While there are different types of drum heads, and some of them are specifically made to last longer, the general idea as to "when exactly is the time to replace drum heads" stays the same. Drum heads lifetime depends mostly, but not entirely on the drummer himself, - the level of attack the drummer is giving while stroking drum heads. - "Ken, my drums were sounding fantastic just a few weeks ago and now they just sound bad.
Any idea what has happened to that great sound I had?" Well, first I will assume that you do tune your drums as needed and that all of the tension rods didn't suddenly strip out. So, I'd suspect some drum heads now need replacement. Drum heads, like guitar strings, don't have to break in order to need replacing. Like guitar strings, they need to be replaced when they won't hold tunings and the resonance in gone. Your ears should tell you "hey this doesn't sound good anymore". Plus, many times, drum heads won't feel good anymore either.
Hey you rock and roll animal, they just wear out. The most common variables for when to replace your drum heads include: How often you play ? How hard you play ? What kind of heads you use ? The first head to go on my set is always the snare drum batter. It just gets a lot of hard strokes and because I like the sound of a single ply coated batter on my snare drums, that kind of head isn't going to last as long as some other heads might. Now, I could buy other types of heads with more durability but they don't have the sound and feel I prefer. Just like the guitar player could use heavier gauge strings, but they would feel and play like steel cables to his fingers.
The point is that is a "feel vs. durability" decision that only you can make for your drum kit heads. There is a simple test to see just how much wear your snare drum batter head gets after just one gig. At the end of the show, just take it the previously "new" head off and look at it. Does it have lots of dents in it? Is the middle "caved in" pretty deep? If it is really dented up or if it has a big "crater" spot in the middle, then it's had it. Some drummers can get through several performances without changing snare batter heads.
Some change them are every gig. I typically get about three shows out of one. I usually change the snare bottom heads about every fifth batter head.
You may experience a different replacement cycle. However, the bottom heads do wear out from the constant snare vibrations and you would be amazed at just how much a dead snare bottom head absolutely kills your snare drum's sound. So how do I remember whether I'm on the second batter head or the fifth? Man, I really can't. I play different snare drums for different performances so I really don't remember.
I have to write the number on the head. What I do is write the "change" number (1, 2, 3, 4, or 5 AND the date) on the head's counter hoop with a Sharpie pen. When I get to new batter head number "4", I know that the next drum head purchase needs to include a bottom snare head too.
I write the date on the snare bottom head for future reference also. Now, depending upon the same variables mentioned above, the tom tom batter heads, and the bass drum batter heads will, at some point, start to feel weird and sound less than desirable. That should signal possible replacement. Resonant heads on toms last much longer than the snare drum bottom heads because they don't have the wire snares on them, but they do will fatigue at some point.
They too, will need to be included in your own unique replacement cycle scheme. The snare wires also get worn out and "stretched out" after lots of playing time. There's no discernible time table, but you should be able to hear the problem of dead or stretched out snares. If you can't, then just do this. Flip your snare strainer off to the "released" position. Now look at the snare wires.
Are they hanging even and all of the strands seem to be properly aligned? Or are they uneven and maybe some of the snare wire are pulled out and rattling? If so, it's time for some new ones. The various brands and models of drum heads have their own sound and tuning characteristics, and different durability factors. There are more choices today than ever before. You, and only you, can decide what drum heads perform best for your needs. I will share this last observation with you.
I used to constantly experiment with various drum heads, and ended up with stacks of new drum heads that I did not like. Now that I have identified the kinds of heads that I do like, I stay with those models when I purchase replacement heads. After all, the factor that most concerns me is consistently getting the the sound that I want.
About the author: Ken Sanders is playing Remo Drum Heads and various Snare Drums, Ken is also an active member of Drum Forum at Drum Solo Artist where he is answering drum related questions, and helping drummers with tips and advices.