I have heard the cries and wailing: “Can someone please explain what the resonant head does!!!” Ok, not really, but it is a question that doesn’t seem to have many straight forward answers. Not only that, most of the information available online is either sorely lacking, or is just downright wrong.
The reso head of a drum is probably one of the more overlooked areas when it comes to the set up of your drum kit. Most drummers understand that they need a reso skin, but once it’s put on the drum, it’s rarely tuned or replaced. Not only that, but buying new heads seems to be a large expense for something that you don’t know what to do with.
So what exactly is the resonant head of a drum, and what does it do?
Difference Between Batter and Resonant Drumheads
Starting at the very beginning, if you are a little bit confused regarding batter head vs resonant head, the answer is pretty simple. The batter head (Sometimes referred to as the “top head”) is the part of the drum that you actually hit. The resonant head is the head of the bottom that responds to the batter being struck.
A quick tip for remembering which skin goes on what side is to look for the logo somewhere on the shell of the drum. Make sure that the batter drumhead is located on the top with the logo facing upright. From there it should be pretty easy.
If there doesn’t happen to be a logo, things get a little more complicated. In this case, you’ll have to look at the mounting system for more clues as to which way things are supposed to go.
What is The Resonant Head?
In short, the resonant drum head, or bottom head as it’s sometimes called, is exactly as it’s name implies: A drum head that resonate off the vibrations from the batter head. Essentially, you can consider the resonant head as one of the key factors in controlling a drum’s sustain.
When the batter head (top head) is struck, it vibrates creating an air column that pushes air outwards. When the air makes contact with the bottom head, it gets sent back to the batter, and vice versa. This back and forth is what keeps the heads vibrating which creates a longer sound.
If you were to remove the bottom drumhead, you would hear a large amount of attack and tone, but have far less resonance. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The technique was a very popular one in the 70’s and 80’s. A bottomless tone can be heard in a lot of the funk style recordings from that era.
Times have changed, and modern drum sounds require more resonance, vibration, and sustain. Most of the pop and R&B style drum recordings today feature this “long tone” sound.
How a The Skin’s Thickness Affects the Sound
When it comes to really making a difference on your drums, the most important factor when choosing a resonant skin is the thickness.
The thicker the bottom head, the more resonance you get. As a result, thicker heads give more overtones. Alternatively, the thinner the drum head, the less resonance, and more fundamental tone you get.
It seems counterintuitive that this would be the case, however when it comes to drumheads, this is how it works.
The standard thickness for bottom heads are 7-mil or 10-mil (mil=one thousandth of an inch), and are usually single-ply (ply=layer). There really are no rules, and some heads will be up to 14-mil in thickness.
You can place whatever head you want on the bottom as long as you know what’s going to happen. Since the difference between a head’s thickness can be so small, you’ll have to train your ears to hear the difference in sound. At first, this may be tough to notice. Trust me, small differences lead to big changes to your overall sound.
The thicker the head, the more resonance you get
I will spare you a long winded physics lesson, but all you really need to know is that a thicker head has more mass to it. Greater mass equals more energy, and more energy leads to greater sustain. So when you are using thicker bottom heads, you receive more resonance.
Be forewarned however, greater resonance can lead to more overtones. When using thicker heads, you’ll have to ensure your pitch matching and tuning skills are better. It can become difficult to control everything. In a recording scenario, too many out of tune overtones can be a nightmare to deal with.
A lot drummers like this sort of sound. It gives you more options in terms of tunings and allows for long sustained tones. These are good for live playing scenarios. Consider it for smaller venues, dry sounding rooms, and jazz, pop, or r&b type situations.
On the other hand, a thinner head has less mass, dissipating sound quicker. This is because when struck, the drumhead vibrates faster and loses energy at a greater rate. As a result, you get a quick pronounced tone, more attack, and less sustain.
I consider thinner bottom heads ideal for rock and recording type scenarios. You get a stronger fundamental tone with a lot less overtones. This makes it easier to control the type of sound you are getting.
Thinner heads would be ideal for getting that dry funk sound or for loud rock drumming requiring greater attack with less resonance. They are also useful in larger venues and stadium environments, and any rooms that are very lively and have a lot of natural reverb.
One downside is that due to the increased vibrations of thinner heads, tuning must be more frequent due to more movement knocking the head around. There is also less rigidity in the actual head itself, and you will need to replace them more often since the film will wear out quicker.
If you are looking for a “warmer” tone on your drums, using a coated reso head is going to be your best bet. The coating on a head acts as a sort of muffling which reduces clarity but adds a warmer characteristic.
Due to coating having a rougher surface, the vibrations are dispersed unevenly, which will reduce the overall sustain and change the tone of the sound created.
If you enjoy the sound you get out of a thicker drum head, but are having trouble controlling the overtones, a coated head could make the difference. Take note that the coating will reduce some of the drums resonance.
Built in Muffling
Some resonant heads will have an additional set of dampening around the edges of the head. The reason for this is to create a more focused sound without losing sustain. Usually these heads have a small built in “dampening ring” around the outer edge, but muffling can come in many different forms.
