How to choose the best drumheads. A list of the finest drumheads ever made and my reasons for judgment

How to choose the best drumheads: T Bruce offers his experience

Are there really 20 best drumheads (aka drum heads)? I think so. I’ll explain my reasons for each one on the list.

Hopefully this will help you when selecting drumheads at your drum shop. If you can’t find one of the heads I describe below—especially since some are no longer manufactured—ask for the nearest thing. Trust your sales assistant—sales associate—because they see a lot of products come and go. If one of them is out of, say, a Remo Renaissance and recommends you try a Remo Suede, or maybe an Evans J1, then give it a shot. I always defer to expert opinions…provided they’re not in my face.

As for defunct batters such as the original Fiberskyn, you’ll likely see rear their ugly heads in pawnshops. And thrift stores. Salvation Army retail outlets. And in the following photo of me looking glazed over 20 years ago today….

Drumheads = drum heads = drum skins, retrospective T Bruce Wittet, Brian Rading

Craigslist and eBay are good if all local sources go dry. Then you get into shipping, often across international boundaries. I’d rather pay someone points-on-sale to do my eBay transactions.

Mom/pop

Here’s another tip for finding old heads: Visit out-of-the-way mom-and-pop music stores where they don’t really have a drum department or anybody who calls batters anything but “skins”. They’re more than happy to get rid of dusty old stock.

Try any of these heads and you will be rewarded with features that go beyond durability and mere tone: you will enjoy a distinctly friendly feel—softer and more organic. Maybe you’ll find the missing head that will make your drums resonate as one, as a family. One thing’s for certain. Each of the heads cited below will improve sustain (provided, I guess, you play as I play…these conclusions are so difficult!). Sustain is a good thing.

Remember: You can always damp a long tone but you can’t make a short tone long unless you add reverb or delay or some clever effect in Adobe Audition (which I use) or Pro Tools (the industry standard, ostensibly the same). You don’t want to be laboring over making short songs other than they are because each ounce of note-length you get will be at the cost of disproportionate pounding, which spells energy misspent. Besides, adding reverb, or any effect, software or plate, will “distance” the point of attack…the immediacy of the drum. To prove this to yourself, mike a wide-open, unmuffled tom at close range; then deaden that same tom with toilet paper and duct tape and mike it at 12-paces and a couple more up the back stairs. With this latter approach you attain delay alright; you also lose the “tonal center” of the drum in question.

Is there really a “best of” when it comes to drumheads?

Please understand when I say “best of” there’s a disclaimer: The models listed below are ones I’ve tried and had success with. Some of them over 40-years of success. Also understand that I’ve learned, sometimes a hard way, that sometimes a head will not meet my dream sound head on but will work really well in other contexts/styles. Don’t limit yourself in your perspective, whether it be mic’ placement, ear placement, or stylistic requirements.

Also of note: While I prefer a drum that will take any drumhead and sound good—just different—there are drums, many of which I own, that deliver massively different (read “better”) sounds with one or two specific heads. There’s no formula. My 1920s brass-shell Ludwig Standard (see below) is a perfect example.

What is “film”?

Film is the stuff heads are made of—that which we strike when we address drumstick to drum. Film is important. Otherwise, we’d be air drumming.

Drumheads, as we call them in MD, or drum heads, or skins, as they’re still known to the chosen few, are commonly made from 1 ply, 2 plies, or, as in the case of a recent Aquarian batter head model, 3 plies, of “film”. Now this film is referred to as Mylar, Dupont Mylar, plastic, and a whole lot of other tricky terms.

Fact is, most drumheads are made from polyester film. Mylar is a trade name that denotes a product made from a specific range of polyester film. A range of Mylar was wisely purchased years ago by Remo Belli, who holds exclusive use of this film in-perpetuity. This has forced other companies to use Asian replications. As for companies in mainland China, none of them seem to bother about intellectual property or physical resemblance. If it’s there, nail it and copy it and move on.

As if that’s not perplexing enough, we witness companies, time and time again, cobbling together heads comprised of Kevlar (as in bullet-resistant vests) and a range of plastics and metals constituting the counterhoops—not the rims of the drums but the ones that come with the heads and which keep the heads in-round. Most drums today come complete with circular metal counterhoops, some of them tunnels harboring stashes of epoxy and other bits and pieces intended to secure film to hoop. Most of the designs work a charm.

