Drummers often ask, “Can I learn to play the drums if I live in an apartment or townhome?”  The answer is yes.  Drummers can certainly practice in an apartment if they take advantage of drum mutes, mesh heads and other similar products.

Students often express concerns about practicing in their apartments or townhomes.  They are respectful of their neighbors, but still wish to devote time to their craft.  Luckily, there are solutions that will allow drummers to practice in just about any environment. 

Acoustic vs Electronic Drum Kits

Many drummers assume that they cannot have an acoustic drumset if they live in an apartment.  Their assumptions have some validity.  Electronic kits are quieter, and often take up less floorspace. They are quiet and can be played with headphones or earbuds.  These factors make electronic drums a practical option for those living in apartments.

Top quality electronic kits can be expensive and are often difficult to find used.  Luckily, an acoustic drum set can be brought down to the volume of an electronic kit (or lower).  The following suggestions will allow the apartment dweller to practice the drums without bothering their neighbors.

Drum Mutes

Drum mutes are usually the first option for sound reduction.  These are rubber pads that are similar to the consistency of a computer mouse pad (but thicker).  The drum mutes are simply placed over the drumheads.  The cymbal mutes lay directly on top of the cymbals.  They have a hole which aligns with the hole in the cymbal. 

The drums still retain their primary sound, due to the bottom head not being affected.  The stick response is similar to a drum tuned very loosely. The volume is comparable to that of the average television. The mutes tend to make the snare drum a bit boxy sounding. Because of this, many drummers will use another type of pad, such as the Sabian Quiet Tone on the snare.  Another solution is simply turning the snare strainer to the “off” position.

Since these pads simply lay on the drums and cymbals, they allow one to go from practice mode to full volume in a matter of seconds.  They are quite durable.  The drum pads do tend to last much longer than the cymbal pads. 

The mutes are often sold in sets to match the most common drum sizes.  There are a few brands offering drum and cymbal mutes. Vic Firth, Sound Percussion Labs, and Sound Off (by Evans) all make mutes that work well. 

Here is a video demonstration of drums played with and without drum mutes.

Mesh Heads

Picture someone knocking on a screen door. It wouldn’t make much sound, right?  That’s exactly the idea behind mesh heads.  Unlike drum mutes, the drummer does have to remove the old drumhead and replace it with the mesh head.  The result is an even quieter drum sound, much softer than the average volume of a tv. 

The heads tend to have a good amount of spring, or rebound.  Since the heads are so quiet, the actual tone depends upon the tuning of the bottom head.  Similar to the drum mutes, the heads make the snare drum sound a bit boxy.  Mesh heads are extremely durable.  They are also very easy to clean.  Mesh heads that have been played for years often look the same as the day they were purchased.  

Aquarian SuperPads and RTom Black Hole

Those looking for a more realistic feel have a few options.  One such option is the Aquarian SuperPad.  The pads are similar to the drum mutes. However, drum mutes are floppy pads that lay on the drum head.  The SuperPad is a solid disc-shaped pad that is placed over the drumhead.  It has a more realistic feel than both the drum mutes and mesh heads.  It does not have as soggy of a stick response as the drum mutes.  It is also not as “springy” as most mesh heads. It also provides a better snare sound, eliminating the boxy sound that other mutes create. 

Those who like mesh heads, but don’t want to change heads may benefit from RTom’s Black Hole.  This is a mesh head which is mounted on a hoop.  The head is able to be tensioned, so the drummer will be able to obtain the desired feel and stick response.  That RTom Black Hole simply slips onto the rim of the drum.  It will pick up the tone of the drum (not just the bottom head).  The volume will be reduced by about 80%.  The bass drum pad is attached with bungee clips (included).  Since the bass drum hoop is covered by the RTom, an extender is included, allowing the bass drum pedal to be attached.

Here is a video from Rob Brown on the RTom Black Hole system.

RTom Black Hole Review by Rob Brown

Cymbals

As previously mentioned, mutes may be purchased and placed on the cymbals to reduce the volume.  However, some drummers want a more realistic cymbal sound.  There are metal practice cymbals available from several manufacturers.  These are actual cymbals that are perforated with many tiny holes.  This reduces the volume while retaining much of the sound and feel of a regular cymbal.  The bell and open hi-hat sounds are easily attainable with these cymbals.  The QuietTone line of cymbals by Sabian is a popular choice among drummers.

