Are you cringing every time you hit your crash cymbals? Do your hi-hats sound abrasive and clangy? If so, you may find yourself asking this question: Why do my cymbals sound bad? This can be particularly frustrating when they are brand new and part of a recently purchased drum set.
While there are various ways to make your acoustic drums sound better, cymbals are very honest in sonic quality. While it makes sense that cheaper cymbals may not sound as good as more expensive ones, some less obvious factors 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. Here are five essential facts about cymbals and why they sound a certain way.
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1. Cast vs. sheet cymbals.
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 molded 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, and they can provide individuality and extra articulation to a cymbal. The metal alloys used in more expensive cymbals are of higher quality. Most manufacturer websites give basic information on which metals are used in each model without divulging coveted secret formulas.
Just because a cymbal may belong to the sheet metal family doesn't automatically mean it will sound bad. Some sheet metal compositions are excellent and perfect for beginner drummers. The trick is to use pricing as a guideline and avoid the obviously cheap, low-cost options.
2. 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 many 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 than 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 only get 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.
3. The angle of attack impacts sound and cymbal preservation.
Crash cymbals should be struck in a sideways or glancing blow rather than directly down. Drum Ambition subscribers will see this demonstrated in Module 1, 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.
4. 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, you are at risk of key-holing, eventually cracking 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. You may wish to 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 sound.
5. Your listening environment makes a difference too.
Drums and cymbals you hear on recordings or live performances are engineered and heard in a polished 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, different from playing them in 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 from 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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