Updated: Apr 11, 2020
No, drums often don't sound like they do on your favorite records in real life. There's a lot of processing going on to achieve those sounds, but there are still some things you can do with your drums that can help.
Start by knowing the overall tone you want. Is it bright and resonant? Warm and punchy? Low and thuddy? Once you know that, be sure your kit has the right heads on it. And if they're not in really good shape, it's time to fork over for some new ones.
For bright and resonant, I recommend coated Ambassadors or G1s. For warm and punchy, it's coated Emperors or G2s. Looking for something in between? Clear Emperors or G2s fit that bill. Now for that low and thuddy tone. If you still want just a hint of brightness and clarity, Remo Pinstripes are the way to go, and in most cases I wouldn't go any lower or thuddier than this. But for the ultimate low, thuddy tone, Evans Hydraulics or Ebony Pinstripes will bring out the Dark Side of any kit.
And don't forget your resonant heads. Clear single-ply heads like Remo Ambassadors or Evans G1s are the standard, and for good reason. But coated versions of these heads on the bottom will help warm up your sound a bit more. And sometimes, I'll even go with a 2-ply head on the bottoms of floor toms—but only if there's a 2-ply head on top (you never want your bottom head to be thicker than your top head).
Once you have the right heads in place, now it's time to get them in tune. First, get each head in tune with itself. In other words, make sure the tension at each lug is even all the way around. The easiest way to do that is to place the drum on a carpeted floor and tap about 1-2" from each lug. The carpeting completely mutes whichever head is facing down, so you'll only hear the head you're tapping. Furthermore, you'll only hear the higher harmonics, which makes it easier to determine relative pitch between lugs. Keep adjusting little by little until they're all at the same pitch, then do that for each head.
Once your heads are in tune with themselves, there are a few different methods for tuning top vs. bottom heads. Most of the time, I'll tune the top heads at a medium to medium-low tension, then tune the bottom heads about a third higher. That produces a bright, articulate sound, no matter which heads you're using. The exact ratio between heads will vary (for example, your lowest floor tom may only have the bottom head 1 note above the top head instead of a third higher). You'll have to experiment for each drum.
Another way to tune is to have the bottom head lower in pitch compared to the top head. That produces a downward pitch bend that may or may not be desirable. I normally don't tune top and bottom to the same pitch, but if you're using the exact same heads on top and bottom (say a coated Ambassador), then this is something you can try.
In the end, you'll have to play around to find the sound that works for you. And do that BEFORE coming to the studio. Because if your drums sound great to begin with, it makes our job that much easier to get the end result you're looking for.