BY AJ DONAHUE
Trying to recreate the past can be tricky. Nostalgia can too often idealize otherwise simple objects, setting the bar so high that the outcome is almost unachievable.
There are few better examples of that sentiment than the feverish devotion to K. Zildjian cymbals from the 1950s and ’60s. For many, those Turkish Ks embody the exquisite wildness of the bop era and the years that followed. They recall both the explosive innovation of the music itself, as well as the old-world craft that produced a sense of genuine individualism in the musical instruments and the people who played them.
Because that sound is beloved by so many, cymbal companies have been trying to recreate it for decades now, but it isn’t easy to manufacture an instrument that has a built-in legacy. It’s like trying to build a modern car that makes every commute feel like a Sunday drive up the coast with friends.
It’s a daunting task, but the good people at Zildjian are giving it a go in 2014 with their new Kerope line of cymbals. Before we talk about how they did it, let’s take a quick look at why they did it.
What’s a Kerope?
Developed in conjunction with New York jazz scene and studio stalwart Zach Danziger, Zildjian’s Kerope series aims to replicate and subtly modernize that classic old K sound. To achieve that aesthetic, the company needed to find a consistent and reliable way to shorten the natural aging process of a cymbal.
It took years of research, but the team at Club Zed finally settled on an accelerated patina process that comes dubiously close to replicating the real deal. That process, coupled with intensive study of the shape, size, and weight of a few choice selections from the Zildjian vault, helped the crew create a group of new cymbals that very adequately paid homage to their ancestors.
But that wasn’t enough. Danziger and Zildjian Director of R&D Paul Francis both agreed that these cymbals shouldn’t be simply reprints of the classics; they should be able to meet the demands of modern players in almost every genre. They should be able to handle jazz, soul, indie rock, and country with equal comfort. And they should be able to serve as truly playable instruments for the growing number of drummers who’ve come to love that sound.
That’s a pretty tall order.
Zildjian shipped over the entire series for review, which included 14″ and 15″ hi-hats, as well as 18″, 19″, 20″, and 22″ cymbals. After getting a sneak peek at the line back at the 2013 PASIC show, I couldn’t wait to get them up on the stands. But, as soon as I pulled the Keropes out of the box, I had to stop and soak in just how beautiful they looked.
At first glance, they appeared to be dead ringers for the old coveted Ks. The applied patina gave each cymbal a deep, brown-gold hue with just enough brass sheen to showcase the rolling contours created by heavy hammering. Broad lathe rings on both top and bottom completed a vintage vibe that looked remarkably authentic. And each model wore only a diminutive, classically styled logo so as not to obscure the antiqued appeal. They were gorgeous.
They’re Just Cymbals
Another interesting aspect of the K additions was the absence of individual model designations within this series. The only monikers you’ll find in the Kerope line are “hi-hat” and “cymbal.” Each plate has its weight in grams written on the underside of the bell. But other than that (and the size), there’s nothing to separate them any further.
The result is a very elegant family of bronze, largely unburdened by the expectation of assignment. It was a nice change from the hyper-classification common in today’s market, and something that I think we’ll see a lot more of in coming years.
So now that you know the story, let’s talk sound.
It would be easy to say that the four non-hi-hat models in the Kerope family were designed to serve as both rides and crashes but, considering the ethos of the line, that conclusion seems a little reductive. With so much character, it feels more appropriate to think of them simply as instruments.
To really experience the cymbals as a whole, I set them all up together, and got right to playing (rather than subjecting them to my usual inspection). I gave each a few taps, then dove right into a groove so I could hear them as musical instruments first.
After a lengthy meet-and-greet, I was immensely impressed with the group. As a unit, they worked incredibly well together, creating a very natural progres- sion of notes from smallest to largest. Each cymbal had its own personality, but there was no doubt that they all shared the same DNA.
All four models produced a similar combination of dark, woody click up top with a warm, cozy bed of wash underneath. They were remarkably consistent throughout a wide dynamic range, maintaining plenty of stick definition even under loud, fast play. There was just enough brightness to stay afloat over a spread that grew, but never escaped control. All of the cymbals responded just a little more stiffly than other models I own with similar weights, which I suspect had a lot to do with how even and controlled they were.
