Many live sound engineers will not understand this problem, with the exception of those working in small clubs or in churches where the stage volume of musicians can be an issue to the experience that is being created for the audience.
Of the progenitors of stage noisiness, the drums are often king. In many churches, its such an issue that drum isolation booths from companies like Clearsonic or Perdue Acoustics have become the staple item. I know of some churches that build a complete “drum condo.” It’s a fully enclosed room on the stage, with a door and you can stand outside the room and carry on a normal conversation without having to raise voices while the drummer is pretending he’s John Bonham. It wouldn’t surprise me to find a Christmas wreath hung on the door of the drum condo this time of year.
Thing is, though, drum booths and drum condos and even just drum shields are little more than a necessary evil; they are visually intrusive, and the added reflections impact the sound of the drums. With some drummers using a shield I notice that I have cymbal bleed coming into tom mics, and even the kick. So then I spend more time as a butcher than a mixer, hacking and slicing away with the EQ trying to minimize the cymbal bleed while giving clarity to the drum microphones.
Last week, however, I tried a product that I think may have changed the game altogether. A while back I found a YouTube video of the Zildjian Gen16 cymbals and showed it to one of my drummers. He was very skeptical but willing to try it. We’ve been searching for a better solution for drum stage volume issues and I came across a video of the Zildjian Gen16 cymbals. On paper, and YouTube, they looked good. But the compressed low quality sound of the video meant that if we wanted to see how good they really are, we needed to try them out. So we bought them with a 45-day money back guarantee knowing that if we hated them, we only had to pay for shipping them back.
Let me be very clear: THESE ARE NOT DIGITAL CYMBALS. I can shout into the microphone capsules under the cymbals and have them amplify my voice into the PA. They are still cymbals, but about eighty percent quieter.
The way they work is that they have a capsule under the cymbal that has two microphones inside that amplify the cymbal. There is a small breakout cable that runs to the cymbal capsule. The cable connects to to the DCP (Digital Cymbal Processor) that has preset EQ curves much like an acoustic guitar that has a preamp and tone shaping capability built into it. So you dial in a preset EQ that you like and get playing, and the presets are made to sound like other cymbals. There are twenty presets for each cymbal available. This means that you can make the cymbals sound really bright and sparkly, or really dark if you want and everything in between. So one preset will be a sound much like a K series cymbal, and another like an A- series, or a Z-custom.
The 480ae kit we bought came with the DCP, the cabling, 14” hi hats, an 18” crash cymbal and a 20” ride. Zildjian also has a complete lineup of different size crashes, rides, splash cymbals and chinas for drummers to complete their drum kit how they want it. And for some of you crazy drummers who like to use small crash cymbals on your hi-hat, go for it. It will work. The key to these is spending a bit of time finding the right tones out of the cymbals you like. In the same way that you go to a music store and take a pair of drumsticks trying different cymbals out to find one that matches the tone you are going for, you need to sit with a good pair of headphones or in-ears and just find out which tone presets work for you.
When they arrived in the mail, I called one of my drummers and he came over to play for an hour or so to get tones out of the cymbals and try the drums without the shield. Probably the coolest thing in trying these cymbals has been that because it’s so much quieter, I don’t need the drum shield. The musicians are asking for much less kick and snare in their monitors and I was able to neutralize some of the radical EQ work I did on the toms to kill the cymbal bleed with the drum shield. The result is that the kick, snare and toms sound much more natural, and both of us were very happy with the results, him as a tone-picky drummer, and me as a CDO (that’s OCD in alphabetical order) FOH engineer.
My Verdict: It’s not a product for everyone. For the absolute purists who love the sound of real cymbals, this will be something of an abomination. You do need to spend a bit of time finding the tones you like. The first week we tried it, we weren’t as satisfied as the next week. But for many, including me, this is an amazing solution. The kit we bought runs about $1000 street price, which is very reasonable, and add-on cymbals are less than the price of a K-series crash cymbal. Yes, you have to deal with a bit of bleed from the snare and toms, but it’s manageable. And remember they’re not digital cymbals playing back a recorded sample, they are real cymbals. I have been able to get away with taking down the drum shield, which leaves our stage looking clean and makes the communication with the drummer much easier. As a result, the stage volume is lower and I don’t think we’ve had any volume complaints centered around the stage volume of the drums in a few weeks, which is a huge win! In fact, we’re planning on purchasing another Gen16 crash soon.
Jeremy Blasongame is currently a part-time A3 for a concert production company and a Tech Arts Director at Sunridge Community Church. Over the past seven years, he has also worked in two major recording studios and is the author of Church Audio Blog. Feel free to email him at: firstname.lastname@example.org or find him on twitter at@JBsoundguy, or leave a comment below.