Photo by Scott Pickering

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Ten Ways to Expand Your Suspended Cymbal Sound Palette

Ten Ways to Expand Your Suspended Cymbal Sound Palette
by Mark Shelton

A suspended cymbal is a frequent companion when I am playing percussion with an ensemble. It is amazing how a metal disc can produce such an abundance of tone colors. If your suspended cymbal sound palette has been limited to perfunctory striking and rolling, you’re missing out on a lot of tonal possibilities. I have gathered together several methods for manipulating the timbre of a suspended cymbal.  

When experimenting with these tone production techniques, I suggest using an authentic suspended cymbal. Some manufacturers will print the word "suspended" on the top surface of the plate. The usual choice for classical music applications, these special cymbals are created for quick response and easy rolling.    

The bell (or dome) of the cymbal has a ringing brightness that can penetrate a dense mix. Use the brilliant timbre to add coloristic shimmers to an ambient moment or to attach some rhythmic sparkles to a groove. Experiment with bead, shoulder, and butt of a drum stick to excite different timbres from the bell. 

Edge and Bow
Begin tapping with the bead of a drum stick at the edge of a cymbal. Listen carefully as you move your tapping from the edge slowly toward the bell. The area between the bell and edge (the bow) contains subtle shadings of tone. Although the edge gets to log a lot of playing time for crashes and rolls, you should explore the sounds found in the bow to gather ideas for your suspended cymbal work.

Employing various striking implements is one of the chief methods for changing tone colors on any percussion instrument. Tap the cymbal with coins and metal knitting needles. Bring out subtle sounds with brushes and bundled rods. Use various yarn-wrapped mallets to excite different harmonics and make sure to explore the  timbral differences between striking with a wooden drumstick bead and a nylon tip.  

The scraping timbre is very effective in a soft and peaceful texture. (I think the sound resembles a sigh.) You will need a plate with a traditional finish as opposed to a "bright" or "brilliant" finish. The traditional finish will have the grooves and ridges available for scraping. A triangle beater is my go-to implement for cymbal scrapes, but a coin or metal washer are worthy alternatives. Start a scrape where the bell meets the bow and rake downward toward the edge. You will hear a slightly different sound when you reverse the motion.     

Edge Harmonic
Hold a drum stick or triangle beater perpendicular to the edge of a cymbal and gently strike the instrument. Master this one. It's delicate, elegant, and tasteful.  

Drilling holes into a cymbal and inserting rivets will give you that great sizzle sound, but there are other methods for obtaining some "hiss and fry" without installing permanent pieces of metal. There are a number of "sizzle devices" on the market including the Cymbal Sizzler by ProMark, the Cannon Cymbal Sizzler, and Meinl's Cymbal Bacon (best name award!). In the DIY category, try the old-school methods of draping a small chain across the plate or using adhesive tape to attach several coins to the top surface of the cymbal.

Roll Types | Roll Speeds
While most suspended cymbal rolling is produced with soft mallets, sticks can also be employed. Check out the sounds created by a single stroke roll versus the double stroke version. Roll speeds can be used to produce subtle shadings. Listen how roll speed (using any implement) can generate either tension or relaxation.  

Combining Cymbals
Every tonal manipulation in this article can be accomplished with a single cymbal--except this one. Modify your suspended cymbal tone by combining it with another cymbal. You can simultaneously strike or roll on another standard suspended cymbal or mix in the sound of an "effect cymbal" such as a splash, Chinese, or perforated plate.

Laissez vibrer (or l.v.) is a common marking in classical music cymbal parts. The English translation for this French term is "let vibrate." Although we often follow a cymbal strike or roll with "laissez vibrer," do not forget about the "choke." The choke technique allows you to control the length of the note. Simply grab the plate with thumb above and fingers below to stop the vibrations and thus the sound of the cymbal. Mastering the choke will assist you in matching note lengths with other instruments in an ensemble.

Alter the sound of a cymbal by applying some muting material.  This simple process will reduce the sustain while changing the overtones.  Meinl's Cymbal Tuners make use of strong magnets to attach to a plate's surface. Moongel Resonance Pads can also be used to mute a cymbal--as well as good ol' adhesive tape.

Bonus: Bowing
It’s doubtful you’ll use this sound on next Sunday's opener, but you never know when it might come in handy. Percussionists have long utilized bowing technique on gongs, vibraphones, and other instruments (including cymbals). Drawing a bow across the edge of the cymbal will produce some unique timbres--without the characteristic attack of a striking implement. Try it.

With a little experimentation, you can discover additional cymbal sounds. Search for other timbres and apply them with taste.

Praise him upon the loud cymbals: praise him upon the high sounding cymbals.
                                                                                                    Psalm 150:5 KJV

2018 Mark Shelton Productions Percussion for Worship

Previously published in Worship Musician! magazine