How To Tune a Drum Kit

One question we always get asked is “How do I tune my drum kit?” There’s no doubt that tuning drums can often seem like something of a dark art.

There are whole books dedicated to finding the perfect drum sound. However, the fundamental principles on how to tune a drum kit are fairly simple...

Jed Van Wyngaardt

Jed Van Wyngaardt

What will I learn?

  • How drum heads affect the tuning of a drum kit.
  • How to tune your drum kit.
  • The best way to tune your drum kit if you aren’t comfortable doing so by ear.
  • What ‘dampening’ does to your drum sound

Drum Heads

The correct choice of drum head is arguably the most important part of getting a good drum sound. A good set of heads can make the most basic kits sound amazing while poor quality and badly tuned heads will always sound unpleasant. Remo and Evans are two of the biggest names in drum heads and make a wide range of great quality drum skins that have the potential to make your kit sound great.

Evans Drum Head

Tuning Basics

  • To get a well tuned drum kit you need to achieve several goals. First, each head must be in tune with itself. Second, the batter (top) and resonant (bottom) heads must be in tune with each other. Finally, each drum must be in tune with the kit as a whole.
  • A drum head is in tune with itself when there is an even tension across the head. You can be sure that this is the case when the pitch created by striking the drum head next to each tension rod is the same. It can also be beneficial to tune each head to a specific pitch, e.g. tuning a snare drum batter head to a C.
  • Tuning the resonant and batter heads to one another depends on the pitch interval between them. If our snare batter head is at a C we could tune the resonant head to the A below (a minor 3rd). Tuning the bottom head lower will generally create a deeper sound, and higher will make the drum more open and resonant. There is no right choice of interval and you should experiment until you find a sound you like.
  • When considering the kit as a whole, the pitches of each drum should compliment one another. You can even consider tuning the kit to a musical scale: Our snare drum tuned to a C (dominant) could be accompanied by a kick tuned to an F (tonic) and toms tuned to other notes of the F major scale.
  • When deciding on a scale to tune to you should be sympathetic to the key of the song being played. This concept is particularly effective when recording one song at a time in the studio, though when playing multiple songs live it becomes harder to find a tuning to match each.

How to Tune a Drum Kit – Step By Step

  1. Begin with both heads removed and first wipe down the bearing edge of the shell. The bearing edge is the angled edge of the drum shell where it meets the drum skin. Any debris here can damage the shell when the head is in place and affect the sound of the drum.
  2. Now take either head, fit it on the drum and place the hoop on top. Take each tension rod and screw them in until they are finger tight. Make sure you tension them evenly as this will make the rest of the tuning easier.
  3. Using a drum key, tighten each tension rod by 1 turn. Work across the drum tightening opposite rods, i.e. start at 12 o’clock (1 turn), 6 o’clock (1 turn) and move around the drum until you’re back to your starting point. This should be repeated until the drum skin is somewhere close to your target pitch.
  4. Now to fine tune, tap the drum head at each tension rod, about 1 inch from the rim and listen to the pitch. Move around the drum and consider which tension rods need to be tightened or loosened so they all are at the target pitch. Continue tapping, listening, tightening and loosening all around the drum until the pitches are the same and you are satisfied with the sound.
  5. Repeat this for each head on each drum of the kit.

Dampening

The final thing to consider is dampening the drums. This can help eliminate any nasty overtones and is done by restricting the vibration of the drum head. You can buy products such as Moongel to do this, which sticks to the drum head and does a great job of controlling its sound. Alternatively you can stick tape (usually gaffer tape) to the head, which I find is improved by sandwiching some tissue, sponge or a spare cymbal felt between the tape and the head.

  • MOONGEL
  • Moongel Damper Pads
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  • Other Drum Accessories
  • Moongel Damper PadsEvery drummers been in the same situation - theres an annoying ring on one of your drums and you cant get rid of it 5 minutes before you play. Many people have resorted to gaffa tape or taping toilet paper to your skins, where the tape leaves horrible marks and basically ruins the skin.RTOM developed Moongel - a sticky damper designed to do the job of toilet paper - but properly! A unique design that works on drums and cymbals, Moongel is something every drummer should have in his stick bag.Heres what RTOM say about MoongelThe worlds most highly acclaimed resonance control device ever designed, is effective, simple and versatile.When only the most effective means of controlling a percussion instruments sound will do, percussionists turn to the Moongel Damper Pad. The self-adhesive gel sticks to the surface of drums, cymbals, and most percussion instruments. The possibilities are endless, by simply moving the damper pad around the surface, you can eliminate any unwanted resonance, and obtain the exact sound the situation demands.The damper pad is washable and will retain its stickiness for years of service. The Moongel Damper Pad is made from a soft non-toxic gel, and is packaged in a durable plastic container. Drummers and sound studios around the world utilize this award-winning product.*Application Notes: The Moongel Damper Pad can be cut to any desirable size for those situations that call for a minimum amount of damping. For maximum resonance control place one damper pad at 12 oclock or 6 oclock, and a second damper pad at 3 oclock or 9 oclock.
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Some drummers like to put rugs, pillows or even duvets in to their kick drums to dampen them. Be careful though, dampening your bass drum too drastically will really it’s impact. Instead of being that pounding four-to-the-floor sound you were after, it will be lost in the mix. It’s also worth bearing in mind that you cannot easily remove these items mid-gig without having to re-tune your bass drum!

