The wonderful world of drumming is rich with amazing names and descriptors; from the triple flanged hoops on your fusion toms, to the Moongel on your snare drum head. Fortunately, Drum Ambition subscribers have access to a full glossary, made up of our Founder's 20 years of experience in drums and percussion, including a long period of time managing a retail drum store.
Drum heads can be a source of confusion for the beginner and hobbyist drummer, but don't worry - we are here to help! Drum heads are the plastic surfaces on the top and bottom of each drum. You may have heard them described as drum skins, but we have come a long way since animal calf skins were actually used on early drum sets.
Nowadays drum heads are made from plastics (Usually mylar, polyester, or a mix) with an outer metal collar that sits snug on the drum. The major players in this market are Remo, Evans and Aquarian, and each have a multitude of different products. This is great for more experienced drummers, but can be thoroughly confusing for beginners. So let's break this down to the basic fundamentals - an approach that we are very fond of at Drum Ambition!
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The Three Kings - Which brand is best?
Let's start with the aforementioned manufacturers. Which is better? Well, like just about everything in drums, this is a highly subjective matter, and your drum teacher, favorite drummers or fellow hobbyists will most likely have a view. At Drum Ambition, we proudly use Evans Heads, but the reality is that all three of these major players produce heads of the finest quality, and to call between them is actually very difficult. So we'll leave that to the marketing prowess of the Fantastic Three - they all have great websites, informative videos and are all widely available in retail and online stores.
Batter heads and resonant heads - what's the difference?
Snare drums and toms have a drum head on the top and bottom of the drum. (Concert toms are an exception - very popular in the 1970's and early 80's where only a top head was featured, greatly reducing the resonance, or ringing of the drum, and providing a unique tone). The striking side of the drum is known as the batter head, and the bottom head (or non-striking surface) is called the resonant head, and can greatly affect the tone, and how long the drum rings. The side on which a bass drum beater hits the drum is the batter head, and the front of the bass drum has a resonant head.
What's the difference between single and double ply heads?
Put simply, this means the drum head comprises of one sheet of plastic, or two. A single ply drum head (considered to be the thinner, lighter weight) will give you a sound that is best described as open and resonant, whereas a double ply head is more controlled, and will give you more tonal depth. It can be hard to think of sound in these terms, and fortunately there are an abundance of videos on YouTube that will help you hear the difference for yourself - although we would recommend checking out the manufacturer websites first, or even better, go down to your local friendly drum store.
Coated or clear - Is it just for looks or does it affect the sound?
Clear drum heads are the type that you can literally see through. These will give you a brighter tone and a sharp response that the drum wordsmiths like to describe as "attack". Coating can be applied to these drum heads to give a "drier" and deeper sound, with slightly less sustain, or ring. Much of this, however, depends on how your drums are tuned. General tuning wisdom suggests that the resonant head should be tuned to the same tension, or slightly less tighter than the batter head. This is where tuning can become tricky, but don't worry, we wrote this article to help. Although tom heads and bass drum heads can be clear or coated, the drum community at large generally recommends a coated batter head on the snare drum. There is a reason why 99.9% of snare drums leave the factory with a coated batter head, normally single ply - they work best on snare drums.
So which drum heads should I use?
With sound being a rather subjective matter, this can be a hard question to answer. The quality of the drum shell, the type of music that you play, and your tuning skills all play a part. Here are a couple of guidelines though, which I hope will at least point you in the right direction. Firstly, if you have purchased an acoustic drum set for under $1000, the chances are that they are going to come with factory drum heads that have most likely been produced by the drum set manufacturer, and not one of the Three Kings. In most of these cases, an upgrade to any of the products offered by Remo, Evans or Aquarian is going to significantly improve your sound.
Stick with coated snare drum batter heads. As previously mentioned, most snare drums leave the factory with these heads fitted as standard, as they suit that type of drum the best. Bass drums, being the largest and most boomy of drums require more control. Double ply heads are preferable, and some bass drum heads come with "pre-damped" rings (essentially another layer of plastic on the outside edge) to provide further muffling. For toms, think about whether you are looking for a deep, controlled sound, or an open, resonant ringing drum. If the former, consider double ply heads, and for the latter, single ply. In all honesty, at least to my ear, the difference between coated and clear heads to the naked ear is marginal at best. Let's be honest, aesthetics are important too. If you like the look of a powder black coated drum head on your all black lacquer toms, then why not?
Regardless of whether you opt for a single or double ply batter head for your toms, I would recommend a single ply head on the resonant side.
Snare drum resonant heads (called "snare-side" heads) are very thin, and are for use only with that type of drum.
The hole, or "port" on a bass drum resonant head is necessary for placing microphones inside the drum. A bass drum head that is not ported may be slightly more resonant, but it's marginal at best - particularly if you have a pillow in the drum!
What if I don't like the sound of my chosen drum heads?
Trial and error is going to play a big part in creating your drum sound. Though you might not like to hear it, you are probably going to try multiple different heads over your drumming adventure. I have tried everything over the years, but I still come back to a tried and tested single ply coated snare drum batter, double ply clear tom batter heads, single ply clear tom resonant heads, and double ply bass drum heads. If you are interested in what we used in our Drum Ambition videos, I'd be happy to share. For the snare drum, we used an Evans 14 inch coated Genera HD snare batter drum head, and an Evans Hazy 300 snare side head (For the underneath). I opted for the Evans G2 coated (double ply) on the batter side of the toms, with Evans single ply G1 clear heads on the resonant side. For the bass drum, we used an Evans EQ3 clear bass drum batter head, with white resonant head. The only reason we opted for coated tom heads was that they looked better when shooting video - I would happily use clear or coated tom heads.
Finally, remember that there are various products available that can help you control resonance or add depth to your drum sound. So even if you are not 100% satisfied with your drum head selection, you can still alter the sonic characteristics by using dampening devices such as drum gels (Moongel, Sweet Spots, Remo Drum Putty) or tone rings (plastic rings that sit atop the drum, significantly controlling resonance and overtones).
If you have any questions relating to this article, please feel free to email [email protected].