While drums have existed since the dawn of civilization, it wasn’t until the 1950s, after the chemical corporation DuPont trademarked a new polyester film called Mylar, that drummers were presented with more ways to tailor their sounds via their choice of drumheads. (Prior to the invention of the synthetic head, calfskin was the only option.) In this article and subsequent ones in a series, we’re going to survey the various types of plastic-based drumheads available for each component of the kit to help you zero in on which models will get you closest to the sound and aesthetic you’re trying to achieve. We start by focusing on the largest and often most important voice on the drumset: the bass drum.
The most open, resonant, and bright bass drum sounds are achieved with clear single-ply drumheads (Aquarian Classic Clear, Attack 1-Ply Medium, Evans G1, and Remo Ambassador). Most single-ply drumheads are made with one layer of 10 mil film. Clear single-ply heads are great choices if you want a lively, full sound with a lot of ambience, sustain, and overtones, à la modern fusion great Keith Carlock. These heads provide the most versatility when it comes to modifying the resonance, attack, and timbre with tuning and muffling. The legendary drummers Simon Phillips and Dave Weckl also often rely on clear single-ply heads to achieve balanced bass drum sounds with rich overtones and clean attack.
Coated single-ply heads (Aquarian Texture Coated, Attack 1-Ply Medium Coated, Evans UV1 and G1 Coated, and Remo Coated Ambassador) produce slightly warmer and punchier sounds than their clear counterparts, because the coating makes the film vibrate slower due to the additional mass, which results in more emphasis on the fundamental pitch and lower overtones. Coated single-ply bass drum heads are ubiquitous for classic jazz sounds because they can be tuned high to produce a long, round tone that blends seamlessly with toms. A lot of ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s rock, pop, soul, funk, and R&B bass drum sounds were made with coated single-ply heads, whether tuned high and open or low and muffled.
Most double-ply drumheads (Aquarian Response-2, Attack 2-Ply Medium, Evans G2, and Remo Emperor) are made with two plies of 7 mil or 7.5 mil film. More durable than single-ply heads, 2-ply varieties also have denser attack, slightly shorter sustain, and fewer high overtones, while still providing a full, resonant voice. John Bonham’s thunderous bass drum sound was created on a coated 2-ply batter head with a felt strip for muffling. These would be the ideal choices for players who crave the openness and versatility offered by single-ply heads but require more strength and deeper low-end response.
Anatomy of a Drumhead
Each manufacturer has different methods for creating its bass drum heads. But the basic components are consistent, the primary differences being the angle and depth of the collar, the width of the hoop, and the manner in which the film is secured within the hoop.
Two of the earliest examples of drumheads that employ built-in muffling are the Remo Pinstripe and the Evans Hydraulic. Both models were designed to produce a shorter, deeper tone with minimal overtones. The focused-sounding Pinstripe features two plies of 7 mil film with a dampening coating placed between them around the circumference. The Hydraulic gets its trademark deep, fat sound via oil placed between the plies. Either of those heads (or Aquarian’s Performance II) would be ideal for situations calling for a dry, thuddy, ’70s-style kick drum tone.
Another ’70s innovation was the Remo Controlled Sound Black Dot, which is a 10 mil Clear Ambassador with a large 5 mil dot glued to the center. This head was designed to increase durability without deadening the tone too much. A comparable head from Aquarian is the Classic Clear Power Dot.
The most versatile type of pre-muffled bass drum heads are those that make use of a single-ply 10 mil film and a 10 mil inlay ring at the outer edge to subtly dampen high-frequency overtones; models include the Aquarian Force I, Attack No Overtone, Evans EQ4, and Remo Powerstroke 3. These heads are the preferred choice for live and recording drummers of all genres because they provide a great balance of punch, depth, and sustain. They can be played wide open for big, resonant sounds without excessive overtones, or they can be muffled with pads, towels, or pillows to produce tighter, punchier tones. The coated versions have a darker voice with shorter sustain, and models featuring a large center dot provide increased attack. There are also 2-ply versions (Evans EQ3 and Remo Powerstroke P4), which have sharper attack, shorter sustain, more focused low-end tone, and additional durability.
