BY AJ DONAHUE
Never before have there been so many different drum muffle—[the entire internet condescendingly sucks air through teeth] “Oooh, actually, we try not to call them mufflers anymore. Do you mean tone modifiers?”
Alright, fair enough. Never before have there been so many different, ahem, tone modifiers, available for the drum set. Between the growing need to replicate sampled sounds, a resurgence of percussionists pushing sonic boundaries, and increasing access to boutique products, we are truly in the midst of a sound-shaping boom—a very controlled boom, that is, without excess overtones.
With that in mind, we rounded up a selection of nearly 30 tone-modifying goodies and put ’em through the ringer to help you determine where to best invest your accessory budget. In this article, we focus mostly on products released in the last few years, and we limited our scope to snare drum and tom applications (though many of these products can be used on cymbals and other instruments as well.)
We tested all units on the same four-piece drum set with medium tuning. Check out the accompanying video to hear a quick sample of the untreated kit, followed by demos of each product on the snare drum and toms. This is the heavy duty drum nerd stuff we live for.
Finally, all included prices listed here reflect “street price,” which means you should be able to find these products for the prices listed here at your favorite music store or website.
We’re all familiar with the classic gooeys and gummies used to tame tones, but the range of options available in the sticky and adhesive-based dampener market has exploded in recent years. Despite their similarities, we noted a surprising range of tonal responses from each product.
Material: 10mil plastic
Size: 3″ strip
Retail: $6.99 for pack of five
Part of Aquarian’s Kit Tools line of drumhead accessories, t-TABs are 3-inch strips of 10mil plastic cut into curved strips with a reusable adhesive backing. t-TABs simply stick to any drumhead’s surface to add a modest amount of overtone control. That curved shape allows them to sit snugly up against counterhoops, but Aquarian clearly states that the tabs can and should be placed anywhere. To my ear, t-Tabs offered the closest facsimile to gaffer’s tape of any product featured in this piece. They’re small and light, and seem to mostly reign in those wily tones around the edge just enough without affecting the feel of the head. I also find them particularly effective on resonant heads of unruly floor toms, where they can quickly settle unwanted boing or wobble. Aquarian says its proprietary adhesive allows the strips to be used over and over. I found that I could reuse each piece 10-12 times before it started to lose tackiness. Coated and clear strips come in each pack.
Material: 10mil plastic
Size: 4.5″ and 5.5″ circle
Retail: $6.99 for both sizes
Using the same 10mil plastic found in the t-TABs, duraDOTs offer a much more significant tone adjustment. The 4.5″ and 5.5″ discs operate similarly to a permanent reinforcement dot, but they can be applied to either side of any head at any time. Like the t-TABs, I found the DOTs to have a more limited lifespan than Aquarian suggests, but I was still able to get at least 12 uses out of each, probably closer to 20 with the 5.5″. Maybe it’s because they’re not permanently affixed, but I feel like the duraDOTs play and feel a little heavier than fixed dots. On snare drums, they shave off a ton of high-end presence and remove a bit of clarity from super-low volume strokes. Applied to toms, they draw up a big, throaty punch that ends quickly.
Material: VTem polymer
Size: 1.5″ circle; minis are 1″ circle
Weight: 1.3 and 3.3g
Retail: $10.99 for four drumdots or six minis
Introduced a few years ago, drumdots took the conventional gel-type tone controller idea and shot it into the space age. Available in standard and “mini” (about half-sized) sizes, drumdots use a unique VTem polymer that feels denser and firmer than other gel-type units. Like the other gel-types covered here, drumdots are washable and reusable, and come with a carrying case to keep them clean. In action, the dots seem to minimize high frequencies just a little bit more than alternatives, which I think is due to the increased density. That said, the drums don’t feel lifeless or damp with dots on top. The mini dots add even more flexibility with their reduced mass, which I really enjoyed on snare drums.
Material: Neoprene over adhesive polymer
Size: 1.25″ circle
Retail: $15.99 for pack of four
Built on a proprietary adhesive polymer base, Drumtacs feel like a dense foam loaded with glue. They’re not really filled with glue, though—they just look like it. The company says they’ve been specifically designed to prevent flapping or buzzing, even under long-term use. I found that they cling extremely well to just about any surface, and they actually require a bit of muscle to remove from a head once they’ve been installed. They’re also strong enough to be used reliably on resonant-side heads. I’m certain that tight bond helps prevent any of the flopping that comes along with well-worn alternatives. Sonically, they have a lot of the same effect as a gel-type, but I noticed that my snare drums sound slightly mellower with ‘tacs compared to other options. Drumtacs are also washable and reusable, and have an expected lifespan of 12–16 months.
