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Understanding Cymbals

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Happy 2014 everybody! I hope your holidays weren’t too insane. Ah, who am I kidding: they were ape-crazy. But hey! Now we get to start all over again with a bang! Or maybe, even a gong? Or how about just cymbals. Yeah…you liked that transition, didn’t you?

 

 

 

 

 

 

You're welcome, ladies...

 

 Often times when people come into Bigfoot Music looking for drum stuff, they gravitate towards the shiniest things. Cymbals are pretty shiny and noisy and, for some wonderful reason, compel strangers to pick up sticks and beat on them in the middle of a busy retail afternoon. But it isn’t uncommon for the average window shopper, musician, small child with a stick, or even a professional drummer to not really know one cymbal from another. What are they for? What are they made out of? What makes each one different? What are the good brands? What are the bad brands? What should I be looking for to suit my style? Why do I continue to write rhetorical questions like a bad middle school essay paper? Because my brain is fried from 2013 and I’m still not sure where my shoes are.

That being said, I’d be happy to write a little bit about cymbals and, dear God please, clear up some confusion that may be out there. Let’s begin with what the heck these shiny, loud things are made out of.

Alloys

If you want to get into the technical, literal guts of the concept, there are, in fact, many, many, many different kinds of alloys that have been incorporated into cymbals over the years. But to be honest and lazy, I’m choosing to just focus on the two main categories of cymbals because the vast majority of us only come into contact with these: bronze cymbals and brass cymbals. Each one is unique in tone, malleability, dynamics, and overall craft and each one has slight variations of themselves which can create significant differences for the sound and playability of the cymbal. Since bronze is the most common, let’s start by breaking down the kinds of bronze alloys used and which ones do what and why, etc.

Bronze is, essentially, a two-part alloy made from a fusion of copper and tin. The particular bronze alloys used in most cymbals often have traces of silver incorporated in them to add to the overall effect and sound as well as malleability. The two most common bronze alloys are B20 and B8; B20 having a tin percentage of 20, B8 having a tin percentage of 8. Simple enough?

Now, the general rule concerning tin-to-copper ratio in bronze cymbals is this: more tin generally means a darker, lower-frequency, fuller-bodied sound. Less tin generally means a brighter, harsher, faster sound. This is a good thing to know when you’re shopping around to outfit your drum kit since your playing style and the sound you’re looking for will dictate what alloy is best for you.  No one particular alloy is better or worse than the other; it all just comes down to what you’re trying to sound like. For example, Paiste cymbals which are known for their uniquely harsh, bright sound, often utilize B8 alloys and market them to punk rockers, ska artists, and basically anyone with a mohawk. The lower tin percentage in their cymbals give their sound a harsher, brighter, “more focused” edge that would otherwise sound out of place for most rock, jazz, or funk artists out there. Unless you’re a fan of artsy cacophony, which is always welcome.

The other types of cymbal you’re most likely to encounter are the ones made from brass alloy (commonly a percentage of 63% copper, 37% zinc). These are less common than their brass counter parts and are almost only used in lower-end cymbals such as Zildjian’s Planet Z series. Though they are certainly a money-saver, brass cymbals are somewhat limited and less versatile than their bronze counterparts, mainly being characterized as sounding “muffled” and “basic”, which is why most people usually opt for bronze and brass cymbals are almost exclusively used for beginner/entry-level drum kits.

All that being said, the alloy of the cymbal only affects so much of the cymbal’s total quality, playability and sound; it’s when we get down to how these shiny discs of rock magic are actually made that we start to hear a difference.

Craftsmanship and Technique

When shopping around for cymbals or just reading up on them (or if you’re one of those unfortunate souls who has accidentally stumbled into some elitist argument between two grumpy drummers), at some point you’re going to hear the ongoing debate between “cast cymbals” and “sheet” or “stamped cymbals”. And though there is, in fact, an important distinction between the two, the terms used to describe each kind are often misleading and there is some common confusion as to what a manufacturer means when they say one cymbal is “cast” and the other is “sheet”.

