Drum Skins 101 – A Guide to Drum Heads

The humble drum head can come in many different forms and has a steep history. It makes a massive difference to the feel and sound of your kit so sit back and read our guide to drum skins - you might learn a thing or two!

Introduction

Get the best skins for your drums with Drum Skins 101 - A Guide to Drum Heads

Whether you’re just starting out, considering your first proper kit, played a while but need a refresher or you’re just looking to fine tune your sound…… you might find our guide to buying and fitting a drum head useful. They’re the first step in making your kit sound its best so…… lets begin.

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A quick history lesson

Drums were amongst the first instruments made by man. Taking an animal skin, dried out and stretched over a wooden shell you could make a simple percussive piece…. Flash forward to the twentieth century when the drumset became an essential on stage and there came a problem. Switching environments form indoor to outdoor and playing heavier, focused rhythms led to skin breakages and because the skins were affected by any change in temperature and humidity playing on a drum outdoors, in a hot club or in the rain was practically impossible. Then in the early 50’s musicians everywhere were offered an alternative… the newly developed Mylar polyester film. The rest… as they say… is history.

Basic Guide to heads

There are 2 kinds of head on each drum. The side that you hit is the batter head while the bottom skin is a resonant head. They come in single- or two-ply (1 or 2 layers of material) construction in a variety of materials and finishes. You get an increased resonance and sustain with one-ply heads, while heavy hitting music can sound better on the heavier double-ply heads.

Single Ply: Designed for Jazz and light swing/rock

The most commonly used drumhead is the single ply. These heads are made from a single sheet of Mylar and usually come in 7 – 10 mil thickness’s, with a few 12 mil models entering the market in recent years. One mil equals one-thousandth of an inch. The thinner the head, the more overtones and high-end ring—i.e., brightness—will be heard, while the head’s sustain will decrease. Single-ply heads are generally quite sensitive, but they’re the least durable of all batter heads. They are ideal for lighter playing styles (jazz, light rock), but they can also produce a big, boomy sound for louder and more ambient situations.

Double Ply: Great for metal, fusion, and R&B.

Most double-ply heads consist of two layered 7 mil plies, but some models are made with different thickness’s to produce distinct tones (for instance, Remo’s 7.5/3 mil Vintage Ambassador and twin 7.5 mil Vintage Emperor, Evans’ twin 7.5 mil black-coated Onyx, and Aquarian’s 7/5 mil Super-2). In general, double-ply heads have a deeper and more controlled sound with fewer overtones, 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…

Dotted heads

Some batter heads have a dot affixed to the top or bottom of the head to muffle excess ring. This gives you a more focused, drier sound. Some players still put a line of duct tape on to achieve this same effect but the results are unpredictable and it really spoils the look of the kit.

Note: If you use brushes you’re going to want to stick with heads using dots on the head’s underside to avoid snagging a bristle.

Coated heads

Drum heads with a white or black coating give a subtle muffling effect. Some have internal sound rings embedded around their outer perimeter to control excess ring.

Many jazz drummers put clear heads on the toms and a classic white-coated head on the snare drum, as the texture of a coated snare head sounds better with brushes. The bottom head on the snare drum is known as the snare-side head, a transparent, extra-thin head that maximizes response to the snare wires.

The Science bit: this is where we add in some physics. If you add more mass to something that’s supposed to vibrate, a dampening effect occurs. 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.

Bass Drum heads

Bass drum heads can include an internal dampening system on the batter head to provide a controlled sound and a port hole for improved tone and to make it easy to fit a mic. Port hole protector rings are also available to prevent your drum head from ripping or denting when fitting a mic.

Speciality Numbers

There are thousands of combinations of beater and resonant heads and the choice of calf skin, Kevlar, blended and pre muffled heads adds so many options that no 2 drums need ever sound quite the same… If you want more information on a specialist head range or model driop us a line or pop into the store… our drum team have seen it all over the years and are always happy to chat about your choices.

Notes on tuning

I honestly want to weep and throw things when I hear a badly tuned drumkit on stage… the difference can be subtle but if you aren’t careful you can damage your kit and won’t get your best sound… So here’s a few pointers on tuning up your skins for optimum rhythmic tone.

Start by fitting your head under the hoop and finger tighten the tension rods, that means make them as tight as you can manage with just your hands. Then, picking a nut, turn it 1/2 turn to pull the skin taught and wrinkle free. After the first one go straight across to the opposite side and work round as per the below diagram:

Pitched Tunings

Most drums can be tuned within a 3 note range with snares having a slightly longer range. This diagram is a rough guide to tuning pitches.

In Conclusion…

When you pick a skin, think about what music you want to play and the sound you need… this will guide your choice and gives you a better starting point than “what looks nice” or “what’s the cheapest”. Whether you just have a little kit at home for casual play or you need a replacement set of personalised and custom cut heads for your next sold-out arena tour you can’t beat a well fitted head… (pun very much intended).

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