You’ll probably find several “best” ways if you search long enough as everyone tends to have their own approach to tuning a drum. Also keep in mind tuning techniques can vary depending on what drum you’re tuning. A snare drum can be tuned differently from a high tom or low tom and the bass drum is usually tuned different from the other drums as well.
That said, I’ll assume you have a drum key and starting with a drum shell with heads removed. Here’s what I do and I love tuning drums and experimenting with different types of drum heads to see what kind of sounds I can achieve from a drum. I love a really good acoustic sounding drum set that already sounds great before having microphones placed around it and EQ’d.
STEP 1 You need to check if the shell is out-of-true. If the shell is warped, you will never get a good sound out of it. So what does this mean? Find a perfectly flat surface. Easier said than done. Some people use a granite counter top. I went to a local hardware store and purchased a 2x2′ piece of MDF board. I find that MDF is pretty darn flat and serves a dual purpose (I’ll get to this in step 2). Place the MDF flat on your workbench. Place the drum shell bearing edge down on the MDF. With slight pressure, push down on opposite sides of the top edge in an effort to feel if you can get the shell to rock (similar to that restaurant table that wobbles). If there’s any rocking, it will like be very subtle. You must also reposition where you are grabbing the top of the shell to get it to rock at different angle. What you are checking for is to see if the drum’s bearing edge is perfectly flat. It HAS to be because we want the drum head to sit as perfectly flat as possible so that the tension is equal across all tension rods when tuning. If one area of the bearing edge is higher or lower, that area of the drum head will never have the same tension and as a result, will always be out of tune. Another way to test trueness of the shell is while the shell is on the flat surface, drop a light inside the shell and turn off the lights in the room. Lower yourself to eye-level where the bearing edge meets the surface and slowly rotate the drum. If the shell is not true, you will see light leaking between the bearing edge and the surface it is on.
STEP 2 Let’s assume you felt the wiggle and/or saw light from between the edge and surface. Your shell is not true. Let’s true it. This is where the MDF board serves its dual purpose. Flip the board over. Go back to the hardware store. Purchase flat paper sheets of 400 grit sandpaper and a can of 3M spray adhesive. Spray the MDF board with the adhesive and carefully adhere sheets of the sandpaper to it from edge to edge until the entire side of the MDF board is covered. Make sure to not overlap the sandpaper sheets but instead, carefully adhere them edge-to-edge to create a “smooth” flat surface of sand paper. Place the shell on the sandpapered MDF with the bearing edge down. Gently rotate the shell like a car steering wheel. After a few seconds, wipe the bearing edge with a soft towel and flip the MDF over and re-check to see if the shell still wobbles and/or no light is still leaking. Repeat all of this for the opposite side of the shell (of course). Don’t be surprised if your shell is not true - even newer shells can warp a little due to temperature changes. Wood moves. It’s supposed to.
Hopefully your shell wasn’t so out-of-true that it required a lot of sanding. If it did, then it means you probably need the bearing edges recut. If you do, you’ll need to bring them to someone who has a router table and is familiar with drum bearing edges and how they can and should be cut. Or you could be like me and buy a router and a table and the necessary router bits to cut your own. I have lots of drums so it was cost-effective for me to find a used router table and router on Craigslist many years ago. I practiced cutting edges on an old throw-away shell until I got pretty good at it.
STEP 3 With the trued shell in front of you, run your finger around the bearing edge and be aware of any imperfections. The moment you feel a slight rough spot, take note of it and see if you can’t gently rub a little sandpaper over it to smooth it out. If you had to true your shell slightly, now’s the time to take some of that 400 or higher grit sandpaper and LIGHTLY smooth out the bearing edge.
STEP 4 (optional) You do NOT have to do this step. I like to and others agree with me but there are some who never do this step. I like to run a thin coat of wax over my bearing edges. I think it helps the drumhead sit and move better on the head. Wax was necessary back when animal skin was used as heads and it would tend to get snagged a lot on the bearing edges. Today’s drumhead material (mylar) is much smoother and makes using wax redundant. But I like using wax. I think it also helps protect the bearing edge as well. Your basic garden variety Parrafin wax is fine (those white candles your mom has in a drawer for holiday dinners).
