Plastic Skin


The plastic timpani head came out of America in the 1950’s as an ‘alternative’ to calf skin. The goal of the plastic skin was that it would have none of the drawbacks of calf – it would not react to changes in weather – but would go some way towards recreating the sound of natural skins. Also the plastic skin would be easier and cheaper to make (i.e. factory produced, instead of cleaned and treated by hand as natural skins are). Many types of plastic skins have been produced, varying in their quality of sound and materials; the ‘Renaissance’ skin (the term is actually a company brand name) is the most popular and widely used of the plastic skins, it is also the most recently developed, and the sound is said to be ‘close to that of natural skins’, but for many the preference is still calf. The different types of plastic skins also respond differently across the range of dynamics, whereas calf responds and projects at all levels. Some timpanists (although none that I spoke with for this paper) use a combination of heads, for example calf on the deep timpani and plastic on the smaller drums to allow for the properties of the skins.

Dieter Dyk – ‘In p up to mf they [renaissance skins] are fairly good sounding clear and distinct. From f to ff and more they loose quality , do not sound organic and have no “centre”. White plastic has more strength in higher ranges and extreme loudness’

As mentioned earlier, the plastic skin is a recent invention, and is suited to the contemporary repertoire, especially when the timpani are used for special effects, such as by striking with sticks and mallets other than the regular timpani mallets, and when objects (cymbals, bells etc.) must be placed on the heads. More importantly this also protects the calf skins from damage that such usage may cause.

Even timpanists who regularly use calf skin will use plastic skins on their timpani for outdoor concerts, as this type of skin is not affected by temperature, humidity or other aspects of the weather which makes controlling the intonation on calf skins a constant struggle. This is however only a compromise, between the preferred sound of natural skins and the difficulties created by playing on these skins outdoors.

Adams Philharmonic with Renaissance skin

© Scott Weatherson 2011

Maarten van der Valk - ‘If it [using Renaissance heads] were possible on baroque timpani, I would definitely bring them along on tours for when the weather circumstances are bad.’

Abnormal or difficult weather conditions are not the only reasons for choosing plastic skins. Just as players will use lighter weight and more versatile timpani if their drums are frequently on the move, Frederic Macarez (timpanist with L’Orchestre de Paris) prefers using plastic heads as he feels these cope with changing conditions and constant movement better than calf. Also the stage lights in his main performance hall are too close to the timpani which would make calf heads impossible to keep in tune. Mr. Macarez also has the skins of his timpani slightly muted (with ‘moon gel’, an adhesive rubber-like substance) to obtain a clearer articulation.

In both natural and synthetic skins the quality can vary widely, as neither skins are produced using perfect methods. The tradition and preference in many French orchestras is for the white plastic skin. During the mid 20th century many calf heads were being produced with only moderate quality skin and poor quality craftsmanship. The alternative was plastic (at the time a relatively new product on the market) and this has become the timpani skin of choice for these orchestras since. This is not to say that the calf skin is completely unknown; orchestras in towns close to the German border, Strasbourg for example, are influenced by the ideas traveling between countries, and visiting conductors may request calf skin after hearing this sound elsewhere.[1]

But treating the plastic head as purely a compromise, and as an ‘alternative’ to calf does not do it justice as a choice of timpani head in its own right. Timpanists can choose to use plastic regularly because this is the sound they prefer; the idea of compromise can be taken too far if skins like the Renaissance brand are only a mix of calf and plastic properties. The end result could be a skin which in some ways emulates calf and in other ways plastic, but does not offer any properties or sound of its own.

David Corkhill - ‘Appropriate style, whatever the period or repertoire, is the responsibility of the player more than the technology; plastic heads with the right player can achieve all the right musical contexts a timpanist needs. Calf heads have a unique and special sound that not even the best plastic heads can achieve; plastic heads too have their own distinctive quality. Renaissance heads in my view are not able to match either of these in their own sound field and do not add a sufficiently distinctive new sound to the timpani sound world.’

[1] Kruse-Regnard, A., Die Wiener und die franzosische Paukenschule im Vergleich p. 36