Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Get A Head

Drum Tuning and Head Selection

Ask a novice or intermediate drummer what they find the most difficult thing to do on a drum kit and many won’t talk about some complex rhythm or beat but about how difficult they find tuning their kit.

The trick to proper tuning is equal tension on every lug. This sounds like a simple concept, but it can drive even the most seasoned professional completely nuts. There is not a day go by in a busy drum shop that some frustrated drummer arrives with a drum that just will not tune to his or her satisfaction.

Let’s tackle this problem right from the beginning. Begin on the resonant head (bottom). Begin by removing both the hoops and the old skins from the drum. Clean the bearing edges with a soft cloth and tip the drum over and ensure any loose dust and wood chips are dumped out. You don’t want this clutter between the bearing edge and the new skin.

Fit the new head over the bearing edge on the reso side. Does it sit evenly all the way around making complete contact with the bearing edge? Or does it seem too small with one side resting on the bearing edge and the other hovering suspended over the bearing edge, but not touching. There is nothing wrong; it is just that your new head needs to be seated onto your drum.

Carefully balance the new head so that it does not fully touch either side of the bearing edge. Gingerly place the metal hoop over your new head and let the weight pull the skin a bit closer to the bearing edge. Insert 4 tension rods… gently. One at 12 o’ clock, one at 6, one at 3 and one at the 9 o’ clock position. Gently screw in the ones at the top and bottom of your drum using both hands to turn the tension rod down until it has pulled the skin evenly towards the hoop. Do the same for the two remaining tension rods. What is happening here is the skin is forming to the bearing head evenly around the drum forming a new crease that is specific to your drum.

Make sure these four tension rods are finger tight. Now working across the drum install tension rods at the remaining positions 2 then 8, 10 and 4, 1 and 7, 11 and 5. Ensure they too are finger tight.

Now, using the fleshy part of your palm, push down firmly in the center of the drum skin. The skin should wrinkle alarmingly and maybe you will even hear a cracking sound. This is only the extra rim glue giving way, nothing to worry about.

Finger tighten each lug again. If one seems really loose you may have not have had the head evenly placed on the drum the first time through. Get them all as tight as you can with your fingers only.

Now get two drum keys. Place one at 12 and the other at 6 and put a half turn to full turn on each lug. Move to the 3 and 9 position and do the same. Work around the remaining lugs until each has a half or one turn on each of them. Did any lug feel particularly loose? If yes, now is the time to fix that by bringing it up to the same finger tension as the rest.

Push with your palm once more.

Now we want to see if we have a tone. Tap the new head about a half inch from each lug and listen. If the drum has no tone and just sounds flabby, add another half turn on each tension rod until you achieve a pure tone. Is the pitch high or low compared to its neighbor? Always tune the lower lug to the higher one. Adding tension is always more precise than loosing tension. These adjustments will be very small, a quarter turn or less on each tuning rod. You are trying to keep the tension on each tension rod the same as you work around the drum. With each cycle of tuning check the sound of the overall drum by picking it up by the rim and playing it. Is it too low? Are there weird overtones?

Too low is an easy fix. Just keep tuning adding a quarter turn on each tension rod working across the drum until you reach a general pitch you like.

Those weird tones? This means one lug (tension rod) is looser than the others and causing this overtone. This can be the most difficult and frustrating part… go slow. Tap at each lug do they sound the same? Higher? Lower? Fine tune as necessary. You will not get the entire ring out and you don’t want too. The ring offers overtones that will cut through the rest of the band and let you be heard. Slight overtones are desirable. If the drum tones at each lug are the same pitch and there is still too much ring, use a square of moon gel to tame them. I always place my moon gel on over the logo on the drum head. But I am a bit compulsive.

Many drummers tune the bottom head (resonant) slightly tighter than the top (batter). This gives the drum a particular descending tone. I like both heads equally tensioned. A simple way to check this is with a “Drum Dial” this tool measures the displacement of the skin or its tension when poked with a small pin. It is highly sensitive but does have some quirks. You need to completely remove the drum dial from contact with the skin each time you want a new reading. If you drag it to the next lug it gives a false reading. I use this tool when I want to be very sure that the tension is even all around the drum.

Specifically on snare drums, the bottom head should be very tight as you want the snares to react to the slightest movement. So crank up those snare bottoms pretty tight. A reading of 85 to 95 on a Drum Dial is not uncommon.

