By Andy Doerschuk
Drums alone are noisy enough. The very nature of their potentially extreme volume and sound can disguise an errant rattle during most gigs and practice sessions. But as soon as you put your kit through the unforgiving reality check otherwise called “miking,” all kinds of little artifacts can mysteriously appear.
The good news is that you already have the most important tools needed to eliminate nasty noises – your ears. So when you hear your 12″ tom buzz or hi-hat pedal squeal, the next thing to do is to stick your head as closely as possible to the point of origin and try it again (perhaps at a quieter volume!) to pinpoint its actual location.
Then bring common sense to bear (some duct tape here, a tightened wing nut there), and you’re back to slapping the skins in no time flat. Still, there are a few areas of a drum kit that are especially prone to sudden sounds (somewhat) like “skree-oink!” Here’s what to look for.
Hardware & Pedals
When it comes to hardware, bummer sounds invariably originate from some kind of metallic grinding or squeaking. Let’s start with the most common culprit: your pedals. By simply applying lubricant to any and all moving parts, you can eliminate practically any squeak. But to be honest, why must your pedals beg for a drink? Go ahead, give them a little squirt every so often and they’ll return the favor, not only with a noise-free performance, but also with a nice smooth pedal-board feel. Bonus!
Here’s a tip for extra credit: WD-40 isn’t particularly forgiving to pedals. Oh sure, it’s absolutely fabulous at lubricating moving metal parts, but if you happen to get the teeniest drop on your pedal board your feet will slip and slide for a much longer period than you might imagine. Our solution is to use a spray can of vegetable oil – that’s right, the same gunk that you cook with. It effectively kills squeaks, is easier to wipe off your pedal board, and is as environmentally friendly as you can get. That’s right, we live in California.
If you wait to buy that 50¢ sleeve, you can easily ruin a $350 crash cymbal.
An exception to the “lube moving parts” rule can crop up on the hi-hat pedal. Let’s say you hear a metal-on-metal sound whenever you depress the footboard, but no amount of lube seems to eliminate the noise. It’s easy – you have a bent pull rod (which is the inner rod that moves the top cymbal up and down whenever you activate the pedal). You can bend the sucker back into some semblance of straightness to correct the problem about half the time, but be aware that you can actually make it worse the other half of the time by twisting it even further out of whack. Our best solution? Buy a new pull rod and be done with it.
Hardware doesn’t necessarily need moving parts to produce noisy results. Have you ever hit a cymbal and heard a slight buzzing as the sound begins to decay? It’s most likely one of two things: The plastic sheath that protects the inside of the cymbal’s mounting hole has worn completely away, allowing the precious bronze to vibrate dangerously against the pot-metal post. Hey! Fix it! Right away! If you wait to buy that 50¢ sleeve, you can easily ruin a $350 crash cymbal. The other culprit might be the stand itself. As a cymbal stand ages, things kind of move around and loosen up, so that the telescoping tubes actually wind up touching at one point or another. Sorry, but it may just be time to visit the cymbal stand graveyard if this happens to you.
You hit a drum and hear a little buzzing, 98—or more accurately, 99.99—percent of the time you simply need to change heads. It pays dividends to learn to recognize that sound and act upon it as soon as you hear it. You will simply be a better drummer for it.
Predictably, there are other reasons why a drum might rattle. A loose tension rod is the second most common culprit. In a perfect world, you should first hear your head detune before the tension rod begins to rattle – but the truth is that anything can happen. So it’s a good idea to reach for the drum key as soon as you hear something funny and fix it.
Some heads are easier to reach on the fly than others. If you’ve ever had to walk to the front of the drum riser during a show with drum key in hand, you know that the worst, and most embarrassing head to tune onstage is the front resonant bass drumhead. Second to that is the snare-side head, largely because of its inaccessibility. So it’s a darn good idea to tighten those heads ever so slightly as you set up your kit before a gig. Learn to feel where the tension rods begin to bite into the hoop. It’s an invaluable skill.
Here’s another onstage snare nightmare. Your snare wire buzz becomes erratic and sustains longer than usual as you play. Guess what? You just had one or more of your snare wires break and they are rattling uncontrollably against the bottom head. The quick fix is to twist the loose wires completely off of the snare strand housing. But keep in mind that your snare drum is trying to tell you something. You need to change your snare wires more often so that you don’t have to deal with breakage on stage (plus, your snare will sound much fresher). And the second lesson is that you should always carry a spare set of snare wires with you. Even better – bring a backup snare drum to your gigs to make a quick snare changeover even quicker.
Sudden rattling in a drum can also mean that a bolt has come loose inside the shell, so that every time you hit the drum the bolt dances around until the bottom head stops vibrating. In short, you’re doomed! There simply isn’t ample time on stage to remove your drumhead, reinstall the bolt, and put the whole drum back together before the audience starts searching for the pinball machine. So try to play around the problem until you get a break, and then fix it. Again, this is a sure sign that you simply aren’t doing enough maintenance on your kit between gigs. Best to chalk it up as a learning experience and become a pro.
The Cost Of Being Cool
This one is so incredibly simple, and yet so true. If you are like me, you like to have a fan blowing on you during the set to keep your body from overheating. Okay, I’ll admit that half the time this is simply a luxury that I enjoy … a lot! But there are those hot summer festivals where you’re onstage with the sun directly in your eyes and no breeze to speak of. Without a fan, you’ll sweat out all of your electrolytes after a couple songs and begin cramping from dehydration. That little breeze maker suddenly becomes a lifesaver.
But a fan can also contribute to unwanted noises. In particular, if your fan blows directly into a microphone capsule on your kit, it can create an enormous low-end hum that greatly resembles an oncoming Mac truck. The solution is pretty easy: move the fan around until you get rid of the noise. You might have to compromise on the degree of wind-power you have at your back, but you get the drum sound that you’re after.
Founding editor of DRUM! Magazine, Andy Doerschuk has played drums with such artists as Steppenwolf, Rick Derringer, Billy Vera & The Beaters, and Debbie Davies.
This article was originally published in the August-September 2004 issue of Drum! as part of the article “101 Ways To Become A Better Drummer.”