If you’ve ever used tape or moongels to control overtones on your drums, these heads attempt to eliminate the need for those by building it into the skins themselves.
These dampening heads actually work really well. Due to the increased thickness, they give the drum great resonance, increased tone and a slightly deeper sound.
Not all heads are created equal, so as with anything drum related, your personal preference is what will determine which heads you like the best
Here is where most of the confusion and misinformation enters when discussing drumheads as a whole. Remember when I said a thicker head will provide more sustain, this is still true, however, when you put a 2-ply head on, the sustain decreases.
Yes, the head would seem thicker than before, but technically speaking, it isn’t. 2-ply heads involve two different skins being stuck together. These heads are usually adhered together with either a glue, or some type of liquid in between. By adhearing together, the drums have a far less chance of freely vibrating, and the overall sustain is reduced.
The main takeaway when using 2-ply skins as a reso head, is that you have more control over the overtones, but you lose a large amount of resonance. Using 2-ply heads on the bottom is not a very popular technique due to it almost “choking” a drum’s sound. As I said before, there are no rules, so try it out for yourself if you are curious.
Next let’s get to what is probably the most asked question about reso heads: tuning.
How to Tune the Bottom Head
There are only 3 ways that you can tune your resonant head (Other than completely removing it). Each tuning style should be considered in relation to the batter head:
- Bottom head at a lower pitch than the top head
- Bottom head at a higher pitch than the top head
- Bottom head at the same pitch as the top head
This is really all about physics, and is not the annoying “do what you like” excuse that most drummers give. Each tuning style will yield different results, so take some time to learn what you like.
Some drummers will wrongfully tell you that the resonant head controls the pitch of a drum. This is incorrect. Every head on a drum has it’s own pitch, and will affect how the drum sounds as a whole.
Again, there is no “right way” to tune your resonant head. In fact, you’ll find that it’s a 3-way tie in popularity among which method drummers use. But, knowing what’s going to happen with each style will make getting the sound you prefer a lot easier.
You and I both know how much of a pain it is to retune the drums. Learning what sounds you like early on will help reduce the amount of tuning time you’ll have to do later.
Resonant Head Tuned LOWER than the Batter Head
In either scenario where the bottom drum head is tuned to a different pitch than the batter head, the drum begins to “dry out”. This loss of resonance is due to the fact that the skins are vibrating at different rates from each other leading to a loss in energy.
Tuning the resonant head to a lower pitch than the batter head results in less sustain. Depending on the interval you choose, the drum will sound different. Experiment with different pitches yourself. Additionally, the lower resonant method will also create a slight pitch bend downwards.
As for practical uses, you will find this method more popular with the rock and metal drumming crowd. Due to the lower tuning, this method yields a deeper tone, creates a nice drop-off, and will have greater attack with less sustain.
It should be noted that having each head at a different interval makes it more important to have both heads in tune with themselves. Tuning the bottom head to any different pitch will create plenty of annoying overtones if the heads are slightly out.
Resonant Head Tuned HIGHER than the Batter Head
The same rules apply to a higher resonant head as they do with a lower resonant head. Whenever you are at a different pitch than the batter, you lose sustain. Again, this is not necessarily a bad thing, it’s just an important factor to be aware of.
In fact, many drummers prefer a dryer sound because it’s far easier to control, and you’re sound engineers will like you much more for it.
The main difference with the higher reso method is that due to the increased tightness of the skin, you gain a far more lively sound. The overall pitch will be higher, and the drum will have a quick bend upwards.
You will find this method to be more popular with the pop, jazz, and R&B crowd. This isn’t necessarily due to greater sustain, but rather a more live tone that is higher in general pitch. This of course is not a hard fast rule, and many drummers in that style may tune differently.
Both Resonant and Batter Head Tuned THE SAME
If you are wanting to get the maximum amount of resonance out of your drum, you will want to start with tuning both the batter and resonant head to the same notes. To get even more resonance, you’ll want that note to be one that vibes best with the actual shell itself (That lengthy discussion is for another time).
When both drumheads are tuned to the same note, they vibrate in concert together. This partnership between the two heads allows for the maximum amount of energy to be stored in the drums, yielding a longer sustain.
Some drummers prefer to tune the bottom head to a note that is either an octave below or above the batter. This method works as well, but you still have two different notes and some sustain will be lost.
If you require a very lively sound, this method would be the best option for you. When dealing with this sort of precision, you will need solid ear training to make sure that both heads are in tune with each other.
A lot of resonance with a bunch of nasty overtones might end up being a nightmare for your sound. What out If you happen to be in a room with a ton of natural reverb, like a cathedral. You might want to avoid this method to create a “cleaner sound” for your drums.
Pick Your Poison
Hopefully by now you have a far greater understanding of the resonant head. You should know how it affects the overall drum sound, how different types of heads make small but important changes, and the different tuning options available.
I cannot state this enough, but there are no definite rules to how your drum should sound. What you choose to do with your resonant head will be dictated by the style being played, the room you’re in, and personal tastes.
Never let anyone tell you that you have to tune a head a certain way, or that you can’t use 2-ply heads. Make sure to try everything out for yourself to see what works best for you.