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. And, 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. And 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. But 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 would come 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.

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.

Adam Nussbaum
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!


  1. Drums are by far the most altered sound you hear on a recording. And it's not always for the best. I would add one thing that goes beyond the tuning of the drums to alter our way we hear the drums acoustically vs a recording. That is the drummer playing a proper balance to match what they want on a record. A common example is most drummers over play the high hat compared to the volume of the snare. That translates to my ears as drive with no groove. And it creates a number of sonic issues when it comes to getting a snare to pop on a record. We as engineers have to so much sonic damage to the tone of the drum that sample replacement becomes the better option. And that really sucks the soul right out of me every time I have to do it. Don't get me wrong, I know as in engineer it is my job to make you sound your best. But I know when certain drummers show up in the studio my day is going to be a lot easier because they bring a good sounding drum that they are going to play correctly. It's a total package to get a great sounding product.

  2. When I was a young, new drummer, I always struggled with the sound of my drums and wondered why they didn't sound like they do on the radio. It wasn't until I started recording myself with a Tascam 4 track that I soon learned the deep, dark secrets of the recording studio. This link, not only contains some great info and awesome drumming, but also allows you to hear the difference of processed drums and the natural sounding drums as the sound shifts between the lavaliere mic (unprocessed for drums) to the processed drum mics: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L_6EKgQjAOE#t=1227 (there is a lot of talking up front. You may need to fast forward to around 18:30 to hear the change in mics clearly.) Chances are your drums don't sound crappy, they just aren't being enhanced like they are in the studio.

  3. The bass player in the band I play in keeps telling me I need a pillow in my bass drum. I tell him I'll add one when he puts a pillow in his bass.
    I tell him the sound he thinks he wants is called studio magic.

    1. LOL That's a great line man! However, you really should watch this tutorial from Neil Peart's stage drum tech regarding the bass drum. The whole thing is really good stuff: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gqu5W77DZxw

  4. Aaron, Mike, Justin - Thanks for your comments. You're great!

  5. It is always an interesting conversation I have with my History of Rock class I teach. We have an overview of the evolution of recording technology. I love seeing the surprise on the kids faces when we discuss it, and the live vs. recorded experience and why/how so many bands supplement their "live" sound. It was also a very interesting discussion following the super bowl discussing live musicians "faking it".

  6. Thank You Keith, I enjoyed learning about this :)

  7. Again, thanks for the comments. As a blogger, it's gratifying that someone - anyone! - benefits from this. Happy drumming!


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