Kim Lajoie's blog

Tuning the kick drum to the key of the song

by Kim Lajoie on June 7, 2010

It’s sometimes said that it’s important to tune the kick drum to the key of the song.

While it’s commonly said in relation to electronic music, it’s certainly not restricted to that genre. Drummers tune their acoustic drum kits, no matter what genre they play. Often the individual kit pieces are tuned together so they sound consonant as a whole, similar to the way each string on a guitar is tuned in relation to all the others. Many other (membrane-impact) percussion instruments can be tuned as well.

When a drum kit is tuned, however, it is often tuned for tone, rather than any particular ‘note’ or ‘key’. A drummer in a rock band doesn’t retune the entire drum kit in between songs if there are two songs in different keys. Similarly, the drum kit doesn’t change its tuning if there is a key change in the middle of a song, or if there are several different chords in the song.

Of course, there are different possibilities with electronic music. You could, if you wanted, change the tuning if the key of the song changes midway. You could even change the tuning of the kick drum every time there is a chord change.

But just because we can, doesn’t mean we should

As with an acoustic drum kit, the tuning of an electronic kick drum is more about tone than note. Certainly there is a consonance that occurs when the kick and bass are tuned similarly, but the tuning of the kick drum has a much bigger effect on its tone – its character and how it fits in the mix.

So, by all means consider the key of the song and the notes played in the bass when choosing and tuning your kick drum… but keep in mind that your choices shouldn’t be solely based on this! In other words, don’t let the kick or the mix suffer for the sake of tuning!

The other important thing to remember is not to hold yourself back from using a variety of chords or keys in your song. Being too tied to the tuning of the kick might cause you to avoid this – to the detriment of the song. It’s more important to express yourself musically using all the compositional techniques at your disposal than it is to keep the kick in key with the bass all the time.

So next time you’re thinking of tuning your kick drum, think about why you’re doing it and make sure you don’t get carried away!

-Kim.

6 thoughts on “Tuning the kick drum to the key of the song

  1. Juan says:

    tuning the kick makes me a bit confused. While i didn’t care about it too much in the past, programming a 4-to-the-floor kick and an offbeat bass – i read so often how important it is to tune the kick…
    I also experimented with layering, so i can tune the ‘body’ separately.
    But the question everytime is: tune it to the key?
    e.g.: I’ve written a song in E but the kick sounds better tuned between G and C because E sounds too high or low.
    So should i tune it to B (fifth to E) or what?

  2. Kim Lajoie says:

    @Juan
    I suggest not worrying about tuning the kick to the key of the song. Just go with what sounds (and feels) best.

    -Kim.

  3. Juan says:

    hi Kim,

    thanks. I thought it makes sense, when using a longer kick (about 1/8th)
    because it gets a more tonal character. Especially on 808/909ish sounds with more decay.

  4. Pingback: Things you can’t hear | Kim Lajoie's blog

  5. Frank Nitsch says:

    Hi Kim,

    generally it sounds right to tune a drumkit that it sounds as good as it can. It’s no surprise that it’s a percussive instrument that’s normally not used to play certain notes. ;-) I’m not in the business of recording real drumkits yet, but using either my drum machine or samples. Even though I once heard about how important it would be to tune the bass drum to the root note of the song. It should glue the drums and the bass nicely. I tried to find out what the tuning of the bass drums in my drum machine are – with not too much luck. With a real drumkit you can get the tonal part of a drum more easily I would say. I tried to find the best match between the drum machine’s bass drum tuning and the bass root note, but as you said: the degradation of the drum sound was more noticeable than any potential improvement by matching the keys. I think it makes perfect sense to try finding a better tuning after all instruments have been recorded, but it is not the most important step in the (pre)mixing phase…

    I found a great video on youtube about this topic a while ago. Idan Green demonstrates, how much better a drumkit tuned to a song can sound. If one has the required background and is able to tune a drumkit in minutes to a song as he does, it can be a great reward: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nuWlghepGzY
    What do you think about that?

    Take care and thanx for sharing your knowledge with us. :-)

    Frank

  6. Kim Lajoie says:

    That’s an interesting video. It’s good to see the thinking behind which notes to tune to, and hear the process of bringing the kit into tune with the song. Although that approach probably works better in the studio than on stage. :-)

    -Kim.

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