Monday, February 27, 2012

Gear Up: Drumheads - Snare

There are many factors that contribute to each drummer's sound. A few weeks ago we talked about cymbals, which are a huge piece. Last week we talked about the ol' kick drum.

This week we'll talk about your choice of heads for the snare drum. Let's start with the batter head, or the head that you actually play - the top head.

What thickness options are there?
In terms of the actual construction of the head, there are basically two options - one ply or two. A ply refers to a sheet of plastic, usually mylar or kevlar, that the head is made out of. In general, a single ply head is a thin or medium thickness ply, while two plies are usually two thin. There are also some heads that are a single ply with a collar, or another ply around the edge, sort of splitting the difference between a single and double ply head.

So what's the difference in sound? Single plies tend to be more resonant (they ring longer) and have more overtones. Double ply heads tend to have less resonance (they ring shorter) and have a more focused tone.  Players who prefer one or the other usually swear by them for whatever reason.

But many players will prefer to use heads of different thicknesses in different situations. For me, I adjust the sound more by tuning than by choosing a different head. And if it needs a little bit of dampening, I use Moon Gel by R Tom. Love the stuff.

Why do heads look so different, and does it affect the sound?
Usually the appearance of a head is a function of it being either coated or clear. A coated head has literally been coated with a very thin layer of either textured or smooth white coating. The most common is the textured white, which allows for brush definition and "warms up" the sound. A clear head tends to sound "brighter."

Evans Drumheads has a head that has a similar feel to a coated head, but is called "etched." These heads have literally been blasted to create their texture. They don't have the extra weight and thickness of a coated head, and the texture tends to last longer. These heads are very popular in jazz settings.

You can also get heads with a "control dot" - basically a sticker that adds a ply in the center of the head, about six inches in diameter - on the top or, if it's on the underside of the head, called "reverse dot." Or you can get a head that's "vented," which means it has a row of very tiny holes around the edge of the head. The vents are an attempt to remove some of the highest overtones, or "dry out" the sound.

What about the snare side?
Keeping in mind that the snare side head can have just as much effect on the snare drum's sound, we're only talking about your drum kit snare. We'll have to save all those scintillating conversations about concert, rudimental, field and side drums for another time.

The snare side is usually the thinnest head on your kit, and also the most delicate. Since this head is the activator for your snares, the thicker the head, the tighter it has to be tuned. A lot of your snare sound, in terms of tone, snare sensitivity and "crack" will depend on the whole package - heads, shells, hoops, reinforcement rings, tuning, relative tension between the heads and the alignment of the stars.

Ya Gotta Try!
So what will you use, and why? The end goal should be your sound. What are you trying to achieve? Depending on the style you play, the setting (live or recording) and the volume at which you play, the tone you want, etc, your head choices may differ very widely from other drummers. So don't worry quite so much about what's popular or what they look like. Let the music guide your choices, and play what you like.

Here's my last bit of advice when deciding which heads to use:

Listen, listen, listen.

Remember that what you hear on recordings - and even through live sound systems - doesn't perfectly resemble what you hear with just your ears when you're sitting at the kit. The more you experiment, tune, record and listen, the more you'll get an ear for what you're hearing - and how it sounds to the audience, through the PA, or on playback.

Happy drumming!

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