Cymbals can make or break a drum set. You may have some of the best-sounding drums in the world. But, if you put them together with poor quality cymbals, or simply cymbals that don’t match well, you can ruin your sound.
The biggest influences on how cymbal sound are diameter, thickness, and most of all, material. What cymbals are made of sets limits on the sorts of sound qualities they can have. No matter how big or small or thick or thin they are.
And all cymbals are made out of alloys. So in this article, I’m going to discuss exactly what you need to know about cymbal alloys so you can choose your discs wisely.
A Little on Alloys
Just what are alloys, you ask? An alloy is simply a type of metal made from a mix of two or more pure elemental metals. Think about a golden ring. Pure gold is too soft to use for rings because it can dent and lose its shape easily.
To strengthen gold, other harder metals are melted and mixed into it, like silver, copper, and zinc. You still see a nice yellow gold color, but a gold alloy ring will stay round when you wear it.
Cymbals are similar…
All cymbals are made from alloys of copper, which is relatively inexpensive and has a good sound when pounded into a sheet. However, copper on its own, as you probably know from bending copper wires, is just too weak to stand up to the fury of the average drummer.
For this reason, copper is melted down and mixed with other metals to make strong alloys. The most common cymbal alloys are bronze. That’s a mixture of copper and tin and is way stronger than pure copper.
That’s why you may not have heard of the Copper Age (about 450-300 BC). But, I’m sure you’ve heard of the Bronze Age, which was full of axes, swords, and other strong tools.
More Cymbal Alloys
Other cymbals are made from brass, which mixes copper with zinc for a nice shiny alloy. As well as nickel-silver-copper alloys. Each alloy has its own characteristics and makes for different types of cymbals, which we’ll now explore.
B20 “Bell” Bronze Cymbals
B20 bronze is, as you’d expect, a mixture of 80% copper and 20% tin. This is often considered the sweet spot for cymbals and bells and has been used for centuries as “bell” bronze.
B20 bronze is also sometimes called CuSn20 bronze by Paiste and Secret Alloy by Zildjian. Letting you know exactly what’s in it if you’re a chemist. While it sounds simple, this alloy isn’t.
First of all, different cymbal makers have their own signature mixes that also add in small amounts of other elements like gold, silver, and even phosphorus. These are added in tiny amounts (less than 1%) but can still have big effects on the cymbals’ sounds.
The other issue…
B20 bronze is a 2-phase alloy. Meaning that some of the tin isn’t fully melted into the copper and exists as microscopic grains. This makes B20 challenging to work with. It’s harder than other bronze alloys, but also more brittle.
It’s very difficult to roll into sheets. Therefore, most B20 cymbals are cast rather than stamped. It’s also hard to machine, and thus most B20 cymbals are hand-lathed and hand-hammered.
Of course, this extra work of casting and hand-machining the cymbals creates added costs. So, in general, B20 cymbals are more expensive than other alloy discs of the same size.
But there’s a massive payoff…
B20 bell bronze has the greatest frequency range, and this can be manipulated through working the cymbals. They can be made to sound bright, like the Zildjian A Series, or dark and warm, like the Z Series.
Even though they’re both made from the same material, the sound is not uniform. You can get richer-sounding cymbals with better sustain when you make them with B20 bronze.
Of the world’s major cymbal makers, B20 is used quite frequently. Some examples of popular B20 cymbals are:
- Zildjian A Custom and K Series cymbals.
- Meinl’s Candela, Byzance, and Mb20 cymbals.
- Symphonic cymbals.
- Paiste’s Masters series cymbals.
- Sabian’s AA, AAX, HH, and HHX cymbals.
- Paragon cymbals.
B8 Malleable Bronze Cymbals
So what happens when you drop the tin content down to, say, just 8%? That’s exactly what B8 bronze is – 92% copper and only 8% tin. But, what’s the reason behind this big jump from 20 down to 8%?
This amount of tin makes the bronze much more malleable. That means it can be rolled into sheets and stamped into discs. It can also be quite consistently lathed and hammered by machines, and that saves on a whole heck of a lot of labor costs.
But the cymbals still sound good, right?
Look, like almost every musical instrument, cymbal preferences are down to the players who use them. I started out playing on a cheap set of Sabian B8s because that was what I could afford at the time. They were inexpensive but still sounded pretty good to my ears.
Higher-quality B8 cymbals were developed in the 1960s as a way to provide excellent sound at a lower cost. In general, these cymbals are bright, carrying more high tones than B20 cymbals. The cymbals are also more focused, with fewer overtones and less body. They’re also generally louder.
