Sabian Players Choice Cymbals
Sabian Players Choice Cymbals 2012
Ah, the public vote. It seems that every area of entertainment cannot escape the interactive medium of getting people at home involved to help choose a winner. It can be a powerful tool for gaining TV viewing numbers and selling units. And it is now so easy to do from the comfort of a smart phone or TV remote control. And what a good way to make some more money for the company.
But, in a way, this is not so different to the way products used to ‘hit the market’. In the early to mid 20th century (and earlier) musical instrument manufacturers were often small, family run outfits producing bespoke gear for the top artists of the day, reacting to the requests, demands and frustrations of the people that were ‘doing it’. Their manufacturing successes made it out into the mainstream and many examples of their work still resonate today (playing a Hi Hat rather than a ‘Low Boy’, are you?).
Really the only thing now that is different is the use of electronic communication and the online social network. We can now all communally and instantly decide who we really want to hear on the radio for the Christmas number one, or which chef can rustle up the best semifreddo al torroncino (woo hoo).
‘Talent’ shows aside, it seems Sabian have jumped on board to garner the help of the drumming public with their take on this new social media trend. But here, obviously, not voting for dancing dogs or Dalek impersonators, but for what would become their latest official releases in the rather more specific and demanding universe of cymbals.
The idea went as follows: Back in October 2011 players the world over were invited to watch and listen to online clips of top Sabian endorsees trialling a selection of 12 nominee cymbals from which, following votes in six successive rounds, only four would be actually released on sale to the public. Short online videos of Neil Peart, Dave Weckl, Ray Luzier, Dave Elitch and others (including Sabian Master Product Specialist Mark Love) showed them demoing the cymbals and chatted about various aspects. (If you want to know more about any of the models it is worth a watch (see links below) – their words and playing will do more than I ever could to explain these cymbals!).
So, at the 2012 NAMM show in Anaheim, California in January, the final results from the votes were revealed and it is those winning cymbals that I was lucky enough to review. So, is my opinion way off the pulse of the drumming world, or can that many drummers be so wrong?
Fortunately, it is neither – I loved these cymbals to a model, and especially enjoyed some real surprises along the way. While we may never actually get to see the cymbals that were eliminated from the competition, you can still view the video demos at the Sabian website – links below.
So, with the arrival of a nice box of Sabian cymbals for review (courtesy of the ever professional, friendly and helpful Westside Distribution, UK – cheers chaps!) it was also very fortunate timing as I was well booked up and due to do some gigs including live pop and disco, rock covers, some quartet jazz, a recording, a rehearsal or two and I had planned some proper practice session time so I got the chance to give these a proper once over. And what fun that was too! Here are my Players Choice thoughts.
Sabian AAX Aero Crashes (available in 16”, 18” and 20”)
Sabian based these AAX Aero Crash models loosely on the AAX X-Plosion crash range with the same bell and similar profile – just add holes (or take them away, depending on how you look at it). These holes are not a new idea, but are designed to control the passage of sound through the cymbal body. So, when you strike a cymbal such as these, instead of the sound travelling mostly uninterrupted through the metal, the holes act like barriers (or at least as interfaces between the metal and the air) so affecting the perceived characteristics of the sound.
However, the size, number, position etc of the holes will have effects that add up to a potentially vast number of possible changes to the cymbal so, it seems, even Sabian experimented the old fashioned way until they found the right balance of characteristics for this range. You still can’t beat using your ears for choosing cymbals.
And another thing, cymbals with lots of holes weigh a lot less than your average cymbal, so even getting the singer to help carry the gear was met with less grumbling than usual! Anyway, here are details of each of the AAX Aero Crashes.
Sabian 16” AAX Aero Crash
The smallest of the Aero Crashes this model is also the most subtle and ‘crash-like’. It’s fairly thin, shallow profile is more like a Sabian HH or HHX at a glance and the holes give it an interesting look, forcing the small printed Sabian logos to the very edge of the cymbal where there is still some un-holed metal surface available.
