How to Tune Electronic Drums – Tuning Samples

By | January 22, 2015

Tuning your drums is an essential practice, just like tuning your guitar before you record any serious material with it. It’s important to understand what the tuning of drums is all about and make it a routine, for the sake of musicality in your songs. Read on to find out how to tune electronic drums, or as they are called in the computer music world – samples.

Introduction

Polish your drum sounds by tuning them. Photo Credit: Saint-Gobain Abrasives EMEA via Compfight cc

Polish your drum sounds by tuning them. Photo Credit: Saint-Gobain Abrasives EMEA via Compfight cc

Why does a drum kit sound so great? For the most part, because of an exceptional performance. For the rest, it comes down to the sound of the drum kit and its tuning. Even the greatest sounding drum kit will remain good at most, if not tuned. Tuning is like polishing a rough sculpture to its final form, where it will be adored.

In electronic drum sample tuning, there are certain methods which make the whole process easier.

Catch the resonance

Finding the resonant peak for drum hits is essential for tuning. This is especially true for kick and snare drums, and toms.

The principle is this: the resonant peak lies somewhere in the frequency spectrum, and as you might have guessed, frequencies equal to note values. Note values are key in tuning.

What you need is a spectrum analyzer, such as Voxengo SPAN, which is free by the way, or an equalizer that has a built-in spectrum analyzer with a piano keyboard such as Fabfilter Pro-Q 2.

Lower frequency drum hits, such as kick, snare and tom, always have a clear resonant peak. This is the largest peak in the sound which dictates the dominant frequency or tonality – in other words, the note value.

A resonant peak.

A resonant peak. (Click for larger images)

You can manipulate this peak by moving it around using a pitch or tune knob in a sampler, or by using some kind of pitch manipulation plug-in as an insert.

Let’s say we are writing a song in F. We have our nice sounding snare drum sample already, but want to tune it to support the musicality of our song. By looking at a spectrum analyzer, we notice that our drum sample is tuned at around 160Hz.

This snare's resonant peak lies at 160Hz.

This snare’s resonant peak lies at 160Hz.

By using FabFilter Pro-Q 2 equalizer, we can switch to the “Piano Roll” mode – my favorite function of this plug-in.

Notice the piano keyboard below the spectrum analyzer. This is a handy function in FabFilter Pro-Q 2.

Notice the piano keyboard below the spectrum analyzer. This is a handy function in FabFilter Pro-Q 2.

To see the peak more clearly, we can zoom in and see the relation to the piano notes with better resolution.

Let's zoom in a little on the peak, shall we?

Let’s zoom in a little on the peak, shall we?

By looking at this chart, we notice that 160Hz equals the Eb or E note. In order to get to F, we need to pitch the sample up a bit to around 175Hz. Let’s do it next. Since I’m using FL Studio 11 for this example, I’ll use the default Sampler within FL Studio.

In FL Studio 11, my snare sample is inside the Sampler, where I can manipulate the pitch as shown.

In FL Studio 11, my snare sample is inside the Sampler, where I can manipulate the pitch as shown.

Let’s switch to the EQ to see what has happened after the pitch correction of the snare sample. Take a look.

As you can see, our peak has moved to F at 175Hz, and it is now in tune.

As you can see, our peak has moved to F at 175Hz, and it is now in tune.

That’s it, our kick is now nicely in tune. Use this method to tune your lowest drum sounds to their right notes. By lowest I mean the ones that have low resonant peaks, usually below the mid-range area.

Tuning cymbals, claps and higher drums

Higher sounding drums are a bit trickier to tune, because they don’t necessarily have a simple tone to them, and could be very harmonic in their frequency content. This barrier can be overcome by using some aid.

First, you should create some kind of tuning tone, so you have something to tune to. This could be a simple sine wave coming out of a synthesizer, for example. Let’s take a sine wave and make it play a long, sustained note on F6, which is about 1400Hz on the spectrum analyzer. I’m using FL Studio’s own 3xOsc synth for this.

The 3xOsc synth in FL Studio 11 is a simple way to generate a sine wave. MIDI triggers the F6 note.

The 3xOsc synth in FL Studio 11 is a simple way to generate a sine wave. MIDI triggers the F6 note.

And here’s the synth sound in Pro-Q 2.

The sine wave at 1400Hz in the spectrum analyzer of Pro-Q 2.

The sine wave at 1400Hz in the spectrum analyzer of Pro-Q 2.

Now, we have a “guide”, constantly playing in the background. What you will have to do next, is play your sample you want to tune and adjust its pitch up and down until you feel you have reached the right tone. If your ear is “trained” enough, you will find this task quite easy as well.

The spectrum analyzer might provide additional help too, in moving your sample to the 1400Hz range.

You will eventually land at a comfortable sounding pitch with your sample. At this point, you might not be exactly sure which note the sample has landed on. You can try adjusting the pitch further in fourths, fifths and octaves to help you find a final pitch for the sample. These are 5, 7 and 12 semitones respectively.

Check out the first two parts of my 10 Electronic Music Production Tips –guide, for more insight on tuning drums.

In tune

It's in tune, great job. Photo Credit: freevectors via Compfight cc

It’s in tune, great job. Photo Credit: freevectors via Compfight cc

You might hear some people say tuning isn’t really that important in making music. I have to respectively disagree. I think tuning drums makes all the difference between a good and a great song. The professionals do it, and so should you. Why wouldn’t you?

Learn to tune your samples using your favorite sampler, plug-ins or DAW tools. Personally, I tune every little drum sound in my tracks, from the biggest kick drum to the smallest hat or percussion. There is a difference in doing so.

Generally, people won’t notice the tuning of drums like “Oh, I see how you tuned your snare drum to the fifth degree, clever.” How they will notice it though, is in the form of “Wow, those drums are really great sounding and punchy.” Get it?

Alright guys, I hope this little pro-tip will find its uses in your studio.

What are your thoughts on drum tuning? Do you think it’s a necessity – or “I might do it, if there’s time”? Let’s discuss.

Don’t forget to drop your comments below.

Keep ‘em tuned,

-JP

2 thoughts on “How to Tune Electronic Drums – Tuning Samples

  1. Chris

    Some great tuition here on the tuning of electronic drum kits. I have a friend who is into playing the drums in a big way and he has the standard drum set and also has purchased the new technology too.

    I will send him your website to check it out.

    Thanks for the information.

    Chris

    Reply
    1. JP Post author

      Thank you Chris! In music production, it’s usual to use drum samples along with real drum kits, that’s why it’s important to make sure the samples are in the right tune – in relation to the real drum kit so they don’t “clash”. Hope this can be of help to your friend.

      Reply

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