Cymbal Sound Classification System

-> Introduction
-> Classification System
    -> Empirical Character
    -> Sound Character
    -> Function
-> General Considerations


When we normally think about and hear cymbal sound, we take a very intuitive approach. We either like what we hear, or we like it but feel it might not work for us, or we don’t like it. This approach works, because in the end we will only acquire and keep a cymbal in our set if we like it and it works.

In our experience, and through talking with a lot of cymbal players, this can often be a very tedious and frustrating process. Often it involves going through piles of cymbals until we feel the magic “click”. Too often it can also lead to purchases purely based on liking something in the store context but finding out later it does not work so well in our musical context. Finally, the choices today are overwhelming. There are seemingly too many cymbals and not enough time.

At Paiste, we thought very hard about this process and how drummers and percussionists approach and select cymbals. On the one hand we have the experience of decades of work with top artists in designing new cymbals and helping them select their sets. On the other hand we listen to the drummers and percussionists “in the street”, who may sometimes be more knowledgeable than a seasoned pro and may sometimes not yet be as clear, aware and specific about their sound ideas. Invariably, we found that the process involves these simple steps you should take to arrive at a satisfying decision:

form an idea of what you are looking for; this idea could be a combination of personal sound feeling (clear, dark, lively, dirty, subtle, powerful, the list goes on forever), musical context (style, instrumentation, feeling), application setting (volume, personal playing style, preferences of fellow musicians), but can also incorporate anything else you want

match this idea with cymbal literature in a pre-selection process; identify models that could fulfill your personal sound ideas

verbalize your ideas to manufacturer representatives and/or music store personnel to receive advice and guidance; describe your sound ideas using a handful of relatively clear and recognizable parameters

narrow down the field of selection to a manageable group of models; identify and search out models in order to play them and experience their sound and function. If possible, have a friend or music store personnel play the cymbal and listen from a distance

decide on a particular model and assure yourself of its usefulness for your musical purpose by comparing your sound idea to the live experience with the cymbal using the sound and function parameters as a personal check list
Classification System
In designing and analyzing cymbals, we have found the
various parameters of cymbal sound can be grouped into three logical groups:

Empirical Characteristics
These can be experienced and verified physically and include the SIZE and THICKNESS, which should be considered together as the WEIGHT (thickness proportional to the size of the cymbal); and the VOLUME (range where the cymbal performs well). The FORM of the cmybal gives you an idea on what pitch it performs.

Sound Character
These are the frequencies and harmonics produced by a cymbal which result in a very personal sound feeling and experience and are consequently extremely hard to categorize; they include COLOR (overall dominance of higher or lower frequencies), the RANGE (presence of lowest to highest audible frequencies) and the MIX (density of audible frequencies)

This area addresses how the cymbal reacts to what you do to it with a drum stick; it includes the ATTACK or stick sound (the immediate sound initially heard when striking the cymbal), the RESPONSE INTENSITY (the potency of frequencies developing from the vibration of the cymbal as a result of the stroke), the SUSTAIN (the audible length of the sound vibration), and type specific functional characteristics, such as the BELL CHARACTER in Rides, and the CHICK SOUND, the interaction of the two cymbals in a Hi-Hat; finally there is the FEEL of the cymbal (the feeling you experience in your hands and with the stick as you hit the cymbal or play rhythmic figures on it)

Sound Descriptions
In describing our cymbals, we have found it most useful to present the empirical and functional characteristics as bullet points, while we have presented the sound characteristics in descriptive words. Where appropriate, we have also added notes about the feel of the cymbal, and its particular usefulness, such as hand playing and other percussive techniques, as well as suggested musical settings.

Empirical Character

Size and Thickness: Small to Large and Thin to Thick.
These are the most basic characteristics. They determine the overall pitch and sustain of the cymbal. In simple terms, the larger a cymbal of a certain type gets, the lower its pitch will be and the thicker a cymbal of a certain size gets the higher its pitch will be. Also, the larger and/or thicker cymbals get, the longer the sustain will be. However, these characteristics do not exist by themselves, but will always be relative to each other, so they can only be used as a general starting point in thinking about cymbal sound.

