The Continuing Myths about Cymbal Alloys & Hammering - Part 1
Ahhhh, yes, one of my favorite topics. If there’s any topic out there that gets beaten to death as much as that of Tony Williams’ ride cymbal, it is that of cymbals themselves. The whole aura of cymbals is filled with myths, truths, half-truths, lies, and propaganda. And that’s just the good part!
*Note of disclosure: Hey, I just happen to be a Paiste endorser, so you might be thinking, “That guy is really biased!” Well, I’ve owned and played cymbals by most of the major (and some minor) cymbal makers out there and liked them all. I’m not afraid to call them as I see them, for whatever company.
So let’s deconstruct some of these ideas:
Alloys - The opinions are so varied I could write a book on just this alone—but I’ll try to keep it brief. It’s important to note that all cymbal companies put their own spin on the subject and their truth usually sits squarely with what type of cymbals are their main product. I can’t fault them for promoting what they do and want to sell, but often times they spin things in such ways as to confuse any potential customer. So things have become very polarized with 2 main sides on the alloy issue: cast vs non-cast.
The argument usually goes like this:
- Our cymbals are made from cast bronze, so they are better than cymbals made from non-cast bronze, or sheet metal.
We first need to take a quick look at how bronze is made. Bronze is an alloy of basically copper and some other metal, usually tin (what we call bronze), zinc (what we call brass), or nickel (what we call nickel-silver). Cymbal bronze is usually 2 metals: copper & tin. There may be other metals in small amounts, but copper & tin are the main two. An alloy is a combinations of metals that are melted under extreme heat and then combined to form a specific type of metal. The definition of casting is:
- shape (metal or other material) by pouring it into a mold while molten.
A good analogy would be making a cake. There you combine flour, eggs, sugar, etc. to produce a batter, that when heated, will emerge as a cake.
The traditional cymbal alloy is called B20 (80% copper & 20% tin). This is commonly known as Bell Bronze because it is used to cast church bells and the like, because it is a very strong, yet sonorous alloy. In making cymbals, B20 is usually cast into small molds, producing a sort of round, flat metal pancake that is used to produce one individual cymbal. This is then heated and rolled to stretch it out, much like making a pizza crust. It is then repeatedly heated/cooled/hammered to give it shape and to add tension to the metal. After this process, a very sturdy and musical cymbal emerges. Now it just so happens that the people who make & play these types of cymbals are fond of saying how superior they are to cymbals made of other alloys and by other methods.
Another popular cymbal alloy is B8 (92% copper & 8% tin). Without going into scientific analysis, B8 has different properties which allow it to be made into larger castings (like bars & ingots), and then rolled out into very large/long sheets & rolls. From these sheets, individual blank discs can be cut out, and then heated/cooled/hammered into a cymbal. The actual process of making a B8 cymbal is almost identical to that of making a B20 cymbal, but the important thing to remember is that both alloys had to be cast into some form in which to be made into a cymbal. So when anyone tells you that “these cymbals are cast, while those aren’t,” they’re full of shit.
*Note: one advantage B8 has over B20 is for student and entry level cymbals. These types can be stamped out from a blank in one step: you put a blank in, ka-chunk and it gets stamped out. On these cymbals, not only is the bell and the shape stamped out, but the lathing lines and hammer marks are actually stamped in! So that’s one reason a pro level cymbal costs so much more than an entry level cymbal.
There are many other bronze alloys being used today to create cymbals: B5, B6, B10, B14, B15, B23, B25—they are all cast, they all have their own unique sound. So what is the sound difference? In general (and it’s very general, because there are so many factors in what makes up a cymbal’s sound), the higher tin content alloys produce cymbals with a wider frequency range with more lows, while a lower tin content will produce cymbals that lean towards the higher frequencies. Thus a B20 cymbal, like a Zildjian A or K, will tend to have a fuller sound with more mids and lows than a comparable B8 Paiste 2002 cymbal, which will seem to have more high end and be cutting. But it’s also possible to hammer & shape a cymbal to accentuate its frequency range, so there’s no easy generalization.
Now if you’ve managed to hang with me this far, you may be asking, “So, which is better?” Well, the answer I always give is, “What sounds good to your ear?” After all, isn’t the resulting sound and its usability in your music more important than what it’s made of? So take to the web, inform yourself. Also, go out and play a lot of different cymbals. Don’t just trust the propaganda that all cymbal companies tell you.
Next time in Part 2: The dreaded hand hammering vs machine hammering debate.