Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Hunting the Tony cymbal

Cymbal, and player, and stick, and microphone.
UPDATE: It took a little longer than I thought, but the cymbal “Eloi” mentioned later in the piece has been sold. I'm sure there will be others.  

In all of drumming, the most sought-after ride cymbal sound has got to be that of Tony Williams in the 1960s. To an extreme; in people's enthusiasm for that sound, they sometimes seem to forget there are other sound concepts and possibilities... a concern for another blog post, in which I address monomania in internet drumming topics...

This is something I'm writing for the Cymbalistic blog, in a slightly more formal, less opinionated edition, which is taking me longer to finish.

The ride cymbal Tony used on a lot of records throughout the 1960s, until it broke, was a 22" K. Zildjian, said to be approximately 2600 grams— not quite a medium. He selected it with the help of Max Roach, and in an interview in Modern Drummer magazine he called it a “high, dark sound.” Listening to the Miles Davis LPs, it never struck me as a particularly high sound. I would call it semi-dark, with relatively focused harmonics; full spread, but never overwhelming the stick sound; capable of an explosive crash; non-metallic, with a pleasing, well-defined stick sound through a range of dynamics. Despite the claimed heavier weight, it is in the family of airy, expressive light cymbals and not stiff, chunky medium cymbals.

For me the definitive recordings soundwise are Nefertiti and Four & More. The ride cymbal sounds incredible on those recordings, especially on the original vinyl; but they may not be great guides for actually choosing a cymbal. Four & More seems to reflect the large hall in which it was recorded, with the more subtle harmonics absorbed by the room— the attack is emphasized, and the cymbal comes across as drier than it would be in real life. Nefertiti is better, although— I don't know if you're like this— I find I have a very strong but idealized concept of the sound on it— to the point that it dominates what I actually hear. I've heard the record so much, it takes a lot of focus to hear what's actually going on with the sound, and relate it to other cymbals in the real world.

The Plugged Nickel recordings give us a fresh, seemingly more natural picture of that cymbal— it really sounds like we're in the room, not too far from the drums. Its sound is a little funkier, with somewhat wilder harmonics than we hear elsewhere, with a slightly less ballsy/more exotic crash sound, and more highs present (though that might be attributable to digital mastering). And it's a familiar sound— I feel like I've played cymbals like this before.

After about 3:50 we can give it a good listen:

It's actually reminiscent of a number of Cymbal & Gong cymbals that have passed through my hands, for example:

That's a reasonable take, depending on what's played on it, by who, under what conditions, recorded or live... and which Tony Williams recording you're comparing it to. Of course, I have been told that C&G cymbal is much lighter than weight claimed for Tony's cymbal. I know the bell shape is wrong, and probably other things about its design and construction. No matter, because I've heard the cymbals that faithfully copy the original, and they don't sound any more like it than many other cymbals of this general category.

Even if they did “sound like it”, we are not playing with Miles's band, we are not making those recordings, and if we were, we might not sound as good as Tony did, even with the magic cymbal. On one of your gigs, the actual Tony cymbal might not sound like the Tony cymbal— to you while you were playing it, to the audience, or both. If Tony himself wanted his cymbal to sound like Nefertiti every time he played and recorded it, he would have been disappointed, because it certainly didn't.

So: what is our goal? What are we trying to do, duplicate, create? At a certain point, a player's attitude has to take over, where we are creating our own musical space and statement in the present situation, with the instruments in front of us. We stop grasping to be things we heard on records. Working with a cymbal to get a sound in the given set of circumstances is something we're always doing, and would be doing even if we found that chimerical magic hunk of metal.

Tony's 60s cymbal is rightly a definitive model for a jazz ride cymbal, but I take that not as a specific magic cymbal, but as a category: an agreeable, full, dark, non-exotic, harmonious, crashable, moderately light weight 22" ride with a defined stick sound. Plus a little bit of magic.


Unknown said...

Do you think it was a 50s Old Stamp K or a 60s Intermediate Stamp K???

Todd Bishop said...

Oh man, I have NO idea— I don't know anything about that stuff. I'm skeptical that stamp types correspond with a certain sound or design, or even time period, necessarily. Some people with more experience than I have with old Ks claim that they're very reliable, though.