There are a variety of materials used for drum construction. Traditionally most drums shells or frames are made of wood and the heads or skins are made of animal hides. These days materials such as fibreglass, plastics, metal even glass are added to the list of drum shell construction. Heads currently still use real animal skin as often as not, just as wood is used as often as fibreglass for the shell (well almost). There are a variety of reasons for choosing which of these materials will be used in making a drum. If you are purchasing a drum for personal use it is wise to consider the different options and reasons you might choose each.
Heads traditionally are made from a prepared animal hide (or fish skin). Goat is a common skin to use with an African drum called a djembe. North American natives drums use the skins of elk, deer, buffalo, caribou, or cattle (historically this would have been buffalo on the prairies). Other natural choices might include seal bladders and walruses, snake or lizard even shark or zebra. Elephants are now protected, but were once used to make drum heads. Even more disturbing is the use of human skin. Synthetic drum heads have been around for decades. They are made of variations of plastics (Mylar) and other composites depending on the desired usage or tonal quality. Some synthetic drum heads are made with textures to give a more authentic look and feel. The strength of synthetics is able to be controlled much more readily. Thicknesses as well can be adjusted during manufacturing depending on the desired drum sample outcome. Our recommendation is the drum kits free package. Some of these drum heads are made by putting two very thin layers together with a thin layer of oil between them to control the length of time the skin rings. These are known as hydraulic skins.
Durability wise, there is a vast difference between natural skin and synthetic. Natural skin needs frequent applications of some sort of conditioner such as lanolin (obtained from sheep) in order to keep the skin pliable. The worst feeling you can have is to be playing along in a nice groove when suddenly finding the head is broken beneath your hand (or drumstick). Synthetic heads can be broken, but usually under excessive force or deterioration. Typically synthetic skins will outlast natural skins by ten times or more. In addition to these factors, an important consideration is the climate that you live in or where the drum will be played. We live in a very arid climate. In winter sometimes there is no precipitation for weeks on end. Humidity is a major factor of influencing the longevity of most musical instruments. In arid regions skins will become tighter and tighter, changing the pitch as well as increasing the danger of rupturing the head. In high humidity the skin may last longer, but may also need to be tuned just as frequently if your area’s precipitation levels fluctuate a lot. In addition another danger of high humidity is the onset of mold.
Some would argue that natural skin “feels” more, and produces a warmer sound. Others say that synthetics produce more consistent sound and durability. Both are true, but every person needs to evaluate which qualities are more important to them in their situation.
Natural hide is greatly affected by temperature and humidity and change pitch with the slightest change of either. Synthetic heads handle temperature and humidity well, but they don’t feel as comfortable to play. Some less expensive ones may have a tendency to sound flatter than a natural head.
When considering the two main kinds of drum heads, it is also important to decide how much effort you want to put into tuning the head. Natural skins need to be attached to the shell in a way that allows them to be tensioned in order to get the proper tonal quality. This is achieved in a variety of ways. Commonly the skin’s edge is wrapped around a ring a little larger than the circumference of the drum shell. Another ring of equal size is tensioned downward using rope or stiff cord to finish the drum samples. This method has worked well for hundreds of years until an alternative was invented. Synthetic heads have the advantage of being able to be mounted to a ring with precise accuracy so there are no edges that get more tension than others. The manufacturer mounts the heads to a ring as well, but they are virtually inseparable. This ring is tensioned using lug screws attached to the shell making tuning as simple as turning a screw. Traditional skins can be difficult to tune. The roping system is complex as well as time consuming. Tuning a traditional head is certainly something you would not want to do often, but if you should want to tune a synthetic head it is not a bother at all.