7 tips for making drums quieter – without sounding lousy!
Drums are loud, no question. Sometimes just too loud, no matter how hard you try to play quietly.
Here are our 7 top tips to get the volume under control, but not just by bluntly masking it with tissues or similar counterproductive actions that ruin the sound of your drums. Because let’s get one thing straight: a good sounding drum kit is by definition quieter than a bad (loud) sounding one! All actions we take to make the drums quieter must therefore always improve the sound, which unfortunately is not always so easy. But the result can be seen, or rather heard.
Who this article is for: Drummers who regularly have to play quietly, e.g. small club gigs, at rehearsals, in churches, etc.
Who this article is NOT for: drummers who want to practice extremely quietly without changing their playing style, and are willing to give up sound completely for that.
Prelude: There are already countless tutorials on how to get drums quieter. There are practice pads, neoprene covers for cymbals, rubber covers for sticks, lousy-sounding but quiet low-volume cymbals from surprisingly prominent brand-name manufacturers, and so on. However, these solutions all have one thing in common: they massively worsen the sound, and are therefore no means of getting the drum volume under control at concerts, for example. Here, even a few dB quieter would make a very big difference – every 3dB doubles the required energy; so to drown out a drum kit, the music system must have twice as much power for every 3dB. It’s often a battle between the stage sound – dominated by the drums – and the PA, and usually you can’t get a good sound in the room until the PA has been drowned out. At normal gigs, it’s common for the PA to therefore have so much power that the stage can be drowned out effortlessly. At smaller gigs – and such are likely to be the norm in the days of Corona and long after – the stage volume now becomes the biggest problem. We can’t afford to sound bad on stage when the stage sound dominates.
The battle against acoustic drums is the sound engineer’s daily bread; drummers are often unaware that their instrument is not really acoustic – it only sounds balanced and pleasant when mic’d and amplified. Without mic’ing, snare and cymbals dominate, and without proximity effect drums sound thin and – loud. If drums sounded better – more balanced – like a piano, amplification would only be necessary to make it louder – not quieter! In fact, amplification is used to make drums sound better – and therefore less loud. Of course, this requires a powerful PA. But there is a more excellent way…
1st tip: Sticks
2nd tip: Heads
3rd tip: Tuning right
4th tip: correct damping
5th tip: Weapon of choice – the right drums
6th tip: the right cymbals
7th tip: Room treatment – sound absorbers etc.
1st tip: sticks
(effort: very low; cost: low)
We start with the sticks. If you want/need to play quietly, you should first turn to lighter sticks or alternatives. It should be clear that baseball bat brand sticks are not particularly suited for quiet play. Some technique freaks might argue that it’s all about the right technique – yes, that might be true, but a heavier stick will also build up more velocity, you’ll automatically play louder, and you’ll go further when playing. Conversely, when playing with lighter sticks, the movements will usually be much smaller, as the sticks will bounce back less, and thus be thrown far less distance when played with the same force. Our movements therefore become almost automatically smaller with light sticks, adapting to the sticks.
Alternatives to the normal sticks can be for example the very light ProMark JazzCafe MJZ11 (unfortunately no longer available…) or Rohema Tango Hornbeam. With these sticks you still get a pleasant sound on the cymbals and toms.
If these sticks are still too loud, one usually resorts to bundled sticks called Hot Rods, which unfortunately are usually hardly quieter than normal sticks, and still have a rather unique sound. A laudable exception here is the Beech Soft Rod with rubber core, which is actually surprisingly quiet for rods.
Really quiet – and we are talking about up to 80% quieter than sticks and rods – are Adoros Silent Sticks, for which we have already posted a review here on the blog. These sticks alone would justify concluding this article here as successfully mastered. Honestly, if you don’t know these sticks yet, and want to play quietly from time to time, check them out, and get some, because there’s no easier way to switch from normal to quiet without a huge effort! And who already knows them, test if necessary the new Silent-E-Sticks, actually intended for e-drums, with fatter Soft-Grip, and a softer tip, this sounds even slightly quieter than the original Silent Sticks, which I already did not think possible. These sticks are also very suitable for percussionists to play hand percussion like bongos or conga, tabla etc with sticks without ruining the skins.
