Cymbals come in a variety of weights and sizes, and produce an array of sounds. They can be bright and explosive, dark and complex, warm and full, classic, modern, and every description in between. Understanding how the physical properties of a cymbal affect its tone is incredibly important for anyone who wants to be smart about adding cymbals to their setup.
When discussing the anatomy of a cymbal, there are three physical areas that produce different sounds and frequency responses when struck, and affect the overall sound of the cymbal. These are the bell (the raised area at the center of a cymbal), the edge (the order periphery), and the bow or body (the curved area between the bell and edge).
The bell or cup plays a large role in determining the overall sound of a cymbal. Cymbals with large bells tend to produce more overtones and have greater projection, as well as a higher ceiling for volume. Most of a cymbal’s high-frequency overtones are produced from the bell and area immediately surrounding the bell.
The curvature or bow of the cymbal describes the degree to which a cymbal curves outward from the bell to the edge. Cymbals with flatter profiles have a lower fundamental tone and mellow response, while cymbals with a more pronounced curve have a higher fundamental note with a faster attack.
Cymbals that are thinner at their edges will be more crashable, and have a faster response than cymbals with thicker edges. The edge of a cymbal is the most delicate, so proper playing technique should always be observed to avoid cracks.
These three parts of a cymbal and their shapes play a major role in determining its sound, but size is also a major contributing factor.
Weight and thickness both influence a cymbal’s fundamental tone. Heavier, thicker cymbals have a higher pitch (a good way to remember this is to associate high mass with high pitch) and project more than thinner, lighter cymbals. The thickness of most cymbals is tapered from the bell to the edge of the cymbal, though some Chinese and effects cymbals have little to no taper, resulting in a trashy and gong-like tone.
Finally, and perhaps most obviously, a cymbal’s diameter will largely affect its volume and pitch. Cymbals with a larger diameter have a lower pitch and greater amount of projection than a smaller cymbal of a similar weight.
The next time you shop for a cymbal, take extra notice of how its physical properties are influencing its sound. You’ll be in a position to make a much more informed purchase, and you’ll more than likely wind up with a cymbal that gives you the sound you want.
This post is “Part Three” of our educational series on cymbals. In previous posts, drums specialist Paul Spencer discusses the alloys that go into making cymbals and the differences between cast and sheet metal cymbals.