Treatment - Muffling
This is one of the areas where tempers flare. People tend to fall into
various well-defended camps on this issue, so in the interest of fairness,
the writer will try to provide the arguments on each side of the issue.
what is drum muffling?
In short, drum muffling is affixing some material or substance to the
shell or head of a drum, with the result being a change in the drum's
duration, timbre, and/or volume. Common examples range from pillows in
bass drums to duct tape on toms. We'll describe the various methods later
in detail. At this point I'd like to suggest that rather than calling
it "muffling," we should call it "Drum Treatment,"
as true muffling is only one of the objectives at hand.
I treat my drums?
Here's the problem area. We'll first explain the situations where Treatment
is a commonly suggested remedy, before subdividing into the "Yes"
and "Hell No" groups. This writer is firmly in the "Maybe,
It Depends" camp.
The toms ring out too long. This can be problematic in a situation where
the drums are being recorded or amplified with microphones. More on this
2) The snare rings out, or is "boingy" or metallic. This can
also be a problem, mic'd or unmic'd. There is also the school of thought
holds that what might sound bad to the drummer sounds great from the audience's
perspective. Again, this will be addressed in more detail later.
3) The bass drum rings out, or is too boomy, or is in anyway unsatisfactory.
Even drummers who believe that toms and snares should be untreated often
use some form of Treatment on the bass drum. Once again, stay tuned for
more on this.
While less common, often drummers Treat their cymbals as well, to change
the sound, decay, and even pitch of their drums. This can range from tape
to rivets. This too will be addressed in more depth later.
Drums are too loud. This is especially obvious to the neighbors of apartment-dwelling
drummers. This can be separate from the aesthetic debate as to Drum Treatment,
as it is often unarguably necessary, but there are situations where it
may not be a good idea. And yes, we'll get to this one, too.
Before going any further, let me first reiterate how important it is to
have well maintained and tuned drums. Please refer to the Tuning
section of the FAQ for an in-depth discussion of this subject. Let
me just say for now that Treatment is often used to disguise bad tuning
or old heads, and unless it is truly your only option, this should be
avoided. Make sure the drum is well tuned (to your liking) before any
Treatment is added. One reason is that it can be impossible to tune a
Treated drum, but the most compelling reason is that no one cares to polish
a turd. It's a waste of time.
the Debate Begin!
First, let's take a look at the reasons why you may want to Treat your
drums. At any rate, you should be familiar with the various ways and reasons
to Treat your drums, as you never know what playing environment you may
find yourself in.
Pros of Treatment
First, it can be a very valid aesthetic decision to Treat your drums.
With Treatment, you can customize the sound, tone, pitch, and decay of
your drums to your taste. That said, the drum head affects this decision
process no end. A coated Evans G1 sounds very different from a Remo Pinstripe,
so each head needs different approaches to Treatment. Refer to the
section on Drum Heads in the FAQ for more information on this. Even if
common problems with ringing, decay, overtones, etc. can be addressed
by tuning and head selection, Treatment can also give you sounds unavailable
with tuning alone.
ways to Treat drums.
It's not pretty, but if you're playing a gig and the sound person says
your rack tom is booming out too much, duct tape (or electrical tape,
or gaffer tape) can be your best friend. In general, it is best to use
more than one small piece of tape rather than one large one. This way
you can gradually adjust the sound of each drum, rather than a hit-or-miss
approach. The objective is to tape the drum so that the playing surface
is unaffected by the tape. For a snare or tom with a diameter of 14"
or less, often two small strips of tape (say, 3" long) are often
all that is needed. Try placing them directly opposite each other, but
out of the way of the playing surface. Their distance from the rim of
the drum affects the tonality and decay of the drum, and is therefore
a very personal choice, but about 1" from the rim is a good starting
point. It is also possible to tape the resonant head of a drum, but less
tape is usually used, unless you just want a "thud"(which you
may). Experiment. With experimentation in mind, here is a good tip when
using tape: Say you want a 3" piece of tape on the drum head. Cut
a 7" piece of tape, and fold it in the following manner:
(forgive the art)
so that each section is 1" long. When it's folded and applied to
the drum, you should have a 3" section of tape with two flat "handles"
sticking up, like this:
Now if you change your mind about the tape placement, it's easy to grasp
by the "handles" and move it around, without having to pry the
edge of the tape off the drum head.
Next, let's look at O Rings (also called Zero rings, etc.). These are
doughnut-shaped rings of mylar that come in various sizes to fit a wide
variety of drums, and are available from many manufacturers. They can
be very effective in reducing the ring from drums, and can give a snare
an often desirable "dry" sound, with more pronounced low end.
The only real difference is thickness and width, each of which affects
the drum differently. They are quite inexpensive, so you can try a few
to see which (if any) work for you. Most salespeople will be glad to show
you different ones in the store. You can also make your own out of old
drumheads. Just cut out the center and the outside hoop of a used head
and there you go. A little experimentation with width is all you need.
