If You Mess with the Cymbal, You Get the Horns – Learn How to Make Cymbals Sound Better

Drummers are a special breed. We love to tinker, tweak, and test out new ways around how to make cymbals sound better, more unique, and customized to our style.

I’ve always had an affinity for a hands-on approach when trying to make my drums sound like a projection of my musical input. It has been a continual effort in finding my “perfect” sound.

As with most great lifelong pursuits, we may never see the finish line as it can be more about the journey than the victorious goal we chase.

After reading this article you will learn some tricks of the trade I have acquired over the years when it comes to making my cymbals sound better. Such as:

  • Low vs High-Cost Cymbals
  • Striking Technique
  • Clean or Dirty Cymbals
  • Customization
  • Cymbal Accessories
  • Listening Environment

You don’t need to be a certified expert in cymbal repair or modification to tackle the task of creating a better sound. Doing it yourself is cost-effective and will always allow you free reign to ensure you are getting the exact result that matches your desired outcome.

As for any DIY project, half the battle is getting started, so let’s get going.

Cheap Cymbal Sounds

As the old proverb goes, “you can’t get blood from a stone.” This is also the case for trying to make cheap cymbals sound better through modification.

Higher quality cymbals are made from a casting process, referred to as cast cymbals, where they have their grooves machined lathed, use high-end metals, and can even be hand hammered to achieve a great sounding cymbal. Check out the full process of casting them in Zildjian company.

Lower quality cymbals are made from sheet metal, otherwise known as, you guessed it, sheet cymbals. This produces a very tinny and clangy sound which may be what you are looking for, but usually are part and parcel with beginner kits.

Let’s dive into the process of making sheet cymbals from one of the largest cymbals manufacturers.

Like the UK is synonymous with tea, or India for their spices, certain countries have a long-standing history of producing top-notch cymbals.

Turkey has been a front-runner in brand and cymbal reputation for years. They use B20 alloy metal (80% copper, 20% tin) in their production process and are known to only get better with age.

Other countries such as Switzerland and Italy have earned a top spot as well for exporting stellar sounding cymbals. Swiss-made cymbals are made from B8 alloy which has been termed Malleable Bronze and have a dark mellow sound; whereas Italy uses a rotocasting process that ensures a minimal change in sound regardless of use or age.

Cymbal Playing Technique

You’re doing it wrong! The first lesson I was taught to master when I started learning how to play the drums was my technique. Good habits will help you master your craft. Consider that your overall posture, kit set up, and even the angle you strike your cymbals will deliver different results in how to make your cymbals sound better.

Ergonomics is not just for your well-being, but for keeping good form. A light grip will lessen the impact on your wrist and provide a much more intentional and quality sound. Take a tip from Alex “Turk” Turkovic Twitter post:

On the topic of muscles, stretching, and injuries let’s take a lesson out of the book of Mike Tyson. What would a world champion boxer and part-time pigeon training enthusiast know about drumming? Just lend me your ear for a second. He always talked about how in training he would not try to hit the body bag but rather aim behind it to deliver a more effective and impactful punch. Be like Mike. Try to hit through your cymbal rather than down on it to gain more resonance and an elongated tone.

Where you hit the cymbal such as the bow or bell, also if you hit the cymbal with the tip or shank of your stick will make the resulting sound night and day.

The angle of attack is always key. You never want to hit directly on, or down into the cymbal; rather approach it at a 45-degree angle. Where you hit the cymbal is also a factor. For example, the bell of the cymbal will give you that more rounded out rung sound, whereby hitting the bow you will have more of a ping finish.

Cymbal Strike Zones

Other than stick strikes, let’s not forget about the power of the pedal. When it comes to applying pressure to the hit-hat pedal, don’t push down too much as you will get a muffled and compressed sound as oppose to lightening your foot and allowing the two cymbals to open up and play off each other to get that loose tone and pitch.

Wear and tear are a given in the drumming world, but proper form and striking will save years off your cymbal’s shelf life.

Cymbal Condition

To each their own when it comes to a clean or dirty cymbal. Contrary to most guides on the upkeep of gear and equipment, not cleaning your instrument isn’t always a bad thing in the case of cymbal preservation.

Clean vs Dirty

Cymbals are intricate due to their manufacturing process. Lathing grooves and hand hammering dimples create a porous surface that can store sweat and oil from your hands as well as accumulate dirt.

When dirt and oil settle into the pores of the cymbal, patina can form which is the brownish-green discoloring that appears on cymbals from oxidization. A darker and more mellow sound is the result, which is what some drummers strive for, rather than a clean and shiny cymbal to maintain that fresh out of the bag bright and glassy sound.

I love to buy used cymbals as it saves me money, but I also get the benefit from someone else’s years of hard work in achieving that darker mellow tone. This sought-after process is called metal fatigue. The more a cymbal is hit, the more broken in and mellow the sound. Particular cymbals made of softer metal combinations like B8 alloy are best for aging a cymbal like a fine wine.

Cracked CymbalWith a mixed consensus regarding keeping your cymbals clean or dirty, we drummers can all agree that a crack forming in your cymbal is not a good look or sound. There are two types of cracks that can occur. A crack starting from the edge of the cymbal working its way inward, or a circular crack which is usually created from a weekended spot that runs along a groove.

Not for the faint of heart or shaky-handed, drilling into the end of the crack is the best way to stop it from getting worse. I always use a ¼” drill bit, specifically for drilling metal, and channel my best surgeon-like focus to avoid making it worse. If properly executed this will stop it from spreading and prevent further damage.

