A drum skin or a drum head is the membrane that spans the entire circumference of the drum; sometimes, it covers the bottom of the drum. It resonates vibrations, resonating the sound through the drum when you hit it with a drum stick, mallet, brush or your hands.
To answer the question, “what are drum skins made of“, let’s take a quick peek at the history of drum skins and how they were made using animal skin in the medieval times. This practice remained up until the twentieth century when the drum set became hugely popular. The drum set allowed drummers to play with multiple sets with different drumheads which called for the development of drumheads with different thickness.
In 1957, Remo Belli, an American jazz drummer and the chemist Sam Muchwick developed a new type of drumhead, which was made from a polymer (polyethene terephthalate (PET)) known as mylar. This marked the beginning of the acceptance of synthetic drum heads and the founding of the famous Remo drumhead company.
In this article, we will be examining some of the materials used in creating the best drumheads in the market and how they affect the sound of your drums, even though there is no stated rule about which drumheads to use for a type of music. Still, there are some sonic qualities that various drumheads possess that would work best for your drum needs.
- Polymer drum skin:
The Polymer drum skin, also known as plastics drumheads, they were invented in the 20th century due to the need for better drumheads that could handle different weather conditions as animal hides were more susceptible to weather changes. Thus, the reason why Remo nicknamed their polymer drumheads ‘Weatherking‘. Plastics drumheads do not have a problem with weather changes such as a change in humidity, and unlike the animal skin drumhead, which you can’t play when wet, it’s possible with the plastic drumheads.
There are different types of ply heads for polymer drum skins. These include the;
- Single Ply: This is a drum skin made from mylar, A mylar is a polyester film made from stretched polyethene terephthalate (PET) they are generally known for their high tensile strength, dimensional stability, and electrical insulation. Single-ply is the most commonly used polymer drumhead; they are usually made in a thickness ranging from 7 – 12 mil, 1 mil of thickness equal to one-thousandth of an inch. Due to the thickness of the head, the single-ply is very sensitive and is more suitable for light playing styles like jazz and light rock. Due to their durability, they are not used for heavy playing styles as they would easily tear.
- Double Ply: This is also made from mylar but has more thickness as it mostly consists of two single-ply while some are made of different thicknesses to create distinct sounds. The double mylar has a thicker and more controlled sound with lower overtones, a more defined attack, shorter sustain, and a fatter punch, the increase in thickness increases durability, and it’s mostly used in heavy and louder playing styles like RnB and heavy metal. Their pronounced attack makes them an excellent choice for more articulate sound. Examples of polymer drumhead manufacturers are the Remo drumhead company, Evans drumheads, Aquarians drumheads.
- Animal hide drum skin:
Animal skin drumheads are produced from hides of goats, cows, and other livestock. The tone of an animal skin drumhead is warmer, and a lot of drummers prefer animal skin drumheads because of its authentic sound and feel.
It is, however, more susceptible to humidity and other weather concerns. Some of the main differences between using animal rawhide skins and synthetic percussion skins are further explained below;
- With dry and hot weather, the animal skin used will get tighter in the weather leading to a pitch tune-up. This can also result in a split head.
- A regular maintenance regime is needed to keep the head in the right state, and it should also be loosened after use.
- It can be a struggle to lay hands on quality animal rawhide skins. It can also be a frustrating process retuning drums every time there’s a chance that it has been exposed to heat or moisture.
- There have been instances where drummers have had hand pain just from trying to play the animal rawhide skins of different quality. This is because they need to strike the drum harder to achieve more quality sound.
Calf skinhead: this is by far the rarest type of animal skin drumhead around, providing a tone that’s both warm and fat, it can be found in congas and djembes and also share the common problems with animal skins. However, some companies have been producing synthetic calfskin heads that fare better in different environmental conditions and still have that unique animal drumhead sound.
This type of drumhead has small pinhole vents around the outer edge, allowing them to vibrate uniquely. It’s made from a super durable plastic, known as Kevlar, which is a synthetic aromatic polyamide polymer and is one of the most reliable materials around.
It is highly durable, thus making it perfect for heavy-hitting drumming styles like rock and metal drummers. What’s different about Kevlar is when it is tuned extremely tightly, it will give you a digital sound, much like the new modern digital sounds electronic drum set gives. Although it is very durable, many drummers describe the sound as being flat. This is usually because, no matter how much you adjust it, it will still not have a resonant head.
Coated or clear drumheads
This type of drum head has a variety of different coatings. There are a number of drum heads that have translucent coating sprayed onto them making them transparent. There are also some with coloured layers sprayed onto them, such as black or white, or even made with textured surfaces.
If you’re wondering why drums need coated heads, well coating helps to dampen the sound and reduce vibration. It then allows it to create a thicker sound, especially with percussion instruments.
Drum heads that are clear are usually a lot brighter than their coated head counterparts. This allows for an increased level of resonance and reduced control once stretched over the musical instrument.
There are a lot more clear bass drum heads, however not as many heads for snare drums that that exit the manufacturing process without a level of coating on it. The reason for this is that it is well known that coated snare heads sound a lot better than uncoated ones.
Famous Drummers and What Drum Skins They Prefer
Mick Fleetwood (click to read more): the popular drummer and co-founder of the band Fleetwood Mac, a hall of fame inductee, made use of the Remo polymer drumheads during most of his playing career, due to his unique style of play.
Neal Ellwood Peart OC (click to read more) is a Canadian drummer of the rock band RUSH, an inductee of the modern drummer readers’ poll hall of fame. He was also the youngest person ever to be honoured. He made use of the DW Remo clear/coated drumheads for the most of his playing career.
John Bonham (click to read more) is an English drummer known for his work with rock band led zeppelin, he is known for his speed power and fast bass drumming, distinctive sound, and feel for groove. He mainly used Remo drumheads across his career, used coated drumheads for both his bass, snare, and toms.
Stewart Copeland (click to read more) is an American musician and composer, he was the drummer of the British rock band, the police, and he made use of Remo single and double-ply drumheads throughout his playing days.