For any serious recording, the starting point and foundation to capturing a great drum sound should always be the same, regardless of the studio’s acoustic or equipment specifications: acquire the drum sound you are striving to capture at source, before miking up begins.
This paper begins with an analysis of the physical attributes and construction of drum shells, their components and suspension system, and considers the impact that this has on the resulting timbre, and getting the sound right at source. It is fortunate that the physical elements of a drum that has the most influence on the resulting sound are the ones over which we have most control – the drumheads. They produce the drum tone itself, and the manner in which the two heads are tuned, and therefore interact, has a highly significant impact on the drums attack and sustain. Drum tuning, in combination with re-heading and dampening, should therefore be at the foundation of obtaining the sound you are striving to capture at source.
The most appropriate approaches and principles for achieving the right tonality at source for performance and production within the contemporary metal genre will be discussed. This style will usually display a different design ethos when compared to others with similar instrumentation. This is partly due to the down tuned nature of the bass and guitar and the sonic ‘heaviness’ and weight required of the production. Additionally, there is a particular emphasis on definition and intelligibility, which is essential for retaining clarity for the often complex, virtuoso performances.
Sound at Source: Drum shells, their components and the suspension system
With the exception of the human voice, the drums are the world’s oldest instrument (Schroedl, 2002 p.58).
Geometrically, a drum is a hollow, enclosed cylinder…but there’s so much more to it than that. Its character is defined by the shell and heads, the materials and construction of which affect sound and performance. (Modern Drummer 2008, p.162)
Although timbre and tone are related, they are quite different things. Tone can be thought of as the type of equalisation changes (bass, mid, treble, etc.) you can make on a guitar amplifier, for example. Whereas timbre can be looked at as the colour or the nature of a sound, which relates to the harmonics and their relative intensities, which thereby determine an instrument’s characteristic sound. (Huber and Runstein 2010, p.56) For the aural characteristics of drums, we can consider the inherent qualities of the drum shell (i.e. its materials, construction, components and suspension system – all of which affects the way the shell vibrates) as being the timbre-producing element. This can be contrasted with the heads and the tuning of the heads as being the tone-producing components.
With the physical construction of drum shells, the diameter of the shell determines the pitch of the drum, while the depth influences articulation and resonance, with the longer the drum, the shorter the sustain (Modern Drummer 2008, p.167). In both respects, as Gatzen (2006) points out, the key to good timbre is the shells symmetry and flatness of the bearing edge. Good symmetry to a drum shell will ensure that a drumhead can be put onto the shell and rotated freely without any binding occurring. If a shell is slightly egg shaped, known as being ‘out of round’, then the drum will not tune, and unfortunately there is no way to correct this. This can be checked by taking off the drumheads and using a tape measure to check consistency of measurement across the drum all the way around. Variations of an eighth of an inch or more will mean that the shell can be considered ‘out-of-round’ meaning that consistency of tuning can never be achieved, however, within one sixteenth of an inch out of round is considered as being acceptable.
As Schroedl (2002, p.16) points out, the condition of the shell’s bearing edges is similarly essential. The bearing edge is either end of the cylindrical drum shell, the only point at which the drumhead touches the shell. “The head must evenly meet the shell all the way around, and a great deal of precision is involved in creating the bearing edge so the head can sit perfectly” (Modern Drummer 2008, p.169).
If there are divets or raised areas present, then the drumhead will not resonate correctly, usually resulting in a vastly inferior sound, regardless of the genre of music being performed. A shell’s bearing edge can be checked by placing it on a formica top and rocking the shell from several points. If there is any significant movement, due to a gap that exceeds three pieces of paper (ten thousands of an inch to each sheet of paper), then the bearing edge cannot be considered as flat and the drum will prove very difficult to tune and hold its tuning. Additionally, as Schroedl points out, a light can be shone inside the shell to see if any light escapes between the shell and formica, evidencing nicks, divots or rough spots if this is the case (2002, p.23). However, in contrast to when a shell is ‘out-of-round’, an experienced craftsman can re-cut the bearing edges to correct most of these problems (Gatzen, 2006).