You can hear the QuietTone cymbals in the following video.

Bass Drum Options

Drummers who use mutes on the bass drum are often disappointed by the added mass on the head, which shortens the throw of the beater.  The bass drum pedal is hitting an object in front of the head, creating an odd feel for those already accustomed to playing a standard bass drum.  Instead of using a mute, the beater can simply be switched out. 

The Tama Soft Sound Beater has a large, eggcrate-style foam beater.  It greatly reduces the volume of the bass drum.  With this beater, there is no need for a mesh head or drum mute. There is also a half-width Soft Sound beater which should work well with double bass drum pedals.

Many people use fleece-covered beaters on standard bass drum heads. These are large, furry beaters which are often used for jazz.  They work well in the practice environment as well.  Vic Firth offers a fleece model in their VicKick series. 

The bass drum may still resonate, even when struck with a fleece or practice beater.  Resonance is often an important quality in an acoustic bass drum sound. However, the apartment dweller may wish to place muffling inside the bass drum to eliminate the resonance (and low-end transference of sound).  This can be done by removing one of the heads, placing foam or a similar material inside the drum, and then reinstalling the head.  The attack of the note will still be heard, but the overall resonance will be greatly diminished.

Snare Drum

The snare is the drum which has the highest tension.  Because of this, drummers will spend countless hours practicing drum rolls and rudiments.  Those looking for an extremely realistic snare drum feel will be interested in the QuietTone pad by Sabian.  It features an actual drum head and metal rim.  It is available in various sizes to match the size of the snare drum (most snares are 14” – some are 13”).  The pad is simply placed on top of the snare drum.  It has rubber feet, allowing the drum’s metal snares to be activated with every hit.  Therefore, the drummer can realistically practice buzz rolls, ruffs, and other rebound intensive techniques. 

Consider a Practice Pad Kit

Buying a drum set is an expense in itself.  Of course, the sound reducing options discussed above will be add to the cost of the set.  Drummers who are just getting started may want to consider a practice pad kit.  DW offers the “Go Anywhere” practice pad set, which consists of four round pads and a bass drum pad – all securely mounted on a sturdy tripod stand.  The drummer simply needs to supply his or her own bass pedal.  It is a very compact option for those with space limitations. 

For an even smaller footprint (and smaller price tag), Drumeo offers the P4 pad, designed by drummer Pat Petrillo.  It features 4 different surfaces built into one 12” pad.  Each surface consists of a slightly different type of rubber, simulating the differing feels of the parts of the drum set.  The pad can sit on a table or be used on a snare drum stand.  The P4 user can tap his or her foot on the floor to simulate the bass drum.  Another option would be a pairing the P4 with a bass drum practice pad (see below).

Bass Drum Practice Pad

Drummers who don’t have a complete practice pad kit can still practice foot technique using a bass drum practice pad.  Evans, Gibraltar, DW, Meinl, and Pearl offer these specialty pads.  The drummer simply attaches his or her pedal to the pad, resulting in a realistic bass drum feel at a much lower volume. 

Low-tech (and Low-Dollar) Options

While the above options are easy and effective, there are other solutions that can be employed. These will often work as temporary solution while one is examining all the options.

Towels over the drums – Towels may be placed over the drums to reduce the volume. This option is louder than mutes, and definitely louder than mesh heads. Since the towels are simply draped over the drums, they may slip off. 

Towels over cymbals – A small hole can be cut in the center of the towel.  It is then placed over the cymbal, and secured with the cymbal stand’s wing nut. A clothespin style clip may be used to keep it from bunching up or slipping off to one side.

Use brushes – Drum brushes can be an effective alternative to drumsticks.  Drum brushes can be used on an acoustic drum set without any other dampening devices.  While brushes do not have the rebound that sticks have, they can be used for practicing coordination exercises.  Drummers can also experiment with brush-specific techniques, such as sweeps. 

Other implements, such as Vic Firth Rutes, can reduce the volume of acoustic drums.  Even these implements can be loud when played too forcefully.

