Why do drum sets have descending toms?


193 points | by antibland 584 days ago


  • danck 584 days ago
    Absolutly amazed to see this article on Hacker News.

    This guy (the author) is the real deal. I once had the pleasure to visit his workshop and he had me test a bass drum he recently made. An amazing piece indeed. Just a gentle tap from the beater and it produced a rich and powerful but quiet sound!

    I often hear famous and extraordinary drummers on Youtube state that playing quiet is a skill every drummer can acquire. Yes, but no: It really does depend on the instrument as well if that sounds good! And most drums just aren’t made for it.

    • capableweb 584 days ago
      I'm glad that the "loudness war" in general seems to be over, and people focus more on quality, mixing and mastering rather than making things sound as loud as possible, especially when it comes to electronic music. Similarly as what you said, you know when a mix is very well made when it sounds good when you're playing it on low volume, not when it sounds good on high volume.
      • stdbrouw 584 days ago
        Nitpick: the "loudness war" is about mastering / compressing a recording so that it sounds louder at any given volume, it doesn't really have anything to do with optimizing things so they sound better at high volumes or a preference for loud sounding instruments.
        • absorber 583 days ago
          I don't know. I'd argue that if the production process is influenced by the loudness war, then it too becomes part of the loudness war.

          For example, a technique of masking distortion (or clipping, rather) is adding something with rich harmonic content (a trumpet for example) to parts that are expected to be hitting the wall and otherwise distorting / clipping.

          Would trumpets be there otherwise? I don't know, but I'm sure producers are aware of the limitations of digital audio and as such adapt the music to it.

          • rectang 583 days ago
            I worked as a mastering engineer for a couple years back in the aughts, and I can confirm that to really max things out requires production techniques.

            For example, analog tape naturally saturates high frequency sounds before low frequency sounds, which brings down the peak level of a close mic'd drum. Peak limiting a recording which already has analog-saturated drums produces fewer audible artifacts.

            In the abstract, at mastering-time you can achieve any absolute level without hard-clipping by smushing down the peaks with peak limiting and multi-band compression, then dialing things back up with makeup gain. But when compared against the original recording in a level matched test, at some point the processed result becomes unacceptably degraded.

        • 8note 583 days ago
          It's hard to make things louder when your loudest section tops out.

          Compression is an optimization for making the song sound better at louder volume

      • augustk 584 days ago
        To my mind it's the other way around. A "loud" recording with little dynamics sounds OK at lower volume; the listening fatigue sets in when the volume is increased. A dynamic recording, on the other hand, often sounds great when you turn up the volume and can really hear the difference between soft and loud sounds.
      • rectang 583 days ago
        The difference is the delivery medium. It has always been in the interest of producers for individual recordings to seem louder relative to other recordings in the same genre, and that is still true today. However, a level matched experience is better for the consumer, so apps like Spotify apply perceptual loudness metrics and turn down maxed recordings.

        That kind of level matching didn't happen with consumer CD players or vinyl turntables. Producers have to use different techniques to stand out in an automatically level-matched environment.

  • monkeyfacebag 584 days ago
    Drum sets are pretty weird in general. I play the drums but I don't know much about their history or development and I've always felt the kit feels like an arbitrary arrangement of circles for me to hit. There's nothing "unifying" about it for want of a better term.
    • sammorrowdrums 584 days ago
      I was a pro drummer for years. There is a general balance of factors:

      - history, drum set evolved kind of organically bringing marching band percussion, orchestral percussion and other drums into the theater / concert halls / dance halls

      As a consequence things like temple blocks were often placed above the bass drum which, before toms were really a thing. They were loosely pitched in similar way.

      As the drums evolved they became a thing unto themselves and not just a collection of percussion instruments.

      3 or more toms was rare historically. The "floor Tom" and "high tom" allowed a drummer to make a high and a low sound with their hands, which has numerous musical applications

      Then as kits got more toms key factors become:

      - reach (you cannot fit a low tom above a bass drum)

      - style: rock generally suited looser and lower tension tunings, bigger drums, jazz tended to be more tightly tuned toms, and smaller sized drums, more open resonance, pop and funk generally wanted more dampened staccato sounds.

