Choosing the right drum head always frustrated me. There are so many choices between different types and manufactures, also the language used to describe the sound of a head never really made any sense to me. It can be confusing working out what is the best for your kit, or sound especially as different heads sound different when they are mic'd up in a studio or for live. So after a few years of trying different heads out, here is a little guide to what different types of heads do and what they sound like.
Drum Heads are essentially sheets of plastic stretched around a metal ring and then placed in between the drum shell and the metal hoop. These plastic sheets can be quite hard to control sonically. Some heads will have some vibrant overtones and sound 'ringy' others are thicker and therefore vibrate less and are considered 'dark' or 'dull'. Generally the heads with more ring will be thinner and the the duller heads will be thicker and possibly more than one ply of plastic. On top of all of that, drumhead manufacturers also make different heads for different drums, for instance some heads would be specifically for the toms, but wouldn't work so well on the snare, or they make them purely for bass drum, i.e. no smaller the 16" in diameter.
Clear heads are the workhorse of drumming, used in all styles of music and have a great tuning range. They are the industry standard for the Toms and Bass drum. Because they are essentially a sheet of see through plastic they have a bright and open tone meaning there is a good balance of treble to bass tone and great sustain meaning the heads continue to vibrate well after they've been struck. They are articulate meaning the attack of the stick against the head is clearly defined. Whether they are cranked up high for a jazz type of tone, or tuned lower and deader they work perfectly for whatever they're used in. Tone controlled Clear Heads Tone Controlled heads are clear heads with a small addition that makes them sounds slightly different to clear heads, these are for people who want a fatter or warmer or lower frequency tone, and who want to get rid of the excessive 'ringy' quality that some clear heads have. Speciality Clear Heads Speciality Clear heads are the result of the recording industry, the idea behind them is to create a head that has a distinctive tone or that eliminates the frequencies that are unnecessary. They are used mostly in the studio, although i have seen people use some of these type for a more unique voice behind the kit. Some of these heads have muffling attached to make the most of the high and mid frequency range eliminating the harsh over tones and unused sub and low end frequencies. I have also used heads with holes drilled through them which sound drier and have less sustain.
Coated heads have a much warmer sound to clears. They also can be used in any style of music, but they work particularly well with brushes for jazz, as the coated texture has more friction making the brushes create a sound similar to the calf skin that heads used to made out of. Though they are not just for Jazz, John Bonham of Led Zeppelin used coated Emperors on the batter side, and Coated Ambassadors on the resonant side for that huge classic rock sound. Tone Controlled Coated Heads The Coated Tone control heads are similar to the regular coated but with a little extra material to again remove high overtones and to dry the tone of the drum out little bit, they are used everywhere from rock to funk, but i have only really ever seen them used as snare heads.
Speciality Coated heads again are a direct result of the recording industry, they are coated heads designed to make your drums sound specifically one way. Again some may have holes drilled in them, or have extra muffling attached to them externally. Skin heads Most manufacturers produce heads made out of a suede the material, or indeed plastic that look like the vintage calf skin heads, these can be great of the older jazz vibe, and even in some r'n'b and rock contexts, but they will sound one certain way, and potentially are not always as versatile as some other types of head.
All of the three major drum head companies produce a vast range of all of the above categories. As a rule I only really use regular coated and clear heads, as they've been reliable, durable and I can get most of the tones I want from them. I used to use some of the speciality heads when I was younger but I've come to find that with careful tuning you can generally get the sound that you want out of any professional head you use.