DRUM! Visits The Meinl Cymbal Factory

We walk in on Greb, an unknown commodity in the U.S., who is literally tearing up the stage while radiating a calm sense of control. We’re blown away by his ability to combine insane four-limb independence with electronics, while singing over the top in his eerie falsetto. He’s a literal one-man band that knocks the audience on its collective butt.

At the front of the tent we run into Dennis Boxem, editor of Slagwerkkrant, the Dutch drumming magazine. He’s busily snapping photos with his high-tech camera that has a lens that must be equal in value to a down payment on a Porsche. Suddenly experiencing lens envy, we stealthily slip our cheap little point-and-click camera into our coat pocket, then spot dapper Ian Croft, editor of the U.K.-based Drummer magazine, waving to us from the other side of the tent. Meinl obviously called in some favors to assure international show coverage.

(Left) Thomas Lang dazzles.

Dashing back and forth between performances and meetings, we manage to catch only a handful of the clinicians throughout the day. Later we would see Terrana rip through double-bass machine gun bursts, Shauney Baby lay down funky pockets with some backup from the other performers, and Maturano trade smoking Afro Cuban riffs with percussionist Peil. The show closes with Lang showing off his astonishing ability to dig deep dance grooves one second, then spin impossible showboat combinations the next. He’s a force of nature.

It’s a long day of sensory overload — by the end, the crowd is visibly drained but thoroughly satiated. Drummers are an amazing breed. Who else would willingly place themselves in the line of fire of such an incredible barrage of notes for 12 continuous hours? It would be days before our ears would stop ringing.

Inside The Factory

Meinl built its new factory three years ago, though its spotless exterior still sparkles as if it was finished only yesterday. The fa├žade cleverly mimics the “M” in the familiar Meinl logo, effectively dividing the facility into offices on one side and production on the other.

But the physical division between factory and office space is purely superficial, separated only by a glass wall that allows workers on the production line to see directly into the offices of the marketing and salespeople, and vice versa. It’s a deliberate attempt to blur stereotypes and ensure that everyone feels like a vital part of the group effort.

“It’s very important that we work as a team, because the brand is the Meinl brand, and the family is behind it,” says Udo Heubeck, who serves as the company’s vice president, although he doesn’t actually have a job title. None of the Meinl employees do, and this lack of hierarchy doesn’t stop at the factory walls. “Other companies like to collect endorsers, put them in a frame on the wall, but that’s not our idea. Our idea is that we are a team, a family.”

Heubeck is talking quickly as he leads us into the factory at a sprint. His body language suggests the obvious — there’s a lot going on in every corner of the Meinl grounds that demands his attention, and time is of the essence. The factory is built as a series of large modules connected by walkways and isolated from each other by automated doors. Heubeck spent a full year working with architects to design the structure, which can be expanded simply by adding additional modules at either end of the complex. Quite literally, raw material moves into one side of the building, works its way down the line, and exits from the other side as finished cymbals. It’s a nifty design. Very practical. Very German.

We begin at the beginning, where circular blanks of various sizes, weights, thicknesses, and alloys are neatly stacked in cartons that wait on large racks to run the gauntlet. (The only exception is the Byzance cymbals imported from Turkey, which enter the facility looking much more like a finished product than the blanks do.) Blanks are largely self-descriptive — flat, featureless, round metal discs without lathe lines, hammering, or contour.

(Fig. 1) Meinl’s hammering robot.

Blanks are selected and brought to the first step in the production line, where a hole is punched into the center for the cymbal mount. The crew then forms the bell using one of two methods, depending on the type of cymbal being sculpted: Student model bells are formed on a spinning machine, while bells on professional cymbals are first heated before being machine pressed.

Our next stop is the hammering robot (Fig. 1). “You can tell the robot exactly where to hammer the cymbal, how deep, how hard, which angle, everything,” Heubeck explains, clearly proud of his company’s technology. “Through this we get different shapes, different sounds, clarity.”

We walk through a door to the “sound section. Here we change the sound of the cymbal,” Heubeck continues, leading us to a lathe where a worker shaves off material (Fig. 2). “He’s been doing this for years. It’s something you cannot learn in a day. It takes experience and practice.” Cymbals are lathed on both sides, taking between two and four passes of the cutting tool depending on the model and the type of cymbal application. For example, because of its higher pitch, longer decay, and explosive nature, more material is removed from a crash than from a ride. “When you take away metal there is not only a cosmetic change, but the sound changes.”

(Fig. 2) A worker carefully lathes a ride.

Before moving to the next step, workers round the edge of the cymbal to remove burrs and sharp edges — they don’t want any drummers to cut their fingers, after all. Now the cymbal is ready to be machine polished up to six times, and the resulting residue is removed using a new water-based ultrasound process. It is then sealed with a protective coating before heading to an oven to bake on the finish. A silk-screened logo is applied, and the instrument is baked once again to set the ink. A second logo is etched into the metal using a laser process that doesn’t impact the sound of the cymbal.

Each cymbal is then tested against a reference model. Those that don’t make the grade are recycled, while the keepers are stored on large racks before being packed and shipped. “All the mechanical treatment and machine work changes the metal,” Heubeck explains, “so you need some time to let the cymbal rest and open, to sound as good as it can sound.”

Compare this technology and precision to the arduous process that Roland Meinl used to make the first Meinl cymbals 52 years ago. “My father got the metal in square sheets and had to use shears to cut them out one by one, and drill the hole, and make the shape on a drilling machine by sheer power,” Reinhold marvels. “He would make 50 to 100 cymbals a day just using his muscles.”

This Is The End

The sun set an hour ago. Most attendees are long gone. Soundmen disassemble the P.A., while techs pack up cases of gear. The night is cold and damp, and we’re hanging out with Terrana, Rabb, and Lang in the courtyard outside the performance tent, drinking huge steins of beer. Everyone cracks up and doubles over, spitting beer in mid gulp when Terrana delivers the punch line of his now infamous “Superman And Wonder Woman” joke.

We’re functioning on only a couple hours of sleep but feel strangely energized. It’s been a very exciting day, although the Meinl folks admit feeling a bit let down by the attendance. Hmm. It looked like a huge success to us, but one thing you can count on — Meinl is determined to make it an even better event next year. Absolutely determined.

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