Dark vs Bright Cymbals – What’s Best For You?

Cymbals are a crucial element of just about every genre of music. They can provide both space in a mix and fill it to the brim when it calls for it. With this in mind, the sound of your cymbals needs careful consideration. First up: dark or bright? Let's compare the pros and cons.

Cian Hodge

Cian Hodge

You can probably imagine what a dark or bright cymbal sounds like by way of connotations. Just to confirm your theories, dark cymbals have a brooding stronger emphasis on lower tones, while bright cymbals sound crisper and focus on the higher frequencies.

There are, however, a few discrepancies in the mix. Everyone has a different reference point of what is dark or bright, so it’s not the same from one drummer to the next.

Here are a few general factors that can impact the dark or bright attributes of a cymbal:

  • Size and thickness
  • Polish
  • Hammering
  • Bell size
  • Alloy

Cymbals have complex overtone structures, unlike a stringed instrument for example, which produces one clear note. A cymbal could potentially have a low fundamental pitch with emphasis on bright overtones.

There are two layers to the question – pitch and timbre. The former is most often referred to when referencing bright or dark, but the two go hand in hand. Despite the more uncommon previous example, a cymbal will usually have a higher pitch with bright tones and a lower one with dark tones.

We don’t have any metrics to categorise cymbals, so we have to rely on the brands telling us the purpose behind each range.

Bright Cymbals

Why would you want a bright cymbal? These are great for cutting through a heavy mix or adding accents to your playing. Pop and rock players generally favour bright cymbals for their short decay and chimey punchiness.

To achieve the bright sound, the cymbals are generally on the smaller and thinner side of the design spectrum. This means they are responsive, direct and fade quickly after a hit. It does, however, vary from cymbal to cymbal. For example, a dry ride tends to be dark and fade fast. But this is just one exception to the rule of thumb.

One of the more noticeable factors when recognising a bright cymbal is its finish. Polished cymbals have a glistening shimmer to them and can add very subtle overtones which help cut through the rest of the kit. They might also have a slightly longer wash.

Well suited to rock music, The Sabian AAX and Paiste 2002 ranges offer metallic, bright tones. Both of these legendary line-ups have been used over the years on countless records. They sound brilliant, clear and powerful with high energy projection.

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dark cymbals

Dark Cymbals

Dark cymbals are less brash and ‘in your face’ than their bright equivalents, aiming more for a mellow, dry tone. Most players would say you have more control over them – especially in a recording environment because they’re less likely to flood the microphones.

At the lower pitch, dark cymbals are quieter and blend well throughout a large kit. These create undertones with a slight bleed effect as sustain carries on through playing.

You might find dark cymbals are a bit more expensive. A lot of models are hand hammered and require more attention in the design process. Although they also happen to be more versatile, as you can use them in anything from world music to gospel, or metal and jazz alike.

Quite a lot of dark cymbals have an easily recognisable non-polished finish in order to take the edge off the high-end frequencies. This gives them a vintage style of which you could say makes them more ‘mature-looking’.

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Zildjian’s K Custom and the Meinl Byzance are the most prominent ranges on the market today thanks to their rich, warm sound. They are overhammered on top of the cymbal, adding dry, trashy tones to the mix.

bright cymbals

Should you get bright or dark cymbals?

The best solution is to get a mix of both when you’ve developed your ear for the tonal differences between the two. Only you can tell what sounds good – you’ll probably like some of each.

Mixing the two also gives you a wider stylistic variety if you ever want to branch out into different genres. The two types complement each other, as every individual cymbal has its own place in the frequency range of your kit and therefore has more impact when you play it.

There is a general rule of what sounds good for each genre, but there’s nothing wrong with a bit of experimentation. Play dark cymbals for metal or bright cymbals for jazz. Who knows, it might set you apart from everyone else.

If you enjoyed this read, check out more of our Labs articles!

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Cian Hodge
Cian Hodge
Cian is a writer for the Andertons team. He shares his birthday with Muse frontman Matt Bellamy and believes he will one day reach the same level of stardom. Cian is a big metal fan so naturally loves Bare Knuckle pickups and pointy guitars.

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