      - feel. Drummers balance tuning of their drums with how it feels to play. You will not pick a tuning that feels bad, or sounds bad to you.

      - mountings: you can either mount toms directly on bass drum, with legs on the floor or off cymbal stands (and the latter option was bolstered by modern hardware), but so to balance space, mount points and reach there isn't really many other places for them to go.

      I'm being brief here, and the musical motivation was sort of natural and evolutionary and not prescribed by music theory.

      Finally, if you play tuned percussion like timpani, you go to great lengths to retune them quickly between different passages and pieces. You cannot re-tune toms to an exact pitch while playing it with 4 limbs, and so it would be repeatedly out of tune with the music, and that would be worse than the approximate high mid low you get today!

      Hope that makes some sense.

      • dwighttk 584 days ago
        Roto-toms were cool for a while.
        • Applejinx 584 days ago
          Still are!

          (says owner of seven)

    • uniqueid 584 days ago
      That's my impression, too. I once did some research on toms for some audio code.

      Toms are pretty tonal, as far as drums go, yet, as far as I could tell from my research there's no standard tuning for them. That would make sense if pop musicians all tuned their toms according to the music they were playing, but to the extent that they do, the tunings I read about were mostly flakey (ie: ungrounded in music theory)

      • TheOtherHobbes 584 days ago
        All drums - including the snare, but excluding the snare rattle - are modal. They're the 2D/3D implementation of a wave equation.

        So instead of having a neat more-or-less integer-based harmonic series like a 1D resonant object (i.e. a string) they have multiple complex resonant modes which are triggered simultaneously, and which decay at different rates.

        So they're semi-pitched. There's usually a fundamental, but the other frequencies can be almost as loud. So if you tune the fundamental you can still get dissonance with the other modes.

        All of this makes the idea of tuning a bit and miss.

      • speeder 584 days ago
        That explains a particular drummer I know...

        I know a drummer that is very particular about tuning his drums, and he gets mad when people change it, thing is, he also plays other instruments, so I guess he DOES choose what notes he wants from his drum.

        • yakshaving_jgt 584 days ago
          That's not unreasonable. Tuning a drum these days is a function of a huge number of inputs. There are at least 16 tension rods on a drum — often 20 — and you not only need to consider the relationships between each of them (and how simply turning each rod the same amount does not work, given various degrees of inconsistency in the tension rod and lug manufacturing process), but also the relationships between each head (more opportunity for "phase issues" there), the tension of the batter head (the one you hit) so it is playable), and also the relationships between different drums. You don't want the snares under your snare drum to buzz uncontrollably whenever you hit your 12" tom.
        • drittich 584 days ago
          Tuning is not just about pitch, it's about timbre, too. On top of that, the feel under the stick changes at different tensions. Most drums have a handful of pitches where they resonate the best (or to the player's taste). It's a lot of effort for many drummers to get the balance they like, and this is often harder on less-expensive kits.
        • bartread 578 days ago
          > I know a drummer that is very particular about tuning his drums, and he gets mad when people change it

          I don't blame him.

          I often keep my acoustic guitar tuned down a whole tone, and use heavier strings as a result, because it fits my voice better when I sing. You better believe I get grumpy with people when they pick it up and ignorantly retune it to standard.

        • piva00 584 days ago
          That happens in electronic music as well. There are some artists who are very specific about tuning their drums, from bass drum/kick (which in my opinion should be tuned to fit with your bass at least), toms and hats.

          As another commenter mentioned, it's also about timbre and not only tuning for a song. I've noticed I got particular about tuning at least my kick and bass layer to the scale of the lead of a track (if there is a noticeable key), in techno is easy to break almost any rule but to me, personally, is much easier to start a new idea with the kick and bass in tune.

        • 8note 583 days ago
          I certainly do, but I try to play them in a melodic manner.

          I haven't played in ages, so I'm not sure where I settle at, but I imagine there's a few notes that come up in music frequently enough to leave the toms in those tunings.

          They also have to match the cymbals

      • sfifs 584 days ago
        Tabla - the Indian percussion instrument (the one usually played by the dominant/right hand) is definitely tuned and often fine-tuned between songs. Professional players often carry a few differently tuned ones to concerts and switches as needed.

