If you were a visitor fresh from Mars, with no idea of what a plastic drumhead was, you’d be in for an easy lesson. Modern plastic drumheads are made from seven basic components, and that’s all. Like the variety of Taco Bell’s menu, all those different heads in the drum shop come from a few ingredients. But you are a drummer reading a drum magazine, so it’s safe to assume you’ve seen heads from various drumhead companies. You know enough to realize there are specific differences within the range of possibilities those seven components represent. And perhaps by now you are confused by all the variables. The differences in drumheads, just like the differences in tacos, are subtle but important. Manufacturers get their materials from multiple sources, they process and assemble them according to their own design philosophies, and each uses slightly different combinations of ingredients. But a taco is still a taco and a drumhead is still a drumhead. Only your ears (or your mouth) can be trusted to make the ultimate distinction.
The seven ingredients of a drumhead are: batter material (overwhelmingly polyester film, aka plastic, though there are also heads made of Kevlar-type fabrics), the hoop, collar, color, coating, and what I call dots and donuts. This short list of ingredients is assembled with glues, resins, machinery, and ingenuity to produce innumerable results. By including or excluding ingredients from the standard seven, we end up with a broad menu of drumhead categories.
Back in the 1950s, innovators struggled to produce just one good plastic drumhead. They sought to replace calfskin heads, which produced good sounds but required high maintenance. Plastic was relatively new, and a natural choice for drumhead applications. Unlike calfskin, plastic didn’t expand or contract with humidity. Plastic was both durable and weatherproof, which is why some heads were eventually branded “Weather King” or “Weather Master.” But certain details needed to be figured out.
FIG. 1. Remo’s Falams II batter is one of the few made from Kevlar rather than polyester film.
Chick Evans and Remo Belli, competitors in the race to make a usable plastic head and bring it to market, faced the same initial hurdle: how to attach the polyester film to the drum. They needed something like the flesh hoop and tension hoop system used for calf heads. An old-fashioned flesh hoop is a thin wood or metal hoop that’s sized just slightly larger than the diameter of the drum. Calf heads, which were just round, flat cuts of thin hide, had to be soaked in cold water, then tediously tucked around this hoop. The head then went on the drum, and the tension hoop went on top of the flesh hoop. After the soaked head dried, it could be tightened using tension rods threaded into lugs. Critical to the tuck job was getting the right amount of “collar.” The collar is the part of the head that goes down the sides of the drum, perpendicular to the plane of the drumhead’s surface. Calfskin, of course, molded itself to the shape of the drum, but the length of collar had to allow for proper fit and tuning. Plastic heads are pre-mounted on a hoop that replaces the flesh hoop. All manufacturers make their hoops of metal or plastic, and employ various ways of attaching the polyester film to the hoop. Most use metal hoops filled with glue or resin and mechanically pressed over or around the film. The details of this arrangement vary by manufacturer. We no longer have to tuck our own heads, and, consequently, don’t have to fuss with the collar either. But manufacturers still fuss with the collar. Some have changed the angles and bend in the plastic film, seeking improvements in performance. But no matter the design, there must be a hoop and a collar on the plastic head – it is a wondrous thing, because it comes out of the box ready to go.