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I’ve noticed something in my time as a music producer. I’ve realized that whenever I see bands play in any setting- including tiny local bands playing in alleys- they just sound overall better than they used to.
My personal opinion is that we are in the era of music producers. A music producer is not just a fancy Quincy Jones or Phil Spector superstar anymore. With the power of electronic equipment and the democratizing force of the internet, music production skills are within reach of pretty much anyone now. And with that, every musician is playing more of a producer role. Musicians don’t just play anymore- they produce as they play.
Going back to bands, the musicians within the bands are all actively working together to serve the cohesive “whole” sound. I don’t really miss the indulgence of rock, where every musician was individually trying to show off and play as loud as possible. Eat your heart out, Spinal Tap.
And as any musician-cum-producer quickly learns, music production is not just about making the sounds you want. It’s just as important to not make the sounds you don’t want. Creating a cohesive sound means filling a limited sonic space. Any sounds that don’t serve the production will cover or obscure the sounds you are meant to hear. It’s like trying to compose a photo- you want to get rid of anything that doesn’t fit the purpose of the photo. As one of my clients wisely told me once, “if it’s not adding, it’s subtracting.”
Taming the Cymbals
When it comes to a typical band setup- vocals, guitar, bass, keyboards, and drums- one of the easiest offenders to overlook is the cymbals of the drum kit. Everyone knows drums are loud. I’m sure many babies are born knowing drums are loud, if their mothers were pregnant within earshot of a practicing drummer.
If you listen critically to very well-produced recordings, you start to notice how dramatically cymbals are usually processed. Cymbals are often EQ’ed to an extreme degree, with most of the frequencies below 10k cut. But check out this screenshot of a raw crash cymbal that I personally sampled. This is a typical cymbal character. The fundamental frequency is surprisingly low, below 500 Hz. The sound is fairly saturated from that point upwards, especially in the 2500-10k Hz range. And there’s a huge spike around 5k. Yes, the crash is meant to be loud, but hi-hats and ride cymbals have a similar character.
This could be fine if the drums are playing solo, and are meant to fill the frequency spectrum on their own. But when playing with other musicians, it presents some obvious problems. The 2k-3k Hz range is sensitive. Anything strong in this range sounds extremely “present” and “forward” in the mix, and too much is tiring to listen to. We usually reduce everything except vocals and/or lead instruments here. And that 5k spike is pretty harsh if left untamed too. It’s almost universally cut with EQ.
In most mixes, the cymbals are happiest in the 10k-20k Hz range because there is almost nothing to compete with there. They will hang out with the vocal breath/consonants, and maybe some acoustic guitar or hand percussion textures. The cymbals in this range add life and vibrance, without overtaking the sonic texture. This leaves room in the mid range frequencies for the musical tones and textures of the vocals, and pretty much all the other instruments. Including the actual drums!
Modding Cymbals to Reduce Ring and Wash
So what’s a drummer to do? How can you complement a band’s sound without overpowering it? There are numerous reasons to wonder this. In a small room like a practice space, playing over loud drums is a bummer for everyone. In a small venue, taming the drum sound gives everyone else loads more breathing room. And hell, even for individual practice, maybe you just want to tone it down. Finally, recording engineers tend to agree- it’s much better to record something that will already naturally fit into the rest of the recording, rather than processing it heavily to force it to fit. Thank you, anonymous meme-creating hero, for this inspiring image.
The good news is that with some simple and inexpensive DIY solutions, you can make a big difference to your cymbals. These solutions allow you to start controlling your cymbals’ tones so they don’t overtake other instruments as much. They also allow you to decrease the amount of ringing sustain of the cymbals. This ring can build up into a “wash” of sound that, again, tramples other instruments fighting for space in the mix.
The rub here is that the exact solution for you is a highly subjective matter. Literally every single approach I read about involved enthusiastic praise and scathing dismissal in equal measure. There are so many elements to consider- your gear, your playing style, your genre, the space you are playing in, etc. So there’s no substitute for trial and error here. But these solutions are all pretty quick and cheap!
This is the only suggestion on this list that was actually designed for this purpose. MoonGel (alternately spelled Moon Gel) manufacture small, gel pads that adhere to drums, cymbals, or “most percussion instruments” with the express purpose of dampening their sound. It seems they are widely known for their use on drums, not cymbals, as I found lots of forum posts of the form “can I also use my MoonGels on cymbals?” But the manufacturer says so right on the product listing, and I found many testimonials to their success.