STEP 5 Place the head on the bearing edge. Gently place the heel of your palm in the center of the head and push down about 2 inches. You WILL hear cracking coming from the head. THIS IS NORMAL. It’s the glue that holds the mylar head to the rim. I like to give it about 2–3 gentle pushes. This “seats” the head properly on the bearing edge. Place the hoop on the head and align the holes in the hoop with the lugs on the drum. Inspect all tension rods for bends and dust/debris in the threads. Replace and/or clean if necessary. I like to take lubricant oil and place a drop on the end of the tension rods about 1/2″ from the bottom. Place the tension rods through the hoops and FINGER TIGHTEN them until you feel resistance when the sleeve collar reaches the hoops flange.
STEP 6 We can finally tune the drum! Can you tell how much I love all of this stuff? With the head and hoop on, tension rods finger tight, grab your drum key and turn 1 tension rod 1/4 turn. Repeat for the tension rod OPPOSITE the first rod. Next, go back to the first tension rod and then one over (let’s go clockwise) to the left. Tighten again 1/4 turn. Repeat for the OPPOSITE rod. So if the drum is clock, start at say 6:00 and tighten 1/4 turn. Then 12:00. Then 8:00, 2:00, 10:00, 4:00, etc…
Repeat this and go around the drum with 1/4 intervals on the tension rods. Soon you’ll start to see the tension in the head. Grab a drum stick. Tap the head about 2″ from the hoop rim at a tension rod. Listen to the pitch. Repeat for every area 2″ from the hoop/tension rod. What you are listening for is a consistent pitch at every tension rod. Go back around with the drum key and continue tightening in small increments until you bring the head up to a proper pitch. I like to place the heel of my palm back in the center of the head and push down (like I mentioned earlier) about 2 inches. I like to hold it down and look for any wrinkles near the edges of the head. If you see any wrinkles in one area and not another, then tighten the tension rods more where the wrinkles are. You’ll also notice after pushing down on the head, you are stretching it out a little and the pitch may be slightly lower. This is okay. Continue adding more tension and testing the pitch with the stick. Hit the center of the drum as well. You don’t need to hit it hard. Just enough to produce a nice tone.
STEP 7 Flip the drum over and repeat step 6. I like to fold a towel and place it on the floor and then place the drum on top of it so that the newly tuned head is against the towel thereby muting it. This makes tuning the opposite head easier because it’s not resonating the other drumhead. Take note of the batter (top) head and the resonant (bottom) head. I prefer to tune the reso head a little higher/tighter than the batter head but sometimes I also try and tune them exactly the same. It depends on the drum shell’s depth, diameter, material and sometimes venue acoustics. This is where you need to spend time finding the right pitch for the drum based on its size and material. Every drum has a “sweet spot” when it comes to tuning. You can tune too low which means you’ll typically hear the head sound papery and dead. Tune it too high and you’ll start to choke the tone of the drum. Be patient and find the sweet spot where the drum naturally sings.
STEP 8 There really isn’t a step 8. I just like even numbers. Play the drum and if these are new heads, you’ll want to recheck the tuning as the head will likely stretch out a little from being played thereby lowering the pitch. You’ll also find the drum sounds one way by itself but will sound differently when placed with other drums because when you strike one drum, the others will resonate. Often I tune the drum on its own when say, replacing heads, then put it back on the kit and fine tune it after hearing it in context with the rest of the drums.
Head selection is also a huge factor. There are single ply and double ply heads and mylar is all the same thickness. There are coated heads and clear heads as well. All produce different results. if you were to ask me what I always end up going with , I’ll tell you Remo coated Emperors for the batter heads because they are 2-ply and produce a nice warm sound. I then have Remo coated single-ply Ambassadors for the bottom because the single ply helps them resonate. This combination produces a nice warm sound that I like. But that’s just me.
Hope this helps.