Steampunk Cymbals

By Chris Stankee,, July 12, 2011

It was January 4th this year when I sent the crazy e-mail to Sabian's Master Product Specialist Mark Love. We hadn't even introduced the new Paragon series in a Brilliant finish yet, and here I was asking him a dozen questions about changing the design. Lucky he's a patient man, always ready for the next challenge. My part is easy...

Sitting in Neil Peart's kitchen, over a Scotch, he shared with me his elaborate concept for Rush's new album Clockwork Angels. There was so much to the story, and the concept was so visual. He explained the steampunk style to me, citing examples from H.G. Wells and Jules Verne's tales, including bizarre mechanical inventions powered by steam, elaborate clockworks, and alchemy, in an alternate timeline - "the future as it ought to have been." Neil could see that he was over my head, as usual, so he said think of the movies The Time Machine and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. That's steampunk! He showed me the alchemical symbols that he was using as chapter markers in the story and lyrics he had written. Gold, Copper, Winter, Annealing, Combine, Neptune, Essence, Dissolve and Mixture. This was the recipe for a visual concept that would mark his new drum set. What if we made the cymbals look like gears? What if we copper plated them? What if we painted, powder coated, engraved them? What if we incorporated those alchemical symbols? Yeah, yeah, yeah! All of that! And that's the gist of the e-mail that Mark got from us.

Mark began drumming up support for the project at the factory and working with local artist Wendy Parlee in New Brunswick. It was only a month later that we got a visual concept and even a couple of prototypes.

Mark says, "With the help of Wendy we started to put ideas on paper and very soon we had some amazing visuals that we all hoped would actually make it on the tour cymbals while retaining the high energy cut and sustain that Neil was used to."

Neil was very impressed with the art and the direction this was headed, but obviously the first question was "How does it affect the sound?" Truth be told, the heavy design was dampening the tone too much. We've painted cymbals before for Avril Lavigne, Pink, and other "divas," but this design wasn't going to work if it affected the sound. Neil Peart is never going to play on "props." The R&D continued. Neil told us that all the drum hardware would be copper plated and it might be nice if the design matched. And so this was the next batch of prototypes:

Neil wrote after seeing these prototypes in March:

Hi Mark,
First of all, I think the copper color looks really good - and I'm especially curious about this "copper cymbal." Is it just a finish over the bronze, or a different alloy?
Looks pretty nice, anyway, and I'd definitely like to see that sample.
As it happens, Chris and I were together yesterday and talking about the design - agreeing that the "gears" need to be more delicate. I'm attaching an early version of a logo for this summer's tour (we're not giving away the whole theme yet, thus the "Time Machine 2010" title). That's a good place to start for the gear design.
I'm also attaching a more refined version of the symbols as we're using them.
Incidentally, I like the "clock" design you came up with very much - I don't think I even suggested that as part of the iconography, so well done - but some of the gear designs look too "clunky," like the one that resembles an old telephone dial. I'm not sure if the clock-face we're using, with ALL the symbols, is too much to put on one cymbal, but no matter - the simpler version such as you designed is fine.
Again, well done, and let's keep refining these ideas - it's going to be something very special and spectacularrrr!

So after those notes another approach was tried:

We were getting closer to a final design, and needed to get there quick, since the tour was starting soon! There were still two major concerns about the design: Would it affect the sound, and would it take the abuse? I was concerned that the design being so close to the edge of the cymbal would change the tone. I remembered from working at a drum company years ago working with nodal points attaching lugs to the part of the shell that least affected the vibrations and wondered if the same principle would apply. For example, if you take a small piece of tape and put it at the edge of a cymbal you hear an obvious dampening of the sound, but if you move it slightly inward, it barely affects it at all. So we moved the gears a little further in from the edge, which would save the design from Neil's sticks and restore the tone. We also incorporated Neil's wish of having a different alchemical symbol on each cymbal except for the elaborate design of the clock. This is what we came up with:

And so I brought the most beautiful set of cymbals I'd ever seen out to Drum Channel where Neil was rehearsing for the tour. Alone they sounded wonderful, but Neil's first priority was to 'A/B' them with his favorite cymbals, and he was not happy.

