Drums are crucial to the sound of so many records, but they’re more complex instruments than most people imagine.
Many people assume that achieving a ‘good sound’ is more straightforward with drums than other instruments. After all, you only need to hit them and they make a noise! But in reality drums are complex instruments, with multiple tuning rods and usually a top and bottom head, which all have an effect on the sound — and that’s without even considering a drum’s size or the material it is made of. In fact, there’s a lot to learn if you want to nail what is an essential instrument in most tracks.
Drum Sound And Drum Tuning: Bridging Science and Creativity is intended as a complete resource for anyone wishing to learn new skills or improve their technique in this area. Broadly divided into three sections (Drum Tuning, Recording Drums and Mixing Drums), this book takes you through everything you could possibly want to know about how to get the best from a drum kit, both acoustically and in your recordings.
Author Professor Rob Toulson is an expert in musical acoustics and digital audio, with a doctorate in vibration and acoustics analysis, and is a professor in commercial music at the University of Westminster. In addition to writing this book, he is also the inventor of the iDrumTune and Drummer ITP mobile apps reviewed in SOS in October 2017 (www.soundonsound.com/reviews/rt60-idrumtune-pro) and June 2020 (
The book begins with the principles of acoustics and fundamentals of frequency, which helps us to start bridging the gap between the scientific and creative elements of drum sounds. Toulson then builds on this knowledge to explore the practical aspects of tuning drums in the real world, which includes everything from evaluating and exploring the fundamental and overtone frequencies of a drum through to specific tuning techniques and principles. Each concept is explained in detail, but while it covers many technical issues it always does so in a musician‑friendly tone that doesn’t alienate or confuse the reader.
As an example, Chapter 7 deals with the wonderful world of drum heads and introduces them as ‘guitar strings on steroids’. The physical aspect of the drum shell is also covered, focusing on how the materials and construction of the drum has a bearing on its overall sound and tuning characteristics.
In addition to fundamental techniques of tuning drums, the book covers tuning for different musical genres. While this is far from an exact science, this chapter covers some useful ideas and jumping‑off points that will help drummers and engineers achieve the sound they need for particular gigs or sessions.
The final two chapters in this section are dedicated to the two primary elements of the drum kit: the kick and snare. These make up the majority of any drum beat and are often what gives a drummer their signature sound. In fact, producer John Leckie is quoted as saying that the snare is one of “the two things that identify a record” (the other being the vocal). I’m showing my age here but, for example, I can instantly recognise Cameo’s ‘Word Up’ or any Power Station song from the kick and snare sound. Rob Toulson draws together a lot of the information from the previous chapters, such as tuning techniques, shell material and head choice, and applies it specifically to these two drums.
While it covers many technical issues, it does so with a musician‑friendly tone that doesn’t alienate or confuse the reader.
Throughout the book, you are encouraged, by way of numerous ‘try for yourself’ exercises, to experiment with and practice the techniques discussed. Although the book is far from a dry read, these further help to bring the subject to life and inject a welcome level of practicality and interaction.
Having dealt with the concepts of drum acoustics and creating a good live drum sound, the book introduces the principles of recording drums (which could easily merit a book in its own right) in chapters 12 to 15. In addition to the more obvious topics of microphone choice and placement, Toulson considers the significant effect that the recording space and placement of the kit can have on the sound. Mike Exeter (recording engineer for Black Sabbath) offers the useful tip of walking around a room with a floor tom in hand searching for the position that provides the most impactful drum sound.
Recording drums typically requires a large number of microphones to be active simultaneously and, as a result, drum recordings are the most likely to suffer from phase problems. A whole chapter is dedicated to this potentially tricky issue, exploring how it can affect your recordings and, most importantly, what to do about it. The final chapter in this section deals with microphone techniques for recording drums and takes us through the many and varied methods that lots of us will have read about in the pages of Sound On Sound but, if we’re being honest, perhaps haven’t yet fully understood! Toulson does a great job of explaining the pros and cons of the Blumlein pair and ORTF techniques, explains close mic options for toms and cymbals, and offers a comprehensive list of common microphone choices and their qualities.
The final two chapters cover mixing drums, the first dealing with balance and dynamics and then more creative processes such as EQ, reverb and delay, and how they can be used in a DAW environment. I’m sure many of us are familiar with the various techniques discussed in these chapters, but in applying them specifically to the drum kit Toulson introduces a number of interesting ideas and processes that you may not have considered. Ironically, after all that hard work creating the perfect drum sound, the book culminates in a brief mention of the drum replacement software made famous by companies such as Steven Slate, which certainly have a place in today’s drum production.
When your subject matter is exclusively audio, no amount of words or diagrams can get your point across as well or concisely as an audio example. Drum Sound And Drum Tuning elegantly leaps this hurdle by way of a companion website, which is an incredible resource that’s a huge help and inspiration to drummers and engineers in its own right. A host of video examples are provided, which illustrate specific examples in the book and give an invaluable audio reference to many of the techniques featured. In addition to the video library and extensive interviews with drummers and recording engineers, Rob Toulson provides a complete set of Powerpoint lecture slides related to each chapter of the book, which he encourages you to use in support of any teaching or learning activities you may provide. You’ll also find digital versions of the images used in the book.
You could probably find a great deal of the information that’s contained in this book on the web, on YouTube and, of course, in this magazine’s free online archive. But Drum Sound And Drum Tuning does far more than its title suggests, combining a wealth of resources in one place and focusing on a single instrument. As I mentioned earlier, some of the information is quite technical, but it’s all presented in a way that means reading is always pleasure, not a chore. Each chapter can easily be dipped into for details on specific techniques and tasks, by way of the very detailed index, but the book also flows extremely well when read through as a whole; it doesn’t feel unrelated or ‘bolted together’ as some texts can. The web site is a phenomenal addition and brings so many of the subjects to life with practical examples and explanations.
As a drummer, I have a vested interest in producing a great drum sound, whether live or in the studio, and I know that a well‑recorded drum kit can often be the difference between a good‑sounding track and a great‑sounding one. Regardless of your experience in playing, engineering or both, Drum Sound And Drum Tuning is a fantastic resource that will supply plenty of new ideas, as well as reinforcing concepts you may be familiar with, as you work towards achieving great drum sounds on stage and in the studio.
A more detailed exploration of setting up and recording drums than the title suggests, this is both an engaging and educational read, and the accompanying website is a great resource.