In performance this was quick and responsive with a rapid decay and no nasty overtones. Put like this, it might appear that it is a simple cymbal, but there was an unexpected dark quality to the tone, less bright and resonant than other AAX cymbals so again this came across more like a hammered (HH or HHX) model. The overtone was high and washy with some hint of trashiness but not enough to make this seem like a china type cymbal as it still retained its ‘crash’ qualities. It made for excellent rapid accenting with bass drum and snare as required and was very easy to play dynamically, reacting both to light hits and more demanding bashing. It also swells very well with sticks and mallets without building to any overpowering levels, mostly due to the quick decay of sound.
Again there was a wash and shimmer to the character but not so much as to put this in the ‘accent cymbal’ category. Indeed I found it just sat very well as a crash for most things (I tried some disco and some jazz using this) and it just got on with the job almost to the point where I did not have to think about it. It just sounded great, controlled, subtle enough and the little extra wash within the major crash sound made it just that little bit more interesting to play. A really good combination of characteristics and certainly not an average AAX sounding cymbal, closer perhaps to a HHX-treme or Evolution crash from Sabian’s more costly ranges.
Sabian 18” AAX Aero Crash
The 18” was the first cymbal I grabbed and set up at a gig. I like holes (as do you voting drummers, according to the pole) and I was expecting a crisp, dark white noise explosion of sound. And I got it! This had quite a thin, shallow profile with 16 rows each of 4 holes (64 in total) radiating from the centre to the edge, each about one centimetre in diameter.
I initially set this up as a primary crash (most used in battle) and I was instantly rewarded with a clear, clean cutting sound over the noise of the band. There was a certain darker edge to the tone, not really earthy, but certainly mature and rounded. However, it also had more than a hint of Chinese cymbal as these holed cymbals often do. This characteristic maintains the white noise (like static or hiss) that you get over a china type sound but without the thumpy, gong-like lower elements common in larger Chinese style models. All you get is the wash, hiss and crash tone.
The volume was all there in spades when you need it, partly due to the cutting high frequencies of the white noise hiss component. It was also very swift to react to the stick and had a rapid decay so the sound died without a lingering tone when in the full flow band situation. This made it excellent for accents as you might use a crash in modern playing, but with a quite an alternative personality. It also sounded good at low volume (I love a good 18” crash for this reason anyway), and swells with sticks and mallets were very controlled and responsive.
On listening back to the initial rough mix of a recording I did they sat very well, and, if you were not listing with the meticulous and finely tuned hearing of a drummer, this just sat very well as accents to the hits where you needed them. It did not come across overall as ‘different’ to a crash cymbal; sound, just that it had the right balance of timbre to present a ‘crash noise’. A fact that I was very pleased about considering the initial negative reaction of the engineer/producer when he first saw and heard these Aero crashes before the proper playing and recording began. He even said he quite liked them (praise indeed for this particular chap).
I would say that it is hard to define this as a crash cymbal in the common sense as it was so different, yet it worked great from where I was sitting (and also listening back in the somewhat dodgy live sweaty pub recordings and stripped down multi track edit as above). So next gig I consigned it to the role of effects cymbal positioned where I would usually have a more standard china type. Again, I found I could (and did) use it like a crash (although I tried to reserve it for effects only) and it sounded great – and possibly even better if used with the restraint of frequency that I clearly lack – effects always sound best to me when used sparingly. I think this cymbal will be a real favourite to some players as it is brilliant at doing its job – which is a pretty different job to thousands of other cymbals out there, but therein lies its beauty. I love it and I want it and I need it.
