Some Really Geeky Stuff About Drum Tuning...

Where do we start?
For many, drum tuning can be a confusing and perplexing endeavour. I think the two main reasons for this are firstly, that drums are not tuned to a specific pitch so we don’t really have definitive sound to aim for. Unlike tuning a guitar for example, drum tuning has as much to do with the colour and timbre of the sound as it does with the pitch. Secondly, a drum with two skins is a surprisingly complex system and it really requires a systematic approach to tune one effectively.c

So whilst tuning drums is ultimately a matter of personal taste - your sound is an important part of your musical self-expression - having at least a basic understanding of the principles of drum tuning will enable you to achieve a good sound quickly and consistently.

Every musical instrument possesses a natural range within in which its sound is most resonant and true. This is called its tessitura. For a drum, the tessitura is determined by factors such as diameter, depth, thickness, shell material and bearing edge shape. Whilst some drummers deliberately tune outside this range, it is most common to tune a drum within its tessitura, as this is where you'll find the sounds with the greatest volume, projection and sustain.

Installing the head
Once you've selected the right drumhead (see Lesson 5), the first step to fitting and tuning it is to remove the old head and install the new one:

1. Grab your drum key and start by loosening all of the tension rods. Take off the rim and then remove the old head.

2. Using a clean soft cloth, gently wipe the bearing edge, removing any dirt or debris that might have built up.

3. Take your new drumhead and place it over the drum.

4. Replace the hoop and using your fingers, screw the tension rods into the nutboxes. Tighten each one as much as you can by just using your fingers.

Seating the Head
The next stage is seat the head. This allows the collar of the drumhead to form comfortably around the bearing edge of the shell and also counters the effects of any excess glue which might have built up in the glue ring during manufacture - something that might cause the head to detune unnecessarily when played.

5. Following the tuning sequence below, tighten each tension rod in order, by one whole turn.

6. Continue this step until the head is reasonably tight (and probably much higher in pitch than desired)

7. Place the palm of your hand in the centre of the drumhead and gently put your weight onto the head, causing it to stretch. Don’t worry if you hear a cracking sound – that’s just the excess glue that we mentioned earlier, breaking away from the glue ring.

8. In sequence detune the head completely and repeat steps 1 to 4. You’re then ready to tune the head.

Tuning the head
9. Place the drum on a carpet, pillow or drumstool in order to muffle the resonant head. Then, following the tuning sequence below, tighten each tension rod by a quarter of a turn.

10. Repeat this process, each time checking the pitch of the drum.

11. Once the drum is at the desired pitch, check the pitch at each tension rod by tapping the head gently with the drum key or stick close to the edge of the rim.

12. Still working in sequence, fine-tune each tension rod, either up or down, until the pitch at each one is the same. Note that if you have to tune down, it’s better to detune a little more than necessary and then tune back up to the desired pitch.

Once all of the tension rods are at equal tension/pitch, the drum will be in tune. Simply repeat the process with the resonant head.

Tuning Sequences
As we tighten the tension rods, in order to ensure a gradual, even tension and stop the head moving off centre, many drummers advocate tuning the drum in a specific sequence. The particular sequence used depends on the number of lugs that the drum has.

So rather than tune the lugs in a clockwise sequence or even work randomly, I would recommend following the sequences shown below:

Relative Tension
Obviously, it is very important to get each head in tune ‘with itself’ in order eradicate unwanted overtones and produce a purer tone. However, it is the relative tension of the batter and resonant heads that really determines the timbral quality of the drum’s sound.

In general, tuning both the batter and resonant heads to the same pitch will yield the most pure tone with the greatest volume and sustain although, by understanding how the interaction between the heads affects a drums sound, you are expanding the the sonic possibilities available to you when you tune your drums. The table below illustrates that relationship for a drum with identical heads on the top and bottom and based on the drum being tuned within its natural range:

Sound Properties

Relative Tension

Greatest volume, sustain and tonal purity. Moderate articulation and stick response

Both heads the same

Good articulation, deep tone and possibility of subtle descending pitch bend

Top head higher than bottom

Pronounced attack, projection and possibility of subtle ascending pitch bend

Top head lower than bottom

Tuning devices
There are a number of devices on the market that are designed to make the job of drum tuning much easier. In my experience, in spite of being far from infallible, such devices can help make the tuning process quicker, not to mention more consistent. Another thing that makes them extremely useful is that they enable you to tune your drums reasonably well without actually playing them – something that’s particularly useful if you have to tune a drum in a noisy environment or in a situation where you cannot make any sound.

Broadly speaking such devices work on one of two principles:

Torque-measuring drum tuners
Some devices, such as the Evans Torque Drum Key can be set to ‘release’ once the torque required to turn a tension rod reaches a certain level. The theory being that if you tighten each tension rod to the same preset point, the drumhead will be evenly tuned.

Tension-measuring drum tuners
Some devices, such as the Drum Dial are placed on the head and measure tympanic pressure. Much like when we’re tuning manually and test the pitch of the drumhead at each tension rod, the idea is that if the tympanic pressure of the head at each point is equal, then the head will be in tune.

Whether or not you subscribe to the use a tuning device, you will still be the one who has to decide which heads to use, what pitch to tune them to and what should be the relative tension between the batter and the resonant. In other words, you’ll have to have a clear idea of the kind of a sound you want. A tuning device might help you get the desired results a little quicker and a little more consistently but in my experience, they will only take you so far and in the end, it’s always necessary to fine tune by ear.