September 1, 2015

Drum head selection...a closer look

By Darin Soll

In the three years since My favorite head combinations, one of the first posts in this blog, I have had the opportunity to experiment with additional drum head combinations across four different drum kits.  In this post, I will share my updated drum head recommendations, the result of dozens of additional hours of changing out heads, tuning them up, and then playing them in the rehearsal studio.

Typical drum bearing edge profiles, courtesy of Modern Drummer
But first, a refresher on drum bearing edges is in order...

Many of you have probably seen the illustration on the right from Modern Drummer magazine, which depicts various bearing edge profiles.

Bearing edges matter.

Drum kits from the 1960s and 1970s were built with rounder bearing edge profiles.  The "Vintage Roundover" edge pictured above was common on snare drums and rack toms, and it was not uncommon to see full roundover edges on floor toms and bass drums.  Vintage roundover edges produce a warmer tone as the increased shell contact with the head reduces harmonic overtones ("brightness"), attack, and sustain.  The shell plays a greater role in the overall tone of the drum.

Conversely, "Standard" or "Double 45" degree edges produce a brighter tone as the reduced shell contact with the head increases harmonic overtones, attack, and sustain.  These modern (1980s to present) 45-degree edges are cut more sharply, and with sharper bearing edges, the shell's role in the tone of the drum is reduced.

We already knew that different types of drum heads can affect the tone of our drums, and now we know that bearing edges affect tone as well.  So, that raises a question...how does the interplay between drum heads and bearing edges affect the overall tone of our drums?  What combinations of heads and edges will produce the tone we are looking for?

I currently have access to four acoustic drum kits, so I had the ability to do "head-to-head" (pun intended) comparisons between drums with modern Standard edges and drums with Vintage Roundover edges, and then cross-check the results on other kits with similar bearing edge profiles.  These comparisons have been extremely useful in helping me to choose the most appropriate drum heads for the specific sound I want.

Drum kits used in this comparison:
  • PDP X7, thin all-maple shells, Standard bearing edges
  • PDP FS, thin all-birch shells, Standard bearing edges
  • Slingerland, 3-ply maple-poplar-maple shells with re-rings, Vintage Roundover edges
  • Stone Custom Drum, 3-ply walnut-poplar-maple shells with re-rings, Vintage Roundover edges

The following Head Selection Matrix summarizes my recommendations for toms.  It's really two separate charts--the top half shows head combinations for toms with vintage/roundover edges, and the bottom half shows head combinations for toms with modern/45 degree edges.  The desired tone ranges from warm to medium to bright as you move from left to right across the three columns.  For each tom type (rack and floor), I list my batter head choice over my resonant head choice.

Head Selection Matrix for toms--click the image to enlarge

So for example, if you have vintage/roundover edges and you want a "medium" tone, I recommend the middle column selections in the Vintage section of the matrix--clear 2-ply batters over clear 1-ply resos on your rack toms, and clear EC2 batters over clear 1-ply resos on your floor toms.  Move to the right for a brighter tone, and to the left for a warmer tone.

To achieve a "medium" tone with modern/45 degree edges, you would use the middle column selections in the Modern section of the matrix--coated 1-ply batters over clear 1-ply resos on your rack toms, and coated 2-ply batters over clear 1-ply resos on your floor toms.  Note that the "medium" tone selections in the Vintage section of the matrix will result in a brighter tone on Modern edges.  Note also that the "medium" tone selections in the Modern section of the matrix will result in a warmer tone on Vintage edges.

Obviously there a dozen other types of drum heads that I haven't covered, and thousands of drummers out there with different needs and tastes.  This matrix is not intended to be all things to all drummers...I'm just sharing what I've observed as I tried these combinations of heads and edges.  Hopefully this serves as a useful resource as your strive to get the best tone out of your drums.

Happy drumming!

--Darin