Drum Heads: 4 Examples of the Prepared Drum Set

Neurotic engineers with deep pockets pay enormous sums of money to eliminate all the unwanted buzzing, ringing, hissing, rattling, and clicking within their recording setups. Bad channels spitting out dirty electrical signals are replaced, rooms are acoustically treated to silence odd reverberations, and coloring books are strategically placed in the lobby to keep noodling guitar players busy and out of the control room. Going to these lengths provides an environment for capturing great tones, but now a portion of the drumming community is moving in the opposite artistic direction, and engineers need to play catch-up.

Lead by avant-garde percussionists—as well as a desire to reproduce electronic music—this phenomenon has quickly spread into the worlds of rock, pop, and jazz. The drummers of this growing field are plowing through a new territory that embraces all the buzzing and rattling of the drums that would normally make engineers cringe. I call this style “Prepared Drum Set.” Identical in approach to the prepared piano styles of the maverick composer John Cage, the basic concept is to alter the timbre of a drum or cymbal using foreign objects—car keys, wallets, springs, and so on. The practice has grown significantly in popularity with the rise of live electronica bands, with drummers simulating break-beats, hip-hop grooves, jungle rhythms, and unique sonic colors. It’s a cutting-edge field that only some drummers know about, and of which even fewer engineers are aware. From an engineering standpoint, adding these tricks to the arsenal of sound manipulation can come in handy when a drum track isn’t sitting comfortably in the mix. The results of these methods vary, but they typically alter a tone in the same manner that an effects processor would. Because it’s the engineer’s job to capture and enhance the sound, it makes sense to have a working knowledge of how to alter the drum tones at the source, rather than solely through miking and mixing.

If sampling, triggering, and sequencing are also part of the job, prepared drums can add a whole new section to the sampling library. Think about it. First came the drum, then there was the electronic sample of the drum, and now drums are prepared to emulate the sample that imitated real drums—thereby allowing you to sample the emulated tone of an electronic reproduction of an acoustic origin. Still with me? It’s four layers deep, rich with history, and the subtleties make all the difference. Do not attempt to discuss this concept while inebriated.

Trashy Splashy Snare Drum Delight

If the drums could speak a language, a swearing snare drum would be a high priority among many drummers. This first preparation is about as close to reaching a percussive expletive as you can get. Brought to the spotlight by drummer extraordinaire Johnny Rabb, the most common drum preparation these days is to lay a splash cymbal on the top snare head, and strike the remaining available head surface. Different sized splashes give different results, but the essential effect is a harsh and trashy snare sound. I’ve found that 8" splashes work well on 14" snares because they leave some space for the stick to come down on the snare head. But a 10" splash also sounds great—smacking the top of the bell produces an awesome attack. To achieve the best results, tune the top snare head fairly tight, as a loosely tuned, heavy rock snare won’t bring out the bite of the cymbal. If there are no splash cymbals handy, a hefty set of car keys resting on the head will produce a fairly similar, but slightly tamer tone.

Dead Ringer

Heavy dampening of the top head has also grown in popularity. Placing a wallet on a taught snare head creates a staccato punch that is reminiscent of many lo-fi, old-school drum machines. For the extreme dampener, putting a folder or thin notebook over the snare head really changes the tone. The downside is that the volume of the snare is lowered drastically, so it helps if the drummer can accommodate, and play the other drums a bit quieter. Pumping that snare through a compressor will fatten the tone and make some heads bob.

Frankenstein’s Hi-Hats

If you are stuck in a session with a Stewart Copeland 32nd-note hi-hat wannabe who lacks taste, and the parts aren’t fitting the song, consider changing out the hi-hat cymbals with something a little less responsive. For a real heavy sound, two crash cymbals from 16" to 18" on the hi-hat stand sound enormous. Put two ride cymbals on there, and it will feel like Phil Rudd of AC/DC is behind the kit. Alternately, to match the previously mentioned lo-fi snare preparations, two splash cymbals mounted on the stand bring out both a 1930s jazz vibe and a fashionably indie children’s-toy-instrument element.

Extreme Tambourine

Pried from the asthmatically stuttering hands of prima donna backup singers, tambourines have made their way to the drum kit as rack-mounted instruments. Not only do they provide a new voice on their own, but lay one on top of a ride cymbal, and you create a whole new dimension of steroid-enhanced sizzle. It takes up a lot of space in the higher frequencies, but, if you have an open mind and the right situation, the sounds it produces can be inspired. Conventional hand-held tambourines are a little too big for this application, but, luckily, Rhythm Tech makes the Hat Trick—a miniature tambourine that’s perfect for such situations. It’s small enough not to get in the way of your sticks, but it still rattles like crazy. Just hang it from the wing nut of a cymbal stand, draped over the bell of the ride, and voilà—you’re cooking bacon.

Learn More!

To further study the concept of prepared drum set, here are some drummers who are inserting these techniques (and others) into various styles of music: Stanton Moore, Johnny Rabb, Matt Chamberlain, Yuval Gabay, Ahmir Khalib Thompson (also known as Questlove), and Glenn Kotche. Google ’em, because they are forging ahead with new tones, and they’re reinventing what a drum mix is all about.