Of all the choices to be made when choosing a drum, the type of drum head may be one of the most important factors to consider. Hand drums and percussion instruments are manufactured with various methods, but there are typically two choices available for a drum head: animal skin or synthetic. The choice is not only a question of the sound of the drum, but its overall durability and maintenance… as well as some ethical considerations.
Animal skin drum heads are produced from the hides of goats, cows and other livestock. Some drums are produced with the imported skins of animals native to their origin, such as the goat skin on a Djembe, giving the drum an authentic look, feel and sound. The tone of an animal skin drum head is warmer than a synthetic drum head, and many prefer this over the sound of a synthetic drum head. In terms of maintenance and durability, an animal skin drum head requires more frequent tuning than a synthetic drum head, and is much more susceptible to humidity and other weather concerns.
Synthetic drum heads can be found on all types of hand drums and percussion instruments. Bongos, Congas and Djembes are all created with synthetic drum heads, as well as more traditional drums like timbales or standard drum set drums (neither, of course, have an animal skin option). Synthetic drum heads are easier to maintain than animal skin heads and have a consistent sound across similar types and size drums that is best described as crisper than the warm tone of an animal skin head. With these drum heads, it is also possible to create a unique high end hit sound on the rim. Synthetic heads are also a choice for those opposed to using animal products, and last can outlast animal skin drum heads for years to come.
Whether a drummer prefers a synthetic drum head to an animal skin drum head, the rhythms will continue to entrance an audience, and be a source of art, creativity and entertainment for years to come.