Drum Tuning, Choice of Heads, and Controlling Sustain

You will no doubt be aware that with the start of each new month, comes a new recording topic from JZ Microphones and this month, what better topic to help you build and advance your recordings than Drum Recording!


During this month, I’m going to be covering some of the most important things you can focus on, to help you shape your drum recordings more effectively than you have been used to. 


So, without further ado, let’s dive in!


Tuning & Controlling Sustain

I would argue this is quite possibly the most important factor other than a competent drummer. Many have discussed what the hierarchy of importance is when it comes to recording drums, but an agreed notion is that a half decent kit will sound good enough for a record with the proper tuning. 


For a long time, actually, I was totally oblivious to the best ways to tune each part of the kit until I stumbled upon some information that totally changed the game for me; the notion of tuning to a key, like any other instrument, had never occurred to me and now I can’t go back. That being said, it can be an acquired taste, so if you already have a preference, try this of course, but don’t feel it's the be all and end all - trust your ears and if it sounds good, then it’s good! 


The way I like to tune is by first knowing the sizes of the shells I’m working with, the wood ply, and the makeup of the kit in general. This is key and if it’s not something you’re familiar with, then it’s a perfect opportunity to learn more about the specifics of this sort of kit and the boundaries of it. Typically, though, I like a E note for the Snare, either an A or D for the Rack Tom (you can use both if you have say a 12 & 13 Inch Tom to work with), and finally a B or an E for the Floor Tom. Definity experiment with the Toms in particular and play with the notes each shell has including the Snare, in order to find something that fits best to your recording. 

 

With 13 Inch Toms, there's a large range of tunings you can choose depending on the genre of what you're recording so experiment with various notes.

 

If you’re a guitar player like myself, you’ll likely have noticed this is the same notes as a standard open E tuning and what most music is written in within, but rest assured that these notes will also favor pretty much any key you work within; the main thing to do is swap in and out the notes for each part of the kit and try not to repeat the same note (for example, an E on both the Snare and Floor Tom). 


The way you achieve this tuning is simple once you do it a few times, but for reference I’d recommend getting a tone generator as an app on your mobile phone, and working to these parameters below: 


  • You’ll want the Resonant head 3 semitones above the Batter head. In other words, the Batter head should be a looser tension to not just to achieve the tuning, but also reduce how much the stick bounces back when hit.
  • Let’s take a look at an example of a Rack Tom, in this case we’ll tune it to a D
    • If we want the note of D overall, we need to start with the Resonant (bottom) head first and tune to 1 Semitone below the intended pitch of the overall note - in this case, that would be a C#. 
    • Once you’ve tuned to the tone generator and are happy, you can turn the Tom over and now tune to 3 Semitones below the note you’ve just tuned to on the Batter Head (top). So if we take a C# and minus 3 Semitones, we end up with an A#. The notes you tune to, in this case C# and A#, should be a Minor 3rd apart. 
    • The Batter Head (top), needs to be lower in tension in order to control the sustain better, as well as it being much more comfortable to play.
    • Check the tuning on the Resonant head once you’re happy with both sides, and you should’ve ended up with a D as the overall note, now that the Rack Tom has created its own kind of tension equilibrium. 

A major benefit of this type of tuning is that it controls the sustain naturally as opposed to relying on Moon Gel, or worse duck tape, to null out the overtones inherent from an acoustic instrument such as the shells of a kit. Saying this however, Moon Gel is great if you’re still not happy with the length of decay from each shell, but try to be sparing with it unless you’re specifically after a very dry sound. Snare weights are a wonderful way of controlling the sustain of the snare in particular, and they play very well with Moon Gel if you need even more control! 


Choice Of Heads

The choice of what heads you choose will often rely heavily upon what the drummer in question prefers, but if they’re unaware as to what they like or they just go with whatever has been on this previously; I’ve always felt a sense of duty to educate and help them find something more suited to their play style if they’re open enough to the idea. 


A recent type of skin I’ve been using is part of the Remo line, the Emperor Black Suede, which has an incredible way of bringing out the natural ‘woodiness’ of the kit but also helps to control the sustain generously thanks to the coated double ply design. They market these on their website as having a warm sound and that really is exactly what it says in the tin, but these heads aren’t the only choice of course. 

The Remo Black Suede drum heads have become my favorite to work with in recent months.

 

Another very popular brand is that of Evans by D’Addario. As far as I’m aware, their most celebrated drum head is the G2 which has been refined over the years to make it into a staple of recording the world over. Unlike the Remo head described above, it doesn’t dullen the sustain as much, but it’s a sturdy, reliable skin, intended to be a workhorse for both studio and live applications; and when in doubt, this is the head I will almost always choose. 


A wonderful thing about drum heads is that there are simply so many designs to help you achieve the sounds that you hear in your head, but better still, they also invariably have other products such as the Moon Gel I mentioned earlier, available to use with them to help you shape your recordings exactly the way you would like to - and better yet, they’re designed to work with the majority of kits made in today’s world to allow you the freedom to experiment and choose your favorites. So that’s exactly what you should do! 


Drum Recording is a very vast topic to dive into, so I’d like to ask for your help before the end of this blog - tell me what you’re struggling with: is it sample replacement? Recording techniques? How to get started in the first place? 


There’s no wrong questions to ask and I’d love to help you all in your journey in recording, so please feel free to write to me at Harri@jzmic.com - until next time though, stay creative! 


German