This is an old standby, which is most commonly used on bass drums
and, to a lesser extent, floor toms. Treatment with felt differs from
other methods in that you apply the felt before you put on the drum head.
With a bass drum, typically you would lay the drum down so that
the side you are Treating is facing up. Lay two felt strips (thickness
and width are up to you, but thin and narrow should suffice) across the
opening, evenly spaced out, say running from 10 o'clock to 8 o'clock and
from 2 o'clock to 4 o'clock. Now, while keeping the felts evenly tensioned
(rather tight) across the opening, put the head and hoop on the bass drum,
and tighten the lugs until they are all finger-tight. You may need to
ask a friend to help you. Among those who advocate drum Treatment, there
are two schools of thought on felts. Many feel that, while it works, there
are better and easier ways to Treat a bass drum. Others feel that
with the right head, this is the best way to go. As felt is inexpensive,
give it a shot. You very well may love it.
I used this term to differentiate between these adjustable mutes (typically
felt) and the pads often used in bass drums (such as those made
by DW and Evans). Adjustable pads are often found on older drum kits,
and have their advocates today. These are devices where a mechanism on
the outside of the drum adjusts a felt mute on the inside of the drum,
often touching the bottom of the batter head by various adjustable amounts.
These are also found on bass drums, typically on the resonant head.
These pads offer ease of adjustment, even while playing, and can work
wonderfully. You should be aware, however, that older adjustable pads
that have not been well-maintained may rattle and ring sympathetically.
As always, care and diligence can prevent this.
Pillows and Pads
This can be the custom pads mentioned above or an old pillow stuffed in
the bass drum. Foam rubber and towels are often used, too. This
approach deadens the bass drum and changes the perceived pitch of
the drum as well. The amount and effect depend on the method and
application, of course. To dangerously generalize, it is often advisable
to only lightly touch the batter and resonant head, just to control the
decay of the bass drum, unless you are after a very dead sounding
bass drum (which you may be). Also very broadly, the area of the batter
head where the Treatment contacts the head can vary the amount of low
end and attack of a bass drum. It is a good idea to try a towel
or a pillow to see if you like this sound (which depends of course on
drum size and material, head choice and tuning, beater choice, and, sadly,
the drummer). If you find that this sound appeals to you, then look into
the products made for this purpose. But you may prefer the sound of an
old pillow. A word of caution: don't decide on Treatment based on what
you hear while playing. Have a friend play your kit while you listen from
various distances. This is always good advice while weighing Treatment
options, but is especially important when it comes to bass drum
Control Drum Heads
This includes double ply heads, "control ring" heads, "hydraulic"
heads, and good old Pinstripes. While this is addressed in the Drum Head
section of the FAQ, please bear in mind that these are Drum Treatments,
albeit in disguise. If you like a slight bit of muffling as Treatment
in your bass drum, a "control ring" head may give you
the desired result without additional treatment. So if you go from a single
ply coated batter head with a pillow to a clear "control ring"
batter head, you may no longer need the pillow. Experiment as much as
you can, and trust your ears, not an advertisement. While bass drums
are the most common recipients of "control" drum heads, they
are also available for toms and snares.
Hole in Your Bass Drum Head
Openings (or ports) in a bass drum resonant head are also forms
of Treatment. Even if they are intended only for convenience in mic'ing,
they do have a decided effect on the sound of the bass drum. A closed
bass drum (no opening in the head) tends to have more resonance and sustain.
It can have more low end, and particularly a low of low midrange frequencies,
which can be an obstacle on stage or in the studio, as the bass drum can
fight with the electric bass for room in he mix, even though it may sound
phenomenal by itself. For that reason (as well as mic'ing convenience),
very often a bass drum will have an opening of some sort.
This is less common with smaller bass drums, such as an 18"
diameter drum as is commonly used in Jazz. The closed bass
drum sound is part of this style, and the smaller drums typically don't
fight with the bass instrument as much.
general, the smaller the opening, the more resonance the drum will have.
An opening in the center of the drum may commonly have less low end and
more beater attack than an off-center opening. This is a matter of personal
choice, and you should listen to both before choosing. The trend in recent
years among manufacturers is to put a small (typically 4"-6")
off-center opening in their resonant heads. Ten years ago, pre-cut openings
were typically larger and more centered. Today there is also a resurgence
in closed heads. Again, a matter of personal preference. Be aware that
most drum stores will cut a head to your choice of size and placement.
You can also do this yourself.
get a coffee can or other metal can of an appropriate size, and
heat it up over a stove (please take all necessary precautions so
as not to burn yourself). When the can is hot, you can press it against
the drum head and a hole the size of the can will quickly be seared into
the head. Remove the can quickly and the hole should be smooth. You can
purchase reinforcement rings to prevent the edge of the opening from being
damaged if you choose, though this is often unnecessary.
