As a full time drum teacher, and former retail drum store Manager, this is a question that I have heard a lot over the years. While there are various ways to make your acoustic drums sound better, cymbals are very honest when it comes to sonic quality. While it makes sense that cheaper cymbals may not sound as good as more expensive ones, there are also some less obvious factors that may contribute to your cymbal sound, such as how you play them, their physical condition, and the environment in which you are listening to them.
Cast vs Sheet cymbals.
Let's address the obvious point first. With a few lucky-find exceptions, cymbals that cost more are generally better sounding and more musical than cheaper cymbals. As with any musical instrument, you get what you pay for. Cheaper cymbals are usually made from sheet metal, and are thus referred to as "sheet cymbals". They are normally found with starter drum sets, and sold in packs. The fine lines (also known as grooves) that you see on a cymbal are precision cut on a machine known as a lathe. More expensive cymbals are usually heat moulded in individual casts (or cases), and are commonly referred to as "cast cymbals". While these can also be machine lathed, many are machine hammered, and even hand hammered. These are the dents and pits that you see on the cymbal - they can provide individuality and extra articulation to a cymbal. The metal alloys used in more expensive cymbals are typically of a higher quality, and most manufacturer websites describe which metals are used in each model.
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Technique. Are you playing musically?
Regardless of the cymbals you use, playing with a good technique will get the best out of your instrument. The hi-hat cymbals are instruments within themselves, producing a multitude of musical sounds based on how you strike them. For example, you can play on the bow of the hi hat (that's the mid-way point between the bell and the edge of a cymbal), or you can play on the edge. You can play using the tip of the stick, or use the shoulder, or "shank". All will give you different musical options, but some can be less musical then others. For example, playing across the bow with the shoulder of the stick can sound abrasive and leave long stick marks on the surface. This is true regardless of the quality of the cymbal. If you push too hard on your hi hat foot pedal, you will choke the cymbals - and this is a sure way to make even the best cymbals sound average. Similarly, if you are playing continuous open hi hats, making sure that the two cymbals are lightly touching and working off each other, and not completely separated, will give you a musical sound. If there is too much separation between the two, you are only getting the high pitched, and somewhat piercing sound of the top cymbal. Most good quality hi-hat cymbal sets have a higher pitched cymbal on the top, and a heavier weight lower pitched cymbal on the bottom. Combined, they give you a classic hi hat sound.
Crash cymbals should be struck in a sideways or "glancing" blow, rather than directly down. Drum Ambition subscribers will see this demonstrated in Lesson 4. There are three reasons for this. Firstly, it allows the cymbal to sing musically without being choked. Secondly, it is better for your wrists since you are not absorbing as much of a physical blow. Lastly, it will prolong the life of your cymbals. They may be metal, but make no mistake, they can be broken and cracked easily if you neglect your technique.
Ride cymbals will give you different responses whether you play on the bell, the bow or the edge of the cymbal. Side sticking the bell (using the shoulder, or even the main body of the stick) can give you a heavily accented rock feel. Playing across the bow will build overtones and give you a very washy sound which can be desirable in certain situations, but can be overbearing in some more delicate scenarios. Playing with the tip of the stick on the bow, in a controlled manner, will give you a crisp, articulate cymbal ping.
The condition of your cymbals makes a difference.
If your cymbals are cracked, dented, or key-holed, the sound can be permanently impaired. While cracks and dents are obvious, "key-holing" is less so. This term refers to the hole in the center of your cymbal becoming damaged, ultimately ending up in a key-hole profile. It is caused by metal on metal contact, and is prevented from happening by the rubber and plastic inserts that go over the metal section of your cymbal stand. If those inserts are missing, then you are at risk of key-holing, which will eventually crack your cymbal from the hole outwards. It is common to see where drummers have chosen to cut out small wedge segments of a cymbal edge to curtail a crack - but this never really works. The crack will ultimately return, and the cymbal will never sound the same. The best thing to do is question why you might be cracking a cymbal in the first place - if your technique is good, this is an extremely rare event. Over time, cymbals can become tarnished and collect dirt in the grooves. A good cymbal cleaner can help keep your discs shiny and clean. While this is aesthetically pleasing, there is little evidence to support the theory that cymbal grime affects the sound.
Your listening environment makes a difference too.
Drums and cymbals that you hear on recordings or at live performances are both mixed, and heard in a musical context. For studio recordings, including Drum Ambition, the sound is mixed and compressed to get a balanced finished result that is just the right volume and tone. The reality of a raw cymbal in the flesh can be very different. The type of room you are in can make a massive difference to the tone and projection of a cymbal. Rooms with various sound absorbing features, such as carpeting, curtains, cushions, or custom sound treatments will produce a very raw cymbal sound, which would be different to playing them in, say, a garage, a large hall or a venue with high ceilings. The size of a room can make a considerable difference. If you are playing in a 10x10ft sound control studio, that would be very different sonically, to playing in an auditorium or concert venue. When you hear drums with other instruments, the cymbals always seem to ring less, and the drums can also seem less resonant. It is important to understand that the sonic relationship with the other instruments produces this effect. A wall of sound can have many effects that cancel out certain characteristics of individual instruments. This is why bands rely on good audio engineers in both live and studio environments.
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