Your drum kit is an ensemble of different pieces of equipment, each contributing to the overall texture of the sound. You must finely tune every piece to get the sound you want, for your audience or a recording session, including the often neglected bass drum.
You’ll also want to tune a bass drum if you’ve got a new head, or if your current one sounds a bit off. This is a tricky process for beginners who have no experience with bass drum tuning, but we’re here to help. Continue reading for our step-by-step guide.
Step 1 - Portholes
When dealing with a kick drum, there is a huge debate about whether or not to have portholes. You can buy drum heads made this way, or you can craft your own. It all really depends on the sound you are looking for.
Some people will say no porthole, while others say one. Some even say get two drum heads with one of each. The Evans Emad is good for this, as you can get both a coated and uncoated version. Regardless of what preferences you hear, it’s best to make a decision based on what a porthole offers:
A porthole gives you the following benefits:
- Removes the warmth from the sound resulting in a brighter sound
- Provides better projection
- Receive more definition from the beater. This is especially helpful when using microphones because mics can’t capture beater definition without a hole
- Allows you to put in dampening
Without a porthole, there is a more resonant sound and slightly more sustain.
These factors also depend on the location of the hole and how big it is. If you opt for a porthole, then it’s best to keep the size to a maximum of five inches.
Step 2 - Consider Dampening
After you’ve decided whether you want a porthole in your kick drum, it’s time to start thinking about dampening.
Dampening is when players use materials such as felt strips, towels, and blankets to alter the sound of your batter and resonant head.
Not sure what the difference is between the two?
- The batter head is the top head that gets hit during playing.
- The resonant head is the bottom part of the front head that responds when you strike the batter.
Whether you want to ‘dampen’ depends on the sound you want to come out. The environment you are playing in also affects dampening.
If you’re adjusting the batter head sound before playing live, it’s likely you don’t need any dampening materials. In a live situation, you want the resonance to ring out and not limit the sound of the front head. Body count in the room usually affects the sound, meaning dampening is not necessary.
If you’re heading to the recording studio, you may want to bring a blanket or pillow. Using these essentials or specific kick drum muffling materials will help control sustain on the resonant head, which creates a better sound when recording.
Step 3 - Seat the Batter Head on the Drum Kit
This step is for positioning purposes to ensure everything gets set up right. This is especially important if your kick drum is new.
- Seat the head on the drum and make sure the rim is placed on top. Screw in the tension rods, so that they are hand/finger tight. Don’t screw them in too much as this may mess with the bass drum tuning process. This is solely for positioning purposes.
- Once you have secured the rods, you will want to stretch out the drum head. You can do this by making your hand into a fist and pressing it in the center of the batter head. Don’t press too hard!
- After doing this, go back to the rods and ensure they are still all hand/finger tight. If you have a hole in your batter head, then the best way to perform this process is to lean on the skin while pressing on the center with your hands.
Step 4 - Time to Begin the Tuning Process
Now it’s finally time to begin tuning. You should, ideally, tune the batter head first with the resonant head off the drum.
- Tighten the tension rods opposite to each other. So, start at any rod of your choice, and tighten it with a finger tight or a few turns.
- Once you adjust the first rod, go to the opposite rod on the kick drum. Work around the drum until all the wrinkles from the skin have been straightened out.
- Now it’s time for a bit of a test with your drum key. It’s likely you won’t have achieved the right sound straight away, but that’s okay. Choose a tension rod to start at and tap the drum head lightly around that rod. Around two or three inches away will do the trick.
- Work your way around the drum head and listen out for inconsistent sounds. If there aren’t any obvious sound differences between each part of the drum, then it shouldn’t need much more adjusting. If there are, then turn the rods ever so slightly until it sounds more in tune with the rest.
Step 5 - Dampening Time
So, we already mentioned dampening the kick drum and what it does. If you have decided you’d like to dampen, then now is the time.
An easy and simple way to create a dampened sound is to roll up a towel and place it on the front of the resonant head. If you’re doing some recording or mic’ing, then you may want to dampen up both the batter and resonant head. Put the towel on the front and also place some material inside the drum head.
You will want to put the towel inside the drum before you have put on the front head so that it’ll rest against it once fully assembled.
Step 6 - Tweaking Time
Thought you were done? Not quite yet. Now you’ve got the wrinkles out of the drum head and dampened (or not dampened) your kick drum, it’s time to make the finishing adjustments.
This is when the focus is on the resonant head. This is the part of the bass drum that can make or break your bass drum sound.
At this point, you haven’t actually tuned your drum head. The previous steps have just sorted out the pitch and smoothed out the drum head wrinkles.
Set up the kick drum in the playing position, attaching the spurs and the bass drum pedal you want. Here, if you can, find someone else - another band member perhaps - to help you out. If there is no one else around, then sit or lie down next to the kick drum with your foot on the pedal.
Whether it’s you or someone else with a foot on the pedal, play it slow and steady. While you keep a consistent beat on the bass drum with the pedal, tune the rods accordingly. From a position that is not sitting behind the drum, as you would be when playing, you can get a more accurate sound. This is the sound the audience, or recorder will pick up when you play.
Having someone else with you can also help you get a second ear on the accuracy of tone and pitch that you desire.
Step 7 - Play!
Now your kit is ready! You may need to tweak the rods again once you begin playing, but you can expect a clean sound that’s ideal for practicing.
It’s important to note that once you start playing the kick drum, the pitch will go up, but the focus and clarity will also improve. If you like your drum sound more defined and punchy then you’ll want tension in the drum head. If you like a less-defined, rumbling sound then less tension is best.
Remember, this is just a general guide. No two kits, or drummers, are the same. The whole tuning process is determined by how you (and possibly your band) would like the bass drum to sound. It’s subject to change, and you will probably want to change the tension rods and dampening techniques accordingly.
Whatever your desired sound, this should set the basis for a long and joyous road to drumming!