Drum Tuning - The Snare Drum
Ahh yes... the snare drum. The most heavily played drum throughout the kit. The snare drum is the center piece, and it can very easily define a drummers style. From a deep thud to a tight snap; maple, birch, bronze, steel, and everywhere in between; the overall sound of this instrument is as varied as ice cream flavors and can be just as sweet if tuned correctly.
This tutorial assumes you are putting new drum heads on your snare. If you're using older heads and want to follow the tutorial, just evenly loosen the tension rods on both sides of the drum and remove the rods, hoops, and heads to start anew.
Do's and Dont's
- Find the head suited for your style of playing
- Use fine increments when tuning up your drum head (1/4-1/2 turns)
- Use John Good's 'pistol fingers' method when tuning by ear (described in Fine Tuning)
- Don't attempt to break in the head by applying pressure with your hands!!!
- Avoid muffling the drum (find the head that will provide the sound you desire)
- Don't tap at random (w/ fingers, stick, drum key, etc.) when listening for overtones
First Things First
I prefer to begin with the resonant or bottom side of the drum. This lets us focus on the fundamental pitch of the drum first, so that's where we'll start.
The first step to tuning a snare, or any drum for that matter, is clearing the bearing-edge of debris. Most commonly they are dirt, grease, and wood chips from sticks.
Just use a clean cotton cloth (micro-fiber if you're fancy) and run around the edge of the drum. This provides a nice clean contact between drum head and bearing-edge.
Seating The Head
The most important thing you can do to ensure that your snare tunes up correctly and will stay in tune, is properly seating the head. While this may sound like a 'no-brainer', most drummers either overlook this step or just assume that by placing the head on the drum and rotating it a couple times, that they've seated the head correctly.
A properly seated drum head is one that is centered on the drum shell, and at an equal distance from the ring of the head to the bearing edge throughout the diameter of the drum. This allows the hoop of the drum to apply an even amount of downward pressure on all sides of the drum head and prevents over tensioning of a single side.
It sounds far more difficult than it is when put into words. Just place the drum head on the shell, secure the hoop atop the drum head, then, eye down over the drum and adjust its position until the distance between the hoops edge and the bearing edge are equal around the drum.
In most cases, the resonant head is clear and this can be accomplished visually. If your working with a coated head (like most snare batters), place your fingers on the underside of the hoop and feel for the distance between the hoops bottom edge and the drum shell. The idea is the same, just make sure the gap between the two is equal on opposite sides of the drum.
After seating the head, thread in the tension rods until they are almost touching the hoop. At this point make sure that you haven't moved the head around while threading the tension rods, throwing off your seating. If the head has moved, just repeat the previous steps to ensure that the head is seated correctly and will receive even tension.
Now grab a set of tension rods on opposing sides of the drum with your fingers and begin tightening them until you feel they are snug on the hoop. This is commonly referred to as 'finger tight'. Don't overdo it though. From there, skip over one tension rod in a counter-clockwise fashion and grab the following set of tension rods bringing them to a finger tight position. Repeat this around the drum until all rods are finger tight.
When all rods are finger-tight, break out the drum key and pick a tension rod. I like to begin with the rod at the 12 o'clock position. Begin by turning the key 1/4 of a turn. Move to the tension rod on the opposite side of the drum (the 6 o'clock position in my case) and turn it 1/4 of a turn just as before. Again, in a counter-clockwise fashion, skip over a rod and land on the following one. Turn this tension rod 1/4 of a turn. From this rod, move across the drum to the opposing tension rod and turn it 1/4 of a turn. Are you sensing a pattern yet?
The Star Formation
This is known as the star formation of tuning. It ensures that you evenly tension down the hoop in a consistent pattern. As illustrated in the image to the right, the pattern is dependent on the number of lugs the drum you're tuning has. Six and ten lug drums are the easiest. The only alteration when dealing with a ten lug drum is to skip over two rods instead of only one. For eight and (the rare) twelve lug drums it gets a little more complicated, but is the same practice.Just refer to this chart for the proper pattern.
