March 28, 2013

Selecting cymbals

By Darin Soll

Like drum heads, cymbals are a critical component of your sound.  Unfortunately, the number of cymbal choices and combinations available to drummers are even more bewildering...

So I'll start the discussion on cymbals much the way I started the discussion on drum heads--by sharing cymbal setups that have worked for me.  I would be interested to hear what combinations of cymbals work for you.

In my opinion, more than any other component of a drum kit, cymbals require a careful tryout before you bring them home.  In addition to finding a pleasing ping, chick, crash, or splash, you want your cymbals to complement each other.  Rythym Dog recommends bringing your existing cymbals with you when trying out new cymbals at the music store, particularly your hi-hats (if you like what you have).  This is good advice.

Before sharing my setups, here are five tips on selecting cymbals:
  • DO buy professional-quality cymbals.  Brass cymbals, or entry-level product lines from major cymbal makers generally will not produce the sound you want.  Some of the mid-range lines have solid individual cymbals, but better to start with a core of professional-quality cymbals, and blend new purchases with that core.
  • NEVER buy a cymbal pack.  I have made this mistake not once, not twice, but THREE times.  I bought my first cymbal pack, Zildjian A Customs (14-inch hi-hats, 20-inch ride, 16- and 18-inch medium crashes) in 2010.  Today, the only cymbal I still have from that pack is the 16-inch crash.  I ended up returning the second and third packs I purchased in their entirety.  Yes, I know it says "matched from cymbals selected from our vault" on the box, but I think the guy doing the selecting and matching knows more about selling cymbals than playing them!  In addition, it's pretty unusual for a single line of cymbals to meet all of a drummer's needs sonically.
  • PLAY the specific cymbal you are considering before you buy it.  There is a lot of inconsistency from one cymbal to the next, even between two cymbals of the same size, type, series, and manufacturer.  The sound of hammered cymbals (Zildjian Ks, for example) can vary WIDELY between two otherwise identical cymbals.  This is another reason why cymbal packs are a bad idea.  Sound clips on cymbal makers' websites provide a starting point, but you have to play the cymbal before you buy it, or make absolutely certain that you can return it for a full refund.
  • Don't be afraid to stray beyond your preferred cymbal brand.  Brand loyalty helps the cymbal maker far more than it helps you.
  • Definitely consider used cymbals, but examine them for cracks around the center hole and along the edges.  Many drummers prefer the sound of older, somewhat corroded cymbals over shiny new ones.
I have broken all of these rules and learned the hard way that each one of them is important if you want to get the best possible sound for your money.

I will admit up front that I struggle with my own brand loyalty advice.  I am an engineer by training, so I like things nice and neat.  You will see that in my cymbal set ups.  I have two general setups that I use for different types of music.  Both are versatile, but my Zildjian setup is better suited overall to rock gigs, and my Paiste setup is a bit smoother for pop/rock gigs.  Here are the details:
  • Zildjian setup:  14-inch K hi-hats, 20-inch K ride, 16-inch A Custom crash, 18-inch A Custom fast crash, 12-inch A Custom splash, 6-inch Zil-Bel
  • Paiste setup:  14-inch 2002 Sound Edge hi-hats, 20-inch 2002 ride, 17-inch 2002 thin crash, 19-inch 2002 thin crash, 11-inch 2002 splash, 7-inch TRX T Bell
While to my ear, the Paiste 2002 line-up works across the entire cymbal spectrum (except the bells), that is not the case for me with Zildjian or Sabian.  For example, to me, Zildjian A Custom hi-hats and rides are too bright, and Zildjian K crashes are too dark.

So this provides a starting point for the discussion.  What cymbal setups are you currently using?

--Darin

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