Okay so yeah, you can shred 32nd notes at 200 bpm all around your kit and that was with just your pinkies. And you can work 8-way coordination with such fluid that Terry Bozzio thinks you’re a freak. And so Steve Gadd just called you up and asked you how to groove better. So you’ve got all these great skills, but how’s your sound? Are your drums tuned up right? Is your technique getting a good sound? Is your kit miked up well? You know, how do your drums sound?
I think as drummers, especially younger drummers, we can get a bit too focused on the technique and chops of playing. As a result we can overlook our sound. That can be a disastrous oversight. I mean, imagine going to hear your favorite drummer give a solo performance, but when you show up he’s sitting behind this old CB700 kit with busted up toms, cracked cymbals, dented heads, an no amplification. He’d (or she’d) still rock, but it would be amazingly distracting to hear the sounds of the crusty drum kit.
So next time you rehearse with your band, focus on your sound. Ask your sound tech for a recording of the rehearsal. Or take a small tape recorder (or your smart phone or your flip video recorder) and set it in the back of the room. Get a sample of your sound and then dissect it when you get home. Think about each drum and cymbal. Does any instrument stand out from the others, or does the kit have a nice blend? Does the kick sound the way you think it sounds from behind the drums? How about about the snare, toms, hats, ride, or crashes? Remember the drums will sound drastically different 40 feet in front of the kit than they do from your playing position.
So what if the sound isn’t what you want it to be? Well the first thing is to evaluate your equipment versus the sounds you want. For example, a 7″ deep bell-brass snare isn’t going to give you a nice warm sound for your acoustic guitar driven band. It’s going to give you that cutting blast you need when you’re playing with your metal band. And that beautiful K-Custom Dark crash probably isn’t going to cut through a ton of amplified guitars like an A Custom crash would. And if you find yourself detuning your toms to the point of them sounding flappy, then maybe you need to consider picking up some bigger drums that you can get those pitches out of easier. The right equipment for the right gig is the starting point for developing a great sound.
Next, think about your technique. Is it helping you to get the sound you want? For example, let’s say you’re playing in the average rock band with lots of guitar amps and a PA system and everything else that you have to cut through. So, you spent some time with your snare and cranked it up in pitch so it’ll cut through all that noise. And you bought some really nice A Custom crashes for the same reason. Good job! You’ve probably got the right equipment. But, are you tightening the cymbals washers all the way down? When you hit the snare are you digging the stick into the head? Are you gripping your sticks with a grip that would win the local strong man contest? Then all that work you just did and all the money you just spent are no good. You’re choking the drums and cymbals. They’ll never cut like you want them too. (If you want your crashes to get out of the way quicker, consider getting Fast Crashes. Or if you want to eliminate some of the high overtones from your snare look at putting fatter heads on it or use some tape to muffle the edges.)
You see, drums and cymbals are resonant instruments – they make sound by vibrating (resonating) when you hit them. Tightening the washers keeps the cymbals from resonating and digging your sticks in your snare head keeps it from resonating. The result is a choked sound. The same is true if you burry your beater into your bass drum head (got that John, stop doing it!). Your technique influences your sound at least as much as your equipment and tuning.
That’s just a couple of quick ideas to help you start evaluating your sound. Now go out and start listening to yourself. And don’t forget to listen to other drums and evaluate their sound too. What are they doing and how are they achieving the tones that are turning you on? Don’t be afraid to ask . . . Heaven knows we drummers love tom talk shop! Dave Weckl put out a pretty good (if slightly dated) video, A Natural Evolution: How to Develop Your Own Sound. Check it out.