Review: 19” K Zildjian Symphonic Traditional: The Sound of One Hand

K Zildjian Symphonic Traditional heavy

Foreground 19" K Zildjian Symphonic Traditional; background the Beatles w/ T Sheridan

Again, we’re off the beaten path. I’m reviewing a 19” K Zildjian Symphonic Traditional hand cymbal as a ride cymbal. Striking orchestral piatti with hickory dance drumsticks ain’t quite right, which makes it fair game here!

The photos you see were taken a few days ago when the cymbal arrived, alone without its mate. Ordinarily an orchestral percussionist would secure two of these cymbals of varying pitch with leather straps and grommets, hoist one in each hand, and clash them together. The result of such an encounter would be an explosion –  a Wagnerian, almost martial crash. Although I’ve done a bit of orchestral percussion, I’m out of my depth when discussing the intricacies of hand cymbals so I’ll stop there. On to ride cymbals for drum kit, basic American drumset, and so on.

I have history in this respect. It goes back to high school, specifically a long-gone institution known as Sir John A MacDonald HS, which boasted a fine, multi-tiered music room. There was no drumset. Instead, we’d cobble one together using the available gear, including a 24” Rogers mahogany-finish concert bass drum, 15×7” snare, and either of two 16” heavy A Zildjian hand cymbals. We’d attempted to employ them as hats but they were so far over the top they became rides.

With a small diameter, heavy ride, the ping is a foregone conclusion. The razor high frequencies, however, can be problematic. In a small room, or an ambient one, the drummer has to tread (and ride) lightly lest any wayward accent or crash blow out room and band. The metallic ping is so obvious it’s like anvil at midnight. Such was the case with that 16” band cymbal.

With Heavy Rides, Distance is Everything

At least so I thought until one day I stood at the back of the hall and listened to fellow student drummer Brian Fletcher playing the “kit”. I was amazed at what I heard. All the bizarre overtones and clang had vanished. That 16” A Zildjian hand cymbal, mounted on a conventional cymbal stand, made the perfect ride. The ping was big, the overtones measured, not as high as they appeared at close range, and the tone was musical—crystal as opposed to clear plastic. From that day on I grew to respect that cymbal, which became a benchmark against which I evaluated other rides.

Thus, when when I heard Tony Williams for the first time, maybe the original Plugged Nickel album, I thought to myself, Hmm, 18” heavy ride. Similarly, after spinning Zeppelin’s fourth LP, specifically “Stairway to Heaven”, I was convinced John Bonham was using a heavy small-diameter cymbal. Accordingly, I ventured downtown and found one and my find, an A Zildjian 17” cymbal, marked simply heavy, became my go-to ride for four years. It was heavy but not as heavy as those 16” band cymbals.

Of course, history proved me wrong. I’d mistaken the famous cats’ ride specs. But the vibe remained, that is until I caught the “old K” bug and began scouring the planet for the iconic 22” trashy, dark, smoky, thin K Zildjian. In retrospect it was kind of like chasing a shadow and along the way I overlooked a whole load of heavy gems in my quest to bash the living daylights of ultra-thin wobbly rides that’d scarcely penetrate an acoustic jazz quartet never mind a rock power trio.

Gradually I’ve drifted back to heavies. You’ve heard me rant on about my 21.6” K Zildjian (thanks to Blair Holben of Blair ‘n’ Drums), the one Jon Christensen refers to as “our cymbal”; and, of course, you’ve probably seen my review in these pages of the 22” K Zildjian Symphonic Traditional heavies. I appreciate your attention to detail: I do tend to go on a little long, only because it’s taken me years trying to decipher cymbal mysteries and if I can spare a few extra words to spare you agony, so be it.

K Symphonic Right Out of the Box

The 19” K Symphonic is immediately cantankerous. Grown men hear it and tear their hair out. Students recoil, initially, with horror. Strike it just once with any weight stick, from 7A to 3S, and the cymbal strikes back with a quick, biting clang and unusually long sustain. It’s not your average ride cymbal. Perfect! What was it Bruce Cockburn sang, “The trouble with normal is it always gets worse”? I’ve never known exactly what Bruce meant but I like to think it applies here.

