rob's snare drum tuning guide

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are you a "practice now, tune later" kind of snare drummer?

i used to be. but, being totally honest, i wasn't happy with how my snare drum sounded. it sort of had a cardboardy, dull sound, especially for solos.

NOT good

at some point, i got fed up with going to rehearsals and lessons with a mediocre-sounding drum, so i decided to lock myself in the practice room indefinitely and just figure it out, once and for all.

thus began the development of my snare drum tuning process, and you can hear the results in my délécluse recordings (click here to watch my délécluse 9 video).

a 4-video snare drum tuning series

y'all have asked me over and over to explain my snare drum tuning process, so today's video is the first in a 4-part series on how you can become a better snare drum tuner.

snare drum tuning guide

and these videos accompany my new snare drum tuning guide, which is basically a step-by-step checklist (with diagrams!) to help you figure out what to do to tune your drum and make it sound awesome.

the 4 videos:

  • part 1: 3 steps to become a better snare drum tuner
  • part 2: how to put on a new snare drum head
  • part 3: how to adjust and optimize your snare wires
  • part 4: how to tune snare drums heads (and find the right pitches)

video 1:

when i used to prepare for college auditions and juries, i used to practice snare drum for months without thinking about how the snare drum actually sounded. i figured "practice now, tune later." then a few days before the audition, i'd put on new heads and i'd just start twisting up the rods and hoping that i'd get lucky and the snare drum would sound great, but that never really happened.

flash forward to the morning i recorded my délécluse album...i had 3 brand new heads and i put them on 3 different drums, and i knew the exact series of steps to go through in order to put on the heads, even out the lugs, adjust and optimize the snares, and then find the right tension for the top and bottoms heads in order to get it to sound exactly how i wanted it to sound.

but

the only reason i knew how to do that was that i forced myself to go through extensive drum tuning sessions. i feel like i've experimented worked with my drums so much that i know how it works, and i now know what happens if i bring up a lug a quarter-turn or something like that. 

i wanna help you figure out where to start, so today let's talk about 3 steps to becoming a better snare drum tuner.

(and then in the next few videos, i'm going to talk about how to put on a new drum head, how to optimize your snares, and how to find the right pitches for the top and bottom heads. cool, right?!)

step 1: cram more snare drum sounds into your brain.

playing percussion is sort of like speaking in english. i'm using words and i'm stringing them together into sentences, but underneath what i'm saying is the meaning. based on the inflections (the "how"), you can infer different meanings. same thing in the language of music. if i play a certain rhythm one way, i could be saying, "life is a funeral. let's all give up." but if i inflect it a certain way, what i could be saying now is, "dude! what's about to happen is so crazy! check it out!"

as a snare drummer, the core of your musical voice is the sound of your drum. the tone of the stick hitting the head...the sound of the drum ringing...the snares buzzing. the sound itself actually makes an emotional impact. you're saying something just by the way your drum sounds.

the rookie mistake is to be satisfied with the way your drum already sounds. if you want to be a virtuoso percussionist, this needs to be your pet project or your hobby. learn what kinds of snare drum sounds are out there and what's possible and what kind of emotional impacts they make on you. what does it sound like on a skrillex track when the snare drum is playing the backbeat? what does the st. petersburg philharmonic sound like when they're playing shostakovich? is it a fat sound? is it a compact sound? what does buster bailey sound like on the schumann 3 recording with the new york philharmonic? 

go on this quest to find snare drum sounds and to internalize them. it's just like listening to the overtones of a cymbal. it's complex and it's important to dissect how it actually sounds.

my favorite snare drum sound ever is bill bruford on heart of the sunrise by yes.

step 2: become a tinkerer

if you want to play with these variables of sounds, the way you do it is to manipulate the physical variables available to you on the drum. you can choose the diameter and depth of your drum by playing on different instruments, different shell materials, different thicknesses of head, how tight the snares are up against the bottom head. what happens if i bring the bottom head down a quarter-turn? what happens if i add a little bit more muffling?

have practice sessions where all you do is mess with your drum and try to make it sound better. get fluent with what happens when you make each different tweak on the drum

step 3: find your voice and work on developing your own signature snare drum sound

when i speak or write to you guys, i'm conscious of what i want to say and i choose the words i use, but i'm also conscious of one other element: how do i want to say it? how do i want you to experience what i'm saying? how do i show you my personality and my emotion while i'm saying it?

in writing, that's called "finding your voice." i call it "being yourself."

how can you be yourself on the snare drum?

think about it like this: for every variable you're manipulating (tension of the top head, for example), there will be a certain range of the manipulation that *you* might like the best. there might be other points of tension that are acceptable, but you like this particular point the best. you like how it sounds. it fits how you want to make music. start to notice that! when you bring your drum into a lesson or orchestra rehearsal, you can use the sound of your drum in order to show your teacher or the listener your musical personality.