        Source - learned for several years

      • laurent92 584 days ago
        Maybe the sounds are too short to disturb the user’s perception of tonality?

        Sure some people have the absolute ear (ability to tell a note from the sound), but those are rare and rarely enjoy music with drums.

        • uniqueid 584 days ago
          A tom has a surprisingly long decay, so I think it's more a matter of the pitch not being entirely constant (neither between hits nor over the span of a single hit).

          That being so, it would make sense to avoid hitting a tom with a low frequency note in unison with, say, a bass guitar playing the same note. That could result in two bassy notes sounding off a semitone apart... yuck.

          Whatever sense my theory makes, I didn't read much about it being a consideration. I read about tunings, for example, that just pitched each drum up by exactly 3 or 4 or 5 semitones... seemed weird to me.

          • mrob 584 days ago
            Two bass notes a semitone apart won't necessarily sound bad; it depends on the timbre. Try it with sine waves and it will sound like a slow tremolo. Try it with sawtooth waves and it will sound dissonant.

            Perception of consonance and dissonance is related to the phenomenon of "beats"[0]. If you add two sine waves of similar frequency, you get alternating constructive and destructive interference, sounding like tremolo. As you increase the difference in frequency, the beat becomes faster, until it's no longer heard as tremolo, and becomes a single dissonant tone. Increase it further still and the dissonance vanishes as it's heard as two separate tones.

            Importantly, beats depend on absolute difference in frequency, not relative difference. Musical intervals are relative differences, e.g. a semitone higher in equal temperament is 2^(1/12) times higher frequency, not some fixed number of cycles per second. The higher in the musical scale, the bigger the absolute difference per semitone. This means low frequency sine waves a semitone apart will sound consonant, medium frequency will sound dissonant, and at high enough frequencies the dissonance diminishes.

            However, this effect applies to all the harmonics/partials of the notes, not just the fundamentals. A smooth bass note will have mostly fundamental, so the pairs of harmonics with frequency differences that cause dissonance will be quiet and unnoticeable. A bright or distorted bass note will have much louder harmonics, so the dissonance will be obvious.

            [0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beat_(acoustics)

            • uniqueid 584 days ago

                Two bass notes a semitone apart won't necessarily 
                sound bad; it depends on the timbre.
              Another factor is that the ear wants to makes repetition, in and of itself, work. That likely allows drums to sound good despite their fundamental tones often being 'wrong'. To pick an example at random: the triangle bells in this pop song sound pleasing, despite their key being 'wrong', simply because they repeat https://youtu.be/ZWmrfgj0MZI
            • posterboy 583 days ago
              That's not how I understand the musical scale, if I even understood you correctly.

              By relative interval I understand the interval within an octave, so C-D is a second regardless of the octave. The frequencies (notwithstanding fine tuning), double each octave. Of course the absolute difference is proportional to the power of two, depending on the octave.

              The picture is different when counting the proportion relative a fundamental frequency of your choice. That's how dezibell is generally defined, arbitrarily over some reference point. This has two interesting consequences. When counting keys not modulo 8 but continuously, the ratio D5 over C5 is much lower than D4 over C4. Second, if you want integer multiples of the fundamental's wave length, the first multiple spans an octave, and only the fourth or fifth octave has a full scale--this chromatic scale worked reasonably well tested on AVR with a buzzer, except that F needed adjustment taken from a frequency table.

              This means there can be no second in the lowest register unless you invert the programm and scale the higher octaves down linearly. In that case, the interference from the second (ca. 9/8'th of the fundamental's wave length) sounds extremely grating when played as a chord; the attenuation where the maxima of both waves meet forms the actual fundamental and your notes lie 9 to 8 above it, canceling each other out half the time; this is easier illustrated with a sixth that would be 1.5 of the base key. It is not a good illustration of music theory though, more like information theory while the signal chain is computationally intractable.

              Jazz musicians, huh

              • bradrn 583 days ago
                > By relative interval I understand the interval within an octave, so C-D is a second regardless of the octave.

                I don’t think GP is denying this. They are simply saying that an interval at a lower frequency is generally more dissonant than the same interval at a higher frequency.

                • posterboy 573 days ago
                  I was conceeding to make sure I understood them correctly.

