Inside Your Head: Take The Mystery Out Of Drumhead Design

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.

Into The Kitchen

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.

Problem Solved

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.

The Hoop And Collar

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.

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The Films

Polyester film is king for drumheads, far outdistancing other head materials, including Aramid Fiber (Kevlar, FIG. 1), which is used for some super-duty marching heads. Mylar is a popular brand of polyester film, but not all films are Mylar. This is because, at the international manufacturing level, there are several sources for polyester film: DuPont, the owner of the “Mylar” brand name, as well as other giant companies (that most laymen have never heard of), which produce polyester films for various manufacturing sectors, including the drumhead industry. Each type of film sounds slightly different, and many drummers find their ears prefer one brand to another. Most drumhead companies don’t divulge the specs of their particular films – manufacturers guard their details like Colonel Sanders defended his fried chicken recipe. To add to the confusion and mystery, many drumhead makers use several entirely different films for different lines of drumheads. Aquarian was willing to tell us it used two or three films; Remo admits to having at least several; Evans lost count at some ten different films. Some of the films are obviously as different as black and white, while others sound dissimilar while looking the same. The thickness of the film is just as important as its type. Most companies offer several weights of single-ply heads. Typically, this translates into 7mil and 10mil thicknesses (the most common resonant snare head is 3mil thick). Some companies have expanded into heavy-duty batter-head thicknesses, including Evans’ EC1 at 14mil thick. Some companies post the actual thickness of the film on the box, while others bury the specifics in their product brochures.

FIG. 2. The surface of Aquarian’s Texture Coated heads features a sprayed-on coating that provides a warmer sound.

Coating

The stucco-like white stuff on coated heads (FIG. 2) simulates the rough texture and drag effect of calf heads, allowing drummers to play with brushes. Drummers once considered wire brushes a standard tool for a night’s work, and an uncoated plastic head is barely audible when you drag a brush across its surface. But the coating also changes the sound. Though it averages out to only about 1mil thick, regular white coating warms the sound by slowing the vibrations in the head (in this context, warmth refers to a sound in which some of the higher frequencies have been reduced). So even if you don’t do any brushwork but prefer warmer sounding heads, you might prefer coated models. There are numerous types of coating. In addition to the previously mentioned white stucco (which varies quite a bit from manufacturer to manufacturer), there are also micro-thin coatings, “smoother” rough coatings, and laminations and/or proprietary treatments that most consumers think of as a coating (FIG. 3). Swinging Singles Single-ply heads started the whole revolution, and are still quite popular. Available in clear or coated varieties, they offer the most attack, maximum ring, and plenty of volume. Single-ply heads have the least amount of frequency attenuation, with little sound control, for better or worse. Of course, you can damp them yourself with tape, Moon Gel, napkins, and other creative muffling materials. Drummers playing light to moderate volumes will find single-ply heads very versatile. They can be tuned quite high for modern jazz, mid-range for pop and classic rock, or low for funk or heavier rock sounds. Single-ply batter heads are popular for recording, including for loud rock drummers working in the studio. But single-ply heads can have a short lifespan, since vigorous pounding can dent the heads and ruin their tone. That’s why most loud drummers use double-ply batter heads in concert, even many who record their hit records with single-ply heads. Snare-side heads are also single-ply, available in several thicknesAses, but are generally thinner than batter heads. For example, an Evans Hazy snare head is just 2mil thick, and the (medium) Evans Hazy 300 snare side head is 3mil thick.

FIG. 3. Evans’ J1 Etched head has a textured, translucent surface treatment that provides an alternative to coating.

Doubled Up

Many drummers find that two films are better than one. Double-ply heads – available in clear, coated, and alternative coatings – offer increased durability. For manufacturers, the process of mating the two films is a tricky one. Historically, two 7mil plies is a popular combination, although some companies also produce double-ply heads made with two different weights of film. These offer an interesting compromise of sound. Double-ply heads have a bit more body, sound thicker, and ring a little less than single-ply heads. So while they might be a bit stodgy for brisk jazz, this quality makes them nice and meaty for rock and roll. They tune well from medium to low. Color Colorless clear heads are very popular. But again, inclusion and exclusion help to make the seven main components work. A white coated head is usually clear under the coating. Heads are also available in white-colored polyester film as well as black. Over the years, an occasional red or blue head has been offered. And let’s not forget hazy, which is cloudy-clear and popular for snare-side heads. Color provides a clue that the film is unique. For example, Remo offers coated-white and smooth-white heads, which use different films. But Black Suede heads are the same film as a coated Ambassador without the white coating, and with black color added along with the Suede texture. Remo Renaissance heads are both a different type of film and a different type of surface treatment. Experimenting with a different head color might lead you to a new sound. Try not to get too confused. Evans says some color options are simply aesthetic choices, but more important is the sound of the color. Black film, for instance, because of its composition, sounds slightly brighter than other hues.

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FIG. 4. Meet the original dot – Remo’s Controlled Sound batter head.

