The history of the drumhead has changed little over the years. Thousands of years, actually. The recipe is simple. Find an animal. Kill it. Skin it. Have a nifty barbecue while the skin drys. Next, stretch it over the drum shell and secure it. Bingo! You have a drum to beat.
Then, along came the 20th Century. Suddenly, drummers had an entire set, or “kit” to bang. Snares, toms, assorted the cymbals and the like. The problem was, going from venue to venue the heads were affected by the changes in temperature and humidity. Not good.
Fortunately, the 1950s changed the temperature quandary. Coming to the rescue, DuPont
trademarked a new product – Mylar polyester film. Mylar caught on quick and was used in scores of products. One was drumheads.
With drumheads came a myriad of types for various purposes. In this post we’ll be looking at some popular ones. It should be noted while there aren’t any set-in-stone rules about which type to use for a genre of music, heads do offer sonic qualities and performance characteristics. Drumhead types include:
- Single Ply
- Double Ply
- Specialty Heads
Single ply head are the most common. Made from a single sheet of Mylar, they typically come in 7, 7.5 and 10 mil. The most commonly used drumhead is the single ply. These heads are made from a single sheet of Mylar and usually come in thicknesses of 7, 7.5, and 10 mil thicknesses. There are a few 12 mil that have crept in to the recent market. A thinner head produces brightness and overtones while sustain decreases.
While single-play are sensitive, they also provide the least amount of durability. So, when one thinks single-ply, think jazz, light rock (Carole King, Cat Stevens, The Hollies, James Taylor and Bread.)
Typically, double-play heads consist of two-layer plies of 7 mil each. Some utilize different thicknesses for to achieve distinct tones.
In general, double-ply heads have a deeper and more controlled sound with fewer overtones. Plus, they provide the drummer with 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.
Heads can be sprayed with a translucent coating, or sprayed until coated solid black or white, while others are etched to create a textured surface.
A science lesson is in order. Dampening occurs when you add more mass to a surface that supposed to vibrate. 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.
Muffling helps to eliminate unwanted tone. Think duct tape and an assortment of other materials. Often, pre-muffled heads are used on bass drums.
Manufacturers jumped on the idea and began producing 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. If you’re ever looking for a damp 70s style sound, try Evans’ 2-ply, oil-filled Hydraulic head.
Specialty heads are designed for a specific purpose and manufacturers offer its own line (or lines). The center-dot head is one of the more common specialty models. These heads have more durability and produce a more focused tone than their standard heads.
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.
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.
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.
Paradiddles offers a variety of heads from Remo, DW Drums and Evans. Here’s a link to search results for drum heads on the site. We’re sure you’ll find just what you need.