters a full kit takes some time to tune and set up properly. Second it takes up a fair amount of space if it’s set up all the time. Third, they’re rich in transients and they’re not the quietest of instruments. So keeping the sound in your room and not annoying neighbours is something you may need to consider…..check out this blog which discusses ‘Your Room’.

At this point, many home musicians decide to use samples or a drum machine because it’s less hassle.

Two Drumming Legends – Jeff Porcaro and Steve Gadd…..Who Haven’t These Guys Played With???!!!

Over the years I’ve used real kits, drum machines and samples. Unless you’re really good at programming a machine/samples or can get a real drummer to do it for you, the resultant drum track can very easily sound….uninspiring.

With a little care and effort you can capture a great drum sound played by a real drummer, which can make an enormous difference to a recording.

TML Studio TCM Music Nashville – Drums and Mics Set Up.

Just remember the type of song should determine the drum sound, not the other way round, so don’t be afraid to try things out. There are probably more differing opinions on how to record drums than any other instrument. So you will come across plenty of contradictory advice.

Not all drums are created equal and when it comes to recording them, the choice can become even more confusing. There is a vast range of drum heads, cymbals and sticks and the resultant recorded sound is dependant on all of these as well as the microphone set up, room acoustics and most importantly the player.

Drum Kits…..£259 to £959.

Things to remember…..

  • If you’re looking for that big drum sound, don’t assume you need a big kit. Oddly enough smaller drums can sound bigger when recorded.
  • The heads that come with the kit aren’t necessarily the best ones for recording. If you can, spend a little time experimenting with a variety of heads.
  • Keep in mind the most expensive – don’t always yield the best recording results.
  • Cymbals that sound great for live stage work, won’t necessarily sound the best for recording. If you have the choice, go for cymbals that have a fast attack and a short decay.
  • Stage cymbals which have a long decay can cause problems bleeding into the tom-tom mics, causing endless frustration when it comes to mixdown.
  • Suggest to your drummer to play the cymbals quieter than normal. This will help in the overall mix.

Hand Tuning A Drum Head.

So the first thing that needs addressing is – TUNING. If you attempt to record drums that are not tuned, you will be battling to get a good sound. Having said that, no two drummers will likely tune their drums exactly the same way! So there lies the confusion and contradiction I mentioned earlier.

Consider that thick, heavy (drum) heads will sound louder, duller and decay quicker than thin heads which will also have a sharper attack.

Tune each drum separately, away from the rest of the kit. This will eliminate vibrations from the other drums making it easier to concentrate on the drum in hand. The aim is to keep the tension as even as possible around the head. So start by unwinding all the tension keys around the drum, then tighten them finger tight.

Showing The Order Of Tightening For Different Lug Numbers.

With a drum key adjust each rod on opposite sides of the head, tightening a whole, half, then quarter turn at a time as the head gets more tensioned. The four diagrams above show the pattern order for tightening different lug numbered heads.

After you’ve increased the tension, apply pressure to the middle of the head by pressing very firmly down with the palm of your hand. Do this by placing the drum on a carpeted floor. If necessary, bounce up and down on the head. This will ensure that it is stretched and seated properly on the bearing edge.

Applying Pressure To The Centre Of The Head.

Continue to tighten with the drum key and tap the head about an inch or so in from the edge near the lug that is being tightened. Any wrinkles on the head should be gone at this stage. The head should now be producing an audible tone when struck. As you go round the head try to maintain a constant, uniform pitch. Proceed until the desired pitch is achieved all the way round. If you’re using double-headed drums repeat the process for the other head. Some drummers tune the bottom head first, others tune the top first.

Pearl Drum Kit With Three Toms And Kick – Approx. £2500.

If you have a set of three different sized toms, you will find each one has an ideal/preferred tone. When you play them there should be a natural descending pitch from high to low for the smallest to the largest tom.

A tight, well tuned beater head gives the kick drum a defined, full-bodied sound. A tight beater head also gives the kick plenty of attack. With bass/kick drums and toms most drummers prefer the top and bottom heads to be of similar pitches.

Premier Resonator Drum – £225 – Bottom View.

The snare tends to be different. The bottom head is often thinner than the top (batter) head and generally sounds better, tighter – giving a nice crisp effect. Many jazz drummers favour this sound. Whilst tuning the bottom looser than the top (not surprisingly) gives a lower, heavier tone – more rock ‘n roll.

The snare is also probably the source of most unwanted rattles in the drum kit. As a rule of thumb before recording, you should always go round the entire kit checking for any loose fittings and rattles. Separate stands that are touching each other. Loose hardware can be usually silenced with masking tape. And a can of WD40 comes in handy for getting rid of squeaks.

Coins, Kleenex, Cardboard – Can All Be Used For Dampening.

With regards to the use of duct tape and dampeners on drum heads – there are two opposing views. Some drummers will say that if you start off with a good quality drum and the head is tuned properly, there should be no need for dampening. But in a real life Home Recording situation, things are rarely perfect. So you may feel the need to try and apply some dampening on a drum head. Just be careful – too much dampening can deaden a drum to the point that they’ll sound like cardboard boxes.

Forums are sometimes good places to pick up useful tips. Here’s one for drums.

Using Coffee Filters For Dampening Cymbals and Drums.

When it comes to cymbals, radial strips of masking tape can prove effective for dampening the ring if deemed necessary. But as you can see from the picture above – coffee filters can also be put to good use.

They say a picture paints a thousand words and moving pictures can be even better. There are numerous videos on You Tube which explain drum maintenance and tuning. If you’d like more information, the video below is a good place to start. Ryan Stohs demonstrates how to tune a drum (at around 3’55”). He also walks you through the pre-tuning process along with some basic maintenance tips.

Next week I’ll continue with our drum theme by discussing the various microphone techniques that are favoured by musicians and engineers.

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4 Comments on “TCM MASTERING: HOME MUSIC STUDIO – PART 18 TUNING DRUMS”


  1. […] TCM Mastering – Mastering information and tips for musicians TCM Mastering blogsite provides up to date information on mastering and mixing projects as well as useful tips for musicians and songwriters. « HOME MUSIC STUDIO – PART 18 TUNING DRUMS […]


  2. […] hope you found last week’s blog on Tuning Drums useful. Even if you don’t intend tuning them yourself and you choose to let someone else do […]


  3. […] the last two weeks we’ve covered tuning and some useful tips on setting up the drum kit before placing mics. Thanks to everyone who is […]


  4. […] hope you found last week’s blog on Tuning Drums useful. Even if you don’t intend tuning them yourself and you choose to let someone else do […]


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