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Drum Heads

The drumhead is one of the major factors in the sound of a drum; It is the tone generator, and it has a major impact on the timbre, attack, and sustain of the drum.

There are three primary factors that affect the sound of a drumhead:

  • Film,
  • Applications, and
  • Configuration.

Film -

The material the head is made from is probably the biggest contributor.

Calfskin- Calf was the original material, and it produces a warm, dark sound. The problem is that it is difficult to keep in tune, as it is effected by humidity and temperature changes. It is still used today in Concert Bass Drums, Timpani, Tambourines, and by some jazz drumset players.

Mylar- The original "all weather" film was first developed in the 1950’s by the Evans company, and popularized by Remo. It is by far the most common material today, and is used in every venue for nearly every application in percussion. The color of the Mylar film also affects the sound.

White (smooth)- was the original film. It produces as clean, attack-heavy sound.

Clear- is the most common today. Many drummers prefer it for its cosmetics. Produced a midrange sound, which some feel is "harsh" or "crisp".

Black- Produces more highs, more of a "boingy" sound.

Other transparent colors- Generally produce similar sound to clear films. These were more prominent a few years ago.

Kevlar- Originally used in making bullet-proof vests, Kevlar was developed as a drumhead material to combat the rough wear that drum corps were putting Mylar heads through. As it is bullet-proof, the players could not dent or tear it, and therefore it made for excellent durability. Some drumset players have used it on full kits, and some on snares, but it is generally not considered a good all purpose choice for two reasons. Due to its extreme durability and tensile strength, it has a huge amount of rebound, and if not controlled properly with correct technique, Kevlar heads can be a killer on hands. Tendonitis and Carpal Tunnel Syndrome are by-products of extended use. Additionally, it doesn’t have a very resonant or tonal sound, so Kevlar is usually avoided for instruments other than snare drums.

 

Applications

Things applied to the head alter its sound

Coating is the most common application. It is a fine material sprayed onto the head to simulate (somewhat) the feel of calf for brushes to have something to grab onto. Coating warms the sound up a bit, and takes away some of the high end harshness and overtones. Most players use coated snare drum batter (top, beating side) heads. Many also use coated heads as batters on toms and bass drums. They can be used as resonant (bottom, non-played side) heads as well, but not as frequently. White coating is most common, but at least one company makes black coating (Aquarian’s DeJohnette Series)

Dots are also frequently used. They consist of an extra piece of Mylar stuck in a circle (4"-10" are most common) on the center of the head. They mute some overtones, and make a more fundamental-heavy sound. However, they also can make toms sound "boingy" due to the thickness of the head with the dot. Many players use a head with dot on the underside on their snare drum. This so that they can enjoy the benefits of the dotted head, without their brushes getting stuck on the added piece of Mylar.

Underlays are strips of Mylar bonded at the collar on the underside of the head, usually about 1-2" thick, which are much like a second ply with the center cut out. They muffle high overtones, and control some resonance. One company (Evans EQ series) makes a bass drum head with an underlay, and a second removable ring which sits between the head and the underlay. This allows the player to have more control over the amount of muffling s/he wants. (Author’s note: I often wonder why companies don’t make head with underlays on top…overlays?? With the extra Mylar on the bottom, the actual head does not touch the drum’s bearing edge, which I do not appreciate -DR)

Configuration

Plies and ply thickness- how thick is the head, and how is it configured?

The thickness of the ply affects the fundamental note, sustain, amount of attack, and durability. A thick (one ply) head has a higher fundamental tuning range, less sustain, and more attack than a thinner head. However, it will be more resistant to denting than a thin head.

The number of plies affects sensitivity, sustain, and durability. A single ply head has more sensitivity, more sustain, but less durability than a two ply head. Many Kevlar heads actually have a Mylar ply on top, and some have on underneath, so they can be considered three ply. Another advantage of two plies is that things can be inserted between the plies for muffling/tone control. These are the commonly found heads with insertions.

Remo Pinstripes- have an epoxy ring bonded between the two plies at the edge to kill some overtones, and give a "wet" sound.

Evans Hydraulics- have oil between the two plies for extreme muffling. They produce a severely dry sound.

Common head examples/selection chart:

Most percussionists and salesmen are familiar with these names, and they are a good starting point. While we acknowledge that other companies make wonderful products, we have used Remo as an example.

Remo has universal names given to their heads, regardless of series, finish, etc.

  • -M5 or Thin, an extremely thin one ply head
  • -Diplomat, an thin one ply head
  • -Ambassador, a medium weight, one ply head
  • -Emperor, a two ply medium-thick head
  • -Pinstripe, two diplomat-weight plies with an epoxy muffling ring between the plies.
  • -Heavy, a thick single ply head
  • -Extra Heavy, a very thick single ply head
  • -Super, the thickest single ply on the market

 

Series :

Weather King: available in M5, Diplomat, Ambassador, Emperor, and Pinstripe weights, on clear or smooth white films, and with or without coating. This was the original line, simple Mylar. Ambassadors and Pinstripes also available on Black film, and Ambassadors are available with dots as the "Controlled Sound" (C.S.) series.

