8 Steps To A Perfect Kick Sound

As a drummer and a studio owner, I can attest to the fact that many drummers do not know how to properly tune their kick drums. And their records suffer for it. So unless you are triggering your kick (and keeping a 100 percent wet kick mix), or planning on spending hours with SoundReplacer fixing a screwed-up kick track, you need to start from the source and get the best-sounding kick possible. The way to do that, my friends, is to just tune the damn thing properly. Here are eight simple steps to a glorious kick drum sound.

Step 1

Remove all lugs, the hoop, and the head, and wipe away any dirt or dust buildup. Run your finger around the bearing edge of the drum (Figure 1) to feel for abnormalities such as dents, cuts, or grooves. If you find anything, simply fill it in with ski or candle wax. (If the damage is severe, you may need the edge re-cut.) Having good contact between the head and the bearing edge is one of the single most important aspects of a good drum sound, so make sure everything is nice, clean, smooth, and even. And while you’re at it, check for loose lug and spur screws, and replace them if necessary, as they can vibrate and scratch your shell — or even allow a whole lug to break off.

Step 2

Resonant heads are very important to a drum’s sound. With rare exceptions, factory heads are cheap, and they’re either difficult to tune, or do not hold their tuning. So if you have a new kick, replace the factory head before recording.

Place the new head on the drum, and spin it around the rim a few times to make sure the head is “in-round,” and not a factory defect (Figure 2). Align the head so the logo and/or vent sits where you prefer, and reseat the hoop over the head. Some drummers prefer to keep the hoop in the same place as before, contending that the hoop mates with the shell over time. I like to rotate the hoop each time I change a head.

Step 3

Before replacing the tension rods, make sure each rod has a washer. Apply a small amount of lubricant to the end threads (Figure 3), as this will help maintain tuning over time. Finger-tighten all of the rods. Some wrinkles may still be visible on the head, but stop once you can no longer easily move the rods with simple figure pressure.

Step 4

Now it’s time to seat the head. There are a few ways to do this, but I prefer the CPR method. Lean over the drum, place your palm in the middle of the head, reinforce with your other arm, and apply constant, but firm, pressure until you hear a long crackling noise (Figure 4). This breaks up the excess epoxy that holds the head into its rim all at once so the epoxy doesn’t break up over time and cause unexpected tuning shifts.

Step 5

Using two drum keys, tune any given lug along with the lug directly opposite of it (Figure 5). Start by doing only a one-half turn before moving to the next lug pair. Why two keys? Because it’s time-efficient, provides more even pressure to the head, and avoids the traditional versus modern tuning-sequence debate. [Note: Traditional tuning methods dictate that lugs are tightened in the following order: first lug, opposite lug, next lug, opposite lug, and so on. This method evolved in the days when drumheads were made of skin and other variable materials. Modern tuning starts with a given lug, then proceeds in a clockwise or counterclockwise fashion. Proponents of this method contend that modern head and drum construction make the traditional method obsolete.] As you increase the tension around the head, the overall surface will start to smoothen out. Continue until the head is smooth of all wrinkles.

Step 6

The next step is establishing a preliminary pitch. First, isolate the head you’re tuning by either placing a towel on the floor and setting the drum on it, or resting the kick on your foot while you tune the face-up head (Figure 6). Using a felt or percussion mallet (sticks have undesirable attack on kicks, and can damage the head), move around the drum, hitting about two inches inside of each lug. At this point, you should be listening for each lug’s pitch relative to the other lugs. If the pitch is too high, back off a half to three quarters of a turn, and tune back up. Stop when the pitches are about the same. As with guitar tuning, to lower the pitch, loosen the tension beyond your target tone, and then re-tighten until the desired tension is achieved.

Step 7

Keeping the opposite head muted, strike the head in the center of the drum. Listen to the sound of the decay of the hit. If it fades out in a smooth, even way, the head is in tune with itself. If you hear “beats” (similar to playing harmonics when tuning a guitar), you know that one or more lugs are out of tune. If you have an overhead light, you can watch the reflection of the light after you strike the head (Figure 7). While it’s not good to tune by eye alone, this trick can be helpful in a noisy environment. If the reflection is “warbled,” and the sound decays with an unpleasant or beating nature, the head is out of tune. If the drum fades out in a smooth manner, the reflection cast in the head should come back into focus quickly and evenly.

If the drum is still out of tune, it’s probably just one or two lugs that are the culprits. Go back to striking about two inches inside each lug. At this point, use your free hand and barely touch the center of the head as you strike each lug. This should help isolate the decay of each hit. Once you find the lug that’s too high or low, adjust it. Keep in mind that this is an imperfect science. Some-times, the “responsible” lug is the one right next to, or opposite of, the “bad sounding” lug. Once you find the last troublemaker, tune it up and give the whole head a big hit. Regardless of pitch, the head should be in tune and decay evenly. Unmute the second head, and evaluate the drum as a whole. If you like what you hear, now is the time to fine-tune the kick.

Step 8

Tossing a blanket or a pillow in the kick is lazy, negates shell overtones, and makes heads sound like wet cardboard on your recording. If you want a tight, focused sound, start with a batter head that has built-in control devices, such as the Aquarian Super Kick II, or the Evans EMAD System. You can also tape a fabric square on the inside of the batter head, placing the tape along the top. When the head is struck, the fabric will flap away from the head, and then return to rest, effectively muffling unwanted overtones.

If you like how a pillow limits shell overtones, try an aftermarket device such as the Kik Brik (Figure 8) These are made for varying shell depths; they can be mounted to touch one, both, or neither heads; and they come with Velcro strips to keep in place if the drum moves.

If you want a sharp attack, avoid the old “coin taped to the beater head” trick. This will damage your head. Instead, use a store-bought patch, or just tape an old credit card to the head.
Finally, if you notice that after your rough tracks, the kick and the bass are conflicting on certain notes, try changing the tuning of your head, instead of EQing your way out of the situation. Your album will love you for this.