by Fran Azzarto
Drumheads (or “skins,” as they’re sometimes called) have a history as old as the drum itself, although for thousands of years that history went pretty much unchanged. Take an animal hide, dry it, stretch it over the shell, secure the hide, and you have a drum. This worked fine until the early twentieth century, when the drumset came into vogue and offered drummers the ability to use a complete setup of multiple pieces 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. The animal hide would shrink if it got cold, and it would loosen up in the heat. And playing on a drum in the rain was practically impossible. In the early 1950s everything changed. The DuPont company of Delaware trademarked a new product called Mylar polyester film. According to our sources, one of the many original possible applications for Mylar was a drumhead.
In this article, we are going to take a look at some of the different types of drumheads on the market and how they affect the sound of your drums. Of course, there are no hard-and-fast rules about which heads to play for any type of music, but there are certain sonic qualities, as well as performance characteristics, of the various types of drumheads that you can reference as you figure out what would work best for your needs.
The most commonly used drumhead 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. (One mil equals one-thousandth of an inch.) The thinner the head, the more overtones and high-end ring—i.e., brightness—will be heard, while the head’s sustain will decrease. Single-ply heads are generally quite sensitive, but they’re the least durable of all batter heads. They are ideal for lighter playing styles (jazz, light rock), but they can also produce a big, boomy sound for louder and more ambient situations.
Single-ply examples: Remo Ambassador, Evans G1, Aquarian Classic Clear, Attack Thin Skin
Most double-ply heads consist of two layered 7 mil plies, but some models are made with different thicknesses to produce distinct tones (for instance, 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). 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. Durability is also increased. 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.
Double-ply examples: Evans G2, Remo Emperor, Attack 2-Ply Medium, Aquarian Super-2
There are many different types of coatings used on drumheads. Some models are sprayed with a translucent coating, some are sprayed until coated solid black or white, and some are etched to create a textured surface.
Simple physics applies here. 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 examples: Aquarian Texture Coated, Attack Bozzio 1-Ply Coated, Remo Coated Ambassador, Evans G1 Coated
We’ve all seen batter heads covered in duct tape and other substances in order to muffle unwanted overtones. To help drummers achieve this effect without additional treatment, many drumhead manufacturers have produced models that have varying degrees 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.
Pre-muffled examples: Attack No Overtone, Evans EC2, Remo Powerstroke 3, Aquarian Studio-X
Every manufacturer offers its own line (or lines) of specialty heads, and each one is designed to serve a specific musical purpose. The center-dot head is one of the more common specialty models. These heads produce a more focused tonality than their standard clear or coated counterparts, and they have additional durability.
Specialty heads include those made with Kevlar (or other 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 tunings 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 similar construction.
Let’s not forget about the original specialty head: calfskin. These heads sound dark and warm with a big, chubby attack. As previously mentioned, 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.
Specialty examples: Aquarian Hi-Energy, Remo CS Black Dot, Attack Bobby Rondinelli signature, Evans Hybrid, Stern Tanning and Earthtone (calfskin)
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 and less energy equals less sustain.) Also, 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.
Resonant examples: Evans EC Resonant, Remo Hazy Ambassador, Aquarian Regulator, Attack Extra Thin Snare Side
The bottom line when it comes to picking out new drumheads is to consider what sound you’re looking for and what type of music you play. A heavy hitter 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. The options are out there; you just have to ask yourself a few questions in order to “head” in the right direction.
Originally published in the November/December 2010 issue of Drum Business.