It’s time for the second audio mystery. It involves a drum set, two audio techs, and a lot of head scratching. It started on a Wednesday night…
The drums sounded dead. I’m talking “He’s dead, Jim” dead. Steve and I were at front-of-house trying to dial in a good drum mix. There wasn’t much we could do with each kit piece, be they toms or kick or snare. They sounded horrible. Two hours later, without any mix changes, they sounded better.
Not the first time
This wasn’t the first time we’d encountered this problem. It happened a month or two earlier. In the words of my 4th grade elementary school teacher, it was “time to put our thinking caps on.” Did I mention I hate that phrase?
Steve and I began brainstorming through the possible reasons for the dead drum sound;
1. The drummer was warming up. We have a handful of drummers but we typically don’t see that long of a warm-up period and the warming up had been only volume-related.
2. The drums needed to warm up. In the past, I’ve heard them sound a little different as the night went on, but nothing this drastic. Funny how you never think about these things until something is wrong.
3. Room temperature changes. This summer, the Midwest experienced a wide swing of weather, from cool summer days to hot-and-humid to cool-and-humid. Some of that humidity could be noticed in the sanctuary. Could that be it?
Reaching out for help
A few days later, I reached out for help. The idea of HUMIDITY came up again. The problem with the whole “it was humid that day” idea is that it’s hard to repeat and test. But how could a little humidity in a room make such a significant difference? I contacted professional drummer and pro audio guy, Daniel East.
“…humidity can affect [drum] heads & shells. Cymbals, too, actually…like any acoustic instrument where temperature & moisture change based on venue & transport, allowing at least approx. 30 minutes for any acoustic instrument to acclimate is important (like a winter-cold road trip to a dry heated venue, as well). In humidity, especially the sub-tropics like South Florida, the shells expand/contract with the Mylar heads with the temperature changes. Drums can even have condensation build up to the point of being wet to the touch.”
Upon reflection, both of the times when we experienced the “dead drum” sound was on days when it had been obnoxiously humid outside. The AC system for the sanctuary isn’t on unless the sanctuary is used. Therefore, the drums had been sitting all day in this humid environment. Even though we turned on the air conditioning just before practice, it wasn’t early enough for the drums to have time to adjust.
Taking this a step further
Knowing about the humidity problem, we can make a point of kicking the AC on earlier on those days when the humidity is bad. But what about re-tuning? Once a drum kit becomes re-acclimated to the conditioned air, it’s a good idea to check the tuning. For those of you working in portable churches that pull your drums out of a trailer each week, temperature and humidity changes can definitely impact your tuning.
If you deal with a lot of temperature / humidity-related issues with your drums, work with your drummer on drum tuning. As far as a tuning aid, Dan said, “I’m a big fan of a Tune-Bot (even over Drum Dial or even by ear) since you have a fiercely accurate measure of both the fundamental pitch and both batter & resonant heads. The elasticity changes in different temperatures so a proper digital tuner has provided the best results over a weight/pressure based type or app.”
High humidity can also cause problems with microphones. Store your microphones in a dry place, such as a sealed foam-lined microphone box, if you work in high-humidity locations or if you store your gear in a trailer.
Whether you have acoustic drums that stay in the sanctuary or you haul them out of a trailer each week, you must realize that temperature and humidity change will alter the sound of your drums and sometimes you need to re-tune them. No one said live audio production was easy!
Question: How do you deal with drum tuning?
*I should note that by using the photo above, I’m NOT calling myself Sherlock.