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Tweak's Guide to

How to sort through the maze of Bronze

by Rich the Tweak


Cymbals at TweakHeadz Lab


Getting the right cymbals for your kit can be a challenging endeavor. There are so many types, sizes and colorations of cymbals you might wonder how you will ever decide which ones you really want.  You might think that going to a cymbal shop so you can hear each cymbal will help, and sometimes it does, sort of.  You go around tapping on the various offerings in a cymbal room and find one you love.  Then you get it home and on the gig and it does not sound the same.  What's going on? Did they switch it at the store?  Probably not, you just didn't hear it in the context of your other cymbals, nor in the context of the room in which you typically play.  Oh well, you live and learn. 

Pearl VBX925C Vision Birch 5-Piece Drum Kit

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Then there is the "I'll buy a matched set idea".  Yeah.  That works when you are starting out.  You get a drum kit and know these usually don't come with cymbals.  Why do they do that?  Because drummers that care about their sound like to mix and match cymbals suited for their particular needs.  

There are 5 basic types of cymbals, the crash, the ride, hi-hats, the splash and the china cymbal (often called a china boy, Chinese, trash.)  Then there are effects cymbals, orchestral cymbals, marching band cymbals and gongs.  Then lets not forget the specialty stuff, like cymbals with large holes in them for that extra trashy sound (The Sabian Ozone) and the Zildjian Trashformer, which looks like it was run over by a semi-trailer.  Want to hear different cymbal online?  Go to the great Sabian Online Catalog, where you can hear the full range of cymbal offerings from Sabian.  Zildjian also lets you listen to their great line from their site.  Great source of cymbal samples, btw.

The sound of a cymbal is really a number of sounds that ring together to make the cymbal's overall sonic characteristic. If you listen to a cymbal closely (played soft) you will hear a fundamental tone and a few overtones, or partials.  These overtones may occur at many different frequencies, from a low, slowly developing warm hum to a fast bright hi pitched shattering, with a number of tones in between. The harder you hit a cymbal, the more higher overtones you will hear. When a cymbal is called "dark" it will have stronger lower tones.  When a cymbal is called "bright", it has lots of high frequencies, and more "cut", which means it can cut through the mix with a piercing, penetrating sound.  You will also see cymbals described as "thin", paper-thin", "light", "medium" and "heavy".  A heavy cymbal is typically louder, and requires more time and energy to get it to resonate and crash.  If you are going large venue gigs, a heavy cymbal can keep your cymbals from getting lost.  Yet these can often overpower the band in a small room and send the clientele heading for the back rows.  A lighter, thinner cymbal will react more nimbly.  It will still cut, crash quickly with less effort, but have less sustain.  These make for good recording cymbals as you want the crash to cut, but not have a lot of low overtones that mess with the mix, and you want it to die fast and not ring over the vocalist as they start the next verse. This is just to say that a rich, full bodied cymbal sound is not always desirable. 


So should you get a heavy ride and a paper thin crash?  That can work sometimes.  Jazz sometimes benefits from that combo, where a loud, resonating ride holds up the mix and you want a fast splashy crash, not a megadeath explosion. With Rock, you will be likely to use the bell on the ride a lot and you want it to ring through clearly. So a medium to heavy ride with a medium full bodied crash might be your ticket. 

Size Matters, or does it? You might think that the larger the cymbal, the lower the pitch, and this is sometimes true, but you can't go by it. The pitch of a cymbal can also be determined by the height of the bell, that is, if you laid the cymbal flat on the ground, how high would the top of the bell be from the floor.  The higher the bell, the higher the pitch.   Larger cymbals tend to resonate longer.  Take a 20" ride cymbal for example.  The ping and crash might be higher pitched than a 16" medium crash, and an 18" crash might be even higher in pitch, yet ring for a long time. Anyone who has ever sampled a few ride cymbals knows these can quickly eat up megabytes of sample memory if you wait for it to decay naturally.

Cymbals are also described as being "glassy", "trashy", "complex", "raw", "dry", "explosive" "swelling" "fast", "exotic" "buzzy", "fuzzy", "narrow", "wide", "delicate", "splashy", "muted", "silvery", "woody", "breathy" , "washy", "clean", "dirty", "buttery" and finally, "eccentric"  What th...  OK, you want to learn what these mean?  Find 3 cymbals and give yourself an hour of hitting all three as asking "Which one is more [you add one of the terms above].  I assure you, after an hour you will be able to define all these terms.  You can go down to the cymbal shop and hit a few and go "ah, how exotic, fuzzy, eccentric, yet buttery!".  Don't do this too loud now, they will think you have gone over the top. 

Cymbal construction. All cymbals are made of bronze.  Bronze is not a metal found in nature; it is an alloy, a combination of tin and copper that is mixed in a cast. As the cast hardens, the cymbal is hammered into final shape, either by machine or by hand. Then the cup is added (the bell of the cymbal).  Then it is spun on a lathe which makes the cymbal perfectly round. The lathe may also cuts grooves into the cymbal. You can tell the difference between the two by feeling the underside of the cymbal. Some are grooved and some are not. 

Sheet Bronze or Cast Bronze?   Manufacturing method? Or marketing hype?.  Is it a less expensive process for manufacturers to deliver sheet bronze cymbals?  You often find sheet bronze cymbals in the newbie sets, line the Zildjian ZBT and ZXT series.    Just considering Zildjian cymbals,  if it has ridges, it is probably Cast Bronze.  If it is smooth, it may be sheet bronze.  The Zildjian Sheet bronze series sounds "lighter" and "tinnier" and less rich.  Other manufacturers have cymbals that feel like Zildjian sheet bronze, but do not sound "cheap".  All bronze was cast at one point or another.  The difference, one assumes is whether the manufacturer pours the bronze into a mold shaped like the cymbal or simply cuts it out of a pre-cast sheet.  Still, the water is too muddy to base a decision on these definitions.  If you like the sound and playability of a sheet bronze cymbal, go for it.  There are some cymbals from Paiste that may feel like a sheet bronze cymbal yet a rich in depth and overtones as top line "cast bronze" Zildjians. 

Hi-Hats come in two sizes.  13 inch and 14 inch.  Here, size does effect pitch in most product lines.  The 13" will be more cutting, with slightly more ability to rise above the band on an open hit.  Fast stick definition is important as the hi-hats are the "timekeeper" of the band.  A 14" hi hat has a more solid, richer sound.  A studio drummer is likely to have both, as some songs might require 13" hats

One point some of you might consider.  You don't have to be a drummer to enjoy cymbals.  Even if you use all sampled drums in your composition, sticking a few real cymbals recorded in real time will give you a dividend in realism.  I have a full set of cymbals here in the lab and they are just for those occasions and for making new effects.  Something about the sound of metals when struck. Listen carefully to the overtones.  They are like music from another world.  They make us pay attention.  In most music cymbal mark the point of arrival.  That is, everything builds up to a point and then... and then you hear  it;  The royally anticipated magnificent cymbal crash.  And you know you have arrived. 

May your cymbals take you places.

Da Tweak Xmas eve 2009

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Mics and Preamps Index of Articles
Microphones Introduction
Mics under $100
Set up a Vocal Session
How to Process Vocal Tracks
Recording Vocals
M-audio Solaris
Cad E200
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Great River ME1-NV
FMR's Really Nice Preamp
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TLM 103 by Neumann
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