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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.
That also means that the average musician needs to know a lot more than they used to and that includes a long list of production techniques including how to dampen cymbals in order to make things easier in the post-production process, prevent their high-frequency sounds from completely taking over a track and manage excessive ringing. Or even just practice without driving their neighbors crazy.
So how do you dampen cymbals?
You can use specially made gels or magnetic tuners to dampen cymbals but if you’re creative you can also use gaffing tape, an old kitchen towel, or even gel window stickers. For a more serious solution, you can consider specially made low-volume cymbals that can reduce volume by up to 70%.
That’s the quick answer but we’re going to take a much closer look at each of your options.
6 Ways To Dampen Cymbals And 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 about 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.
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.
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. Some of these techniques can also work on other parts of your drum kit too like the snare.
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.
MoonGel (alternately spelled Moon Gel) manufactures 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 of their success.
When moving from the “what” to the “how” with MoonGel there are dozens of approaches you can use but the three main areas you should consider applying it are directly on the edge, about 1/3 the way up the edge of the cymbal, or at the base. I know, that’s pretty much all areas of the cymbal but the idea is to experiment between those three spots and see what works best for your sound.
In my experience, placing MoonGel directly on the edge will really dry out the sound and give you a super clean wash. A third of the way from the edge or at the base will both do a great job at cleaning up the wash but may not give your cymbal quite as dry of a sound.
But definitely don’t be afraid to experiment here and this video can give you a great before and after example on an older set of cymbals:
It is reusable, with a comparatively long working life. It will not leave residue on your instruments, as some adhesives might. And it’s pretty easy on the budget, as professional music gear goes. 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 and I’m willing to personally recommend it only if you’re willing to experiment a bit.
You can read some of the reviews, take a closer look at what this stuff actually looks like and see today’s price on Amazon by clicking here.
#2 Gaffing Tape
Tape is 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 just about everything. Some of the most popular options are 3M’s rubber tap, the classic electrical tape, the even more classic electrical tape, and the less common medical tape.
Those can all work, but my go-to recommendation is gaffing tape. I might be a little biased because I love gaffing tape for just about everything and this stuff is like duct tape but stronger. It’s also perfect for dampening cymbals and this videos give you a complete overview of where you can place it for the perfect sound:
Even though the video covers a lot of different options, my typical placement is between the bell and edge but you can definitely want to experiment here. Try adding several pieces of tape until your cymbal is dampened to your taste. As far as tape size, I usually like to go with a 2-inch gaffing tape and if I need it wider I can just double it up. I find this easier than starting with the 4-inch and trying to tear it in half.
The other big benefit to gaffing tape over something like duct tape is that it isn’t going to leave the residue that duct tape does. Over time, that can get pretty annoying and may even transfer to your drumstick depending on the type of tip you have.
Just about any gaffing tape can work but you can check out my preferred option on Amazon by clicking here.
#3 Kitchen Towel and Old T-Shirts
This technique will really dampen your cymbal but sometimes it’s a bit overkill. You’ll see some folks recommending the use of magnets to pull this off, and that works, but you can also just unscrew your cymbal and attach the towel, t-shirt, or any similarly thin fabric. This video shows you exactly what I’m talking about:
It also helps that this option is pretty much free unless you start buying towels to experiment with your sound.
#4 Cymbal Tuners
Another option that’s purposely made for the job of dampening cymbals, these little magnets are designed to work the same as the other options on this list. However, they’re also designed to be easier to use since you can easily add and take them away just by snagging the magnet. It’s also nice that they’re portable and definitely reusable.
You can see a good before and after to hear how well they control wash here:
Still, these are worth a look and you can check out more reviews along with the latest price on Amazon by clicking here.
#5 Low Volume Cymbals
For the folks that aren’t messing around, or just don’t want to experiment with all the DIY options there are always low-volume cymbals that are specifically designed to reduce wash and ringing while not blowing up your track.
These also have a ton of other benefits as far as practicing quieter and not annoying your neighbors. The obvious downside is that you need to purchase a new set of cymbals instead of just slapping a little tape on your cymbal.
You have a lot of options here but it’s hard to beat the Zildjian set and you can see them in action here:
Yeah, I know that’s a promotional video from the company but we’re mostly interested in how they sound…and they’re definitely damp. In most cases, they’re more than 70% quieter than usual cymbals which are going to be too quiet for most recording sessions but it’s perfect for practice. So it’s going to depend on why you want to dampen your cymbals in the first place.
You can read some other reviews of the Zildjian cymbals, take a closer look at the funky design, and see today’s price on Amazon by clicking here.
#6 Cheap Window Decals
This is probably the funniest suggestion I’ve seen, but I’ve seen it repeated numerous times as a serious, budget-friendly alternative to products like MoonGel.
I’ve never personally seen it out in the world- but that only means you could be the first.
Similar to MoonGel or gaffing tape, cheap gel window cling decals can do the trick. And it could be an opportunity for some eye-catching visual creativity as well. You’d use these just as you would with gaffing tape or MoonGel and experimentation is important. You can try this with just about any sticker as long as they’re made of some type of gel. You can see my personal favorites on Amazon by clicking here and it’s hard to beat that space theme!
Remember, this is a novelty option in the same boat as light-up drumsticks so if you’re trying to perform a serious piece I wouldn’t start here!
Taming the Cymbals After The Recording
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. That’s even more aggressive than you see even with the closely related high-hat.
But check out the 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!
And as any musician turned 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.”
When 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 but hopefully I’ve made things easier for you!
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.