The Desired Pitch
When all tension rods around the head have received your first 1/4 turn, you have made your first pass. Of course 1/4 turn on each rod is going to result in a very loose and lifeless head. In general four to six passes are required to bring a snares resonant head up to tension. This is where personal preference comes into play. If you want your snare to have more body and sustain, four passes should be plenty. If you'd like your snare to have more snap and snare wire response, really cranking down the hoop with five to six passes should suffice.
This is why I prefer starting on the resonant side of the drum. Here we can find the desired pitch we want our snare to be set at. There\'s no one correct pitch to tune your drum to, it's all dependent on the sound you're after and what is pleasing to your ears.
Now that our resonant head is at the desired pitch, let's make sure the tension at each rod is even.
If the opposite head is on the drum while fine tuning, remember to mute it with carpet, pillow, etc.
Tuning By Ear-
One form of achieving this is tuning by ear. Simply stated, this is closely listening to the overtones that are sounded by tapping near each tension rod and matching those pitches around the drum. John Good of DW Drums has a method which I prefer. It involves using both pointer and middle finger together (like making finger pistols) and tapping over each lug so that the center knuckle of your middle finger hits directly on the hoop and the tip of that finger strikes the head. This results in a far more accurate striking position when moving around the drum rather than tapping at random with your finger, stick, or drum key. Listen to the overtones of each respective rod and find the one (or multiple ones) that you prefer. When matching the rest of the overtones remember this one simple rule-
Always tune UP to pitch, never down.
If a tension rods overtone is too high, loosen it by 1/4 turn, tap with your 'finger pistol', and bring it up to the desired pitch matching that of the other rods.
Tuning With A Tension Watch-
If you don't have perfect pitch, or would like to make this process a little easier on yourself, look into purchasing a drum tension watch. I personally use the Drum Dial. They make both an analog and digital version. My experience lies with the analog version and I love it for fast and easy fine tuning. On Snare, I find that a reading between 80-85 on the resonant head is just right, though this is entirely dependent on the drum head. With an Evans Hazy 300, a reading of 83 is perfect.
Keep in mind that the resonant side of the snare drum most likely has snare beds. These allow the snare wires to sit flush with the head and improve their response. The downside is, they make it difficult to accurately fine tune the resonant head of a snare drum. If you find that the tension is low near the rods located at the snare beds, don't fret. Just make sure the same amount of passes have been made for all tension rods and the overtones of the rods NOT at the snare beds are the same.
With the resonant head seated properly, at the desired pitch, and fine tuned, we can move on to the batter head.
They're a couple of ways to approach the batter head.
- Batter head tuned at a medium tension (More body and sustain/ less pop and snare wire response)
- Batter head tuned at a higher tension (More 'snap, crackle, pop' and snare wire response/ less body and sustain)
With either of these methods, just follow the previous steps we went over on the resonant head, making sure the bearing-edge is clean and the head is seated properly.
Begin tensioning with the same 1/4 turn passes in the star formation.
For More Body-
For a full-bodied snare sound, stick with three or four passes. You want to make sure the head is resonating but not cranked down too much. If tuning by ear, find a pitch that pleases you and match the overtones at each tension rod, just as we did with the resonant. If using a tension watch, aim for a reading between 80-85. Again, this really depends on the head you are using, but try to keep its pitch relatively low.
For More Crack-
For a snare sound with more crack, use four to six passes. You'll know when your there as you hear the head cracking (This is a good sound if this is the style your after! Don't be afraid, it's just the head conforming to the bearing-edge of the shell). If tuning by ear, pay close attention to the overtones in the higher frequency range or the 'ping' sound emitted at each tension rod. Match the overtones at each tension rod just as before. If using a tension watch, you want a reading of 90 .
Tension responds in an exponential manner. This means that at a lower tension a single pass can bring the overall pitch of the drum up several semitones, while at higher tensions, a single pass may only increase the heads pitch by a single semitone or less.
Remember, the goal is to find what sounds good to YOUR ears and not obsess over the minor details. Like any practice, the more you do it, the better your results will be!
About the Author
Gregory A. Hill - Musician, Audio Engineer, Producer.
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