Meinl Drum Honey
Size: 1.5″ diameter circle
Retail: $6.95 for pack of six
Meinl’s latest entry into the tone controller realm comes in the form of Drum Honey, an orange soda-colored product very much in line with classic gel-type mutes. These drops of honey are 1.5″ diameter circles that come in at roughly 1/8″ thick. The lightweight drops are washable and reusable, and for ease of use, they come packed in a handy carrying case with plastic slip dividers between each. Thankfully, they didn’t seem to leave any orange marks on heads during testing. They affect snares and toms in line with expectations, adding some overtone control with a little bit of upper range softening. I didn’t encounter any real surprises here—simply a well-designed product with an approachable price point.
RTOM Moon Gel
Size: 1.5″ x 1″ rectangle
Retail: $6.99 for pack of six
It’s Moon Gel! And now it’s clear! That’s really all you need to know. I think we all know the score with these. RTOM’s Moon Gel set the standard for modular tone control decades ago, and they’ve been a staple in sheds, stages, and studios ever since. The washable, reusable little gummy rectangles, once infinitely identifiable by their hallmark blue hue, are now available in clear so as not to disrupt the highly curated aesthetics of your drum set.
Size: 1.25″ circle and 1″ circle
Weight: 1.7g and 3.1g
Retail: $10.95 for pack of four large and six small
TruTones, another gel-type tone controller, have a firmer feel in hand. One pack of TruTones includes both 1.25″ and 1″ circular pieces that are tacky to the touch, but leave no noticeable residue on fingers or drums. The pieces are quite sticky and are packed without dividers, so they’re a little difficult to separate. But that extra adhesiveness comes in handy. During the review period, none of the TruTones budged at all, even after being exposed to some significant temperature changes. Having both sizes available in a single pack is helpful, as the smaller pieces feel more suited to smaller toms and highly tensioned snare drums. Tonally, they are very much in kind with other gel-type products, but the added tackiness is a big plus. And of course, they’re washable and reusable.
Vater Buzzkill and Extra Dry Buzzkill
Size: 1.25″ circle; Extra Dry is 1.5″ domed circle
Weight: 2.3g and 6.4g
Retail: $7.95 for pack of six standard or pack of four Extra Dry
Vater’s entry into the tone-tamer market comes in two different sizes, sold in separate packs. Standard Buzzkills—flat, circular pieces 1.25″ in diameter—have a feel and tackiness close to what many of us associate with traditional gel-style mutes. They hold well, hit the expected marks for overtone control, and clean up easily if they get filthy. The Extra Dry Buzzkills are different, however. They’re 1.5 inches in diameter, with a flat bottom and a sort of low-domed top. The added weight is extremely useful for low-tuned snare drums and floor toms that need a little extra mass to settle things down. The only drawback is that the added weight does make heads feel a tiny bit more sluggish under stick.
We encountered several products designed to maximize tone modification by covering the entire drumhead—or at least spanning the entire circumference. That much coverage significantly changes the sound and response of a drum, so we split them into their own space.
Material: Light fabric
Size: 12″ and 14″ included here; other sizes also available
Weight: 25.3g and 37.9g
Crafted individually and entirely by hand, Drum Tortillas offer a reliable and effective alternative to the tea-towel approach to tone taming. Using a simple design of two thin plies, a sewn loop around the edge for stability, and a finger loop for easy removal, Drum Tortillas instantly transform any drum’s sound into a soft thump akin to what we hear on classic tracks from the ’60s and ’70s. In practice, I enjoyed them much more on toms than I did on my snare drum. They provide perhaps the most significant character change of any product in this roundup, and they took a little more life out of my snare than I would have liked. Toms, on the other hand, are able to maintain some body behind the whump, which made them really satisfying in low-volume live situations, and really powerful under microphones. Standard sizes and loads of different pattern options are available. Custom offers can be accommodated as well.
