Before buying a drum kit there are several things to consider. Things like price, style, appearance, contents and condition. Each is important but the most important is sound. To be really pleased with your purchase, you have to be happy with the sounds made by your drums.
Perhaps the best thing to do is listen to various kits. Go to a music store and play the drums or ask for them to be played. Does one set of drums sound right to you? Does it have the sharpness of a snare, the depth you like in a bass drum and tom toms? Are the cymbals crisp and clean. If that’s the sound for you, note the brand, the price and the make-up of the kit. Shop around in case that same kit is cheaper elsewhere.
If you’re a beginner, take along someone who knows about drums and drumming. Listen to their advice but always make sure you make the final choice.
Bear in mind the old saying that you get what you pay for. If you have only a small budget, it’s not much point listening to a top of the range kit. Ask to hear the kits in your price range. Which ‘sounds’ the best to you?
Remember a kit is a number of different pieces. You want to like all the sounds. Great drums but lousy cymbals just doesn’t cut it. You could buy separate items but buying a whole kit, even a beginner set, is more likely to be cheaper than buying individual pieces.
So What’s A Good Sound?
Well we’re talking personal tastes here. But there are some things we should agree on. First we want an even sound. If different parts of your kit or different parts of even one part of your kit sound wrong or at odds with the rest of your drum or kit, then that’s bad. This usually gets down to tuning. Aim for even tuning throughout. Remember you can have one side of your snare for instance not in tune with the other side. Keep it even.
There’s nothing worse than a dull or mouldy sound from your kit. You want a clean sound, a sound that lifts the sounds of the other players in your group. This clean sound is obvious from a quality cymbal but you need to get that clean sound in your toms, snare and bass. And you get that with the tuning and maintenance of your kit in general and your tunable drums in particular.
The things you should be listening for in your kit are pitch, tone, projection and ring. You can control these by your playing and by your care and preparation of your kit.
Differences in Drum Sounds
Sometimes we listen to a recording and hear a drum sound we think is fantastic. As a drummer we try and capture that sound. We want our kit to sound just like that recording. Well that might be a problem because a kit in a studio can sound nothing like that same kit playing live at a concert in a hall or even in the open air. The difference is technical – the two Ms of mic ‘n mix.
In a good studio there are good microphones aplenty and placing them on different parts of the kit and then isolating the drummer with screens or even in a separate room means you can control the sound in a major way. You can seriously alter the sound. By isolating the kit you eliminate spill and then there’s the mixing desk with all sorts of effects such as EQ where you can flavor or doctor the end result.
So listen to drummers on recordings and find a sound which you like but understand that what you hear on a recording may not, and most likely will not, be the sound you can produce live on your kit.
The best way to get the sound you want playing live is to get the right kit and then concentrate on your tuning. It’s trial and error. If you want a darker, lower sound then you will tune your drums less tightly. The tuning applies to your toms, bass and snare drum. Aim for an overall sound. You’re tuning one drum at a time but really you are tuning the whole kit. Tune by ear a bit at a time. Listen to each drum individually but also when played in tandem with the others.
Where is the audience listening from? This is another important factor in drumming. The venue will have a huge effect too with a small room giving a different sound from that of a massive auditorium. But it’s the audience’s proximity to the kit which is important. Over a long distance and in the open air, your kit will sound different to when it’s being played in a small indoor venue with carpet.
As a drummer you should think about what sound your audience is actually hearing. You will play according to style and choice of song but always taking into account the location of the ears of your listeners.
Drum Ringing and Overtones
When we hear a drum sound we hear mostly the attack sound. Other sounds are called overtones and these sounds support the attack or hit sound. Overtones are super important. For one thing they help differentiate the drum sounds from other instruments and they help carry the attack sounds to the audience.
As a player you should understand the importance of overtones and particularly if you want a sustained or continuation to your drum sounds? Do you want a ringing tone? Then concentrate on your tuning.
There is a remarkable difference between the various sounds you can get when tuning your drums. Take your snare drum as an example. The general rule is that the higher you tune the drum, the stronger and longer the ringing.
It’s a matter of getting the right balance. You want that ring but you want the right sound. Many drummers find their right mix by tuning their snare fairly tight but keeping their strainer fairly loose. You don’t want to choke the sustaining of the sound and trial and error is the way to go.
What Makes a Kit Sound Good?
The first decision is the choice or style of music. If you are basically a rock drummer there are simple things you can do to give your kit that right sound. Place a small pillow inside the shell. Make sure it is touching both the front and rear head to give you a low thump sound.
Tune well. If you want a brighter sound, tune tightly and the opposite applies for a darker sound.
Play wisely. Even a heavy rock drummer does not need to smash the heads of their kit. Surprisingly a ‘gentle’ hard hit sounds better and will certainly extend the life of your kit.