With so many different sizes, specifications, and brands, it can be confusing for beginner and hobbyist drummers, and it's hard to know where to start. While the options may seem daunting initially, understanding a few key features will help you make the right choices. 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 in technology and ethics since we used animal calf skins 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 has many different products.
Snare drums and toms have a drum head on the top and bottom of the drum. 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. The latter affects 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.
This means the drum head comprises of one sheet of plastic or two. A single-ply drum head, considered the thinner, lighter weight, will give you a sound best described as open and resonant. A double-ply head is more controlled and will provide more tonal depth. It can be hard to think of sound in these terms.
Fortunately, there is an abundance of videos on YouTube that will help you hear the difference for yourself, although we recommend checking out the manufacturer's websites first.
Clear drum heads are see-through. These will give you a brighter tone and a sharp response that the drum wordsmiths like to describe as attack. Coated drum heads provide a drier and deeper sound, slightly less sustain or ring.
Much of this, however, depends on how your drums are tuned. General tuning wisdom suggests adjusting the resonant head to the same tension or slightly less tight than the batter head.
Although tom heads and bass drum heads can be clear or coated, the drumming community 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 that is usually single-ply - they work best on snare drums.
With sound being a somewhat subjective matter, this can be hard to answer. The quality of the drum shell, the type of music you play, and your tuning skills all play a part.
Here are a couple of guidelines, though. Firstly, if you have purchased an acoustic drum set for under $1000, the chances are that they will come with factory drum heads that have most likely been produced by the drum set manufacturer and not one of the three leading drum head brands. In most of these cases, the products offered by Remo, Evans, or Aquarian will improve your sound significantly.
Trial and error will play a big part in creating your drum sound. Though you might not like to hear it, you will probably try multiple different heads throughout your drumming adventure. There are various products that can help you control resonance or add depth to your drum sound.
Even if you are not 100% satisfied with your drum head selection, you can still alter the sonic characteristics using dampening devices such as drum gels or tone rings.
Coated snare drum batter heads are recommended. 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, 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, consider 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.
The difference between coated and clear heads to the naked ear is marginal at best. 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?