- Cymbal alloys
Bell bronze, also known as bell metal, is the traditional alloy used for fine cymbals, many gongs and, as the name suggests, bells. It is normally stated to be one part tin to four parts copper, that is 20% tin, and this is still the most common formula. But there has always been some variation. Larger and smaller bells are cast with differing amounts of tin, and some bell, gong and cymbal makers use small but significant amounts of other elements, notably silver, gold and phosphorus.
Bell bronze is a two-phase alloy, meaning that some of the tin is not dissolved in the copper grains but exists between them. This makes the metal harder and more brittle than a single-phase alloy, and also affects the way the metal responds to hardening by hammering and lathing, and greatly restricts the use of mechanised techniques of manufacture.
Major orchestras generally use bell bronze cymbals, which are capable of a greater dynamic range than any others.
Examples of bell bronze cymbals include: Supernaturals, Bosphours, Dream, Istanbul, Masterwork, Meinl Byzance and Marathon B18, Ozman, Paiste Signature and Traditionals, Paiste Twenty and some Exotic Percussion, Paiste Sound Creation and Formula 602, Sabian HH and HHX, Sabian AA and AAX, Sabian XS20, most Sabian Signature, all current Saluda (including Earthworks, Mist X, Diamond, Nemesis, Glory and Definitive Jazz, but not earlier lines), Spizzichino, Stagg (including SH, DH, Black Metal, Furia, Myra, Classic, Vintage Bronze and others), UFIP, Wuhan, Zildjian A and A Custom, Zildjian K and K Custom, Zildjian Z Custom, Zildjian Z3, Zildjian Armand and Zildjian FX.
Malleable bronze is an alloy of tin and copper containing typically 8% tin. It is a single-phase alloy and can be cold rolled into sheets, unlike bell bronze. It is readily available as commercial sheet metal in many grades and thicknesses.
Cymbal bronzes containing 8% tin are most normally called B8 alloy. Paiste refer to their 8% tin bronze as 2002 alloy.
From the mid 20th century there were attempts to make top quality cymbals from malleable bronze, originally for reasons of economy. As the Paiste patent referred to above says:
Less than three decades ago experiments were carried out for economical considerations with a commercial common bronze sheet or plating containing 8% tin by weight. The result was that the old bronze rule was confirmed and proven to be correct. One had to realize that with careful working and processing of the cymbal it was possible to achieve considerable qualitative results with the bronze sheet or plating containing 8% by weight tin, but these results could never approach the results obtained with traditional cymbals having a tin content of 20% by weight.
Not everyone agrees with this unfavourable assessment, written well after the development of the very successful Paiste 2002 series. In particular, top-line malleable bronze cymbals proved exceptionally suitable for the louder music then developing. The best of them now approach, and some claim equal, the best bell bronze cymbals in quality.
Examples of malleable bronze cymbals include: Harpy H, Meinl One of a Kind, Meinl Custom and Amun, Meinl Lightning and Raker, Meinl Classics and some Generation X, Meinl Trooper and Cadet, Orion Solo Pro and Solo Pro Master, Orion Viziuss, Paiste 2002 and Giant Beat, Paiste 802 and Alpha, Paiste 502 and some Exotic Percussion, Pearl Pro, Meinl MCS, Sabian B8 and B8 Pro, Sabian Pro Sonix, Sabian APX, Zildjian ZBT, ZXT, ZHT (12% tin) and Zildjian Pitch Black.
However, most brass cymbals are toy or beginners' cymbals.
Many of the "show" cymbals provided by some drum kit manufacturers for use in shop window displays are also made from brass. These are typically very poor in tone, some even being simple disks of untreated metal and unplayable despite the reputable brand name they may bear.
The normal brass for cymbals is about 38% zinc in copper, which is very easily worked, readily available as sheet metal, and is easily the cheapest metal stock normally used for cymbals.
The tone of brass cymbals tends to be warm but dull compared to any sort of tin bronze, and very few drummers exploit it.
Examples of brass cymbals include: Harpy B, Meinl Marathon M38, Meinl Meteor, Meinl HCS, Orion Twister, Paiste 101, Paiste 302 and some Exotic Percussion, Pearl, Royal, Solar and Sbr by Sabian, Planet Z by Zildjian, nearly all zils of all makes.
Nickel silver as used in cymbal making is an alloy of copper and nickel, and an alloy with about 12% nickel is used for some beginners' cymbals. A very few specialised high-quality cymbals are also made from nickel silver, as are some top-quality gongs tending to the more modern and exotic sounds.
Some maintain that the term nickel silver should only be used for alloys containing an appreciable content of zinc, and would call this cymbal alloy nickel bronze instead, but the use of the term nickel silver for all cymbal bronzes with nickel as the main alloying metal is well established.
Nickel silver is malleable and available as commercial sheet metal, and gives a bright tone but without the shimmer and sensitivity of tin bronzes. In the early to mid 20th century nickel alloy cymbals were far more widely produced and used, and so many older recordings were probably made using cymbals with a significant nickel content.
Evelyn Glennie is particularly noted for exploiting the tones of nickel silver cymbals.
Examples of nickel silver cymbals include: Some Foremost, Meinl Streamer and Marathon N12, Paiste 402 and some Exotic Percussion, Sabian Signature Glennies Garbage, and some Zilco.
Meinl FX9 is an alloy of 69% copper, 15% manganese, 15% zinc and 1% aluminium, and was used for the new Meinl Generation X line released in 2003. Previous Generation X models were made from malleable bronze. FX9 is described by Meinl as not being a bronze at all, and was previously described by their sales literature as containing tin rather than zinc. There is a minority view that the word "bronze" should be reserved for two-phase alloys, which may be their usage here.
Unlike cymbals, some gongs are made from several different metals fused together. Many different metals have been used. Parts of some traditional gongs, notably the bosses of some "nipple" gongs, are made from iron based alloys.
- The Cymbal Book, Hugo Pinksterboer - techniques and culture of current cymbal makers
- The Cymbal Book, Hal Leonard, ISBN 9780793519200 - comprehensive history
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