Taken from UK RHYTHM magazine August 2006
Welcome back to my series on drum tuning. Last month I talked about the basic philosophies behind my approach, and this month we are going to get stuck in by looking at how to tune the bass drum. Before we start, I should share with you some of the ideas and ‘rules’ that I apply to bass drum tuning.
Firstly, as I mentioned in the opening article, I’m looking to maximise resonance and projection, particularly the latter. However, I am aware that this can cause concern and raised eyebrows among many drummers because, ‘Aren’t we supposed to make them solid and punchy with no rumble?’
Well, yes, up to a point. For example, many drummers will debate the whys and wherefores of portholes in the front skin. I don’t usually use one, in the studio of in a live setting, and there have been a few occasions where the sound engineer has taken some, er, persuading as to the advantages of that approach.
I’m not saying holes shouldn’t be used. They certainly have a place particularly if you want sound with particular emphasis on the beater attack, but often drummers use them ‘just because’. I hope to demonstrate that with good tuning and the right head choices, it is very possible and often highly desirable to keep the front head completely intact. After all, how many of you put holes in the bottoms of your toms?
I will say this however: If you do use a hole, do not use more than one hole, and preferably keep it to a maximum of 5”. Two ports of this size can look funky, but you might as well remove the front head altogether for all the good they will do to your sound. Secondly, more low end and projection will always be attained with a resonant head with no holes.
If you are concerned about miking, you will be surprised at how effective the sound can be with the mic placed in the usual position, just a couple of inches away from the head, particularly if you take the time to really tune the front head. Drummers will often have the front head too slack, and a bit of time spent taking the tension up a few notches will result in a lovely punchy and focused tone.
Next we come to the issue dampening. – Pillows, cushions, blankets, felt strips etc.
Once again, I don’t use any such devices but rely entirely on head choice to achieve the desired sound. As a general note, try to think about the environment in which you are playing before grabbing the nearest duvet! In the majority of cases, when playing in a live situation, such heavy dampening just isn’t necessary. If you are in recording mode then some extra help (particularly on larger bass drums - 24” or 26”) may well be useful, but otherwise, do try to keep things to a minimum and allow your bass drum to breathe.
Once again, the issue is one of projection and tone. Dampened bass drums can sound great from the playing side - particularly if you are playing the kit on its own - but out front once the band strikes up, the bass frequencies can become lost in the mix. So give yourself a good chance of being heard with clarity.
Head choice As I mentioned above, I gain control of my sound by selecting the appropriate heads for the drum and environment. But don’t worry, this doesn’t mean having to carry around an endless supply of different head types. This would not only cost too much money, it would be too much hassle! For the most part, if you choose the right heads for your drum and sound needs in the first place, it’ll be an effective combination regardless of playing situation. You may have to tweak the tuning, but that’s what this is all about, right?!
First off, we’ll need to review the seating process. I use the same method for the batter and front head, which is to place the head on and tighten tuning rods to finger tight, in opposite pairs. Then I stand in the centre to really stretch the head out. Once you’ve done this, go back and check that all the rods are still finger tight. With a new head, you will almost certainly find that one or two have loosened a little. If you have a hole in your front head, then the standing and stretching might be a little foolish! If the hole is off-centre, leaning on the skin while pressing in the centre with your hands, will suffice. If you have the hole in the centre (naughty!), then you ill have to forego this part!
Onto the tuning Ideally we tune the batter head first. With the resonant head off the drum, unless tuning mid-gig. Again, start finger tight and turn all the rods in turn (you’ll need to press the centre with the palm of he hand on drums this large), until you’ve removed all the wrinkles. Tension progressively (i.e. a little at a time on each trip around the drum - half turns with the key at a time should do it), and don’t try to crank each rod!
At this point, this level of tension for a batter head can prove to be enough for many players (me included), but if you want a more bouncy feel, take the head up half a turn up on each rod. Now tap gently around the head (about 2”-3” in from the edge) and check that the pitch is even all the way round. Don’t get overcritical with this, just make sure there aren’t any obvious differences and adjust where necessary. If you do insist on dampening the bass drum, this is the time to do it. A small rolled-up towel placed toward the front (resonant head), will generally suffice. It can sometimes be useful to dampen both heads, particularly for close miking, so depending on the heads you’ve chosen) it may be helpful to add a similar sized towel to the batter head. Attach the towel to the inside of the drum (not the head itself) so that the towel will rest against the front head once you’ve put it on, and hen put on the front head.
If possible, repeat the seating procedure used on the batter head and return to finger tight. Press in the centre, as before, and remove the wrinkles. Now, this is where it gets really interesting! I have found that many drummers pay very little attention to the resonant head on a bass drum, which is a real shame as this is the key head when it comes to a great bass drum sound. Turn your bass drum over into the playing position, engage spurs and attach your favorite bass drum pedal. At this point we haven’t actually done any tuning as such, we’ve just removed the wrinkles and evened out the pitch on the heads.
Remember what I said about tuning for your audience? Well, here’s how to go about doing so. Tuning a bass drum so that it sounds how you want it to out front can be difficult. After all we play it from behind, right?! Many of us will have tried the ‘get the bass player to play the drum as I stand out front’ routine, I’m sure. But what if no one is about? Or worse still, what if you are unfortunate enough to have to tune your bass drum early one morning? The bass player will still be in bed!
So, what do you do? Well, I lie down on the floor with one foot on the bass pedal and my head and hands facing the front skin. I play slow and steady pulse with my right foot and start working on the front head to dial in the sound I want. I fully appreciate that this approach means the bass drum will be struck differently when you’re playing, but at least you get a chance to hear the pitch, tone and general resonance of the drum for yourself.
When tuning the front head, you will notice two things. First and not surprisingly, the pitch will start to go up, but perhaps more importantly, the clarity and focus of the sound will improve. With both heads at the starting point, you’ll most likely get loads of low end rumble, but very little definition. Some players like this, and that’s fine, but if you prefer a more focused or more punchy sound, then persevere and very gently increase the tension of the front head. You may well be very pleasantly surprised.
So, there you have it. The simple basis of my approach to tuning bass drums. As always, you should treat this system purely as a foundation from which to work and be prepared to experiment - trying out different tunings and different heads will help get the sound you want.