2022 Cymbal Buyers Guide
Are you on a quest for new cymbals? Or maybe you’re just starting out on drums and would like to wrap your head around some of the finer details in Cymbology?
In this post, we are going to take a deep dive into everything you could ever have wanted to know about Cymbals and exactly how they are beaten into existence. If you know your way around the kit, feel free to check out the sections that interest you. If not, join us as we peel back the secrets of the Cymbal and at the same time help you navigate the choppy waters of Cymbal buying.
Why pay so much for a Cymbal?
Unless you are going for “that sound” a bad-sounding cymbal really takes away from the overall performance when you try to end your solo off with something that sounds more like a dustbin lid than a cymbal. When it comes to Cymbals, you really do get what you pay for. Cymbals have been a staple of the modern drum kit for more than 100 years now and it is widely agreed that a great sounding set of cymbals is vitally important to your “sound”.
Anatomy of a Cymbal
Understanding the anatomy of a cymbal is foundational to understanding cymbal tone, those you like and those you don’t. A firm grasp of cymbal anatomy will help you make the most of your purchasing power. Here is the breakdown.
- The Surface (A) — The playing surface between a cymbal’s bell and edge. It’s generally marked by a thinning-out in material and a gradual sloped taper. It’s here where 90% of your cymbal strikes should occur.
- The Bell (B) — The domed structure in the centre of a cymbal — also its mounting point and typically the thickest part — contributes to the projection and musical complexity of a cymbal. Generally speaking, the larger the bell, the louder and more harmonically rich the cymbal will sound. Some cymbals, such as rides, feature prominent bell regions that are struck with the stick’s shoulder to create accents and textures.
- The Profile (C) — The curvature of a cymbal, also known as its profile, plays a role in a cymbal’s pitch. All things equal, a flatter cymbal (low profile) will sound lower in tone than a more rounded (higher profile) cymbal.
- The Edge (D) — The thinnest and outermost part of a cymbal. Playing closer to the edge tends to exhibit the greatest wash and smoothest attack. Take care never to strike a cymbal directly on its edge, as this can cause cracks.
Pitch and Tone
- Weight/thickness — Thickness (weight) is one the biggest contributing factors to a cymbal’s pitch and output. Thinner cymbals produce slower vibrations, thus, a lower tone. Thick cymbals produce faster vibrations and generally exhibit a higher tone. Weight and thickness also impact the cymbal’s output level, as low-frequency sound waves require more energy to propagate than high-frequency sound waves.
- Diameter — Another important factor in a cymbal’s pitch is its diameter. All things equal, the larger a cymbal, the lower its pitch. For example, a 12″ splash will sound deeper than a 10″ splash of the same style.
- Finish — Many cymbals today are available in brilliant (shiny) or traditional (earthy) finishes. Though this is generally regarded as a cosmetic choice, it is thought that a brilliant cymbal’s buffing treatment, which shaves a small amount of weight off the cymbal and smooths out lathing peaks along its surface, yields a glassier, smoother sound. Be advised, however, that brilliant finishes tend to show fingerprints and patina quicker than traditional finishes and may require regular cleaning. Cleaning Cymbals are a whole different topic that we will cover in a future blog post.
- Hammering — Hammering adds shape and musical complexity to a cymbal. The smaller and more uniform the hammering pattern, the purer the tone. The larger and more irregular — the type of pattern typically produced by hand — the richer the harmonic content and “more musical” the tone. Extensive hammering can lead to subtle warping of the surface, which can create “trashy” or white-noise characteristics that many players enjoy.
- Lathing — Lathing creates record-like grooves along the surface of the cymbal. Since lathing removes mass, cymbal artisans can take advantage of this process to manipulate pitch and complexity following the initial shaping and hammering. Fine lathing results in less spacing for debris and oxidization to enter, yielding a brighter tone. Wide lathing, with its wider grooves, allows more oxidization to occur for a darker, warmer character.
- Rivets and holes — These less common options add character to a cymbal. Rivets popped into a cymbal’s bell or edge create the frying-pan sizzle commonly heard in swing music. Holes with large or small apertures may do everything from eliminating airlock in hi-hats and reduce overtones in crashes to create white-noise trashiness in FX cymbals.
Cymbals today are almost universally made from bronze: an alloy comprised of tin and copper with trace amounts of silver, nickel, and other metals incorporated for durability and tonality. The ratio of tin to copper can play a dramatic role in a cymbal’s sound and response. Here are the most common cymbal recipes out there today.
