Steely Determination: DRUM! Visits The Meinl Factory

We weren’t in Kansas anymore, but we certainly weren’t in Oz either.

Following 16 sleepless hours flying east over the big pond, including an unexpectedly clammy transfer in Paris’ hot and confounding Charles De Gaulle Airport, we landed at the Nuremberg terminal, where we collected our luggage and strolled directly to the parking lot without seeing anybody remotely resembling a customs agent.

So much for German homeland security. But we weren’t here to cause trouble. We came to visit the Meinl cymbal factory.

In nearly 20 years of publishing drumming magazines, we watched ringside as Meinl gradually found a footing in the American cymbal market (the company also offers a vast selection of high-quality hand-percussion instruments from its factory in Thailand). Meinl’s effort to win a slice of American market share was hard fought, with an early history of cymbal brands with clumsy English names, spotty marketing that didn’t inspire American consumers to buy, and endorsers from bands most U.S. drummers never heard of and never would.

(Left) Reinhold Meinl.

But we would come to learn that the Meinls are a proud and determined family that set their sights on the U.S. market some time ago. “Not only is America 50 percent of the world’s market, but America influences the rest of the world,” says Reinhold Meinl, current company president and son of founder Roland Meinl. “I do not think any company can be a success without having success in America.”

Things began to coalesce in 2000, when Meinl finally scored with American consumers by taking some calculated risks. New lines captured imaginations: Gen-X aggressively explored edgy sound effects; Mb20 sang with an Americanized rock resonance; and the individually-cast, jazzy, Turkish-made Byzance line broke entirely from the company’s previous penchant for making cymbals from sheet-bronze blanks.

A Meinl office sprung up in Nashville around the same time, with a stocked warehouse to facilitate domestic shipping and a fresh team of American reps hungry to sign relevant endorsers. They leapt into the extreme drumming fray, signing freakishly coordinated monsters like Thomas Lang, Johnny Rabb, and Marco Minnemann. The company wisely presented these amazing, but fairly unknown endorsers on endless clinic tours and key PAS conventions, effectively building their superhuman reputations while they scrambled the brains of drummers throughout the U.S.

More importantly, Meinl also carved an identity among the new breed of metal drummers, scooping up key endorsers like Jason Bittner of Shadows Fall, Jaska Raatikainen of Children Of Bodom, and Chris Adler of Lamb Of God, wisely exploiting their names and likenesses in print ads and clinic tours. The payoff is that the Meinl logo now oozes Ozzfest cred. Slowly but surely, step-by-step, the pieces fell into place.

It’a A Long Way To Nuremberg

5,804 miles from San Jose, to be precise. And while we’ve known quite a few Meinl representatives over the years, we harbored a skewed vision of where they worked and lived. In our mind’s eye, we pictured a grey factory in an industrial suburb of Nuremberg, filled with workers in matching grey jumpsuits, filing in and out of their workstations at the howl of a steam whistle.

Okay, so we watched way too many late-night Hollywood movies.

Within minutes, our Meinl escort Reinhard, a young drummer working his way into the family business, turns our van away from the city and toward the lush greenery of the German countryside. Every so often, our expressway narrows to skinny two-lane streets that snake through picturesque villages framed by cobblestone and thatched roofs. We get our second wind. Cameras come out.

After half an hour, Reinhard points to a long sleek structure ahead. It’s the Meinl factory. We can’t believe our eyes. Meinl overshadows a small cluster of buildings in what is otherwise a beautiful rural setting. You feel like you’re miles from anywhere, and in fact, you are. Another young Meinl employee would later whisper that he’d rather live in an area where there is more to do. He was talking about girls, of course, but we only saw cows outside the window of the country inn where we stayed.

So this is the new home of heavy metal cymbals?

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Apparently it is. We stop beside a huge tent set up on the Meinl grounds. Tomorrow is their first drumming festival featuring many of the company’s big endorsers. Ernest stagehands carry drum sets and microphones left and right. Everyone has a walkie-talkie and access pass. It’s a big production. We walk in as Mike Terrana prepares to do his sound check.

(Left) Mike Terrana grimaces.

