As a drummer, I always notice how drummers approach the drums and how they tune (and often detune) their drums. As a former recording studio owner, I spend a lot of time setting the mics to the drum set for a good recording sound. I even spend more time setting up the drum set to sound great! In general, I notice that many musicians think anything will sound great when recorded in a studio and that the sound engineer can fix anything. For that reason, these people do not care about how their instrument sound in the room.

This is a very wrong mindset and approach when it comes to recording any instrument. Tuning the drums well and choosing the right materials even before you buy a drum set and cymbals is the right approach. Think about the sound you prefer that you hear on a CD of your favourite music or band. Then try to figure out why it sounds like that. Is it the tuning of the drums (YES!), is it the type of drum and cymbal, or is it all EQ and special microphones? In the studio but also on stage, it is a much better and easier approach to have your instrument sound as you like it and sound as you would imagine it, and have it sound great. Only then choose the right microphones for the job, and choose the best placement. Don’t just copy what you see on videos or the internet.

Just by moving the mic around the snare drum, I concluded that aiming the diaphragm at the side of the snare gives the best sound. You can imagine that it will capture the top and bottom of the snare in a balanced way. it also eliminates the high-pressure sound waves which you would get when aiming at the top and bottom heads. Another great way of capturing the drums is just by using two overheads that are in line with the snare and placed so that the snare is in the exact middle of the two overheads. Tip to remember: for balancing the tom, snare and cymbal sound levels with the overhead microphones, the rule of thumb is: closer (lower) placement is more cymbals and fewer toms, further (higher) away is fewer cymbals and more toms.
Coming back to the instrument… Choosing the right heads and setting them up corectly make your life a lot easier. Check the collar of the heads before you put them on. Sometimes because of a production error, the collar of the head is not straight. In that case, return the heads and ask for a replacement. if your heads have dents in them, get new ones because heads with dents will not tune properly. And if you created the dents, you are on your way to injuring yourself. Dents are created when you hold the stick too tight and bury the stick in the drumheads. This gives a lot of feedback from the stick to your hands which can result in injuries over time. The heads should be tensioned evenly around the drum. This means that the hoop must be placed and tightened evenly too. The hoop itself also has to be flat, so check these on a very flat surface like a glass or stone tabletop. If they wobble, you can try to straighten them by placing them on the edge of a workbench and pushing on the part that is hanging over the edge of the table.
Recently I found out that even high-end drum shells can be not perfect when they come new out of the box. So it is wise to check these as well by placing them on a flat surface. They should not wobble. If they do, send them to a drum technician near you and have them straightened and the bearing edges re-done. Use a thinner head for the bottom of the drum, and a thick(er) one for the top. In this way, you will get the difference in pitch between the two, even if you would count the number of turns you gave to the tension bolts from the start of putting them in place. This is also why floating drums simply work very well and are incredibly easy to tune. Drummers who like to tune their drums well, often want to tune the top head differently from their bottom heads and spend a lot of time tuning them.

This is great but because the technical side of making drums went from floating drums to drums with 10 or even 12 tuning lugs bolted to the shell, the tuning of them became a big obstacle for many drummers. The result of this was the elaborate and excessive dampening of the drums in the most horrific way like an entire duvet stuffed inside the bass drum. The drum set should sound open. The shells need to resonate, just like the body of an acoustic guitar. The tuning should determine the sound, not the dampening. After setting up the set in the correct way, you might decide that it needs some help to get the desired sound.

Start with the minimum damping by using some gel. Start with the smallest piece and only if absolutely needed, use more or a bigger one. Now you have the set sounding great, it does not need a whole array of EQ to either capture it for recording or sound massive and awesome over the PA system in the theatre. Heavily dampening the drum set and then heavily EQ-ing the microphones is like remedying the remedy!

Pascal Zrour

I started playing the drums at 12 years old during my first drum lesson. Since then I have learned to play the guitar, wrote songs and recorded a CD with the band STREAM in my recording studio. As of 2023, I have 44 years of drumming and 8 years of teaching experience.