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Drum Treatment - Muffling

Lyle Caldwell 1999

Muffling/achieving sounds

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.

First, 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.  

Should 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.

1) 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 later.

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.

4) 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.

5) 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. 

Drum Tuning

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.

Let 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.


The 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. 

Common ways to Treat drums.

Tape

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.

O Rings

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.

Felt

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.

Adjustable Pads

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 Treatment.


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. 

A 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.

In 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.

Tip: 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.

Other Approaches

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
a dishtowel.

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.

Tip: 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.


Cymbal Treatment

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. 

Tip: 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.


The 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. 

What's 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.

How 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.

Also 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 tone.


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

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.


Big Gigs

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 sound, too.


This 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.

Lyle