BY AJ DONAHUE
We sometimes create internal ideals or standards that are simply unattainable in the real world. In this case, we imagine the perfect sound, and spend too much money and time trying to find it.
That seems to be true for many drummers when it comes to the quest for almost indefinable “vintage” characteristics. Somewhere between Shelly Manne, Max Roach, and Earl Palmer, there’s a warm, round, thumping tone that may be as much the result of dated recording techniques as acoustical properties. Regardless, that thing, whatever it is, has been the carrot dangling before the noses of many drummers for what feels like decades.
Frequently, that sound is attributed to the use of calfskin heads. However, animal hide has largely been the domain of diehard purists, as they’re often costly and overly susceptible to temperature and humidity changes. For that reason, drumhead manufacturers have spent years trying to recreate that beloved tone and feel using film instead of skin.
COOL STORY. NOW WHAT?
Aquarian’s Modern Vintage II and Deep Vintage II series heads are the latest synthetic challengers to tackle this proposition. Both lines feature double-ply construction and a heavy application of the Vintage Coating found on the company’s Modern and American Vintage single-ply lines. The heads were originally designed to offer the same traditional sound as their predecessors with added durability, but a product test by an Aquarian endorser helped identify some additional benefits of the design. We’ll get back to that later.
Now, the idea of using a 2-ply head to replicate the sound of calfskin may sound a little dubious, but Aquarian has a few tricks up its sleeve to improve the results. Last year, the company reformulated the Mylar used in all of its drumheads. The resulting Nu-Brite film offered increased tone and clarity with added brightness. The company also beefed up its vacuum process, which allows for a nearly absolute seal between each ply.
So, after all of those changes, how do the Modern and Deep Vintage II heads measure up? We dug in.
OLD IS NEW AGAIN
The Modern Vintage II heads use two 7mil plies, a fairly standard design among 2-ply models throughout the industry. But that Vintage Coating made them feel stiffer in hand than comparably weighted heads. I was a little worried it might translate to a deader sound, but the results were surprising.
To start, I put the Modern Vintage II heads on a 12″/14″/14″/18″ vintage bop kit with thick shells and wide, rounded edges. This process provided what would be the only real problem I had with either series – ironically, the seating of the heads on vintage shells.
Both series feature hoops that aren’t large enough to easily fit on the wider shells of some older drums (unlike the company’s American Vintage line, which includes a wider flesh hoop). Additionally, the collars seemed shorter than average, which made me install longer tension rods on my bass drum and floor tom to mount the heads properly. However, this wasn’t a problem when I mounted the head on modern kits, and likely won’t be an issue on many other vintage kits either, but rather was the result of my kit having shorter rods.
Once I got the heads seated properly, they tuned up very quickly and evenly, which was a little surprising given the snugness of the hoop. I began by cranking the tension to see if the extra weight noticed earlier would choke or deaden the tone, as I’d feared.
Thankfully, that wasn’t the case at all. Tuned up high, the heads offered a sweet, full sound that settled just a bit faster than conventional coated heads. Low volume strokes brought out a clear, warm note with a moderate decay, which, to put it plainly, was really beautiful.
Surprisingly, louder play elicited an entirely new character. Under a heavy stroke, the heads pumped out huge, fat lows with a round, cushy tone that sounded unlike any synthetic head I’ve tried. Each note had that warm, robust whump that seems to be the hallmark of calfskin. Every time I sat down, I couldn’t help but run through a quick (and terrible) rendition of Sing, Sing, Sing because the sound was so spot on.
All of the Modern Vintage II heads maintained that same dynamic throughout every tuning. Across the board, they were full and fat with a soft attack that built up to a centered and much larger note. No matter the context, I just couldn’t get enough of these heads.
I tried the MVIIs on several snare drums of varying age and material, and found consistent results throughout. They beefed up mids and lows, while leaving just enough crack to cut through in louder situations (a quality no doubt the result of Aquarian’s updated Nu-Brite formula). Brush strokes were warm and washy, but carried less volume (maybe a little less than they would on a brand new coated head) than I’d expected given the thickness and texture of the coating.
