To B8 or Not to B8Article by Sean Mitchell // August 14 2012
Choosing a new cymbal or cymbal set up can be overwhelming. For the most part, cymbals have not changed over the years in as far as the way they are designed and in their basic alchemy. What has changed drastically is the marketing behind many products today. Because there are more drummers now than there were, say, back in 1940, the demand for more selection has become a necessity for many manufacturers.
The fact that we are a consumer driven society also plays a part in the sheer amount of cymbal choices there are today as well. Gone are the days when Bonham and Ringo might have simply used the term ride cymbal. Now there are dry, metal, big bell, hammered, jazz, and light ride cymbals, to name only a few (don’t even get me started on crash cymbals). Add to this the incredible amount of modern effect cymbal designs like Zil bells, China, China splash, Ozones, hybrid digital/metal cymbals—and I thought the Rocktagon was high tech!
Having spent some time as a salesman with a couple music retailers, I have seen both sides of this story. For the consumer the choices that we have at hand are overwhelming, however for the manufacturer—and ultimately the retailer—if there were no choices there would be no consumer base. Complacency is the economical assassin in any business world and retailers face a growing population with the internet in one hand and a credit card in the other. As Don Henley brilliantly once wrote, “Everything, all the time.”
Ultimately the more time you spend thinking about what to buy, the less time you will spend practicing and playing, so let’s get started on some pointers that will lead to a stress free decision, shall we?
Upgrading One Cymbal in a Set Up.
If you are buying just one cymbal as an upgrade to your current setup, go with something you use a lot, like hi-hats or rides. For the most part, these are going to set the tone for your overall sound. Changing out a hi-hat or a ride will also change the way you perceive the sound of your current set up as well. Keep in mind it may not be a favorable change. When you step up your game with one cymbal, the others may sound worse in comparison. This is natural, but also a great opportunity to begin to develop your ear now that you have your diamond in the rough. Make a note of the things you like and dislike about your cymbal setup as a whole in comparison to your new cymbal. This will help when you make your follow up purchase.
The Package Deal
Many drummers come to a point where they want to make their first purchase of a quality set of cymbals. If you are at this stage of the game, don’t kid yourself; you are looking at shelling out a fair chunk of change.
When you upgrade, you should be looking at something that will last you well into your first garage band and even into your first semi-pro gigs. I have always favored the cymbal packs at this level—the reason being that the cymbal company has done a lot of the leg work for you in matching complimentary sounding cymbals. Every cymbal company has a few options and a few price points as well. The second reason is that the cost of a cymbal pack is usually a fair amount cheaper than buying that exact set as single cymbals.
To B8 or Not to B8
Don’t get too caught up in the whole B8, B20, B14 bronze. These are numbers that describe the types of bronzes used in making cymbals. To you, they don’t really have any significance (unless you want to become an alchemist or cymbal lather). Most consumer cymbals are made from one of the following.
Bell bronze or bell metal: This type of bronze is the purest type of bronze in the bronze family and is made of 20% tin 80% copper (this is a common formula, but there are variations of this). It is commonly referred to as B20 and is generally used in higher end cymbals because of its greater dynamic range. Weird fact, certain ancient traditions believed that bell bronze has medicinal properties.
Malleable bronze: This bronze is more commercially available and can be cold rolled versus the bell metal which has to be heated. Malleable bronze would be the B8 bronze retailers refer to and its composition is generally 92% copper and 8% tin. While B8 is a common alloy used in student line cymbals, there are higher end cymbals that utilize B8 bronze.
There are two other less common alloys used in cymbal making and they are brass and nickle silver. Don’t get too hung up on the designation of the bronze “B” numbers. What is one drummer’s junk is another drummer’s gold.
Turn Your Back on Vanity
If you are an accomplished player who is looking to go the whole nine yards, by now you have an idea as to what you are after. The problem will come when you are in the cymbal room and hitting every cymbal in sight to choose which is right for you. After a while it will be hard to see the forest for the trees.
Come in with an open mind and an idea as to what you are after sonically. Hit a few that you like and set your choices aside. Once you have a few cymbals to choose from, stand a few feet away with your back turned and get the salesperson or a friend to hit the cymbals for you. Rate them on a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being the better rating. By just listening to your cymbal choices, you will make the final selection based solely on sound. Just like drums, cymbals sound different from the audience’s perspective. By turning your back, you eliminate the visual element. As much as you think you are not influenced by the look of cymbals, human nature will always dictate otherwise.
It is also a very good idea to set up your perspective purchases on a demo kit in the store. Using your potential cymbals in a real world setting gives you a better idea as to how the cymbals sound together.
After Sales Service.
Another often overlooked aspect to choosing cymbals (or any new gear for that matter) is availability and accessibility. While the internet can really open you to a world of possibility, it is a double edged sword, my friend.
Yes, you may have scored the coolest crash cymbal on the planet, one forged in a kiln made of gold and hand hammered by ordained blind monks in Mongolia. But what if the cymbal develops a crack? Can it easily be warrantied and replaced? Are you even able to replace it? Does the retailer carry any in store warranty in case the distributor or manufacturer goes out of business?
Having the support of after-sales service can oftentimes make or break your experience. If your local retailer doesn’t carry a certain brand very often, it will be a little more difficult to fill your order than if you purchased a line they represent well. Not every store can carry every brand and every model. Even if the retailer represents your chosen line well, manufacturers don’t make all products in equal amounts. Paiste, for example, pumps out far more 2002s than their Planet gong line. This is just good business as not all products have a huge demographic to supply.
Web retailers offer unlimited options but that doesn’t change the fact that if a cymbal line isn’t popular they still have to order it (oh, the dreaded backorder). Retailers are here to make money. Musicians Friend is not buying up ship loads of obscure cymbals that appeal to a limited clientele. They buy the stuff that sells; fast.
Keep in mind that when you have to get a retailer (web or otherwise) to reorder, special order or warranty a cymbal, it has to go through the distributor, who then has to go to the manufacturer, who then has to deal with your issue (among thousands of others) who then sends the new or warrantied product back the distributor who then ships it to the retailer who then contacts you. As much as our society has embraced the “I want it now” philosophy, the reality is that we have yet to perfect teleportation and the world is at the mercy of the shipping industry.
There can be a lot said about sticking with a specific brand. You may develop an ear for that company’s sound or perhaps you are a fan of a certain endorser. Sometimes it is easier to stay on top of the latest and greatest new products from a single company. By committing to a specific brand, you eliminate a wide range of choices from other companies. Not that the other companies don’t have something great to offer, but you may sleep better at night knowing the rabbit hole doesn’t go too deep!
Ultimately if you want to get cerebral about buying new cymbals, therapists say that the inability to make a decision is a form of perfectionism. While perfectionism may be something we can strive for in the woodshed, it is never truly attainable, for we are always learning. Perfectionism is however a great way to avoid making the commitment of a purchase and to keep you on the eternal search for the ultimate cymbal setup. There will always be flaws and things you don’t like about your setup. The only way to get better is to practice—hard to do when you are surfing the web trying to decide what cymbals to buy. In the end the best sounding cymbals start and end with the hands holding the drumsticks.
About the Author
Sean has 15 years experience behind the kit, studying under greats like Mitch Dorge and participating in master classes with Dom Famularo and Zoro. It was these life-changing exchanges that prompted the Canadian-born drummer to create a global drumming community, The Black Page, that was easily accessible to drummers of all backgrounds and levels of expertise. In addition to his work with BP, Sean is one-half of the world soul group The Mitchells.
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