There are many things that can affect drum tone. The two most influential parts is the what drum’s shells are made of and the types of heads used on those shells. Similar to guitars tone, string type and wood of the guitar, drums behave in a like manner. The type of wood and the right head provide a combination of sound to create a Drumset’s tone. Depending on your choice of set, cymbals and heads, these all directly aid in your tone, especially on the genre of music you work in. But for the sake of reporting one portion on Drumset tone, today we will focus on drum heads
In the beginning…
Drum heads or skins as they’re sometimes called today are as old as the drum itself, even though they have been pretty much unchanged for thousands of years. Craftsmen took an animal hide, dried it, stretched it over the shell, secured the hide, and made the drum with a specific purpose in mind (usually ritual or war drums). This worked fine until the early 20th century, when the Drumset came into existence and offered drummers the ability to use a complete setup in a variety of situations, indoors and out. Every time a drummer went from playing in a hot club to an outdoor setting, the skins were affected by the change in temperature and did not handle the environments at all. In the early 1950s everything changed. The company DuPont trademarked a new product called Mylar polyester film. According to our sources, one of the many original possible applications for Mylar was a drum head.
Today we take a look at some of the different types of drum heads on the market and how they affect the sound of your drums. There is no right or wrong choice. Only there are certain sonic qualities, as well as performance characteristics, of the various types of drum heads that you can reference as you figure out what would work best for your needs.
The most commonly used head is the single ply. These heads are made from a single sheet of Mylar and usually come in 7, 7.5, and 10 mil thicknesses, with a few 12 mil models entering the market in recent years. (1 mil = 1/1000th of an inch.)
Thinner heads have more overtones and brightness while the head’s sustain decreases. Single-ply heads are generally quite sensitive dynamically, but they’re the least durable of all batter heads. They are ideal for softer styles such as jazz, light rock. They can also produce a big, boomy sound for louder and more ambient situations.
Most double-ply heads consist of two layered 7 mil plies, but some models are made with different thicknesses to produce distinct tones like Remo’s 7.5/3 mil Vintage Ambassador and twin 7.5 mil Vintage Emperor, Evans’ twin 7.5 mil black-coated Onyx, and Aquarian’s 7/5 mil Super-2. Again it is mostly preference what will sound great to you.
In general, double-ply heads have a deeper and more controlled sound with fewer overtones, a more defined attack, a shorter sustain, and a fatter punch than single-ply heads with increased durability. Double-ply heads are preferred in heavier, louder musical styles, and their pronounced attack makes them a great choice for players needing a more articulate sound, like what you often hear in extreme metal, fusion, and R&B.
There are many different types of coated drum heads. Some are sprayed with a translucent coating, some are sprayed until coated solid black or white. Some even have textured surfaces.
If you add more mass to something that’s supposed to vibrate, a dampening effect occurs. Non-coated heads will produce a brighter, less controlled sound, and they will have more attack. Coated heads have a warmer tone when compared side by side with non-coated heads, even when tuned to the exact same pitch. Coated snare heads are great for brush work or any other unique textured sounds. I personally play with coated Aquarian G1’s on Maple Tom Shells. The tone is warm and robust especially in the lower tuning.
We’ve all seen batter heads covered with duct tape and other “muffling” devices in order to muffle unwanted overtones. To help drummers achieve this without additional treatment, many drum head manufacturers have produced heads that have varying ways of built-in muffling. The main purpose of these heads is to eliminate overtones and focus the overall tone of the drum. The most commonly used methods for pre-muffling a head include adding a layer of Mylar or other material to the top or underside of the outer edge. There’s also Evans’ 2-ply, oil-filled Hydraulic head, which produces the ubiquitous damp ’70s drum sound.
The most commonly used application of a pre-muffled head is on the bass drum. My personal favorite is the Aquarian Super Kick available in single or 2 ply. Either or is a great choice for most genres.
Every manufacturer offers its own lines of specialty heads, and each is designed to serve a specific musical purpose. The center-dot head is one of the most common specialty models. These heads produce a more focused tonality than their standard clear or coated counterparts, and have additional durability.
Specialty heads include those made with Kevlar (or other super strong Aramid fibers) and those featuring pinhole vents around the edge. Kevlar heads are the strongest models on the market making them ideal for extreme hard-hitting playing situations, like heavy metal and drum corps. They can also handle extremely tight tuning and are good choices for players looking to replicate more “synthetic” drum tones.
The downside of Kevlar heads is that they produce a very one-dimensional sound. While you can adjust the overall pitch via tuning, Kevlar heads always have a dry sound with almost no sustain.
Vented heads feature little holes around the edge. These holes allow for the release of the air that’s produced by striking the drum, resulting in a sound that has a bit more attack and projection than that of a standard head of with similar build.
Calfskin…the original specialty head. These heads sound dark and warm with a big, fat attack. The problem with calfskin heads is that their tone and tuning are greatly affected by changing weather conditions. There are various versions of this type of head, made with synthetic materials that have a similar look to real calfskin but won’t be affected as much by climate changes.
The main purpose of a resonant head is to react to the moving air column that’s set into motion when the batter head is struck. The two most common thicknesses for resonant tom heads are 7 and 10 mil. Bottom snare heads are often very thin, ranging from 2 to 5 mil.
The thicker the resonant head, the more sustain and the deeper the tone. Thinner resonant heads have less sustain and a brighter tone. (Less mass + less energy = less sustain) Additionally, thin resonant heads will need more tuning maintenance because they vibrate more rapidly and are less rigid than thicker versions. If you use a coated resonant head, the overall tone warms up significantly. Some resonant heads are also available with a dampening ring such as Evans’ EC Resonant, which helps focus the overall tone and increase the lower overtones.
When it comes to picking out new drum heads is to consider what sound you’re looking for and what type of music you play. A harder player may need a double-ply head for extra durability, while a drummer with a lighter touch could get plenty of life out of single-ply models. Also, someone looking for an open, bright sound should start with a non-coated single-ply head, while players preferring a fat, dark sound may need a double-ply or pre-muffled version. There are many options are out there so go and try a few different combinations to find your true sound. Although we are not stocking drum heads at Ant Hill Music, be sure to check our inventory of Drum and percussion accessories. As always play well and play on!