Once the cymbal is pressed into a basic shape it’s ready for the hammering machine, which I’m told is quite impressive. I’m also told in no uncertain terms that I can’t see it at work, because this one-of-a-kind proprietary hammering machine plays a major role in creating the mystical “Zildjian sound.” I can tell you that unique (and costly) “chucks” with raised hammer patterns are used in the state-of-the-art, computer-controlled machine. I’m also told that the machine brings a previously unheard of consistency to each model family of cymbals.
“Basically the human hand is not strong enough or consistent enough to make the cymbals the way we feel they should be made,” says LaChapelle. “Some cymbals go through a very quick hammering process, and some go through an over-hammering stage. Obviously Constantinoples are very different from A Zildjians and they require very different hammering techniques.”
Over the years, Francis, who apprenticed under Armand Zildjian, has become familiar with every step of the cymbal making process. “An A-line cymbal gets hammered just once,” he points out, “a K Custom Dark Crash will get hammered several times in different stages of its creation, which helps dry out the sound. Constantinoples get hammered quite a bit. Depending on what we’re trying to achieve, that’s how much work goes into the cymbal. It’s all about the end result.”
After being hammered, the cymbals are taken to lathing machines to be turned. Each cymbal is secured vertically on the lathe and as it spins, the lathe operator leans his weight against a large cutting knife and begins to cut sound or tonal grooves into the cymbal. One craftsman will do a rough pass on a cymbal and another will do a finish pass. “Finish lathe operators have more time on the job,” explains Francis. “They’re more skilled so we can ensure the cymbal comes down to its final weight and thickness. It’s one of the most critical parts of cymbal making — you can make the cymbal come out right, or you can just ruin everything everyone did before you.”
Although lathing looks like great fun to me, it also rates as one of the most complex and critical stages in the process — one little slip or sneeze and it’s back to the melt room for the ruined cymbal. While I watched these guys deftly shear off large curls of bronze with little effort, I began to understand why there are small but discernible differences between cymbals that are the same size and type. This is where the human touch comes particularly into play, because no matter how consistent a lathe operator is, there will always be minute differences in the way he cuts a groove.
“The sound grooves help define the sound of the cymbal,” LaChapelle points out. “Just the slightest variation in lathing will create a different sound. We want each cymbal to have its own character. Unless you were doing it robotically, it would be virtually impossible to lathe two 12" splash cymbals exactly the same way. These guys have all been here awhile and have apprenticed to do this job. It’s almost like an art form and you have to be very skilled to do it correctly.”
Francis is at one of the lathes, cutting grooves on a prototype K Custom Hybrid Ride, which he recently developed with endorser Akira Jimbo. The new design looks like a combination of a K Custom and a K Zildjian Ride, with the outer half of the cymbal having strong tonal grooves while the inside has a smooth lathing. Once Francis has developed a new cymbal and determined the specifications, he’ll train everyone involved, step-by-step, in the exact process from start to finish. “I make the prototypes every step of the way,” he explains, “so that any problem that might arise won’t come up when we put it into production. Each step of the process is as important as any other. It’s like a cake recipe: if you change one of the steps or do it incorrectly it throws everything off.
“And there’s no automated assembly line here. There must be 65 and 70 people between a couple of shifts. Every single person touches every single cymbal in some way, shape, or form.”
Before the cymbals leave the main production room, the edges are made as smooth as possible. Some models are buffed and finished on the way to the quality control area where longtime employee Leon Chiappini personally oversees the testing of each and every cymbal made by the company. Chiappini has been with Zildjian for over 40 years, and chances are, if you own a Zildjian cymbal, he played it before you. Chiappini certainly merits an article of his own, but today he’s out of the factory on a rare day off, so I poke around the small room noticing the “tester” cymbals, which LaChapelle says represent a range of what the cymbal is supposed to sound like. “Leon goes through the cymbals one at a time. He hits them a few times and makes sure they fall in line with the tester cymbal.”
Once Chiappini signs off on the cymbals, they need to be sprayed with a protective coating and then taken to a laser etcher to engrave a unique serial number and have the logo printed onto the cymbal. The finished cymbals are then wheeled to the legendary Zildjian cymbal vault to rest and age and await shipping. The vault is any drummer’s dream-come-true with literally tens of thousands of cymbals lining the aisles — shiny reminders of the Zildjian legacy.
The company has no plans of letting up, and if some of the prototype cymbals I saw being tested are any indication, we’re in for some exciting new sounds in the near future. Francis explains just how quickly Zildjian can come up with a new cymbal idea and immediately get it into production. “We can have an idea this morning, and if the line is open, I can make prototypes right now, on the fly,” he says excitedly. “That’s the beauty of this job — I don’t have to go out and build molds like I would if I was making toothbrushes. Our process is so unique that I can use existing tooling that we’ve had for years and manipulate the metal a billion different ways to make different sounds. That’s pretty exciting.”