Fiberskyn 3 : available in FT (Fiberskyn Thin), FD Fiberskyn Diplomat), FA, F1 Heavy, F1 Extra Heavy, and F1 Super. Clear film with Fiberskyn coating, which was designed to simulate the feel and sound of calf.

Renaissance : a new film, designed to be the closest to calf in feel and sound. Available in RT, RD, RA, and R1 weights.

PowerStroke 3 : Head with an underlay. Available in bass drum and snare drum sizes in Fiberskyn 3 or Renaissance, or any size in Weather King ambassador weight.

Falams : Kevlar with Mylar plies top and bottom. Available with white, clear, or black Mylar film (the natural color is yellow, which shows in the clear heads), with or without a dot, and coated or uncoated.

Sample head set-ups:

General purpose, beginner (Medium tunings, good durability)

  • Tom batters- coated emperors
  • Tom resonants- clear ambassadors
  • Bass Drum batter- PowerStroke 3 Coated
  • Bass Drum resonant- PowerStroke 3 Ebony (with hole pre-cut)
  • Snare Drum batter- coated CS (reverse dot)
  • Snare Drum snare side- ambassador snare

Rock (Low, wet tunings)

  • Tom batters- clear Pinstripes
  • Tom resonants- clear ambassadors
  • Bass Drum Batter- clear pinstripe
  • Bass Drum resonant- PowerStroke 3 Ebony
  • Snare Drum batter- coated Pinstripe
  • Snare Drum snare side- ambassador snare

Fusion (Medium tunings, good cut, clarity)

  • Tom batters- coated/clear ambassadors
  • Tom resonants- clear ambassadors
  • Bass Drum Batter- PowerStroke 3 Renaissance
  • Bass Drum Front- Ambassador (clear/white/black/coated)
  • Snare Drum Batter- Fiberskyn 3 PowerStroke 3 FD
  • Snare Drum snare side- diplomat snare

Acoustic Jazz (High tunings, cut, separation)

  • Tom batters- Fiberskyn 3 FD
  • Tom resonants- Fiberskyn 3 FT
  • Bass Drum batter- Fiberskyn 3 FA
  • Bass Drum Front- Ambassador (Fiberskyn/coated/clear/white/black)
  • Snare Drum batter- coated ambassador
  • Snare Drum snare side- ambassador snare

 

Questions:

 

 

Q: What’s the best head/what should I use?

 

A: We can all make suggestions based on experience, but there’s no best, and the real only way to find out is to try it for yourself. Every head will sound different on YOUR drums, played by YOU. Coated ambassadors may sound great on my birch Premier Genista toms, but horrible on somebody else’s fiberglass Ludwig Vistalites! If you need help making a decision on what to try, be sure to include:

  • -what type of drums you’re playing
  • -what sizes (depth in inches x head diameter in inches, e.g. 8x12 tom)
  • -what style(s) of music
  • -what sticks
  • -any other pertinent information (e.g. "I’ve tried clear pinstripes before, but I think they’re too muddy")

 

Q: What head should I use on the bottom of my drums. I’m using x heads on top.

 

A: In most situations, you’ll want a medium to thin single ply head on the bottom. The function of a resonating head (you guessed it) it to resonate! So putting a pinstripe or hydraulic on the bottom would probably not be the best idea (unless that’s the sound you’re going for. In which case, go for it!). You don’t want the difference between the top and bottom heads to be too drastic. For example, a diplomat under a pinstripe might not be a great idea. An ambassador would be a better choice. You can match heads (ambassador/ambassador) if they’re single ply. Otherwise, an ambassador is a good choice.

Recommended head combinations:

Batter   Resonant
Pinstripe   Ambassador
Emperor   Ambassador/Diplomat
Ambassador   Ambassador/Diplomat
Diplomat   Diplomat/M5

 

Q: What should I use on the bottom of my snare drum (snare side)?

 

A: Snare drums need extremely thin heads on the bottom. For this purpose, head companies make heads expressly for this purpose. When you change heads, make sure you put a head marked "Snare side" on the bottom. Remo calls them "Ambassador Snare", "Diplomat Snare", etc. A thicker head produces less snare response and more tone.

 

Q: When should I change heads?

 

A: When they wear out beyond the point of functionality. What happens is once you put the new head on, and start playing, the plastic (or other material) begins to wear out. You begin to lose resonance and tuning range. The heads get flatter and flatter sounding. When you can’t stand the quality of sound anymore, it’s time to change. Some players change heads every show, some every ten years. It all depends on how hard you hit, how you hit, and what kind of heads you’re playing. If you’re breaking or denting heads, then there’s something wrong with your technique, or you need thicker heads.

 

Q: How do I get more attack (click) out of my bass drum?

 

A: Impact patches are small patches that attach to your batter head with adhesive at the impact point. Some companies make them out of Mylar, some from Kevlar, some from other materials. Do it yourself-ers have had success with pieces of old heads taped on, moleskin (Dr. Scholls), leather, metal disks, coffee can lids, etc. If you tape anything onto your head, be sure to cut the center out of the tape. If your bass drum beater is hitting the tape, it will heat up and melt the tape, and eventually your head!





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