Tuning the kick drum can also be a challenge. Tune it too low and it will lack punch, too high and you lose power and thump. I like to get a good kick sound in the room, then address the kick drum sound with a combination of microphone choice, mic placement, and blankets.
Tuning toms is a whole different animal. The challenge there is that, generally speaking, we like toms to ring – just not too much. And we like their ring to not affect adjacent drums.
Often it comes down to the drummer’s choice of heads. Some drum heads seem to exude a slight “ping,” reminiscent of a basketball, which can be tough to eliminate or EQ away. Often this can be remedied by detuning the top or bottom head.
Some drummers recommend tuning the top and bottom heads to different pitches to reduce resonance. I’ve worked with a couple of studio drummers who try to tune the top head somewhere between a minor and major third higher than the bottom head.
I say “try,” because the pitch can vary a bit, depending on where you hit the drum. The pitch of the head will also drop as it’s being played, and as temperature, humidity and other conditions change.
In relation to the song, many drummers try and tune their toms at intervals around a fourth apart. This isn’t bad for an average kit with two rack toms and a floor tom. With more toms it’s probably a good idea to tune them closer, say around a third.
Tuning stringed instruments is something of a compromise. The truth is it’s impossible to tune a stringed instrument to a twelve-tone chromatic scale so that all possible intervals are perfect.
This is particularly true with fretted instruments. In the end, the best we can hope for is to set up a guitar’s intonation so that the most prominent intervals (octaves, fourths, and fifths) are true. At that point, the other intervals should hopefully be only microtones off, and hence barely audible.
Rackmount tuners tend to offer the most accurate results.
It should be a no-brainer to say that every stringed instrument player should use a tuner. I’ve seen far too many musicians try and tune to a track by ear. Not only is this prone to error, it’s just plain annoying and sometimes impossible. If you don’t own a tuner, treat yourself to one. Today.
There are several varieties of tuners, ranging from large, expensive (and somewhat outdated) strobe tuners to small plug-in boxes with analog meters, to tiny clip-on jobs with LEDs. For the most part, the lower-priced units tend to be okay for stage, but are less than accurate for studio work.
If you do decide to use an older tuner with an analog meter, it’s important to keep it level when using it; tilting it will influence its accuracy. Another suggestion would be to use the same tuner in a recording session to avoid the very real possibility that each person’s tuner is giving slightly different readings.