Dots

As we work our way through drumhead ingredients, the number of permutations threatens to go off the charts. We already have the choice of single- or double-ply heads in various combinations of thicknesses. We can choose coated or clear, and several different films of different colors. To this growing menu we add dots (FIG. 4). Dots were one of the earliest modifications made to plastic drumheads. These discs are made of polyester film, usually 5mil thick, affixed to the center of drumheads. Thank Buddy Rich for this one. Rich was putting his bass drum beater right through the early versions of thin plastic heads. At Rich’s urging, Remo Belli added an extra patch of heavier material to provide greater durability. The patch also changed the sound, adding more focus to the attack, hardening the attack a bit, and changing the character of the decay sound. Though their use on toms peaked and then waned since their heyday in the 1970s, dots persist on snare heads. They are now nearly standard issue on rock snare drumheads from all manufacturers. A dot can be affixed to the top or underside of the head. Some manufacturers, like Evans, modify the basic round shape of the dots with slots and vents, seeking relief and flexibility for the stress point (FIG. 5). All dots add tremendous durability and focus the sound. And heads with dots can be found with or without coating.

FIG. 5. Evans locates its dot on the underside of its EC Reverse Dot batter head.

Donuts (And Donut Holes)

By the 1960s, calf heads had really slipped in popularity, and plastic heads were popular with most drummers. Jazz players tuned them quite high to achieve clarity for the fast, new sounds of modern jazz. But studio players doing pop and rock were headed the other way, tuning their drums lower on hit records of the day. In the studio, microphones were being set closer to the drums. Using an individual mike on each drum was a bold new technique. But microphones hear different frequencies than the human ear does, and soon drummers were using muffling to cut out unwanted ringing and resonance from some of the drums. Often the drummer would place his wallet on the snare head, or tape a napkin to the head, searching for the right sound for the song. By the 1970s it had become popular to cut a ring out of an old drumhead and lay it on top of the snare drum batter head. The sound was dead, with lots of mid-range snap and fat snare response. Ringing, high frequencies, which live in the outer diameter of the head, were damped down. Microphones, by now often positioned only a finger’s width from the drumhead, loved the sound of the muffled heads. Pretty soon you could buy pre-cut rings, and not long after that manufacturers began to incorporate “donuts” into the design of various drumheads. On some heads, the muffle ring donuts are made from actual rings of polyester film. They are often attached to the hoop, but held loosely against the head (FIG. 6). Some donuts are little more than a thick layer of textured, heavy spray paint around the perimeter. Some popular bass drumheads, Aquarian’s Super-Kick, for example, contain donuts made of a heavy felt material. There are many variations in between the extremes of paint and felt, each exerting different amounts of influence on the high frequencies and ring that live around the edges of the head. Another very popular type of donut, the kind found in a Remo Pinstripe head, for example, is nearly invisible. A Remo Pinstripe is a 2-ply head (the same as a Remo Emperor) with the layers joined around the perimeter. There’s just a dab of something in the inch-wide donut, and nothing else between the plies (like most companies, Remo won’t divulge what exactly is in its formulas). The act of sealing the two heads together all around the edge dampens the vibration and changes the sound, and other companies also offer edge-sealed heads with invisible donuts. Another significant approach to deadening sound was Evans’ Hydraulic heads (FIG. 7), which enjoyed brief, white-hot popularity as the ’70s collided with the ’80s. These 2-ply heads featured a thin layer of oil sandwiched in between plies. No mere donut, they are still the benchmark for deadened heads – and it was a quest for a sound between the deadness of Hydraulic and the liveliness of single-ply that led to every head that falls in between.

FIG. 6. Remo’s Powerstroke 3 includes a ring of film attached to the hoop and held loosely against the head.

A Donut And …

There are many popular options in that land between. How about single-ply with a donut? No problem. Examples include the very popular Evans EC1, the Remo Powerstroke3, and Aquarian’s Studio-X, and choices expand within this heading. Aquarian, to give one example, offers the Studio-X in clear and coated, either with or without a center dot. Like Dunkin’s, donut technology evolves 24/7. Companies are ever striving to make a donut that feeds the hunger for perfect sound but stays clear of negatively impacting resonance, stick action, or fit between head and drum. But donuts in all types, shapes, and sizes still do now what they did then: deaden the head, fatten the sound, cut the high frequencies, and reduce the sharpness of the attack.

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FIG. 7. Evans Hydraulic heads capture a thin layer of oil between the two plies.

Donut Holes

Donuts make the head sound more wet, but tiny holes or vents around the edge of a snare or bass drumhead create subtle ports for air to escape and make the sound a bit drier, although the practice is still slightly esoteric. Examples of these approaches can be found in some Evans heads and in some OEM (original equipment manufacturer) heads made for DW drums. A modest hole of 4" or so changes the note of a bass drum, and, of course, a great big hole in the front of the bass drumhead makes it easy to adjust the pillow!

Three clear batter heads with different types of rings (left to right): Aquarian Super-2, Remo Pinstripe, and Evans EC Resonant.

Order Up

By now you can see that there’s probably a head out there for you. How about a thin head with a donut and a dot? Available. How about a coated double-ply with a dot underneath? No problem. A calf-like surface with a thin weight? Got it. Double-ply head with a dot that can withstand your animal aggressiveness? Right here. Thin, clear, single-ply for reso – but in a weird color? Yes. Yes. A thousand times, yes. The variety of available models is staggering. With basic information in your pocket, you can find the combination of ingredients that gives you exactly the sound you want in a drumhead, be it lively or muted, focused or funky wet. Bon appetit!