Your Sound

Now we’ve covered how to tune a drum kit, it’s time to look at what sound you want. You might be wondering how much difference tuning can actually make. Below is a video we made comparing two snare drums. Each snare drum was tuned three different ways to get an idea of the full range of their sonic-character.

 

Drum Keys

Make sure you’re never without the most essential tool in any drummer’s toolkit.

  • SC4244
  • Gibraltar Drum Key
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  • Gibraltar Drum Key. 1/4 socket fits all standard drum key tension rods.Gibraltar offers a large variety of drum accessories. When it comes to drum keys they have something to fit any need you might have for tuning your drums, replacing heads, high torque, drum racks, etc.
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  • K60
  • Stagg Drum Key Snare and Tom Tuning Tool
  • https://www.andertons.co.uk/stagg-drum-key-k60
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  • Square fit Drum key to tune Drums and Percussion. With key ring hole so you can take the Drum Key with you without losing it!
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  • SC4248
  • Gibraltar Speed Key Drum Key
  • https://www.andertons.co.uk/gibraltar-speed-key-drum-key-sc4248
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  • Gibraltar
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  • Gibraltar
  • Gibraltar Speed Key SC4248 Drum KeyCrank-shaped drum key to speed head changes. 1/4 socket.
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Drum Tuners

A lot of drummers do their tuning by ear. If you’re not as confident, or want to try more ambitious tunings we have some great drum tuners to help you out!

  • DRUMDIAL
  • DrumDial Precision Drum Tuner
  • https://www.andertons.co.uk/drum-dial-precision-drum-tuner-drumdial
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  • Drum Tuning Just Got Easier!Timpani, snare drums, rack toms and bass drums are all easily tuned without even hitting the drum head. DrumDial does this by measuring Timpanic Pressure - not tension rod torque. All drum users will appreciate the ability to accurately tune their drums, again and again, especially in loud environments.DrumDial quickly and precisely tunes all drums by accurately measuring drumhead tension NOT tension rod torque. Tension rod torque can be used to tell you when you are over tightening a bolt to prevent thread damage, but is not accurate for drum tuning because of the difference in screw tolerances, plating, corrosion, and thread wear. You can eliminate these problems by using a DrumDial to measure drumhead tension directly from the drumhead, allowing you to precisely tune your drums faster and easier than ever before. DrumDial has been designed and manufactured to the highest quality standards with all the key features you would expect from the best drum tuner available. Get the tuner that really works, get a DrumDial and make it possible for your drums to consistently sound great!Standard FeaturesThe DrumDial Edge Gage. A locking bezel with moveable locators for easy marking of your tuning range A lug back for improved handling A soft foam lined box to protect the tuner Easy to read gage and a precision mechanism for fast, accurate tuning. Who Can Benefit From a DrumDial?Professionals, teachers, students, sound techs and studio techs have all benefited from the speed and ease of drum tuning with a DrumDial. We offer the highest quality drum tuner at an affordable price, making it possible for your drums to consistently sound great!AdvantagesSilent Operation Tuning Accuracy Ability to Repeatedly Tune to a Particular Pitch Easily Tunes in Loud Surroundings Compact and User Friendly Measures Timpanic Pressure, not Tension Rod Torque
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  • TBG001
  • Tune-bot Gig Drum Tuner
  • https://www.andertons.co.uk/tune-bot-gig-drum-tuner-tbg001
  • https://andertons-productimages.imgix.net/105185-tmpE563.jpg?w=400&h=400&&fit=fill&bg=FFFFFF
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  • Pearl
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  • Other Drum Accessories
  • In 2012 Overtone Labs revolutionized drum tuning with the introduction of the Tune-Bot, the industry’s first digital tuner for acoustic drums. Now after three years of additional research and design Overtone Labs has introduced the new Tune-Bot Gig, the fastest, easiest and best way to tune your drums.The Gig features a large LCD display and is optimized for ease of use in the studio, on stage or in your practice room at home. The redesigned clip easily attaches to any standard drum hoop and the new silver body is easier to spot in your gig bag.Specificationssignature tune-bot accuracy and precisionquickly tune acoustic drumsclip it ontap the drummatch the lugsclips to any standard drum hoopsimple compact designlarge LCD displayoptimized for ease of usesinge-button mode switching
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Conclusion

I like to experiment with the sounds of my drums and it’s good practice to search out sounds you haven’t heard before. Experimentation lets you find new timbres that will change your sound and ultimately the way you play. After all it’s no fun if we all sound the same.

However, if you are tuning your kit for a specific purpose it’s worth doing some research in to the genre you like to play. What do your favourite drummers do? Listen to songs in the same style. Do your research and get an an idea of the drum sound you are aiming for.

Your playing environment will also affect your sound, the acoustics of different rooms will change the sound of your kit. So in a brighter sounding room you may want to tune the kit down to make it darker and vice versa.

Finally you should consider the musicians you’re playing with. Tune your kit to compliment the rest of the band, trust me it’ll make a world of difference.

Ever wondered how to make drums sound quieter? Read our ‘7 Ways To Make Drums Quieter‘ guide!

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Jed Van Wyngaardt
Jed Van Wyngaardt
Jed has worked on our shop floor, handled guitar content on the site and now leads the digital content team. He's equal parts rock frontman/guitarist in Pandora Fox and wannabe folk singer-songwriter. Jed's a PRS, Tele and Orange Amps lover with an unhealthy obsession with fuzz, octave and ambient effects.

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