Dark or bright? Light or heavy? These and other questions plague the budding drummer when shopping for cymbals. I have therefore attempted to collect the little smatterings that I have picked up in my quest for the cymbal sound I desired.

Cymbal sound varies by a combination of several criteria come that into play, each contributing to an aspect of the sound of that cymbal. While it is impossible to describe the sound of a cymbal by breaking it down into discrete components, one may approach the desired combination of factors by taking each into careful consideration. I might want a splash to be very defined, responding instantly to the shoulder of the stick, and decaying rapidly, producing a bright, high-pitched noise. However I may want my ride to sound dark and woody, floating on a cusion of air making a breath-like sound. I'll attempt to list some of the variables that affect cymbal sound here:

Due to the immense variety of cymbals available, and the individual tastes of every drummer, ther is no one cymbal that is the best for all situations. When buying cymbals one must bear in mind that:
  • Buying cheaper cymbals initially is very attractive. A complete cymbal set can cost less than a high-quality ride but you *will* be cursing the low quality of your cymbals after playing for a short while.
  • Durability is another factor. Your starter set will crack within a short time, while buying a set of decent hi-hats and a good ride can last a lifetime.
  • A compromise solution always exists. High-quality medium-weight cymbals, smack in the middle of the size range for that cymbal can provide you with an excellent multi-purpose cymbal. A medium-weight cymbal combines the projection of a large, heavy cymbal, with the definition of a lighter, smaller one. With some practice, you can get the cymbal to sound the way you want it to by varying drum sticks, tips and the way you strike the cymbal.

This addendum is for those who want to add new cymbals to their kit.

For the higher end cymbals, particularly the hand-hammered versions, I always recommend going in to a drum shop with your current cymbals that you intend on using with the new purchases. All cymbals have a slightly different sound, even those from the same brand and model, due to the randomness of the manufacturing process.

It's best to go to the shop when it's less busy, such as before lunch. Show the specialist the cymbals you brought with you and ask to set them up on one of their kits. 

At this point, go to the cymbal rack with some sticks and (carefully and lightly) listen to the cymbals you wish to test out. Select one or two and have the tech install them on the kit. Once that is done, have the drum tech play a bit while you stand back. You want to hear how they sound from the audience's perspective. Listen to the new cymbals and make sure their sound fits in with your current setup. Sometimes there are overtones that conflict or they just get lost in the sound. Swap out as needed and when you're happy with the results, purchase your new cymbals.

I wanted a dry ride cymbal from Sabian, but I ended up getting a Zildjian instead because it sounded better than the other brands when played with my setup. Matching cymbals might look nice, but it's the sound that really counts in the end.

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