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
In designing and analyzing cymbals, we have found the
various parameters of cymbal sound can be grouped into three logical groups:
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.
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
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)
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.
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
Color – Range: Very Bright to Very
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
Frequency Range – Range: Very Narrow – Very
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
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
Hi-Hat Chick Sound – Range: Soft/Tight
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“.