                  The problem is, if you have only two tones, the lower one is essentially the base frequency in my address. But I'm assuming you have somewhat of a natural buzz, or resonant frequencies from the environment that command the base frequency for you, so you can't take any two intervals and compare them as if they were relatively same. This should be relevant especially if you play them one after another to compare, no?

                • mrob 583 days ago
                  I think it's likely to be less dissonant at lower frequencies. Try a 51.913Hz sine wave (G#1) played with a 55.000Hz sine wave (A1), at low enough volume that they don't clip when added together. This does not sound dissonant to me. Then speed them up by 16x (increasing the pitch four octaves). This does sound dissonant to me, although not extremely so, because timbre makes a huge difference, and sine waves produce the least dissonance of all timbres.

                  I don't have a bass guitar, but if somebody does they might want to try playing those G# and A notes together, and check how consonant they sound with the tone knob turned all the way up and all the way down. I predict that the brighter tone will sound more dissonant.

          • yakshaving_jgt 584 days ago
            > I think it's more a matter of the pitch not being entirely constant

            In modern popular music at least, it's not desirable for the pitch to be constant. You typically want to tune the resonant head (the one at the bottom) a little higher in pitch than the batter head so that there's a slight descending pitch shift.

    • horsestaple 584 days ago
      You should watch this: https://youtu.be/BH-jVncTJbg Great explanation of how the modern set evolved from military marches up to the Beatles.
  • daviddaviddavid 583 days ago
    The history here seems a bit cherry-picked and rock-focused. Hard to imagine that a lot of the work in establishing tom dimensions wouldn't have happened during the big band era, especially since for quite a while drummers were often the band leaders and there were even staged drum battles. Louie Bellson in particular had some epic drum sets with double bass drums and odd tom arrangements.


    • Ericson2314 583 days ago
      Well in fairness Jazz went small ensembles and kits before Rock metastisized?

      I'd say the modern mainstream jazz aesthetic is you bring you symbols and play with whatever drums are at the gig, and toms, at least beyond one floor and one rack, are gauche.

  • bsder 584 days ago
    > Just as guitarists have cut back on amp power and now focus on tone

    As much as I would like to think that this is true, all the concerts I went to prior to Covid had WAAAAAY too much freakin' bass. These were bands with vocal and guitar gods and the bass was cranked up to like 9000 such that you could barely make out the vocals and guitars if the bass was playing.

    The best audio at a concert I had was the one where the house amplification system died, and band had to play with their on-stage amplification and nothing else. The sound from the band was amazing--the vocals were clear, the guitar parts were articulated, and the bass and drums were reasonable.

    Funny how the bass levels are something reasonable when the bass player has to stand in front of the bass amplifier.

    To be fair, I'm being a touch uncharitable. Most of the fault lies with the person running the sound mixing board. It seems most sound mixers are so used to dance, pop and rap that they can't conceive of the idea that something other than bass and drums exists in music. It also doesn't help that modern solid-state amplifiers can drive amazingly low frequencies and really high amplitudes that the old tube amplifiers with transformers simply couldn't deal with.

    • t0mas88 584 days ago
      This is one of the reasons I always wear ear protection when going to live concerts. With the right kind of earplugs you can have very clear sound and in a way hear the vocals and guitars better than without. It also comes with the added benefit of no ringing ears in the morning.

      I started doing it after the doctor at my annual medical check mentioned I had frequency loss at 24 years old that he would associate with a 40 year old. Should probably have worn ear protection earlier... But wearing them consistently helped a lot because the measurements were mostly "normal" now 10 years later.

