When we speak of tone, we often use terms like warm, round, dark, and the like. Each tone quality has its place, but the one that many drummers seem to forget about is bright. It's one thing for our drums to sound great when we're seated behind them, but what does it sound like out front?
If we look at the physics of sound, we see that high pitches travel better than low pitches. That means that higher sounds -- i.e. bright sounds -- project better than low-pitched or dull sounds. In short, they 'cut'. And yet a lot of the drummers I see tune their drums to pitches that are too low to project well. Yes, it sounds pretty funky from the driver’s seat, but how much of that sound is actually getting out past the singer?
Low tuning has other shortcomings. It's easy to 'under-tune' a drum. Different sized drums have different usable ranges, and a drum can only be tuned so low before it can no longer do its job. You end up with what I call a ‘baggy’ sound -- a little like banging on a stack of paper grocery bags -- or ‘boxy’. The worst case is that the different drums will all sound pretty much the same out front. Tuning too low also forces you to hit harder.
Low sounds can interfere with other instruments, especially the bass. This can result in a muddy bottom end to the music.
If your drums are being closely mic'ed, then you can tune pretty much any way you want. The sound system will take over the job of projecting your mix. But if there is no audio assist, then tuning your drums more toward the middle of their range to increase the high frequency content can improve projection.
High and mid-range tuning tends to work well in most situations. In a small club, you can usually keep up with any assortment of instruments. In a larger room, higher tuning may provide all the cut and volume you need. And in a large concert with full sound system? Just listen to Dave Weckl or David Garibaldi to see how effective higher pitches can be through a PA.
Higher tuning's many benefits:
• Be heard in the audience with less effort
• Avoid clashing with other musicians
• Get the best tone quality from your drums
• Enjoy decent stick response and drums that are less tiring to play
• Reduce dependence on microphones and PA