Concerning the shape of the bearing edge of drum shells, Eric J.Macauley states:
There are several bearing edge shapes which are currently used in drum production. It is expected that different bearing edges will have a significant affect on the sound of drums. One possible reason for the importance of bearing edges is that the edge is the primary outlet for energy to transfer between the drum head and the drum shell. (Macauley, 2003, p.1)
With regards to the merits of the various bearing edge shapes, Macauley suggests that when the point of contact is a double 45° bearing edge shape, which is in the middle of the drum shell, that the energy will remain within the drum shell, rather than leaking out of the outside of the drum shell (Macauley, 2003, pp.6-7).
With the exception of snare drums, which are sometimes made of steel or brass, the vast majority of drum shells are made of birch or maple. However, the Yamaha 9000 kit, which is often considered to be the classic studio shell pack of choice, has a birch/mahogany/birch layering (referred to as composite). Other woods used for drum material include beech, oak, poplar, mahogany, basswood, ash and even exotic varieties like ebony and rosewood. However, birch and maple shells are certainly the most popular choice.
Birch gives a very lively, bright sound with a fairly even frequency response and bright overtones. Many producers associate birch drum kits with a very desirable drum tone for studio work, as they tend to sound very dense, controlled and focused. Maple produces a warmer, darker tone that emphasises low and low-mid frequencies to give much more of a loud, punchy and boomy sound, with a tendency to sound wetter and looser than drum shells made of birch. According to John Wood:
If you’re trying to get longer sustain, of course we go to a maple drum. If you’re wanting a punchier, better recording style drum, that’s when we use birch. Maple has a long vibration, and birch vibrates very fast and short. (Wood quoted in Modern Drummer 2008, p. 163)
In the author’s experience relating to the resonant frequencies of the shell, maple has higher fundamental pitch, with more mids and highs, whereas in comparison, birch has a lower fundamental pitch with a punchier overall timbre.
Composite kits usually have characteristics somewhere in between birch and maple, and usually have a relatively dead sound. Gatzen (2006) claims that, generally speaking, they are easier to tune than shell packs made of purely birch or maple. Interestingly, “It can be noted that many vintage kits were made of mixed wood shells” (Modern Drummer 2008, p.164).
From a timbre perspective, as to the more preferable construction material of drum shells for the contemporary metal genre, it is important to differentiate between the bass drum/toms and snare. For the bass drum and toms, the first consideration would be the specific style of performance being tracked. For instance, fast double kick work (often performed on a single kick but with a double pedal) with fast subdivisions on the toms, it is likely that the denser, brighter, controlled and focused timbre of birch shells would be more appropriate than maple, which would have a tendency to sound darker, and warmer with boomy characteristics. This would be due to the birch shells enabling more clarity and definition to be captured for the fast subdivisions of the performance. However, with the relatively dead nature to the timbre of composite shells, these would also be well suited to capturing the attack characteristics of a performance with faster subdivisions. The darker, and more boomy timbre associated with a maple shell pack would be likely to inhibit the attack characteristics of the timbre, due to the sustain being less distinguishable from the attack.
To get an appropriate sound at source for snare drums for the metal genre, the focus will usually be weight and size, combined with the right attack. Weight and size can be considered as appropriate content in the suitable areas of the snares frequencies combined with a quality of overall timbre. In this respect, there is not any construction material that could be deemed most appropriate to the metal genre. A variety of wood and metal construction types (e.g. six lug snare drums have a coarser, darker tone than those with a higher number, due to the larger difference between these nodes) as well as dimensions and shell thicknesses can provide the right characteristics to ensure that this element cuts through the rest of the kit and the density of the overall mix.
In addition to the material that the drums are made of, the thickness of the shell will affect their sound considerably. Very simply, the thinner the shell, the more that it will vibrate. Gatzen (2006) says that shells that vibrate are generally considered as being 5/16ths of an inch or less in thickness, and shells that vibrate less freely are generally considered as being 5/16ths upwards. In the instance of shells that vibrate, these tend to be generally bright and edgy sounding with a lot of snap to the tone. They will support many head configurations and when tuned into the higher range can be very clear in pitch and very pure sounding. In contrast, the concept with shells that vibrate less freely is that they just support the heads, and therefore their tone is more dependent on the heads than a shell that vibrates. When tuned in the higher ranges, they do not have the pitch clarity that the thinner shells would have when tuned similarly, however, they have a tendency to sound dense and fat with a rounded tone when the tuning range is quite low.