      • dsego 584 days ago
        I do this too and it makes the concerts less boomy and I can actually hear the vocals. The only issue is that it distorts the perception of my own voice so I have remember to speak louder to others or when ordering drinks. I also put in ear plugs when using loud tools or appliances, eg when mowing or cutting with a chainsaw.
    • korethr 584 days ago
      In my experience, it depends on the band and the venue. Indoor venues are a lot harder to get the bass resonance right. I don't think I've ever had bad sound (for whatever style of music was being performed) at an outdoor venue. One band I saw at both an indoor and outdoor venue. At the indoor venue, the sound was a constant woom-woom of bass resonance from the kick drum, with the snare poking through. At the outdoor venue, I was able to hear all the instruments well balanced with one another.
      • vbsteven 584 days ago
        Don't forget the impact a good sound person has. My best experiences have usually been small indoor shows with a passionate local sound guy that knows the venues well.
    • vanviegen 584 days ago
      I think the bass and drums in live performances are intentionally exaggerated to make people feel more 'part of the music', by having their bodies vibrate to it.
    • bartread 578 days ago
      Many years ago I went to a Fun Lovin' Criminals gig that was completely ruined by the idiot sound guys: way too much bass and way too much drums (bass drum in particular). Given that Huey's main vocal style is low-pitched chilled out rapping it meant that you could barely hear anything he was singing. I was really pissed off. Easily one of the worst gigs I've ever attended, and this is including pub and small club bands, but it wasn't the band's fault at all: they were absolutely tight.
    • Applejinx 584 days ago
      Interestingly, that used to be the rule rather than the exception… at the time when rock bands grew in importance to dominate the music scene and built an industry to sell their products to listeners.

      Back when people went completely nuts for rock music, the PAs were generally so inadequate that they were just for vocals, and monitoring wasn't really a thing. Most gigs of the era ran off each instrument generating its own stage volume, hence the Marshall stacks and such.

      The Grateful Dead famously scaled this concept up to insane heights with the Wall Of Sound system, where each instrument and voice had its own speaker stacks even at stadium levels. It really worked exceptionally well, but was cumbersome and didn't last that long.

      This can be done in electronic genres, as well: it just isn't, for the most part. I daresay there have been sound installations that did it.

    • YeGoblynQueenne 584 days ago
      >> As much as I would like to think that this is true, all the concerts I went to prior to Covid had WAAAAAY too much freakin' bass. These were bands with vocal and guitar gods and the bass was cranked up to like 9000 such that you could barely make out the vocals and guitars if the bass was playing.

      That's not a band. That's a bunch of people playing at the same time.

    • nicoburns 584 days ago
      > Most of the fault lies with the person running the sound mixing board

      One of my favourite bands to see live actually take their own sound guy on tour with them. They sound incredible.

      • Geezus_42 584 days ago
        I don't know for sure but I think Between the Buried and Me either does this or does their own mix. When I saw them live they sounded amazing, the other three bands sounded like shit.
    • spoonjim 584 days ago
      Well it’s also about who goes to concerts. Unless you have the audience etiquette of a symphony orchestra, you’re going to be able to hear the actual music much better on the recording. So people who want the bass and the dancing and the sweaty libido go to the concerts and the people who are most interested in the actual waveform listen at home (except for unamplified acoustic music).
  • ArtTimeInvestor 584 days ago
    I tried to find the answer in the text but wasn't able to. It seems to be stuffed to the extreme with related information and anecdotes. Making the central point almost impossible to grasp. If it is in there at all. As I said, I could not find it.

    Was text written like this before the days of SEO?

    • dhosek 584 days ago
      The headline is a bit ambiguous, but by descending he means having greater depth as the pitch lowers.
    • wombatmobile 584 days ago
      Yes. What is this article about???

      The pitch of the sound of each drum?

      The softness or hardness of the drum when hit with a certain force?

      The height of the surface of each drum above the floor?

      What point/s is/are the article making about these characteristics?

  • squarefoot 584 days ago
    As a (wannabe) prog rock drummer I prefer to damp toms a lot to reduce their decay, so that their tonal characteristics while remaining audible don't get in the way of other instruments. Jazz drummers will probably (and rightfully) disagree.
    • bayindirh 584 days ago
      Sharp/dry drums with a lot of decay adds a goosebump inducing character to jazz, classical and similar genres.

      A long decay from an instrument reaching to second next note, to be picked up by another musical instrument makes me giddy.

      It's possible to make the same thing in rock and metal, but genre structure doesn't allow it much.

    • rorykoehler 584 days ago
      As you have hinted at different styles benefit from different approaches (sounds). There is no right or wrong.
  • abdullahkhalids 584 days ago
    My summer semi-fun project is to experiment with building Tabla [1], the most popular of South Asian percussion instruments. I will make the wooden base, while the membrane will be made and fitted by a professional Tabla maker.

