Drum Tuning: I’ve gone from tight to loose top heads. My backstage “lesson” with Manu Katché & Carter Beauford. PART I of II

Tuning Drums: Why I’m exploring loose batter heads & bottoms.

It ain’t right…but it’s fun

How should you tune your drums, loose, tight, or just right? And how will you know when you get there? You won’t! There is no destination, just the journey.

My journey on drums is going on 45 years and I’m still occasionally frustrated and still learning. And that’s the beauty of it. The moment I feel I’ve arrived at some magic formula and settle on it, something happens to make me reconsider. I return to square one.  If you want to learn to tune drums, learn patience first. Allow yourself to change. Everything else will flow like silver.

I figured that Remo Emperors and Evans G2s (sometimes Evans G-Plus) suited me best, especially when I cranked the drum key an extra half-turn or two clockwise. Tighter 2-ply batter heads gave me fatter tone and enhanced presence. So I thought until recently, when I challenged the tried and true.

A few months ago I parted ways with thick heads tuned tight and turned to thin heads tuned loose. The rewards I’ve enjoyed thus far have been worth breaking a routine I’ve kept for decades.

It was time for me to toss routine and theory out of the window. It was nigh time for me to make changes. If you get to be my age and you’re sure you have it down, you’re either extraordinarily musical or you’re in a rut.

I don’t think I was in a rut—but I sure was spinning my wheels, unable to venture forth, and certainly incapable of taking hard left turns. I probably never would have changed my ways were it not for my encounters with two drumming legends, Manu Katché and Carter Beauford.

Manu Katche tuned his drums loose and fat, then performed

Manu viewed from backstage

It’s not that you’d have noticed anything before this transformation. My drums always sounded good, or so I’m told. But that sound was getting to be a crutch. I’d get it and start playing—good, I suppose, not to labor a point—but it precluded me from investigating alternatives. It stifled imagination and creativity. It was getting to be a one-method-suits-all-drums ritual. I’d buy or horse trade another snare drum and end up tuning it like the last 15, relying entirely on the variations in shell composition to affect shifts in timbre and even pitch.

Now that I’ve swapped methods, I’m discovering realities I avoided. Even if I go back to the old 2-ply heads, I’ll take home new vistas in tone and response. And my shift in method has made me realize that my existing snare drums, toms, bass drums, and cymbals have so much more to offer. It was just laying there in wait of my awakening.

Before I get to my (exclusive to this website) account of how I changed my drum tuning on account of rubbing shoulders with Manu Katché and Carter Beauford, I need you to understand where I was before this brush with fame.

I’ve gone from too-tight to too-loose: Meeting Manu again

Not Toulouse. Too loose. But while we’re in France, salut mes amis!

I blame the brunt of my “tuning metamorphosis” on Manu Katché, whom I’ve interviewed twice for Modern Drummer. I learned on both occasions but it wasn’t until last summer, when again I met up with Manu that the water broke and the truth flooded home.

I hung with Manu backstage at the Ottawa Ottawa International Jazz Festival in June, 2010. Following salutations, news, and weather, we ventured from the artist trailer to his kit. I sat on his hi-hat side and watched as he changed road-weary pitted batter heads for brand new white coated Ambassadors. While observing his tuning ritual I went from veteran to novice. To me, this is what it’s all about. What a pleasure to watch a master musician go about his work and be affected to such an extent that it changes the way I view my instrument and the “right way” to tune. Sometimes the best thing in life is not cruising forward but, rather, twisting and turning.

I’d gotten lazy tensioning my Evans coated G2s and Remo Emperors (both 2-ply batter heads) on the firm side. When tightened, these heads didn’t always rock when listening from over top, but the higher pitches facilitated projection past the first row of seats. The rationale was that a thicker head, when tightened, provides stability and, therefore, goes into distortion less quickly than a thin, 1-ply head when struck with force. Furthermore, the higher pitch and enhanced presence of the tight 2-ply head “travels” further without appreciable loss of tone; thin heads tend to wimp out, or so I reckoned.

I’m well aware that many drummers rag on 2-ply heads, complaining about lack of sensitivity and certain attenuated frequencies (although none of the nay sayers can agree on which frequencies don’t make it out). At the end of the day, however, from my seat in the house, the drummers who swear allegiance to the ubiquitous 1-ply batter heads aren’t doing themselves any favors. I still stand by that claim, although I realize now that it’s not the heads. It’s the drummers who’re at fault for failing to take the time to tune—to hear what’s happening each time they turn the drum key.

Well, I shouldn’t fault drummers for lack of patience. It took me a full year for Manu Katché‘s lesson to sink in! I think it crystallized with the acquisition of the $50 Coronet (Pearl stencil brand marketed from 1960 to 1968 approx.) drumset. As you may recall, when they arrived in my basement, I trashed the existing heads (they were charcoal like furnace filters) and affixed 1-ply batters—the first heads I grabbed in the closet. Anything would be better than the heads that came in the door!