When considering the context of the down-tuned instrumentation in which the drum sounds would be heard, attack combined with weight and size is required of the kick and toms for the contemporary metal genre. As will be discussed later in this paper, this is more likely to be provided by having the kick and toms tuned in the lower ranges while keeping the drum sustain tight to emphasise the attack. Although it could be stated, therefore, that shells that vibrate less freely would be more likely to provide these characteristics when tuned in the lower ranges, the experience of the author of this paper is that thinner shell packs, depending on their physical attributes and construction, can also provide the appropriate timbre for the contemporary metal genre.
However, to put this information about wood type, dimension and construction into context, Ray Ayotte, former president and designer for Taye and Ayotte states that “a drum shell is only responsible for about ten percent of a drum’s total sound, with the counter-hoop being influential but the drumhead producing most of the sound” (Ayotte in Modern Drummer 2008, p.164).
Generally, the more hardware attached to a drum shell, the less resonant it will be. Prior to the 80’s, the tom mount bracket was always attached to the shell, impacting on the resonance of the shell by impeding the vibrations of either one, or both, of the drumheads. The advent of RIMS mounts (resonance isolation mounting system) revolutionised drum suspension by taking mounting hardware off the shell, which eliminated a potentially large hole for a tom arm, leaving the shell more free to vibrate, with only the lugs remaining attached to the shell (Modern Drummer 2008, p.169). Gatzen (2006) says that the objective of a good suspension system is to alleviate effects on the timbre of the drum. This encourages head phasing, which relates to the synchronisation of the batter and resonator heads vibrations, which in turn provides an enhanced fundamental and improved sustain to the drum.
Using tension rods, which connect to the lugs, the drum hoop attaches the drumhead to the shell by holding it onto the shell’s bearing edges. The materials used, and manner of construction of the drum hoop, has a considerable effect on not only the sound, but also feel. Most drummers feel that flanged hoops (sometimes referred to as rolled hoops) provide a better feel, due to the fact that drum hits are provided with an element of ‘give’, they have less attack than a die cast hoop. The improved definition and sharper attack provided by the construction of a die cast hoops means that they are favoured by many metal drummers, however, they provide less flexibility with a more brittle feel than a flanged hoop, and more precision is required when tuning.
Similarly the number of lugs on a drum has an effect on how the drum tunes and sounds. The fewer lugs there are, the coarser the tuning, and the more complex the overtones. This is due to the lengthened distance between the lugs, which results in a darker tone, as there are less high frequencies. As Schroedl says, many high-end snare drums will use as many as ten lugs (p.21).
Drumheads and Re-heading
Old heads do not sound focused and can produce unwanted ringing, they will not sound explosive enough to cut through a mix as well as new drum heads, which will produce more resonance and tone (Molenda, 2009). For a contemporary metal production project of any significance, new drumheads are a must. If the drum kit’s batter heads are ‘pitted’ in any significant way, or have simply become unresponsive and lost their bounce due to the amount that they have been used, then they will not let the drums respond properly and will inevitably hinder the relevant drums tone, weight and clarity in the mix. The cost of new drumheads can be viewed as incidental compared to wasted time in the studio. This could, for example, be as a result of often-futile endeavours to tune the drums or achieve the right microphone placements. Or could perhaps be due to additional time spent on processing and manipulating the drum tracks when mixing, in an attempt to compensate for the sub-standard recording of the kit’s shells.