    So my principal task is to understand the physics of the depth, radius and other features of the base. This I will do both theoretically and experimentally to see how well I can model and predict. I would appreciate thoughts on the matter.

    [1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tabla

  • cronix 583 days ago
    Rick Beato has some really good videos on drums (and guitars, and ....). Here's a quick 7 min one on bass drums: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EFjZ1QaKHdk

    One thing cool about Rick is he has access to a lot of original multitrack recordings and can solo tracks to isolate them, even on older stuff like John Bonham/Led Zepplin like in the above video to isolate drum tracks.

    • nataz 583 days ago
      Yay, another Rick Beato fan. Found him over the pandemic. Great music theory/engineering/producer channel.
  • lc9er 584 days ago
    The title doesn’t match the article. It’s not about why toms descend in tone (typically - unless you are Jimmy Chamberlain and a handful of others). It’s about why toms have variable lengths.
    • Hackbraten 584 days ago
      Isn’t descending a suitable word to describe just that? Like descending stairs?
      • bjt 584 days ago
        But who's to say they're descending rather than ascending?

        A person can ascend stairs, or descend.

        A drummer could play an ascending pattern on their toms, or a descending pattern.

        But neither the toms or stairs have an inherent upward or downward direction.

        • Cogito 584 days ago
          I took it to mean the toms were descending towards the ground like stalactites descend towards the ground - they used to be shorter and now they're longer.
          • posterboy 583 days ago
            that is after you read the article, correct?
            • Cogito 583 days ago
              Correct, before reading I presumed it would be about tone.

              It’s possible the title is a bit of a pun, and refers in part to both tone and shape.

        • adrianmonk 583 days ago
          I guess the way they mean it is not about playing. It's about how, as your eye moves from one tom to the next, you see the bottom of the tom's shell getting lower.
      • darkerside 583 days ago
        It's acceptable, but I agree it's confusing. Variable length would be more suitable because it's less ambiguous.
  • rectang 583 days ago
    The thrill of a percussionist striving against physical limits is real, but the absolute sound pressure level produced depends on the limits of the total instrument. Consider a conga player slamming as hard as they can, versus a rock drummer flamming with both sticks on a snare drum.

    I'm not sure that it's possible to design something that sounds like a traditional rock drum kit that doesn't cause hearing damage when a drummer is mashing. It requires a different percussion instrument.

  • Applejinx 584 days ago
    Back when I was a kid, I made a four-tom drumkit out of a normal kit by sawing all the toms in half and making them shallow single-headed drums :)

    I would love to have a 'pancake' kit with all the drums double-headed but shallow. Maybe someday I'll try to get that made. The article suggests you could simply do that: everything gets the same very shallow drum depth, like a kit composed of snares without snare wires.

  • pottertheotter 583 days ago
    On a related note, anyone have insight into the purpose of crash and ride cymbals? They seem unnecessary to me (i.e., I think I would like a song just as much without them, if not more), but I've failed to find much to educate myself on the topic in the past.

    I hope I don't get downvoted for this. I'd really like to know.

    • nfoz 583 days ago
      I don't really understand the question because they both seem so essential to me. I'd say very often the ride cymbal keeps your basic groove. Especially in latin-jazz, if it's a swing or salsa pattern or whatever, the ride drives that pattern continuously. Which helps the band (and listeners) stay in sync with the groove, and lulls you into hypnosis with the repetition, and sounds super cool imo. Whereas the crash adds hype/power/emphasis to your important moments.
      • tarsinge 583 days ago
        For example the crash is typically used in pop and rock on the first time, and in metal instead of the hi hat for heavy parts. For the ride you can watch some clips from the film Whiplash maybe.

        Edit: also I can think of one album (the first one of The Glitch Mob) that doesn’t have any cymbals (not even hi hats) if I remember well.

  • chubot 584 days ago
    Hm the author mentions several times that he builds drums. And I would like to check out his drums, but there isn't a clear place to view them?

    That said, the point he makes is a good one, and one seems obvious in retrospect!

  • thedeepdive 583 days ago
    This was a fascinating article. I haven't drummed in years, but it suddenly made me want to again. Thanks for sharing. Loved this!