Trying to tune old and pitted heads is setting yourself up for failure. Moving one head from one drum to another can also land you in a world of trouble. Each drum is slightly different and as heads become seated on a drum the soft aluminum ring on each head molds to that drum and can make changing from one drum to another really difficult. I suggest you always start with a new head and save those headaches for when you have years of tuning experience.

Every time you play a drum especially snare drums the lug closest to where you strike the skin or rim will eventually back out and loosen. This is entirely normal. After a particularly wild set, I have noticed that tension rod laying on the ground beneath my snare from the pounding I laid on it. So don’t be afraid of tuning and don’t expect it to be a once a year job. Tuning drums is just like your guitar player tuning his axe, it happens many times an evening usually.

There are bits and bobs that claim to hold lugs tight but I have never used one that did more than delay tuning a song or two.

What will happen once you have tuned a few hundred drums is that you will be able to feel the tension of a lug and match it to the tension of others and become a kind of human “drum dial” able to tune by hand quickly and surely.

Let’s touch on drum head selection too. So many young drummers claim to be a “hard hitter” and thinks that if they buy the thickest head with multiple layers of Mylar and dots on it they will not dent it and damage it. They are missing the point entirely. A single ply head is not for “light players” it is for players who want the most tone out of their drum. A single ply of Mylar resonates freely and picks up all the tone of the wood from your kit. Multiple layers of Mylar mute that tone and more of the overall tone is lost.

Try this for yourself, buy a Remo Ambassador (single ply) and a Remo Emperor (double ply) and install them onto the batter head of your snare drum. Tune them up and see which sound you prefer. The Emperor will sound “Dryer” meaning it will have less overtones and more fundamental thud. Sounds like a good thing right? But have a buddy play your snare with the band and see what happens. The snare needs to be hit harder to produce the same volume and attack. That is because you lost all those overtones that cut through the band and make you easier to hear through the din. So by adding plies you may actually have to hit the drum harder to get the same volume. Kinda defeats the whole idea that double plies will last longer doesn’t it?

Stick damage to a drum skin is inevitable that’s why they can be removed and changed. But it is usually technique or the lack of it that is more responsible for damage to the heads. Top drummers claim that they “pull” the tone out of their drums. This means that rather than burying the stick in the head they hit the drum and quickly pull the stick away letting the tone ring out.

Again try this yourself and be prepared to be amazed. Pulling the sound out of a drum takes practice, but the results are wonderfully resonant drums that sing.

There is a time and place for different kinds of heads and experimentation and rule breaking is encouraged in drummers. I like Evans EC2S heads on some toms and Remo Black dots just look freaking cool. So have fun and try stuff but do it knowing that more is not necessarily better. And remember most of the world’s greatest drummers get their sounds from single ply heads.

Just ask Dave Weckl.

Kickin' it


Your kick is the center of your kit and the low end driver behind most tunes.

Let’s have a look at what you need to consider when creating your own sound.

There are two schools of thought here those drummers that look for a thump without an identifiable note and those who want a tone or note out of their kick.

The thumpers out there are looking for the lowest sound their kick can produce and are looking for feel rather than a sound.

To get this out of your kick you are going to need a thicker head so look for a two ply head for both batter (back) and resonant (front). I always start with the batter head tuning my 2 ply head until its finger tight all the way around. I then switch to a key and tune until the wrinkles disappear and then add a quarter to half more turn to each lug. My reso head gets finger tightened then I carefully tune using the key until the wrinkles just disappear. This is as low as she will go brother.

If you find there is too many overtones add a pillow and let it touch the batter head slightly. Want more? Swap out the pillow for a folded blanket and fold it so it touches both the batter and reso heads. Don’t stuff your kick drum full of blankets, newspaper or pillows it just deadens all the overtones and your drum will be lost in the mix.

Personally, I like my kick to have a tone, so I tune the batter a little tighter, another ¼ to ½ turn on each lug. The front head I tune until I get a sound out of the drum I love. Remember keep the turns on each lug the same so you are not pulling the hoop down more on one side than the other as this is the cause of most tuning issues. I use single ply heads and add a Kevlar pad to prevent breakage. Remo, Aquarian and Evans all make great heads so pick a brand and go for it.

The reso head on many kick drums have a hole cut into them and many drummers think this is a necessary modification which just is not true. Kick drums only need a hole if you are planning to mic the batter head for recording purposes. Even when playing live gigs you don’t require a hole you can simply mic up the reso head and get a full rich tone.

