Tips for Drumming at Low Volumes

Drums are loud! While this is exciting while slamming it out in a rock club or playing a marching snare on a football field, there are also plenty of gigs where the volume of your drums can quickly become a problem for you and your band.

There are many gigs where it’s better to be too quiet than too loud and — trust me — few things kill the vibe of a gig more than someone yelling at the band to turn down. Fortunately, there are a number of things you can do to survive these situations.

Plan Ahead

Cocktail parties, churches, small venues, wine bars and restaurants are usually not drum friendly environments. Playing softer may dampen your enthusiasm and enjoyment of the gig, but would you rather play quieter and get paid or not be hired again? If you know in advance you’re going to be walking into a low-volume situation you can make adjustments to your playing, your gear and your mindset to help prepare for it.

Play Softer

If you aren’t acquainted with the lower dynamic ranges of your instrument, do these three things:

Vic Firth Heritage Brushes
  • lower your stick heights
  • loosen your grip a little and try not to play through the drum head
  • substitute playing rim clicks for snare backbeats.

Also, practice playing softer with a metronome because you may tend to slow down as you reduce your volume.

Use Lighter Sticks, Brushes, Mallets or Rods

These can make a huge difference in volume while offering a different texture to your notes. If you keep an open mind you might discover a new approach to an old song. Try mixing them up too. Use a brush in one hand with a rod in the other for two textures at once.

Use Smaller Drums

The bigger the drum, the more volume it’s capable of producing. Substituting smaller drums and fewer of them is one of the best ways to create less volume. You can use a 10” rack tom and employ the 12” or 13” as a floor tom either mounted from a cymbal stand or on a spare snare stand. Many pros own different types of kits with different size bass drums for this reason.

If that’s too expensive or impractical you can easily convert a floor tom into a mini-bass drum. There are a variety of lifts and pedal brackets available to do this. This can feel very bouncy, so you may want to remove the bottom head for a deader feel. This will allow you to muffle the drum too. Evans now offers their popular EMAD pre-muffled heads in a 16” size, so you can swap heads before those quieter gigs.

Use Fewer Drums

You won’t have to reach as far, and a compact kit allows for smaller motions. This may sound odd, but psychologically a smaller kit just looks quieter than a large kit. I remember a band I worked with getting volume complaints before we plugged anything in simply because we had long hair and large PA speakers. I’ve done quite a few gigs with just one rack tom, a bass drum, snare and a couple of cymbals. I have a little wine bar set up that uses a snare, hi-hat and a variety of percussion gear to substitute for a full kit.

Be Mobile

Weddings and corporate parties sometimes require a band to set up in two different places (a foyer or bar area and the main dinner/dancing room) leaving just a few minutes to move from one to the other and resume playing. Sometimes I’ll move just my snare and hi-hat to the bar area or I’ll bring a small percussion set up for that. A cajon can conveniently double as a faux bass drum and seat in those situations, too.

Use Smaller, Lighter-Weight Cymbals

Meinl Cone Stack Shaker

Large and heavy weight cymbals are designed to project far and produce more volume so leave them at home. Smaller, thinner cymbals usually decay faster and produce less sound. Having a selection of smaller cymbals can be a lifesaver at low-volume gigs. If you have some cheaper student level cymbals lying around they can work surprisingly well.

Shake Things Up

Instead of keeping time on your cymbals grab a shaker. It’s lighter sound will result in less volume and fresh textures. Practice this before the gig, since the coordination needed for this isn’t as easy as it looks.

Try Stacking Your Cymbals

Laying one cymbal directly on another can create a wide range of new sounds while dampening the sustain and volume of the cymbal stack while still offering a defined attack to each note.

Muffle Your Drums and Cymbals

Moongel Drum Damper Pad

Moongel and Duct tape are your friends. Moongel or similar products work very well for cymbals and don’t leave a gummy residue behind like duct tape. Duct tape works very well on your drum heads to dampen the head’s ring and volume.

Using an extra felt or two on your cymbals and clamping your wing screws down can restrict your cymbal’s movement, volume and sustain. Drape a towel over your snare drum. This will muffle the ring and lower its pitch giving it a ’70s ballad sound that can be cooler than you might think.

I always keep a small piece of foam rubber in my bass drum pedal bag that I can duct tape at the point the beater strikes the head. This drastically lowers the volume of the drum and eliminates all the attack while creating a rounder overall tone.

Detune Your Drums

They may not sound their best this way, but loosening your heads will cut their projection, pitch and volume. Loosen your snare wires while you’re at it. This will reduce your snare's brightness too.

Play Fewer Notes

Playing fewer notes equals less volume. Simplify and pare down your parts and avoid busy bass drum patterns. Depending on your mindset, this can either be a total buzz kill or a chance to rethink a part and discover a new way to approach it. I recommend the second frame of mind.

Frankly, you may find adjusting your mindset is harder than any of the other tips mentioned here.

Often we’re asked to play incredibly softly and if you aren’t used to those requests it may destroy your enthusiasm for the gig. After all, you’re a talented player with a well-tuned and beautiful kit and they want you to muffle and make it sound like Tupperware? Working professionals are used to adapting to the whims of clients, but if you have more of an “artist” mindset, these sort of gigs may make you completely miserable.

In these situations, try not to become irritated and just do what’s necessary so you can keep the musicians you’re playing with and the people paying you happy. If you can’t do this, don’t take those kind of gigs because no one wants to be around someone miserable and griping about it. Instead, give them my number.

With an adaptable frame of mind, you’ll keep yourself happier, employed and may discover fresh sounds from your kit and some new ways to groove.

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