it can be sort of difficult to define this, and there's no really "right" answer for this. maybe you love the band galactic and you like playing rudimental music. you might like it when your snare drum sounds kind of "new orleans-y" and fat and wide. i'm kind of into bill bruford myself, and he has kind of a compact and tight sound. he's known for that.

let's use my own tastes as a quick example: i think i'd go even further on my own drum to be more compact and tight. i want you as the listener to focus on the precision that i'm getting. i wanna be the sculptor and carve delicate shapes out of the rhythm, and i don't want the snare drum sound to be fat and get in the way of the rhythms as you're listening to it.

it's ok if you don't know how to do this yet. it develops over time as you get to be more fluent with the variables of the snare drum. but i do want to help you get started!


video 2:

so...your drum is starting to sound like a soggy trash can. or maybe it's starting to become impossible to play a clean roll because the head is droopy and there's no more bounce.

it's time to change your snare drum head.

"but," you might be thinking, "what if i don't do it right, and i actually make it sound worse?" or "what if i ruin the head and mess up the lugs?"

i'm glad you asked me that question!

today's video, the 2nd in our series of 4 videos on how to tune your snare drum and make it sound awesome, is about how to replace your head.

it's easy (3 steps), and the snare drum tuning guide PDF will help you clearly follow the directions as you go.

how to put on a new snare drum head

i'm gonna show you how to put on a new snare drum head in 3 simple steps.

ok, so there's no exact moment when you know for sure that it's time to replace the drum head. it doesn't usually split down the middle. usually it just gets beaten down so much that it starts to sound dead, and no matter what you do to it, you can't make it sound nice.

but it's easy! the three steps are:

  1. take off the old head
  2. put on the new head
  3. even out the lugs

if you get lost along the way, you can follow along with the snare drum tuning guide that you can download on this page!

step 1: take off the old head

take off the head by loosening all the tension rods to 0 and laying all the hardware carefully on the table. a couple things to keep in mind here: you want to loosen all the rods around the drum evenly. don't do it in a circle; do it in a big star pattern. remember that these lugs are supposed to have tension up and down, and if you have tension on one side and not the other, it's going to start pulling sideways, which can bend the lugs and start to warp your drum.

here's my system for loosening or tightening lugs: i always start with the one to my right and the one across from it at the same time. then i skip a lug and i go to the next one, and then i go around like that until i've hit all 10 lugs. i only do 2 or so turns at once, max. as you take each piece of hardware off, put it on the table beside you IN ORDER, so that later you can put them all back in the exact same place when you're putting the head on.

why does this matter? if there's some sort of irregularity, maybe one of the tension rods is a teeny bit bent, there's so much tension on the drum that the lug that the rod goes into could also bend a little bit and adjust its shape over time. then, if you put that weird tension rod in another lug, then that one starts to get funny, and then another rod starts to get funny, then another, then another. 

you want to dry to avoid your drum warping and you want to limit the damage if something is funny about your drum by keeping everything in the same place and letting it maintain its shape over time.

step 2: put on the new head

this step includes putting on the new head, putting on all the hardware, and tuning it up to playing tension.

you're going to measure it precisely later, but for now just keep all the tension rods generally even as you go. you're going to go through 5 checkpoints along the way:

  • first you're going put the tension rods in at absolute zero...just enough to not fall out.
  • then you're going to screw them in to touching, which is the point where the head of the screw touches the hoop. anything beyond that is actually adding tension to the hoop and the drum head.
  • then you can continue tightening to finger tight, which is basically as tight as you can make it without your fingers getting too uncomfortable and having to press too hard.
  • then get your drum keys out, and using the tightening system that we talked about before, start bringing the rods up 2 half-turns at a time, until the point where you see no more wrinkles in the head.
  • then bring it up 2 or 3 more full-turns until you get to playing tension.

step 3: even out the lugs

this step involves evening out the lugs and rods until the drum can ring clearly. some people call this "clearing the head." i do this by measuring the distance between the top of the drum head and the top of the hoop to make sure that it's evenly pulled down all the way around.

so first, you measure. find a measurement device that's sturdy and doesn't bed. i use a credit card that has characters on the side on the back. put one side of the card on the head, out at an angle so it doesn't fall in the ditch, and the other side of the card up against the lug as close as you can get it. in your eyeline, line up the top of the back hoop with the top of the front hoop so that you're reading it at the same angle every single time.

read the measurement, write it down, measure all the other lugs, and write those down. this is the key: look at that list of measurements, take the average of all of them, and then that's going to be the measurement you use to adjust all the lugs to.

