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A drum is the same as any acoustic instrument, it has a Sound Source (the skin that is hit) and an Acoustic Chamber (the shell). Striking the skin sends vibrations through the shell from skin to skin and produces the tone which we hear.


Drums are made of different woods, and each wood has it’s own characteristic sound. Two standard woods are maple and birch. Maple (Keller Shell) has a warmer sound with fuller sustain, while Birch has a lower fundamental tone, a crisper attack and a quicker decay.

Drums are also made from other woods such as beech, mahogany, pidouk, oak, jarrah and sometimes even metals (snare drums) and high density fiberglass (fig 1)

As we know a smaller drum (diameter) will have a higher pitch than a large drum.
But there are other things that contribute to a drums sound, for instance:

1 - How many ply thick the shell is. Shells can range from 4 – 10 ply thick (fig 2)

* A thick shell will hardly resonate at all, instead it projects a clear and bright version of the drumskin tone. Why? Because it is so dense, it’s reflecting vibration rather than absorbing it. This is good for de-tuned drums (bass drum) as it gives a fat and round sound.

* A thin shell will absorb more vibration and resonate better within the drumskins. Because the shell is vibrating a lot – it imparts this vibration to the drumskin and contributes more shell sound to the overall tone of the drum. You can tune thin shells up high and they still speak articulately. They’re generally louder than thick shells.

2 – The depth of the shell. This influences the tone of the drum but not usually the pitch. Deeper drums (ie power toms) have a longer, fuller tone because the wavelengths have more distance to develop into tone. Like thick cymbals, they take more effort to activate because a bigger volume of air is being moved with a bigger resistance (fig 3).

3 – Lacquer on the shell. Glossy laquer on the inside of a shell gives a bright and crisp sound as the vibrations are reflected from the wood. A satin finish inside will let more vibrations into the wood, give a ‘woodier’ sound, and no laquer at all will give a very woody sound.


* To tune a drum you get a tuning key and tighten or loosen the tension rods at both ends of the drum. The head that you hit (the one on top) is called the ‘batter head’ (this applies to bass drums too), and the bottom head is called the ‘resonant head’ (fig 6).
* Generally the higher a drum is tuned, the shorter the sustain. The lower it’s tuned the longer the sustain.

TUNING METHOD: Make sure the rod holes are well oiled, and start by tuning to finger tight. You can either tune the kit in an ‘opposite’ fashion (fig 7) or gradually go around the drum. Remember to tune in smaller increments as you get closer to the sound you want. To start with you can tune in half or quarter turns.


* If you tune both heads exactly the same you can produce a long ambient sound. To get the popular pitch drone (where the pitch descends slightly after struck just before it fades out), tune the top head slightly lower than the bottom.

TOMS: You tune the bottom head first. Tune it to the pitch you want and tap it at the edge where each rods sits to see it produces the same pitch all the way around. Fine tune this and the skin will be in tune with itself.

* Then do the same to the top head – tune it to the same pitch as the bottom. Here the drum should produce a good working sound, and from there you can tweak things slightly to get the effect you want.

SNARE DRUM: As with other drums you can change the pitch of a snare. To get a lower more ‘wide open’ sound, detune it. To get a higher ‘crackier’ sound, tune it up. To help get a sustained sound loosen the snare wires with the tension adjuster. To get a short sound tighten the snare wires.

* When you strike a snare drum it produces overtones and harmonics, and the further from the centre you play the more overtones and harmonics you get and also the higher a pitch you get.

* To cut these sounds out you can muffle the drum by placing gaffer or duct tape on the batter head. To cut more out you can tape a small piece of material to the drum, and to cut out all overtones you can place a muffling or ‘zero’ ring on the batter head (fig 8).

BASS DRUM: Again it depends on the sound you want. If you want a punchy rock/funk type sound you use a thicker batter skin and detune it (quite a lot). You can also put some material against the batter (or both) heads, and put a whole in the front head – this will help to achieve a dead, punchy sound (fig 9).

* If you want a longer sustaining, warmer sound (good for jazz, and softer music) you tune both heads up higher even into large floor tom range if you wish. Use a front head with no hole and the sound will sustain longer, and don’t bury the beater into the head, let it rebound and the drum will resonate. Maybe choose a thinner, coated bass drum head (fig 10).

* Note: thicker heads like a Remo Powerstroke 3 work really well for a large, fat sound, but can sound a bit ‘plasticy’ or non resonant at softer volumes. Likewise thin jazz skins like Remo Rennaisance or Ambassadors are articulate, warm skins but don’t have much punch at the louder end.

CHOICE OF SKIN: Aside from the bottom snare skin, which is always a very thin skin, you usually have 2 variables – clear or coated and single or double ply.

* Clear (plastic) skins have more ‘snap’ sounding attack when struck, Coated skins have a warmer attack
* Single ply skins have less attack, more articulation and less durability
* Double ply skins have more attack, less articulation and more durability

Remember to choose your skins and tuning correct for the style you’re playing, but also think in terms of the volume you’ll be playing at – because you can always play rock softly and jazz loudly.. 



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