Allow me to diffuse this bomb by using a rather quaint (and delicious) analogy; making cymbals is a lot like baking cookies, only more molten and arguably less edible. How so? Well imagine you’ve toddled off to grandma’s house to bake cookies and you’re presented with two different styles of baking, each with its respective pros and cons. You’ve got the drop-ball method of cookie, in which you scoop out a round chunk of dough and place each individually on the cooking sheet or you’ve got the roll-and-cut method where you take your giant wad of dough, flatten the whole thing out, and then cut out the round discs with a cookie cutter.

At its most basic level, that’s pretty much the determining difference between “sheet” and “cast”. Essentially, when a manufacturer says a cymbal is “cast”, they are alluding to the method of forging and casting each cymbal individually, instead of sheeting them where they take a giant sheet of whatever alloyed metal they’ve chosen and mechanically stamp out the discs before they head off to the hammering and lathing. I think where people often get mislead is in the term “cast” itself, because both kinds of cymbals are cast at some point in the process, although the term “cast” is meant to imply that the cymbals have been poured and shaped individually rather than all on one big sheet of thin metal. But what is the inherent difference between the cymbals and why should you prefer one over the other at all?

As someone who’s been drumming for nearly seventeen years, I can personally tell you most serious drummers out there will prefer cast cymbals to sheet cymbals, and I would generally agree. The main thing about cast cymbals is the overall craftsmanship and time that is put into each one. Because they are individually cast from the get-go and because the hammering and lathing processes are often more involved and require more skill (the very high-end, traditionally made cymbals are almost 100% made by hand), cast cymbals tend to sounds more interesting, last longer, play better, and sound better with age. More time and attention is put into the finer details of the cymbal, like the sound grooves (which are often created by a combination of hand-lathing and mechanical lathing), and because they are all processed individually, no two cymbals are going to be exactly the same. There is more room for small differences and inconsistencies which, I think most drummers would agree, gives each cymbal a particular character and quality that is desirable.

Another big difference is in the alloy which, as I may have stated before, most cast cymbals employ B20 bronze (or “bell bronze”), which is cool for a couple reasons: 1) B20 bronze is much more malleable than B8 bronze, so it lends itself to the forging, hammering, and lathing processes much more and 2) B20 bronze has a more traditional cymbal sound with a richer range that improves with time (like high-quality wood used in acoustic guitars).   

Now, of course, the obvious downside to traditionally made cymbals is that they tend to be quite pricey in comparison to their sheet counterparts. Because the manufacturing process is so much more involved and labor intensive, and because the alloys used tend to be the most desirable, costs to produce these kinds of cymbals are much higher and, in the end, are going to affect your wallet the most. However, like I said before, most serious drummers would do well invest in a decent set of cast cymbals because they do tend to be the most durable, the best sounding, and the better investment.

But then again, I can’t say it is wise to rule out sheet cymbals from your musical arsenal. Because of their price tags and processes, cast cymbals have established quite a bit of prestige (and to be fair, rightly so). But I don’t believe ruling out sheet cymbals as inherently inferior cymbals is a good idea. It’s like tube amps and solid-state amps: obviously one has been around longer, has established itself in the industry more prominently, and has many unique and desirable nuances; but to make the blanket statement that solid-state is inferior to tube, or that sheet cymbals are inferior to cast is a bit nonsensical. To quote the number one rule here at Bigfoot Music: “If you like it and it works for you, it’s the best!”

That being said, sheet cymbals, though cheaper and less sophisticated than cast cymbals, bring a special menu of possibilities to the drummer’s table. Apart from the obvious money-saving advantage, sheet cymbals have a particular sound that is actually prized in specific genres such as punk rock, ska, and some of the more eclectic musical styles. This is because sheet cymbals are often made from B8 bronze making them generally brighter, harsher and faster than their cast counterparts And of course, the whole point of cymbals is to establish a flavor and attitude: if the attitude you’re looking for is fast, angry and dangerous, it is my opinion that a fast, harsh B8 cymbal is going to do your music better justice than a deep, resonating cast cymbal. Of course, that’s just my perspective. I’m not so much a specialist drummer as much as a “I like to do everything and anything all the time” drummer, so if given the chance to switch up my sounds as easily as switching up my cymbals, I like to have the option.

