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In The Studio: Instrument Tuning Tips For Better Recordings

Something's not right... The tracks just don't pop the way they do in your imagination... What could it be?

Courtesy of Universal Audio.

You’ve prepared for this recording for months. Your guitarist has spent hours, even days, agonizing over the tone for her solo. Your singer has wrestled over and over again with what now amounts to an awesome vocal. Your drummer’s locked in to the click track tighter than a proverbial gnat’s posterior.

And yet, somehow, something’s still not right. The tracks just don’t pop the way they do in your imagination.

While you’ve been working hard and paying attention to the songs, the parts, the sounds, and all the other big-picture stuff, maybe something’s just ever so slightly out of tune. I’m not talking about the really obvious slightly sharp high E string on the rhythm guitar; sometimes it’s the subtle stuff that makes all the difference.

Some people are more sensitive to tuning issues than others. This tuning sensitivity has to do with your ability to discern intervals in tone — also known as your sense of “relative pitch.” For example, I may not be able to tell you if your A string is tuned to a perfect 110 Hz, but I can tell you if it’s flat relative to your E string.

This sensitivity can be a blessing (or a curse) in a recording environment. And while some types of music can be more forgiving than others (indie rock bands can get away with it more easily than a classical orchestra), there’s a threshold past which tuning issues become just plain painful to listen to.

Tuning is one of the little things that can end up making a huge difference in the final quality of your recordings, so here are some final things to listen for before you start your first take.

Tuning Drums
Sadly, tuning drums is one of the most overlooked tasks in recording. Maybe it’s because drummers, when they’re playing live, don’t really know what they sound like in front of the kit. Or maybe it’s because it’s much harder to discern how the kit blends with the band in a live setting. Whatever the reason, an out-of-tune kit becomes far more apparent in a controlled studio environment.

There are a host of different theories on tuning drums, and all of them are correct to a degree. Some people prefer to tune the drums to the track. Others feel it’s more important to tune to the resonant frequency of the drum itself. As with most things musical, it comes down to using your ears, and what sounds best with the song.

If you do opt to tune to the track, it’s typically the snare that’s most prominent. Many drummers use more than one snare during a session – metal or wood shell, deep or piccolo – depending on the pitch and tonal quality desired.

Tuning the drums can make your recordings much more cohesive.

Generally speaking, the biggest sonic issues with snare drums on a recording come down to resonance or rattling. If you’re picking up excessive rattling from the snares, first check the snare wires themselves – are they straight and centered on the drum? Sometimes loosening the lower head slightly can reduce the buzzing of the snare wires.

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Typically, though, it’s a resonant vibration from a tom that’s causing the buzz. Try hitting each tom and listening to which one causes the problem. Retuning the offending tom slightly can reduce or eliminate the problem. (A muffling ring can also do the trick, though sometimes at the expense of good snare tone.)

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