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All about nylon heads #SambaHacks

Nylon heads on surdos, repiniques and caixas #SambaHacks

Reading time: approx. 4 min.
Samba Hacks by sambistas for sambistas: Useful tips & tricks about samba equipment and Brazilian drums. Care tips, ideas and practical tricks with lots of effect.

This episode of #SambaHacks is all about nylon heads for surdos, repiniques and caixas, as you can find them in almost every bateria section. Learn some very basic functional facts about nylon heads and get some real insider tips. We'll answer questions that you often ask us by email or at festivals: How long does a nylon head last? When should I change my head? How can I tell if a head is still good? Why did my head break? Questions upon questions, especially newcomers to samba will find a lot of useful information here, but even the one or other experienced sambista can learn something new.

Let's start with the best tip we can give you: Always carry a spare head

What can go wrong with a synthetic drumhead?
Quite a lot actually! The most common reasons are tearing (unevenly tuned), hitting position not central, sticks played the other way round and the end is not rounded but has an edge, and  overstretching (tuned too high too fast). In very rare cases, a broken head is the result of a manufacturing defect. You can usually tell from the position of the crack why a head has broken.

How is a nylon head actually made?
The plastic foil is cut to size in the factory and then pressed into an aluminium ring as a head. The aluminium ring looks like a rolled C that clamps around the edge of the plastic foil. At one point the two open ends of the aluminium ring meet, and create a little gap, also called the 'butt'. This is not a defect but simply the place where the two aluminium ends were cut to size and now meet. For a nicer look, some brands of drum heads may use other systems in which the foil is glued in the profile and a welded joint is statically necessary. The Brazilian drumheads press the foil, so there is no need for welding. You can read more about the topic of the gap in the rim and creased drumheads in this article here. Other characteristics of nylon drumheads are the layers and the thickness. Single-ply heads are available in thick, thin or extra thin (resonance heads), multi-ply heads are e.g. hydraulic heads or korino heads (nappa leather + nylon layer). With the latter, you often see wavy creases at the butt, because two materials of different thicknesses have to fit into the small C-profile.

Fun fact : Nylon heads - the term has become established, but it is not accurate. Synthetic heads are actually made of polyester!

Good to know:
If a flat (2-dimensional) piece of plastic foil is pressed into a round ring, it changes its shape to 3-dimensional and creases can occur. However, these creases smooth out again when tension is applied. This happens especially with the larger and with multi-layered heads. If your new head has a few creases, all you have to do is tighten and tune the head and the creases will flatten out.

How long does a nylon head last?
A head can break after the first rehearsal or after 2 years. There are just too many factors that contribute to the lifespan of heads, here are the most important ones:

  • Are you a hardcore sambista or more of a Sunday player? You can't make an omelette without breaking eggs - frequent players will have to change their heads more often.
  • What is your playing style: Is your technique good? Do you hit in the middle of the head? Do you use the right sticks? Are you technically inexperienced and do you play with a lot of power? Are you new to the instrument and do you sometimes miss the spot? Do you know the characteristics of your equipment? Of course you can have bad luck, but although heads are made to be beaten up, there are limits. With violence or the wrong equipment, you can wack through any head relatively quickly.
  • Playing frequency: A lot of impact leads to wear and tear, there's no getting around it.
  • The tuning: If you like to tune very high, you expose your head to very high forces. Especially with repiqueiros, who often play close to the rim, the danger of a tear is greater. Playing in the middle distributes the forces more evenly. Sticks with a rounded end and surdo mallets with the right padding also contribute to a longer life of your skin.
  • How to tune: The most gentle way to tune your drum is crosswise, i.e. diagonally, or in very small intervals via adjacent rods; and very important: not from 0 to 100% but take your time, this might take even 2 or 3 rehearsals until you've reached the pitch you want. The plastic must stretch and settle on the rim of the shell. By going slow, nothing will break and the tension will be evenly distributed. Just handle your drum gently, as you would with any other instrument.

Which nylon heads are particularly durable?
Thick or thin - which lasts longer? If treated properly, the differences between the thicknesses are not relevant. Be sure to choose your heads according to the sound qualities that you like and that suit the style of music and the voice you play. If used correctly, we find that the longevity of thick and thin nylon heads is very similar, hence makes no real difference.

Torn head - mend or replace?

In principle, you can play a head until it blows up in your face. Even if there is already a tear, there are tricks, for example, you can pop the head (single layer, thin) on the resonance side of your instrument.

