BY TOBY WELMERS
If anyone knows the science behind drum tuning, it’s one-man percussion orchestra Terry Bozzio. Sure, he’s got acres of signature heads chromatically tuned to precise specifications, but it doesn’t mean his sage advice won’t benefit your modest tuning requirements. Read on as the Boz holds forth.
What’s the most important thing about tuning?
“I think drum tuning is more of an art than a science. It’s a subjective thing, so rule number one is if it sounds good to you, that’s fine. My snare drum, which is a 12″ snare drum, is always tuned to a B-flat above middle C. That’s pretty high, and that’s what I want. I think for any drummer the main thing is choose your heads carefully because the heads are going to be 80 percent of the drum sound. Pinstripe, Black Dot, thin head versus thick head, Kevlar, calf, there’s so many choices, and that’s what gives you the color of your sound. Then make sure the head is pulled in an even way over the bearing edge and can resonate, which is where the sound comes from. If the contact point is off you are not going get a good sound no matter what!”
“Sometimes you have to go by feel, sometimes you have to go by pitch.”
How do you get good tone after changing heads?
“What I do is I just put my forearm across the counter hoop and hold it flat against the drum, and then I just start screwing everything in to get everything to the point where it just starts to grab. And that’s how you even it out. I think there’s something to be said about the ‘going across’ way, but in essence it’s sort of a feel thing. Sometimes you have to go by feel, sometimes you have to go by pitch.”
Are there any baselines for tone that everyone should adhere to?
“There’s the school that tunes the top head tighter and the bottom head looser, that kind of descending modulation of pitch that Ringo or the ’70s drummers got. There’s the school that tunes the top head lower and the bottom head a little tighter, and that’s my school.”
How do you keep tuning consistent after each setup and tear-down?
“What I’ve found from my approach of having the bottom head slightly higher and the top head slightly looser is that you are actually setting the top head into vibration by the striking of the stick and then the bottom head is resonating from the pitch of the top head and that is the one that seems to sustain and give us the pitch we want. So, for example, when I get my drums tuned and I change my top head, as I bring it up it’s going to be at the pitch that I want because the bottom head hasn’t changed.”
Are there things to avoid when changing heads?
“What I’ve seen people do is they put on a drumhead that they think is in tune, and they back-tune one lug a couple of turns. And I don’t understand what that’s for or what that does, but I’ve seen people do it and, you know, if it sounds good to them I guess that’s right.”
Why can’t tuning be more standardized instead of subjective?
“Drumhead manufacture is done on a mass cost-effective scale, so sometimes there might be an imperfection that someone at the factory doesn’t catch. If you can’t get a drumhead to tune, it might just be a bad head. So have another head from the same manufacturer on hand and see if you have luck with the other one.”
Is there a work-around for an imperfect head or hoop?
“Let’s say you’ve got a warp that goes down a drumhead and another warp on the drum hoop. If they happen to line up then you’re really going to get a severe difference from the other way across the diameter of the drum when you put your finger on the center and tap near the edge. The harmonic you’ll hear on one side will be up a half tone and the other side, a quarter of the way around the circumference of the drum, will be half a step lower. You can even that out a little bit if it’s severe by rotating [the head] or [the hoop], a quarter turn. And that can remedy that.”
What are your specific tuning tools?
“The DWs that I use, it’s hard to make those things sound bad. And we have the True Pitch thread count, which is 30 threads per inch instead of 24 threads per inch. So we can have a lot finer of an adjustment. And then I have my Tunerz, which prevent back-tuning. In the past I’ve also used those [drumhead] surface tuners.”
If drums are tuned to a specific key will they cancel out with similarly tuned instruments?
“That’s rare because technically speaking a drum is a non-specific pitch instrument so this phasing thing becomes a moot point. There are so many harmonics and overtones and transient attack and conflicting frequencies that there is no way an audience member or even another musician will get his pitch focus from a drum and go, ‘Oh, that’s slightly out of tune from the bass.’ One time in BLS [Bozzio Levin Stevens, a side project] Steve Stevens played a major chord and I did a cymbal riff. Then he played a minor chord and I did the same cymbal riff and you’d swear one of my cymbals changed to minor from major. That’s where this magic happens, where drummers can get away with murder. [laughs]”
What’s your approach to chromatic or melodic tuning?
“How I tune [for a specific pitch] goes for only the tom toms. When it comes to bass drums, I’ve got two types: a muffled bass drum with a strap or pillow and then I’ve got the remote bass drums, which are open. And the remote bass drums are weird—I tune the back head to the pitch I want and then the front head I tune a fifth below. Think of it as if the tonic is the [batter] head, then the front head is a fifth of the scale below it. And for some reason that harmonic makes the sound of the fundamental work. I don’t know why that is and I would love to study the phasing aspect of two drumheads, which I don’t think anybody’s done a study of.”
What if I want to delve into the acoustic properties of drums?
“There’s a site called hyper-physics. They’re very scientific about tube and cavity resonance and what the different modes are of membrane vibration. First [a drumhead] goes up and down in the center, and that’s the fundamental. And then it goes side to side across, like a wave, and that’s the octave above. Then there’s a second wave in the middle between the center and the edge that makes almost a droplet-in-water effect. And you can go up the harmonics and see what it is that we’re actually dealing with. I’ve found that that’s helpful to see just what it is what we’re doing when we tune.”