Some Really Geeky Stuff About Drumheads...

Can't I just use the heads that came with my kit? Well maybe... but the drumhead, perhaps more than any other component, has a profound effect on the way that a drum sounds. As you'll discover in the next lesson, how we tune the drumheads once they're on the drum, will ultimately determine the sound we get, but before we even get to that stage we have to choose which drumheads to use. And as you might expect, a bewildering array of different models is available from a number of different manufacturers, so understanding a little bit about your options will help you focus on the model that best suits your needs.

First, a little bit of history...

Until the 1950s, drumheads were made from animal hide, the most common of which for drumset, was calf-skin. And whilst calf-skin heads are prized for their superior articulation, feel and tonal variation they are, by today's standards at least, prohibitively impractical.

However, in the early fifties a company called Du Pont invented a polyester film called Mylar. Although ostensibly invented for military applications, Mylar, with it's durability and resilience, made the production of viable synthetic drumheads a possibility for the first time. Unlike calf skin heads, synthetic heads had the advantage of being extremely resistant to changes in temperature and humidity, as well as possessing an extremely wide dynamic range.

One of the first people to realise the value of Mylar's properties for use in manufacturing drumheads was Marion 'Chick' Evans, founder of the Evans company. Other companies such as Ludwig and Premier were also both very quick to see the potential but it was Remo, the company formed by drummer, Remo Belli and chemist, Sam Muchnick, that emerged as the market leader when it began production of its Weather King series of drumheads in 1957.

A few technical issues affected early models but by the beginning of the 1960s these had been sufficiently overcome that swathes of drummers began switching to plastic heads. As a consequence, over the years calf skin heads have become a highly specialised requirement that is the preserve of a small number of traditionalists and vintage drum collectors.

Today, there are several major drumhead manufacturers that offer drumheads for every conceivable musical situation.

So what are the options?

In spite of the dizzying array of options available, most drumheads are simply individual manufacturer's variations of some pretty standard design features, which if understood can make the process of choosing the most suitable heads much more straight-forward.

Ply Thickness
As we know, modern drumheads are made of plastic film. The thickness, or gauge of this film has a big effect on the weight, and therefore sound of the head. Thicker plies vibrate more slowly so all other things being equal, a heavier head will produce a sound with a lower pitch, shorter sustain, darker tone, and more focused articulation than a lighter head. However, heavier heads also require more force to make them vibrate, so have a shorter projection and are less responsive and than lighter ones.

The thickness of plies is expressed in mils where one mil is equal to a 1/1000 of an inch. To give you an idea, a good general purpose, medium weight head such as a Remo Ambassador, has a ply thickness of 10 mil; a Remo Diplomat, which would be regarded as a light weight head, has a ply thickness of 7.5 mil. Resonant heads, which are fitted to the bottom of the drum and are not struck with the stick, are usually very light and can have a ply thickness of as little as 2 or 3 mil.

Number of Plies
When it comes to producing heavy drumheads, rather than use a very thick single ply, manufacturers tend to use not one, but two plies of film. The classic example of a double-ply head would be a Remo Emperor which consists of two plies of 7 mil each.

As you might expect, double-ply heads produce a sound with all of the characteristics that one would expect from a heavy head: a lower pitch, shorter sustain, darker tone, shorter projection and more focused articulation.

Playing Surface
Basically, there are two choices here: clear or coated. Coated heads have a roughly textured surface, the most obvious advantage of which is that they can be played with brushes. However, the application of the coating, which invariably adds mass and thickness to the head, has a subtle but nevertheless perceptible effect on the sound. Other things being equal, a coated head will produce a lower, darker sound with less sustain and projection than a clear one. In my experience, coated heads create a sound with a sharper attack than clear heads, as the sound of the stick striking the coarse surface of the head creates a very subtle but perceptible 'scratchy' sound.

Dampening Rings
Some head designs feature an ring of additional material around the circumference of the drum, under the top ply. This has the effect of shortening sustain, reducing overtones and thereby emphasising the drum's fundamental pitch. The classic example of this design is Remo's Pinstripe model which is a double-ply head with a ring of adhesive in between the plies around the perimeter of the head. Other models feature a dampening ring made of the same plastic film as the head itself, whilst some bass drum heads feature dampening rings made of felt or foam.

Reinforcement Dots
Some head designs feature a small plastic disc, a few inches in diameter, stuck to the centre of the head. Most often this disc (or dot) is made of the same film as the head itself and, as the dot reinforces the head at the centre, it has the effect of making the head more durable and, as the dot adds mass to the head, it slows vibrations therefore emphasising the mid and lower frequencies. Most commonly, the dot is stuck to the top of the head although some manufacturers, such as Aquarian, produce models with the reinforcement dot under the top ply.

Another couple of features designed to dampen the head, but which at present are only offered on models produced by Evans, are hydraulic heads and vented heads.

Hydraulics are double-ply heads with a film of oil between the two plies. The effect is to attenuate all upper frequencies, producing a sound that is short, dry and focused.

Vented heads feature small holes around the perimeter of the head, the effect of which is to reduce resonance, neutralising upper harmonics in a natural way that doesn't unnecessarily affect the response or feel of the head.

Vintage Heads
As we've discussed, although many drummers favour the unique sonic characteristics of calf skin heads, they are impractical and relatively costly. Consequently, most manufacturers offer a range of 'vintage' sounding plastic heads, designed to reproduce the characteristics of calfskin. Aquarian's Vintage Series are a great example.

Now that we understand a little bit about choosing the best drumhead for the job, in the next lesson let's take a look at tuning.