Many drummers want their drums to sound phat and warm. Their solution is to pick large drums, and tune them as low as possible. Cannot go wrong, right? After all, the majority of drummers tune that way, and get taught by online drum tuning tutorials which have millins of views to do so.
Please. Don’t. I will show you a more excellent way, and it starts with the propper tuning for a really phat and warm sound.
There are only three possible ways to tune a tom:
1. resonant tuning: tune batter and resonance head the same
(why this is a bad idea I will explain later below)
2. flat tuning: batter head is tuned higher than resonance head.
(This results in a sound too high and too thin for our desired sound, so forget about that too)
3. warm tuning: Resonance head tuned higher than batter head.
Most drummers actually tend to use the resonant tuning, it is by far the most popular way of tuning. But it has disadvantages:
- Tuning both heads on the same frequency makes the tom sing longer, often uncontrolable. In order to shorten the sustain, one head would either have to be tuned higher or lower (warm/flat tuning), or we have to use tools:
- Muffling the drum with moongel or other stuff gives us control over the length of sustain with a resonant tuned drum, but it also enhances the attack, which we don’t want to hear, and it muffles the actual tone we want to hear. In result, the drum sounds dull and lifeless.
- Dull sounding drums seem to work great for live situations, and in fact, when amplified, due to proximity effect those drums can impress. BUT – when played back at regular volume, the drums still sound dull and lifeless, which explains why live recordings sound so much differend from studio recordings even when the band plyed really well.
- the biggest disadvantage is though that the drums don’t really sound as warm and low as they could possibly sound, because when tuning resonant, and really low, the heads never really move in perfect synchronisation. So what often happens is that the low end, the bass, is canceled out due to phase shiftings. You won’t recognize on your close mike, but from a few feet away the drums sound thin and noisy, not phat and warm, as you’d expect. This results in big issues with bleedings. This is so common, it is common sense today to have the drums in a different room when possible at recording studios, and use screens and full enclosuresn on stage to keep the bleedings from other mikes.
So let’s see what warm tuning can do…
Warm tuning gets it’s name from the effect you have when you tune the bottom head signifficantly higher than the batter head, about a 5th above. The closer you get to the fifth, the more low end you get into the sound, thus the name, warm tuning.
What is actually happening here? As said before, most drummers try to get a low drum sound by tuning all heads as low as possible, but this results in a rather dull and flat sound. Usually now the batter heads get muffled to get rid of overtones, to sound lower. When tuning warm, we use physics: we all know power chords on guitars, I suppose. Thats a fundamental tone and the fifth, and the harmonics to this happen to be exactly an octave below the fundamental tone.
Imagine we have a floor tom tuned to 100hz, and the resonance head to 150hz (the 5th). You will now also hear the overtones in harmony at 50hz, which will give your drum a lot of low end. This will let especially smaller dums sound huge and pretty awesome.
But what happens when you mike the drums and amplify or record them?
When close miking the drum, it will pick up the 100hz and give you a nice boost of that frequency and everything above. This is what most drum engineers want live. But the drum produces a warm overtone of 50hz which we can only pick up with mikes when a bit further away from the drum. That way you get the 50hz picked up too, and your drums sound well balanced. This is the reason why in studios sound engineers today mainly use the room mike, and only add little of the close mikes.
Too few drummers know the physics of drums, and try to get low end by tuning large drums low. Actually this works best with smaller drums though. Perfect sizes are 8-14” for toms. You can also use warm tuning for the Bass drum, but when not miking, tuning it to the room node (a room frequency that makes the room resonate) might be more effective if not loud enough. But that is something we can focus on in a different tutorial.
The larger the diameter of a drum, the more attack you get from it, and we have trouble hearing differences between them, big toms tuned low, kinda all sound the same.
So how should I mike the drums now?
When the drum kit sounds good acoustically, miking becomes easy: forget all you learned about miking drums, and imagine you mike an acoustic instrument which you want to capture as it sounds, not modify the sound. A single condenser mike on second tom position pointed to snare and bass might already be enough to capture the whole instrument well balanced. Overhead mikes usually have too much cymbals in the mix.
When miking acoustic instruments other than drums, you have to at least be a foot away from the instrument with the mike, if you are closer, you risk altering the sound. With drums this is usually what we want, but only when dealing with semi acoustic drums (stage drums). We use proximity effect to add low end to the sound. But now we have added an octave below to our tom sound, and to capture this, we have to actually treat it like an actual acoustic instrument!
The only instruments you mike close, or even internal, are semi acoustic. The sound we get from those close mikings is a lot different from the acoustic sound of the instrument. Trust me, any decent instrument builder that has put a lot of effort into making a great sounding acoustic instrument will frown uppon any internal mike. It turns any acoustic instrument into a semi acoustic one.
Now with this in mind, we have either miked drums all wrong, or drums generally were treated as semi acoustic instrument anyway. This might be okay when the stage sound level is high, say, at an ac/dc gig. But we have come a long way since the 70th, we got smaller guitar amps, amp simulators, in ear monitors, and often the drums are the only instrument you can still hear on an else silent stage. The way we used to tune, “for the mike”; was disrespecting the actual room sound, you treat the instrument as semi acoustic and not mike it to simply make it louder or pick it up for recording. Now, when we want low volume on stage, we do not have to mute the drums all together, we simply have to admit that the drums are being played in a room which we have to take into the calculation. Tuning the drums in a way that they sound full and rich in a room, making mikes optional, means actually trwating your drums like an acoustic instrument.
Next step would be to get cymbals that match. Less loud means larger, darker in sound. And while we are at it, I mentioned that smaller drums work better for warm tuning. In general, the acoustic instrument has a pretty tight tolerance when it comes to dimensions. Certain sizes work best for the desired sound, and some sizes make it nearly impossible to give you a great sound acoustically. We were so used to work around that fact and worship large drums, we need to realize that when we play acoustic, small drums rule. And I can explain why:
While when tuning larger drums lower, we might get them maybe a third lower than a smaller drum, using warm tuning on small drums gives you a way more defined tone plus an octave below. Now when moving away from optimal acoustic drum sizes to bigger sizes (with toms starting at 16″, which happens to be the most popular FT size for decades), we get less definition, and might end up with the octave harmonics being too low in volume or in an inaudible frequency.
Warm tuning, especially in combination with small acoustic drums, will put a smile on the faces of your band members and your audience. And once your sound engineer learns how to handle it, he will love it too for the simplicity.