As you can see…
These can all be good things, depending on what you want from your cymbal sounds. So, while B20 cymbals are almost always more expensive due to manufacturing differences, there are some great and highly-prized B8 cymbals out there, too.
Other Bronze Alloys
Did you think it was weird that we only looked at two bronze alloys of 20% and 8% tin? Did you wonder what would happen if you used a 15% or 10% alloy instead? Well, you’re not alone. And it’s why we are here talking about what you need to know about cymbal alloys.
Zildjian (and break-away company Sabian) started using B20 alloy over 400 years ago. However, they’ve experimented with many other alloys since then, and so have other cymbal makers. The most common alloys you might find that aren’t B8 and B20 are the 10% tin B10 and the 12% B12.
These alloys have properties that place them in between B8 and B20 cymbals. They’re generally darker and smoother than B8s but not as dark and warm as B20s. They’re often used for heavy cymbals for the hard-hitting drummer who wants brighter sounds but hits too hard for B8 cymbals.
Examples of B10 and B12 Cymbals
Paiste uses “signature bronze,” an undisclosed alloy, in its high-end Signature, Signature Dark Energy, and Signature Reflector series. I don’t know what’s in it, but they say it gives a fuller and richer sound than any other alloy.
Brass is probably best known for bars and railings, or perhaps monkeys. And some cymbal lovers think it should be left that way.
Brass is a super-shiny alloy of copper and zinc. In the case of cymbals, this usually means around 37-38% zinc in the mix. Brass is much easier to work than bronze, especially to roll into sheet metal. So, guess what? It’s used mostly in toys and cheap, low-end cymbals. In general, anyway.
The problems with brass…
First off, it’s brittle and tends to chip and crack much more easily than you’d want your cymbals to do. Then there’s the tone. Brass is quite warm, but it’s quiet and muffled with poor sustain.
Still, some makers put their stamps on brass cymbals. This allows them into some markets where bronze cymbals are just too expensive. Brass is also used in zils, or finger cymbals, as well as gongs, and even some China cymbals.
The 101 and PST3 series from Paiste, Sabian’s SBR, Meinl’s HCS, and Zildjian’s Planet Z cymbals are all made from shiny brass. They’re also very inexpensive, coming in at half the price of even lower-end bronze alloy cymbals.
Nickel Silver Cymbals
One last alloy to talk about is nickel silver. This is a name that covers most copper and nickel alloys, whether or not it has zinc in it. Silver is there too but in very small amounts.
Nickel silver was an alternate cymbal material that was used a lot in the last century. But has more or less disappeared in favor of bronze.
Nickel silver cymbals are explosive and bright but lack the reverberating shimmer and great response that bronze offers. It’s still a somewhat common material for making gongs. But, if you can even get a look at a nickel silver cymbal these days, you’re lucky.
Interested in Learning More About Cymbals and Drums?
We can help with that. Take a look at our handy articles on What You Need To Know When Buying Cymbals and What You Need to Know About Cymbal Stands. After that, have a peek at our Sabian XS20 Cymbals Review and Zildjian ZBT And ZHT Cymbals Review for more cymbal information.
Also, check out our in-depth reviews of the Best Jazz Drum Sets, the Best Portable Drum Kits, the Best Electronic Drum Sets, the Best Snare Drums, the Best Bass Drum Pedals, the Best Drumsticks, and the Best Drum Thrones you can buy in 2022.
What You Need to Know About Cymbal Alloys – Conclusion
We’ve had a chance to go through the major cymbal alloys out there. From B20 to B8, proprietary bronze mixes in between, and even brass. You can basically forget about nickel silver unless you’re in the market for a gong to have behind your kit.
The general rule of thumb is this…
Brass cymbals are cheap, brittle, easily damaged, and kind of muffled. They’re used in toys and cheap, free sets of cymbals you might get with a cheap beginner drum kit.
B20 bronze cymbals, by comparison, are usually the most sought-after cymbals out there. They can have varied brightness or darkness but tend to have lots of rich overtones and great responsiveness. Of course, they’re the most expensive.
B8 bronze is cheaper to manufacture and not as expensive as B20s. They’re normally bright and loud, so they might be the right choice for your playing style. Generally, drummers mix and match cymbals and add pieces they think sound great. So when in doubt, give it a smash and see what’s right for you.
Until next time, mat the beat go on.