How to balance your drum playing for a steady output and even performance
21.06.2021

How to balance your drum playing for a steady output and even performance

Words by Adrian Violi

One of the most important concepts in drum performance.

I’m sure you’ve heard someone tell you that everything in life is about balance. Food, work, play and yes, the drums also! By the very nature of its name, the drum ‘kit’ is made up of multiple instruments, sounds, textures and sources. So naturally, balance would be important, wouldn’t it? 

There are many different types of balance when it comes to playing drums and these can often be overlooked as we learn, regardless of our age or level. Instead of concentrating on chops, brands of snare wires or which skin is the best, I wanted to touch on two particular types of balance. To be a great drummer, you need to consider more than just shiny cymbals or snares. 

Disclaimer before we get into this – neither of these concepts are quick fixes and in fact, are quite difficult to master. But hey, there’s balance in that too and whilst challenging, they are worthy causes and worth the consideration.

Key points:

  • Drum kits max out in volume at a point and maintaining a balance between power and tone is key.
  • Learning how to balance your arms and legs will help you in this endeavour.
  • It’s extremely important to use your ears and listen to how you’re playing in relation to the genre or style you are playing.

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Choke hold

Concept numero uno looks at the idea of the awareness of balance of volume/power vs tone and why it’s important to be aware of velocity and the resulting effect. 

Believe it or not, there has to be a limit for how much volume the drums can give you. Yes, this comment is very subjective I suppose, and the limit can vary significantly depending on the kind of drums you have, the construction material and so forth. A vintage drum kit tuned fairly low and ‘phat’ for example, will never project like a modern drum kit and hitting harder won’t actually yield extra volume. It will, however, affect the tone produced. 

The scenario usually goes like this. When a drummer just hits as hard as possible because they can, regardless of the environment, style or kit they’re playing, things can begin to just sound worse. There is a limit for every drum at which point, tone disappears and the drum just sounds choked. 

I suppose the holy grail is a drum kit that just keeps giving, no matter how hard you hit, the tone doesn’t choke. Projection for days. A kit with limits higher than yours. Brass snare drums often tend to have pretty high limits! 

Mix it up

Concept number two relates to balancing of the limbs. Yes, we have multiple drums and tones available but actually considering how to balance each of the hands and feet to create a unified sound on the drums is a very important thing. 

This balance can, however, differ depending on the style of music you’re playing. For example, a hip-hop or RnB groove might have a subtle hi-hat but emphasised kick and snare, whereas a rock groove would have a much more pronounced hi-hat pattern.

Furthermore, the tuning of the drums will naturally cause the drums to speak differently. A highly tuned snare will cut through the mix more than a detuned, lower, ‘thuddy’ one. This does mean however, that the player needs to be able to adjust their velocity and how hard they hit to balance the sound and suit not only the song and style, but the environment in a musical way. 

So, what’s the plan then?

Being aware of the sound you’re producing is the start. Try to understand the natural responses from each part of the drum kit. Lower sounds (generally) don’t speak as loudly as higher ones. When you play/practice, listen constantly and try to adjust your balance accordingly. The bass drum should be pronounced and clear. Usually, it can take a bit more of a thump. You can adjust further by playing ‘off’ the bass drum or digging in, which usually gives you more attack and a shorter sound. If you are going to dig in and you still want a round sound, you may need to consider tuning the batter head a little higher to get less ‘slap’. 

Hi-hats have a naturally piercing timbre. In turn, these can easily overpower your whole sound. Practice playing using the shank of the stick but also the tip. This alone provides epic differences in tone and projection. You then choose the sound you want and when you want it.  

The snare drum is, for me, a signature of any drum kit. It should be present but not overpowering – balanced with the bass drum and hi-hat. There’s always more there if you need it so think carefully about this drum and how you strike it. Dead centre, no rim shot? This will be warmer but not as loud. Rim shots will cut more but beware – use these for good instead of evil. I’ve fallen victim to a naturally loud snare drum with a rim shot that could take people’s faces off. The sound guy had to turn off the mic and asked me if I could hit quieter. Yikes. 

The toms are generally the lowest in volume, dependent on size and how they’re tuned. Low tuning can equal fatter tone but less projection. Tuning up a little to where the drum naturally ‘speaks’ can give you more cut here. In general, I find you need to punch the toms out a little more to balance them with the snare. However, don’t be afraid to bring the snare drum down a touch to meet the toms. Practicing accenting helps here. 

Keep listening

The key is obviously experimentation but also, open ears. Of course, depths of drums, materials, head choice, dampening and tuning will all be huge factors in overall sound. But it’s then up to you to find the limits of the drums. At what point are they no longer sounding musical? If you aren’t mic’d up, you might need to consider a re-tune and re-think about how to get more projection out of the drums before just hitting harder. 

Oh, don’t forget the cymbals – they can be brutally hard to modulate. Make sure you do your research on the masters too. Gadd, Weckl, Vinnie – all masters of touch and feel. I did say it wouldn’t be easy. It’s a good mission though. A balanced one. 

For more on this topic, check out this video from Drumeo.