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Fresh coated Ambassadors on the bottom of the blue sparkle RD toms…

Whenever someone mentions putting new heads on their drums they’re usually talking about the top heads. Changing the top head on a drum (also called the “batter” head) is a great way to turn a crappy sounding drum into a much better sounding drum. When I was a kid I changed the batter heads on my toms once every two years, but these days I change them once a month. The same goes for snares.

But drums have heads on both the top AND the bottom.

The bottom heads (called “resonant” heads… or just reso for short) play a huge role in the tone of the instrument. How they’re tuned and what type of head is used makes a big difference, especially on toms. This is apparently not common knowledge, as almost every backline kit I’ve ever played has had reso heads that are at least 5 years old. I’ve even seen kits at churches with what appear to be the ORIGINAL reso heads still on them, upwards of 20 years old.

It’s true that the reso heads don’t need to be changed as often as the batter heads, but they shouldn’t be completely ignored. And as long as you’re taking the time to change them, try a few options and you’ll notice that not all reso heads are created equal. For example, the traditional wisdom is to have resonant heads be as thin as possible. That’s a good strategy for snares (where the sympathetic vibration from the batter head dramatically affects the snare wire buzz), but my experience has been that ultra thin reso heads on toms just leave me fighting with more overtones than I want. Lately I’ve been using Remo coated Ambassadors as resos, and they RULE. I’ve also always loved the way larger floor toms like 16’s and 18’s sound with two-ply heads on the bottom.

So, if your kit has reso heads that are more than 3 years old, consider shelling out the $40 or so to get new ones. You won’t regret it.

PS. This doesn’t really apply to kick drums. Kicks are so heavily dampened and muffled that “old” heads don’t hamper a good sound. I’ve had the same heads (both batter and reso) on one of my studio kicks for 12 years, and I get compliments on how great it sounds all the time. 

Last week on my Tumblr I posted a photo from a session I did recently. The engineer at the session asked me to remove the reso head on my kick drum for the tracks, which I’ve noticed is becoming common. My well-spoken friend Seth Earnest sent me an email in response to the no reso head idea, and he brings a bunch of great insight to the topic. With his permission, I’ve posted the email he sent below. Get ready to learn something.

*NOTE: The audio examples referenced below are now posted on my Tumblr.

I do a lot of engineering and mixing, as well, so it’s funny as my skills are developing there how I find myself in a battle between my engineer hat and my drummer hat.

With my drum hat on, I almost always despise the sound of a kick without a reso head on it. It’s just attack-y with no bottom and sounds dull, right? Especially compared to a reso head with no “sound” hole. There’s nothing more awesome than a well-tuned, wide-open kick drum sound w/both heads w/no holes. It’s magnificent, and makes me feel like Keith Carlock or Bonham.

Putting that hat on the rack and sliding into my mixing hat is where the reso head/hole/no hole/no reso head really kicks into gear. It’s also full of many variables ranging from the song, the room, the bass player–both how he plays (busy/sparsely) and his tone (round, warm, lots of lows, edgy, lots of mids, clicky, rock-n’-roll, with a pick, w/o a pick, etc. etc. etc.)–and many others to avoid a land mine on down the road of the tune as the mix is being built.

What this brings me to is that the exact sound I hate as a drummer of no reso head becomes really tight & punchy through a mic in the control room and cuts through a mix well w/o a lot of twiddling on my part as the mix engineer. If I’m playing with a really round-playing bass player with a lot of subby stuff going on in his tone, I really want that kick to cut through and be the attack to the bass player’s bottom end. There’s only so much space in a mix for the low end, and to have two full-range sounds (booming kick and round bass) gets way too muddy for there to be any joy in that range. And that range is so crucial for a tune’s foundation.

If my kick is boomy, huge, round, awesome and full on the bottom end, my bass player will have to back off his lows and put more mids in his tone to cut through a mix and not muddy up the bottom end (see the “Grooves” audio example).

So, there’s a lot of “where do I want to end up” and working backwards that has to happen on the producer/mix engineer’s part. These days, a lot of producers are the engineers or mix engineers. So, either I as producer need to determine the final vision of the song and explain to my engineer, or I have to get the vision from whomever is producing to know where he’s going. If I know I’m going for a Roots-style low end on certain hip hop track, I know I’m going to want ridiculous warmth and roundness out of the bass and a nice “thump” (read lower mid-range) out of my kick to push the low end of mix through the song without it getting muddy.

Keep in mind I’m talking exclusively in the studio world right now. Live music is a whole other thing that I only understand from a musician’s perspective.

But, if I’m going for a tune with a Jaco-esque jazzy bass tone, I have all sorts of room in the low lows for my kick drum to serve as the foundation. I can slap a no-hole reso head on that kick, mic it from the outside so I get that huge boomy joy out of a great kick, and put the two together for a solid low end foundation.