As with any drum I suggest before taking any action that is irreversible like cutting holes you should have a friend play your kick while you stand back at least 20 feet. A well-tuned kick drum sounds like a canon at 20 feet because the wave length of the sound needs that much distance to “Bloom”. Standing too close does not give you the true impression of what the drum sounds like to your audience. This is also true for your bass player. He needs to do the same and step 20 feet or more away from his amp to get a true sonic image of his sound. You may be surprised that tuning your kit just a little higher many not sound quite so good from the drum throne, but awesome just a few feet away.

Bass drum technique has an enormous impact on your sound. If like me you mash the beater into the head and leave it there your sound will be different and probably worse than the drummer who removes the beater from the head quickly allowing the drum to vibrate fully with each stroke.

Switching from a felt beater to plastic or wood will also impact your sound. If I am playing funk I want that wood beater hammering out the dance beat. If it’s a Jazz gig the wooly beater gives it a warm mellow vibe. Lengthening the stroke, adding weight to the beater, adjusting the angle of your foot board, and changing the tension on the spring all add and remove subtle sonic signatures and make you sound like you.

When I played a 1960’s Ludwig I only used a felt stripe running between the shell and the skin on the front head. My DW kit sounds best with a Evans drum pillow, my Pearl kit likes a folded blanket and my Ayotte Custom Kit sounds huge completely empty. Experiment with your kit and try adding and removing material until you find the formula that works best for you.

Micing a kick also requires some fiddling. I like a small 5 or 6 inch hole in the reso hear into which I stick a Shure Beta 52. I love the round tone with just the right amount of beater click and fat bottom end. My drummer friends who play metal prefer the Audix D6 a clicky quick mic that captures each stroke with speed and accuracy. Some like the fuzzier woolly sound of the AKG 112.

For me it’s as much about placement as mic type. I have found placing the mic in the center of a 22” kick with the capsule pointed at the beater is my preferred placement. Many engineers place the mic half in and half out of the hole in the skin while others like the sound of the front reso head miced just a foot off the skin. I suggest you try them all and come to you own conclusions.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Mise en Scene "Still Life On Fire"

This band has exploded over the last year gaining attention in Paris, England, Australia and Germany but is still playing small clubs when it returns, as it must, to Winnipeg. Perhaps this will change with the release of “Still Life on Fire”. I admit that I have seen Mise en Scene 3 or 4 times in the last couple of years and came away underwhelmed by their live performance.

But…this record has been a truly eye opening experience. Stefani Blondal Johnson’s vocals are passionate, with a real emotional depth and stunning, shimmering quality that was missing live.

There is a savage energy here that is found in punk, spanked guitar, pinched organs and the pounding drums of Jodi Dunlop. But there is also a heavy dose of 1980’s pop with lots of harmonies and synth under currents. Think Bikini Kill, early Blondie or Garbage.

The first single CLOSER blasts out of my speakers like a laser beam of angst and anguish. Johnson’s abused vocal screams tear into your skull while the flaming staccato drums and the fuzz drenched crushing bass of Cory Hawkway pound the rest to mush…in a good way. Great single.

There are times when listening to Johnson’s vocals, like in WASTER, that I was thrilled to discover her reminding me of Nico Case… high praise indeed, as Nico is one of Canada’s best female voices.

STILL LIFE ON FIRE suddenly changes the entire record from aggressive punk to a more, dare I say it, sunnier vibe with a compelling bass line, droplets of piano, wiry synth and jangly guitar underpinning a softer compelling vocal line that really showcases the richness and quality of Johnson’s vocals. Great change of pace and another killer single.

YOUNG LEO is all pointy and punky, but wonderfully brimming with life and youth. This is the tune that you want blasting out of the car stereo as you head to Grand Beach on a hot, sunny afternoon.

Finally you hit the OUTRO (EVERYTHING) and again it is astounding too, as it is a bit of Classical music, stunningly beautiful and far too short.

This could very well be the best record released this summer and a candidate for simply the best record of the year.

Now, can they translate this masterpiece to the stage and become unstoppable?

