May 2011

Get in the Rings: Sabian's AAX Omni Cymbals

Sabian's AAX Omni Cymbals evolve the often-compromised crash/ride concept

I still remember the drumset my mom provided as a wonderful surprise birthday present, a preemptive move to protect the windowsills and tabletops from any further damage by a pair of sticks I had liberated from my grade school. My Ludwig four-piece came with a snare stand, a pedal, and a bass drum accommodating a retractable cymbal stand and one of those ancient “rail consolette” tom attachments. It was a while before an actual cymbal stand or hi-hat was added, but that didn’t stop me from feeling like the happiest boy on the planet in the mid-’60s. I lucked out with the included Speed King bass-drum pedal and especially the cymbal, an early 18-inch Paiste Formula 602. (It could have just as easily been a Zilco … or worse.) I don’t recall if it was stamped with the “crash/ride” designation, but out of necessity it had to be. Getting the most out of a single cymbal is an objective as old as drum kits.

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Sabian AAX Omni cymbal

Years later, I read an interview with Tony Williams in which he bemoaned the factory custom of printing intended usage on cymbals, even his beloved K’s, exclaiming, “Crash? Ride? Man, it’s a cymbal … just hit it!” I’m paraphrasing, but interpreted his point to be that any cymbal can make many useful sounds within certain limits, if the person striking the various surfaces has musical ears and knows what he or she is doing.

Swiss-born drummer Jojo Mayer certainly knows what he’s doing, with his extensive jazz background and forays into NYC’s drum ’n’ bass/electronica/jungle scene and beyond, including Screaming Headless Torsos and his own Nerve. Mayer is also a longtime Sabian endorser and, inspired by their small El Sabor specialty cymbal, recently collaborated with the brand to develop the Omni series—a more perfect union of “crash” and “ride” in one piece of bronze.

The two available models—18-inch ($225 online) and 22-inch ($315)—are part of Sabian’s AAX family. Viewed from above or below, these instruments appear as three concentric circles: the darker bell; a middle, heavily machine-hammered band in the center; and a lathed outer ring. In other words, they look as though a smaller Brilliant-finish cymbal has been grafted onto a larger Natural-finish cymbal, albeit with bigger-than-normal cups. There are more distinct “zones” than are cosmetically implied, however, especially on the 22-inch model (more about this later). These cymbals are not timid in any way: They’re obviously intended to cut through amplified and processed sound projection.

Although not hand-hammered, the cymbals are manufactured from the highest-quality B20 bronze formula. Both Omni cymbals feature medium-heavy bells and inner sections, but their weight tapers out to extra-thin near the lathed outer edges, which has both positive and negative aspects. Pros: The ultra-thin edges possess the dark, throaty undertones usually associated with a jazz ride or crash, thus both sizes excel as shoulder-stick crashes. Cons: You cannot ride on the outer, spun areas of either size, lest individual stick strokes become indistinguishable in a wash of white noise. Riding the 18-inch on the extensively machine-hammered section resulted in a trebly, generic sound, while playing typical time patterns on the same part of the 22-inch produced acceptable jazzlike timbres.

But the bells of both spoke with a forceful clarity on straight-eighth funk and Latin grooves. All playing areas responded with uniform warmth to brushes. With mallets, they were stunning in their orchestral beauty.

A crash effect from a ride is relatively common: I’m currently playing a secondary 19-inch jazz ride that easily fulfills both functions, and have discovered that flat rides can provide an intriguing crash as well—not the typical exclamation point, but rather the breathy pause of ellipsis dots. However, drawing a decent ride out of a smaller crash cymbal is an extremely rare thing. I couldn’t use the Omni 18-inch as a ride in a jazz sense, so let’s concentrate on the 22-inch instead.

All good cymbals have sweet spots. Experienced players instinctively find them, the result being that stick marks become concentrated there. The 22-inch Omni has many such sweet spots. Additional playable zones include the space where the cup joins the machine-hammered area, producing a less-penetrating but still percussive alternative to direct bell strikes. There are subtle variations within the hammered area itself, and right above where the hammered area meets the lathed section is the riding zone of choice. But again, be forewarned: Stray too far into that outer spun ring while playing busy figures and the sound will get away from you. This sonic schizophrenia is a reasonable trade-off for a single instrument capable of at least five individual sounds.

In a press release, Mayer calls the Omni “a go-anywhere, play-anywhere cymbal,” going on to say, “[Y]ou can play any gig with just this one cymbal.” That is one bold, brassy claim, and I’m not sure it’s true. Still, anyone wishing to add a versatile new voice to his or her cymbal choir should consider Sabian’s AAX Omni. It’s a giant step forward in the evasive evolutionary quest for the perfect crash/ride.

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