now we adjust the lugs 1 by 1. if the first lug needs an adjustment, do we tighten it or do we loosen it? if you need to shorten that distance, then you tighten it. if you need to lengthen that distance, then you loosen it. you can tighten it in quarter-, half-, or full-turn increments. try not to let the lugs just start pointing in random directions, because that's going to make your life so much easier later when you're tuning the head.

when you loosen one, you need to loosen it about a quarter-turn past where it's supposed to go, and then tighten it back into position.

once you've adjusted it, measure it again and continue adjusting it until it's correct. then adjust the next, and the next, and the next, and the next until you get all the way around the drum. here's the thing: each time you make an adjustment to a lug, it's going to slightly effect all the other lugs. you need to continue going around and adjusting the lugs until they're all correct. once you can count 10 lugs in a row that don't need an adjustment, you're done.


video 3:

in this video, i'm going to show you how to tune your snare wires by de-tuning them all to zero and tuning them teach one-by-one up to their optimal tension, all in 15 seconds or less.

you probably have 3 questions:

question 1: why do you have to tune your snares in 15 seconds?

there are really two times i tune snare wires: one is right before a rehearsal or performance, so you want to do it quickly. the other time i tune my snare wires is when i'm tuning the top and bottom heads. i'm going to go over this really in-depth in the next video, but basically every time i make a turn on either head, i'm going to complete re-optimize the snares by bringing them down to zero and back up.

you end up doing that a ton of times when you're tuning your drum because you have to make a lot of adjustments. that might sound like overkill, but it's not, especially if you can get really quick at this process.

question 2: why do you have to tune them down to zero each time?

the first snare you're going to tune out of 3 or 5 or however many your drum has, you want to do it extremely accurately and precisely, and you can't do that when the other snares are buzzing in the way. so if all the other ones are at zero, you can do that one in isolation.

the second reason is that tuning your snare wires shouldn't be an endless process of futzing with the wires, cycling from louds to mids to softs, back to louds and then re-checking softs. you want to develop a system. you tune up the first one, then the second, then the third, and you're done. period.

your goal is to develop this system. you want to find a prescribed set of actions to reach the optimal tensions for each of the snares. zero is just a base line. you establish that you're starting at the same place each time and then going from there.

coming up with this system is going to be a bunch of effort at the start, but eventually you're going to get really good at it so it will go quickly each time.

question 3: how do you develop a system to tune your snare wires?

step 1: explore the snare wires

you want to know what each set of snare wires can do. you want to know how good your soft snares can sound soft and how good your louds can sound loud. you're deeply listening to the sound of the snares at each dynamic. what does the buzz sound like? is it tight and compact? do the snares engage immediately, or is there a delay? how far to the edge can you play and still get a response? what's the crack like at the loud volume?

so do this: with all the snares at zero, choose 1 snare. tune it up bit-by-bit, and every single time, checking how it sounds at soft, medium, and loud, and really listen to the snare response along the way. 

there's going to be 1 point that's best for that snare at its target dynamic. as you get into focus, you keep turning it, and you wonder if you should keep turning it a little bit more, and you turn it too far beyond the focus point, then you bring it back. eventually, you'll zero-in and land on the right point. make a mental note of how it sounds there.

step 2: experiment with tuning schemes

your tuning scheme is going to end up looking something like this:

"first tune x snare wire up while testing it at y volume until ______, like maybe until it sounds in focus. then tune z snare wires while testing it at whatever dynamic until something else happens."

when i tune my 4-inch, my system is: tune the loud snares up while testing at a soft volume until the moment when the loud snares choke the soft sound. then tune the soft snares up while testing it at a soft volume until it comes into focus. and then tune the mid snares while testing it at a mid dynamic until that comes into focus. 

try one! start with everything at zero, choose 1 set of snares, tune it up while testing until you get it to its focus point. then go to the next set of snares, and then to the next until they are all tuned up. remember the order you went it.

you're not only listening to how each set of snares sounds now...you're also listening to how the interact. how's the snare response? how are the dynamics? are there any gaps from loud to soft in snare response?

write it all down! the order, how you tested each one, and what the drum sounded like. unless that happens to be a perfect system for your drum, you're probably going to have to test another. so, pick a different order! and then another and another until you find something that really works.

a few things to keep in mind: ideally you don't want to revisit a snare you've already tuned. that's not efficient, and there's probably a better ordered scheme for your drum. you also might have to make a compromise sometimes. like, the loud snares can often choke the soft snares, especially if you bring the loud snares up as tight as you want them to be. so often i'll bring the louds down below their ideal point, just below the point where they're not choking the softs anymore. remember what you're looking for here: you're looking for a quick, compact, full snare sound without delay or dullness. 

step 3: choose a winning scheme and practice it a lot

you want it to be so comfortable that you can do it with ease right before a rehearsal, a lesson, a concert, whatever.

don't be scared of losing a good snare wire setup that you did one day. the goal here is to achieve that again, anytime, anywhere. force yourself to learn that skill by de-tuning your drum and bringing it back up.