Big Fat Snare Drum Drum Quesadilla
Size: 14″ (available in 10″–16″ sizes)
Retail: $14 for 14″; $55 for package of all sizes
Much like Drum Tortillas, Big Fat Snare Drum’s Quesadillas feature a 2-ply cloth build with a sewn ring around the edge for stability and a fabric finger loop for speedy removal. Despite the fabric feeling just a bit heavier, Quesadillas deliver a similar effect on snares and toms. The Quesadilla seemed more prone to sliding off of snare drum heads, but I solved this issue by tucking the edges down around the head collar where possible. Surprisingly, it didn’t move much on my floor toms, even under heavy use.
Big Fat Snare Drum Medford Square W/Jingles
Like the original Big Fat Snare Drum, the new Medford Square with Jingles unit sits on a foundation of full-diameter, single-ply Mylar. But what sets the Medford apart is that a much larger section of the head is covered by the company’s proprietary black gasket material. Only a 7-inch square (hence the name) cut out of that Mylar base remains visible. The result is a heavier product that further dampens high-end presence and restricts head vibration. The addition of six hammered-steel tambourine jingle pairs adds a nice touch of dry-ish sweetened jangle behind each stroke. This is a tool with a pretty specific application, but it does that one thing really well. It delivers a deeper, fatter version of the characteristic BFSD boof, and supplements it with bit of tambourine sound that feels great in folk or light-rock settings.
Big Fat Snare Drum Round Sound
Material: 10mil Myler
Size: 1″ X 10″, 12″, 13″, 14″, and 16″ rings
Weight: 7.1 to 18.1g
Retail: $3.50 individually; $12 for pack of all sizes
The Round Sounds are Big Fat Snare Drum’s take on the classic muffle rings that have been hanging around practice rooms for the last several centuries, from Revolutionary War fife and drum corps to EDM hybridizers. Round Sound rings are 1-inch flat rings of 10mil Mylar available as singles or in packs. They sit flat, stay in place, and squash nearly all of the highest overtones for a focused, fat bump. I can hear a little bit of the plastic slap created by the rings leaping up off the edge and coming back down on a vibrating head, which is kind of a nice touch. For the most part, this is another sound we’re all probably very familiar with. BFSD did equip each ring with its signature finger Thumb Grip for easy retrieval.
TACTICAL TONE TRANSFORMERS
Finally, we received a number of products designed to only affect a portion of the head without adhering to it directly. That allows each of these modifiers to briefly bounce off the head and then quickly return to control vibration.
Material: Cellular foam
Size: 4.25″ x 2″ at widest point, vaguely shark fin–shaped
Cympad’s new Shark tone controller is an adhesive-backed, reusable modifier. The stretched-out-guitar-pick-shaped unit features the same durable cellular foam foundation used in Cympads, split into two halves with a plastic hinge between them. One half, which is cut with a radial curve to match a hoop curve, has an adhesive underside that sticks directly to a clean drumhead surface. The split design and plastic hinge allows the other half to gently bounce away from the head when the drum is struck and then quickly return to place. The resulting sound retains some breath alongside the initial attack, quickly settling as the foam comes back into contact. I most enjoyed the Shark on snare drums, but I found it worked well on floor toms, too. An included case helps keep that adhesive section clean between uses.
Keo Percussion Snare Dampener
Material: Wood and felt
Size: 7″ long, 3/4″ tall
Keo Percussion is the brainchild of British Drum Company founder Keith Keough. The BDC subsidiary produces elegant, efficient instruments for use with drum sets and percussion rigs. Their products have a stylish, organic look that almost belies their incredibly well-thought-out designs. At first glance, the Snare Dampener look like little more than a curved piece of wood with an embedded metal logo plate. What makes the unit so effective, however, are the mounted magnets on the outer radius, and the full-length, half-inch-wide strip of felt on the bottom. Those magnets nuzzle right up to the inner edge of the hoop and keep the piece in place, while the felt strip eliminates buzz and slap from the head. At only 7 inches long, the Snare Dampener can comfortably fit 12″ to 16″ drums without losing contact with the hoop. It’s got enough weight to notably reduce overtones, but because only that felt strip section is actually touching the head, it doesn’t entirely kill the drum’s response.