Weight – Range: Extra Thin to Extra Heavy.
This is defined as thickness proportional to size. It is important to understand that weight is a very relative concept, as it results from a combination of thickness and size. In general terms, as a cymbal gets thicker, the volume will be louder, the sound color will be brighter, the frequency range will be narrower, the mix more complex, the attack sound will become more pronounced, the response more lively, and the sustain longer. As a cymbal gets larger, the volume will be louder, the sound color will be darker, the range will be wider, the mix more complex, the attack or stick sound may go either way, the response will be more lively, and the sustain will be longer. The various combinations of weight and size may now balance out, reinforce, or negate these various tendencies. The best way to understand this interaction is to consider two extreme, diametrically opposite models. A very thick, very small cymbal will have medium volume, a very bright color, a narrow range, a clean mix, a very pronounced attack, a dry response, but a long sustain (because more mass almost always overrides size). A very thin, very large cymbal, will have medium volume, a very dark color, a wider range, a complex mix, a very washy attack, the response will be less lively, and the sustain will be long.

Volume – Range: Very Soft to Very Loud.
This refers to the useful volume range of the cymbal. On the low end of the spectrum we consider how softly we can play the cymbal before its character falls apart. This is best illustrated considering a huge, thick, powerful Ride cymbal where at some point of softer playing not enough force is applied to properly excite the mass of the cymbal so it cannot unfold its full character. On the high end of the spectrum we consider how strongly we can play the cymbal without overplaying it. Consider a medium size thin cymbal that will be played heavily in a loud setting. At some point of heavy hitting, not only will the cymbal loose its intended definition, but you also run the risk of destroying an otherwise perfectly well made and sturdy cymbal.

Form – Pitch: Low to High Pitch.
This is defined as pitch of the cymbal. The shape can vary from rather flat, which gives a lower pitch, to round, which gives a higher pitch.

Sound Character

Sound Color – Range: Very Bright to Very Dark.
This refers to the overall relative strength of higher to lower frequencies. It is important to understand that in almost all cymbals, the whole range of very low to extremely high frequencies is more or less present. It is the intensity of portions of the spectrum that give the cymbal its overall feeling of sound color. Generally speaking, higher frequencies are experienced as brighter, lower frequencies as darker. Consider also that the frequency range will subjectively alter the overall color feeling.

Frequency Range – Range: Very Narrow – Very Wide.
Here we are considering the upper and lower frequency limits of all the frequencies present. In general, cymbals consist of roughly three layers of sound. On the lower end (“undertones”) we have the overall “gong sound” or basic pitch of the cymbal, which could be best isolated playing the cymbal with a relatively soft mallet, and on the upper end (“overtones”) we have “silver sound” or shimmer, which could best be isolated by hitting the cymbal parallel to its surface with the shaft of the drum stick. How wide the frequency range of overall cymbal sound is has important functional and character effects. Wider range results in looser, bigger sound, narrower range in more focused, together sound. Hi-Hats, because they are pairs of two different cymbals, have a special relationship: greater weight difference between the top and bottom cymbal tends to produce a wider range.

Frequency Mix – Range: Very clean (delicate) – Very Complex (rough).
Here we are considering the density of the cymbal sound, or the relative presence of the center section of frequencies. This is the middle layer of the overall cymbal sound, also referred to as its “voice”. Crashing the cymbal across its edge with a medium strength stroke will highlight the center frequencies. A relative absence of middle frequencies will be perceived as a clean or clear (“voiceless”) cymbal sound because the upper and lower layers co-exist without too much interference, while a relative abundance of center frequencies tends to combine and intricately mix all the frequencies in the cymbal which will then be perceived as complex (and in a darker cymbal as dirty).


Attack / Stick Sound – Range: Pronounced/Pingy to Spread/Washy.
This refers to the initial sound immediately following the stroke with the drumstick tip on the surface (“ping”). This sound also incorporates the wood sound of the drumstick hitting the cymbal, which ever so slightly transmits into the cymbal sound. The sound from the tip of the drumstick has the most significance when playing rhythmic figures on a Ride cymbal. It can either be very pronounced or pingy, where the “pings” are clearly separate and distinct from the overall cymbal sound, or spread or washy, where the “pings” are cushioned or even buried in the overall cymbal sound, or in between, providing a balance between rhythmic articulation and response sound (“wash”). Hi-Hats, when played open almost always have a washy sound (unless the top cymbal is quite thick), while rhythmic, articulate figures are achieved by playing the closed Hi-Hat with the tip on the surface or with the shaft across the edge. A balance between the two is achieved by breaking the open, washy response sound through open-closed playing. The tip sound from the stick on a Crash or Splash cymbal is always washy, and usually they are “crashed” with the shaft across the edge anyway. A China or Swish cymbal can be played either way, but the tip sound from the stick will always tend to be washy.