Sabian AAX 20” Aero Crash
This is the largest of the three Aero Crashes and it is quite a beast. I always find a 20” crash a little unnervingly large (for my tastes / requirements) so with a little trepidation I mounted this over my kit. A quick hit or two and I was pleasantly surprised - this was less dominating than I had feared. The cymbal itself was much the same thickness and profile as the 16” and 18” Aero Crashes so, for a 20” cymbal was quite thin (certainly much thinner than the ‘average’ 20” ride cymbal) and so had a fair amount of flex when played. It had a similar wash and trashy edge to the sound while there was a deep, dark undertone that developed pretty swiftly for a large cymbal. The decay was, again, short for a 20” cymbal and well controlled, likely due to the many holes in the bow.
As a result I was able to use this without too much restraint, although there was a good volume level if required so had the potential to overwhelm other lesser sized cymbals I was also using. This was perhaps the most ‘China-like’ of the Aero Crashes and had more of that wash and white noise common in Chinese style cymbals. So this was, to my ears, more half-crash, half China than the other smaller models. But this was no bad thing. It still retained the same general Aero Crash family characteristics and sat well with the others sonically when played at suitable volume.
Mallets also offered a rather nice, deep and rich swell (although I suspect with the holes these cymbals potential to de-fluff your mallets over time) but this would lend very well to use for effects and possibly even orchestral use. It certainly had a depth and colour that reminded me more of classical / traditional music sound than more modern cymbals.
I suspect players would use this like a china although there is nothing wrong with its crash credentials at all. As with its smaller siblings this had an interesting sound yet still retained the main attack, body and crispness to accent hits that would stand it in the same arena as the best of crashes.
Sabian 14” HHX Click Hats
I usually have a soft spot for subtle hi hats, possibly because I am worried that the audience might hear my playing. These are just such a hi hat pair and I was instantly able to relax as a result. These are a bit of a hybrid of styles from the Sabian range with HHX type unlathed bells (extending half way across the body) and undersides but, so it says, AA model shaped profiles so are more slightly pronounced in the bell and curve of the bow.
Sabian have marketed these as offering a “distinct electronic click-track quality”. I would not personally have thought that until I read it, but I can see their angle on this. For me these were great hats for their own sake, in the traditional sense of what a hi hat pair should be. I am sure they would sound great as a live ‘electronic ‘ sounding set, and do indeed have a clean definition that, while not the loudest hats on the block helps them cut through the mix clearly. But they can be much more than that – and all the better for it!
Sabian 20” AAX Stadium ride
This was the heaviest of the Players Choice cymbals as expected with a solid, rounded and unfinished/unlathed bell and a smooth, brilliant finish across the bow. The contrast between almost muddy looking bell (the grime from the manufacturing processes was still present and transferred onto my sticks!) and the larger shiny bow gave this ride a mature look and promised to offer more than just a loud clang.
Deployed initially at a quite boisterous gig (lots of volume!) this was just the ticket. Offering a really good clean ping on the bow with the stick tip and a clear, cutting bell sound with shoulder of the stick. While quite heavy, is was not a ‘metal’ ride like some beasts on the market but did seem initially to be aimed at louder music styles. That said, this is, as the name says, a ‘stadium’ ride so clearly aimed at the big live sound required in so many situations these days. But it was not too brash and bold and still had a good rounded tone under the ping effect to ride on. Also it was not so thick and heavy that crashing it rendered the arm muscles shaken and jarred.
In fact the ping with the stick tip was quite concise and bright with a hint of that ‘click’ that is more commonly found in some of the tastier (and much sought after) ‘jazz’ rides. Again there was a little of a darker, drier tone underneath, only noticeable in quiet moments, but then there was also plenty of clarity and cut when the volume levels of the band rose. And the range of dynamics were good too with a nice swing sound feel when riding it quietly and a solid, clear cut when played to compete with a guitarist.
