Drum tuning and mixing tips (part 1)

So, I was a guest for my first CTW (Church Tech Weekly) last night and had a blast. Mike Sessler and the crew are fun to grab a Skype hangout with. I had talked through some of the techniques that work for me on drums and working with them in a mix and I wanted to get my notes down that I had prepared. The following is just that plus some more items that I didn’t have a chance to talk through.

Good drum sounds start with drum tuning. If the drums aren’t maintained and sound bad, how can you get a good sound from them? No amount of eq, compression or plugin du jour will fully overcome a bad drum set. You might get close after a ton of mixing work, but why?

Ok, so let’s start with the shells. All drum shells resonate at a specific frequency. If you were to take off all hardware, the drum shell will make a certain pitch when you tap it while suspending it lightly. This is the resonant frequency of the drum. I used to literally sharpie onto the inside of my drums what the note of each drum’s shell was. Your target pitch for the overall pitch of the drum should be that note or an interval of it.

When putting on new heads, you’ll want to get the lugs just tight enough so that the washer on each lug can’t freely move anymore. This set’s your start position per lug. Then, take each lug and put one full turn in per lug. Use the following tension pattern on a six lug drum: Tighten each lug one full turn going from 12 o’clock to 6 o’clock to 2 o’clock to 8 o’clock to 4 o’clock to 10 o’clock. On an 8 lug drum, the same basic principle applies. Each time you tighten, you go from one side to the other and go around in a star pattern. Put around 3 turns total on each lug. You’ll start to hear the resin in the bearing edge of the new drum head start to crack and settle. Don’t worry! You’re in the zone. Take a hairdryer and go around the drum on medium to high heat where the plastic head meets the  rim. Go around a few times, maybe taking 2 minutes to do this. What this does is to relax the plastic and create a defined corner where the head goes over YOUR particular drum. Now, take the tension off of each lug the opposite way you go there… in a star pattern. Take the lug tension off to the point where the lug washer is almost free to spin. Now, put one full turn on per lug. This will take the drum up to a pitch, hopefully, if not, go around one more time, this time only going a half turn. When the head starts to sing and not flap, you are at a point to start tweaking. Now, take each lug and while hitting the drum with a stick, kick the tension off of the lug, then add a bit back in. You’ll hear the drum pitch drop and then it will start to flap. When it flaps, that’s the point where you’ll add a bit of tension back. Do this procedure of hitting, dropping tension and then adding back a bit for each lug. When this has been done to each lug, your drum should be at it’s lowest possible pitch for that head. Now flip over the drum and do the same thing on the bottom. When you now hold up the drum by a rim and hit it with a stick, it should be at it’s lowest overall pitch.

From this point any lug tensioning you do should be done equally to each lug. There are exceptions: if the rim is bent in any way or if the shell’s bearing edge isn’t absolutely flat, your drum will be hard to tune and you’ll have a tougher time using this method. It will still work, but tension per lug will be wildly off. The basic principle here is to get the pitch by each lug to be the same. There is another trick…

Quick tune: If you need to do a quick brush up on toms you can use this method. Start by holding your hand against the bottom drum head to mute it. Take your drum key and tap next to a lug. It will make a tone. Go around the drum and listen to the nuances of pitch next to each lug. For the lug or lugs that are lower in pitch, add tension to the lug and immediately check again. Remember that the pitch of ONE lug can affect all the other lugs, so check all of them often. If you need to lower the pitch of a lug, remember to ALWAYS follow a lowering of pitch with a slight re-tensioning. This will keep the drum from loosing tension when it is hit hard with a stick. Guitarists use this same method when tuning guitars. Kick the pitch down and then tune it back up. Generally this will only need to be done on the top or batter side of each drum, but sometimes you may need to check the bottom side and do the same thing.

Well, that was a bunch of info on just toms tuning. Next up… Kick and snare.

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