Get in on the Ground Floor

Sound is created by vibrations – aka soundwaves.  Anyone who has lived in an apartment has heard their upstairs neighbor walking back and forth.  Foot pedals can cause similar vibrations as that heavy-footed neighbor.  We can muffle the drums, but the vibrations of our movements (especially foot pedal movements) can carry through the floor.  Luckily, drummers who live on the ground floor do not have to worry about this aspect of sound control. 

For those who live in townhomes, the bottom floor would be a great place to set up the drum kit.  A basement would be ideal, especially if it is climate controlled.

For drummers who live on the upper floors, there is no need to move to another apartment.  Some ingenuity may be required to minimize sound transmission from the pedals.  Some drummers will use interlocking foam mats (the kind used for kids’ playrooms).  People have even cut tennis balls in half and made risers for the drum set to sit on. 

What About Soundproofing?

Can an apartment be soundproofed?  An apartment can be soundproofed, but not without an extensive amount of time and money.  The best solution would be to build a room within a room.  The new floor would also need to be floated, or decoupled from the main floor, to avoid transference of vibrations.  Mass would need to be added to the floor, walls, and ceilings in the form of special noise-reducing drywall and/or soundproof insulation.  Completely soundproofing a room in this fashion may go against the terms of the rental agreement.  It is also very expensive, and not easily disassembled should one need to move.

Sound Treatment vs Soundproofing

Many people confuse sound treatment materials with soundproofing materials.  Drummers often ask, “What about those eggshell-style panels?”  It is a common misconception that those panels are for soundproofing. In fact, they are for “in room” sound treatment.  Simply put, they reduce the echo in the room. This manner of sound treatment is highly effective in very live (or echoey) rooms.  Those with hardwood floors should also consider utilizing throw rugs to treat the echo.

Sound treatment panels are also available.  They obtain a similar result to eggcrate, while being more visually pleasing.  They are available I choice of sizes and colors.  Again, these will not soundproof the room, but eliminate the excess resonance – making your room sound less noise and more music.  These panels can be purchased online.  It is also very common DIY (do-it-yourself) project. 

What can I do to limit the amount of sound transmission into my neighbor’s apartment?

Be a courteous neighbor

Know when to stop for the night – Although the volume is reduced, you would not want to practice at any time when it would not be appropriate to play a television or radio at a volume that could be heard when others are sleeping.

Talk to your neighbors – Ask them if they can hear the sound coming from your apartment.  If you make any changes to lessen the sound transmission, be sure to inquire about the effectiveness. They will appreciate the fact that you are concerned about their feelings.

Relocate – To Another Room

If your drum set is above a neighbor’s noise-sensitive room (such as a child’s bedroom), you may want to consider moving your drums to another room.  That way, your practice time doesn’t have to end early.

Protect Your Security Deposit

Drum pedals often have oils or other lubricants which aid the movement of the parts.  These oils can work their way down and stain the surface underneath.  If those stains cannot be removed easily, it may result in the loss of one’s security depot. 

Some bass drum pedals have spikes to stop the bass drum from moving forward.  These usually will not rip the carpet, but that it a chance that many drummers would not want to take.

A simple remedy for avoiding both stains and holes in the apartment’s carpet is to use a throw rug or carpet remnant underneath the set. 

Find a Place to Practice at Full Volume

Drum mutes and mesh heads will allow one to practice, however the feel and response will be different than an acoustic drumhead.  Therefore, there are times when the drummer will want to practice at full volume. Since the apartment is usually not an option, other possibilities may need to be explored.

Many drummers practice at their church or place of worship.  Churches usually have drum sets for their worship team.  Sometimes they even have a second drum set for the youth members, who often have their own ensembles.  The drummer can offer to fill in with the church band in exchange for use of the drum set. 

There are rehearsal facilities for bands in many cities.  Some are empty rooms where bands supply their own equipment.  Others provide a drum set and sound system.  Drummers will often rent out the facility for personal practice time.

Where there’s a will there’s a way.  A solution can be found to just about any problem.  I have a student who spoke to a local music store. They agreed to let him rent out one of the lesson rooms when it was not booked for lessons. 

Conclusion

Just like many piano students start on an electric keyboard (not a grand piano), many drummers start with a practice pad and a pair of sticks.  While the products mentioned in this article make it easier to practice, it is not the equipment that makes someone a good drummer.  It is the hours of practice on the instrument (or drum pads) that really makes the difference!

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