All of THIS being said, I come back (long-windedly so) to the reso head off issue. It creates a kick sound with a nice thump, a nice attack and nice mid-range punch that tends to be easier to fit into a mix than a bigger-sounding kick drum. Wise engineers know where they’ll be headed come mix time and will go ahead and mic everything accordingly. It creates a much better mix time because if everything is engineered with the final product in mind, there’s a LOT less twiddling and bangin’ your head against the wall during the mix stage.

There are so many different styles of mixing, too, so each person may do it differently. I know you’re familiar with Mayer’s Continuum, and I listen to that record’s low end, and it’s freakin’ money at all points. This is an example of a genius set of players, producer (Jordan) and mix engineer (Michael Brauer) planning ahead and creating all of this subtle interplay between two of the best players in the world–Jordan and Palladino.

Steve Jordan has a relatively boomy kick on most of those tracks, but what’s really interesting are the holes our brains fill when dealing with sonic information. Listen to “Waiting on the World to Change.” Jordan starts out on his own with that sick groove, and his kick is boomy–def has a reso head on it–but it’s not getting into the sub area. That kick is centered around 100Hz or so, but it implies a much deeper set of frequencies, and then when the bass comes in, it’s sort of “around” that kick on either side, both lower (like 60-80Hz) and above it (200HZ or so), so each sound has it’s own little home. The kick sounds deeper when the bass comes in b/c they’re working together to round out the bottom, but the kick on its own is actually not as deep as we might perceive it to be if we heard that track soloed out without any other tracks in the mix.

On track 2 (“I Don’t Trust Myself”), it’s the same idea but with different frequencies. Jordan’s kick is up around 150Hz, and Pino has that huge low end (under 100) but also that mid-range attack for how he’s playing (esp. the slap thing he’s does every few bars) up in the 400-600 range.

Track 3 brings a different approach. That hot-rod loop starts, then the “real” drums kick in w/the rest of the band. The “real drums” kick drum is mostly an attack/punch sound, and the bass is low and round. Also, it’s interesting to note that after the band kicks in, the hot rod loop get a low-cut EQ on it (i.e. everything below around 200-250 is rolled off, I think); the kick drum on the hot rod loop has almost no legitimate low end once the “real” drums come in. BUT, most interestingly, our brains almost create the low end b/c low end is implied by the timbre of the kick drum itself.

It’s like thunder. If we only heard the upper frequencies of thunder (say, above 120Hz), we would still process it as a “boom” because its timbre implies and our brains process it as having all that low end, as well (see the “Thunder” audio example). It’s a subtle thing that if you really listen you realize there’s actually not the low end there, but the quick, instinctual perception of our brains becomes a god-send in a mix environment when you only have so much frequency real estate to deal with. You can imply something without it actually being there in a mix, and that will always leave room for something else.

Mixing, I’m learning through tedious trial-and-error, seems to be a series of compromises.

SOOOO, the reso-head-off for a lot of engineers can remove one set of land mines on down the road of “How in the world do I deal with this kick and bass interfering with each other?” A decision will have to be made one way or the other (kick gets the low-end or the bass does, but it can’t be both), and a wise engineer will make decisions early on which make his life easier as he goes.

I brought up Keith Carlock earlier: listen to his stuff on the Steely Dan records he is on. That is NOT his normal kick drum sound. He’s normally blasting some awesome-sounding, wide-open kick sound, but that would have muddied up a SD record, so he (or they or the producer) were like, “Nope. Tight and dry, Keith.” My taste is that the newest 2 SD records are too thin sounding, but that’s just my taste. So, there are a lot of taste issues, too. 

This is a ridiculously long answer for a simple question, but it’s one I’ve been thinking about a lot, too. I used to get offended when an engineer would ask me to take off my reso head, but I’m now beginning to learn a lot more of why he might be asking as I’m learning more about mixing.

My point in all of this is that an engineer will use tricks and aural brain assumptions (like the posted audio examples) to make a mix work, and, sometimes, they know that a reso-head full kick sound will impede where they are going in their vision of the mix.

On the other hand, some engineers are just lazy and don’t want to fully engage in the art of capturing your kick drum as it actually sounds and ask you to do stupid stuff because they don’t want to get off their butts and actually listen to what’s happening in the room. So there’s that whole ball of worm cans to deal with, too.

For a while there, I was only using Aquarian drum heads. But lately I’ve been coming back around to Evans. You just can’t deny the coated G2 sound (especially on snares), and I’ve really been digging the newer EC2 model. I’ve got a set of clear EC2’s on my birch drums and they’re basically the perfect blend of attack and tone. Booya.

This is the Risen kit I’m rolling with these days for my “all purpose” gigs (and the black brass snare I’ve had for a while). Some of you might have seen this kit on the main stage at Sonshine last month. I’ve generally used Aquarian Response-2 heads on maple Risens but this time I threw some coated Evans G2’s on the kit and they sound killer.

In other news, the Bill Mike Band plays another free gig in a park tonight, this time in Mears Park (downtown St. Paul, 6pm). It’s part of their summer concert series and should be fun (except Mike has a cold right now so tonight’s gig might not deliver the songbird vocal performance that our band is known for).

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