Author: Dawson, Michael
Date published: March 1, 2012
The U.K. company Matt Nolan Custom is a one-man operation, which was based in the builder's kitchen for three years before expanding to a separate manufacturing studio in 2008. Nolan is dedicated to creating sound sculptures, gongs, and cymbals-all of which he hammers entirely by hand-using various bronze alloys, stainless steel, and titanium.
These aren't your run-of-the-mill stamped pies, and no two pieces sound or look exactly alike, although, Nolan says, "I've developed a number of cymbal styles that I can reproduce pretty well each time." We were sent a sample of the company's more all-purpose bronze designs-14'' hi-hats ($525), 16'' and 18'' crashes ($300, $390), 20'' Medium ride ($480), and 22'' Medium Dark ride ($575)-which have a sound that, according to their maker, "leans slightly more towards dark, dry, defined, sweet, and smoky."
FROM START TO FINISH
All Matt Nolan Custom bronze cymbals, like those we have for review, begin as rectangular sheets of B5, B7, B8, B10, B15, or B20 alloy. Nolan cuts the sheets to shape, tempers the metal, hammers each piece by hand, and finishes up with an annealing process. "I use a large propane torch and sometimes a large open fire," Matt says. "I have a number of hammers and a few different anvils. There are no molds or presses. Everything-even each cymbal cup-is hand hammered. Shape is judged by eye and by feel. Hi-hats are checked for trueness against a granite slab."
Our review models feature heavy hammer markings, unique-looking bands of scratched grooves and traditional lathing, and a heavily anodized finish, all of which adds up to some of the most distinctive-looking and unconventional-sounding cymbals we've ever come across. As Nolan explains, "The hammering is entirely sonically driven. I need to get a certain shape and tension into the cymbal to produce a certain sound. Surface grinding is more of a visual aesthetic, though it does affect the sound in a subtle way. Lathing is mostly a sonic thing. And almost all of my coloring work is down to the annealing heating. Oxides form naturally on the surface of the bronze, so with a bit of practice you can control the torch to produce what you want."
AVANT-GARDE AND ALL-PURPOSE
Who are these unique instruments meant for? "I make cymbals for the drummer who has a particular ear," Nolan says. The drummer looking for a sound that is perhaps away from the mainstream. A leader, not a follower. With this particular set, we're talking pop, light to medium rock, funk, folk, and modern jazz."
The 14'' hi-hats consist of a heavy, raw, unlathed bottom cymbal and a medium-weight, striated, Saturn-looking top. They had a chunky, wide voice with a deep, pitchy decay and a touch of the trashy sustain you'd find in a stacker or ribbon crasher. They offered a bit of the thick sound you can get by using two heavy bottom cymbals or crashes as hi-hats, but with more sensitivity and control.
The 16'' crash features traditional lathing on the outer edge, with a smoothly ground, anodized surface closer to the bell and scratched rings on the bell. This cymbal sounded bright, clean, and clear, with a laser-like focus. The 18'' crash looks similar to the top hi-hat and had a darker and more complex crash sound that, despite the cymbal's otherworldly appearance, was more traditional and would Integrate seamlessly into a setup of classic Turkish-style models.
The 20'' Medium ride has a mostly raw surface with scratched lathing and varying layers of hammer markings. The 22'' Medium Dark ride has a completely raw surface with large hammer marks covering the entire surface. Both cymbals had a strong stick "ping," making them very articulate. The sustain was dark and shimmering but not overly washy, and the bells were strong and sonorous. Again, despite their unconventional look, these rides sounded "all purpose" for use in a variety of situations, as the company intended. If you're looking for more off-the-wall voices, of course, you can check out some of Nolan's trashier-sounding steel and titanium creations.