A DIY trick for emergencies:
Stick a piece of gaffa tape over the crack to prevent it from tearing out further. In Brazil we have also seen the trick of cutting out a tear with a small pair of scissors in a circular shape, so that it cannot tear out any further and the head holds a little longer. In the end, however, this is all tinkering and not a reliable solution. If your head is torn, you need a new head.

Why did my head tear?
Heads can snap for a variety of reasons. Possibly the most common reasons are hasty tuning, an off-center playing position which puts very high forces on the head and unrounded sticks or insufficiently padded beaters. Make sure to always tune patiently and check before you tune that the head is centered on the shell and the tension ring is centered on the head. Before you play, check your instrument and your equipment, pay attention to correct handling and to your playing technique and take your time to tune. This rarely happens: If your head always breaks in the same place, make a mark on the shell, take off the hardware and check that the rim surface is nice and smooth. Any unevenness can easily be detected by running over the rim with your hand (rough spot) and removed with a bit of fine sandpaper.

What to do if the nylon head is worn out? (attention - worst case scenario!)
An old head is not necessarily a bad head. However, it is normal for nylon heads to sag over time. This means that the distance between the surface of the head and the upper edge of the tension ring decreases to such an extent that at some point the two become level. Then you have officially reached the worst case. Under no circumstances should you play on this head! If the head is lowered too much, you risk hitting the rim of the shell with your stick and that can end badly. If you hit the rim, not only the head is destroyed but also an important part of the shell, the instrument is practically unusable. If you notice the head sits very low, put on a new head immediately!

What happens if I don't replace my head in time?

  • You risk a broken head. It won't matter in a normal rehearsal, but it will during a gig.
  • Bad sound. A badly tuned, sagging or dented head can't vibrate properly and simply doesn't sound good.
  • Stage accident: Can happen (just smile & keep playing). Nevertheless, we recommend checking drumheads before important gigs, sometimes you can already tell that the end is in sight, in which case it's better to put on a new head and start playing it in.
  • Worst case scenario: Your head is already lowered so much that the aluminium ring is below the upper edge of the tension ring and you damage the head and possibly the shell with your sticks. Avoid this at all costs!

How to care for nylon heads
Synthetic heads are easy to care for and weatherproof, you don't need to oil, clean or relax them after playing like with hide heads. Nevertheless, there are a few simple tips you can use to prolong the life of your nylon heads:

  • Check the rim of the shell around the flattened area where the head lies on: Check the drum when you have taken off the hardware anyways, e.g. when you're putting on a new head. Quite often dust accumulates around the rim, just run your hand over it and check, if everything is smooth - then everything is alright. If you feel a sharp edge or spot some dirt, sand off small rough spots with a piece of fine-grained sandpaper and clean any accumulated dirt spots with a damp cloth.

  • The tension rim should sit as centred as possible on the head. If your rim is mounted off-centre, it can push into the head and cause a tear due to the uneven tension. This is an easy fix: loosen the screws and place the tension ring centred before tightening it back up again. If you tune carefully and keep an eye on the position of the rim, it will stay in the middle and not cause any trouble.

  • Always allow enough time for the tuning. Don't put too much tension new heads right away. The plastic needs some time to stretch, to get used to the tension and to 'settle' on the rim. It is tune more often in smaller steps in the beginning. It is not unusual for this to take 2-3 rehearsals.

Good to know: Double-layered heads have breathing holes. To prevent air pockets from forming between the layers, one or more needle-size tiny holes are pierced in the head during production. This allows trapped air to escape and the layers lie flat on top of eachother providing ideal vibration and hence good sound. If this is overlooked in production, the heads come with little air pockets. The holes are therefore necessary and not a defect. You will find holes in korino or inverted korino heads and in hologram heads.

Let's wrap this up:
All nylon skins will eventually go down the drain. This is normal and not a big deal. They are, after all, the consumable part of your instrument. Every sambista should therefore carry a tuning key in his pocket and know how to change and tune the head on his instrument quickly and efficiently. Your group leaders and mestres will certainly be happy to help you learn how to do this. And we are always happy to answer any questions you may have. You can check from time to time whether the head sits straight and still sounds good ( clear sound, no side noises). And if a head does blow on stage, here are a few insider tips on how no one but you will notice:

  • Smile and keep playing. As long as you are not the only instrument in your section, no one will notice your little mishap.
  • Turn the instrument around and keep playing: This works for caixas (not for snares with thin resonance heads!), for repiniques and for surdos. The resonance head becomes the playing head and the instrument still sounds OK enough to get you through a few songs. In the next pause you can then do a quick head change.
  • If the tear is only small, just tape it off with a piece of gaffa tape. If you are lucky, the head will last until the end of the set.

Your Kalango Team