Rogers Daisy Brand 14” calf batter: These are the reason—these and other brands, some of them predating the Daisy by decades—civilians still refer to heads as skins. We don’t see many calf heads these days due to the fact that we don’t kill animals for this purpose. Nor to eat. There is no such prohibition on human beings, however, witness recent news stories out of Africa, England, New England, India….

With respect to the Rogers Daisy Brand 14” calf snare drum batter, if you find one of these mounted in a round metal “flesh hoop” you have hit the jackpot.

The consistency of “film”, the brush swish, and the slightly attenuated high harmonics will have you thinking you’re Papa Jo or Levon, depending. Don’t worry about buying a Daisy Brand snare drum head second hand. Hold up to the light, look for pinholes and if there’s only, maybe, one…then put your money down. Odds are if it’s survived the past 50 years….

Remo 14” Ambassador coated/opaque batter: original 2-ply version. Most drummers know this head from current Remo advertisements, which refer somewhat awkwardly to original 2-ply Ambassadors (given the company has sworn, at least to me, it’s never manufactured an Ambassador in anything but a single-ply version. Problem is, as I showed company officials, I own one—from the early 1960s and it’s still amazing in terms of smooth sustain and a resilience unavailable in today’s drumheads. The opaque earlier heads seemed to foster a wetter tone and more spongy feel under-stick, which I enjoy; the current, revived Remo 2-ply Vintage Ambassadors yield no such riches.

Remo 14” Ambassador Coated Batter: mid-1960s onward to present. This is your workhorse head for any drum. At least, according to consensus. I did not vote in favor of this head, however, nor have I ever done so. As Rex Harrison sang, “I’d rather a dentist be drilling….” Perhaps a more credible source would be one of my faves, Donny Brown (Verve Pipe). I interviewed him for Modern Drummer magazine and we got talking about this Ambassador hegemony. Playing devil’s advocate I disputed the alleged attributes of Ambassadors, citing a hard, harsh feeling surface and a surplus of the sort of clanging overtones that bother me enough to spend extra time tuning-out or muffling.

I agree with you that it feels brittle when new,” Donny responded. “But I love it for that thing that happens when it’s sat on the drum for a while”. I defer to him. And he put his money where his mouth is: his snare drum touch and tone had me convinced, at least momentarily.

Remo 14” Diplomat Coated Batter: for snare drum and also, for the likes of Buddy Rich, the go-to head for toms. They don’t share the middling overtones or confused tension inherent in Ambassadors. Yes, they are thin heads but they somehow don’t boing-out when tuned higher. I can’t explain it. Jim Keltner used to explain this to me in terms of his work situation. But his milieu (Hollywood studios) and peers (the likes of Jeff Porcaro, Jim Gordon, Hal Blaine) were foreign to me but his words carried weight. Jim’s a Remo guy, for sure; I remember when I asked him about another brand of heads—not during an interview but on a Sunday night phone call—and he admitted he’d heard good things but really didn’t have any reason to try them.

Evans J1: 10”, 12”, 13”, 14”. I’ve used J1 heads (the “J” is for “jazz”) heads extensively in a variety of situations. When introduced, they were said to be the thinnest Evans head and somewhat analogous to the Remo Diplomat, not in terms of the film, which is thicker on the Evans but in terms of the final result. The J1 is “etched” or soundblasted such that it loses some heft while gaining a rough, but not too rough, surface. Inasmuch as I buy that story, I prefer the J1 to the Diplomat because it seems to be more spongy, more resilient. When they were introduced at NAMM, Mike Robinson, then Evans head drum guy, showed me them and did a round across the toms. “They are amazing,” Mike said. “You can tune them tight and they’re full of tone…but you can also tune them loose and get an amazing pitch-dropping, bending sound”. It took me a couple of years to take Mike to task but I obtained a set of J1 heads for my toms, cranked them down, a little looser than my usual tom tensions, and they blossomed with tone. Looser still they were magnificent! The looser you get the more gel or duct tape you need. Fortunately, due to the etching process, these “thinned-down” heads are extremely sensitive and respond to a quarter turn of a single lug. That sponginess allows you to depress your finger opposite each tension rod and feel the relative tightness of the J1 membrane; you don’t need to be tapping all the way around the circle. I’ve got them on tom #1 as we speak. Tom #2 is…either a Remo Renaissance or Evans ST Dry.

