Alan Murray – The great debate

… Mylar vs. Kevlar Drum Heads

There are many preferences and they usually fall along the lines of how old the participants or spectators are. Usually the older the participant or spectator the lower they prefer the drums to be tuned and their preferences fall along the lines of Mylar drum heads. The younger the crowd the higher the pitch and therefore of course, Kevlar.

Us old guys remember when tuned percussion first began to emerge onto the scene back in 1967 when the great Tony Smith of Boston Crusader fame walked onto the field at the Shriner’s International Drum Corps show in Toronto, ONT with the first double bass drums. At the time we were amazed at the intriguing sound and design but we were also laughing because who in the world would want to walk around the field all day let alone a parade route carrying that set up of drums! Little would we to know that within years the activity would advance to multi-tenors such as double tenors, tri-toms, quads and quints…

That individual marching timpani would jump to prominence along with tunable bass drums, orchestra bells, marching xylophones and marimbas.

Now these were the days of all Mylar drum heads. The drum heads being made were plastic with the most popular of the day being the silver or clear dot. The dot gave us relief from those nasty overtones that would bug the heck out of our ears while we were trying to play clean. They gave us a bit of extra tension to play on so that it felt just a little bit harder therefore giving us that solid feel to play clean.

High tension of the day was Kingsmen drum instructor and arranger Donny Porter, Jr. Donny had huge forearms and when he took that little Ludwig drum key between his thumb and forefinger he would crank our drums like only Donny could. When all of us couldn’t get that key to go another ¼ turn Donny Porter, Jr. would get it to go another two or three full turns. I used to beg Donny to crank me up……….and many times Donny would use that as a reward only if I was playing on top of my game……….”play really well and clean and I would get my drum cranked!”

There was always a wonderful separation of pitch with Mylar heads……….there would be the snare pitch and sound and then there would be a natural separation between the snare and the top tom whether that was a tri-tom or set of quads. Each tom would then have a definite pitch of course and then between the bottom tom and the first bass drum there would be another natural pitch separation. The bass drums would have pitch separation and actual tuned notes between them all and when we listened to the overall sound of the marching percussion section with Mylar heads we actually heard snare, tom and bass SOUNDS and PITCHES. In other words you actually hear a high, mid range and bass voice from the ensemble.

Around 1990 or 1991 we began to see the emergence of the Kevlar drum head. You see for years we snare drummers had been begging for our snare drums to be tighter and higher so we could hear the articulation of those short notes. It was easier to hear on top of the drum and therefore easier to play clean. In fact many snare lines would go to the school cafeteria on tour to clean. They would always do it on the laminated tables there………………and when you played rolls, drags, flams and singles on these laminated tables it gave you instant articulate sound. If you could play clean there on those tables then you could really play clean on the Mylar heads of the day.

So when these Kevlar heads were designed for snare drums there were two reasons in mind…… was the articulate sound when you played and the other was that we didn’t have to change heads every other day as these Kevlar heads were like bullet proof vests…………..we couldn’t break them.

The problems that developed however was that when you put a Kevlar head on a snare drum it changed the natural pitch identity of what a snare drum should sound like. It made the pitch of the drum very high and it made a huge pitch separation between the new high pitch, high tension snare drums and the quad and bass drums. This was very suspect sounding of course and before long we decided that we needed to crank the quads and then of course the bass drums to shorten that pitch separation between the snares, toms and basses. This caused multiple effects………..first of all tenors no longer sounded like a mid range voice in the ensemble and the basses were pitched so high the “bottom” of the drum line all but disappeared.

In fact we have now gone from 20 inch number 1 bass drums to 14 inch number 1 bass drums in order to establish a correct pitch separation between the bottom tom and the first bass drum………….now how the heck can you get “bottom” from a 14 inch number 1 bass drum I ask you!

The second problem that developed from changing to Kevlar heads was the destruction of equipment as we knew it. Because we were cranking drums to unreasonably high tensions the snare shells began to cave in, the quad tension casings and swivel fittings began to explode and the bass drum shells couldn’t maintain bearing edge integrity.
Caption heads were losing time in rehearsals because they were “fixing” drums all day and drum manufacturer’s were very upset at the drum head manufacturer’s because now the drum manufacturer’s were being forced to spend a considerable amount of money on tooling for fixes so that the drums would not break so easily.

And then the sound of the drum line changed so drastically that it was hard to place drum lines anywhere but in front of the “front hash” because they would never be heard over the 64-72 person horn lines. Finally players began to develop muscle-skeletal problems such as carpal tunnel syndrome or CTS and in some cases kids had to drop out because it hurt so much to play on the “concrete like” heads.

Today we are still dealing with problems of drums caving in and exploding from all the high tension and also with the problem of hearing the sounds as we should. Most big lines today have adjusted so that there is separation of pitch but when I think back to the days of all Mylar I get goose bumps………not that I think today is not incredible……..but if all the new people had heard all Mylar lines maybe they might agree and this debate wouldn’t continue as it does..……..

In the early 2000’s Colin McNutt decided to use all Mylar heads with the Glassmen one year. He took a huge risk not only for him personally but for his kids and for the corps itself. He was convinced that he would get better sounds, separation and be able to play just as good and clean as if he was using Kevlar. I loved his sound that summer………….and I wish he would have stayed all throughout the summer with Mylar. I remember him telling me that his biggest problem that summer was not that he couldn’t get the drums to sound fantastic but that because of the Mylar they had to change heads very frequently. They would do a head change and then crank the drums and because Mylar “seats” differently than Kevlar they would be constantly tuning their drums all day long trying to get that nice pitch to stay there…….and because they were spending all that time cranking at every opportunity they were losing time cleaning and defining their show and of course in the competitive atmosphere of today’s drum lines that just couldn’t happen so midway through the season at the San Antonio regional Colin decided he had to switch back to Kevlar and give the kids their time to clean back………….Too bad they didn’t have Donny Porter, Jr. ………Donny would have been there with that great smile of his………asking if they wanted a crank………and of course he would have made them play better to get it…………then all would have been just fine in the world of Mylar drum heads and drumming!
So Mylar or Kevlar…………..what is your preference?

Allan played in the London Midlanders, Toronto Optimists Drum and Bugle corps before moving to California to play snare drum in the Anaheim Kingsmen. He has studied music at the University of South Florida, taught and/or arranged for such Drum and Bugle corps as the 1975 Oakland Crusaders, 1976-77 Seneca Optimists, 1978 Spirit of Atlanta, 1982-86 Suncoast Sound, 1989-91 and 1998-99 Boston Crusaders, the 1999-2001 Pioneer, the 1994 Magic of Orlando and the undefeated 1994 Empire Statesmen. Internationally He has taught clinics in Canada, United States, Japan, South Africa and Indonesia. Allan was a music arranger and Director of Distribution Operations for Columbia Pictures Music Publications now Warner Bros. Music Publications in Miami, Florida for 10 years. He has been involved in some form of the marching music activity for 46 years. On April 1, 1998 he joined DEG Music Products, Inc. as their new Dynasty USA product line manager responsible for all sales, marketing, research and design of marching brass, bugles and percussion. On August 10, 2002 he was promoted to Vice President, Sales and Marketing, Dynasty USA.

Allan is now System Blue Product Manager & a columnist for Drum Corps Planet.