I recently got an order for a vegetarian friendly djembe. It’s a total custom build using American black walnut wood and I’m doing some simple carvings at the base. I actually do a lot of these vegan/vegetarian djembes and ashikos so I thought this would be a great addition to my drum building blog to talk about the qualities of the synthetic heads vs the natural skin/hide.
Without going into too much detail and boring everyone with specifics, I thought I would touch on the pros/cons of a synthetic head, some of the differences in sound properties and how different woods will react with a synthetic head, and also talk about the glues and finishes we use on these drums.
First off, let me say that I am not trying to say which is best.? There are great arguments on both sides, I’m just attempting to provide correct info from all aspects, so you can make a more informed decision when that time comes.? Some of the best reasons to use synthetic drum heads is for durability and longevity.? A lot of people choose synthetic as an animal friendly approach, yet even more choose the synthetic head for it’s ability to keep in tune through different levels of humidity and can even get wet without affecting its life or sound.? All of these are issues that people who use animal hide drum heads have to compensate for.
Some of these pros are actually cons in disguise, at least as far as being environmentally aware.? Having a synthetic head will last a long time… a really long time… actually, way too long.? Far after you’re gone from this planet the drum head will still be here.? If it tears or you replace it, it just sits in a dump and wont decompose.? An animal skin will leave no trace of it’s existence on this earth.? Though animal skin has a more earthy, warm, and natural sound, they do have to be tuned often, and you must be aware of the condition you are playing in.? I would not take a tightly tuned djembe with a goatskin head out to a park to play in high humidity…
Remo has come a long way in its efforts to make a synthetic head sound more natural.? They actually do a really good job.? Their NuSkyn heads have a nice warmth to them, although still carry a bit of a plastic overtone, the overall sound is smooth and natural.? These guys can be cranked up super tight, and at that tension, they are actually brighter and louder than a natural skin.? If you are looking for something to cut through a drum circle, a tight synthetic on a dense hardwood is the way to go!
Being vegetarian myself, I realize people make this decision for different reasons.? For some it’s health, for some its more about compassion… of course I build drums with all kinds of animal hides and my decision is based more on the warmth of the traditional sound and on the fact that more than a vegetarian, I’m a naturalist, and I like the idea that when I’m gone from this place, my drum and skin will return to the earth.? Lots of different opinions here, and if you are looking for a vegetarian friendly djembe with the traditional sound, I’ve done a lot of research to make sure the warm natural tones come through.
When I build a vegan or vegetarian djembe I use glues which have no animal products.? My shells are solid wood slats glued up to specific dimensions to enhance the sound of the head.? There is VERY little glue due to my method of building and my exact joinery of the slats.? The other usual concern is the finish.? Since some finishes use Shellac (derived from the lac beetle).? I make sure you are ok with this or else I will use a danish oil or linseed oil.? To learn more about shellac see this entry at Wikipedia — shellac.? Basically it is farmed organically/naturally and the lac beetle isn’t harmed as a result of manufacturing/gathering the “resin”.
The wood used is pretty important on these sensitive synthetic heads.? A super dense wood like hard maple or ash or even padauk is going to enhance the higher pitched qualities of the synthetic heads.? Generally, because the plastic material and thin membrane these heads have a natural tendency to already be a bit too bright.? Some of what I do is try and bring more warmth to the sound.? A softer hardwood like Walnut is perfect.? For a more traditional shell, Iroko wood is the way to go.
There are many factors that are weighed on before the decision is made either way.? One big plus for the natural hide head is that you can fit the skin to any size drum.? The synthetic drum heads come in specific, pre-moulded sizes, so you have to build or find a drum shell that fits just right.
If you are weighing your options, I hope this has helped!
So the choice is yours.? It’s nice to have options.? As always I’m happy to answer any questions regarding the subject or to entertain different perspectives.? Let me know your thoughts on the subject.