Keo Percussion Snare Tambourine
Material: Wood and metal
Size: 14″ long, 1″ tall from base to top of jingle mounts
Keo’s Snare Tambourine builds on the same design principles as the Snare Dampener, but adds seven pairs of steel tambourine jingles for some extra sizzle. The unit, which is 14 inches long, is curved to fit perfectly inside the hoop of a 14″ drum. That extra size also shaves significantly more sound off the drum’s response. That resulting thump, coupled with a burst of tambourine jingle, offers a great controlled pandeiro feel that would fit in anything from pop to world music. The Tambourine doesn’t have a felt strip on the bottom, so when I tried to use it on a 14-inch floor tom, there was a lot of rattle and buzz from the unit bouncing up and down on the vibrating head (I didn’t encounter that on snare drums). It’s a very cool sound for isolated accents, but would probably be a bit too noisy for ostinatos. You can also take it off the drum for a pretty decent handheld tambourine.
The Drum Wallet
Material: Nylon with weight bead filler
Size: 3.25″ x 3″ stuffed rectangle
Ah, the old wallet trick. For decades, regular old wallets have been used to tame unruly snare drums by simply resting them near the batter head’s edge. This has created a fine sound that’s been on hundreds of records, but it’s not always the most reliable—the wallet can bounce and move, and not all wallets are heavy enough for this task (or they’re too heavy—I’m looking at you, Costanza!). Thankfully, the Drum Wallet offers a stable and secure way replicate that time-tested sound. The stuffed nylon pouch has just enough weight to simulate the feel of an average wallet. What makes it so useful, though, is the mounting mechanism and handle. The Drum Wallet can be looped behind the tension rods of any snare drum with attached Velcro straps. They hold secure, and there’s enough length in the fitted strap to offer some positioning flexibility so you can put more or less of the unit on your drum without having to worry about it moving around. And once the Wallet is in place, you can easily flip it off and let it hang safely by the drum’s side. This is a really handy little tool.
Drum Wallet Pocket Watch
Material: Nylon with weight bead filler
Size: 2.5″ x 3″ stuffed… giant lentil?
Drum Wallet brainchild Chad Patrick recognized the need for something with less weight to leave more tone in a drum’s response. The Pocket Watch works on the same principal as the Drum Wallet, but allows the affected head to vibrate just a bit more. Like the Wallet, the Watch separates from the head immediately after impact, letting the initial attack come through, but then settles in place to tame unwanted tones. I like to keep a little more life in my snare drums, so I found myself gravitating toward the Pocket Watch. That reduced weight means it might not be perfect for every situation, however, especially in the studio. I’d say that if you try one of these products and like it, pick up the other to give yourself the extra options. There’s plenty of difference between them, and they’re both quite effective.
Snareweight 70’s Inserts
Size: 4.5″ strips
Weight: 11.1g each
Retail: $19 for a pack of two
The original Snareweight created a big splash a few years ago, offering a simple and reliable solution to the old “wallet trick.” Rather than focus on the core product for this piece, however, we wanted to spotlight the more recent additions to the Snareweight catalog. The company’s new 70’s Inserts are an add-on for the core Snareweight, allowing players to dial in their sound by adding more (or different) coverage to any drum head. The 70’s Inserts simply mount to the underside of the weight using magnets that hold plenty firm. The 4.5-inch curved leather wings can be added together or individually to further tailor desired sound. In practice, they create a very dry, very controlled response that’s great for funk and many of the note-dense, highly technical styles where precision and punch are critical. Available in black, white, and wine.
Size: 9.25” strip
The M80 uses a thin, 9.25″-long leather strip that traces the outer edge of any drum to which it’s applied—it’s basically a single-piece version of the 70’s inserts without the Snareweight in the middle. The unit mounts with a simple, flexible metal clip that slides right over most hoop edges (large wood hoops excluded). Embedded magnets in the clip and center allow it to be flipped up and disengaged without being fully removed from the drum. Plus, each horizontal end includes small metal rivets so they can be snapped back into the unit’s center and held in place with those same magnets for a little less muffling. I found the M80 most effective on snare drums. With the piece fully deployed, all treated drums offer up tight, dry sounds that recall a bit of that James Gadson thing. It’s very funky and squashed. With the wings folded in, I was able to get more character out of the drum, but still enjoy a very controlled response. Available in black, white, and walnut.
