Drum Sound and Drum Tuning

Interview with Alex Reeves

Alex Reeves has performed drums live on stage, radio and TV and recorded on albums with Elbow, Dizzee Rascal, Razorlight, Bat For Lashes, Shania Twain, Marina, Nick Cave, The BBC Symphony Orchestra, The Heritage Orchestra, Guy Garvey, Anna Calvi, The Young Punx, Bobby Womack, One Direction, Johnny Hates Jazz, Avicii and hundreds more.

In this interview, Rob Toulson asks Alex about how he approaches drum sound for the stage and studio.

What do you listen for when deciding if a drum is sounding good or not? 

Sometimes a drum just has a magic or “thing” about it that sounds great in a certain context or room, sometimes it sounds bit like a biscuit tin to your ears but the mics just love it! However, there are some universally recognised great sounds for drums: rich and full low end for bass drums, a bit of bite in the high-mids for snares. Overall, not too much of the low-mid presence that can get in the way of guitars and vocals. The way you hit em and tune em can make all the difference - when recording I’ll sit behind the kit with the song playing in my headphones changing snare drums and mics until we’ve got the right overall character, then micro tune, dampen if necessary, changing the tension of the snare wires, changing where and how hard I hit the drum. Just amplitude and mic gain can make such a massive difference to the overall sound of the kit. But some drums are just ‘right’! Often it is the more beautifully-made or classic drums that get onto a record but occasionally it’s the grotty, nasty sounds that give the character - not everything has to be pristine. 

Do you use different drumheads for different performance or recording scenarios?

Yes absolutely. I’ll chose a different drum head for my snare drums than I will for my toms, and then my bass drums. My preference right now (it’s constantly changing!) is for my snares to have a medium thickness coated head with a dampening (or “Power”) dot in the middle - in my case I use an Aquarian Texture Coated head with Power Dot.  Dampening the middle rather than the edge of the snare drum has a lovely controlling effect on the drum’s overtones - quite different to using a dampening ring, tape, or Moongel further to the edge of the drum head. I like my toms to ring a bit in the studio, usually in tune with the track if possible, and so I use something that retains the warmth and character of the drums (Aquarian Modern Vintage on my toms) and also lets me tune to a complimentary note. I often tune the whole kit quite low and a bit flappy which allows the drums to really nestle in the music, as well as being round and warm-sounding: by that I mean low in frequency, taking up space in the lower end of the music. Some drums and drum heads lean towards that sound a little more. This is all slightly different live where I’ll need a sound that suits a whole set of songs, possibly a bit more damped and sometimes tuned to the room - each venue sounds completely different. Also, it totally depends on the gig and the type of music. And remember, sometimes the most awful-sounding thing is actually exactly the right thing. 

What characteristics do you aim to achieve when tuning or optimising the sound of a snare drum?

The snare drum is such an important instrument in pop music - I think that the snare sound, more than any other instrument on the drum kit, sets each drummer and producer apart. When you hit it does it go ‘blat’, does it go ‘pop’, ‘ping’, ‘clang’? It’s all affected by drum choice, head choice, how to hit the thing, what mics and where they go etc. So many choices! I’ll often use the same main drum kit throughout an album recording but will almost always change snares between songs. The most important thing is always always always the song. Character, personality and vibe is something that I really love in a drum but sometimes you just need it to not drag the listener’s attention away from the message of the music. And what sounds good is so subjective - but with a snare it’s usually tone, frequency and amplitude - obvious I know but getting the snare right is such an art form.

What characteristics do you aim to achieve when tuning or optimising the sound of a kick drum?

I love a deep, low, dampened bass drum - it can work beautifully for so much music. Personally, for a super radio-friendly sound I’ll tune the bass drum low-ish, very little ring, playing the beater off the head so there’s more of the low-end tone for the mics to capture, matching the type of beater to the amount of attack we need - wooden beater for more of the front end click that sits at about 3.5 kHz, felt beater for a bit more warmth and softness, lambs-wool beater for a super-moody, boomy sound. I like to hear plenty of 55 - 65 Hz in the tone of the bass drum, not too much of that around 300 Hz, then a nice little peak at 3-4 kHz so it doesn’t get lost once all the other instruments are in. Having said all of this, sometimes that stuff sounds rubbish in a track so I’ll open the whole thing up and tune it high, or use an old floor tom for the kick, or put a ringy resonant marching drum in front of the kick to add more low-end to everything. 

Interview with Alex Reeves conducted by Rob Toulson on 07 October 2020.

For more info on Alex Reeves, visit www.alexreeves.com