Of course, your arsenal should also include alternatives such as brooms and drumsticks.
But the point was to preserve or even improve the sound when playing quietly. Therefore, we will now go a little further. The concern that many drummers have is that they fear they will no longer sound good if they play quieter. This can be helped with this and the following tips – it’s not necessary to play loud to sound good! On the contrary, often your sound will actually improve when you play quieter, provided you consider the following tips. Starting with:
2nd tip: Heads – the right skins.
(effort: low; cost: medium)
A simple rule of thumb is that the thicker the skin, the more energy I need to make it sound. While thick double-layered heads were actually invented to withstand the brute playing style of some drummers, today they are often the excuse for persistently loud playing – they usually don’t sound as good played quietly. So, if you want to play quiet(er), you should stay away from all double-ply drumheads, and rather choose single-ply heads like the Ambassador by Remo, or even the Diplomat skin. From Adoro, the experts when it comes to quiet drums, there is even a special Heritage skin, an Ambassador-thin Mylar skin with an applied thin celulose layer, which not only gives the skin a harmonious overtone spectrum, but also significantly reduces the attack, as with a real natural skin.
If you like this sound and would like to go even further in this pleasantly warm, very round-sounding direction, we also recommend real natural calf skins, such as the Litik calf heads. These are even available already mounted on a ring, so that they can be used without prior experience with natural skins, just as normal drum skins made of plastic. However, you can immediately hear that these do not contain plastic. As pleasant, as warm these drumheads sound, as harmonious, they are easy to tune and harmonize.
3rd tip: Tuning right
(effort: low; cost: low)
Single ply heads also have a higher tuning range, and can be tuned lower than double-ply heads. Although they sound duller, due to the immense friction losses caused by their two plies – the basic tuning of the heads is usually a bit higher than with single layered heads. This is important to know, especially if you want to play softly. Because here the rule is: tune as low as possible. On this topic I like to link again to our workshop “Warm tuning, what is it and why do I want it“. I will only summarize it briefly here, for more details please read there: Warm tuning means that the batter head is tuned lower than the resonant head; this produces a pleasantly warm tone, as the heads are enriched by overtones an octave below the fundamental – in German: it sounds fat. As a rule of thumb you can say: hand-tighten the batter and resonance heads in turn – without a tuning key. This will give you the lowest tunable tone (make sure there are no wrinkles; if you can’t avoid them, check if the shell is flat… more about that later!); on the reso side, simply tune each screw about half a turn higher, this will bring you into the warm range, and you’ll end up with about a third above the batter head tone. Since the shells have different diameters, these are usually about the same tension among themselves about a third apart, very practical.
When tuning, it is best to play with your lightest stick, this will reveal inaccuracies in the tuning. As a general rule, detuned shells sound better when played louder than softly, so make an effort when tuning, if necessary buy a book, such as the drum tuning classic by Nils Schröder, highly recommended.
Tip 4: proper muffling
(effort: very low; cost: very low)
Taping the head as a means of choice to reduce volume can backfire badly. It’s okay, if you still have too much overtones, to dampen them a bit with gaffa or a moongel (better yet, half a moongel), but sticking tissues on them, preferably in the middle of the skins, kills any pleasant sound. If it makes the drums sound better, they probably sounded really bad before, so please start all over again… ?
So, stay away from too much muffling material, both on the toms/floortoms, and on the kick and snare. After all, our goal is not to resurrect the sound of the 70s (hello cardboard box!), but to improve the drums’ sound so that they are less loud – that is, quieter!
Ultimately, we reduce the sound with the damping, and thus make the attack all the louder, which subjectively makes the drums louder again. If, on the other hand, the instruments have a complex sound with sufficient harmonics, they usually blend better into the music and seem less loud. So here less is really less, namely less loud!