K Zildjian Symphonic Heavy orchestral hand cymbal profile

K Symphonic 19": note shallow profile

Topography

The 19” is flat in profile, very flat. I’m thinking it’s about as flat as certain first-generation Sabian HH cymbals from 1982 or so. If it was a country, it’d be Holland as opposed to Switzerland; you could bike cross country for hours without breaking a sweat.

The problem with some flat profile cymbals is not in the low fundamental pitch but in the tiny bells. Think about how hard it is to extract a meaningful crash from a flat ride. Even in terms of the ride per se what the tip tone gains in fine crystalline ting it loses in body. That point is arguable, I realize, so I’ll let it be. Besides, a small bell is not the issue at present.

Zildjian has been proactively addressing bells for a long while, particularly since Paul Francis has come of age as a cymbal smith. He’s been responsible for interpreting artists’ needs, which has led him to, for example, the mutant, squashed bell copied from an ancient K for use in the second-series “Bill Stewart ride”. Similarly, my good friend Nort Hargrove from Sabian has investigated bells to the depths. And heights.

As with the 22” K Symphonics reviewed previously, the current K 19” Symphonic is a replica of 100-year-old Ks that bear the inscription Constantinople, as opposed to the more modern Istanbul. I’ve played the originals and they’re funky beyond compare. They’re also flat. And they boast large bells…larger than you’d imagine. The size of those bells flies in the face of forum chatter defining perfect old Ks as thin wobbly leafs-in-the-wind centered on polite, modest sized cups. Hell, maybe they’re right, but the current 19” K Symphonics prove that it can go the other way effectively.

So what we have is a flat profile (making for a lower fundamental pitch). Atop sits a large bell (boosting harmonic content and, thus, “raising” overall pitch in addition to greatly augmenting crash properties/sustain). The heavy weight—I’d estimate 6.8 lb but haven’t bothered verifying with post office or drug dealer—again mitigates in favor of higher pitched overtones. In fact, all specs, except the pancake profile tend to foster high pitch. Ah, but then we have the intensive, sometimes brutal hammering, diverse in shape and impact.

It doesn’t take too long following that first clanging blow to realize that Paul Francis had, indeed, come up with a true, Constantinople era hand cymbal and I own a couple and can verify; these babies are not your garden variety Turkish “old K”. They’re weightier, thicker, and all…and intricate in the, ahem, bouquet of overtones. No doubt this characteristic gains from a handful of exceptionally large craters—high-pressure zones that are the result of merciless, repeated pounding with diverse hammer peens, all programmed immaculately by Francis with one eye on his old Constantinople hand cymbals. The sweet spots are so numerous, perhaps due to the pock-marked surface, that I’ve lost count. Once I discovered these, I realized why the brilliant ping was not so “linear”.

I’d heard and played a K Symphonic 17” and it was a direct hit. But could Paul could pull it off in a 19” and make it usable as a ride? In Paul’s words, it might be difficult; after all, he designed these things to open up. It took Paul a few months, keeping this notion at the back of his mind, but one day he phoned me and claimed he’d found a ride among the Symphonic 19” collection. “It’s going to be appear really bright at first”, he warned me. “But you’ll see….”

Initially I began to tape it—apply adhesive tape. One of my students, Ian Crawford, suspected that the six or so larger craters might be prime sources of the more bizarre harmonics and, accordingly, suggested we apply adhesive tape to these pits (ie on the underside of the cymbal). Ian’s strategy worked and I gigged with a couple of these craters filled with black theatrical tape. But I harbored a suspicion that it was that huge bell that was the culprit—and the benefactor—of the generous endowment of crazy frequencies, which I was beginning to enjoy. As the cymbal grows old, the aberrant overtones tend to disappear; the tape is temporary, incidentally.

K Zildjian Symphonic drilled for brass split-end rivets

Drilled for rivets...3 holes, brass split-end jobs, optimum sizzle

I tried rivets, more as a matter of course than a means of addressing brittle overtones. Brass rivets held their own better than copper although riveting a heavy ride is a questionable practice at best! I’ve since yanked them out but who knows? The holes are there and will permit quick changeovers.