I turns out that my luck-of-the-draw choice of batters was best for these drums (that’s the beauty, I guess, of “found objects”). And so was my gut instinct tuning regimen—read “loose batters and only slightly tighter bottoms”. I don’t know what possessed me to break with the thick head routine. I guess it was a lucky accident. Those Coronet cheapo drums sounded so good with thin heads tensioned loosely that I returned and investigated my diary notes made subsequent to the meeting last year with Manu. That led to my re-investigation of Rick Marotta’s fat kit tone…but that story is for another day.

You want to hear about Manu, not mois

As I sat on Manu’s left side chatting, he’d put each tom in his lap or on the ground (later he’d do this on the holders) and he’d apply pressure to various zone on each spanking new Ambassador batter head. He’d so this to rid the surface of wrinkles. He’d verify by eyeballing each head from different angles. When he felt good about things, he’d apply wood stick to plastic membrane. Then he’d start over again. He exhibited the patience of a saint but, then, even saints have their lapses of faith. Occasionally Manu would mutter something and start over. Although there was no ostensible method to his application of pressure, nor the journey of his key, he obviously knew what he was doing.

No hands of the clock

One thing Manu didn’t do, and this reminded me of something Jeff Porcaro had told me when I queried him on a statement he made in a Modern Drummer article, was tap lightly with a stick around the edge of the head. Jeff didn’t do this either. Neither of these guys was bothering to ensure pitch was identical at each lug/tension rod! Blasphemy!

I asked Manu if he was going to do the conventional tap around the edge routine—maybe at least as a final test of tension integrity. He responded with a simple, “No, I don’t do that”. Nor did he perform any crisscrossing from 6:00 to 12:00 followed by 9:00 to 3:00. Manu darted here and there, going by feel and by the tone he’d extract when striking the drum off center with a beautifully light, timpani like stroke.

No distance-makes depth dogma

Manu does not buy the high-pitch-becomes-low-at-a-distance dogma, relying instead on his dynamics and mics to project the picture to the house. Seriously, Manu’s coated heads are loose, defying any preconceptions of firm, high pitched drums. When I say he tuned loose, I mean that if I took my index finger and pressed down (or up, as I did on the bottom sides of his drums, inquisitive bastard!), my finger sank into the surface close to 0.5”.

Did I get it wrong in my last MD interview with Manu?

Furthermore, contrary to my assertion in one of my interviews, Manu’s resonant heads were not pitched a third or more above his batter heads. They were close to identical, occasionally higher. I guess I’d have to say his bottom heads were, in fact, tighter than the top…but not by much. I remember reporting—I think in MD (I’d written for Rhythm, Batteur etc)–that he kept his bottom heads sometimes a fifth (interval) above the tops. And I recall him verifying that, yes, sometimes he did so…but not always. That’s putting it mildly, according to my experience with him at close range. Interviews are funny in that you do face time and it’s usually off stage; you do phone time and it’s office-to-hotel room. Rarely have I sat with an artist and held the screwdriver while they went about their chores, as with Manu (and, as we’ll see Carter).

Sometimes even Manu Katché encounters a dud

As I watched Manu, a true master, approach his desired tone in careful increments until it billowed force replete with tone, at least from over top the kit, I could sense, as I hinted earlier, his occasional frustration with some head or other. In one instance it became plain to both of us that he’d encountered a flawed drumhead. No problem, he worked around it, tightening a little more here, loosening a little more there. Manu would poke each drum from various angles, cajole it, play a little in the center with a stick, single strokes, and eventually move on to the next drum. His last step was creating some sense of “family” among the toms and this might occasion a revisit to each drum for the sake of unity.

But surely Manu’s rimshot backbeat reflects a tight batter head?

The loose bit goes for Manu’s snare drum, which everyone assumes is cranked tight enough to foster a clanging rimshot, as opposed to an airier, thicker Charlie Watts style rimshot (another drummer I’ve interviewed and queried on a statement he’d made to Musician magazine eons ago on this very topic: maybe I should get out my interview Mini Disks some day and share some of the cutting room floor with you).


Got it right with the rimshot bit, for sure. I mean, it’s common sense, isn’t it? You can hear it plain as the zit on the left of your chin. There’s no way on earth to achieve a Manu Katché backbeat but to strike rim and head simultaneously. But when I’d have occasion in past to perform, say, “In Your Eyes (“a thousand churches…”) I’d lay my stick with moderate velocity against a taut batter head ensuring I’d clock the rim first and, perhaps, use a little less of the stick against the head (the bead of my stick would fall a little south of center).

But Manu Katché‘s snare batter, nor snare side, heads were not cranked tight by anybody’s definition.