Evans 22” EQ2 clear: you will not be disappointed. The tone is wetter and deeper than that of the EQ1. Strange, I usually favor a double-ply batter head on anything. But somehow, however effective this 2-ply proves to be, I prefer the 1-ply EQ1. No doubt you will love the EQ2 clear if you’ve been reared on Powerstrokes and the like. Two-ply or not, it’s swimming in tone.

Remo 22” Fiberskyn II: got it right

Remo 14” Legacy : still made? A single-ply freckled head that sounds how an Ambassador should sound.

Evans Hydraulic 14” Batter and 22” Bass Drum Batter (red or blue). It’s mushy; it’s got attitude; it offers a radically different timbre, certainly not white-bread. As I remarked when I wrote an Evans ad maybe 12-years ago, “it (the Hydraulic snare drum batter, also came with etched surface) allows you to go for that Abby Road (sic) tone”.

Evans 15” Symphonic: Hyper-thin, graced with just the right coating, and supported by a flesh hoop made of other than metal, this always sounds good on a concert snare or otherwise.

Remo Pinstripe 12”, 13”, 14”, 16” clear: If you’re patient when tuning Pinstripes, you can get all the things drummers feel are impossible to obtain in 2-ply heads: incredibly long sustain without unwanted pingy harmonics, good attack, and they’re mallet friendly. That’s the clear version. Now, Pinstripes do come in white-coated and, well, jury’s out on them. Okay, so I’m out on them.

You have a lot of nice things you can do with coated Pinstripes,” says Saint John, NB, Canada legend Joe McIntyre, “when using brushes or, especially, rods or Blastix. They give you a meatier sound because maybe the coating—well, let’s say that it’s the difference between throwing a rock in the water and getting a big splash with a lot of ripples (clear Pinstripe) and dropping a rock in the water and getting a more direct sound and less after-shock or ripples spreading out (coated Pinstripes). With the latter, you just get the tone. I don’t find them muted; they’re different. Some heads will go soft in the middle; it’s not that you dent them or anything; eventually they suffer from structural fatigue and even if you tighten them, that middle zone is soft or weakened. I find that the coated Pinstripes stay firm in the middle.”

Unfortunately none of the Pinstripe heads facilitates a rimshot worth mentioning, at least on toms. If you’re still babbling about “tea towels over the toms”, as if Ringo did that his entire tenure with The Beatles, then you’ll get your rimshot, I guess.

Evans ST Dry 14”: a splendid head that obviates the need for duct tape or any other prophylactic devices for muffling. Feels great, sounds great, and is almost as sensitive as the magnificent…

Canasonic 14” Medium: recommended for snare drum only. You will have trouble finding this one. Once again I’m winging it with my tech details but I believe it’s a woven fiberglass head, suitable for batter only (unless you’re recording in a small room or drum booth that’s clattery—and loosening heads all round. If bottom head resonance matters, you might try this or a Fiberskyn or an Evans EQ-series for the dark side of the drum. This head delivers a Steve Jordan circa 1980 punch providing you nail the rimshot properly, and with so little coaxing it’s sick. For snare drum, this item is so incredibly organic, so emphatically calf-like, in timbre and feel, it’ll set a standard you’d be hard-pressed to beat. “Beat”? Hmmm. Here’s the thing, speaking the Canasonic Medium 14” batter (and the 13” works great, speaking of, on the Yamaha Steve Jordan snare drum) the business about feel is not exaggerated. You tighten the drum ’til the drum key cannot go any further clockwise and, guess what, the batter head is still very much resilient, almost soft under your stick. It’s almost the antithesis of the standard Remo coated Ambassador, which, despite its strong suits can come out of the box stupid-brittle—not only that but at those cranked-up high-pitches rarely offers any frequencies I would consider useful with snares-off. With snares-on, at those pitches, anybody’s gonna sound like Joe Morello playing “Summertime”, ie the version with the pregnant rest on 1 and kicks-in, as I recall, on 2. To reiterate, this is an extremely personal choice and one I’ve made almost since day-1 on the drums. I’m guessing it’s a welcome foil to the almost universal trust accorded to the coated Ambassador

