It’s easy to overlook the importance cymbals play in the overall sound and quality of a drum kit.
In fact, at the budget end of the market, that’s often what drum set manufacturers do. Corners are inevitably cut to keep overall costs down, and invariably this means cymbals often get a raw deal.
We saw this first hand when writing our review on budget drum kits. None of the cymbals provided were particularly brilliant – but some were definitely better than others.
Providing the accent, crash and ride sounds that are the energy and drive behind a musical performance, cymbals are unquestionably as vital a part of a drummer’s arsenal as the drums themselves.
Clearly, cymbals are precision engineered components, but have you ever wondered about their material composition? Just what are cymbals made of? Read on to find out.
Alloys are everywhere
When we’re talking about cymbal materials, we’re mainly talking about copper alloys which in most cases with cymbals is bronze. Simply defined, an alloy is the fusion of two or more metals in the molten state to offer enhanced properties that either base material couldn’t provide in isolation.
We see alloys all over the place: bronze (an alloy of copper and tin) is used to make bells and bearings (and cymbals); brass (an alloy of copper and zinc) is used extensively in the manufacture of musical instruments and plumbing fixtures.
In other applications, aluminum alloys are used in aircraft manufacturing and automotive parts; titanium alloys are found in aerospace components and medical implants; and let’s not forget good old phosphor bronze guitar strings.
Bronze is probably best
The most common of all cymbal alloys is bronze which as we’ve noted is a copper alloy with tin added.
Both constituent alloying components bring their own respective superpowers to the party. Copper, the main ingredient, gives cymbals a bright, clear tone which cuts through in a musical performance. This is due to the material’s density and high conductivity, the by-product of which is enhanced high frequency overtones.
Tin is added to the mix in smaller quantities. It’s hard to define but it makes the cymbal more dynamically responsive and sensitive which lends itself to different styles of playing. Tin adds warmth and a degree of harmonic complexity to the sound. It also makes the cymbal more hardwearing and durable.
Collectively, with cymbals made from bronze, you get the best of both worlds: brightness, warmth and richness with wide tonal flexibility.
Tin talk: B20 bronze
The ratio of copper to tin in a cymbal is variable and this results in a number of available permutations for cymbal alloys. The most common bronze cymbals on the market are B20 (also known as bell bronze cymbals) and B8 and they have distinctly different sounds.
B20 and B8 aren’t just random numbers – they reference the amount of tin that’s present in the bronze alloy. B20 bronze (bell bronze) contains 80% copper and 20% tin; B8 is derived from 92% copper, 8% tin. The amount of tin affects the way the cymbal sounds.
Different cymbal makers have different terms for B20 bronze. For Sabian and Meinl, it’s B20; Paiste calls it CuSn20 and for Zidjian it’s Zildjian Secret Alloy.
We noted earlier that tin adds certain characteristics to the sound. Generally, the more tin that’s present in a bronze alloy, the darker, more complex and richer the sound. Cymbals made from B20 bronze have a wide frequency response so it’s a pretty popular material with leading cymbal manufacturers.
During the manufacturing of a B20 bronze cymbal, particularly in the treatment, hammering and lathing operations, the tone can be changed drastically depending on requirements.
Cymbals made with tighter grooving during lathing for example will generally produce a brighter, more focused, thinner sound with shorter sustain, while wider, more open grooves produce a warmer tone with more sustain with less projection and volume.
Other influencing factors that can change the tone of cymbals made from B20 bronze are alloy composition, hammering patterns and cymbal profile and shape.
The downside of B20 alloy as a material is that the comparatively high levels of tin can make it difficult to work with. Copper is malleable but add 20% tin and some of that malleability turns to brittleness.
This means actually making B20 cymbals can be more labor intensive during the manufacturing process with smaller batch quantities. This in turn means they’re generally more expensive and tend to be aimed at intermediate and professional players.
Another popular bronze alloy for cymbals B8 also known as malleable bronze; no prizes for guessing that this contains 92% copper and 8% tin! Sonically, cymbals made from B8 bronze are brighter sounding than B20 and for the manufacturer, much easier to work with so they tend to be cheaper and aimed more at beginner to intermediate level.
This isn’t always the case though – some B8s are definitely not gentle on the wallet. An often quoted example are Paiste 2002 cymbals which are squarely aimed at professional players – and have a price tag to match!
If you need a cymbal to be focused and really cut through with enhanced upper frequencies, cymbals made from B8 bronze are hard to beat (excuse the pun).
Variations on a theme
While B8 and B20 are the most popular bronze alloys for cymbals, it’s certainly not the full picture because some cymbal manufacturers (Paiste, Meinl, Zildjian for example) produce copper/tin variations between the two such as B10, B12, and B15.
It’s the same copper to tin formula but just variations on a theme so in simple terms you’re just getting different blends of bright and darker sounding cymbals.
As a general comment we would say that the more tin that’s included in the mix, the richer, more complex, more sustaining the sound. Back off on the tin and you get brighter sounds with less sustain. More tin also generally means a higher price tag.
To keep costs down. B8 bronze cymbals are typically manufactured from sheet metal whereas B20 tend to be cast. As always there are exceptions to the rule but fabricating from sheet makes sense simply because it’s more economical for larger batches. Casting is a much slower (and more expensive) process.
Cymbals made from brass, an alloy composed of predominantly copper and zinc, is a material also used in cymbal making but it’s almost exclusively confined to the entry-level and budget end of the market. It’s a comparatively cheap material and easy to form during the manufacturing process.
There are some pretty horrible sounding cymbals around that tend to be used as part of the ‘package’ with budget drum kits. Often the drums aren’t too shabby in budget basement but the cymbals really let the side down.
These cymbals are invariably manufactured from cheap brass. Thankfully, better quality cymbals made from brass (Paiste 101s for example) are available but unless you particularly like the sound, bronze is far better. Brass cymbals are very bright sounding and don’t sustain particularly well.
Probably worth a quick mention but barely relevant today – nickel silver cymbals (also known as German silver) were very popular in the 1940s and 50s for cymbal manufacturing. It was cheap, easy to machine and, in some cases at least, sounded OK if a little bright and trashy.
The chemical composition was generally around 60% copper, 20% nickel and 20% zinc. Occasionally nickel silver turns up in gongs and specialist cymbals.
Overwhelmingly, cymbals made from bronze are the most popular type on the market – and cymbal companies offer plenty of choice.
B20 for depth and richness of tone and B8 for brightness are obvious starting points but there’s plenty in between with different variants available. Pop into your local music store and bash a few cymbals!