Drum heads, aka drumheads or skins, have a huge responsibility on your drum set. Without them, you literally cannot play your drums, so choosing drum heads which are right for your style and drum setup is vital.
With the right heads and tuning, even a dirt cheap drum kit can be made to sound halfway decent. The same goes for a top end kit – you need to put some thought put into the heads you’re planning to put on to make sure it sings in the way that was intended.
If you’ve already had a look at some of the drumheads on offer, you might be a bit overwhelmed with the amount of choices presented. Do you need coated or uncoated heads?
Single or double ply – sounds like toilet paper, doesn’t it? Not to mention different brands selling similar heads, how do you choose? Let’s have a little look at different drumhead types.
|Batter Head vs Resonant Head
There are two heads on each drum. The one on the top that you’re playing is called the batter head, while the one on the bottom is called the resonant head.
The simplest and most common type of head available, single ply heads are made from a single Mylar sheet. They’re typically quite thin at anywhere between 7 to 12 mil (not to be confused with mm, see below).
Thinner single ply heads produce a brighter, more open sound with plenty of overtones, but they don’t have as much sustain as their thicker counterparts.
Single ply heads aren’t as durable as double ply heads and they’re best suited to lighter musical styles such as jazz, but their unique sound is still preferred by some players in all genres.
|Mil vs mm
Not to be confused with a millimeter (mm), a mil is 1 thousandth of an inch, and a standard measurement for plastic sheeting.
For reference, a heavy-duty rubbish bag is at most 6 mils, while a credit card is about 30 mils thick.
A double ply head gives you increased durability and a much more controlled sound with fewer overtones and a shorter sustain compared to a single ply head.
They’re commonly used in heavy hitting musical styles like heavy rock and metal, but the deep and punchy sound, defined attack, and articulation of a double ply head are also enjoyed by fusion and R&B artists.
Typically a double ply head will consist of two 7 mil plies, but some manufacturers mix these up to achieve a specific sound. Some double ply heads offer additional dampening features built into the head to further control overtones.
Some examples include the Remo Pinstripe and Evans EC2 heads. These each produce their own unique tones, so you may need to try several before you find your ideal sound.
Coated heads have a coated layer which comes in varying forms, but they typically muffle the drum’s sound a little compared to an uncoated head.
Coated heads are often found on snare drums and they give that wonderful textured sound when playing with brushes.
When used on toms, coated heads give you a nice warm tone with less attack and reduced overtones. They can also be found on bass drums and even resonant heads, serving the same purpose.
Other Types of Drumhead
Most manufacturers have their own unique models of drumhead which don’t fit squarely into the above categories, where they’re aiming for a specific sound, increased durability, or any number of other reasons.
Some of these drumheads are made from materials like Kevlar or calfskin, both producing unique sound qualities. Other special features include putting a layer of oil between plies, or having a series of vents in the head to change the airflow characteristics.
Mesh drumheads are another specialty type of head that you may come across. If you’ve ever seen a Roland electronic kit with the white mesh heads, you’ll know what to expect.
They’re perfect for low volume practice, while retaining some of the drum’s original characteristics, and they work well with acoustic to electric conversions. They’re often paired with low volume cymbals for a kit with massively reduced volume – in some cases up to 80 percent.
A resonant drumhead is fitted to the bottom of the drum and is responsible for controlling the vibrations moving through the drum when you strike it. It provides sustain and controls the overall tone of the drum.
Resonant heads for toms and kick drums are typically 7 or 10 mil thick, while snare drum resonant heads are much thinner – between 2 to 5 mil.
Resonant heads don’t need replacing quite as often as they’re not subject to the punishment of a batter head, but they do still need replacing from time to time.
Just like batter heads, resonant heads come in different types. If you are looking for deeper tone with better sustain, go for thicker resonant heads.
If you’d rather less sustain, but a brighter tone, a thinner head is better. Coated resonant heads are a good way to give you a warmer sound than an uncoated head.
When Do I Need to Replace My Drumheads?
Many drummers will keep bashing away on the same drumheads for years, while the heads steadily start to sound and perform poorly, and it becomes harder to maintain tuning and a good drum sound.
Heavier players will need to change their heads much more often, but no matter your style, don’t neglect to change your heads because your tone will suffer.
There’s a number of ways to tell if your drumheads need to be replaced. Coated heads are easy because the coating gets worn away, indicating that it’s time for a change. Clear heads give other clues such as dents and heavy visual wear from stick marks.
The time taken for your heads to get to this point will depend entirely on your playing style and the amount of time that you are sitting behind the kit.
Keep an eye out for some of these signs, as it isn’t always easy to hear the changes in a drum’s sound if it’s happening gradually.
If you’re changing one head, think about doing them all as a set, even if some of the other heads aren’t so obviously worn. Of course this comes at a higher cost, but this way you can be sure your instrument is performing at its best when tuned correctly.
Resonant heads are trickier because they don’t show any obvious signs of wear and tear. However, they do lose a lot of their sound quality over time because they’re still subject to high tension and constant vibrations.
A good rule of thumb would be to change out your resonant drumheads with every third batter head for a tom or kick drum.
On the snare drum, change the resonant head for every second batter head because of the higher tension required on the snare heads and the friction from the snare wires constantly rubbing on the head.
Snare drum batter heads tend to be coated in most applications and a wide range of sounds can be produced like this, and if you’re using brushes, it’s necessary.
But it is possible to use an uncoated head for a more open sound. The snare’s resonant head is much thinner that one for a tom, which gives the familiar snare sound from the snare wires beneath the drum.
Drumheads play such a part in the overall feel of the drumkit that you need to choose heads that suit your drumkit and fit the style you’re playing. It might take you a couple of tries to find a set or combination of heads that work perfectly for you.
Keep in mind that the kit’s construction – the wood used, hardware quality, and the tuning of the drums will also play a large part. Make sure that the sound you’re trying to achieve is within the bounds of your hardware.
Don’t forget to change your drumheads regularly and you’ll have a kit that you’re proud to sit behind and will give you the most pleasure to be had from the instrument.
What’s your favourite drum sound? Is there a drumhead that you prefer for a specific sound? Let me know in the comments below.