Fibes cym-set, rubber appliance fits inside cymbal bell

Student Sacha Content Nagy exposes Fibes cymb-set to the light

At any rate, rivets are not, there was that harsh, church bell ringing. The solution caught my finger when I was rifling through my desk: a Fibes cym-set. It is a large rubber cup-like structure that supports (and eats up the inner cavity of) the cymbal bell, thus quelling zingy overtones. I wondered if I’d ever find a use for the Fibes thingy. Of course, drum nerd as I am, I’ve hung onto it…okay, them. I own two. The wait was worth it.

I plopped the Fibes cym-set down on an old cymbal stand (with narrow center post, given this is vintage gear) in lieu of a conventional washer/felt assembly; then I seated the 19” K Symphonic on that ample perch and—presto–the cymbal sounded EQ-ed. The highs were there but were muted; the sustain was curbed; and the low undertones emerged, giving body to the ping. Instead of ting, ting, ting, the 19” yielded tang, tang, tang.

Vintage Fibes cym-set rubber cup fits inside cymbal bell

Fibes cym-set box; rubber appliance fits inside cymbal bell

I’ve seriously come to like this cymbal—and respect it, too. If I crash it broadly (and who wouldn’t, especially given it’s a mere 19” in diameter?) it roars. Mallets get it going something fierce but it’s not gongy; it’s totally usable—in any forum, I suggest, but “Tie a Yellow Ribbon” or “Blue Spanish Eyes”. There are so many sweet spots I’ve lost count. That’s the beauty, incidentally, of a heavy ride: the surface is bountiful. You can scratch, or you can dig deep, and there’s metal there, and, thus, increased rewards for your efforts.

I wish I’d had the cym-set at the “opening night” gig. No matter. Although I had a little trouble initially making the cymbal credible when riding blues/shuffle/roots styles, an adjustment here and there in the attack department, and a little clamping down with the wing screw were all it took. By third set I’d arrived at a pleasing, unforgettable tone that elicited a few compliments. I enjoy the hunt. There’s nothing worse, I think you will agree, with forking out $300 for some dream ride that’s a one-trick pony. By the end of set one, it’s given up all it’s got to give.

Today I rehearsed for a concert next week. It’s a jazz trio: two guitars and drums. I have to play quietly or I overwhelm the guitarists. At the outset of the rehearsal, I began to unscrew the wing nut and replace the K 19” heavy Symphonic with something a little softer and gentler, then stopped. Glad I did. The Symphonic, which under attack from a 5B in the club was itself on the attack, in the basement studio became a responsive, subtle instrument…replete with tone and, in addition, totally responsive to wire brushes—and plastic ones, too. That’s rare, in my experience. And it’s rare that I need to ride a cymbal with brushes, except in this trio. And I can with this 19” K.

Brash>interesting>intriguing>fun>creative

It’s not your A Zildjian Sweet Ride, nor is it your smokey jazz ride. It’s not particularly trashy or washy in the usual sense. But it’s a lot of fun. Fun is good at my age. It’s my birthday today as I file this review and I’m blessed, seriously, that I can investigate the side roads where the real action is happening.

Fun is fine and good. With this 19”, however, fun becomes creative when you get to know the landscape. When I recorded it with the jazz trio (on my Zoom H2 w/ internal mics) it acquitted itself nicely, blending well with the surrounding instruments, which leads me to repeat my mantra: we’ve become too accustomed to polite rides, sculpted to the friendly smiling frequency curve of the graphic equalizer. Which nobody uses these days. The 19” K Zildjian Symphonic Traditional heavy is not polite. You strike it politely and it delivers a sucker punch.

The 19” K Zildjian Symphonic Traditional heavy is definitely not your first ride purchase. It’s something you go to when you’re bored with the usual choices. It’s definitely something you work on, like driving a standard transmission or maybe piloting a helicopter. You’ll never get me up in one of those but I’ll gladly ride one of these Symphonics. There’s lots lurking in that thick B20 bronze plate. Did I mention that it thins out at the edges…wobbles a little, even? Now, how can that be, given it’s heavy, heavy, heavy…?

***

Footnote: I mentioned the old Rogers mahogany drums at high school. Two years ago, a guy walks into my basement studio looking to trade an old drum for a crash cymbal. It was the Rogers mahogany-finish 15×7”, the same drum I used at school (I’d left marks), which he’d obtained at a school board garage sale! Those 16” rides are no doubt long gone. No worry: the 19” Symphonic is better, cooler, and more audacious!