Prior to re-heading, consideration needs to be given as to the make and type of drumhead to be used. As Schroedl points out, through drumhead choice, the drum’s overall pitch (high or low), tone (dark, mellow or bright), sustain (length of resonance), and articulation (the attack when struck with a stick) is determined (p.10). The options to choose from include single ply or double ply, the head thickness, which is measured in mils (1/1000th of an inch), and whether you are opting for a coated or clear head. Additionally there are often varieties in material, design or construction to choose between. The thickness of the ply affects the fundamental note, sensitivity, sustain, amount of attack, and durability. A single ply head has more sensitivity and more sustain than a double-ply head. However, for the metal genre’s drum performances which are often fast and of a highly complex nature, a highly resonant kit can be a huge problem, not only in the studio, but also live. Due to their mass, double-ply heads vibrate slower than a single-ply, and will therefore have less sustain and more attack, providing a deadened, deeper tone combined with low-end punch and weight. Additionally, using double-ply heads will allow you to tune lower and will be more resistant to denting than a thin head (Schroedl, 2002, p.11). For these reasons, a thick, double-ply batter head can be considered more appropriate for the kick and toms of a drum kit being used for a contemporary metal performance than single ply. Regarding varieties in material and construction of double-ply heads, Scott Schroedl points out:
Two-ply heads come in two varieties; both types use two pieces of mylar, but on one type the outer inch or so is glued together, making its sound more muffled. These type of heads work best when tuned low (on bass drums and toms) – almost to the point of wrinkling. (2002, p.11)
As already mentioned, keeping the kick drums and toms tuned really low provides the type of tonal characteristics that are particularly well suited to the metal genre, so this particular design of two-ply head provides an excellent choice of batter head. Schroedl also says that:
Resonant heads for bass drums are one ply, but with some variations, such as a removable ring near the outer edge, or those that have dampening materials adhered to the head itself. (2002, p.14)
Some producers opt for the tonality of a bass drum without a resonator head. By doing so this facilitates very easy access from within the shell to position the microphone close to where the bass drum beater contacts the batter head, which is an optimum position for capturing the essential attack and ‘clickiness’ generally required of the genres kick drum tones. However, for obvious reasons, the absence of a resonator head results in the kick shell itself vibrating less, and therefore renders a kick drum with far less resonance, low-end, weight and punch as a result. In the author’s experience, a kick drum with a resonator head provides a much fuller tonality, with improved punch and weight than without, and if the head has a sound hole cut in it, this enables a double-miking technique which is highly effective for recording kick drums for the contemporary metal genre; firstly miking the contact area of the batter head from inside the shell to capture the attack, as described earlier, but combining this with the classic half-in/half out of the sound-hole mic technique (frequently with the ubiquitous AKG D112, or a Shure Beta 52), which will usually enable the essential low-end weight of the kick to be appropriately captured. This sound hole cut into the resonator head also helps alleviate beater bounce-back, which can impede a drummer’s footwork performance. Schroeder says that this sometimes occurs when air inside a kick drum cannot escape (2002, p.49). When cutting a sound hole in a bass drum resonator head, making as small a hole as possible will allow the resonator head to resonate as fully as possible and any more than about 6 inches will have the effect of turning the drum more towards a single head design. It is highly inadvisable to cut a sound hole in the centre of the head, as not only will this stop the resonator head resonating correctly. Additionally, the centre of a kick drum, which is usually overly boomy, should be avoided when miking the kick drum. (Gatzen, 2006)
The resonator heads for toms are most commonly single-ply, for the reason that the use of double-ply heads for the resonator side results in very little clarity, with a ‘choked’ sustain that is more akin to a dull thud.
Snare drums need extremely thin resonator heads, which are manufactured expressly for this purpose. A thicker snare resonator head would produce less snare response. Gatzen (2006) points out that thin snare batter heads (2 mil) increase snare sensitivity, whereas thicker heads (3 mil) increase focus and are better for louder playing. Concerning the choice of clear or coated heads, nearly all drummers use coated snare drum batter heads. Coated heads give an obvious ‘scratch’ when played, which gives the snare tone a crisp edge. Additionally, the coating takes away some of the overtones and high-end harshness, which has the effect of subtly mellowing the sound. For these reasons, some drummers will opt to use them on their toms as well as snare, although this is relatively rare for drummers from the metal genre. Drum manufacturers have now developed snare batter heads with vent holes near the edge (e.g. the Evans ‘Genera Dry’ range). This has the effect of dampening any snare ‘ring’, thereby creating a ‘drier’ sound.
As opposed to coated heads, clear heads bring out the high-pitched tones of the stick attack and resonance of the drum and are therefore brighter and clearer sounding with more volume and an enhanced harmonic range. These qualities mean that, in the author’s experience, clear heads should be the choice for the vast majority of metal drummer’s kick drum and toms.
