by Billy Brennan
An alloy, in its most basic sense, is a blend of two or more metals. Since metals are not chemically bonded in their natural state, they are fused—and alloys are created—in a molten state, through melting and mixing. This fundamental process is at the heart of all cymbal manufacturing.
Cymbals are made from some variety of copper alloy—not only because the malleability of copper has enabled its use throughout history with even simple tools, but, more important, because copper has desirable sonic properties. The most common copper alloys used in cymbals are bronzes, which are alloys of copper and tin with trace amounts of other metals such as silver. B20 bronze (80 percent copper, 20 percent tin)—also known as bell bronze—and B8 bronze (92 percent copper, 8 percent tin) are the most prevalent, but companies such as Zildjian, Meinl, and Paiste experiment with different tin-to-copper ratios. Brass—an alloy of copper and zinc rather than tin—is also still used in certain cymbals, though nickel silver (generally 60 percent copper, 20 percent nickel, and 20 percent zinc) has all but disappeared from cymbals, despite being more prevalent in the past, as in Paiste models made in the ’40s and ’50s. (Nickel silver is still used occasionally, in some Paiste gongs, for instance.)
Ideally, sound quality is at the core of any musical instrument, but things are never quite so simple. There are countless genres, performance settings, and personal opinions on what sounds “good.” Not to mention that expense almost invariably plays a huge part in manufacture and retail—not everyone can afford to indulge in a $400 cymbal, after all. It can get pretty confusing pretty quickly. But familiarize yourself with the basics of cymbal alloys and you’ll be that much more equipped to make the correct cymbal purchases for the type of music that you play.
Because bronze, in some form or another, comprises the vast majority of cymbal alloys, it’s a good place to start. Paul Francis, director of research and design/quality at Zildjian, says, “Generally, the less tin there is, the more bright and focused the cymbal will sound, with more high frequencies,” while Paiste international artist relations manager and product specialist Christian Wenzel describes the sound of alloys with increased tin as “richer and more sustaining.”
A related rule of thumb is that the higher the tin-to-copper ratio, the more expensive the cymbal (though this does not always hold true, such as with Paiste’s professional-quality 2002 series, which uses B8 bronze). One reason for this is the increased difficulty in working with an alloy that has an elevated amount of tin. Another is the range of sound afforded by the differing alloys. We’ll look a little more closely at the prominent bronze alloys and give some examples of cymbals that use each type.
Whether labeled as B20 (Sabian and Meinl), CuSn20 (Paiste), or Zildjian Secret Alloy, this bronze is 80 percent copper to 20 percent tin, often with traces of silver as well. B20 can be difficult to work with, requiring extensive reworking and annealing due to its natural brittle state, but it has been used longer than any other alloy (almost 400 years by Zildjian alone!). B20 is still the most commonly used form of bronze. “It offers the widest frequency range, and we’re able to manipulate it,” Francis says. “It can be bright, as in the A series, or dark, as in the K series.” This versatility enables B20 cymbals to be a mainstay in all types of music, from jazz to rock and beyond.
Zildjian uses B20 alloy in its cast-bronze cymbals, whose manufacture is kept entirely in house, from casting to finishing. This includes the A, K, A Custom, and K Custom series. Meinl uses B20 in its Mb20, Byzance, Candela, and Symphonic lines. Sabian’s HHX, AAX, HH, AA, Xs20, and Paragon series and Paiste’s Twenty, Twenty Masters Collection, and Formula 602 series also utilize this bronze variant.
B8, or 2002 bronze/CuSn8 by Paiste, consists of 92 percent copper to 8 percent tin. This bronze is often used in entry-level cymbals such as Zildjian’s ZBT and ZXT sheet-bronze cymbals (referred to as “sheet bronze” not because the models involve no casting, but because the metal is cast by outside suppliers and bought in bulk by Zildjian, rather than being cast in the Zildjian factory). B8 is also used for its extra bright and focused sonority. A good example of this is Paiste’s RUDE series, which is targeted toward genres, such as punk and metal, that often require loud, cutting cymbals to pierce through the volume and distortion of amplified guitars.
Paiste, in particular, prides itself on its high-end B8 cymbals, including the 2002, Giant Beat, and RUDE series. The company’s mid-range Alpha and more affordable PST 5 lines also use 2002 bronze. Meinl’s Mb8, Classics, and MCS lines, and some of the company’s Generation X series, use this alloy as well, as do Sabian’s entry-level B8 and mid-level B8 Pro and APX lines.
Meinl values sonic and setup options, and as such claims to be “the only cymbal manufacturer offering four different kinds of bronze alloys.” In addition to B8 and B20, the company uses B10 and B12 alloys (which—you guessed it—are 90/10 and 88/12 bronze to tin, respectively). These bronzes lie between B8 and B20 on the bright-and-loud to dark-and-smooth continuum. B10 is used in the new Classics Custom line and some Generation X cymbals, while B12 is used in the Soundcaster Custom and Soundcaster Fusion lines. Zildjian also uses B12 bronze in the semipro ZHT series, which Francis describes as “made just like an A, but with a little more brightness.”
While Paiste doesn’t use B10 or B12, the company sports its patented Signature Bronze. As Paiste claims, this previously unused alloy “proved to be fuller, wider, and richer in its sound potential than any alloy before.” The formula is used in high-end Signature, Signature Reflector, Signature Dark Energy, and Signature Traditionals cymbals.
As mentioned previously, brass is a copper-zinc alloy—most commonly in a 63/37 ratio—used in some cymbals. Christian Wenzel of Paiste notes that, “Brass sounds slightly muffled in comparison to all bronze alloys.” And Paul Francis at Zildjian describes brass cymbals as being “limited” in sound and durability and “the most basic cymbals you can hit.” Judging by these restrictions, it probably comes as no surprise that brass is used much less commonly than bronze. This alloy is almost exclusively found in beginner lines of instruments. If your store carries entry-level kits that come with complimentary cymbals, they’re likely to be brass.
Zildjian’s Planet Z series is similar to the ZDT but featuring brass. This line is primarily geared toward the parts of the world that cannot afford bronze cymbals. Paiste’s PST 3 and Meinl’s HCS are also entry-level brass cymbals.
While the alloys used by cymbal companies provide the foundation for the sound of the final product, they’re only the tip of the iceberg. “The alloy is only one part of the sound,” Wenzel says. “It provides a certain sound potential, and beyond that the overall sound of a finished cymbal is the result of the craft skills: hammering patterns, tempering, different lathing techniques, etc. Each manufacturing step, besides the anatomy—size, weight, shape—affects the sound of a cymbal. Furthermore, none of the alloys are limited to a certain musical style. For instance, we use our Signature Bronze for loud, heavy cymbals, such as Signature Reflector Heavy Full crashes, that are popular among metal and hard-rock drummers. On the other hand, that same alloy is used for dark, soft cymbals suitable for jazz, blues, etc., in the Traditionals line.”
That said, the basics and generalizations of alloys described in this article—more tin equals a warmer, lower-pitched sound, and less tin equals a bright and cutting sound—should give you a good starting point in your search for the right cymbal sounds for your particular needs.
Originally published in the May/June 2011 issue of Drum Business.