video 4

in this video, i'm going to tune your drums heads and find the right pitches and the right ratio between the top and the bottom heads.

a couple month ago, i was playing snare drum on the opera salome by strauss, and i was playing my snare drum, i was tuned to my normal place of B on the top and F on the bottom, and it was fine, but there was something about it that sounded a little bit choked. 

after the show, i brought it into the percussion room and i made one adjustment to it: i brought the top head down a quarter-turn all the way around. then, a few days later, i re-optimized the snares and i played the show. it was basically the same pitches on the top and bottom, but just a little bit different, but the sound of the drum completely changed. my colleague greg zuber came up to me after the show, and he said: "rob, your drum sounded like it was more open. it sounded like it was fuller!" and i agree! it was resonating, it was singing, and it sounded like it was a snare drum letting itself be a snare drum, rather than choking itself.

all it was was a tiny quarter-turn change on top. it's not like i tuned it to different pitches...it was still essentially B on the top and F on the bottom. it's just that that one quarter-turn completely changed the way that the drum heads were interacting with each other, and, therefore, how it was sounding.

so, what pitches should you tune your drum to?

my 4x14 i tune to an F on top and B on the bottom. B an F is a big place. you can make a small change, and it will essentially stay B and F. but, you have to be willing to dive headfirst down a rabbit hole of experimenting and listening and making adjustments for your drum.

but, don't worry! i'm going to show you how to do that.

the process: one part artistic and one part scientific.

the artistic part is the fun part! it's where you're using your ears and you're listening to the sound of the drum. basically, you're going to go through a series of adjustments, and each time, you're going to listen to the drum and decide if it was better before you made each adjustment. 

you're listening for things like: how does the drum ring? how to the snares react? does the drum fit the need of whatever kind of music you're playing? are you playing délécluse or shostakovich? do you need a fatter sound or a more compact, tighter sound?

the scientific part is more procedural; you're setting up a system that you can go through over and over in order to inch closer to a better sounding drum. it's basically a series of steps that you go through repetitively, making on adjustment after the next and after the next until you can't make a positive adjustment anymore. here is the 6-step process.

step 1: get a tuning chart

you can download mine here on this page at any one of those big orange buttons! you're going to use this chart in order to record information as you go for the purpose of making that all-important decision: what turn are you going to make next time that you think will make the drum sound better?

along the left side is what number turn you're making, and along the top is all the information that you're going to record every single time.

step 2: check pitches

check the pitches of the drum head right now. turn the snares off, lay your finger on the bottom head, and tap the top head, and then try to find on a piano exactly where the pitch is. do the same by muffling the top head with your finger and tapping the bottom head.

step 3: optimize the snares

the snare are going to have to be at a different tension based on how tight the heads are. if you want to know how to do this, go back and watch video 3 of this series!

step 4: write down how the drum sounds

what is the snare response like? what do the snare heads sound like? are they singing? is it tight? is it loose? does it seem like there's enough bounce on the top head?

this is the artistic part, so you're going to use musical terms and adjectives.

step 5: decide what turn to make

at this point, you haven't made any turns yet, but you might be thinking that ok, you know the drum has to be tighter in some way. you can choose either the top or bottom head...it doesn't matter. you're just trying something because you can undo it later and try the other one.

at this stage in my life, sometimes i can predict which turn to make to make the drum sound better, but a lot of the time i'm still guessing, which makes it that much more important to have a system in place to keep track of what you're doing.

step 6: make the turn and write it down

the same rules apply here as when we were putting on a new snare drum head: (1) tune the lugs up evenly in the star pattern, and (2) if you're loosening the lugs, you want to loosen them farther than they have to go, and then back into position. usually, you're just going to be making quarter-turns here, unless you know that you can take a shortcut and skip one (but i don't recommend that starting off).

write down what you just did and write down how far away from the original position that you are. say you brought the top head up a quarter-turn, and that's the 7th quarter turn that you've brought the top head up to, so you could say .25 is what you just did and you've done 1.75 total revolutions. 

then go back to step 2 and go and repeat the process. the next time you get to step 5, which is to decide what turn to make, there are a few more considerations.

if the snare drum sounds worse than it did before, just undo that turn and choose a new direction to go. the reason you're keeping track of the total revolutions you've made is so you don't repeat the same tensions because you already know how that sounded.

if you've gotten to the point where the drum sounds really good, you're not done until you've tested all 4 directions from that position. all 4 directions need to sound worse than it does right now.

my disclaimer: this might take a while.

once you get to that point, then DAMN! your snare drum sounds great. 

rob knopper

lincoln center plaza, 10023

hailed by @nytimes and james levine as needing 'louder triangle notes'. recorded delécluse: douze études for snare drum, percussionist in @metorchestra.