June 9, 2013

Arranging your drum kit

By Darin Soll

One topic that hasn't received much attention so far in this blog is how to arrange the various components of your drum kit.  Let's talk about that a bit...

Like many topics in the world of drumming, arranging a drum kit is largely a matter of personal preference.  It is a mix of art and science--although the science piece is often neglected, and as a result, learned via the good ol' school of hard knocks, from which many of us hold multiple degrees!

And, like many topics in this blog, I'll start by sharing what I've learned.  Again, I'm not sharing because I think I'm the expert--I'm sharing because I've spent many hours arranging my drums, playing them for a while, making changes, and playing them again with the changes, etc.  You know the drill--your hand doesn't quite fall naturally to a certain drum or cymbal, so you make an adjustment and try again.  You get everything just right, and playing your kit is a joy...until your drummer friend tells you about some new tweak that is working out really well for him.  You try out his tweak and before long, you are wondering how you every got by without it!

Then, you forget to install the memory locks on your stands, and you spend an hour before the next gig trying to recreate the magic set up you had in your practice studio!  But we digress...

Getting back to the topic, I'd like to start off by talking about the major changes to my kit set up over the years.

For most of my drumming career, I have played a two-up and one- or two-down tom configuration.  I learned to play the drums with two-up rack toms in the traditional position, centered over the bass drum.  While I was comfortable with this configuration, I always felt that the ride cymbal and floor toms were too far to my right.  The position of the toms seemed to encourage rolls down the toms instead of more creative fills with cymbal and floor tom accents, and it always seemed to me that one-up rack toms made the ride cymbal much more accessible.

Two-up, two-down tom setup
Several years ago, I noticed drummers using two-up set ups in which the rack toms were offset to the drummer's left, centered over the snare.  A few years ago, I decided to give this set up a try, as you can see in this overhead shot of my PDP X7 maple kit.  Note how the ride cymbal is out in front instead of pushed out to the right, which results in a much more comfortable arm position, at least for me.  Another benefit that surprised me is that I can snug my first floor tom right up against the bass drum, since I no longer have an overhanging rack tom on the right side of my bass drum.  So, my floor tom is a bit closer, and I find myself including it more often in accents and fills.

The other major change I've made to my set up over the years was to reduce the height of my crash cymbals.  I started playing the drums in the '80s, when drummers on music videos were surrounded by over-sized drums, cymbals, and gongs.  Cymbals were placed high, almost as if the thrashing hair band drummer needed extra clearance.  No wonder the drummer was thrashing--most items in his kit required a long or contorted reach!

We pay more attention to ergonomics these days, and we know a thing or two about repetitive motion injuries.  I think drummers have learned that more efficient motion requires less effort and improves speed, and many drummers have incorporated this thinking into how they set up their kits.  For me, that meant bringing the cymbals back down so that a crash cymbal stroke requires only a slightly higher flick of the wrist than a rack tom stroke.

Lower crash cymbal height reduces motion, increases visibility
In this photo of my PDP FS birch kit, you can see the position of my crash cymbals.  While they are still the highest cymbals in the picture, they are actually slightly below my eye level when I'm sitting at the kit.

Recalling that I used to have to duck below my cymbals to see my bandmates, a lower crash cymbal height improves the drummer's ability to see bandmates trying to make eye contact, etc.  So, in addition to reducing my arm motion, which makes drumming more effortless overall, lower cymbals improve my visibility within my band.

So, those are the major changes I've made, but this photo also reveals a couple of the smaller tweaks I've learned...

The first tweak is the rack tom angle.  Most of us who grew up in the 70s and 80s saw drummers tilt their rack toms as if they were cannons to be aimed at the audience.  Even today, some drummers like a lot of tilt, and I've seen Lars Ulrich with Metallica play rack toms positioned so that their heads were nearly vertical.

However, if you watch drummers play excessively tilted toms, you notice right away that they have to drop their shoulders to position their sticks to hit the heads rather than poke through them.  Similar to reaching for high crash cymbals, dropping your shoulders to get the right stick angle on your rack toms is extra motion that adds unnecessary effort to your drumming.  You get better tone when the stick strikes the head at a nearly 90-degree angle--why make that process difficult by angling your toms toward you?

My thinking is that I sit OVER my drums, not BEHIND them.  That means that my stick drops to my rack toms from above, not behind.  To get the desired stick angle, I tilt my rack toms just enough to prevent inadvertent rim shots when I move to play them.  That angle is illustrated in the photo above.

The second tweak involves the hi-hat stand.  I use double bass drum pedals, and I like two-leg hi-hat stands because they more versatile in a variety of double pedal or double bass drum situations.  However, two-leg hi-hat stands have a tendency to sway a bit, especially on carpeted surfaces.  If you are using a rack with wings, however, you can stabilize your hi-hat stand by attaching it to the rack wing with a bracket, as I have done in the photo above.

There are dozens of other tweaks I could cover, but now it's your turn.  What tweaks have you incorporated into your drum kit over the months and years to improve your playing?

--Darin

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