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9. Sound - Materials

Two factors have a great influence on the sound of a conga: the material of the drum shell and the type of drumhead. The shell can be made from wood or fibreglass. The skin is either synthetic or is made from an animal skin (usually cattle or buffalo). Each material has pros and cons in terms of durability, appearance and sound.

Wood or Fibreglass?

Wood is wonderful, isn’t it? The grain, the smell, and the surface – all make it a preferred material for constructing congas. However, as natural and beautiful as wood is, it is also more sensitive to humidity and variations in temperature than fibreglass. Fibreglass is less affected by weather; even a sophisticated painted finish is not as attractive as the best wood grain.

And the Sound

Generally, fibreglass is somewhat louder and brighter than wood. Wood drums have warmth that many percussionists like, however for many situations fibreglass drums work as well or better. For playing outdoors you may be better served by fibreglass. Wood drums tend to be heavier and are affected by weather changes, though a lacquer finish can help negate this.

Natural or Synthetic Skins?

Natural animal skins are more affected by weather than synthetic heads – humid conditions tend to produce a drop in pitch and a duller sound. Natural skins made from cattle are somewhat softer and warmer than buffalo skins, but buffalo skins can be more robust. Synthetic heads may be more durable and less affected by the weather; they also tend to produce more overtones, which may not be desired.

If you’re a vegan and you plan to play outdoors in widely varying climates, a fibreglass drum with synthetic heads will give you a durable, weather-resistant combination. If you plan to play indoors more often and want a warmer tone, go for a wood drum with an animal skin. However, a combination of natural and synthetic materials is often an excellent compromise. Ultimately, the best instrument is one that feels good to your hands and sounds good to your ears.

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