Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Perspectives on cymbals, part the first

You may have noticed that I've lately been advocating for heavier cymbals than are currently in fashion, especially among jazz drummers. After pursuing ever lighter cymbals for most of the oughts, finally settling on some thin Bosphorus Turks and Master series cymbals, I began to sense that they weren't projecting much beyond the edge of the stage, and that they were doing something funny to the balance of the ensemble— they seemed to induce a kind of death spiral of softness, with everyone trying to play down to the level of the cymbals, and me playing quieter to stay under the band, who then try to play quieter still. Traditional medium-weight cymbals, or heavier ones like my 22" Paiste behemoth— even when played very softly— have more presence, and seem to free the other players to play with a bigger, more natural sound.

I say frees because, despite people's sensitivity about cymbals, and volume in general, I think few musicians truly want to do all of their playing within the bottom 10% of their dynamic range, and listening audiences want the band to be loud enough to not be obliterated by the waitress setting down some drinks at the next table.

For different reasons, I've also been letting in some drier cymbals, which runs a little bit counter to the above thing. Unmiked, they don't necessarily project well to the audience, but at times I felt that the band was hearing the pulse as a wide sound, and losing it a little bit, and I wanted to narrow down the attack for them. The dry cymbals (a 602 flat, and an older Dejohnette signature Sabian) seem to have a sonic envelope more like a drum, which gives you almost the feeling of being a conga drummer— with the entire instrument having the same decay— which encourages me to play a little differently.

Anyhow, coming up we'll have a few posts here kicking around issues with cymbals. First, coming from strictly a jazz perspective, there's this video “Balancing Your Sounds” by Ian Froman, from the Vic Firth site. VF doesn't allow embedding, so you'll have to go there and view it. He generally advocates playing other parts of the instrument softer than the ride cymbal— or rather, hitting them softer than the ride to avoid overwhelming it.

Actually, someone has put the video on YouTube unofficially— if it gets taken down, hit the link above to view it at the VF site:

He's identifying the principle behind something you should already be doing if you're listening to what you're playing, rather than just playing based on what feels good muscularly. And because I know how drum students think: you do not need to revamp your technique, “baking in” the uneven stick heights. Instead, listen to the sound you're making, and use Froman's principle as a guide for correcting your balance.

More coming...


Innocent Bystander said...

What a nice sensible 4 mins of advice. Thanks.

Michael Griener said...

For me it's not so much about the weight of the cymbal, but the pitch range.
For years I've been using an old Italian ride with cut-outs, similar to Mel Lewis' old Avedis.
Lots of high and low with almost no middle frequencies.
You can hear that cymbal because it doesn't get in the way of the other instruments, it just sits on top of the band.
When that cymbal cracked again I tried to replace it with a couple of different Bosphorus cymbals (New Orleans, Turk, Master Vintage) which I ended up selling on after another.
They all sounded nice in my rehearsal room, but I couldn't hear them with the band.
I had to play them much harder than I wanted in order to make their low pitched sound heard within the band.

When I met Pete LaRoca last year he pshowed me his rather high-pitched Avedis ride and played it with very thin Regal Tip sticks with nylon tips. Now that sound was almost too much, but that way you will hear the ride beat through everything, not matter how soft you play it.

As far as dry cymbals are concerned I use a breakbeat 18" with one rivet as a left side ride and really like it in a lot of settings, but I feel they don't open up enough when you need it.
I rather put some tape under a not so dry cymbal and still have a wider range of expression.
There's a reason why they lathed cymbals for centuries. Unlathed cymbals are easier to control, but you can do just so much more with lathed cymbals.
I think that is why the unfinished (dry)cymbals are so much in favor right now.
You don't really have to control them; they're controlled already.
It can take quite some time to be able to play a stubborn lathed cymbal and use it in different settings; it's like riding the wild mustang.

Todd Bishop said...

I think that was the deal with Tony Williams famous cymbal, too-- dark, but high pitched. I've had the same experience as you with the Bosphoruses. But they record well, and they're good for those times when being really quiet is the only thing that really matters on a gig...

That's very interesting to hear that about LaRoca. We have a veteran local guy, Ron Steen, who has for years has used a similar setup-- a 22" 602 medium sizzle cymbal, with nylon tip Regals, and some very cutting hihats. He ends up with a sound a lot like Billy Higgins on Rejoicing. Wherever I go with the cymbals, I don't think I can make the jump to nylon tips...

Again, same experience with those dry things-- that Dejohnette cymbal works in close quarters, but just dies in larger rooms.