June 1, 2018
Many drummers have a love-hate relationship with their bass drums. They pack a hefty punch, working to beef up the low-end of a song and define its rhythmic structure throughout. However, they can often be volatile pieces of kit, in large part due to their dominating resonance and size. You’ve probably been there: after hours spent fine-tuning your drum kit you finally start playing, only to put foot to pedal and get an overpowering ‘thud’ in return. Often a dry and muddy sound, with excessive top-end noise that gives the drum a tonal quality and unwanted overtones.
What can you do to achieve a more balanced and controlled sound? The kind that ties your percussion together, allowing the drums to sit nicely in the mix rather than swallowing it whole. Although some cheaper kits, by their very nature, will be less conducive to that perfect sound, it’s not always a matter of buying a top-of-the-line bass drum. There are many factors at play, most of which can be fixed with small adjustments and a little bit of patience. In this post, we’ll be looking at how you can make the most out of your bass drum for a better overall sound.
One of the most effective ways to improve the sound of your bass drum is with the right tuning. As with any part of your kit, you can change the frequency and timbre of your bass drum simply by adjusting the tightness of the drum head with the tension rods. Also like other types of drum, your tuning should aim to balance both heads of the drum and complement the kit as a whole. You also have to keep the following considerations in mind:
The style of drumming you prefer
The kind of music you intend on playing
The tuning of accompanying instruments
The context of a performance or recording
Clearly, there is no right or wrong approach here. Tuning your instruments is a subjective matter – but still, there are some recognised techniques that help you achieve your prefered sound. Start by tuning both heads of the drum to the point where there are no wrinkles showing (keeping the tension even throughout) as this maintains the lower frequencies of the drum without making it sound too messy or hollow. You can then tune the drum ‘to taste’, so to speak, by going around the head of the drum and tightening (or loosening) the tension rods one by one, turning them by the same amount each time until you reach your desired sound.
Should you tune both heads of the bass drum to different frequencies? Well, it depends. Drummers usually tune the batter head to frequency that is higher than the resonant head: this cuts out any excessive low-end rumble and gives the drum a more defined sound overall. But you should be restrained when tuning up the batter. A little tension gives a ‘bouncy’ feel, however too much tension could tear the drum head and will produce a ‘clicking’ sound. Conversely, as many beginners will know first-hand, a bass drum with slack tuning will loudly bellow with powerful low-end – perhaps the desired effect for some, but only in certain contexts. But most importantly, make sure that your bass drum is literally ‘in tune’ with the rest of your kit: tap gently around the rim of each head and listen for a consistent note with clean ‘ringing’ sound that is not dissonant with any other drums – especially larger drums such as the floor tom.
Note: these tips present a rough framework for drummers to work from and experiment with. Once you have these foundations, it’s much easier to play around with different tunings and achieve the exact sound you want.
Bass drums are naturally quite resonant due to their volume. This gives them a deep tonal ‘ring’, which many drummers prefer for its buoyant qualities. But others dislike the inherent qualities of an empty bass drum and choose to tone down its more ‘open’ sound by adding some muffle. This gives a less reverberant and more punchy sound to your percussion kicks, also providing the player with a stiffer feeling underfoot. There are several ways of muffling your bass drum, but the most common involves a fairly ordinary household item – the humble pillow.
Well… it doesn’t have to be a pillow. It could be a cushion or a rolled up blanket. In any case, the desired effect is to dampen out excess resonance and clip away any unwanted overtones. Remove the resonant head from your bass drum and place your pillow on the drum floor. Stuffing the pillow up against the batter head will take too much warmth away from the kick, so it’s best to ensure that it lies flat, perhaps with an edge brushing up against one of the heads (which head is being muffled most is up to you; many drummers choose to dampen both). Finally, weigh the pillow down with something to stop it from moving around as you play and attach the head back onto the drum. At this point, after testing out the newly-muffled sound, you are free to make some adjustments and figure out which sound works best for you.
Whether or not you muffle your bass drum should depend on the context. In studio recordings, dampening both drum heads plays great for the microphone and can remove the need to dampen them digitally once they have entered the mix. But when you are performing live, you might need that extra resonance in order for the low-end of your bass drum to be heard. Sometimes, it’s just better to leave the pillow on your bed and let your drums breathe!
The sound of a bass drum is not just determined by tuning and muffling, but also your pedal – or more specifically, how and where your pedal interacts with the bass drum. For starters, adjusting the height and position of the beater affects the sound it makes upon hitting the drum, with off-centre drum hits causing a uneven sound compared to more central hits. Why, you ask? Because the former encourages more air flow and a stronger punch while the latter does not, which results in a more subdued timbre. So make sure to adjust your pedal so that the beater strikes in the centre otherwise you could be missing out on some added definition in your sound.
You will also benefit from a more defined sound if you attach a beater patch to your bass drum. This is a small adhesive pad that you can stick the batter head where the pedal makes contact – this will impart a more mellow low-end into your percussion, prolong the life of the drum head, and reinforce its overall strength (which is a necessity for more ‘aggressive’ drummers). Indeed, most bass drums come with a beater patch built into the design, but if your drum is lacking one then you can buy them cheap online.
Kore Studios is a recording studio in West London run by experienced producer/engineer, George Apsion. We offer a large live space and two control rooms, backed up by a mixture of high-end and vintage gear, brought together by experts in producing and mixing various different styles of music. Get in touch to arrange your tailored studio session.