The snare head/bottom head, against which Manu tensions his snare wire strands snugly (to permit good articulation of his grace notes), is again definitely not tight. With the drum on the snare stand, I pressed upward against it and my finger entered at least a quarter-inch. Whereas most of my snare drums feature snare sides cranked tight, Manu’s Yamaha signature metal snare drum bottom head is far looser than mine and, I dare say, far looser than the jazz standard. And, go figure, on albums it sounds tighter. It’s all the relationship of touch to rim to head, tempered by force of stroke.

Manu’s batter head “gave” even more when I pressed down. With snares off the drum gave a deepish, hollow thud..not a thud without pitch, however. The pitch was dark, almost African in timbre. There was a trace of pitch bend.

It sounded from close range, and I’m emphatic about this, nothing like it did on all those albums Manu did with Peter Gabriel (eg the track “In Your Eyes”) or Sting (eg Sting’s greatest album, The Soul Cages). My initial reaction was an incredulous, as if I were back in a seventies 6×6′ drum booth trying to get a house snare with wallet atop batter sounding like a real drum.

When Manu engaged the snares, then and with special arc came down on rim and head simultaneously, the drum gave it up. It was as if one of those great, looming genies had emerged from the lamp, an otherwise dry, benign vessel. I don’t know, maybe everybody is onto something I’ve missed all these decades. At very least, it speaks volumes about Manu Katché‘s ability to scratch water from a dry hole (ed note: sometimes you keep mixing metaphors until you figure one works, rather than sensibly get onto the task at hand).

The highs flooded forth and, honestly, that rimshot snare backbeat appeared. I’d never have believed that such loosely tensioned snare drum heads would deliver such brilliant highs. I’m absolutely certain that most drummers would’ve struck such a drum and recoiled from the prospect of making believable the transition from, say, the intro to the first chorus 1 of “Island of Souls”. I’d have had my doubts and, in fact, did a year ago.

Why tighten something that’s already “tight”? A how-to on Manu’s snare sound…

But now I get it. I’m thinking that a snare drum is inherently bright. Think of it this way (but don’t try this, I beg you): set up a drumset in a quiet chamber full of nuns and tell me which sound source is going to get startle them from their pews. Right: the snare drum. Maybe the Chinese cymbal if you happen to have one on hand.

Unless it’s in the hands of a Steve Jordan, a taut snare drum batter and bottom can make a drummer sound one-trick linear. The range of available timbres is limited. I know, I know, the smart stick will find them and in the hundreds. But consider, for example, low-mid frequencies. It’s going to be a fine balancing act coaxing them out of a tight drum: maybe loosening the snares off a tad in order to make the “tom” component of the snare drum sound more prevalent. Moving the bead of the stick to the center of the snare drum, or north thereof, to attenuate those highs that nod to vaudeville and circus drumming.

I mean, that’s my bag. But now I’ve got a brand new one. Manu proved to me, both on his albums and backstage last year, that a somewhat detuned snare drum batter and snare -side can actually expand the range of frequencies within my grasp. In addition, provided I keep practicing my buzzes, flams, and doubles, I can have a hope of extracting those sizzling “in between” pp phrases in a non-abrasive tonal range.

That spoken, now you know why I need to get out and play the drums. Words fail, despite my attempts. I should have investigated all of this a long time ago—well, actually, I did and I recorded with plenty of slack-tuned drums. But I was missing something: a discriminating ear and a acutely developed sense of touch. There’s more but words are beginning to fail. I come off like a poor man’s Shakespeare. Then again, Shakespeare effectively addressed the masses, didn’t he? “Art thou a cobbler?”

All I can say is that I’d come face to face with tuning schemes such as Manu’s in past but his studied “concert” execution resulted in attack and body blatantly defying my preconceptions. I like that!

Okay with drums, but can cymbals be tight vs loose?

Not under common law. Seriously, I do think that cymbal equivalents exist. Heavier cymbals are analogous to tighter heads: they offer increased rebound and a spray of higher overtones. Here are my diary observations on Manu’s choice in cymbals, remembering that on his ECM album Neighborhood, for example, he’s using a rock ride. Not one of the heavier ones, though. How about I lift a passage from my diary and be done with it? Why rewrite what’s already written?

June 29, 2010 (Ottawa International Jazz Festival, E. tent, backstage: The drums and cymbals in Manu Katché’s kit bear a family resemblance. Loose heads on drums might suggest to him “looser” cymbals—that is, cymbals that give, or flex, a little more. Manu’s cymbals, particularly his old faithful rock ride, were not as I’d assumed or remembered from past interviews I’d done with him; they were similar but different. Historically, the Zildjian Rock Ride has been a heavier cymbal with a high profile and a big bell. Manu’s ride was just that…and only that. One can purchase a lighter rock ride, although it’s not designated as such, from Zildjian or Sabian. There was no strong “ping”, at least none that I could hear before sound check over top when I tipped it with a 9A stick: if anything, it was more of a bumped up, heavier medium ride with a larger bell. I had no sense that the spread was limited in any way. The potential was more wide-open than Rock Rides I’ve owned in past. If Manu wanted tip, he articulated a ping by means of stick placement and a light, direct (non-glancing) stroke. Nothing was obvious or for the asking. The pleasant chiming we hear on ECM albums and before that on Sting’s Soul Cages, certainly the seminal Sting album in terms of lyrical congruity, effect, songwriting, and recording quality, is born in Manu Katché’s hands.

