Earthtone Drumheads Tested!

Ka-Boom!

Once all the heads were installed and tuned as close to my usual pitches as the tension rods would allow, I’m happy to say that they sounded glorious – almost. The bass drum head was low, punchy, warm, and resonant with a minimum of over-ring. I use an unmuffled single-ply Mylar front head with a small port, so I’m used to a little ring and the need to have a small muffling strip or pillow on the back head. The natural self-balancing effect of the skin eliminated the need for the muffler and made the pedal feel simply exquisite. I was able to tune it slightly tighter than my usual Mylar head and still got a nice low pitch. The extra tension made it easier to play faster combinations on the bottom end without having to sacrifice that almost subharmonic sound that I love.

The same positive comments can be applied to the 12" and 16" heads. Both produced an extremely full-bodied, warm, resonant tone that projected like a dream, and felt simply divine under my sticks. The only sour note came from the 13" tom. Although this particular drum is usually my “magic” tom with Mylar heads, I just couldn’t tune it to sound as good as the 12" or the 16" toms. Given the fact that all of the other sizes were great sounding heads, I was inclined to believe that I simply got a dud 13" head. I took it off the drum and noticed that there was one area of the head that was noticeably thicker and stiffer than the rest of the head, so I lay the blame on that. The head even felt different. At a tension that should have resonated and been soft to hit, it felt like I was striking a marching drum (one of the new ones with that lovely Formica tabletop feel). The folks at Earthtone might want to do just a little more in the area of quality control, but given the extremely variable nature of the material, I feel that this is probably something that will happen from time to time, no matter how quality conscious the company may be.

Since I didn’t have another 13" head to swap out, I simply took the 13" tom off the set and went to a four-piece configuration. Bingo! The toms and bass drum blended into a symphony of earthy, primal sounding, bone-crunching drums! This was the way God intended drums to sound! Visions of Gene Krupa and “Sing, Sing, Sing” danced in my head as I pounded those signature licks on the floor tom.

The 14" head got a real workout. Being a self-avowed snare drum freak, I tried it out on several drums: a 1923 Ludwig Deluxe (Black Beauty), my favorite wood drum (a Craviotto 14" x 4" Lake Superior maple piccolo), and a rather pedestrian (but excellent general-purpose) ’60s Ludwig Super-sensitive. The head performed well on all three drums. It didn’t have the overtones and high pitched ring that you would get from a Mylar head, and I wouldn’t recommend it for rimshot backbeats with the butt end of the stick, unless you just love replacing expensive drumheads. But the sound at low to fairly loud volumes was consistently warm and resonant on all three drums. The only caveat is the variable tonalities caused by the differing thickness across the head. When I played a buzz roll with the sticks on opposite sides of the drum, it sounded like each stick was rolling on a different drum. But that turned out to be a benefit, because even with the head tuned to the same pitch all around, I could coax several different timbres out of the same drum by playing different areas of the head.

Baby, It’s Cold Outside

My last concern with the heads manifested itself the day I intended to finish this article. The set with these heads had been sitting in a room with a temperature that remained relatively unchanged until a cold front came through. The mercury plummeted from the mid-70s to a frigid 24 degrees in one day. The heating system automatically compensated, which meant that the room went from comfortable and moderately humid to extremely dry as a result of the heater running almost constantly. As I suspected, all of the heads began to creep upwards in pitch. There was no way to significantly lower the tension without the tension rods coming out of the lug casings, which definitely had a detrimental effect on the tuning. To their credit, the heads still sounded musical, and didn’t change nearly as much as the calfskin heads on my vintage set of Radio Kings, which were in the same room. The bottom line is that even though these heads are easier to set up and tune than traditional calfskins, you still have to take the climate and humidity into consideration when using them. Still, this problem could be cured with a misting bottle and/or a diffusing hair dryer. You might have a little difficulty finding a place for those items in your trap case, but it’s not a huge price to pay if you’re willing to go the extra mile for that special sound.

There You Have It

While the consistency and materials of Earthtone heads are not the same as the vintage calfskins used in the last century, the manufacturing processes are miles ahead of the old process of tucking heads. Their ease of use, relatively low cost, and specially treated skin make them a practical alternative in modern music where a more resonant, warm tone is desired.

Specs

Model: Earthtone Drumheads
Head Material: Goatskin
Flesh Hoop: Aluminum
Sizes & Prices: 8" ($24.99), 10" ($29.99), 11" ($32.99), 12" ($34.99), 13" ($36.99), 14" ($38.99), 16" ($45.99), 18" ($59.99), 20" ($65.99), 22" ($69.99)

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