During the seventies, dot-reinforced clear heads became popular, mainly due to their considerable durability. However, they created a slightly nasty overtone when struck, with a piercing mid-range, with many drummers feeling that they provided poor feel and response. For these reasons they are rarely used any more.
As stated previously, for a contemporary metal production project of any significance, new drumheads are a must. However, some producers make the mistake of presuming that the frequent use of drum samples for the production of the metal genre negates this sentiment. They fail to take into account that to retain dynamics and avoid a performance that, particularly during faster sub-divisions, sounds like a drum-machine (often referred to as ‘machine-gunning’), it is most likely that samples will be used to reinforce the spot mics, rather than replace them. The only likely exception here could possibly be the kick, where very even dynamics are desirable and more akin to the performance itself, partly due to the fact that the kick drum(s) are the only element of the drum shells that are consistently struck in exactly the same place with every hit. Additionally, regardless of the manner in which drum samples are used, bleed-over onto the microphones used for the kits metalwork (invariably condenser mics) is inevitable, and will clearly therefore impact on the standard of the resulting drum sound.
Nevertheless, if the band or the project is on a really tight budget, then the area to save money on when re-heading, is to not re-skin the bass drum(s). As already mentioned, this is the part of the kit with the least dynamics required, and therefore the easiest and most effective element to utilise samples for.
If the budget is available, it is advisable to change not only the batter heads, but also the resonator heads. Many drummers make the mistake of thinking that because resonator heads never get hit and never get dented therefore, that they last indefinitely. In reality, they lose their resilience and bounce due to the polyester film drying out, which will have a negative impact on drum tone. As stated by Schroedl, the bottom heads are one of the most overlooked and misunderstood parts of the drum tuning process (2002, p.36).
If possible, it is a good idea to get the drummer to change their heads, stretch them in and use them for just one rehearsal to properly bed them in prior to properly tuning the kit. After removing the old head, if required, then the shells lugs should be lubricated with a product such as WD-40. Following re-heading, if there are issues with the lugs holding their tension, then purpose made plastic retainers should be used to pack the lugs. If you do detect a rattle coming from a lug, you can quiet the noise by packing it. Schroedl says that the best way to do this is to wrap the spring with either felt or cotton cloth (2002, p.8). Clearly, this would involve removing the drumhead to carry this out. Although not strictly part of the re-heading process, this is often the right opportunity to also use a product such as WD-40 to lubricate the bass drum pedals chain mechanism and/or other relevant parts. Drum pedals that squeak can cause problems with a drum recording, as a microphone will quite easily pick this up.
Drum set tuning has been a frustrating process for many drummers over the years. There are about as many different tuning techniques as there are drummers. (Schroedl, 2002, p.8)
Tuning drums, particularly after re-heading, has always been a challenging and frustrating process for drummers, engineers and producers alike. With bass and guitar, for example, a single tuning mechanism (a machine head) is used, and a pre-established pitch is adhered to for each string. This will usually be carried out with the aid of an electronic tuner. Whereas with drum tuning, there are between five and ten tuning mechanisms (tension rods) per head, and the vast majority of drums will use two heads – a batter, as well as a resonator head. Although there are mechanisms available to assist with tuning drums, these are most frequently only used to get a drum tuned into the correct general area, and then fine-tuning is completed by ear. These mechanisms operate by providing a measurement of pressure reading at a specific distance from each drum lug (for example the drum dial, which comes with a rough guide chart as to what tensions your batter and resonator head should be tuned to for different tom sizes) or by alternatively giving a tension reading of the lugs themselves (although these can be rendered inaccurate due to rusty, or sticky lugs). The reason that these implements are generally only used to get a drum tuned into the correct area, and then fine-tuning completed by ear, is that there are multiple and complex overtones associated with the overall pitch of a drum. It is not a given, therefore, that a drum would also present the optimum resonance, projection, pitch bend and tone simply because the batter and resonator head were tuned to what could be considered as an appropriate tension.
For these reasons, there is often a lack of understanding about the physical way in which a drum functions and many drummers, engineers and producers simply do not experiment and practice enough with re-heading, dampening and tuning. On top of this, there is relatively little information out there on this specific subject matter, particularly when compared to the wealth of academic literature on microphone choice and placement and recording and production in general.