Response Intensity – Range: Dry – Lively.
This refers to the frequencies and harmonics that develop following the stroke that sets the cymbal into vibration. The response sound is the intensity, complexity and speed with which the cymbal opens up as a result of a stroke. There can be less response sound resulting in a dry feeling, or more response sound resulting in a wet or lively feeling. Crash, Splash and China cymbals always tend to be lively, while Ride cymbals can go either way (when played with the tip because their crash sound will almost always be lively). In a Ride cymbal a relative dry character results in a focused, controllable sound, which works well for rhythmic articulation, while a wet or lively character tends to build up a “wash” of sound within which the rhythmic articulation coexists but is still very audible. All Hi-Hats tend to be lively played open, because the top cymbal usually has crash character. Hi-Hats with less combined top/bottom weight tend to be drier, faster, and more responsive, and will allow fast, articulate playing. Hi-Hats with thinner top cymbals will have a lively response, and will be more dynamic and controllable in open-closed playing.

Sustain – Range: Short – Long.
This refers to the length in time a cymbal can still be heard after striking it. In all cymbals, including Rides, the larger and thicker they are, the longer their sustain will be. A longer sustain makes a cymbal more useful for creating “sound walls” that fill the overall musical “soundscape” (but you can also achieve the same effect by fast rhythmic playing). The smaller and thinner a cymbal is, the shorter and more useful it will be for quick accents. A cymbal with longer sustain but very dry character will subjectively feel shorter.

Bell Character – Range: Integrated – Separated.
This refers to whether the bell sound of the cymbal is clearly separated from the rest of the cymbal. In a cymbal with an integrated bell sound, the whole cymbal will also respond easily when you strike just the bell. You can also think of the bell sound as a huge ping sound as in a Ride that’s either pingy or washy. Only Rides and very few China cymbals tend to have separated bell sounds.

Hi-Hat Chick Sound – Range: Soft/Tight to Sharp/Pronounced.
This refers to the sound of two Hi-Hat cymbals clashing together. This sound is always very short, but can differ very much by ranging from soft, precise, tight to sharp, meaty, pronounced. This character attribute is important to consider in the overall volume setting and style of music played.

Feel – Range: Soft - Heavy.
This can be a very important factor, because it is the immediate physical sensation you have interacting with the cymbal, as the response or resistance of the cymbal travels through the stick into your hands. A cymbal with a soft feel has little resistance, and is perceived as buttery or giving. An even feel is neutral, or not particularly giving or resistant. A heavy feel offers noticeable resistance; you can really feel the mass of the cymbal. Feel is a very personal preference; Jazz drummers tend to prefer a soft, buttery feel in a ride while Rock drummers may enjoy the heavy presence of a massive cymbal. In general, a cymbal with less weight will tend towards a softer feel. The relative rigidity of the cymbal surface (which you can test by carefully bending it in your hands) will also determine this parameter, as a more rigid cymbal will feel heavier. Consider that a softer cymbal can possibly absorb the shock of your stroke better than a thicker cymbal. Longevity of each cymbal has to do with the ultimative „absorb-ability“.
General Considerations
When considering all the parameters presented for the model, it is important to keep in mind that some general factors can also significantly influence your choice:

Size of the cymbal within a particular model. The characteristics presented are most applicable to the most usual size within a model. This would be 10” for Splash, 14” for Hi-Hat, 16” for Crash, 18” for China, and 20” for Ride. The effects of the size dimension discussed in the size and weight sections will change as you consider different sizes within a given model.

Type of stick and playing style. The characteristics presented for the various models assume a medium size and weight wood tip stick and an average playing style. Your choice of stick and your playing style can make a big difference in how a cymbal will actually behave and sound.

Musical setting within which cymbals will be played. This is usually very straightforward. Louder music requires bigger, heavier cymbals and softer music requires thinner, smaller cymbals. On the other hand, unusual situations could dramatically alter cymbal choice. Consider these examples: playing a Power Ride in a ballad, because you will be performing in huge arenas in front of 50,000 people; playing ride figures very softly on a small thin crash in the studio because it sounds right and the engineer can bring it up in the mix.

Overall character of the cymbal line. Each cymbal line has a different musical context within which it was developed. For instance, consider the 2002 which was created during the late 60’s and 70’s when Beat Music and Rock Music history was being written and electronic amplification changed the overall sound of music, or the Traditionals, which recreate cymbal sound appropriate for the various largely acoustic forms of Jazz in the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s, or the Signature, whose development was strongly influenced by the sound property of the alloy used but otherwise covers many musical styles and ages. It is therefore helpful to listen to several lines to get a feeling for the overall sound character when considering the models.
Cymbal Anatomy
Learn more about the basic anatomy of a cymbal
Cymbal Usage & Care
If you treat your cymbals with the care they deserve, you will be able to enjoy them for a very long time.
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