Tuning a Drum doesn't!

by Chris Quinlan

This month's article is about miking, tuning and the amount of hair-pulling required to get your drum-kit sounding "just right" within the confines of the space you are playing, the money you don't have and the drum mikes that have been soaked in beer and rebuilt with gaffa. I have a wonderful 4-cd set called "The Great Deciever" .... a collection of live recordings from the '73-'74 incarnation of King Crimson; in the enclosed booklet was a list of "aphorisms" guitarist Robert Fripp culled from 23 years of experience recording live performances. I found these points particularly insightful to my own experiences as a too old veteran of restaurants, receptions, free/bop/muzak jazz, door-takes, originals, covers, chicken dance, hokey-pokey, brass bands and Zappa.

To quote Robert Fripp:

1) A sound-check bears no relationship to what will happen once the audience enters and musicians walk on stage, other than both soundcheck and performance take place in the same building.

2) Distrust any musician who gives you their maximum level at soundcheck.

3) Microphones move from the positions they were put in.

4) Drum microphones pickup everything.

5) Vocal microphones pickup nearly everything.

6) Excited drummers sometimes hit their microphones with drumsticks.

7) Feet slip on volume pedals.

8) Distrust any lighting person who tells you their lights can't, don't and won't cause buzzes on the sound-system.

9) A recording engineer will have to change reels; i.e. tapes will run out while the band is playing. In time, this will occur to them.

10) Tuning a mellotron doesn't.

Seeing that Mellotrons are now almost as rare as guitarists who can read, I hope Robert Fripp won't mind me changing mellotron to drum, hence the title.How many times have you packed your beautiful sounding kit into the station-wagon, gone to the gig and find that mama's pot that she cooks the pasta in sounds better than your free-floating mega-buck snare? Most gigs I've had, in my experience, have allowed anywhere between none to four microphones maximum on my five-piece drum-kit. Allowing...... 1) Kick 2) Snare 3) Rack Toms 4) Floor Tom. I have found that in a 4-mike situation, any overhead miking is next to useless; by placing a mike between the two rack toms, and one on the floor tom, you get a "bleed-through" from your cymbals, which will usually suffice. Also, when setting levels,make sure the toms are prominant.. You don't want a fill-in to come out sounding like........ BOOM-BAP-BOOM-BOOM-BAP-"ti-ti-ti-ti-ti-ti-ti-ti".

In my brass band days, the various sections of the band would learn to adjust their dynamics according to the size and acoustics of the room we were playing (ppp would become p if the room was a hall etc.. ) I have found that an un-miked paperthin crash cymbal dissipates too quickly when whacked in a 200+ venue. Choosing Medium Cymbals, covers a multitude of sins, more softs to louds, they speak quick enough for most situations.Keep your drums wide open, never be without a tuning key for a quick adjustment and a set of E-rings (for fast muffling) if the room's acoustics bring out a "boingzzzz" sound from your mid-tom. I love the sound of a bass drum with no hole in the front. Un-miked situation....beautiful! I have to face the fact that in a "miked" full-on Zappa Instrumentaale situation, the small hole in the front head saves a lot of heartache fiddling with the EQ and the mixer swearing under his breath at you. Whatever you do, keep the Kick drummike stand away from the vocalist when he starts his jumps and arm-swinging; moving the kick mike one-inch can change everything! When interviewing Terry Bozzio recently, he told me he tuned a part of his kit to an A mixolydian scale! Amazing stuff. He also told me the heat from the lights played havoc with his tuning. He tweezed, stretched and punched his tom-skins for most ofthe sound-check. Be prepared to do the same on your own kit. Don't rely on the sound system effects rack to fix up a bad sounding kit. A good quality well-tuned kit will sound better with mikes, and a $500 special, badly-tuned kit will sound like a $500 special, piece of crap with mikes. Use this as a rule of thumb.

Eveness is the main operating procedure when tuning a drum. Make sure each lug on your drum is at the same tension. First, hand-tighten each lug so that they are sitting evenly on the hoop; check the tension by tapping the drum-skin 1 inch from each lug, do this and tweeze until all lugs have the same pitch. Then turn each lug a quarter-turn at a time with the tuning key; if you have a six-lug drum, 123456 going clockwise, tune opposite lugs so the hoops tightens onto the skinevenly i.e; 142536 until you find the note your looking for, (Make sure that the note is within the drum's range) Don't forget to always check that the lugs have even tension. Using the same procedure, tune the bottom skin to the same note.You can then tweeze each skin as you wish; bottom skin lower in pitch to get that BOOOOMMMmmmm..... sound. Or Bottom skin higher to get that DOOF....DOOF sound. A cheap kit can sound marvellous with some new skins, but don't expect miracles; when it's all said and done, you get what you pay for! A friend of mine once said this about quality equipment ............."You work for It, then It works for you." Remember, you only need to buy a great drum-kit once! Cracking cymbals is a sure-fire indication that your doing something very wrong and that it's affecting your sound. A good drummer should be able to get their sound out ofany kind of drum-kit. It's in the touch. You slash at cymbals, you don't hit them. You snap at a drum, you don't play through a drum.When you sound-check, make sure it's YOU who's hitting the drums, everyone has a different touch.For every one of these tips, I have a hard-luck gig story to go with it. I hope these tips help you through the guerilla warfare that can sometimes be the gig at the local pub. If you have your own mixing desk, a mike on every drum and someone to make it all work for you, life is good...enjoy yourself!!...... back in the real world.... don't forget the gaffa!