Tuning Your Drumset
Regardless of the size of a drum or what its drum head is made of, the fundamentals of getting a good sound out of a drum are the same. You need to tune your drum to its sweet spot in order for it to sound its best. The sweet spot is simply the pitch where the drum resonates best. This spot varies from drum to drum based upon size, the construction of the shell, and the type of head that you use.
Finding the sweet spot is fairly easy: Just adjust the pitch a little bit at a time until the sound is clear and without a lot of overtones (higher pitched sounds that the drum creates, which are usually hidden behind the fundamental tone of the drum). After it’s tuned well, you shouldn’t need to dampen (stop from vibrating) the head with tape or an internal system in order to lessen the overtones because there won’t be any.
If you use the techniques in this article to tune your drums and still can’t get the sound you want, more than likely your heads are the problem. A few people do seem to have a drum-tuning deficiency. If you’re one of the few who can’t seem to tune your drum, don’t hang your head in shame; just find someone who can do it for you and then ask that person to teach you.
Tuning a drum with lugs
Got a wrench and a few minutes? Well, that’s all you need to tune up your lug-tuned drum. Lug-tuned drums are by far the most common style these days; drummers use lugs on all drumsets and many hand and stick drums. For the most part, drums with this type of tuning system are pretty straightforward to tune.
Start by removing the drumhead and the rim from your drum, and putting the drum on the floor. Wipe the edge of the shell with a dry cloth to get off any dirt or dust. Next, put the head on the drum and then the rim over that. Then follow these steps:
1. Tighten the lugs by hand until they’re as tight as you can get them.
Work the lugs by going across the drum as you go around. Start with the lug at the top (12 o’clock position), go to the lug at the six o’clock position, back up to the one o’clock position, to the seven o’clock position, and so forth until you go all the way around. This method ensures that you get the head evenly set on all sides.
2. Press down on the rim over each lug as you tighten it further by hand, following the same pattern around the drum.
3. After all the lugs are fully tightened by hand, gently press on the center of the head with your palm until you hear some cracking from glue on the head (be careful not to push too hard).
This pushing seats the head and forces it to make full contact with the shell.
4. Using the drum key (tuning wrench), work around the drum in the same manner described in previous steps and tighten each lug one-quarter to one-half a turn until all the wrinkles are out of the head.
This process should take only one or two times around the drum.
5. Check the drum’s pitch (how high or low the sound is) by hitting the drum in the center of the head.
6. Continue going around the head using one-quarter turns until you get to a pitch that rings freely.
If you notice overtones or if the pitch isn’t really clear, lightly tap the head with your stick about one inch in from each lug. The lugs should all be the same pitch. Adjust any that are out of pitch with the others until all are the same.
Repeat this procedure on the bottom head if you have double-headed drums. Some like to get both heads tuned to the same pitch, but other people tune the bottom head slightly higher or lower than the top head. Experiment and see what you prefer.
Tuning a drum with a rope system
Rope-tuned drums look hard to tune but they’re really not. In some ways, they’re actually easier to tune than drums with lugs, because you don’t have to worry about getting the drum in tune with itself.
The process for tuning a drum with a rope system is pretty simple. All you have to do is untie the loose end (usually the long section) from the rope so that it’s free. You can find this section by noticing where the end of the rope is that’s strung around the drum. To raise the pitch, feed the loose end of the rope under the next two vertical strands (keep the rope taut where it was initially tied off). Next, loop the rope back across the second strand to the first and go under that one again. Hold the drum securely (maybe by resting your knee on it) and pull the rope tight until the first strand crosses the second and the rope is straightened out. Continue this procedure until you have the drum at the desired pitch. Tie off the loose end of the rope, and you’re set to play!
Tuning the untunable
Many frame drums are untunable — they don’t have a hardware system that allows you to adjust the tension on the head. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you can’t adjust the pitch of the drum — you can as long as the drum has a natural skin head.
Because natural hide heads are affected by temperature and humidity, you can use these factors to adjust the tension on the head of your drum. Higher temperatures and lower humidity result in the head becoming more tense, thus producing a higher pitched sound. Likewise, lower temperatures and higher humidity result in a lower pitched sound. In most cases, you find that your drum drops in pitch, sometimes to the point where all you get is a “thud” when you hit it. This drop in pitch is especially evident in thinner-headed drums.
To raise the pitch of your untunable drum, place it in sunlight for a little while until the head warms up a bit. You can also hold it over a heat source for a couple of minutes (some people use a hair dryer). Be careful though: If you put the drum too close to extreme heat or leave it in the hot sun too long, the head will break. If you want to lower the pitch of an untunable drum, put it in the bathroom, close the door, and turn on the shower (don’t put the drum in the shower though!). The humidity in the room will drop the pitch of the drum.
These are both temporary solutions to tuning an untunable drum. The drumhead will eventually readjust to its natural pitch, as determined by the humidity and temperature in your room.