Size: 3.65″ strip
And finally, Snareweight’s M1b offers an even lighter application of the leather strip treatment. When it’s engaged, the M1b—a slightly-less-than-half-sized version of the M80—allows significantly more high-end sweetness to come through. This is a great halfway point between something like a gel mute and a muffling ring. There’s overtone control, but not too much, and also like the M80, the wings can be “closed” using the embedded magnets. Available in black, white, and walnut.
Stack Ring (regular)
Material: Bronze and steel
Stack Ring Percussion is the brainchild of Reverie Drums founder Timothy Roberts, who crafts his unique instruments by reshaping and repurposing pieces of cracked and discarded cymbals. Both Stack Ring sizes he sent for this roundup feature pieces of treated cymbal and/or tambourine jingle mounted to a single metal cable loop. Regular Stack Rings come with two large sections of flanged cymbal body that have been drilled and installed on the ring. The items are free to move around the ring just like on a keychain. Like most of the company’s products, the Stack Ring is perhaps best utilized on cymbals, but it’s plenty useful on drums, as well. There’s no easy way to affix the ring to any drum it’s sitting on, so it’s free to roam about the head, applying its weighted muffling effect and slapping, jangly sounds wherever the vibration might lead it. The pieces are large enough to significantly mute the head of any drum they’re on, and to also offer an alternate playing surface that makes it easy to pull even more sounds out of the same instrument. I found the Stack Ring to be just ambiguous enough in its “proper” use to provide a whole lot of entertaining exploration.
Stack Ring (mini)
Material: Bronze and steel
Stack Ring’s Mini features an assortment of small metal pieces affixed to a firm steel cable ring. The pieces include two trimmed and sanded bronze cymbal cutouts, and two different steel tambourine pieces. Striking the unit directly pulls out a crushed and echoed hand clap-style sound, while playing a nearby surface bolsters each note with a dry, Mad Max tambourine kind of thing that I thoroughly enjoyed.
Stack Ring Bell Sizzle
Material: Bronze and steel
Stack Ring’s Bell Sizzle builds on the core Stack Ring concept by replacing the main cable loop with a separated China-type cymbal cup at the center. Four pieces of cymbal bronze hang from the center cup; three of them on smaller loops, and another riveted to the furthest end of the other strips (it’s hard to describe, just look at it and you’ll get it). Here again, the Sizzle is probably best used on top of cymbals, but I really had fun with it on snares and low toms. The cup is large enough to be played like a trashy bell, with the strips supplementing some rattletrap clatter behind each stroke. And on my largest floor tom, the Sizzle supported every note with a thundering shutter. I could easily see these being used in improvised and exploratory music, film foley, and more. It’s another product that just made me want to play around and find something new.
Stack Ring Crunch Ring (regular)
Material: Bronze and steel
Size: 10″ ring
Crunch Rings feel more immediately suited to placement on drums rather than cymbals, but they still sit in that “just put it on anything and have fun” zone. The regular Ring is a 10-inch cymbal cut-out with four clusters of two tambourine jingles mounted at the north and south points, and two wide-flat metal jingles mounted on small strips of cymbal cutout at the east and west points. The piece we received was clearly cut from a cymbal with a tall profile, as its interior circumference sat pretty high up. That raised interior edge makes it a little more difficult—but not at all impossible—to play through the middle like other similar products. Playing a drum with the ring on top, but not striking it directly, pulls a slapping burst out of the ring with just the ghost of a natural echo effect leaking out of the center. Playing it as you would a rimshot brings a lot more of the metal to life, with loads of sharp tone and jingle. Dropping it on toms gave me a bit of a haunted-house pandeiro thing that I really loved.
Stack Ring Crunch Ring (small)
Material: Bronze and steel
Size: 6″ open ring
Finally, Stack Ring’s small Crunch Ring is a 6-inch version of its big brother with a couple of small changes. First, the Ring we received isn’t fully closed—there’s about a 1/2″ gap at one end like a tight horseshoe or a college football stadium. Across from the gap is a loosely riveted strip of straight cymbal bronze, and there are only two tambourine jingles mounted on the small ring. The effect of the Small Ring on drums was much like you might expect from a lighter version of the regular Ring. There’s plenty of bouncy jangle and sharp barks no matter how it’s played, and tapping each added piece brings a new set of ugly/charming tones to life.