Terrana — an imposing and muscular American metal basher with a Mohawk — is bigger than life and beloved in Europe but can’t get the time of day in the U.S. Our loss. We hung with Terrana for the next couple days, cracking jokes that somehow got better as they got worse.

Frivolity hit stride at the pre-show dinner, where a large group of drummers, Meinl employees, and drumming journalists wolfed schnitzel and downed homemade beer into the wee hours. Planted at a big wooden table in a cavernous stone room with Terrana, Rabb, Shauney Baby, Drums & Percussion editor Heinz Kronberger, and assorted spouses, we had a ball and probably talked a bit too loudly until jet lag hit like a sucker punch to the jaw. A driver took us back to the inn, where we fell onto the bed like a sack of concrete, only to have our internal clock wake us up a couple hours later, far too early. We sat on the balcony and watched the sun rise over the farmland. Little did we know that we were being eaten alive by mosquitoes.

Historical Perspective

You might think that Meinl’s push into the U.S. market only recently gained traction, but in fact the company sold cymbals to American drummers since the ’60s, when they were distributed with Kent drum kits. It was the first of many milestones. Reinhold Meinl gestures to the wall in Meinl’s glass encased conference room where a rare early Kent cymbal is mounted in a frame. They ran across it being discussed online in a drum related chat room and contacted the owner who agreed to trade it for a brand new Meinl cymbal.

He might have thought that he got the better end of the deal, but the Meinls know better. Sure, this battle-worn relic wouldn’t fetch much at your local drum shop today, but to the Meinl family it symbolizes the very foundation upon which their legacy was built. “Kent Drums was one of our big customers for many years,” Reinhold explains. “When my father got an order from Kent, those orders were big enough to keep him busy for one month, and he could not do cymbals for any other customer. This is how small the company was.”

In truth, the operation couldn’t have been much smaller. Born in an area once renowned for musical instrument craftsmen in what is now the Czech Republic, patriarch Roland Meinl relocated to Germany at the age of 16 after fighting in World War II, and began making cymbals by hand, one by one, while Reinhold and his mother packaged the finished products. “It was hard,” Reinhold says, “because they had to start from nothing.”

Of course, when you come up from nothing, you have plenty of room to grow. And they did, slowly and methodically. They hired their first employee in 1964 and brought another on board two years later when the family took a technological leap forward and invested in a spinning machine to increase production and quality. The business grew steadily until the mid-’70s, when Meinl began to produce cymbals for the fledgling American brand Camber. Suddenly their output increased exponentially.

“For about ten years, we got such big orders from the Camber brand that we had no time to work on any new Meinl-brand cymbals,” Reinhold says. It was a mixed blessing. “Our cymbal factory was busy around the clock, and our wholesale operation was growing, so we were financially okay for many years. We sold thousands and thousands of Camber cymbals to America, but the Meinl brand was disappearing around the world.”

Reinhold set out to change that equation when he became more involved with the family business in the early ’80s. He recognized that the company needed to establish its brand, and perhaps more importantly, venture into the professional cymbal market after building its reputation on student models. So in ’83, Meinl invested in robot hammering and launched its first high-end series, the Profile line. With the steely familial determination that is their hallmark, the family never looked back, and today offers a wide selection of cast- and sheet-bronze cymbals invested with a dizzying array of sounds and colors for drummers of every style and playing level. And they’re not finished. Oh no. Not even close.

Monster Chops Marathon

Leaving the inner sanctum of the Meinl conference room, we hear the drumming festival raging in the distance. The grounds swarm with drummers, young and old, some wagging tongue studs while others stroll in leisure ware. Despite overcast conditions, the place seems packed with attendees grabbing swag from a line of booths sponsored by several German drumming-magazine publishers. Impromptu jams break out at an outdoor hand-percussion playground as drummers line up for one of the ongoing tours of the cymbal factory or chow down at the requisite schnitzel and beer stands.

Of course, the performance tent is the centerpiece of the show, and Meinl has assembled an impressive lineup of players to dazzle the crowd. Besides Terrana, Rabb, and Shauney Baby, the event showcases Benny Greb, Phil Maturano, Roland Peil, Ron Van Stratum, Amel Serra, and Thomas Lang — each demonstrating a different style and technique with chops to spare.

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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.