When tuning drums, we are ultimately seeking to control and manipulate attack and sustain, as these are the two most important functions of a drum sound. Attack is the very first portion of the sound – the stick hitting the plastic. Attack is what the listener perceives most, and it is what we want to control most. Sustain is the period of time just after the attack period, not the length of the sound, the length of the sound is the decay. Whenever you increase the sustain of a drum, you decrease the attack characteristics (Gatzen, 2006). To properly manipulate the attack and sustain characteristics, drum tuning should firstly be carried out without any form of dampening. Schroedl says that drums should be tuned wide open and then dampened accordingly, if required (2002 p.44). Additionally, tune each drum away from the other drums and cymbals, as they will resonate when you hit the drum you are working on, clouding your pitch reference and making it more difficult to tune (Schroedl, 2002, p.61).
The head of the drum can be tapped about one inch from the hoop at each lug to hear the differences of pitch when tuning (Schroedl, 2002 p.28). A simple way to help you hear the pitch at each lug is to very gently touch the middle of the head with one finger whilst you are gently striking the head at each lug (Schroedl, 2002, p.29). An often-used technique is to find the lug with the most pleasing tone and match the other lugs to it (Schroedl, 2002, p.28). However, when you want to establish the pitch of a drum, never hit it at the edges because the edges will have multiple pitches in them. As Gatzen (2006) points out, the edges of the head produces overtones, the centre is the fundamental, so hit the centre to get the fundamental. You should mute the head that you are not working on, so that you can hear only the one being tuned (Schroedl, 2002, p.31). Setting the drum on a towel to prevent the relevant head from vibrating can do this.
Due to the fact that there is only a very small tuning region where they will function properly, bass drums are usually the easiest drum to tune. The author’s experience has lead to a preference for keeping the tuning of both heads really low. Often so low that the wrinkles of the drum head are only just about taken out, and certainly within a couple of turns of the lugs from when they are loosened off and just starting to grip when tightening. Bass drums can, however, be tuned too low, which result in tone quality and projection being lost. Obviously the drummers ‘feel’ of the kick drum needs consideration, with many drummers feeling that with a batter head that is tuned very low, they do not get the right response and bounce from their beaters when striking the kick’s batter head.
In the author’s experience, trying to tune a bass drum’s batter or resonator tighter in order to try and gain click or attack has been far from successful, leading to a much greater sustain from the drum and additionally leading to a frequency response that will fail to provide a solid foundation to a contemporary metal production, due to a deficiency of low-end punch and weight. By tuning the batter and/or resonator head into the lower regions, the kick drums sustain will be shortened, therefore increasing the perception of the kick’s attack.
When using a kit with double kick drums, it is advisable to tune one slightly different to the other to provide better differentiation between the two. To maximise the click and attack from the bass drum(s), it is best to use either hard composite or wooden beaters, despite the fact they are very tough on drumheads, as they will provide far better definition than felt beaters. Additionally, the use of an adhesive slam patch, on the area of the batter head where the beater strikes, is highly beneficial in maximising click and attack. Danmar pads are probably the most well known and widely used, and will often come included with a new bass drum head. Super-gluing the likes of two pence pieces or credit cards to the kick drum batter head as a substitute should be avoided, as these are far less effective than a purpose made product.
Bass drums should be mounted as evenly as possible, front to back from the floor, as possible. The more you tilt the bass drum back, which some players will do for feel purposes, the more you put pressure on the front rim, which has a negative impact on the drum’s timbre. (Gatzen, 2006)
The snare is the signature drum of the drum set and the most identifiable. It sets the tone of the drum set (Gatzen, 2006). Compared to the toms, the snare has a much higher tuning, with very different thicknesses to the batter and resonator heads. Unless a snare is particularly deep shelled then they can be tuned to extreme tension and high pitches without choking the drum (Salz, 2003). Problems with snare drums will usually emanate from the bottom head and the snare wires, which are the tone generator and tone control. Regarding the tension of the snare resonator head, Schroedl feels that by pressing on the snares resonator head close to the middle, the reflection of the snare wires on the drumhead should span about three inches on a standard 14” diameter snare drum (2002, p.43). Gatzen (2006) says that due to the fact that the snare wires can muffle and choke the tone of the drum, getting them to vibrate freely and evenly is the objective. Thomas D. Rossing states that:
For the snares to sound at all requires a certain amplitude of the snare head. This critical amplitude increases with the snare tension. The snare tension is optimum when both the head are moving at maximum speed in opposite directions at the moment of contact. In this case, the impact (and the radiated sound) is the greatest. (Rossing, 2000, p. 33)
On this subject, Miller (2004) says that if you are hitting your drum at lower dynamics and it sounds like a tom, then your snares are way too tight. To test the snare sensitivity, have the snares on, play very softly in the center of the batter head, and if they rattle too much you’ll need to tighten them up (Schroedl, 2002, p.44).
