Magnificent Metal, Beautiful Bronze
DRUM! Spends A Day At Zildjian
It’s a beautiful spring morning and i’m driving down through Boston’s South Shore to the town of Norwell, Massachusetts. It’s the home of the fabled Zildjian Cymbal Company, where all Zildjian cymbals are conceived and produced. Zildjian headquarters is some of the most hallowed ground in the drum world, being the place where the Zildjian family still practices the same secret alchemy they’ve employed since Avedis Zildjian started producing his mystical bronze cymbals for the Ottoman court in Constantinople almost 400 years ago. On the way down to Norwell I pass by the Norfolk Downs section of North Quincy — the site of the first American home to the cymbal company and where Avedis Zildjian III, a direct descendant of his namesake, Avedis I, built the foundation for one of the most successful businesses in the musical instrument industry.
The Quincy location started operations in 1929 at the very beginning of the Great Depression. Back then the building consisted of what a local newspaper described as a “rambling series of sheds,” a low-key industrial building that gave no hint of the business giant it was to become in the next 30 years. Despite starting his business at the dawn of the greatest economic hardship the U.S. had ever seen, Zildjian began to flourish by the late 1930s, having adapted their product to answer the demands of big band drummers for thinner cymbals, rather than the heavy orchestra and band cymbals the company had produced in Constantinople. Over the years product development has driven the cymbal business, and Zildjian has been at the vanguard of that movement. Zildjian was also one of the first companies to court and consult endorsing artists, and their artist and clinic program has been a model for the rest of the industry to follow.
We’ve all seen the sepia-toned photos of the likes of Jo Jones, Gene Krupa, Chick Webb, and Buddy Rich posing outside the Norfolk Downs office, proudly holding one of Mr. Zildjian’s magic disks. The Zildjians cultivated great personal friendships with their artists and in turn the company still enjoys great product loyalty to this day.
By the early 1970s the company had outgrown the Quincy factory and was relocated to its current site in Norwell, to a brand new building designed to accommodate the need for both sufficient office space and ample production facilities. Zildjian headquarters has twice expanded on the location since then, but for all the changes in the modern musical instrument business, the process of making fine cymbals has remained relatively unchanged.
Marketing communications coordinator Jason LaChapelle, who will give me a rare behind-the-scenes look at the Zildjian cymbal making process, meets me at the front desk. We walk through the spacious lobby of the headquarters, past drum sets donated by the likes of Elvin Jones, Joey Kramer, and Travis Barker. There’s even a replica of Ringo’s Black Oyster Pearl Ludwigs to remind employees and visitors of the huge impact the Beatles made on the company’s fortunes.
Walking through a long hallway to the production section of the sprawling Zildjian complex, we pass the drummers lounge, where visiting endorsers come to check out cymbals from Zildjian’s sizable vault, in which all cymbals are aged and stored awaiting shipment around the world. A drum set stands on a carpeted riser in the middle of the lounge surrounded by a seemingly endless array of cymbals ringing the room. It’s here that some of the biggest names in the drum world come to try out new sounds and choose new cymbals for their sonic palette. On rare occasions, drummers are allowed to play and comment on a top-secret new prototype cymbal or a possible expansion of an existing line.
Entering the production area through a large swinging door we head straight for the melt room or foundry, where ingots of copper, tin, and silver are melted together to create the secret alloy that is the bedrock of the Zildjian legacy. There is a flashing red light outside the impressive steel doors of the room. “That means the mix is going on,” says LaChapelle. “I’ve never seen it and I never will.” He explains that only a small handful of people sworn to secrecy are allowed into this inner sanctum for the mixing of the metals. Anybody with access to a foundry can make bronze from 80 percent copper and 20 percent tin, but it is behind these locked doors we now stand in front of where ancient alchemical secrets produce a remarkable bronze alloy that can withstand the tempering, rolling, hammering, lathing, and eventual crashing and riding the Zildjian castings will soon endure.
A few years back while doing research for a book on the company’s history, I was allowed into the melt room by permission of the late Armand Zildjian, to photograph the secret alloy being poured into the casting bowls. It was a thrilling experience and I thought myself to be quite the lucky witness to history, until I was told that, although I had indeed seen molten metal being poured, the castings were useless as cymbal bronze because one or more steps had been omitted due to the presence of an “outsider.”
Whatever the secret is, the resulting castings, which resemble fieldstones or large round paperweights, give no hint of the wondrous sounds they will impart in just a matter of hours.
After the castings cool, they are sorted by weight into different bins. The weight of the castings determines the size of the final cymbal. I’m surprised to learn that all Zildjian cast cymbals, be they Constantinople Thin Rides or a Z Custom Rock Crashes, are fashioned from this one type of bronze ingot — the difference, LaChapelle says, is what happens further down the line. “A big part of it is not only the secret alloy, but knowing what to do with it once the casting is made.”
We round a corner into a large noisy workspace where the first major steps in creating a finished cymbal from the lifeless castings occurs. Different thicknesses of the castings are being slowly carried through a large rotary hearth (or oven) on a conveyor. The rotary oven, one of the many innovations Armand Zildjian helped to create, wouldn’t look out of place at a large modern pizzeria. The temperature inside the oven reaches about 1,400 degrees Fahrenheit, but the two-man teams who feed the hot plates through heavy rolling mills and back into the oven don’t seem to mind the heat. I’m assured that the factory is well air conditioned in the summer. Peering into the oven’s opening I see the castings glowing bright orange in the intense heat. “Every cymbal that goes in there gets heated for the same amount of time,” explains LaChapelle, “compared to the old days, with the old pizza-style ovens, where the first one in was the last one out.”