If you have been taking online drum lessons, or studying with a local teacher; you may be ready to invest in your first drum set. This is an exciting moment - one that you will never forget. It will motivate you and help you progress nicely with the right practice plan.
To be truly inspired to play an instrument, it has to sound good, and this is where some student drummers experience an issue. Your new drums may need to be assembled from the box including drum head fitting and tuning, or you may have purchased a pre-owned drum set that needs some TLC. Rest assured, some low maintenance and low cost solutions are available to help you.
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The importance of good tuning.
In this article, we outline various ways that you can enhance the sound of your drum set, but it should be emphasized that good tuning is key. This presents quite a challenge to most hobbyist drummers, because it takes experience to do well. There are various online tutorials that can help you, as well as DVD productions by experts in the field such as Bob Gatzen ("Drum Tuning - Sound Design", published by Warner Brothers). The reality is that learning to tune takes time, and most people want to start playing as quickly as possible.
If you are looking to make your drums sound good without too much trial and error; then I highly recommend purchasing a "Drum-Dial". These are tuning tools that measure the tightness of the drum head using tympanic pressure. Using the reading from a simple clock-face display, you can tune a drum set to a good degree of accuracy in a fraction of the time it would take to do by ear. They can cost around $80, but are worth every cent. I routinely help my students tune their drums at my studio in San Diego, and you might want to ask your local drum teacher for help - this is just one of the benefits of working with a local professional.
Are the drum heads up to the job?
If you have purchased a new drum set, they will be supplied with "factory heads". These are the drum heads that come as standard, and while they are mostly good quality, they are rarely as good as the specialist heads made by companies such as Evans Drumheads, Remo or Aquarian. (Remember - a "drum head" is the modern term for what used to be called "drum skins" - we've come a long way in technology since the days of calf skin heads. If you are confused by any of the drum terminology, remember that we have a free Glossary that can help you). Most starter to intermediate level drum sets are greatly enhanced by upgrading the drum heads from the factory models. If you have purchased a used set, check the condition of the drum heads. It should be easy to see if they are old and need replacing, with telltale signs such as pitting (small dents on the surface) or scratches.
What type of drum heads can enhance the sound?
Let's start with your Toms. The most common comment I get from students is that their Toms "ring" too much. Given as drums are designed to resonate, this is not unusual, but there are some measures you can take to minimize the resonance, and give your Toms a deeper, more attractive tone. If new, your Toms will most likely come with a single-ply drum head on both the top (batter) and bottom (resonant-side) of the drum. Fitting a two-ply head (Evans G2 or Remo Emperor) to the batter side of the drum will give you a great sound, slightly less ring, and a more controlled tone. It must be said that much of this depends on the tuning of the drum, as discussed above. Double ply bass drum batter heads can also give your bass drum a deeper, more controlled sound, and are definitely worth considering. Again, the resonant, or front head, rarely needs to be substituted.
Does it matter if the drum heads are coated or clear?
When you first start playing the drums, it can be very hard to discern between coated and clear heads. Coated drum heads are generally said to give a slightly drier sound, and are definitely preferable in jazz applications where you might be using brushes. The majority of starter drum sets come with clear heads (with the exception of the snare drum), and frankly, unless you prefer the cosmetic look of coated white heads, they are perfectly fine.
What about the snare drum?
The snare drum in particular can sound very abrasive without the right head selection, tuning, and set-up. Fortunately, most snare drums come assembled from the factory, so you don't have to worry about fitting the snare wires. A good single ply coated drum head is usually recommended for the snare drum (Like an Evans G1 Coated, or a Remo Ambassador), and if it rings too much, you can always look to some of the dampening options we outline below. If the snare wires seem to be "buzzing" too much after the initial stroke, then try tightening them slightly using the snare strainer attached to the side of the drum. If your snare drum is pre-owned, always check the condition of the snare wires. They typically have 20 strands, and missing, broken, or bent wires can affect the sound.
What is snare buzz and how can it be controlled?
Sometimes, even when the snare drum is set up well, the snare wires will buzz lightly when you play the Toms, particularly the higher pitched smaller Toms. This is called "snare buzz" and is a natural event that is caused by certain frequencies from other Toms. It can also be triggered by other instruments, particularly bass guitars. This is perfectly natural and should not be a concern. Ensuring your snare drum wires are tight enough will help minimize this, but be careful not to over-tighten your wires, as this will choke the drum.
Applying additional dampening to your drums can also help control sound. For the bass drum, this can be as simple and low maintenance as placing a household pillow inside the drum. Ideally placed inside the drum so that the pillow touches both the batter and resonant heads, this additional dampening will not only give you a more controlled sound, but it can also give the drum a better feel when playing the bass drum pedal. Even when bass drums are fitted with so-called "pre-damped" heads, they can still sound very boomy without internal dampening. Snare drums and Toms can be controlled by applying putty type products such as Moongel or SweetSpots directly to the batter side drum head, next to the rim. Tone Rings can also be applied to the top of the drums. Typically one inch in diameter, these plastic rings reduce the ring and resonance of a drum significantly.
Can the sound of the cymbals be enhanced?
Budget cymbal packs do not tend to be the most musical options available. That's the politically correct way of saying that they can sound nasty! Remember, if you don't like the sound of your cymbals, you are less likely to want to hit them. Given as there are no effective options to alter your acoustic cymbal sound, we recommend upgrading basic cymbal sets, and budgeting for this in your initial purchase. Our article on the five common mistakes made when purchasing drums may help you here.
Making your drums sound good from the outset can greatly enhance your playing experience. A great sounding drum set inspires you to play more. If we can help you in any way, please do not hesitate to email [email protected].