That spoken, there are drummers who can work up there—til that soil with the coated-A. Bill Stewart can do things with an Ambassador, tightened table-top and affixed to a hammered, (what Bill says is brass) Ludwig snare drum that affords tone from the throne perspective and from the engineer’s/audience’s. I’m still holding off on the promised feature on what it’s like to attend a Bill S recording session, in my case in Brooklyn. Suffice for now that I witnessed Bill taking great pains to work with the engineer out on the floor and behind the board ensuring that the sound out there is the same as the sound in the drum room. Although my recording career was winding way down at the time (2008, I believe) I learned enough to suggest to me that in no way did I know the whole story about recording drums.

Another model in the Canasonic line, which included colored heads (including jet-black: thanks Larry from DC for generously sending me an ostensibly new 14” thin, rare beast) was the Medium No-Overtone, again intended for snare drum and perhaps a 14” floor tom if dead is your thing. Actually, it was less than dead in some applications.  I left it on a 1927 brass Ludwig Standard for a decade-and-a-half and every time I’d pull it out to record with it, it sounded like the day it was new, begging the question. Incidentally, I never used the 1920s Ludwig metal drum live much due to the extremely short throw of the snare wires when released from the bottom side; they’d always chatter away like birds on a wire.

If you’re fortunate enough to find an old Canasonic head, one of two things is likely to happen. You’ll seat it on your drum and love it, at least if you tune it medium or above; or you fit it over the drum shell and the head will crack at the counterhoop. Keep old Canasonics on a drum, not on a shelf; they seem to degrade faster the latter way.

To be sure, let me know if you’d like to send me gratis a round of old Canasonics (well-used is just fine): TBruceWittet@gmail.com

Aquarian SK (I): They tell me that this single-ply item the bass drum head from hell. Here I nod to my industry copy-writing mentor, the great Steve Ettleson, who wrote the description on the Evans bass drum ad debuting the Evans EQ4, “the bass drum of doom” or similar.

The Aquarian, according to so many players, including a great local drummer Andrew Lamarche, features everything drummers want: a solid attack component, read “punch”, followed by a blossoming of mids and cushioned by enough sub-lows to keep the weekend warriors happy. By that I mean that stadium drummers generally don’t seek the same kind of low frequency bump, simply because stadium PA systems won’t reproduce them and, besides, are inherently working with plenty of lows, forget about any drumhead. But for clubs, unmiked situations, etc, the Aquarian SK is indeed the “super kick” implicit in its designation. I can tell you for a fact that when I wrote copy for Evans they were plenty concerned about the industrial strength build-stability of the Aquarian bass drum head. This is likely centered on what Roy Burns claims is the strongest metal counterhoop in the business. In my part of the world, Aquarian heads are not as readily available as others—and the company, although tremendously cooperative, had never bothered to send me a single sample of anything anytime. But my limited experience with their heads, particularly the Super Kick and the model described immediately below, tells me that on that desert island I keep referring to, a set of Aquarian heads would not be unwelcome, particularly the one I have used extensively, at least during the late 1980s, and which have survived to tell the tale and which fit on any modern drum without distortion, the….

Aquarian Studio X (snare, toms): Does anybody remember true pitch? Nice feeling, moderately coated but not choked; wide tuning range. These foster a drummer who draws tone out of the drum a really full, thick tone with a broad dynamic range. They’ll speak (or swish with a brush) and, furthermore, the 1-ply white-underside-ringed batters do not blow-out if hit hard.

