BY JOHN ALDRIDGE
I’m a fan of calfskin heads. A slice of tuned leather resonating in harmony with a piece of wood is as close to perfect as a drum sound can get. Nothing comes close to the feel of a skin head literally throwing the stick back at you after being hit. It’s a spiritual experience that an entire generation of drummers has never experienced. But now that Earthtone has entered the business of drumhead manufacturing, it’s possible to try this phenomenon out for yourself without having to take a course in head tucking. But don’t expect cutting edge Mylar or revolutionary new coatings. These drumheads take one giant technological leap backwards, both in materials and sound. From this reviewer’s standpoint, the change couldn’t be any more timely or welcome.
For more than 100 years, drummers who wanted to use natural hide heads on snare drums or drum sets had only one option: Calfskin tucked onto wood or metal flesh hoops. To manufacture these heads, animal hides (mostly cow, pig, and goat, which had been soaked in a lime and tannic acid solution) were stripped of their hair and a fatty inner layer. This process could only be described as unpleasant at best, due to the ever-present stench of the hides. Once the heads had been stripped, they were skived (shaved with sharp double-handled knives) to a uniform thickness and mounted (tucked) onto flesh hoops. The tucking process alone is almost a lost art. The edge of the head has to be wrapped around the flesh hoop and tucked under the top surface to hold it in place. Although it’s a tedious process, it works remarkably well. I’ve seen heads that were more than 80 years old yet were still playable with a little restraint.
The biggest drawback is that traditional calf heads require a substantial amount of preparation before they can be used. First they have to be soaked and placed on the drum to form a collar (the bend where the head goes over the bearing edge). The head can be tightened when it’s partially dry, but only a bit. In order to ensure the best performance, it shouldn’t be tuned until it is completely dry. Needless to say, this made changing heads on the gig an almost impossible task. You can see why drummers were quick to jump on the plastic bandwagon when Chick Evans came up with his synthetic heads in the ’50s. Still, the mystique of calf and its legendary sound have always kept a few devotees in thrall. But the choice between convenience and a need for constant attention guaranteed that calf would fall to the back of the line as a working drummer’s choice.
SPLITTING THE DIFFERENCE
Enter Earthtone, an American company that distributes and markets a full range of South American goatskin heads that are crimped into metal flesh hoops in a manner very similar to Mylar heads. This takes almost all of the guesswork out of using hide heads. You don’t have to wet the heads before installing them, they have a pre-formed collar that adapts nicely to vintage drums as well as modern bearing edges, and they are crimped into metal flesh hoops, which means that you don’t have to worry about heads warping when they’re stored. In short, even an idiot can put them on and tune them up. Add in the price factor (roughly twice the price of standard Mylar heads) and you’ve got a reasonably priced alternative for those who’ve always wanted to try skin, but didn’t have the dough.
I received five goatskin batter heads for this review: a 22″ bass drumhead, 12″, 13″, and 16″ tom heads, and a 14″ snare head. Earthtone requested that I use Mylar heads on the bottom of the drums to represent what most drummers would do. I would describe all of the heads as a medium thickness, with crimped aluminum flesh hoops, and the Earthtone logo imprinted on the topside of the head. As with any product manufactured from natural materials, there were inconsistencies in the appearance of each head. The most striking appeared on the undersides, where a blotchy texture resulted from the natural grain of the skin and its varying density of pores. While this isn’t a bad thing, I did take a micrometer and measured each head in several places to determine how evenly they had been skived. I found minor variations on all of the heads, but they were fairly consistent.
There were no instructions for mounting the heads, which struck me as odd in light of the extensive preparation required when mounting traditional calfskin heads. However, all of the heads went on with relative ease and, for the most part, no major problems. The only difference worth noting is that in almost every case, the pre-formed collars on the heads didn’t leave much room for the tension rod threads to engage the swivel nut before the hoops started pulling the head down. I like to have a little more leeway on the tension rods to allow for loose tunings and definitely don’t want to worry about a tension rod backing out of the lug while I’m playing.
I did have a little difficulty putting the head on the 16″ floor tom due to the even shallower collar on that particular head. The tension rods wouldn’t reach the swivel nuts without applying some pressure on the hoop to stretch the head. With the Mylar head that had previously been on the drum, there was a good 1/4″ of thread in the swivel nut before the tension rod engaged the hoop. This was rather frustrating, since I prefer my tom heads to be as loose and vibrant as possible while still maintaining a throaty, low tone. I could have moistened the head and stretched it out a bit, but that would be cheating since these heads are supposed to be ready to mount right out of the bag. After I tuned the drum up a bit and then tuned it back down, I was able to get a really ballsy, resonant tone out of it (everything in the office rattled). But the tension rods would need to be slightly longer to really tune it the way I would have liked. That’s not a huge problem, but it does make swapping heads a little more involved than it should be.
