If you’ve already read our Drumhead Buyer’s Guide and you’re ready to learn more, this article is the logical next step since I’ll be covering drumheads and the various ways in which these help to shape the sound of a drum kit. While it all boils down to simply trying different things, the info in this blog is essential reading for creating your own signature drum sound.
A Bit of Background Info
Back in the day, cows, goats and even lizards have fallen victim to our obsession for making music. The biggest downside to using natural animal skins to make drum heads however is their sensitivity to moisture and changes in temperature. Before the invention of the superior alternative to animal hide, mylar in the 1950s, drummers dreaded playing in warm, humid surroundings. Mylar, a type of polyester created by American chemical company DuPont, turned out to be perfect for making drum heads and, above all, is insensitive to the elements (hence “Weather King”). Soon after, DuPont came up with kevlar which, just like mylar, is suitable for drumheads and can even be combined with a mylar skin to finish shells (e.g. a mylar resonance head combined with a kevlar batter head). Nevertheless, most drumheads are made of mylar.
Different Kinds of Drumheads
Before we dive in a little deeper, let me just say that this blog focusses on drumheads for acoustic drums only. Mesh heads for electronic kits and skins for percussion instruments like djembes, congas and bongos are a different story that deserves a dedicated blog. In general, acoustic drums are equipped with two drumheads: the batter head and the resonant head. Each serves a different purpose – more on that later – and has either a single-ply or a double-ply design and either a clear (transparent) or a coated finish. That alone makes for six ‘considerations’ per shell and we haven’t even gotten to the thickness of the skins yet, which is expressed in mils where one mil equals one thousandth of an inch. Also, unless specifically stated otherwise, it’s perfectly fine to use snare drum heads and tom heads interchangeably.
Mylar and Kevlar
Mylar is an extremely strong material that’s used for making things like building insulation and product packaging, and it even serves a purpose in aerospace engineering. Drumheads made of mylar come in single-ply and double-ply form and generally shape uncoloured sound, meaning that mylar skins sound ‘honest’ and combine with wooden shells for natural tone. As you probably know, kevlar is what bullet-proof vests are made of and, since it’s a little more rigid than mylar, kevlar skins resonate less and offer better tuning stability. With kevlar skins, the wood of the shell leaves a smaller mark on the sound compared to drums fitted with mylar skins. Fun fact: kevlar drumheads are popularly used by marching bands because, just like special marching snare drums, they’re designed to resist extreme levels of tension.
Batter Heads and Resonant Heads
The top head, better known as the batter head, can be a clear or coated, single or double-ply skin. Its job is to offer both attack and tone and, when struck, the resonance causes the air trapped inside the shell to start moving around. Depending on the intensity of your playing style, batter heads need to be replaced somewhat frequently. The bottom head is the resonant head, which makes sure that the air inside the shell ‘bounces’ back up towards the batter head to improve the overall resonance of the drum. The effect that resonant heads produce is especially audible when it comes to toms and floor toms. Just try tweaking the sound of your toms by only tuning the resonant heads and you’ll see what I mean; the results are more noticeable than you might think. In addition, while resonant heads obviously don’t take the same beating as batter heads do, they still need replacing every now and then. In the slow-motion video below, you can clearly see how a resonant head works in relation to a batter head.
The most-used drumheads are clear, single-ply skins. Musically versatile and most sound engineers’ favourite drumheads to work with, Remo’s Ambassador skins are probably the most popular drumheads on the market right now. Barring a few exceptions, single-ply skins usually have a thickness varying between 5 and 10 mil, the rule of thumb being that the thinner the skin, the brighter the sound. At the same time, thinner skins pack more harmonics but less sustain than thicker skins and, as such, can be a little trickier to tune for inexperienced drummers.
Needless to say, double-ply drumheads feature two skins that, apart from a few exceptions, generally have a thickness of 7 mil per skin. This means double-ply drumheads are usually 14 mil thick and come with a wafer thin film of oil in between both layers (Evans call theirs “hydraulic drumheads”). Next to the fact that double-ply skins boast more attack and a warmer, deeper sound with less sustain than single-ply skins, they’re more durable and better suited for louder styles of music. What’s important to know is that when fitting drums with double-layered Remo skins, there’s a thin layer of glue between both layers that needs to be ‘cracked’ by first finger-tightening the tension rods once the head is on before performing CPR on it – of sorts. If it’s your first time breaking in a drumhead, don’t worry about all of those popping and cracking noises that you’ll probably hear – this is normal and needed to help the skin adjust to the size of the shell. Alternatively, you could use a blowdryer to complete this process. Just be very careful if you do.
Clear and Coated Drumheads
The finish plays an important role in shaping the foundation sound of any drumhead. As said, clear heads produce a brighter sound compared to coated heads, which in turn boast increased resonance and enhanced attack. Then again, coated skins are naturally a tad heavier and therefore a little less flexible, but what’s great about them is that the coating also helps dampen the sound, leaving a slightly more focussed tone filled with less harmonics. Among the various coatings, there are smooth, textured and even ‘integrated’ coatings. A nice example of the latter are the Smooth White drumheads. When it comes to coatings, remember that the rougher the coating, the more warmth and in-built dampening you get.
Some skins feature an internal dampening system that filters out the most poignant overtones. In most cases, these skins are easier to tune up than skins that don’t offer any dampening qualities whatsoever. You might’ve noticed that certain tom and snare drumheads also have a small and transparent second ring on the inside, or that some models have a centre dot on one of the sides. Besides serving as an overtone-filter and leaving more focussed sound, integrated dampening adds strength and mass, reducing the resonance as a result. There are even heads available that have a bunch of tiny holes near the edges – something that’s also known to significantly reduce harmonics. If you already have a set of undamped drumheads and want to tone them down a little, you can always grab some dampening rings, damper-pads or, in case of your kick drum: dampening stickers. Improvised solutions involving duct tape and other materials found lying around the house aren’t recommended – sorry!
Playing with Brushes
To get the best sound out of a pair of brushes, it’s vital that you use coated drumheads. This is because brushes require resistance which is something smooth, frictionless skins don’t offer. A textured coating works best here, but remember that fresh skins can sound like your worst nightmare when you’re trying to play a ballad. Played-in skins with a coating that’s starting to fade, on the other hand, do offer accurate control over the volume and allow for subtle playing dynamics, especially on snares and toms. Do bear in mind that ‘external’ dampening rings don’t go too well with brushes, and if you’re using a dotted skin, make sure the dot faces downwards so that it can’t damage your brushes or hinder you from trying to play more dynamically.
Remo vs. Evans
The biggest difference between market leaders Remo and Evans has to do with coatings. You could say that, in general, Remo maintains a ratherish traditional philosophy while Evans prefers to employ more modern techniques. While Remos wear out a little quicker than skins from Evans, they do offer richer and more natural shell-based sound. In turn, drumheads by Evans are easier to tune and shape a unique, though arguably less outspoken sound. Evans-developed coatings are also extremely hard-wearing unless, of course, you’re playing with brushes.
We can only kindly recommend that you try a handful of different drumheads and make sure to experiment with different tuning set-ups while you’re at it. The right drumheads tuned the right way is the key to getting absolutely flawless sound out of your kit. For more information about tuning drum kits, just pop over to our How to Tune Your Drum Kit blog.