It was the same with the left crash, a workmanlike K crash and, particularly, the hi-hats, which were round, thin, and well-paired, nothing more. It was a palette for Manu’s foot splashes and graceful handwork.

His obviously classically-influenced approach to coaxing diverse tones out of cymbals was reflected back in the trailer later, when I pulled out a Zildjian Paul Francis prototype 22” Symphonic Traditional v. heavy cymbal I reckoned Manu would enjoy. Like a rock ride, but heavier, it united the low fundamental pitch of a K and, rare for a heavy, thick cymbal, a good selection of overtones, many exotic and not just pingy. Manu held up the Symphonic 22” and, smiling as he groaned under the weight of the thing balanced precariously on one finger, he tapped it, then placed his ear an inch above the surface. “Yes, yes, it is very nice,” he agreed with me. “Lots of beautiful tones here—a special cymbal…” Meaning he wasn’t knocked out.

But you’re not nuts about it,” I said. “I can tell from the way you played in the sound check. If anything you’re into thinner rides these days.”

Yes,” he replied.

Manu did show a little interest in the other ride cymbal I brought for his perusal (and signature in Sharpie pen, the only item I’ve ever had autographed): my ancient Turkish “Jon Christensen” K Zildjian, so-named because Jon now insists on using it if he’s playing in my corner of the world. The cymbal is hugely heavy for a 22” K but is, perhaps, 0.5 pounds less than the Symphonic. Manu asked for a black Sharpie but settled for my green. He signed the cymbal, next to Jon Christensen’s our cymbal keeps getting better and better with the following inscription: For the love of great cymbals, Manu Katché.

From that night onward, I redoubled efforts to play my heavy rides with more heightened “Manu concert” sensibility/sensitivity. The ping was there waiting; but I’d been guilty of neglecting the mass below the tip of the iceberg…those that awaiting touch as opposed to strike.

Manu Katche signs TBruce's ride cymbal in green pen

"for the love of playing great cymbals", signed MK

Grace under little pressure: My wife Cyndi sat out front for the show while I did the journalist Nikon thing and caught Manu from oblique angles, often an excuse for me to selfishly observe a master from perspectives denied to the average concert goer. Cyndi remarked on Manu’s graceful, sometimes ballet like movements and about the rich sounds he conjured forth. There was no tension in his playing, nor was there wasted motion: each arc of the arm seemed dedicated to serving the time, feel, and tone. For a non drummer like Cyndi, even one who has witnessed at too close range a drummer for longer than they’d care to admit, to remark on a drummer’s drummer’s grace and singular sound, you know there’s magic afoot.

It reminded me of occasions, years ago, subbing for a local guy named Brian Downey, who considers New Orleans his second home (his son settled there following a pro hockey career). Brian always commented on me sounding better on his loosely tuned drums, as per a subbing gig I did on his kit a while back, than on my own kits. He’d also remark that I seemed more at ease, less tense on his drums. Although I sensed truth in what he was saying, I’ve always felt as if I was “cheating” to slacken off the heads in the name of that organic feeling of sticks sinking into heads, as opposed to bouncing off surfaces. That feeling, I realize, can promote graceful movement. You’re not skirting the surface constantly; you’re digging in. I’d seen Rick Marotta on Sesame Street with James Taylor years before; Rick obviously tuned loose. It’s taken me a long time to check out this approach.

There’s something about a loose toms/snare combination that gels with thinner, gentler cymbals, including hi-hats.You can let the stick meld with the drum or you can play tone out of the drum aggressively. While I’d question whether the sub-low frequencies would make it to the first table in front of the stage unmiked, I have to admit that a resonant 14” floor tom that was actually capable of a one hit whole note was a good thing.

Loose is not all that bad: that’s what I’m discovering. As for my own grace, Brian was onto something. When I strike a tom, there is a total absence of any brittleness, no trauma to the limbs. It’s like striking a pillow. Providing you don’t try and beat tone out of it, it feels alright, you know? I’m not an apologist for the 1970s studio tuning I grew up with, nor of attendant drum booths, nor of tissue taped on each batter head. But a non-muffled, loosely-tensioned kit is a valid entity and it can be musical.


Part II follows, Carter Beauford Loose yet Precise

…stay tuned,