Monday, October 28, 2019

Amazingness in cymbals

Making videos of some new cymbals for sale today, so it's a good time post this thing that has been sitting in my drafts folder for some months:

In selling these fantastic Cymbal & Gong cymbals, I've been trying to work out how to advertise their strength: how well they do their actual job as musical instruments. All of the other professional players who play them say the same thing: they sound like cymbals— they sound like 95% of records we ever listen to.

It sounds obvious. Don't all cymbals sound like cymbals? Not always. It's a big deal. They sound like cymbals the way Charlie Haden sounds like the bass. Sounding the way the instrument is supposed to sound can be pretty rare.

In the cymbal-enthusiast world the sought after sounds tend to be sweeping, lush, dark... bottomlessly dark. Big amazing sounds that stand out from all the other big amazing sounds in the drum shop. This is a community of people buying 22 and 24 inch crash cymbals— useless items at any other time in history— dreaming about 26 inch cymbals, edge wobble, bendability. People love brutally bending the crap out of cymbals to demonstrate... something...

The sought-after sounds are dwaaash and whooosh. Sort of a bwaaaah or a durshaaaah sound. If you can get a good bwaaaaorrrsssh with a single stroke of a 7A, you know you've got something. The presence of a bizarre slinky-like tonality is regarded as very interesting.

The problem: I can't use any of that in actually playing music. I'm a player. I can't use a cymbal that goes dwaaaah when I play it at a mp, and GWAAAARRR??? when I play a mf. I can barely use the first sound, the second one is right out. I see a lot of cymbals like that in drum shops. On the rare occasion that I hear a cymbal like that on a record, it's usually a distraction. It sounds out of place.

Musical needs
What music normally requires from the cymbals are a ride sound, a crash sound, and a bell sound. With ride cymbals we also need an accent sound— with the shoulder of the stick, not a full-on crash. A crash cymbal needs to give an explosive crash sound, and be usable for light riding. With hihats, a solid foot sound and open sound, and a closed sound played with a stick. Some people also play a bell sound on the hihat. It's a nice bonus if we can get a good crash out of the hihats. From a Chinese-type cymbal we need a short trashy crash sound, and perhaps some kind of ride sound, while not being too wild or obnoxious.

The best cymbals— or the best cymbals for you— produces those sounds at an appropriate volume for the situation, the way you normally play, with your usual sticks. Playing your normal situations shouldn't demand any special care in how you hit the cymbal.

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Being the what
Music is always about what is played. Sound is important, but it's secondary to what is played, in what context. The sound has to communicate the what, not be the what.

Sounds that “are the what” are known as effects. The point of them is to make one special sound that jumps out at the listener. Nobody wants to have the one crazy sound leaping in their face all night, so they have to be used with some care. As Peter Erskine said in another context: sounds that are too “interesting”, used too much, can be like bad wallpaper. Or like reading a novel rendered in a “cute” font.

Strictly business
I know we're all serious artists here, but playing the drums is also a job. We are buying tools for doing a job, and big purchases for things like cymbals need to make some kind of business sense. Our tools need to be versatile enough to handle a significant part of our performance obligations. I can't be spending $700 on something that is only usable, with great care, in a narrow range of situations... and even then, if you poll the band, it may not even be doing that very well.

Drummers don't usually have a lot of money. When we buy something, we need to be able to use it happily forever— or for many years, at least.

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