The Studio Musician's Handbook. Here LA session drummer Bernie Dresel discusses a subject that still baffles many drummers - drum tuning.
Widely recognized for his fifteen years with The Brian Setzer Orchestra, Bernie now does a variety of studio work that goes anywhere from the television shows like The Simpsons and Family Guy, to movies like Speed Racer, to the Blues-Rock of Carl Verheyen to the big band sound of Gordon Goodwin Big Phat Band to R&B icons like Chaka Khan and Patti LaBelle, and to his own band Bern. You can check out his credits and more at myspace.com/berniedresel and berniedresel.com.
How about tuning your drums? Do you tune to intervals? Do you have a particular method for tuning?
There’s a lot of different theories about how a drum should sound, but the one that works best for me is when the top head is not exactly the same pitch as the bottom. The top head I tune about a minor third above the bottom head when you’re just barely tapping it right on the edge near the lug. Now it doesn’t always stay right there because the head might loosen a bit when you’re bashing on it, or the lugs might slip a little bit, but even if it drops a little to a second or a minor second, it’s still tuned above the bottom head.
Are you tuning the bottom head to the resonant frequency of the drum?
You mean like when you have both heads off and you hit your fist on the inside of the shell to hear it ring? DW actually writes that pitch in their shell to be sure that all the drums are timbre matched so that you get a different pitch on each shell and they’re not too close together. I’m not really sure how helpful that is as I’ve found that I usually don’t tune to that pitch.
Really, the biggest thing is that you don’t over-tighten and choke the drum or make it too loose because then it’s a rather flat sound. So I just try to get it within the sweet spot of a major third or so where you have some play yet it sounds good. Now if you were going to tune it up high like for a BeBop session, then you’d want it a little choked. So what I try to do between my three toms, the 12”, 14” and 16”, is to have them maybe a fourth apart in pitch and that way you don’t get an octave between the highest tom and the lowest and they sound musical together. You could do fifths, but then you’d have a ninth off the top tom and it just seems too far away in pitch. Now if you have a lot of toms then maybe tuning them a major third apart could work, but with three toms I think a fourth is good because all three are tuned within the same octave and a fifth is too much because then they’re not.
Again, when you hit the drum it starts to change so you just try to keep it in check over the course of a song or a gig, realizing that it’s never going to be perfect. The old days where you’d spend two days getting drum sounds actually seems ridiculous now, since after the 3rd hour of getting sounds you’ll hear, “OK, let’s change the heads” (laughs). Today it might take 15 minutes or a half-hour or even three minutes to get a drum sound. Before you know it you hear, “OK, we’re ready. Go!” There are some pretty good sounding drum kits now and the engineers are hired for their drum sounds and speed because everyone is so budget conscious.
What drum do you start with when you’re tuning your kit?
I don’t think it matters. You can start at the top, you can start at the bottom, you can start in the middle. I tend to go top down, but just the other day I started with the low one. You just start to get a feeling for how many turns are needed when you’re tightening the head. You get a feel for the right tension.
I don’t think it’s good to tune the snare drum on the snare stand. It’s better on a table or floor so it’s laying flat. You make sure you get your head on flat if you have to change one, then tighten each lug so that it’s barely touching the rim, then just finger tighten the lugs (crisscrossing as you go) so you make sure that you don’t over-tighten one. Then you can start using the drum key. If you had eight arms so you could tighten all the lugs at the same time, that would be the best thing, but of course that’s not possible.
Do you ever adjust the tuning of your drums to the song?
No, not the toms. Maybe the snare. It’s not like you’re tuning it to the pitch of the song because once you starting hitting it, it’s going to change a little. So being exactly in tune isn’t going to happen anyway. I feel that’s being pretty anal about things and the result is really not worth the effort because you’re not getting a pitch out of the drum per se. You just want the drum to sound good.
Now I’ve had engineers and producers say, “I think your snare dropped a little,”, or “I think your snare is tuned too low. Bring it up in pitch a bit,” or “The snare’s sitting too tight,” so you make those adjustments so it fits the songs. Sometimes you have to change snares from tune to tune, but within an album you don’t change toms out. For as much as you’re hitting them, it’s not that drastic a thing because, after all, they sound like toms (laughs). The snare is a little more particular tune to tune, but then again, I’ve used one snare on every tune on an album and that works fine too, but it varies from project to project.
Now when I do Family Guy, I’ll put up a snare drum and and they’ll say, “OK, let’s go”. They figure that I’m going to pick the right thing musically for it. I’ll usually use either a 5 inch or a four inch (depth). I figure that snare size is something like skirt length. At one point everyone was going for that deep dish snare sound and then it changed to piccolo snares. It seems that everyone wants whatever everyone else is using at the time. Musically, I think that a lot of things can work, it just depends upon what the producer is going for, or what you happen to pull out of the case that day."
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