Attack drumheads, T Bruce Wittet's alternate choice for problem drums

Attack 1-ply Medium Tone Ridge 16”: the lip—an actual 4” plateau that rises above the striking surface and, thus, the “ridge” designation—does something to this head that solves any problems I’ve ever had with 16×16 floor toms. We’re not talking about a circumference ring, as in Evans EQ, Remo Powertone, and Aquarian SK, but, rather, an actual raised portion, which, at first glance, looks weird and fragile. But you get used to it and, again, it’s not the average drummer’s zone for attacking the drum. My man Tommy K, great drummer and drum tech, brought over a 1970s Pearl fiberglass 16×16 fitted with the Attack Tone Ridge head. The drum, frankly, sounded marvelous…at all dynamic levels. Try as I might, I attempted to get a solid performance out of various alternate choices: the Evans EC, Remo Pinstripe, Diplomat, etc…nothing came remotely close. Tuned medium to medium-loose this head transformed an already good Pearl 16” fiberglass floor tom into possibly the most inviting 16×16 I’ve ever heard irrespective of brand. And the next morning, it sounded just as good….

Take what I say about Attack with a grain of salt.

I’ve only had experiences with three or four Attack heads. Three of them made it onto snare drums, however briefly. One was the Jeff Ocheltree Old School: a well-built decent batter head for snare (maybe toms).

The next batters prompt me to bow to Tom Shelley, head of Universal, who generously supplied me with several 2-ply Terrio Bozzio heads back-when. It’s probably me but I couldn’t get anything out of them on any drum. They featured no circumference ring, no damping whatsoever but they choked any drum I tried. Maybe it’s just me or maybe I got a rare bad TB production run—really rare because I’ve never heard about quality control issues with Attack. And when I heard, again back-when, that drummers the likes of Rick Gratton were using them, I realize it must have been me failing to understand something essential about those heads; I’ve kept them, though. And I’ll keep trying them. Actually, one of them just worked wonders on a bastard fiberglass snare drum made for me by my tech/adviser Tommy K. That drum, beautifully adorned in aqua satin flame, was so ringy that it got a rimshot fanatic like me seriously frightened. When I got around to experimenting with Attack heads, I stopped in my tracks. All the bad ring done left & gone, as it were. If you watch these pages, you’ve seen this drum in past but here it is again in another breathtakingly exclusive pic. Sounds as good as it looks.

Notice how I rarely rag on gear? The reason is that I relish the quality, variety, and reasonable prices of a lot of today’s gear. What’s not to like?

Actually, a truck load, some of it really shite and not in a good way. But I’d rather not dip my foot in that blackpool…sink or swim in negativity. Good stuff rises to the top, speaking cream on a pitch-black pond. Not only are we mixing metaphors but we’re creating nightmares for some of you. Enough, already.

All gear is good. I rarely, and I’m sure you’re the same, break heads, drum hardware, cymbals, or much other than sticks. So it’s all good. But what if I had my druthers? Which heads would accompany me on the journey?

One last note, if I haven’t mentioned it already inadvertently. I mix and match heads; I save used heads and mount them on various drums, not all of them sharing the bearing edge profile of the shell that broke-in the virgin head.

Sometimes you can swap heads to other drums. Other times, the first drum creates a crease in the film that mitigates against such experimentation. It’s a matter of trying stuff…and exhibiting the patience of a saint. Okay, finally to those heads I would want on the voyage:

Desert Island Skins: TBW Best-of Awards

Evans 22” EQ1 “coated” If there existed a desert island studio, like George Martin’s on Montserrat (before the quake), I’d go in with an Evans EQ1 coated and remove whatever was on the house bass drum, as I’ve done so many times elsewhere. I say “coated” due to the substantial difference between any white-coated drumhead and the “blasted” opaque EQ1. Now, as with certain other Evans heads, the opaque quality may be due simply to the absence of white pigment. Whatever the case, there is magic in that opaque finish. The bass drum tone becomes immediately focused, almost pitched, and simultaneously muffled (just right for mic’s) and alive and kicking. Like a fish on the bottom of a row boat. Speaking of kicks, I’ve rarely had to use more than a couple of Evans EQ Pads (DW makes a version, as does Remo) Velcroed to the bottom of my bass drum. Nothing more was needed. Of course, perhaps if the mic’ were an inch distant from the batter head I’d really have wanted more mass inside or, in the alternative, to have pressed the muffling more snugly against the batter head. At the end of the day, that head has ended up on at least 100 jingles (I’m dating myself: today jingles are done with sequences for the most part) and more local albums than you can imagine or will ever hear. What I like about that head—among the many things I like about the EQ1—is that it makes a budget bass engineered locally sound like George Massenburg at Ocean Way. To me, the EQ1 represents the archetypical circumference-damped bass drum head but still allows a modicum of sustain and, even, an explosion if you don’t bury the beater. Don’t confuse the Evans EQ, or for that matter the Remo Powerstroke, or similar, heads with the old Remo Pinstripe which, at best, performs moderately well on a bass drum. An odd exception was Jack DeJohnette, who was using them on double-kicks (yup, 2 of them) first time I saw him. He sounded great and was lucid, when we talked between sets for a Modern Drummer interview, on the design concept—eliminating spurious overtones from the circumference area. The truth be told, Jack tensioned his drums so tight/high, and played with such force, it would have been difficult to discern Pinstripe from Diplomat!