Snare drums are generally tuned higher than the toms, will have a shorter sustain due to the higher tuning and with more of a pitch the higher they are tuned (Schroedl, 2002, p.41). Concerning general principles for the tuning of snare drums, there are numerous guidelines and approaches that can be experimented with. Gatzen (2006) feels that by tuning the resonator head to a ‘G’, and then tuning the batter head higher than the resonator head by an interval of a third will result in a ‘woody’ sound, whereas an interval of a fourth or a fifth will result in a more metallic sound. However, similar to the lack of snare drum construction material, type, dimension or shell thickness that could specifically be deemed most appropriate to the metal genre, similarly there are not any approaches to the tuning of the snare that could be deemed most appropriate. A cursory listen through a number of high standard contemporary metal albums will likely exhibit a relatively wide variation of snare tonalities from a tuning perspective. An example of this could be a comparison of the snare tone on the Isis album ‘Panopticon’ (2004) and the Lamb of God album ‘Sacrament’ (2006). The Isis snare appears to have had a relatively tight tuning, with minimal, or no form of dampening applied whatsoever, with the snare wires having a minimal impact on the sound (possibly with no snare bottom mic used), leading to a very open tone with a lot of ring and sustain. Comparatively, the Lamb of God snare would have had a very different tuning and dampening applied. Here, there is a lot of weight to the snare, most probably as a result of a lower tuning, and features a very tight sustain and ‘spitiness’ of attack, most likely as a result of the snare wires having a lot more impact than with the Isis example. Both of these snare drums work within the mix in their own way, but feature entirely different tuning and dampening techniques. This shows that, whereas with the rest of the shell pack a tuning region can be deemed most appropriate (i.e. in the very low regions) there is no equivalent principle(s) regarding an appropriate tuning range or tuning approaches for snare. Although the greatly differing tunings for the snare could be attributed to the differing drum performance characteristics of these two acts, it is interesting to note that the kick and tom tones on these productions are relatively similar in comparison.
A lot of metal drummers will make the mistake of trying to get their toms to resonate and sustain as much as possible with maximum volume, thinking that the projection that this provides will allow the toms to cut through the density of the mix. Although this is relatively easily achieved, by simply tuning the batter and resonator heads to a very similar tension to each other, a highly resonant kit, as already mentioned, can cause serious problems for producers of the genre, where keeping tones tight and well defined is essential. In contrast, tuning the batter and resonator heads to a very similar tension to each other, by tuning a tom’s batter head tighter than the resonator head, not only is a deeper, rounder sound achieved, but also a tonally pleasing pitch bend. Alternatively, by tuning a tom’s resonator head higher than the batter head, an equally pleasing pitch bend is achieved, but with a tighter sound, with better attack and shorter sustain. As Gatzen (2006) says, striking the toms relatively gently will enable the subtleties in the tuning to be heard and as Schroedl points out:
If the top and bottom heads are too different in pitch in relation to each other, the low-end sustain will come in late, with a slight delay between the occurrence of the attack sound and the occurrence of the sustain. (2002, p.31)
Similar to the kick, keeping the toms tuned very low will enable a more powerful tone with increased low end. Additionally, a pleasing pitch bend is more likely to appear in the lower tuning ranges and will result in a much shorter sustain than otherwise, which is usually advantageous when recording the type of fast, complex, performance — which is frequently a feature of modern metal. This is due to the fact that a shorter sustain time will increase the perception of a tom’s attack, thereby assisting with clarity and definition. However, as Miller (2004) says, there are limitations, as if the toms are super dead sounding it is not going to cut through the music. On completing the individual tuning of all the toms, Schroedl points out that you should make sure that when the toms are played collectively, that the tuning between them results in pleasing and comparable intervals with similar sustain qualities (2002, p.35).