5th tip: Weapon of choice – the right drums
(effort: low; costs: very different)
This can almost be considered an insider tip, because now comes something that hardly anyone knows: drums are not so loud by chance, and they haven’t always been! Even in the 40s and 50s, drum sets were musical instruments which, mostly thanks to pleasantly warm-sounding calfskins, sounded terrific when played indoors without amplification. Contrary to what many drummers believe, these sets also usually had a rather small bass drum – 18 and 20″ were common – and smaller snare drums – between 10-12″ pancake snares. The modern 14″ rock snare was actually borrowed from marching music, partly because drums were incredibly expensive in the 50s and 60s, and it was very easy to get used marching equipment – but then also because they were so much louder, which was a nice side effect with the amplification of stages (see this post…). The 60s and 70s not only saw a boom in drumsets due to the popularity of the Beatles, they also permanently changed the design of drumsets – praised was that which makes loud. Unfortunately, this made the drum set not just louder, but also less balanced in sound – especially the snare, but also the cymbals, are now usually up to 10dB louder than the rest of the set, making mic’ing to readjust this glaring disparity become more or less the status quo – drums are now per se always mic’d and amplified. Therefore, it can be well argued that the normal, acoustic drum kit is actually a semi-acoustic instrument. Not only do manufacturers rely on technology for volume ratios, but they also benefit from the proximity effect, a combination of compression and bass and depth-mid boost, when it comes to sound. No wonder unamplified drums sound louder than mic’d ones; they lack warmth and balance in sound, even without equilizing.
With this knowledge it should be obvious that there are drums that have not been trimmed for volume. But if you don’t want to fall back on – mostly very expensive and rare – drum sets from the 50s or 60s, you’ll have to search hard – or not, because fortunately Adoro has something in store again with their worship drums, which continue the legacy of the truly acoustic sets with modern, easy-to-tune drum sets.
What if you don’t have the cash to buy such a set? As a general advice, take drums with 1-2 numbers smaller shells, and if possible, with thin, short shells. So rather the 10 than the 12 inch tom, the 14 instead of the 16″ FT, and an 18″ or 20″ instead of the 22″ kick. Also, a quieter snare – no steel shells or similar infernally loud ones, please. If you do not have a smaller wooden snare, you can put some foam in the steel shell to keep it reasonably in check – best placed so that the skins are not touched. This also reduces the air volume, another way to reduce volume.
Tip 6: the right cymbals
(effort: low; costs: very different)
The opposite is true for the cymbals: if you intuitively want to take smaller cymbals for quieter playing, you will quickly find that they are usually much louder. The following applies to cymbals: large, dark and warm-sounding cymbals are preferable to bright, shrill cymbals! So rather a 15er or 16er Hihat, 18er or 20er Crashes, 22 or 24″ Rides. Since the volume of cymbals is related to their thickness, profile and texture, you can sound much darker and more pleasant with thinner, low-profile cymbals, and an unfinished surface usually comes with a very short decay. Here I recommend Dream Bliss or Vintage Bliss cymbals, as a ride a 24 Small Bell Flat Earth or the 22 Dark Matter Flat Ride for a great sounding but also affordable choice. When looking at the major brands, be prepared to pay quite a fortune for simillar cymbals – for some reason the mellow sound is reserved for the pro’s, while the cheaper cymbal packages usually have rather thick and loud cymbals aimed for rock (loud music). Sigh…
7. Tipp: Room Treatment – sound absorber & co
(effort: high; costs: very different)
And what about the usual noise makers like acrylic walls and co? It’s expensive, and makes the sound worse rather than quieter. But you can still do something about the room and the positioning. Make sure that the drums are positioned in the room so that they are not made even louder by the prevailing acoustics. Just play the kick and snare in different areas of the room and see where they get louder and where they get quieter. It’s best to use a thick carpet for your drum set anyway, it absorbs a lot of reflections. The set should also not be placed too close to a wall or even in the corner. If the walls are bare, they reflect the sound. Sound absorbers can help here. You don’t necessarily have to spend a lot of money on this, anything that absorbs sound is welcome. A thick curtain should be hung behind the drum kit, it usually absorbs quite a bit, especially the high frequencies of the snare and the cymbals. Molton, but also felt blankets etc. are very suitable for this. And if the church has already purchased an acrylic wall, don’t put it up in front of the drum set, but behind it, hang thick blankets on it, and build your own absorber.
With these measures, your drum set can not only become up to 15dB quieter, it will also sound much better when played quietly. And especially with the Silent Sticks from Adoro you get an instrument that can be played almost as quiet as otherwise only Cajon.
I am looking forward to your feedback as well!