Remo 14” Emperor Coated (aka Heavy): my bet for the best batter head for snare drums. Coated only, although the clear fosters a clean, clanging rimshot.

As with the above, the following is personal but gains from considerable experience live & recorded.

Why bludgeon-force Emperor and not sensitive sacred Ambassador? The most substantial, and empirically measurable, difference between Ambassador and Emperor is in the sustain from a rimshot. The Emperor rimshot rings noticeably longer than the Ambassador. I’m not talking about bizarre transients you measure an hour later but real-world tone drummers can take to the bank.

Mind you, you need take but a cursory glance at any one of a hundred Modern Drummer magazines, then combine it with anecdotal evidence, to conclude that I’m way over the edge, such is the typical interviewee’s adulation for the coated-A.

I don’t buy any of that. Fact is, you take a 2-ply head like the Emperor (you used to have to leaf through them at the shop…find a good one that sustained & flapped a little when you tapped it) and it doesn’t distort when you slap it; when you snap a rimshot loudly, the highs don’t blow-out. I’ve used them, off and on, since 1975…not for the sake of durability but for: (1) tone, more robust and (2) feel. The feel under your stick is so much gentler and organic. People talk about calf. To me, the coated Emperor (well, at least some of them) are the closest to calf. This whole business about 2-ply heads not offering sufficient attack; and being slower in response is bullshit. Learn how to tune drums and you’ll get a great sound. Especially, if, like Tony Williams, who used them with Miles after an initial spell with 1-ply heads, you tune a little higher: out front and through microphones the drum is perceived as pitched lower than it is (apols for grammar).

Remo Renaissance Emperor: Right now you’re sick up to here hearing about 2-ply heads but this one’s special. Whatever they’ve done with the Renaissance, and I’m thinking it’s analogous to the J1 etching process, it works a treat with the Emperor. It’s the closest head in my collection to the 1960s 2-ply Ambassador and the sustain is like a Paiste cymbal, controlled, even, and perfectly balanced. The Renaissance Ambassador does nothing for me; in fact, it does less than the regular coated Ambassador. It sounds a little darker, yes, but thinner, too. The Renaissance Emperor, however, is one of those heads you know will work on any snare drum—not tom tom, necessarily—and, what’s more, the brush tone, especially with wire strands, hisses like summer lawns.

Evans ST: in my opinion, vies with the Emperor as the best 2-ply head in history. It presaged the rise of the current Emperor X and the like—heads that do what Evans has been doing for years with the ST: incorporating 2 thick plies. The original Emperor formula was, apparently, just that. Ain’t nothin’ new under the sun. Except that the ST smokes most of the others, seriously. I must qualify that I’m talking 14” only. For snare, it just ain’t fair. For toms, I have no experience with ST heads but I have experience with the newer Vintage Emperors and they do the trick. On toms, believe it or not, I believe that the thicker plies enters the zone of diminishing returns.

We’ll leave the closer to Joe McIntyre who is a little more objective than me, although note that he admits, “I’m a creature of habit and I do tend to stay with the most consistent heads. In my experience, and I”ve tried just about every head out there, the Ambassador through the years has been the most reliable. I buy an Ambassador and I know what I’m going to get—what sound I’m going to get; it’s not guesswork.”

What do you think? If you have any positive ideas or observations, or, better, heads to send me to, ahem, evaluate, I can be reached here: TBruceWittet@Gmail.com