Having a great drum sound is, in my opinion, what drives a song all the way to the radio! We put so much emphasis on drum sounds, engineers are always innovating new ways of recording drums, triggering, and sampling. Drums can be the most aggravating when attempting to achieve the right sound, but are the most rewarding when you’ve finally nailed it and you can take that all the way to the bank! The larger-than-life driving sound of the acoustic rock drum set we’ve all become accustomed to, happen to be the result of an expert balance among playing techniques, proper tuning, and mic placement. Should any of these variables fall one stick to short, the search for that “perfect sound” could prove to be one painstakingly trip down disaster lane. This is why I wanted to take some time to discuss some essential tricks that can help you tune those drums before you start grabbing for that SM57.
Many drummers will replace the top head while keeping the bottom heads that came preassembled with the drum. These bottom heads have just as much to do with the overall sound of the drum, as the same head that is being pounded by your heavy hitting drum machine of a drummer! Buying new heads before a session is a necessity if a great tone is what you’re after, assuming you want a great sounding record, that is. Drum heads have a rather gruesome and horrific lifespan, as they are mutilated every moment of their short life, and I mean short! They go dead as often as guitar strings, however, drummers tend to not address them the same as guitars. (Moral of this paragraph, replace drum heads before each session).
Think of your drum set as one instrument rather than an assortment of different drums hanging together, and tune them in such a way they harmonize with one another. Just think of it like you’re tuning each drum sympathetically with one another, “so that it enhances the overall sound of your set” says Pat Foley. If you strike your 12-inch tom, and your 16-inch resonates, be slow to dampen down that floor tom. When you strike one, and the one resting to the side of it rings ever so slightly, it’s basically ringing in tune. By doing this, your drums become one instrument and they’ll sound much more musical than deadening and isolating each individual element.
If you can’t live with what seems to be obnoxious rings and “boings”, then you may try one of these amazing tips from drummer Robert Hall. “When a drummer has a whole lot of ringing in his toms that he wants to get out, but duct taping on the head seems to choke or take the sound away too much, you can drop three or four cotton balls inside the toms.” Basically, what you are hearing is something like a natural muting system. When the drummer hits his drum, the cotton balls come off the heads and then they settle back down relieving some of those obnoxious overtones without deadening the drumhead itself.
If you’re looking to get more sustain or resonance out of your toms, or you want to achieve a bigger sound, try adapting your drums to the RIMS Mounting System, or Resonant Isolation Mounting System. Simply put, this allows the drums to vibrate freely and it’s output is much more musical when compared to its counter product. Another cool trick when applied to the floor tom will most likely give you results that you would never suspect from something as easy as this! Simply, “take the felt washers you use on cymbal stands, or a little 2-or 3-inch foam square, and set them under the legs of the floor tom. Just getting it off the ground will double it’s resonant factor” says Robert Hall.
The best trick in achieving great results is searching for the drums sweet spot. The best way to do this is by loosening the drum all the way, or by removing the tension rods completely. Once you’ve loosened the drum, begin bringing the drums pitch back up and you’ll begin to feel its sweet spot coming alive. Don Gehman says, “[to] work both heads around that sweet spot and [to try and] get the drum to speak as clearly and loudly as you can.”
Enough talk about toms, what about the kick drum? Oh yes, the glorious, hard-hitting, floor thumping, fire throwing cannon of a kick drum. Don Gehman suggests that you use front heads with small holes. He feels you can get into a lot of trouble if the kick drum is completely sealed up. It keeps the drum from resonating at the right duration. A sealed kick drum adds a tone that resonates right around 150-Hz to 200-Hz and gobbles up the bass guitar. I know, who cares about the bass player anyway? Tough it up guys, the kick still gets to thump hard and drives the song home, after all, isn’t that what it’s for? If you want more punch and attack, go ahead and remove the front head and pack it full of blankets and pillows! More likely you will loose the low end that is desirable on your bass drum. But if that punchy, hard-hitting smack is what you want, I say go for it!
A commonly overlooked concern when tuning up a snare is addressing the less than pleasing buzz coming from the snare drum. It’s almost impossible to eliminate the extraneous buzzing when the snare wires aren’t properly aligned on the snare drum. To set up the snares, make sure “they are engaged and tensioned up an equal distance from each side of the drum on the bottom. If they are pulled to one side or the other, it is going to drive you crazy trying to get rid of that buzz” says Robert Hall. If buzzing still occurs, simply detune the tension rods on either side of the snare wires, the two closest to it on each side. By detuning it a small amount, buzzing is usually eliminated as well as some of the buzz that occurs after the tom has been struck.
If you should find your snare needing to be dampened, to remove some of that unwanted ping you can approach it in one of two ways. You can either fold two or three waffle-like creases in the tape or loop the tape with the adhesive facing out. Then you can simply apply it toward the rim and wah-la, you’re done! However, Craig Krampf urges drummers to keep this in mind whenever you apply some sort dampening effect to the drums. “Recording is like being under the microscope, and every little thing does matter in the studio. Any time anything is taped or stuck on top of a drum head, you are killing sound and certain frequencies. You are deadening your head.”
Often, when tracking drums, cymbals tend to bleed through the drum mics, which is a real pain when it comes time to the mixing stage. Drummers who usually play live often hit cymbals way too loud in relation to the drums. This causes cymbals to show up everywhere creating a hard to clean mess of sound. One way to eliminate such disasters is to use thin cymbals to make up for the over powering cymbal crash. Or the drummer can simply make a conscious effort to smack the cymbals in his “inside voice” per say. Another thing to keep in mind while we’re on the subject of cymbals is to keep the nylon sleeves or rubber tubing sleeves that go over the metal post from wearing out. All you need to do is replace them. If they’re damaged, then all sorts of rattles and obnoxious sounds will inevitably take way and will corrupt the sound. Best way to solve this problem is to keep a bunch of these sleeves in your stick bag. That way, whether you’re playing on your set or someone else's, you always have the right tools to fix the problem!
If I haven’t bored you already great! If I have, I will not apologize because the key to great drum sounds begins with the drum itself. If the drums aren’t properly tuned and teched, no matter what the drummer plays, his groove will sound like a child (who has no hope of rhythm) banging on garbage cans, and that my friends is not entertaining one bit. So I encourage all of you, whether you’re an engineer, drummer, guitarist, bassist, etc.; use these tips to help make your drums, or your drummers drums, sound just like the pros! As always, I encourage you all to go out and capture matchless performances through the art of recording!