Earthtone Drumheads: No More Nip & Tuck
I’m a fan of calfskin heads. A slice of tuned leather resonating in harmony with a piece of wood is as close to perfect as a drum sound can get. Nothing comes close to the feel of a skin head literally throwing the stick back at you after being hit. It’s a spiritual experience that an entire generation of drummers has never experienced. But now that Earthtone has entered the business of drumhead manufacturing, it’s possible to try this phenomenon out for yourself without having to take a course in head tucking. But don’t expect cutting edge Mylar or revolutionary new coatings. These drumheads take one giant technological leap backwards, both in materials and sound. From this reviewer’s standpoint, the change couldn’t be any more timely or welcome.
For more than 100 years, drummers who wanted to use natural hide heads on snare drums or drum sets had only one option: Calfskin tucked onto wood or metal flesh hoops. To manufacture these heads, animal hides (mostly cow, pig, and goat, which had been soaked in a lime and tannic acid solution) were stripped of their hair and a fatty inner layer. This process could only be described as unpleasant at best, due to the ever-present stench of the hides. Once the heads had been stripped, they were skived (shaved with sharp double-handled knives) to a uniform thickness and mounted (tucked) onto flesh hoops. The tucking process alone is almost a lost art. The edge of the head has to be wrapped around the flesh hoop and tucked under the top surface to hold it in place. Although it’s a tedious process, it works remarkably well. I’ve seen heads that were more than 80 years old yet were still playable with a little restraint.
The biggest drawback is that traditional calf heads require a substantial amount of preparation before they can be used. First they have to be soaked and placed on the drum to form a collar (the bend where the head goes over the bearing edge). The head can be tightened when it’s partially dry, but only a bit. In order to ensure the best performance, it shouldn’t be tuned until it is completely dry. Needless to say, this made changing heads on the gig an almost impossible task. You can see why drummers were quick to jump on the plastic bandwagon when Chick Evans came up with his synthetic heads in the ’50s. Still, the mystique of calf and its legendary sound have always kept a few devotees in thrall. But the choice between convenience and a need for constant attention guaranteed that calf would fall to the back of the line as a working drummer’s choice.
Splitting the Difference
Enter Earthtone, an American company that distributes and markets a full range of South American goatskin heads that are crimped into metal flesh hoops in a manner very similar to Mylar heads. This takes almost all of the guesswork out of using hide heads. You don’t have to wet the heads before installing them, they have a pre-formed collar that adapts nicely to vintage drums as well as modern bearing edges, and they are crimped into metal flesh hoops, which means that you don’t have to worry about heads warping when they’re stored. In short, even an idiot can put them on and tune them up. Add in the price factor (roughly twice the price of standard Mylar heads) and you’ve got a reasonably priced alternative for those who’ve always wanted to try skin, but didn’t have the dough.
I received five goatskin batter heads for this review: a 22" bass drumhead, 12", 13", and 16" tom heads, and a 14" snare head. Earthtone requested that I use Mylar heads on the bottom of the drums to represent what most drummers would do. I would describe all of the heads as a medium thickness, with crimped aluminum flesh hoops, and the Earthtone logo imprinted on the topside of the head. As with any product manufactured from natural materials, there were inconsistencies in the appearance of each head. The most striking appeared on the undersides, where a blotchy texture resulted from the natural grain of the skin and its varying density of pores. While this isn’t a bad thing, I did take a micrometer and measured each head in several places to determine how evenly they had been skived. I found minor variations on all of the heads, but they were fairly consistent.
There were no instructions for mounting the heads, which struck me as odd in light of the extensive preparation required when mounting traditional calfskin heads. However, all of the heads went on with relative ease and, for the most part, no major problems. The only difference worth noting is that in almost every case, the pre-formed collars on the heads didn’t leave much room for the tension rod threads to engage the swivel nut before the hoops started pulling the head down. I like to have a little more leeway on the tension rods to allow for loose tunings and definitely don’t want to worry about a tension rod backing out of the lug while I’m playing.
I did have a little difficulty putting the head on the 16" floor tom due to the even shallower collar on that particular head. The tension rods wouldn’t reach the swivel nuts without applying some pressure on the hoop to stretch the head. With the Mylar head that had previously been on the drum, there was a good 1/4" of thread in the swivel nut before the tension rod engaged the hoop. This was rather frustrating, since I prefer my tom heads to be as loose and vibrant as possible while still maintaining a throaty, low tone. I could have moistened the head and stretched it out a bit, but that would be cheating since these heads are supposed to be ready to mount right out of the bag. After I tuned the drum up a bit and then tuned it back down, I was able to get a really ballsy, resonant tone out of it (everything in the office rattled). But the tension rods would need to be slightly longer to really tune it the way I would have liked. That’s not a huge problem, but it does make swapping heads a little more involved than it should be.