What if I told you I knew a trick to save a dimpled drumhead?
I have been a rock music engineer for many years and in the early 1980’s found myself working with some major producers on some good bands and using typical studio procedures from the time.
For a label act, the initial procedures involved a series of steps getting the drums ready to record.
First, we could spend an entire day with a cartage company, testing drum kits and extra snares and cymbals, trying to clarify the kind of drum sound we wanted to go for. The second day was usually the setup day and we would put out about twice as many mics as needed (just to prove we were more dedicated to our craft than anyone else) and get levels on the kit.
Getting levels involved an elaborate tuning procedure and then having the drummer bash each drum in his kit dozens or hundreds of times. These drummers played so hard that we might change the drum heads many times a day, taking as long as a half hour for each drum. We carefully tried to maintain consistency in the physical tuning so that the mic selection and placement didn’t go out the window with every new head. This is a long and laborious process, fraught with potential errors, but it was how we did it.
On tracking days the problems became even more of an issue.
Producers are keen to capture a performance at its peak and the bands could only do so many takes before the condition of the drums heads demanded replacement. Stopping the flow of the session to change heads was a buzz kill and often would cause us to stop for the day after the delicate (yes I know it’s rock, right?), emotional synchronicity of the band was lost to head replacement downtime.
One day I had an epiphany. Drumheads are made of plastic, right? What would happen if I took a heat gun to one that was full of dimples and could not be tuned? Would it burn through? Would it split? Would it melt? The only way to find out was to grab a heat gun and try it out.
So I grabbed a very warped and dimpled snare drum and fired up the heat gun. I was very careful not to put the heat too close and to keep the gun moving so as not to burn a hole right through the head. To my delight, instead of melting away from the heat, the head actually ROSE UP and tightened itself. Bingo! I was like a kid with a new toy. Still am actually. I will go around the studio looking for trashed drumheads to fix because it is just so much fun.
Here’s the simple two-step process of how to fix the dimpled drumhead:
1. Find a dimple and make small circles around it with the heat gun
2. Gradually get a bit closer and closer until the dimple just disappears under the gun
Big fun! And the savings on new drumheads is enormous. The Guitar Center might not like this trick at all! Over the years, I have saved musicians and recording studios thousands and thousands of dollars on replacement drum heads.
However, the biggest advantage for this little trick is the impact it makes on musicians in the midst of the recording process. After I discovered the trick, I would set up my heat gun right next to the kit and start right in on setup day, fixing, instead of replacing the heads. Drummers who at first might have been skeptical, soon became fans because there was so much less prep work for them to do while under the very negative glare of the producer and band mates. It was the guitar player and his broken strings who was now holding up the show! Yea!
And on tracking day, the results were even more valuable musically. But I have to explain the last benefit before I get to that.
I quickly discerned that not only could I recover a trashed drumhead with this trick, but I could also use the same trick to RETUNE the drums in between takes!
Of course there’s a simple two-step process for Retuning drums as well:
1. Tighten a drumhead to approximate pitch
2. Slowly move the heat gun in circles around the outside edge of the head. This would then even out the tension on the lugs and bring the drum right into tune.
This takes some practice, but is pretty easy to learn and implement.
Here’s what it looks like:
My process soon was to bring the band into the control room after a take and press Play on the tape machine. Then I would run right out into the studio, and while they were listening to the track, I would removed the dimples and retune the drums for the next take. Very seldom did damaged drumheads hold up my sessions anymore.
So no matter if you are a drummer, looking to be a hero to a producer, or an audio engineer looking to be a hero to a drummer, go grab a drum with a warped or dimpled head and a heat gun and practice taking out the dimples and learning the technique to quick tune your drums.
These two tips are a great way for us to offer our audio production students at the audio engineering school valuable knowledge to take with them after graduation.
Who knows? This hot tip could make you a hot commodity.