Cymbal Modification

The only constant in life is change and when it comes to drummers experimenting with cymbal modification it can be constantly intimidating. I always approach the modification lessons I’ve learned (I don’t fail I just learn) and successes, with the measure twice cut once approach. Practicing drilling, adding rivets, or cutting down an old sheet cymbal that you don’t care about is a good safety net and dry run. As Nick Cesarz from Drumming Review says “Don’t try this on a cymbal you love

Duct Tape and Moongel on CymbalsLet’s start with some less invasive ways to change our cymbal’s sound. It’s safe to say we have all kept a handy roll of duct tape in our kit bags or even a couple Moongels. They say duct tape can fix anything and it has always served me well in quickly changing a cymbal’s sound by reducing reverberation. Moongels act similarly to a strip of tape, but the advantage here is being able to move the Moongel around freely allowing you to find your best placement through trial and error.

Having these quick fixes as a starting point lets you exhaust fewer permanent options for modification before you began going past the point of no return with your saw, drill, or lathe.

Now to awake the mad modification scientist that lives within all of us. This is where we find out if we are steel nerved physicians or a wild-eyed Dr. Frankensteins.

Drilling holes through the surface of your cymbal is more so a technique for crash cymbals rather than rides, hi-hats, or splash cymbals. Not only does this create a distinctive tone but it looks cool too. You’ll need a drill bit, a vice or two, and the patience to space out your drilling. If you drill too many holes too quickly, or they are too close together, it could damage the cymbal. Make sure you give the cymbal a few days to rest between drilling sessions.

Cymbals with Holes and a Rivet

If you do end up going the drilling route, try experimenting with adding rivets to the holes. If you don’t want to drill through a cymbal only to find out you don’t like rivets; this sizzle-like jazz-inspired sound can also be achieved by adding a chain that lays across the cymbal and mimics the laid back lounge laden sound.

We all get attached to our cymbals, especially if we have spent years breaking them into the point where they are at that desired state of sound perfection. If you are unfortunate enough to get cracks on your edges, don’t throw it away and squander all those years of effort. It’s time to downsize by cutting down the cymbal.

For this more advanced modification option, you’ll need a few trusty tools. A press or lathe, sharpie, jigsaw, file, and sandpaper will do the trick.

Mark your cut lines around the cymbal (it’s easier if you just follow one of the inner grooves) then draw a series of triangles between the damaged edge of the cymbal and the line where you are cutting. Make your cuts with the jigsaw at each triangle line until you have removed the outer damaged layer.

Once you have a clean-cut, place the cymbal on the lathe or press and use your file to smooth out any rough edges. From there, sandpaper down the surface, and you are now left with a brand new and improved-sounding cymbal. To make sure you get it right, watch Chris’s video showing the process of cutting a cymbal.

Cymbal Stands and Settings

Back in my younger days when I use to gig more regularly, I learned to carry a notepad with my set-up measurements, angles, and stand positions jotted down (a drum diary if you will). When I would break down and set up again, it allowed me to recreate that sweet spot of reach and familiarity.

This always came in handy and if smartphones were a thing back then I would have worked smarter, not harder, and took some photos to help me reconstruct my placement. What a time to be alive!

Here are a few rules of thumb for your kit’s support structure. Never over-tighten your stands, this will certainly lead to stripped-down threads and damaged wing nuts.

Equally as important is having decent sleeves and felts. Sleeves being the rubber tubes that act as a washer-like buffer between the stand and cymbal. While felts provide a soft barrier over the sleeve for the cymbal to rest on. Luckily these items are both very inexpensive, and you can buy them in bulk. If only Costco had a drum accessories section. One can dream.

Your Drum Kit Is like a Boat

Now to combine my two favorite things. Drumming and nautical analogies (A close second is boxing analogies). If your drums were a boat and the cymbals were the sails, then your stands and clamps are the hull and engine room. You’ve got to keep them in tip-top shape. Unmaintained stands can squeak or be unsteady and impede your playing. Let’s make sure we stay afloat and don’t sink ourselves by ignoring the finer details of our setups.

How to Make Your Cymbals Sound Better in Your Space

From real drums to eardrums, the way we hear is through vibrations being passed through our ear canal, across a small chain of bones, penetrating fluid-covered membranes, and finally into our brains for processing via an auditory nerve.

The same way we can hear sounds is the same way cymbals can change drastically by their sound bouncing off the walls, floors, ceilings, and other surfaces around them.

If you want a recording studio-style production of your cymbals make sure you have an insulated room by laying down carpet, place sound panels on the wall, or hang insulated curtains. There is quite a difference in how a cymbal sounds in a well-soundproofed room versus a concert hall or church.

Find out how soundproofing affects sound of a room in the video below.

Learn more

Conclusion

As the old saying goes, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,”. But if it is, then you have done the right thing by reading this post on how to make your cymbals sound better. The way I have always looked at my cymbals is I would rather invest the time to modify and improve rather than throw away or buy a new set.

Perfecting your desired sound is a journey and one worth taking if it leads to a better-balanced sound while saving you a little bit of loot. You never know, you also might learn a thing or two along the way and want to quit your day job to become a master cymbal modifier, or be like the musicians I mention in this article who are well versed in achieving a sound that is uniquely theirs. At the very least keep playing, keep learning, and don’t be afraid to start taking cymbal matters into your own hands.

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