The Difference Between Bronze and Brass Cymbals
The Cymbal Rap for Newbies
For simplicity’s sake, there are basically three types and price levels of cymbals: beginner brass, intermediate sheet bronze and professional cast bronze. The brass are usually used only by young beginners and are the least expensive. The sheet bronze cymbals, while most fall in the intermediate price range, are used by beginners and pros, and the cast bronze are priced highest and are usually professional level cymbals.
Cast Bronze Cymbals: The Pro Stuff
This article is provided by NotSoModernDrummer
The professional level and most expensive cast bronze type cymbals are what I will describe first, since some of their attributes also apply to the less expensive sheet bronze and least expensive brass cymbals.
Cast bronze cymbals are made of B20 bronze, an alloy of 20% tin and 80% copper with traces of other elements such as silver. It is a fragile alloy because of the amount of tin. Since it is not strong enough to be formed into sheet metal, each cymbal must be individually poured into a mold, then manufactured which is what makes them more expensive to produce. The liquid molten bronze is poured into molds or casts which produce an ingot disc or “flat” which is then beaten, formed, shaped, lathed and hammered into what we know as a cymbal.
Each cymbal has a raised section in the center called a bell. The cymbal is lathed by holding a knife to the topside and underside of the cymbal which produces a spiraled groove. These grooves and the microscopic ridges inside them produce the high pitch zing that is so characteristic of a cymbal. The cymbal may be left like this or it may be further affected by hammering which makes the overtones of the cymbal even more complex and mysterious sounding.
Much of this forming, lathing and hammering is done by computers now in the large cymbal factories but many cymbals are still made the old fashioned way especially by small cymbal factories in Turkey where the modern process of cymbal making started over 400 years ago. The cymbal is usually sprayed with a light coat of lacquer to prevent corrosion and fingerprints. Some models of cymbals are polished with a high speed buffer to produce a brilliant shine. Some of the most expensive models have alternating areas of lathed and unlathed sections, hammered and unhammered sections which produce even more exotic and unusual sounds.
The Zildjian A model cymbal is considered the most popular selling cymbal and is the benchmark of cast cymbals. This cymbal was designed in conjunction with legendary drummer Buddy Rich who liked the cleaner, brighter sound of an unhammered cymbal. This cymbal has no hammer marks but does have the lathed grooves. This is the cymbal heard most often in pop and rock recordings of the last fifty years. The Sabian equivalent is the AA model. The Meinl equivalent is the Soundcaster. A package set of Zildjian A cymbals costs around $649 for a 20″ ride, 16″ crash and a pair of 14″ hi hats (2009).
The Zildjian K model cymbal actually predates the A model and is more complex sounding because of the hammering marks which give it a more ornate overtone series. The K is more expensive because of this extra hammering step in the manufacturing process. The K is the archetypical cymbal for jazz drumming but has become popular with rock drummers as well. The Sabian equivalent is the HH model. The Meinl equivlent is Byzance. The Paiste equivalent is the Twenty series.
Sheet Bronze Cymbals: From Beginner to Pro
B8 bronze is an alloy of 8% tin and 92% copper, less tin content than in the B 20 bronze. This alloy is stronger than B20, strong enough to be manufactured as sheet metal, out of which the cymbals are stamped and formed as opposed to the more expensive and time consuming casting process. The most noticeable difference between the sheet and cast cymbals is that the lowest note in the sheet cymbals is more pronounced. You can hear and even sing the primary note of the cymbal. This is usually not as evident in the Pro cast cymbals which have more overtones and not so much of a distinguishable fundamental note. This is not necessarily a bad thing. A strong fundamental note is desirable for some music like loud rock music and even some of the thicker cast cymbals have a loud “note”.
Even though these sheet bronze cymbals are categorized as intermediate, they are used by beginners, intermediate students, semi-pros and pros. The pricing runs from beginner to intermediate to pro pricing so the line is blurred. Paiste (pronounced Pie-Stee) cymbals in particular manufactures some of their most popular pro cymbals out of B8 bronze and they are not cheap! The most popular pre packaged set sells for about $250 (2009 price) and consists of a 20” ride cymbal, a 16” crash cymbal and a pair of 14” hi hats all of which are in the medium to medium thin thickness. There are some deluxe models made by the major brands which have further lathing, hammering and treatment of the surface of the cymbals which produces an even more musical tone. I am fairly certain that all of the the B8 cymbal processes are done by computer robots, not by hand.
The lowest priced B8 cymbals by brand:
Exception: B10, B12 Bronze cymbals. The higher the tin content in a cymbal, the more fragile the alloy is which makes for a more distorted sound (good distortion) in the instrument. The more overtones that are manufactured into the cymbal, the more complex and mysterious the sound. These B10 and B12 cymbals sound closer to the B20 cymbals and are priced higher than the B8 cymbals. Some are cast, some are sheet metal. I am not listing the B12 and B10 models for simplicity’s sake.
Brass Cymbals: The Cheapos, Beginners Only
1 Chronicles 15:19 - “So the singers, Heman, Asaph, and Ethan, were appointed to sound with cymbals of brass”
So Heman and his peeps were using the cheap stuff to praise Yahweh! :-) It is a common mistake to think that cymbals are made of brass since this is how they were described in the Bible, but you have to remember that the Old Testament was written during the bronze age.
The brass cymbals are the least expensive ($50 to $149 for a set), some of them being almost worthless while some of them sound good enough to motivate young beginners. Even the best brass cymbal will not rival a bronze cymbal in tone, durability or volume. I am fairly certain that all of these brass cymbals are formed in one step out of sheet brass, including the grooves and hammer marks. I always recommend that all drummers and parents of drummers bypass the brass and go for the intermediate bronze if at all possible. The cheap brass cymbals always seemed like money down the drain to me, while the intermediate bronze cymbals are not that much more ($250 for a set at this writing). If your budget limits you to brass cymbals, then plan on upgrading later to bronze.
Usually the thinner brass cymbals that are given away with cheap beginner kits are so thin and dull sounding that they are a waste of time as they bend and tarnish very quickly - one step above tin pie plates. If it says “ free cymbals” or “cymbals included” you can be fairly certain that the durability and sound is poor. They usually have no name inked on the cymbal.
The name brand thicker brass cymbals actually sound and look brilliant, and while good enough for young beginners, they do not have the tone necessary for performances by teenagers in school, church or garage band performances. These better brass cymbals will usually have a nice coat of thick varnish to keep them from tarnishing.
The better brass cymbals are:
Planet Z by Zildjian
Solar by Sabian
PST3 by Paiste
HCS by Meinl
There is also a deluxe brass formula called nickel silver which is an alloy made of brass and nickel that has a satin silvery finish that sounds slightly better than the pure brass cymbals. There have been nickel silver cymbals marketed as professional cymbals by the major cymbal brands but what keeps them from being a truly professional cymbal is their lack of tone and dynamic range- in other words they only get so loud and will be not cut through in a rock band. The marketing of these cymbals as pro specialty effects cymbals has been successful. Generation X cymbals by Meinl for example.
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