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How To Tune Your Snare Drum: 11 Best Tricks That We Use

How To Tune Your Snare Drum: 11 Best Tricks That We Use

Tuning will always be the most important tool in the drummer’s toolkit. You can read every technique book on the shelf and spend 1000s of dollars on slick gear, but developing the skill of tuning your snare drum is a must. Drum heads are responsible for as much as 80% of the sound of a drum. So while size, shell thickness, the snare wires, and what material your drum is crafted from matter, it is you who controls the sound of your kit. These 11 tricks from craftsmen who live and breathe drums will help ensure you’re achieving maximum projection and performing your best. If you’re ever in doubt about snare drum tuning, you can always get help from our found and resident drum enthusiast Shane Kinney where he covers his technique.

1. One With the Drum

Before you think about snare drum tuning, you must understand your snare drum. There are many materials used to make snare drums, from woods (maple, birch, cherry, mahogany, and oak) to metals (brass, steel, and copper are increasingly popular) to synthetic materials such as carbon fiber and fiberglass. Understanding how the material plays into sound production is important for tuning your snare. Metal drums will be louder and ring the wires longer than wood, and even within metal, there are differences, steel is brighter than copper, aluminum drier than brass.

2. Learning to Love Ring and Buzz

Ring is mistakenly viewed as a tuning flaw rather than a feature of many snare drums' design. Some drummers dedicate themselves to removing any trace of ring by ratcheting up tension on both snare drum heads. That can produce a more pronounced snare sound, but it can limit your dynamic range. Buzz, sometimes called “sympathetic snare buzz,” is the tone you hear when the bottom head of one of your toms is tuned to the same pitch as your snare’s resonant head. Things like specialty snare wires can reduce this but not eliminate it. Don’t let buzz drive you crazy. Companies like Roland even have built-in snare buzz features on their bass drum samples. Keep in mind that people expect to hear a buzz, and in the live setting, the band will likely absorb most of your ring.

3. Starting Out — The Resonant Head

The resonant side of your snare drum, or your snare side, is the bottom side. Flip your snare drum over to the snare side and place it on a drum stool or a stand (some recommend placing your snare drum on a stand instead of a stool as it gives you a louder sound, making for a more accurate picture of your live sound). You can see that the resonant head is generally very thin. While it should be light enough to seat itself, install and center it so that a two-key tuning method can be used. Pay attention to the sound of the snare wires as you tune.

4. Happy Medium

Start with what’s called “finger tight” tuning, which means tuning what’s possible with your fingers before turning to the two key methods. To test your sound, put a stick under the snare wires. Strike around the circumference of the snare. You want the same pitch wherever you strike, so where the snare wires sound deeper or tinnier, tighten or loosen the nearest tension rod. While, in general, Drum Center advises tuning your resonant head tighter than your batter head, it’s a common mistake to over-tighten snare wire tension. This can choke the sound of the snare drum. Go the Goldilocks way: not too tight, not too loose, but a happy medium.

5. Use Your Ears

The best tool any musician has is their ears. Use them, and be patient. Some drummers prefer to test around the snare wires in strokes, back and forth until all the lugs are tuned to perfection. Some take each lug up by quarter-turns until an even tone is achieved. As you near perfect tuning, your head will start to produce toppy or tinny sounds with a little ring. Remember—don’t fight the ring! Snares are the fussiest pieces in your kit, so you’ll likely need to spend the most time with them. Let your ears guide you, and consider the effect space and acoustics have on sound when you decide where and when you tune.

6. Flip to Batter Head

It’s counterintuitive to spend so much time on the side of the drum you never even face. But if you neglect the resonant head, the batter will have to be tuned so high that your snare drum will sound like a hollow piece of wood. Flip from snare side to batter side and replace it on your stand or stool. The method is roughly the same, but the batter can take a longer time to set, so consider leaving the head on overnight so the snare drum forms to the head. Use the two-key method around the circumference of your snare, taking the tension up in half-turns two or three times, depending on the diameter. You’ll know to stop when you hear the right amount of ring.

7. Remember — Resonant Head > Batter Head

Remember to keep your resonant head tuned slightly lower than your batter head in terms of snare drum tuning. A tighter resonant head than batter head combined with a punchy tom tone will make sure the sound pushes out, not up. If you go looser on your resonant head, you may be in for a thick, wobbly, wonky tone. You can mute one drum head and tap the other to make the necessary adjustments.

8. Control Snare & Wires with Tuning

If you’re playing most in a recording studio, there’s a way to tune your snare for that fat, dry sound without damping. Focus on your batter head, tuning until you find the stick and body response you want. Detune the bottom three screws nearest where your stick strikes so that the center screw is finger tight and the other two about a half-turn tighter. This tuning will give you the punchy sound that pops in recordings. If you lose any pitch in tuning the batter head, you can tighten up the tension rods furthest from the screws you detuned. Pro-Tip? More wires = fatter sound.

9. Hands Off

An ace trick takes decades of trial and error to learn: leave the resonant head alone. Your resonant tune is locked in at this stage of the process, and you can focus on small tension adjustments to the batter head. Pay attention to what’s “out front” versus what is facing you.

10. Self-Assess

Once you’ve achieved perfect snare drum tuning, self-assess to make sure none of the potential pitfalls are at play:
  • You've got too much tension on your batter head.
  • You’ve got the wrong head for this particular snare drum and style.
  • You’ve got the wrong snare drum for your desired sound.
If you detect an issue with your wires, your snare drum head, or the whole snare drum feels wrong for your sound, come visit us.

11. Freeplay

Sound-checking with a single stick after each little tune-up, tune-down, flip, and adjustment gets your tune where it needs to be. Jamming out makes sure the holistic sound is right on target. There may be additional adjustments you need to make to your drum head, many of which can be made finger tight. If the snare drum is rattling too much, tighten the adjustment knob by quarter or half-turns. If your snare drum sounds choked, you may have adjusted your batter head too tightly. Relieve the tension, starting with the three lugs closest to your drumming position.

Conclusion

It is a far too common contradiction in the world of drums: no drum will ever be sent to you tuned to your exact specifications, and few drummers are ever taught how to tune a snare drum for themselves. But you can learn how to tune, and you should. This list is meant as a beginner's guide to the most temperamental yet integral component of the drummer's setup, the snare drum. The snare is the most versatile drum in your kit, providing the upbeat, the backbeat, and filling out the rhythm between. If you control your snare, you control your sound. Drummers just starting jamming in their friends' garages might tune or have their snare drums tuned once a season, when the weather shifts. But talk to any seasoned professional or any member of a drumline, and you'll find most working pros tune their snares at least twice a week. Many tune before every session, as much as twice a day. Whatever fit is right for you, learning snare drum tuning is as essential as learning to play. If you have larger issues than just tuning correctly, come visit the Drum Center of Portsmouth team.
9 months ago