The rich history of the Zildjian company began in the early 17th century with Avedis Zildjian I, an Armenian alchemist in the city of Constantinople. But the modern era of cymbal making really kicked off after Avedis III moved to America and relocated the factory to Quincy, Massachusetts in 1929.  It was there that he and his sons Armand and Robert, along with other Zildjian cymbalsmiths, developed the cymbals that would define the sound of jazz, blues, and rock ‘n’ roll drumming.

“All cymbals are crashes and all cymbals are rides.”

–Armand Zildjian

For the past few decades the person in charge of developing those new sounds has been Paul Francis, who today carries the title of Director of Cymbal Innovation at Zildjian. He is coming up on 30 years with the company; his first day at Zildjian was January 16, 1989.

Before that, Francis explains, a man named Charlie Yanizzi led the R&D effort for many years. After Yanizzi departed Zildjian, Al Glauben, who was the Lathe Room lead man, taught Francis to lathe cymbals. A few years later, Francis joined the R&D team. Given the company’s 395-year-pedigree, and the prominence of key Zildjian brands in music history, Francis seems to carry the expectations of his job lightly. He is friendly, upbeat, and always eager to talk about music and cymbals. I interviewed him by email last week.

Drum!: Who has had the biggest influence on your craft?

Paul Francis: I had four great teachers. First was Armand Zildjian, who I got to work with for the last seven to eight years of his life on some really fantastic new cymbal projects: K Constantinople, A. Zildjian and Cie, 21” A Sweet Ride, and 15” A Sweet hats. Lennie DiMuzio and Leon Chiappini, who is still with the company after 58 years, taught me about great cymbal sounds and what makes a cymbal great. And it was Al Glauben who really taught me the art of cymbal lathing.

You told me previously that the K fans look at you and Zildjian as “keepers of the flame.” Can you give me an example of some ideas you tried and discarded or turned down because they didn’t fit the heritage of the K line?

Craigie Zildjian (Zildjian’s CEO) says that her and her sister (Debbie) and all the employees are stewards of the brand, and that it’s everyone’s responsibility to keep the company successful for the future of drummers and drumming.

I know that the company had prototyped K Zildjians in a platinum finish many, many years before I got into R&D. But the K series is such an iconic line that doing K’s in a finish that was maybe a fad was not something the company was willing to do to such a revered line of cymbals. We try not to go too far afield within the regular K series when adding new models, but some of the newer K ideas will get put into the K Custom series. The Zildjian fans will allow us to take some risks with ideas and are okay with them being called “K Custom.”

There was a period in the ’90s when companies introduced many new lines of cymbals. Why did that slow down in recent years?

I agree there were a lot of new cymbal introductions going on back in the 90’s/early 2000’s. One thing that happened was the dealers couldn’t keep up with all the new ideas coming out of Zildjian and couldn’t stock everything. For a few years we were introducing new cymbal models twice a year. Once in January and then again in July. Right now we stagger the introductions and have enough ideas to keep us going for another ten years!

I love all the cymbals Zildjian is offering right now, from the beginning Planet Z to the high end K Constantinople. Zildjian has always followed the music and work with today’s drummers and create the sounds that they need now to create music. We really have Avedis III to thank for this approach.

What would you say are the key changes in this century in the demand for certain kinds of sounds in cymbals?

In years past if you played pop or rock you used A’s and A Customs; jazz, you played K’s; heavy rock, Z Customs. In this century there are no defined lines of what a drummer will use. The drummers treat all the cymbals in the catalog as colors and are using them as they see fit. No more cymbal series silos!

When you are proposing and prototyping a new model what’s the process for getting it accepted for production? 

We have a great team at Zildjian where we can discuss current or developing musical trends. We then try to address those sound needs through product development. We have a small group of sound experts that evaluate all the prototypes made, whether it’s a new sound idea or a re-design of an existing line. The members of this team come from cymbal testing, R&D, artist relations, and product marketing and represent the bigger organization. Once the Sound Team approves a prototype then it will move forward to being sent to artists for evaluation and then eventually put into production.

Do the cymbal makers in the foundry look to you guys in design and testing for feedback about what they are producing?

Yes, every day. They are always asking how things are sounding and how they are selling. We are a very small factory and we are talking to each other every day.

What’s it like working with a demanding classical percussionist?

Orchestral cymbal players are the most discerning players you can work with. They have very specific sound needs. Sometimes they are looking to reproduce the sound of a very old pair of cymbals that may have gone dead or cracked, because that set of cymbals is an integral part of the orchestra’s sound. They also need to be able to get an instrument where, when played together, the blend is rich and full, and sustains a certain way. Some orchestral cymbal projects have been the most involved and can spend many years in development.

You are given one minute to teach a drummer how to evaluate cymbals. What do you tell him?

All cymbal are crashes and all cymbals are rides, according to Armand Zildjian. Really good cymbals are clean and clear regardless of series and they are not muddy or garbled in sound.

What’s something about Paul Francis that people may not know?

Funnily enough, I make candy as a hobby. Chocolate and Peanut butter fudge, chocolate covered peanut butter balls, chocolate covered cashew/craisin clusters. If you don’t know what a craisin is, it’s like a raisin but made from cranberries. It adds a nice contrast to the chocolate. I also love to read. This year alone I have read 15 books.