Drumheads can be an intimidating and overwhelming purchase for anyone. This process becomes much easier when you know exactly what you want out of your drums and the general results certain heads give you.
This post will be extremely nerdy and practical but the end goal is to serve God, your church, and your worship team well. My hope is that it will teach drummers in the church more about gear and give worship directors a guide to maintain quality drum sounds.
Any kit can sound great with the right set of heads and good maintenance.
It’s strongly encouraged to change all the heads before purchasing any new gear. A pro level kit can cost anywhere from $1000-$5000 just for shells alone. A fresh set of heads usually is in the $150-$180 range.
Getting good drum tones start with posture and technique: Technique and posture are always the start to a good (or bad) drum sound. The upper body should be aligned vertically with the hips, not slumped. Playing surfaces should be well in reach and in natural striking areas. Better posture and efficiency means less exhaustion over longer playing times.
The stroke should start with and be powered mostly by the wrists. This activates both heads correctly and engages the bottom head. The physical goal is to send energy through the top head so that it resonates well and sends enough energy down the shell to the resonant head. The hands should always be relaxed so that the sticks vibrate and produce a clean, not choked sound. Remember, the sticks/heads should be resonating and absorbing the shock of playing, not your body.
The tips of the sticks should always lead each stroke with the exception of the Moeller Whip, which is an entirely different animal. It gives you much more volume and speed with much less work. It’s great for snare backbeats and ghost notes. Jojo Mayer has a great breakdown of this technique.
Incorrect technique yields a thin, bright drum tone. This usually comes from using too much upper arm/shoulder in the stroke or the hands are choking off the sticks. These strokes tend to glance the batter head. They do not create enough energy to travel down the shell and engage the bottom head. Use arms for show, not for power or speed.
The ones you hit. These take the most abuse and should be replaced often; depending upon how often a drum set is played, you should change these at least every 4-6 months on snare and toms, kick heads should last close to a year. Most batter heads can be used on snare and toms but there are a few specific exceptions. If you see many dents or cratering, you might try thicker heads, thinner sticks or examine individual technique.
The opposite side of the batter head, or the ones you don’t hit. They allow drums to resonate properly. They are important for a quality drum sound. Make sure these heads are replaced yearly. If the kit sounds dull or lifeless after a fresh set of batter heads, it’s most likely a resonant head issue.
Traditionally coated because of brushwork in jazz music. They stuck with that characteristic sound even when rhythm and blues was introduced into the music scene. Snare drums are already naturally bright and resonant instruments; coated heads help dial the brightness and resonance back quite a bit. The snare drum is easily the loudest drum on stage. If the snare is killing everyone in volume, try a lower tuning or thicker batter heads. If it’s still crazy, try dampening the batter head with a handkerchief. If you’re in a boomy or overly resonant room, snare volume is an understandable issue. Work with the sound engineer on tuning and muffling.
Make sure there is always a snare side head on the resonant side of the snare drum. There’s a huge difference between a normal resonant head and a snare-side head. These heads are paper-thin and are designed to give the most articulation with snare wires. There is a characteristic sound to snare drums, using too thick of a head on the snare wire side will bring the quality of sound down quite a bit.
Kick heads are usually complemented with muffling inside the kick drum. Any specific kick drum resonance control product will work fine but it’s also easy to use pillows or towels.
Start with the drum completely open and add muffling until you find something that sits in the mix well. I like an open but punchy tone.
Adding weight/mass to the kick drum will also drop the fundamental pitch and center the tone. I use an 8 pound sealed sandbag that I purchased from a local camera store. You can also pick up a 5 or 10 pound weight from any sports store. Make sure to put a towel between the weight and the shell so it doesn’t rash the inside of the drum. Also remember to remove it before moving the drum or loading out.
Adding a KickPort to your resonant head greatly focuses the tone of the kick drum. I highly recommend this product.
Feels thin, direct, “ticky”, bright attack, long sustain and moderately durable.
Thick, “thuddy,” punchy, darker attack, shorter sustain and very durable.
Coating tends to control overtones and color the head a little bit darker. They have a warm attack, short sustain, darker/warmer tone. The powder coat is sprayed directly on the top of the head.
Clear heads are more open in the sound and tend to have a bright/clean attack, long sustain and brighter tone. They can usually be tuned to a lower fundamental pitch that speaks a little longer.
These heads have different manufacturing processes that yield different articulations.
Remo – Ebony – 1 or 2 ply, bright attack, medium sustain, deep tone, works well as a resonant head, especially for a bass drum.
Evans – black chromes – 2 ply, bright attack, short sustain, deep tone.
Frosted/suede – 1 or 2 ply, dark attack, short sustain, blended tone between clear and coated.