There are many other valid ways to Treat your drums, often with whatever
you have handy. Without attempting to list them all, here are two well-known
sounds and how they were achieved:
Ringo Starr's distinctive late '60s sound with The Beatles,
on recordings Sgt.
Pepper and Strawberry Fields Forever, was achieved (in part) by draping
tea-towels on the snare and toms. For those that don't know, a tea-towel
is about the same size and thickness as
Al Jackson Jr's snare sound on all the classic Stax and
Al Green records was often achieved by placing his wallet on the snare.
if you drop a few cotton balls in toms, they can cut the ring just the
right amount without affecting the visual or playability of the toms.
When the batter head is struck, the cotton balls lift off the resonant
head briefly, then softly and naturally fall back and prevent the resonant
head from ringing.
This can range from rivets (a semi-permanent change) to electrical tape.
This affects the timbre, sustain, and pitch of cymbals. You can dry out
a washy ride, shorten a crash, darken high hats, whatever. This one is
really up to you.
for a rivet sound on a budget, or when you don't want to modify a ride,
get a length of fan and light chain (the little metal balls in a row)
from a hardware store and drape a suitable length around the wingnut,
so that it hangs down on the ride itself. It works pretty well.
Cons of Treatment
Ok, all of you who have been ranting and raving over the stuff and nonsense
above, here's your turn. This section will address the common reasons
not to treat your drums.
Wrong with Natural Drums?
Not much. Ask Jim Keltner or Kenny Aronoff, who prefer the sound of untreated
(though incredibly well-tuned) drums. This is an especially cherished
view in certain Jazz circles, as well. Many who hold this view believe
that anyone who likes Treated drums has never played a really great set
of drums with really great tuning. We're not going to touch that one.
Instead, let's just say that natural, resonant drums do have a particular
sound that is appropriate for many styles, and that might include you,
no matter what style of music you play.
Should One Approach Un-Treated Drums?
At this point, it is important to note that untreated drums will sound
awful if they are not tuned well with heads in good condition. It is also
important to remember that what the drummer hears is not necessarily what
the audience hears. The tom ring and snare "boing" that sound
horrible (or at least distracting) to the drummer may sound great (or
inaudible) in the full context of the music from the audience's perspective.
A dry, controlled snare that sounds good by itself may be weak and ineffective
in the mix, while an open untreated snare may add the perfect amount of
character to the song.
remember that the audience doesn't hear a snare, a bass drum, a
17" crash cymbal, and a 15" high hat. The audience hears a drum
kit as a whole, and the various drum sounds interact with each other,
hopefully in a complementary way. Think of each drum being a voice in
a choir. You don't hear a choir as a lot of individuals (not a good choir,
anyway), but rather as a cohesive whole. With that approach, it is not
only important to make sure each drum sounds good by itself, but also
that the drums sound good together. While untreated drums can make this
a difficult goal to achieve, proponents of open drums claim that if this
goal is reached without treatment, it is the ultimate in expression and
When Do Un-Treated Drums Sound Best?
To a lot of people, all of the time. But let's be pragmatic for a moment.
While moving your kit from gig to gig, with little if any soundcheck,
some form of treatment may be necessary to ensure a consistent sound from
night to night. Even if you would usually prefer an open (untreated) sound,
it might be best to treat your drums when opening up for another band,
without a reliable soundcheck.
The studio is a good place to let your open drums shine. The time it takes
to tune an open kit can pay off in spades in the studio. The extra attention
to detail really makes a difference. Just as many drummers will use coated
single ply heads for studio and double ply clear heads for live, the studio
is the time to get it right. This is assuming that you are the one responsible
for the recorded drum sound. If you aren't the one paying for the session,
you may have to play whatever drum sound the artist or producer demands.
That said, if you know how to get a great open sound out of a kit, this
sound can get you future jobs. Even if you aren't an untreated drum fanatic,
it is a good tool to have at your disposal.
When you have the time to get it right live, do so. If you can get a distinctive,
natural sound live, that immediately separates you from the standard Treated
drums people are used to hearing live. If the music calls for it, and
you can do it, this is your time for you and your drums to shine.
Do I Have To Be A Fanatic?
Not at all. Many drummers choose to blend the two approaches. For live
shows, Billy Cobham has been playing a kit with open toms, an O ring on
the snare, and ported resonant bass drum heads with pads in the
bass drums. And no one complains much about his sound. For his recent
acoustic albums, Cobham has played more open kits. And that's a wonderful
section of the FAQ isn't designed to prove one way or the other is the
"right" way. Hopefully, though, the reader will come away from
this section with a better understanding of the methods and reasoning
behind each approach, and will be better able to apply these techniques
in his or her future musical endeavors.