When moving from the “what” to the “how” with MoonGel, just about every single person had a different approach. Easiest to just copy over some opinions:
“I slapped a quarter of a piece of ‘gel along the edge of a somewhat washy Sabian HH medium ride just to see what would happen, and–wow! It sounded just a touch drier, with a more ‘gentlemanly’ wash and what was to my ears the perfect sustain, all with an ‘old K’ sort of vibe.”
“I use one about a third of the way up from the edge on a Zildian 22″ ZXT ride I have[…] it has a really high end wash that hangs around too long, making me have to mute it at the end of a song or sometimes in the course of one. The Moongel helps tremendously!”
“Half a gel at the base of the bell on K Con Medium Low takes just enough wash away yet the three rivets breathe and sizzle as well as without the gel.”
So as you can see, everyone has their own favorite amount and placement when it comes to MoonGel. Experiment!
MoonGel has numerous advantages over the other methods I will go over here. It is reusable, with a comparatively long working life. It will not leave residue on your instruments, as adhesives might. And it’s not expensive, as professional music gear goes. On the flip side, it’s actually one of the more expensive options I’m going to go over here. And for every person saying it’s the final word, another called it garbage compared to their favorite approach. As I said- your mileage may vary.
This was the classic DIY suggestion, the alternative (or precursor) to MoonGel. Again, though, the only thing tape proponents could agree on was to use tape. I saw suggestions (and critiques) of the following (and I’ve included relevant forum post quotes):
3M Rubber Mastic Tape
“Very durable. Stays where you put it. With little pieces, you can tame that cymbal[…]fantastic stuff, and it’s a better alternative to moongel and all this other stuff that costs a lot and is fragile. This stuff will stay where you put it, not get lost, not get crudded, but can come off when you want it off. One roll will last you lots of years.”
“The best sounding dampening came from using a one-inch piece of gaffer tape under the cymbal near the bell.”
“Add one or maybe two strips of gaffer tape running from the bell to the edge of the [ride] cymbal. It won’t exactly reduce the volume of the cymbal, but it will attenuate the sustain quite a lot, leaving you mainly with the “ping”… which will reduce the space that the cymbal takes up in the mix and the overall brightness of sound – which means it’ll seem quieter.”
“Try it and say goodbye to Moongel!”
“It’s semi-clear, often invisible on cymbals, cheap[…], and attenuates in fine increments. When removed it leaves minimal residue”
“I’ve found that the mesh of duct tape provides better dampening qualities, especially for ultra heavy cymbals.”
But evidently they can be the worst offenders in terms of residue. “As an owner of some really nice K Zildjians, I can say that duct tape will never come near them.”
Magnets and Cloth
This was another creative solution- a home-made DIY magnet-and-cloth cymbal mute. Use a couple of neodymium magnets and a small piece of cloth (or some soft material.) Simply sandwich the cloth between magnets on either side of the cymbal’s surface, and you have a simple, powerful, effective cymbal mute. The photo I saw on this page used two on one cymbal, both about nickel-sized. But try different sizes, placements, and even number of mutes per cymbal.
Cheap Window Decals
This is probably the funniest suggestion I saw, but I saw it repeated numerous times as a serious, inexpensive alternative to MoonGel. I’ve never personally seen it out in the world. But evidently cheap gel window cling decals like so do the trick! And it could be an opportunity for some eye-catching visual creativity as well. Honestly, though, by my research, they don’t seem much cheaper than MoonGel, so maybe the window decal advocates just happened to have them lying around, or were paying too much for their MoonGel. Anyway, I couldn’t resist including the suggestion.
Well, you’re a drummer, so you should be used to having to put in extra work to make things happen. Nothing comes easily for drummers. You’re hauling your equipment between gigs, setting up, trying to find a place to practice without being a nuisance (or asking for forgiveness rather than permission!) I’d say that putting in the work to find your favorite way to dampen cymbal wash is the least of your worries.
If you’ve recorded some drum tracks and you’re still struggling to get them to sound great, don’t be afraid to reach out to a professional mixing and mastering service. It could be cheaper than you expect, and a great resource for self-improvement besides. Keep working, and feel the joy of the music!
Robert is a freelance audio engineer and the lead writer for Range of Sounds. Robert has had a lifelong obsession with dissecting and understanding music and is a self-taught composer, multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, singer, and recording engineer.