Every musician has their own preference about the sound of their instrument. Drummers are certainly no exception. Learning drum tuning is as important a skill as learning how to hold a pair of sticks. Drums tuned incorrectly can make even the best kit sound like a cheap toy drum set. Experienced drummers frequently tune their drums to achieve the sound that they want. When you first learn how to tune drums, the process may seem tedious and time-consuming, but like any skill, practice makes perfect. Tuning your drums will soon be as easy as putting your kit together.
Let's start with the basics. You probably already know that the top head of a drum is referred to as the batter head, and the head underneath the drum is called the bottom head, or resonant head. As we said before, tuning is largely a matter of personal preference, but there are some universal practices that are generally followed. When tuning the snare drum, the resonant head is often tuned slightly higher than the batter head. The batter head of a tom is tuned relatively equally to its resonant head. Tuning does not affect the sound of the bass drum as greatly, but does affect the rebound of the pedal. Consider tuning the bass drum to achieve the lowest possible sound.
Before you begin to tune a new drum head, wipe the rim of the drum to get rid of any dust or dirt. Start by placing the resonant head on the resonant side and tightening it just enough so that the lug meets the washer, then loosen it a quarter turn. Never tighten the lugs in a circular pattern! Start with one lug and then tighten the lug across from it. Continue moving to the next lug across the drum in a star pattern. Next, in this same pattern, tighten each lug half a turn. Repeat this step three times, then hit the head to check for a clear sound. You may need to tighten the lugs another quarter turn or so to get a clear sound. Tap the head about an inch and a half away from each lug, and tighten the lug as needed to get matching sounds at each point. If you come across a lug that is too high, lower the lug a bit, and then tighten it up to match the pitch.
Many tuning methods recommend seating the drum head at this point. You can do this by pushing lightly on the center of the head to make sure the head seals around the drum. Repeat this process on the batter side. Always remember to tune the heads in small increments, checking the tone as you go.
Learning drum tuning takes patience, and experimentation. There are also some extremely detailed guides that you can read, such as Mike Michalkow's Drum Tuning System, that explain the science behind drum tuning, and the construction of the drum as it relates to tuning. Learn as much as you can about tuning your drum kit.
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Tuning drums can be one of the most difficult things for a drummer of any skill level to learn. Teaching it through text based lessons can not only be confusing but very frustrating. For all your drum tuning needs, and for loads of information on how to tune drums I highly encourage you to check out Mike Michalkow's Drum Tuning System. It is a double disc DVD set, over 4 hours long. This is the most comprehensive and exciting drum tuning package ever created.