The challenge of tuning marching bass drums differs from tuning snares and tenors in three important ways:
1. Sizes. Snares are either 13” or 14”; tenors range from 6” to 14”; bass drums, however, range from 16” to 32,” a very wide pitch and timbre choice.
The practical range for most high schools is 18” to 28”. Many instructors like a four-inch increment between the bottom two. If you use five drums, you might try 18-20-22-24-28. For four drums, consider 18-20-22-26 or 20-22-24-28 or 18-20-24-28. For three drums, try 18-22-26 or 20-24-28.
Remember: Each size has a relatively small “inherent” pitch range. Do not try to make a drum sound higher (tighter) or lower (looser) than its size warrants.
2. Heads. Snares have two different heads; tenors are singleheaded; but bass drums have two heads that must be tuned identically!
Smooth, white, medium or medium-heavy heads have been the most frequently used heads for the last 20 years. Ebony bass heads tend to “ring” too much, causing a loud, “boomy,” inarticulate sound that instructors often over-muffle, which makes them dead and “thuddy.” FibreSkyn heads are great in certain situations but tend to wear out quickly; they are better on concert bass drums.
3. Muffling. A good marching snare does not require much, if any, muffling; tenors are usually un-muffled; but marching bass drums must be dampened.
Muffle bass heads with either a circle (or partial circle) of foam rubber glued to the inside of the head or with a patch of cloth taped to the inside of the head but not in the striking spot. Recently, both Remo and Evans have introduced bass heads that are pre-muffled.
Assuming you play on both heads, each should be tuned to the same pitch and timbre. Be sure each head is also “in tune with itself,” playing the same pitch two to three inches in front of each tension rod. Then tune your largest drum first and work your way to the smallest. For indoors, you should “dry” the sound a bit by either using more muffling and/or higher pitches.
About the Author
Dennis DeLucia is a percussion teacher, arranger, clinician and judge. A former member of the West Point Band, he is best known for his successes with championship corps and bands. He has been inducted into three of the major Halls of Fame: Drum Corps International, WGI Sport of the Arts and the World Drum Corps Hall of Fame.