A lot of what makes sheet cymbals cool is their convenience and cost effectiveness. Obviously mechanically stamping and lathing large amounts of cymbals at once is a lot cheaper than individually forging them by hand, resulting in less wallet-hemorrhage for you and better product consistency from cymbal to cymbal. However, when things have been done a certain way for thousands of years, people tend to generally want the more prestigious version of a product, so you’ll find that the vast majority of sheet cymbals are marketed towards entry-level drummers and are often sold in sets as opposed to individual pieces. It also stands to reason that because of the higher product consistency in a mechanical approach to production, sheet cymbals will have less individuality and uniqueness than a cast cymbal and will pretty much sound the same everywhere (which is convenient on one hand, but some people find that boring on the other hand). It just all depends on what you want.

Different Types of Cymbals & What They’re Used For

Hi-Hats

 

Two cymbals mounted on top of each other and operated by a foot-pedal and clutch in order to smash them together for effects and accents. For most genres like rock, R&B and pop, these are used to keep the steady rhythms or to create shuffles rather than just accents.

 

 

Rides

Generally much larger than the other cymbals on the kit, rides provide steady, constant shimmering or sharp time-keeping accents as opposed to just plain loud and bashy  accents.

 

 

 

Splashes

Smaller cymbals used almost exclusively for sharp, bright accents and effects. Named for its uncanny resemblance to the sound of a water splash and often takes a heavier hit because of the smaller size and faster response.

 

 

Crashes

 

Your classic bread-n-butter, knock-their-socks-off cymbal. Used for occasional accents to drive that punch in your song.

 

 

Chinas

Probably the modern cymbal’s closest relative to the gong, China cymbals are designed without much taper in the sheet and with the edges of the disc folded upward at the ends. The effect is a harsh, resonant, trashy sound that really makes you think of Hun invasions and dragons.

 

 

Sizzlers

 

Keeping in the vein of rhythm keeping cymbals like rides and hi-hats, sizzlers are a creative use of hardware. Holes are bored into the ends of the cymbal and are then occupied by loose rattling rivets or bits of chain to create a fizzing, shimmering, “sizzling” sound that can be the extra edge you’ve needed in your song.

Now that you (hopefully) have a better understanding of the differences between cymbals, let me show you what we here at the shop like and recommend for whatever style and budget you have.

Zildjian A Series & A Custom

These are a couple of Zildjian series’ that we try to keep in stock year-round. A Series is probably the most iconic of the Zildjian cymbals being their original style and make, all cast and made from bell bronze. A Custom is somewhat similar though they are made a bit thinner and lighter, making them brighter and more responsive than the classics.

Zildjian ZBT & ZHT

Two of Zildjian’s mainstays for sheet cymbals: ZBT is considered to be their lower-end style cymbal made of 92% copper, 8% tin, giving it a crisper cleaner sound than the higher-end ZHT which employs a higher percentage of tin, making them bolder and darker sounding.

Stagg Cast Cymbals

Probably one of the coolest and most underrated music companies out there, Stagg makes some pretty sweet cymbals for shockingly affordable prices. The Stagg schtick is all about making high-quality equipment at budget-friendly costs, which I think all starving artists out there can appreciate. Stagg’s cymbals are some of our favorites here because they cost significantly less than higher-end brands, but still deliver prestigious sound. All their cymbals are cast B20 bronze and are pretty darn amazing. I recommend checking them out at your next opportunity. They’re quite impressive. 

 

So that's about all you need to know to get started on some hard-core cymbal shopping. Feel free to drop in the shop and ask us about any further info and our personal recommendations. Stay excellent and have a good week!


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