When I got to the bell of each model, I was really surprised to hear how well-integrated the notes were. Under tip or shank, every bell sounded like a direct extension of the main playing surface. They had the same low, exotic breath, just in a higher register – not Alex-Van-Halen-high or anything, but perfectly serviceable in a musical context.
When crashed, the Keropes were simply spectacular. Each had a lush, beautiful response that didn’t quite explode, but erupted into a broad, sparkling wave of dark wash. They were maybe a bit too slow to operate as crashes in more aggressive settings, but at low to medium volumes, they were mostly superb.
The only exception that stood out was a slightly shrill note that came off the 18″ at higher volumes. It wasn’t unbearable by any means, but the frequency felt very separated from the rest of the wash, making it just a bit less satisfying than its big brothers and sisters.
Despite their similarities, however, it should be said that these four cymbals were not simply different sized versions of one another. Each model had its own unique character that offered some additional utility beyond the sound and feel mentioned above.
The most apparent was the separation between the 20″ and 22″ models. Under stick, the 20″ felt a little tighter than the 22″. The 20″ has just a bit more space between the attack and wash, bringing out a little more of that smoky click.
I took a look at both cymbals side-by-side to see if there was any perceptible contrast in body shape that set them apart, and I noticed that the 20″ had what looked to be a slightly deeper profile. This must have helped the cymbal retain its familial feel, while also bringing up the attack.
The 18″ and 19″ models were perhaps the most similar of the group, although the 19″ had a slightly stiffer feel that beefed up the attack. The smaller than average cups and low profiles made each perfectly suited for speedy ride patterns, but not so focused that they couldn’t open up. That said, I did find myself using the 18″ as a low- to medium-volume crash more than the others.
One final note: The four Kerope cymbals complemented other instruments beautifully. They were bright and complex enough to remain present, but never overwhelming or obtrusive. I (very thankfully) had a recording session lined up while reviewing these cymbals, and they turned out to be perfect under microphones. After listening to the playback, I made absolutely no adjustments to the sound. I don’t think I’ve ever done that before.
I was really happy to see that the series included a pair of 15″ hats in addition to the standard 14s. Fifteen-inch hats seem to be enjoying a rise in popularity right now, and this is the kind of cymbal series that perfectly suits the extra size.
Both pairs of hats had a really excellent sloshy feel that was just a little softer than I expected. Each featured a light top/heavy bottom pairing that enhanced stick attack when closed. Played loose or open, they were dark, smoky, and very complex throughout the dynamic range.
While both sets were very enjoyable, the 15s were the clear standouts for me. With a much lower fundamental note than their smaller siblings, they had a deep, husky voice that was very reminiscent of the old K hats I’ve played, but maybe a bit less trashy. I think a lot of that was owed to the surprisingly thin top cymbal, which weighed only 40 grams more than its 14″ counterpart.
The 14″ pair was a little tighter, but came with a few extra highs that turned me off a bit. Those extra bright notes weren’t as prevalent under a microphone, but did stick in my ear every so often. The hats also didn’t quite have the chomp necessary to cut through louder ride patterns when played by foot. Heel splashes were perfectly audible, but that crisp chick got a little lost in up-tempo jazz figures.
The only other issue I had with the hats was that I felt like I could never get them closed tightly enough. I understand that they’re designed to have a bit more give, but playing ultra-precise patterns at any volume always sounded a bit too sloppy.
Despite that, I think either set of hats would be incredibly effective in blues, fusion, country, or indie rock settings. To my ear, the 15s were maybe a little better suited for jazz and bebop play, but when dealing with an instrument of this caliber, I think it’s just a matter of personal preference.
Offering a beautiful balance of lush tone, dark ride sound, and smoky wash, Zildjian’s new Kerope series represents the most accurate recreation of the classic Turkish K sound I’ve encountered. Updated production techniques make these cymbals more suitable for modern play without impeding the character of the cymbals that inspired their creation. But honestly, the Keropes aren’t designed to replace your favorite vintage cymbals. They’re meant to give more drummers an opportunity to finally enjoy that sound without selling a kidney to pay for a museum piece that never leaves the house.