Everything you've ever heard is a lie

Ok, so not everything you've ever heard is a lie; just all the drum sounds you've ever heard on speakers or headphones.

In college, I was the percussion manager for a small music store. It was a great place for me to learn how to tune drums and work with different materials and configurations. In addition to my own playing and recording, it taught me that most of us don't have a clue what drums actually sound like.

To the drum neophyte, just the idea of tuning a drum is a revelation. You hit it, and you get the sound that you get. When most people hear the "naked" drum sounds, they'll think there's something wrong, because the sounds are "bad."

Most drummers know that you can change the sound of the drum through tuning and head selection. Still too many drummers don't know that the sounds they're getting are natural - they may even be great - even if they don't sound like the drums they're hearing on recordings. As a result, they go crazy with muffling rings, gel tabs, tape, pillows, etc.--all of which can make the sound even worse.

When potential customers came into the shop looking for a certain sound, they'd inevitably be disappointed because the store kits didn't sound like the recordings of their favorite drummer or band. Not only were the drums not processed, they were tuned to my preferences and methods. The bulk of my job was teaching customers how drum tuning and sound processing worked, in basic terms, so that we could talk about whether the actual drums were worth buying or not.

Before I worked at the music store, when I was just getting serious about my own drums and trying to get good sounds, I had the good fortune of getting a sound lesson from Kelly Wallis of Backbeats Drum and Backline. I had complained to him about my kick drum (a 22" Tama Rockstar), and he invited me to bring it into the shop and get some new heads put on.

With just a batter head on (a Remo Powerstroke 3,) he had me listen to the drum from a variety of positions. He had me play it, then he played it while I moved from (literally) inside the drum to all the way out to the front of the store. He taught me to "listen from the perspective of the microphone," as well as from the audience.

Adam Nussbaum

It was a hugely valuable lesson for me, because I began to correlate the sound I heard while playing the drums to the sound that would be heard by a microphone, my bandmates and the audience. I know this phrase gets used too much, but it changed my life.

If you're unhappy with your drum sounds, try to get some frame of reference for how they compare to "good" drum sounds. Play as many kits in as many situations as you can. If you ever get the chance, try to hear drums both "naked" and recorded, or through a PA system. The more experience you get, the more you'll come to hear your drums' natural sounds from the perspective of the microphone, etc.

One more story. Several years ago I took a lesson with renowned drummer Adam Nussbaum. The work of the entire lesson is for another time, but I remember how adamant he was about making sure each drum was resonant and "trustworthy." "If drums are too dry," he said, "you tend to play too many notes. And if you don't love any sound on your kit, you'll tend to avoid it, and that will affect your expressiveness and creativity."

Just like the words in your native tongue, you need to get to know the sounds of your kit, and to love and "trust" each one.

Happy drumming!

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