Modern Drummer Review - April 2002

EarthTone Natural Skin Drumheads - Old Tonality Meets New Technology

I remember waiting for an outdoor band concert to begin when I was a very young boy. Although it was a clear evening, it had rained during the afternoon, so there was dampness in the air. The group was set up and about to play. I looked up at the stage and saw fire coming from the back row. Although I feared that something must be terribly wrong, I noticed that I was the only concerned. So I took a closer look. At the back of the band sat a percussionist holding a pair of bongos over a flaming can of Sterno. I didn't find out until years later that this was how players of the time dealt with skin heads. In fact, it had been a concern of drummers and percussionists for generations. A skin head produces great tones and warmth, but is subject to dramatic - and infuriating - tension changes due to varying atmospheric conditions. This is why plastic heads gained prominence so quickly after they were introduced in the late 1950s. There was also the matter of durability: Plastic heads were durable, skin heads were not. Until now, that is. Gold Tone Instruments produces a range of folk instruments. They also make real skin banjo heads, which can be especially prone to tuning problems. Gold Tone found that their skin heads were 90% trouble-free as compared to a regularly mounted skin head. Their experience in this area enabled them to move into the skin drumhead market. Thus, Earthtone drumheads were born.

The new skin heads come pre-stretched and pre-mounted on an aluminum rim, just like a plastic head, so no old-fashioned "tucking" is required. Each head features a molded-in crown, also like a plastic head, to work with the bearing edges on modern drums. A proprietary process ensures the heads' structural integrity, and their surface is naturally textured for brush use. Because of their organic nature, the heads require a one-to-two-day relaxing period, during which some stretching will occur. After that they can be tuned easily in a normal manner.

Although Earthtone heads feature mounting and molding technology far superior to that of skin heads in the 1940s and 50s, they are made of a natural material that's subject to the influence of heat and humidity. Still, I used them over a period of time when the weather changed pretty dramatically, and no head ever became unplayable or untunable. At the most, I'd say that you might need to tune an Earthtone head a bit more frequently than you would a plastic head.

Next of Skin

I began my testing with a fairly limited experiment: I replaced the plastic batter head on my 16" floor tom with an Earthtone head. The result was stunning. The drum changed in character from decent-sounding to warm and round. The skin head warmed up the tone and made it exceptionally full. When I also replaced the bottom head, the sound was so warm and resonant that it literally changed my concept of how to play the drum. I felt like I was playing into the drum rather than bouncing off the top. The body and sustain were incredible. I could hit the drum, go make a pot of tea, and come back to find it still ringing.

The bass drum was next. Again, I first changed only the batter head. The result was a full, ringing sound from that head. I could imagine clamping an old-fashioned muffler onto the hoop and adjusting it against the head. Re-installing the plastic batter head and changing the resonant head to a skin head left the attack intact. But the drum's sound out front also possessed the fullness that I had heard with a skin head on the batter side. I could hardly wait to play the drum with two skins. When I did it sounded like a concert bass. The bottom line is that the Earthtone heads produced all the sound I could handle. I needed only to decide how much of it to use. I didn't use much muffing, since I was enjoying the experience.

My rack toms gave the same response to the head replacement. When the top head alone was changed, the sound was noticeable warmer and fuller. Changing the bottom head more than doubled the effect. Based on this fact; I don't think that a Mylar head on the resonant side of the drum can realize the full potential of interacting with the skin head. When it comes to toms and bass drums, two heads seem to truly be better than one.

Any reservations I had regarding a natural-skin head working well on my snare were quickly eliminated. My "personal sound" comes from a 5" to 5½" deep acrylic or metal snare tuned rather high and crisp. I found that the Earth Tone batter head could be tuned up to those heights and still retain the warmth and depth that the nature of the head imparts. (There is no snare-side head available from Earthtone as of this time.) When I tried the head on a 6½" snare, the drum sounded warm and fat. When I played with brushes, the sound was smooth and full, with great consistency. (And it felt great to play on, too).

My wife, a classical percussionist, tried the head in a concert setting on an old Gretsch drum with cable snares, and also on a single-ply wood drum with wire snares. They both performed beautifully, with terrific response and tone from the head.

Heads Up

Although Earthtone skin heads come from a historic drumming tradition, I don't believe you need vintage drums in order to have them work their magic. Their warmth and fullness would enhance the sound of any drum, so it's up to you to see where you can use them. They aren't as durable as heavy-duty, twin-ply plastic heads with dots, so they may not be the best choice for blistering speed-metal playing. But they can hold their own against single-ply plastic heads in the durability department. And they offer much more character, both in sound and looks.