- B8 Bronze (8% tin) — Also known as 2002 Bronze or CuSn8. B8 cymbals are typically marked by a bright, cutting, harmonically pure tone, which makes them a solid option for live stage use.
Examples: Wuhan 457
- B10 Bronze (10% tin) — Also known as CuSn10. Characterized by output and definition, with a bell-like warmth and high dynamic range.
- B12 Bronze (12% tin) — Also known as CuSn12. Shimmery, pure, and glassy, B12 bronze balances output and control, warmth and cut. This alloy closely resembles Paiste’s guarded Signature Bronze alloy used in its Signature series.
- B20 Bronze (20% tin) — Also known as bell bronze or CuSn20. This centuries-old alloy is generally reserved for top-of-the-line cymbals. It’s famed for its darkness, complexity, versatility, and old-world Turkish heritage.
Examples: Istanbul X-Ray Silence
- Brass — Traditionally the basis for many budget-line cymbals, brass has seen a comeback this year. Brass typically yields a softer attack and lower output than bronze varieties, which suits it to reduced-dynamic (quiet stages, practice at home) applications.
Examples: Wuhan 457 Rock series, Paiste PST 3,
Stamped Cymbals vs. Casted Cymbals
If you’ve been playing the drums for any length of time, you may have heard it said that cast cymbals are “better” than sheet-pressed, or stamped, cymbals. But this is unfounded. Every cymbal begins life as a raw blank of hardened metal. These blanks can either be cast and rolled or sheeted and stamped out. Ultimately, this step is just one of many. The hammering, formation, lathing, and craftsmanship play much bigger roles in a cymbal’s response and character.
Here is a Pro Tip, walk into a store and hit the cymbals. Only by hearing them will you be able to choose the cymbal sound that is right for you. A BRAND doesn’t produce the sound, the Cymbal does.
The formation process
“Why are cymbals so expensive?” This is a question I personally hear at least once a week. Truth is, a majority of cymbals require a tremendous amount of hand crafting. The shaping, the firing, the hammering — these are all laborious tasks that require a number of man-hours. Check out the process below.
Most cymbals undergo the same basic formation that’s been used for centuries. Measured amounts of each alloy’s base elements (usually tin, copper, and silver) are liquified in a 1,000+°C foundry. The liquid metal is measured into molds to create Frisbee-like castings of the precious metals. Once cooled and hardened, castings are reheated and machine rolled multiple times to create the rough cymbal shapes and to promote musicality at a molecular level. These blanks, now brittle and blackened, are left to cool and harden before being heated a third time to form the desired bells. Factory tempering strengthens the cymbals and further expands their musical potential before their next step, which is where the real artistry takes place.
Shaping and hammering
This is the stage where flattened blanks are cut to size and pressed or hammered into shape. Each hammer stroke’s depth and peen size influence the shape and tone of the finished cymbal. So whether it’s done by hand or machine, cymbal makers spend a good deal of time here. Every hammer stroke compresses the alloy to varying degrees, which affects vibrational patterns and harmonic excitement at the molecular level. Most manufacturers have a master guide or template from which all other “like” cymbals are formed.
Some cymbals, especially those with high profiles, are hydraulic pressed into shape before undergoing hammering.
Lathing and finishing
Once hammered, cymbals move onto the lathe, a spinning wheel where cymbals are hand-tooled or machined to form grooves along their surfaces. This is an important step for several reasons. First, it thins the cymbal to the desired weight and thickness in each region: bell, bow, and edge. Next, it cuts grooves into the cymbal, which influence how the cymbal projects and how it flexes and breathes.
Cymbals may either be left in the raw, lathed, or finished with a combination of both to produce their desired tonal properties. Depending on the rawness of the cymbal, the top, bottom, and edges may be buffed for smoothness. A protective lacquer may also be applied and buffed smooth to reduce oxidation.
Allowing the cymbals to age naturally in a controlled environment — in a vault, on a shelf, or even underground — further impacts the musical properties of every cymbal. The molecules begin to relax and the metal becomes stronger. This process can take days, weeks, or even months, depending on the model.
Because of all the factors that go into the production of every cymbal, no two cymbals will ever be 100% alike. This hand production is another reason why cymbals, especially those where hand production is a major factor, can cost so much money.
Yes, Cymbals are expensive, Really expensive but know you know why. In the world of Cymbals, Time = Money/Cost. Now that you are in the know and well on your way to your first diploma in Cymbology, drop by BK Percussion some time and let’s talk Cymbals.