Mylar (plastic) or foam, these rings help kill overtones and give you a more direct sound. Foam rings most often come pre-installed on kick-drum heads. Mylar rings can come on specific heads or you can purchase separate rings.
Tip: Try a powerstroke 3 on the batter of a snare or resonant side of a floor tom to help control sustain.
Great for iso booths or shields, shorter sounds are preferred in these circumstances.
Dots reinforce the batter area of heads. Small dots/patches added on batter kick heads greatly lengthen the life span. There are series from most head companies that have the dots preinstalled for tom/snare/kick heads. They tend to give snare heads a lower fundamental and clearer tone as well.
Professional gaff tape is great on any drum or cymbal. They leave little to no residue and have good effects on tone. I use gaff tape on every drum and cymbal to make sounds shorter and clearer off the deck. You should be able to find gaff tape in any major music shop that has a pro audio department. You can also find it at camera shops.
We gaff cymbals in every venue at the Austin Stone to keep cymbals from bleeding in the vocal mics, thus giving us a clear mix. A clear mix means the gospel is heard well, which should be why we’re on stage. Not much gaff tape is required, just enough to barely take the length of sustain out. It should not be noticeable from 10 feet out and the characteristic sound of the cymbal should not be affected. In other words, the cymbal should not sound like it’s broken.
Snareweight is a small company that makes great products. They add mass to the head, drop the fundamental pitch and control resonance.
Newer company that makes great products. These “tacs” molecularly bond to the head. There’s no residue and they work very well.
Small sticky gel pieces that contour sound well on drums. These products tend to get dirty quickly, wash with warm soapy water to restore stickiness.
Drums typically need space to breathe to sound the best. Not all rooms are ideal but in some cases you need a shield or even an isolation booth. When drums are put in small areas, transients tend to be present more than usual in other mics. This is especially true on snare drums and cymbals. Shorter, lower, and darker sounds tend to work better in these environments. Due to the lack of space, the drums seem to sound thin and resonate much longer and this can give the sound engineer some issues. In reality, the drums are acting normal; the sound simply has nowhere to go other than bouncing off all the hard surfaces. Use resonance control products to make life easier on the sound engineer in these situations. Use some gaff tape on cymbals to control wash.
Toms: Batter – clear or coated 2 ply heads.
Resonant – clear 1 ply heads.
Snare: Batter – coated 2 ply, coated single/double ply with a dot or mylar ring.
Resonant – hazy medium snare side head – ambassador or 300 snare side head.
Kick: Batter – 2 ply with foam ring.
Resonant – 1 ply with mylar ring.
Toms: Batter – coated 1 ply heads.
Resonant – clear medium 1 ply heads.
Snare: Batter – coated 1 ply or 1 ply with mylar ring.
Resonant – hazy lightweight snare side head – diplomat, hazy 200.
Kick: same as large venue.
Toms: Batter – coated or clear 1 or 2 ply heads, try mylar rings to manage resonance.
Resonant – clear thin 1 ply heads, add resonance control.
(Using rings on both sides might shorten the sustain too much. Start with one, add the other if necessary.)
Snare: same as large venue.
Kick: Batter – If the batter head seems to be too bright, try the coated version of
your favorite head. Add more muffling to get a less resonant, thumpy sound.
Resonant – same as large venue.
Working with the sound engineers at the Austin Stone, I’ve settled on low, open, clean sounds from my kit. I like using a 5 piece: kick, snare, 3 toms (12, 14, & 16 or 12, 16, & 18). It gives me a huge choice of sounds to choose from. If I go on the road with Logan, I usually take a 4-piece: kick, snare, 2 toms (12 & 16).
My snare and toms are extremely low to fill the mix rather than cut through.
Kick is at standard tuning.
Keep in mind that I usually play in a large room on a very small stage with no shield. The space from the kit to the vocal mics is very small and I am normally a heavier hitter. The more cutting my instrumentation is, the more I have to hold back. I usually use Evans or Remo heads. You should be able to find both brands in any music store.
Toms – Clear emperors on the 12, 14, and 16, clear powerstroke 3 on the 18in for batter, clear ambassadors on all as resonants.
Snare – Controlled sound or Powerstroke 77 on the batter, hazy ambassador or hazy 300 resonant/snare side.
Kick – Emad 2 with the thicker foam ring batter, Powerstroke 3 ebony, clear or Fiberskyn resonant. I also have an Evans EQ pad and an 8 pound sealed sandbag inside the drum.
Again, the ultimate goal as a worship drummer is to serve God, your worship leader, and your church well. Do everything you can to make sure the gospel is communicated clearly. Also, do everything you can to push the quality of the worship culture in a better direction at your church, but don’t forget humility. Pride and entitlement are two great enemies of worship musicians. Humbly work with your sound engineers and worship leaders to reach the best environment for your church.