The skin or head on a conga drum is a very important part of the instrument. The type of skin and it's thickness paired with the shell of the drum, it's material and shape determine the sound your drum will make. A good skin on your drum will be a pleasure to play, but a bad skin or the wrong skin can be an unenjoyable struggle.
There are several reasons you might be looking for a new skin. Maybe it's a used drum that doesn't have a skin, maybe the old skin broke. The current skin might not sound good, or the skin on the drum hurts your hands. There are also several choices of skin available. There are thick and thin skins, there are cow skins, mule skins, plastic skins and pre mounted water buffalo skins.
In rumba you typically have 3 drums: the quinto, the conga, and the tumba. Those drums themselves go by many names, I will use the names that are in the most common use presently. The quinto is the highest pitch and smallest drum, the conga is pitched in the middle and is the mid-sized drum and the tumba is the largest and the lowest. Because of their pitch and size each drum might get a different skin.
The most difficult scenario in choosing a new skin is putting a new skin on a drum that doesn't have one. It is hard because you don't know what the drum sounds like yet and have little to base your decision on.
For rumba there exists a basic rule of thumb; typically the thicker skin will go on the smallest drum. The idea is the quinto plays short staccato tones and the thicker skin resonates less and creates this sound. On the other end the tumba benefits from a thinner skin as the thinner skin is more pliable and produces the bass tones you want to hear from that drum. What makes this decision hard for a drum that doesn't have a skin is that you don't know what it sounds like, and it is easy to put a skin that is too thick or too thin on a drum.
There are of course exceptions to this rule. I've been having success with some thinner skins on quintos than I've used before. However I've had the advantage of hearing and playing the drum with one type of skin before replacing it with another.
When the drum already has a skin it is a much easier decision. If the drum sounds too flat or choked, it probably could use a thinner skin. If the drum has a ring to it or the note sustains too long a thicker skin can be the solution. Rumba congas typically get thicker skins than congas for other music. Mainly, in rumba the drums want less sustain so the drum tones don't step on each other. With shorter tones the drum melodies can stay clear and distinct, even at higher tempos. If the drum tones have a long sustain the tones would flow into each other making the melodies less distinct., as if they were talking over each other.
For rumba, the best skins are cow and mule. I use cow on all my drums and on drums I re skin for others.I think I've skinned about 25 congas and maybe 10 bongo heads. Mule is a tougher skin than cow. It seems to produce a drier tone with a short sustain. It's stiffness is good for slaps as well. Mule can be hard on the hands and hard on the drum because of it's general toughness and stiffness. Anyways, I prefer the wetter sound of cow, it's a little easier to work with, and I'm more familiar with it's characteristics.
Water buffalo skins are okay, their sustain is a little too long for my preference for rumba, and the sound a little off. But I've been to some great rumbas with drums using these heads. The main thing about them is they are typically pre-mounted and sized to a certain manufacturer's drums. Anyways, water buffalo is not my preference.
Plastic skins for rumba is where I draw the line. I don't even like plastic skins for salsa. Actually, I don't like them at all. I hate the way they feel and think they sound way too bright for anything in my opinion.
Getting hold of some new skins can be a task as well. My local store, Haight Ashbury Music used to stock some great local skins at a good price. Recently they've switched to skins imported from Pakistan that are just not the same quality. I doubt Guitar Center has anything except pre-mounted skins in water buffalo and plastic.
Lately I've gotten all my skins from Land Hand Percussion, or L&H Percussion . Mike deals in cow skins for congas and bongos and bata. He is a musician that is knowledgeable about the instruments and the skins used on them. He works with the customer and provides them with the skin to meet the sound they need. I've gotten about 12 skins from Land Hand, they have always been quality skins and mailed to me quickly and without any hassle. If I can't pick out skins myself I order from there. Mike has also written a great article on skins in his blog.
"There is much debate about skins for Tumbadoras and Bongos and other drums. The questions I get all the time are around thickness, type of animal and a few others. One other issue I have seen raised is a question of buying from a “hide house” or a custom drum maker as opposed to buying from a company like L&H.
People have been questioning if its ok to buy from the likes of Ritmo, Isla, SoS, ECT ECT… I saw leave them to what they do well build drums. They don't need to spend 30 min on the phone with you for a $40-$50 Skin when they have 8-10 month waiting periods. This is just my opinion BUT I'm sure some of the craftsman would agree…
Now on to selection of a skin. The answer can be as simple as people play on what ever is readily available and they make it sound great. But lets be honest we all want the best. L&H Percussion strives to provide the best. Its a very long and complex discussion around why some skins are very even and why some are not. Some hide houses use “ splits” and plane and buff to a very precise measurement. That's all well and good but we at L&H believe that this creates other issues that take the “ life” out of the skin. We start with raw skins that are only stretched and dried to our standards with a slight bit of finishing to make them feel ok to the hand. We then hand cut each round doing our best to ensure that there is little to no variation in thickness. Normal variations that do not affect tuning or the life of the drum or head are typically around .5mm.
There are a number of wrong opinions online being shared and I would caution anyone reading this take your questions to the experts. Call L&H or call another person who deals with the hides and the animal. We are the “Pros” when it comes to this.
If you ever have questions or what to get some help feel free to call us. We can offer you what we have seen work and help you formulate what should be best for you. We also stand behind our product and will work hard to satisfy our customers big or small."
A final consideration in regards to thickness is the toughness of your hands and the strength of the drum. A thick skin is going to be harder to hit and more demanding on your hands. Also it is going to put greater stress on the drum. These issues become the most pronounced with the quinto as quinto skins are pulled the tightest.
More than anything, choosing skins is an intuitive process. That is why it is easiest when you know the drum. Knowing the drum and knowing the sound you want to get will go a long ways towards getting a good match. It can be a journey to find the right skin, sometimes it takes a couple tries to find just the right one.