Thursday, June 29, 2017

The Middle Coast "the Making of:" Review

Hailing from Brandon MB, The Middle Coast (formerly Until Red) are about to release their first major record “The Making of:” It’s an album that feels oddly familiar and comfortable with a sound firmly planted in the 1970’s that hints at the Eagles, America and Stevie Wonder.
Recorded here and in Vancouver with a trio of producers, this recording perfectly matches their live sound. Roman Clarke (drums/vocals) has an outstanding voice which soars on the tune “House Lights”. Liam Duncan (keys/vocals) and Dylan MacDonald (vocals/guitar) can certainly sing too and together their harmonies are what bring on that nostalgic vibe.

The first single “Paycheck” is a breezy, B3 organ dripping tune that I am sure you’ll hear wafting out of open car windows as you wait for the light to change this summer.

The boys keep it pretty simple musically, with a familiar song structure that include sweet hooky choruses, and transparent lyrics. Guitar tones are slightly overdriven, layered over vapid organ patches and a classic drum beat.

Don’t get me wrong, the Middle Coast will find an enthusiastic audience that will love their upbeat beer-friendly rock. The band is still really young and I hope as they mature they will find a sound that will remain forever rooted in the music they obviously love, but will become less predictable, more complex, introspective and modern.

Chris Brown

Alpha Male Tea Party, "Health" Review

The English have always been obsessed with instrumental prog-rock like no one else on the planet. Weary trips with early Genesis or Pink Floyd when Syd Barrett controlled the drugs began this genre, with recent bands like the unfortunately named Alpha Male Tea Party picking up this mostly instrumental banner.
The difference here is that Liverpool’s AMTP are loud, really loud, borrowing heavily from punk and metal to craft their sonic assault. They sub-divide each musical measure using advanced calculus to craft stop-and-go riffs that begin with a wall of juiced-up tele guitar run through a dozen pedals into colossal amps each set on stun.

The result on their newest record “Health” is a surprisingly melodic at times. This trio has some interesting musical ideas that they explore, but the requirements of the instrumental prog-rock genre and their insistence on eventually incinerating their audience with every tune ultimately leaves me wishing for a little bit more restraint and my head sore from doing the math.

Chris Brown

Chuck Copenace EP 1 review

Ojiway Jazz trumpeter Chuck Copenace’s new release EP 1 showcases both his enthusiasm for jazz and the deep respect he has for his culture. His experience playing with a virtual who’s who of Winnipeg bands including funk/jazz innovators Moses Mayes, roots act Nathan, and rockers Indian City, to name but a few, has widened his musical vista and you can hear those influences across these four tracks.
“ARVO" is driven by drummer Brendan Kinley and rooted in Ashley Au’s bass work Chuck is free to take flight guiding us through the melody handing solos off to guitarist Victor Lopez and Alto Sax player Eric Bachmann before his powerful, dynamic trumpet brings us back.
“Appetite" opens with a shared funky dual-horn line leading into Chuck’s inspired brassy lead. A round and mellow alto sax follows. Chuck’s second departure is more introspective, as we are guided into an clever electric guitar bridge and finally back to the shared two-horn melody to bring us home.
“Front” feels like the tune most influenced by Chuck's previous band’s works. His trumpet tone is glorious, nuanced and detailed as would be expected from someone with this much musical experience.
I do like the idea of capturing original indigenous melodies and transforming them into jazz idiom. This is an excellent first recording, which I hope leads to more daring work as Chuck only seems to scratching at the surface of where he can take us.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Pedal Your Way to Sonic Bliss

Guitar players are always on a sonic quest looking to get the sounds they hear in their heads out and onto their pedal boards. Achieving this acoustic alchemy can be tricky and it is different for each player. One is looking for a warm, bluesy slide tone, another a shrieking, shredding metal attack and a third that crystal, glassy, clean tone. 

But regardless of those sounds in your head, there are some guidelines…not rules because after all we are musicians and we break all the rules when looking for our tones…but guidelines that at least get our musical journey off on the right note. 

So let’s consider which pedals might get us to our ideal sound and in what order we might place them in our quest for our sonic holy grail.  

Stay in Tune

Tuners usually come first as you want a perfectly tuned signal hitting your cool effects. You can get this job done cheaply and effectively with some of the clip on tuners that have become so essential in the last few years. Apex, Snark and Planet waves all make clip on tuners for under $30 that many players love for their small size and ease of use. But professionals like the idea of muting their guitars while they tune and this requires a stomp-box styled tuner like the popular Boss TU-3 ($99), the great Korg Pitch Black or the tune-all-the-strings-at-once TC Electronics PolyTune.