The Deep Vintage II series features the same construction as the Modern Vintage II heads, except with thicker 10mil plies for added durability and depth. On the whole, the Deeps were remarkably similar to the Modern Vintage IIs, only a lot fatter.
The extra weight brought the pitch down, but also seemed to increase projection just a bit. I threw the DVIIs on a modern maple kit (with no fit or seating problems), and took them to an indoor rock gig where I knew I’d be playing without microphones. I was concerned the decreased attack would leave my toms lacking the punch needed to cut through guitars but, to my surprise, they popped right out, and sounded huge at that.
While the Modern heads felt more suitable for a variety of environments, I’d say that the Deep models were perfect for loud settings, like electric blues, classic rock, and modern country, where punch and attack take a backseat to fatness and big boom. I even used them in a kind of prog group with no real problems.
THAT OLD SCHOOL BUMP
I wanted to save the bass drumheads for last because each turned out to be intriguing. Aquarian shipped over an 18″ Modern Vintage II, as well as 18″ and 22″ Deep Vintage IIs. I started with the 18s, equipping the MVII as the batter and the DVII as the resonant head.
I tuned each side up to about the same medium-high pitch, and then gave it a quick thump.
Wow! With barely any fuss, I got that sweet, tone-heavy bop sound, but with so much presence. That’s not to say it was over-whelming, but it just filled up that low-end zone in a way the drum had never done before.
Neither head was ported, and the only muffling used was a pre-installed felt strip running between the 1:30 and 4:30 positions inside each head. It proved to be the perfect amount of muffling for any tuning. Even way down low, the 18″ kick gave me a solid boom perfect for R&B or hip-hop. I’ll say it again. Wow.
The 22″, on the other hand, was a little harder to dial in. When I tried my standard tuning for that drum (very loose), the sound was a little wobbly with a few too many conflicting overtones. But when I tuned the batter up to a bit above medium tension and left the resonant side as slack as possible (à la Tony Williams) –bam–Igotabig, tightboom with a warm finish. It was a great big band sound that breathed new life into four-on-the-floor grooves.
COULD’VE FOOLED ME
At the top of this review, I mentioned a particular endorser identifying some additional payoff resulting from the new design. Well, that mystery artist was none other than the late, great big band legend, Ed Shaughnessy.
In a conversation with Roy Burns (speaking of big band legends), I was told the story of Mr. Shaughnessy trying the heads and being totally convinced that they were some kind of treated calfskin. He repeatedly asked Mr. Burns if they were actually animal hide, only to be reassured that they were in fact Mylar heads.
So, in working to create more durable additions to the Vintage line, the team at Aquarian actually produced a sound that was even more faithful to that of classic calf than ever before. I’d say that’s quite an accomplishment.
It would be easy to read the following statement and assume it’s undue lip service paid out of respect to a venerable manufacturer, but I want to make it clear that this is my absolute, most honest assessment of these heads: Aquarian’s Modern and Deep Vintage II series are truthfully the closest facsimiles to calf heads I’ve encountered.
However, it would be unfair to limit this verdict to a simple comparison. Sure, both series really nailed that sound, but they also proved more versatile and tonally rich than their calf counterparts. I’d be interested to try the Modern and Deep Vintage II lines with just slightly wider flesh hoops, but other than that, I’d say Aquarian absolutely hit a home run.
Plies Modern Vintage II: Two 7mil plies; Deep Vintage II: Two 10mil plies
Sizes 8″ to 26″
Extras Bass drumheads in each series include a pre-installed muffling strip mounted internally for moderate tone control.
Model & List Price
Modern Vintage II 12″ $32
Modern Vintage II 14″ $36
Modern Vintage II 18″ $49
Deep Vintage II 12″ $32
Deep Vintage II 14″ $36
Deep Vintage II 18″ $49
Deep Vintage II 22″ $94