Meshing about

Sunday, 26 November 2017 3:00 pm

digitalDrummer has probably tested more meshheads than anyone else and Allan Leibowitz takes a moment to reflect on what he’s learned in the process.

I’ve been testing mesh heads for more than adecade, but first began comprehensive head-to-head testing for the second edition of digitalDrummer in early 2010.

Since then, I have had more than 30 different mesh heads on the test bed. Each one has been tested on our custom rig for rebound and acoustic noise, while I’ve played them with various modules to geta sense of their triggering characteristics.

Over the years, I’ve seen some significant changes.

Firstly, the initial offerings were almost all single-ply heads, produced at a time when Roland had a patent on dual-ply – a patent it protected vigorously. Where it allowed its intellectual property to be used, it licensed only the single-ply option. Hence, you saw single-ply heads from Hart Dynamics and Pintech carrying a Roland licence notice.

In order to ensure durability, the single-ply heads generally used heavier-gauge mesh than the “original Roland” and were mostly noisier with less rebound.

There were a few exceptions – single-ply heads with lightweight mesh - but these were not as robust. Indeed, I managed to tear one while tightening it for the first time. And I saw a few Pearl Muffle Heads deteriorate very quickly after fitting – generally, starting with a tear near the hoop that spread fast.

Clearly, Roland was only permitting imitations which weren’t quite as good as the original.

In Europe, where the Roland patent was less diligently enforced, a few dual-ply heads started making their appearance, and by the time we did our second round-up in mid-2011, there were already a few two-ply options for Germany – from ddt and drum-tec.

At that point, we started seeing something new – three-ply heads.

Initially, we suspected the third ply was nothing more than a gimmick and a ploy to avoid legal action from the Japanese giant.

But it turned out that the extra layer of mesh had almost magical qualities. It not only added substance and a more mylar-like feel to the head, but it also killed off the often-annoying dual-ply buzz created by the friction between the two layers of mesh. Three-ply has also proven to be quieter than single or double layers and it has better rebound qualities.

One of the biggest endorsements of three-ply mesh is Roland’s adoption of this structure for its 14” digital snare. 

For now at least, while Remo is still making heads for the rest of the Roland line, dual-ply remains the Japanese giant’s default head.

But some observers see Roland moving to three-ply across the board. The manufacturer has found a new Asian source of mesh heads for its flagship snare and there is speculation that it will part ways with Remo which has been making its heads since 1997. Remo is already selling single-ply mesh heads under the SilentStroke name, pitched at acoustic drummers looking for low-volume practice surfaces. The expectation is that Remo will start selling dual-ply heads under its own branding as Roland moves to three layers.

So, is the three-ply the holy grail? It appears to tick the boxes – realistic feel, low noise, good energy transfer to the triggers and durability. However, we are already seeing variations and modifications. We are seeing different materials used for the third ply. We areseeing differing placements of the additional ply – either between the two ‘traditional’ layers or underneath. And we are seeing various approaches to the relative angles of the layers.

I am often asked: “Which is the best mesh head?”

That’s a tough question because there are a few variables. For some, acoustic noise (or the lack of it) is the main consideration. Others want a “real” feel. But even that is not straight-forward: does ‘real’ mean bouncy like a taut snare head or dead like aloose tom head? And just how bouncy do you want it? Colour is another factor: some prefer white, while for others, black is beautiful. And, more recently,there seems to be a fair amount of interest in transparency. Drummers don’t want to see what’s inside the drum, so they prefer more opaque heads. And finally, there’s value for money. Some are happy to spend $30 on a head, others cringe at half of that and prefer to spend their spare time making their own headswith insect screen and fuel line.

So, while I know what I like, I can’t choose “the best head”. But I do know it’s probably got three layers and will only bethe best until someone comes up with something new.

All I can suggest is determining what matters to you and choosing the head that meets those needs without compromising the other aspects of performance too much. And remember, mesh isn’t the only option.Yamaha has a couple of different e-drum playing surfaces that have cult following. 2box produced a rubber head to avoid crossing paths with Roland’spatent. Aquarian, which used to make Hart heads, produces two different FSR-based heads – the onHead and the inHead. And then there’s NFUZD’s clip-on rubber pads. 

I’d also argue that two heads are better than one. Acoustic drummers regularly change their heads for new ones – not only for tonal variation, but also to ensure reliable performance. E-drummers, on the other hand, seem to think that heads should last forever. The reality is that while a head might look to be in good condition, they do stretch over time, and this impacts on their feel and their performance. So, if you want the best head, it’s probably a new head.