Once all the heads were installed and tuned as close to my usual pitches as the tension rods would allow, I’m happy to say that they sounded glorious – almost. The bass drum head was low, punchy, warm, and resonant with a minimum of over-ring. I use an unmuffled single-ply Mylar front head with a small port, so I’m used to a little ring and the need to have a small muffling strip or pillow on the back head. The natural self-balancing effect of the skin eliminated the need for the muffler and made the pedal feel simply exquisite. I was able to tune it slightly tighter than my usual Mylar head and still got a nice low pitch. The extra tension made it easier to play faster combinations on the bottom end without having to sacrifice that almost subharmonic sound that I love.
The same positive comments can be applied to the 12″ and 16″ heads. Both produced an extremely full-bodied, warm, resonant tone that projected like a dream, and felt simply divine under my sticks. The only sour note came from the 13″ tom. Although this particular drum is usually my “magic” tom with Mylar heads, I just couldn’t tune it to sound as good as the 12″ or the 16″ toms. Given the fact that all of the other sizes were great sounding heads, I was inclined to believe that I simply got a dud 13″ head. I took it off the drum and noticed that there was one area of the head that was noticeably thicker and stiffer than the rest of the head, so I lay the blame on that. The head even felt different. At a tension that should have resonated and been soft to hit, it felt like I was striking a marching drum (one of the new ones with that lovely Formica tabletop feel). The folks at Earthtone might want to do just a little more in the area of quality control, but given the extremely variable nature of the material, I feel that this is probably something that will happen from time to time, no matter how quality conscious the company may be.
Since I didn’t have another 13″ head to swap out, I simply took the 13″ tom off the set and went to a four-piece configuration. Bingo! The toms and bass drum blended into a symphony of earthy, primal sounding, bone-crunching drums! This was the way God intended drums to sound! Visions of Gene Krupa and “Sing, Sing, Sing” danced in my head as I pounded those signature licks on the floor tom.
The 14″ head got a real workout. Being a self-avowed snare drum freak, I tried it out on several drums: a 1923 Ludwig Deluxe (Black Beauty), my favorite wood drum (a Craviotto 14″ x 4″ Lake Superior maple piccolo), and a rather pedestrian (but excellent general-purpose) ’60s Ludwig Super-sensitive. The head performed well on all three drums. It didn’t have the overtones and high pitched ring that you would get from a Mylar head, and I wouldn’t recommend it for rimshot backbeats with the butt end of the stick, unless you just love replacing expensive drumheads. But the sound at low to fairly loud volumes was consistently warm and resonant on all three drums. The only caveat is the variable tonalities caused by the differing thickness across the head. When I played a buzz roll with the sticks on opposite sides of the drum, it sounded like each stick was rolling on a different drum. But that turned out to be a benefit, because even with the head tuned to the same pitch all around, I could coax several different timbres out of the same drum by playing different areas of the head.
BABY, IT’S COLD OUTSIDE
My last concern with the heads manifested itself the day I intended to finish this article. The set with these heads had been sitting in a room with a temperature that remained relatively unchanged until a cold front came through. The mercury plummeted from the mid-70s to a frigid 24 degrees in one day. The heating system automatically compensated, which meant that the room went from comfortable and moderately humid to extremely dry as a result of the heater running almost constantly. As I suspected, all of the heads began to creep upwards in pitch. There was no way to significantly lower the tension without the tension rods coming out of the lug casings, which definitely had a detrimental effect on the tuning. To their credit, the heads still sounded musical, and didn’t change nearly as much as the calfskin heads on my vintage set of Radio Kings, which were in the same room. The bottom line is that even though these heads are easier to set up and tune than traditional calfskins, you still have to take the climate and humidity into consideration when using them. Still, this problem could be cured with a misting bottle and/or a diffusing hair dryer. You might have a little difficulty finding a place for those items in your trap case, but it’s not a huge price to pay if you’re willing to go the extra mile for that special sound.
THERE YOU HAVE IT
While the consistency and materials of Earthtone heads are not the same as the vintage calfskins used in the last century, the manufacturing processes are miles ahead of the old process of tucking heads. Their ease of use, relatively low cost, and specially treated skin make them a practical alternative in modern music where a more resonant, warm tone is desired.
Model: Earthtone Drumheads
Head Material: Goatskin
Flesh Hoop: Aluminum
Sizes & Prices: 8″ ($24.99), 10″ ($29.99), 11″ ($32.99), 12″ ($34.99), 13″ ($36.99), 14″ ($38.99), 16″ ($45.99), 18″ ($59.99), 20″ ($65.99), 22″ ($69.99)