Sabian HHX 20” Zen China
This is the only ‘alternative’ or ‘effects’ cymbal in the Player Choice range. Actually, they pretty much all have something a little alternative about them and, while this Zen China seemed obvious on paper it soon became clear that here again is another little twist on the more common Chinese style cymbal designs. Unlike most (but not all) Chinas the bell was inverted so that it was positioned like a crash or ride bell raising upwards from the body, while the outer flanged edge lip still curved downwards (eg. like a Paiste Novo China). Both bell and flange were quite understated in size and angle so this was, overall, a fairly shallow cymbal. From Sabian’s HHX hand hammered range this displays some of the more subtle traditional hammering and, so say Sabian, the additional HHX style hammering is then employed to further flatten around the bell area.
The design of bell up, flange edge down straight away offered easy mounting on a stand and allowed the cymbal to sit completely flat (horizontal) unlike other Chinas with an upside bell that always tilt the cymbal over. This suited me just fine as I like a flat positioned china for riding – and there was the added bonus that there was also now a raised bell to use.
Big Chinas usually mean big sound and this Zen China offers exactly that. There was a large body of sound that was well controlled but meaty under the clank of the classic China sound. The main attack was pretty fast for a large cymbal, possibly due to the slightly thin profile. The wash and hiss you expect was there and as it decayed (died out) there was a nice rich dark rumble from the body of the cymbal that, while I usually dislike this, I found was actually rather pleasant, and certainly not overwhelming. Swells with sticks and mallets both produced warm, dark washes of ever expanding tone and the richness under the higher frequencies was both controlled and dynamic when required.
I also tried riding the Zen China with big hits in the rim and also stick tip like a ride cymbal. These are both usable but, I think, add sparingly to suit your tastes, and possibly those of your fellow band members. The little bell, as it was there, also got a couple of hits. I found this to be less usable again as was quite low volume and although not unpleasant, had an almost woody clang to the tone. I suspect this is the small size bell combined with an unusual cymbal shape that allowed the stick to add some woodiness to the sound. Like I say, not a bad sound, just likely not very usable for many situations – but there are a great many situations out there so maybe I have just not found the right one to use this rare thing that is an accessible bell on a China cymbal.
Overall the Zen China is a great, classic sounding Chinese Style cymbal and is as good as I have heard in a long time. Very usable for accents and effect and to add a wash of colour to your kit sounds.
Players Final Choices
So, the public have voted, lines are now closed and we have ... the result. Please do not now place your vote as the lines are closed and, while your vote will not be counted, you may still be charged by your service provider blah blah blah….
OK, so I have a somewhat negative view of the ‘public vote’ and ‘talent shows’ but I have to say, the drummers that voted on these cymbals do have a lot more insight and taste in their decisions than some other sectors of the public. Good thing too. These four cymbals are nothing short of excellent each in their own right. As is to be expected of Sabian the manufacturing quality and, dare I say, marketing hype are spot on.
As a result of the player choice vote I would not necessarily say these four cymbals make a great pre-packed set – the loud, bright 20” AAX Stadium ride is a long musical and tonal distance from the subtle and sweet 14” HHX Click Hats, for instance, but each model certainly holds its own in the grand scheme of things. But I think Sabian was not trying to make a box set from this exercise anyway. They would have already known that there was a range of models that would suit different needs and tastes. Indeed I think we can be sure that a great many cymbals fall at the first hurdles in research and development stages and never even get as far as having a model name, let alone letting us everyday players get a listen. The online demos, information and inclusion of the drumming public seems to be a way to get the final result that we, the real drummers of the world, want. And I think it really worked.
I personally did not get involved with the voting at the time but I can safely say that the final outcome is nothing short of excellent, and that I will be looking out for the next interactive product marketing push. I would still like to get my hands on the cymbals that did not make the final cut!
Indeed as a marketing tool this is also a clever coup for Sabian – getting drummers really involved with the brand and the specific product so we make a personal connection with a cymbal before you even walk into your local drum shop.
Welcome to the world of the Players Choice.
Thanks again to Andy at Westside Distribution and to the voting drummers who made these great choices.
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