Hey Guys,
Unfortunately, during the course of today's rehearsals, both Gump and I noticed a serious reduction in volume and power from these cymbals, compared to the Brilliants we had been using.
The tone and swell are fine - but they're just dampened.
It's gotta be the paint.
Couple of suggestions:
Bring the gear in about halfway on each cymbal's radius, to minimize its effects on the cymbal's ring.
Or, drop the gear, and just put one of the designs on each.
(Interestingly, the one "winner" was the ride cymbal, which had great articulation and bell definition. Maybe it wouldn't be bad, as Chris suggested, to have the "clock" design on it?)
Mark - what do you think about all that?

Mark asked if he was happy with the layout at this point if the sustain was better and we used a less intrusive material to which Neil replied:

Of course - the cymbals are entirely "playable" now.
And note that it's not exactly "sustain" that's compromised - it's the top range of the cymbal's voice that's cut off.
That's the clearest way to express it.
They still possess most of their admirable qualities. (And the honorable Mr. Stankee from Iowa thought they were just fine.)
It's just that we're all used to dealing with "the best possible cymbal" - no compromises.
And again, the most severely affected was the 20" clock, with all that paint on it, so that tells the tale...
By all means try the thinner application.
We've still got time to get these right!
Onward and upward - Excelsior!

He would rather play on his Paragons without the design than compromise the sound. Anyone would applaud him for that, but it was nerve racking to have come so far and face the possibility that project might be scrapped.

Mark recalls, "We knew Neil wouldn't compromise on sound so when the final painted prototypes were rejected on sound we weren't surprised and were actually already thinking past that to a non damping application method for the gears and alchemical symbols."

He was able to pull it out of the fire and a few days later we got these bad boys in the mail.

Trying just the crashes and splashes to gauge the sustain, Neil found them to be right on the money. Mark got busy on moving the clock design over to the "time keeper" - the ride cymbal. Incidentally, for this tour Neil had decided to use the 14-inch Paragon Brilliant hats instead of the 13-inch ones he had always favored. For the X-hats he is using a pair of 14-inch Artisan Brilliant hi -hats that he fell in love with while working up his performance at the last Buddy Rich Memorial concert. A short time later I flew to Toronto with all hope and expectation that the rest of the set up would meet Neil's approval. I met him at Rush's tour rehearsals with the full set up in tow including the final designs. After a nervous few hours Neil approved of the sound and would be playing them on tour. I claimed the reward of getting to listen to Rush play Moving Pictures in its entirety on the cymbals that took six months to develop. Try to imagine the size of the smile on my face.

Many thanks to Neil Peart for his vision and patience, to Mark Love and his team in the vault for their mastery of metal and commitment to innovation, to the artists Wendy Parlee and Hugh Syme, and to Lorne 'Gump' Wheaton, Andrew MacNaughtan, DW Drums, and Drum Channel for being great friends and partners in crime.

See and hear Neil Peart perform with these cymbals on the Rush tour, which began in Albuquerque, NM on 6/29. Don't miss your chance to see one of the greatest bands at the top of their game! Check for the latest tour dates. Hear the new Paragon Brilliant cymbals on the latest tracks by RUSH, "Caravan" and "BU2B," wherever you buy digital music. The album is to be completed in the fall after the current tour. Try the Paragon line and new Paragon Brilliant line of cymbals designed with Neil Peart at your finer drum stores.

PLEASE READ: these designs are not painted on. Please do not paint your cymbals as it will adversely affect the sound and may void your warranty. There are no immediate plans to sell these cymbals to the public. The designs are placed onto stock Paragon brilliant cymbals that anyone can buy in your local drum shop.