Next up comes the Wah Wah Pedal as this pedal sweeps the entire frequency range, it is best closer to the beginning of the signal chain where it can find the purest signal with the most range to affect. The classic Dunlop crybaby ($112), Vox and Morley are all good choices with many adding distortion boosts and effects for added versatility or voicings specific to artists like Jimi Hendrix, Zakk Wylde or Buddy Guy. 

Squeeze me

This is the effect most people find the most difficult to hear. What a compressor does is to even out your playing making louder notes softer and softer notes louder. Country players and finger-style guitarists will find it invaluable. The MXR Dyna Comp ($112), Seymour Duncan Vice Grip ($249) or the Diamond CPR1 ($249) all do a great job at ensuring your “chicken pickin” is smooth as glass. 

I can't hear you!

This is usually the first pedal most players add after a tuner. These overdrive or distortion pedals add the gain, crunch and grit to your sound. These two pedals get that desirable “dirty sound” in different ways. 

Boost pedals overdrive your amplifier’s preamp making the tubes run hotter and inducing that warm overdriven tone. 

Distortion pedals clip the sound waves and get dirty by chopping up (in a good way) the signal. 

You need to experiment here to see if you like the boost first and distortion second or if you prefer the distortion first and the boosted signal second. Either way there are literally hundreds of distortion pedals available from around $60 to well over $500 each. Popular choices include the orange Boss Distortion DS-1, the Metal Zone MT-2 and the Blues Driver BD-2. Ibanez makes the most famous overdrive the rugged Tube Screamer TS-9 for a tried and true sound. MXR, Marshall, Way Huge, Electro-Harmonix, Fulltone, Maxon, Diamond, Strymon, TC Electronics and many other boutique manufacturers all make interesting and unique overdrives and distortion units. Here lies the heart of your tone, all you need is time and patience as you sift through these many grains of sand looking for your diamond. Long and McQuade carries a huge selection and will give you the time and space to find the perfect fit. 

The world of modulated tones comes next.

Pulsating Tremolo, watery vibrato, lush chorus, warbly phasers and swooping flangers, any pedal that affects the sound by shifting time and space is called a modulation effect. Simple ones like the classic Boss Super Chorus CH-1 ($99) to the mid-priced Diamond Tremolo TRM-1 ($249) to the ultimate all-in-one Stymon Mobius (call for pricing). These pedals add that dreamy, ethereal quality found on records by Pink Floyd and Flaming Lips. Add one of these to our rig if you need to thicken, modulate, crush, or squeeze your sound.

Reverb, the ultimate thickener

This might be the second pedal to add to our collection after your distortion or overdrive. This effect adds an echo to your sound from that found in a small club to those massive ones we find in stadiums that seem to never end. Try the Hall of Fame by TC electronics ($209), the Holy Grail Neo by Electro-Harmonix ($165) or the fabled Stymon BlueSky.

Digital and Analogue Delays

This effect adds repeats to your notes that trail off adding to the fullness of your sound. Try the analogue MXR Carbon Copy ($209), the Boss DD-3 Digital Delay ($179), or the Line 6 Delay Modeler ($339).

Make it Go to 11

A volume pedal increases or decreases the overall volume of the signal and can be placed at the front or behind the signal chain. Ernie Ball, Dunlop and Morley should be auditioned. Essential for those great volume swells we love so much. 

More Power

To keep all these pedals powered you will need to look at a dedicated power supply. Most pedals operate on 9-volts, but some of the larger ones may require 18 or even 24-volts. Be sure to purchase a power supply that can power the number of pedals you own or plan to own and at the voltage each needs to operate successfully. Voodoo labs, iSpot and MXR all make units that will power from 5 to 10 pedals flawlessly.

I've Been Framed

You need to corral all this sonic soup onto a pedal board frame. Boss makes a great small unit but for variety and quality PedalTrain is your best bet. From their Nano ($99) to their huge Classic Pro ($404.99) all with soft or hard cases, there is a size for everyone. 


Wiring it all up is simple with Yorkville pedal board right angle cables in a rainbow of colours. Cables can be controversial with many players claiming that the sounds can be drastically compromised by inferior cabling. Many send as much on their cables as they do a favourite pedal. 

Remember what we talked about at the beginning of this column. There is no right or wrong order so try mixing things up a bit you may find a combination that suits you perfectly and gives you a sound all your own.