When the snare and toms are tuned, it is good practice to use lug locks to prevent the tension rods loosening up from the vibrations of the drum being struck. It is usually the snare drum’s tension rods that have a tendency to do this.
Generally, it is preferable to tune out any unwanted rings or resonances rather then dampen the drum to do this. This is due to the fact that dampening a drumhead not only muffles the sound, but also dulls the high frequencies (Schroedl, 2002, p.60). However, failing to use dampening is not always practical, or not possible as in the instance of the kick drum, which will usually be the shell requiring the most dampening. Gatzen (2006) claims additionally that lower drum tunings, which are appropriate for the metal genres kick and toms, usually require a degree of muffling to prevent the drum tone from becoming too sloppy.
Even though bass drum heads with built in dampening can be used, additional dampening will usually be required to achieve the kind of dry, dead, bass drum tonality that is appropriate for the contemporary metal genre. Pillows, towels, foam etc. can be used, however more attack and less woofiness from the drum can be gained by having a dampener on the batter head that bounces away from the head when it is struck, thereby enabling an enhanced shell vibration. A custom made product, such as a manufactured bass drum pillow that is attached to the inside of the kick drum shell with Velcro, will usually be the best approach.
Resonator heads will often need to be dampened, in addition to the batter, or they will sometimes display unwanted resonances, which can detract from the fundamental pitch of the kick drum. Muffling the resonator will lower the overall pitch of the bass drum (Gatzen, 2006), which is beneficial for a recording of a performance for this genre. The design of these previously mentioned manufactured bass drum pillows means that you can use one against the resonator head, as well as the batter.
Snare and Tom
One of the poorest approaches to dampening the snare (or any other drum) is to use gaffer tape. Other than the fact that it is not easily adjustable and will leave a sticky residue, or damage the snare coating when attempting to adjust it, gaffer tape has a tendency to vibrate, which can easily be picked up by the spot mics. Although many drummers use dampening rings or external clip-on dampeners, the author’s preference is for the purpose built product moongel, which is easily adjustable, re-useable and can be cut in half. Schroedl (2002, p.44) claims that in practice, internal built-in dampeners for snare drums are usually problematic, as they tend to throw the snare of tune, due to the way that they press up against the inside of the batter head.
It is important to acquire the drum sound you are striving to capture at source, before miking up begins. Although a drum shells material, construction, components and suspension system have a considerable bearing on the drum’s timbre, fortunately, the physical elements of a drum that has the most impact on the resulting sound are the ones over which we have most control – the drumheads. Despite the widespread use of drum samples for the contemporary metal genre’s production, for a project of any significance, new drumheads are a must. Two-ply clear batter heads will normally prove most appropriate for the kick drum and toms, with single ply for the resonator heads. Wooden or composite beaters combined with a slam patch on the batter head will help maximise the kick drum’s attack, which is essential for this style. A highly resonant drum kit can cause serious problems for producers of contemporary metal, where keeping drum tones tight and well defined is essential. Tuning the shell’s batter and resonator heads to a very similar tension to each other, which provides the most resonance and sustain, should therefore be avoided. By tuning a tom’s resonator head higher than the batter head, a tighter sound, with better attack and shorter sustain is achieved. By tuning a tom’s batter head tighter than the resonator head, a deep and round sound is achieved. It is most appropriate for the bass drum and toms to be tuned very low in order to achieve the enhanced low-end weight and punch required of the genres drum tones, and to maximise the perception of the shell’s attack due to the shorter sustain achieved by tuning low. Additionally this low tuning range will allow for a pleasing pitch band to the toms. However, the drummer’s feel of the relevant drum when performing needs consideration, and an element of dampening for the toms will often be required with low tunings, in addition to the usually heavy dampening of the kick drum. There are a wide variety of snare drum tones and tunings used for contemporary metal production. This means that there is not any sound at source tuning techniques, approaches or principles that can be deemed specific to snare tones for the genre.
About the Author
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