Drum heads are a significant part of the sound we produce on the drum kit. Often their role in the sound versus the actual drum shell is much greater than many people think. Of course the heads were previously called skins and were actually calf skins which fluctuated in temperature and atmospheric changes.
Since the 1950s we have enjoyed the relative ease of Mylar heads and these synthetic drum head manufacturers are constantly pushing the boundaries and experimenting with new concepts. To read more on this drum head development, check out THE DRUM: A HISTORY.
But beneath all these confusing lines of drumheads, there are still just a few core models that most drummers use and which create certain sounds to suit certain musical engagements.
Here we will look at an overview of each.
When choosing your heads, often a key factor will be the genre. If you are in a thrash metal band, thin heads are not going to last long. If you are in a jazz trio, very thick, unresponsive heads will not be sensitive enough for your subtle, dynamic playing.
Your sound preference is also a huge consideration. You might like a big slappy, wet late seventies/eighties sound, or a cutting edge, crisp modern sound, or even long for a more traditional calk skin sound. Mylar heads exist to cater for all needs.
The main players in this field are Remo, Evans, Aquarian and Attack. For each head type, you will also find examples from these manufacturers.
These are the thinnest drumheads and are constructed from one ply (layer) of Mylar. This layer is most commonly 7, 7.5 or 10 mil in thickness. Being a single ply and being thinner creates a longer sustain, greater resonance, brighter tone, greater projection and allows more of the natural drum sound to be heard. The extra ‘ring’ from these heads may need to be dampened in certain situations.
These are much more sensitive than thicker heads and also much less durable. Therefore lighter styles such as jazz or acoustic music works well for these. However, they are very versatile and used for many styles. The Remo Ambassador is a long standing industry standard head both live and in the studio.
Examples of single ply heads include: Remo Ambassador, Evans G1, Aquarian Classic Clear, Attack Thin Skin
These consist of two plies (layers) of Mylar which are most commonly 7 mil thick, although some models do mix thicknesses up for different results. Remo’s Vintage Ambassador employs a 7.5 and 7.3 combination, whilst Evans’ black coated Onyx heads utilise two 7.5 mil plies.
Double ply heads are generally warmer, deeper and shorter in sustain. They have less overtones and more defined attack. Although they have a less clear tone, they do have a fatter punch. Along with the thickness comes much greater durability.
So these heads are very well suited to heavy players. Heavy metal, rock and hard hitters in R & B or pop might opt for these.
Examples of double ply heads: Evans G2, Remo Emperor, Attack 2-Ply Medium, Aquarian Super-2
We see many clear heads on the market today but you also see many coated white heads, as well as less common colours such as black. These coatings are sprayed on, and sometimes etched to create a textured surface.
The coating has a very simple job and that is to dampen the head slightly. Whilst non-coated heads are less controlled, brighter, and with more attack; coated heads are warmer with more control.
If this sound doesn’t suit you, consider the clear heads which produce a bright, clear sound. Be mindful that brush work requires the friction of a good coating on the snare drum.
Examples of coated heads: Aquarian Texture Coated, Attack Bozzio 1-Ply Coated, Remo Coated Ambassador, Evans G1 Coated
To tackle the uncontrolled, ringy nature of drums and create greater focus, some drumheads come with dampening solutions attached. This might take the form of external foam rings such as with the Evans E-mad; dots such as the Remo Emporer X which has an extra circle of Mylar on the underside of the middle of the head to increase focus and durability; Oil filled heads such as Evans Hydraulics which gives a wet 1970s sound; or Metallic rings as found on the Evans EC range to control the ring on toms.
Examples of pre-damped drumheads: Evans EC2, Attack No Overtone, Remo Powerstroke 3, Aquarian Studio-X
The resonant head is often overlooked by drummers but it is a very important part of your sound. This head reacts to the blast of air that hits it when you strike the batter head. Because we don’t hit the resonant head, and it simply vibrates in the air, it is much thinner, usually 7 or 10 mils. Snare drum heads can be even thinner as they need to react very sensitively to allow the snares to work.
The thinner the drumhead, the brighter the tone and less sustain you will achieve. These will excite more easily and therefore lose their tuning quicker. Thicker resonant heads produce greater sustain and a deeper tone. You can find coated resonant heads as well and these produce a warmer sound.
Examples of resonant heads include: Attack Extra Thin Snare Side, Remo Hazy Ambassador, Evans EC Resonant, Aquarian Regulator.
There are many heads available to us and that number is growing as innovations find their way to market. There is no substitute for experimenting and trying different combinations that suit your drums, playing style and type of playing conditions. But hopefully this overview can point you in the right direction.
Once you have selected the perfect drumheads for the job, you must now tune it to perfection.