The Zildjian story mesmerized me. Turkish alchemist invents ringing metal while searching for gold. 300 years of development, and a major continent shift brings the company into the present day, where they firmly hold a seat as the elite cymbal producer in the world.
Walking through their headquarters, I noticed a famous drum set, picture, or cymbal in every corner. I felt a bit uneducated, wishing I knew who these musical stars were. Though, my lack of excitement was offset by the glee of the couple dozen Berklee Music students happily prancing through the place. The halls echoed with the talented students’ drum beats, cymbals crashing in all directions. I merged into the group as they entered the manufacturing floor. Our tour was led by Jeff, a 20 year veteran of cymbal testing. It is unlikely that I’ve met a man with a more highly trained ear. He seemingly knew everything, catering to my engineering focused questions as well as the Berklee students music based ones.
We walked by a closed garage door, with an ominous red light guarding the entrance. This room, which only four total trusted experts could enter, contained the entirety of Zildjian’s intellectual property. Apparently, the cymbals’ magic ring stemmed from a secret melting process, which produced discus shipped ingots that already rang when stuck. Top Secret. No entry. The tour included few remaining manufacturing steps that required human dexterity. Most steps were done by machine. Huge 2 ton presses, hammer robots, and quenching systems did the brunt of the work. However, the final lathing was done by hand. Gloved seasoned veterans approached a spinning cymbal with a blade, shaving off the final millimeters of materials. One slip could gauge a hole. But still, this precision lathe work was done by hand, hopefully by a technician who wasn’t over caffeinated. I wonder how long until this step takes the path of others and is automated.
Soon, we entered a quieter room, the official sound test room. No previous manufacturing step required sound quality control. It was here that Zildjian’s four trained ears worked their magic. It takes over ten years of apprenticeship to become one of these testers, training your ear to judge quality on Zildjian’s hundreds of products. Jeff walked us through a test on a typical cymbal: three quick hits with a drum stick at the cymbal bell, mid section, and edge gave him all the information he needed. Two seconds per cymbal. He’d have no time to wait for a full crash, dampening the cymbal with his hand, before moving on to the next one. He gleefully answered my questions, and must have assumed I was another Berklee student who happened to have a keen interest in sound testing. He talked me through the difference between a good cymbal and a bad one, saying “Can’t you hear the growl in the reject?” All of the Berklee students smiled and nodded. I lied, and nodded too, though my untrained ears had given me no insight into the sound difference.
As the tour finished up, I walked over to thank Jeff. I am always drawn to experts who exhibit an enthusiasm for their art, and Jeff was a prime example. As we chatted, I introduced myself as ‘Sam the Engineer, not a student of Music’. Long pause, as his demeanor changed dramatically. He slowly turned his head to meet my gaze. He furled his brow. “This is an Art. You will never be able to do what I do. Don’t even try.” He paused again to stare into my eyes. Then, turned and walked away.
I was shattered. My eyes began to unconsensually tear. I had approached this man, hoping only for glimpse into his mind, and to share the camaraderie of two technically minded men chatting about passions. Instead, I walked away, alone. To this man, whose respect I craved, I am the enemy. My mind raced to all of the things I wished to tell him. But no further communication would occur. The line was severed.
Truthfully, I want to build technologies to help this man. He believes I want to make him disposable. On the tour, he complained of long days, where his team needed to test thousands of cymbals. 8am to 5pm, constantly listening hitting and evaluating cymbals. If I could give him a tool that allowed him to only test one percent of cymbals it could change his role substantially, helping him to focus on the creative and nuanced aspects of cymbal design, as opposed to the repetitive task of large scale testing. Focusing on new product design, and new test procedures.
I can paint a good justification story, but I don’t know if I am in the right. From an economic standpoint, it seems cut and dry, but, there is much more that goes into a decision. For 20 years, Jeff has deservedly prided himself in his work. Of course he sees me as the devil.
Header photo © abine.com