For players who prefer a tight, punchy, and “microphone ready” kick drum sound, but don’t want to use additional muffling, there are several options from which to choose. Aquarian’s Super Kick series features a narrow band of felt installed around the underside edge of the head. These are available in single- and double-ply versions, with or without coating. Aquarian has another series, Impact, that features a wider felt ring for even more overtone control.
Evans’ EMAD series has interchangeable foam rings affixed to the top of the film and is available in single-ply, double-ply (EMAD2), and 12 mil (GMAD) models, as well as with clear, coated, UV coated, and vintage-style Calftone finishes.
Remo’s Powerstroke Pro is similar to the EMAD, except that the foam ring is permanently mounted to the top circumference, while the Powersonic Clear and Coated is a 2-ply head with two bottom-side muffling rings and an optional snap-on damper pad that covers the bottom quarter of the head when installed. While these options provide the least versatility, they’re ideal for getting a deep, dense tone with controlled sustain from any bass drum and with minimal tuning know-how.
To serve drummers desiring the rounder attack, darker sustain, and natural look of calfskin drumheads, Remo created the Fiberskyn in 1975. These heads incorporate a laminate of polyester and fiberglass. The company later developed a treatment process for its Diplomat, Ambassador, and Emperor Mylar-based drumheads to introduce some calfskin-like character, called the Renaissance series. Evans’ synthetic alternative to natural calfskin is the Calftone, and it features a 12 mil Mylar base with an additional layer of materials on top. (If you’re interested in exploring authentic animal-hide drumheads, take a look at, among others, the Earth Tone calfskin series from Gold Tone Music Group and the kangaroo-skin models by Kentville Drums in Sydney, Australia.)
Aquarian utilizes a 7 mil or 10 mil single-ply head with a thicker, yellow-tinted coating to replicate the warm sound and natural look of calfskin. These heads are available with the company’s standard collar (Modern Vintage) or with a slightly larger one (American Vintage) to accommodate older drums with inconsistent diameters. Double-ply versions are also available, with twin layers of 7 mil (Modern Vintage II) or 10 mil film (Deep Vintage).
Aquarian offers a version of each of its calfskin-style models with a floating, vintage-style felt strip affixed to the underside of the head. Similarly, Remo recently developed the Powerstroke Felt Tone Hazy, Coated, and Fiberskyn models, which have a floating felt strip built into the head in addition to the P3 muffling ring. The Evans Calftone comes in pre-muffled EQ4 and EMAD varieties as well.
One of the frequently overlooked yet crucial components of a bass drum’s sound is the type of front head being used. A basic single-ply head (smooth or coated) will provide the most resonance, brightest overtones, and most perceived ambience, depending on how it’s tensioned. A single-ply head with a built-in dampening ring (e.g., Remo Powerstroke 3, Evans EQ3, and Aquarian Regulator) will have a shorter decay, fewer high overtones, and a more focused, booming low end.
A 2-ply resonant (Remo Emperor, Evans G2, etc.) will bridge the gap between a single-ply and a single-ply with a muffling ring. It will have shorter sustain and fewer high overtones than a single-ply, but a more resonant tone than a single-ply with a muffling ring. Because of its mass, a calfskin-style Fiberskyn or Calftone will achieve a similar effect to that of a 2-ply head, but with a bit more warmth. The Aquarian Vintage series and Remo Felt Tones with built-in felt strips will give the drum a rounder, shorter resonance with a balanced frequency response.
Some resonant heads come with precut mic holes, including the Evans EMAD and EQ3 and the Aquarian Ported series. A small, off-center hole will have the least impact on the drum’s resonance, while a larger center hole will mitigate sustain for a punchier sound. Solid resonant heads provide the fullest tones, but they can also give the drum a bouncier feel and will often make miking more difficult. To get a super-punchy and quick old-school, single-headed bass sound, Evans offers a mesh alternative (Retro Screen) that allows all of the air to escape the shell while providing the look of a solid front head.