The Subtleties of Cymbals

Alumnus Paul Francis brings new sounds to an ancient craft

Francis, holding an unfinished K Constantinople cymbal, which is part of a series of cymbals that he designed with Armand Zildjian.

Crashes that cut like glass. A nice bright ping on the ride. For the uninitiated, such phrases might sound nonsensical. For Paul Francis (CPS ’07), they are terms of art.

“We get teased quite a bit that when we describe cymbals, it’s like we’re describing wine,” says Director of Cymbal Innovation Paul Francis, at the legendary cymbal maker Avedis Zildjian Company in Norwell, Mass. “We want to be sure that it’s balanced, that it has a full body. It could be dark, it could be bright. You want pure tones. You don’t want out-of-phase frequencies. When drummers talk to us, we know exactly what they’re saying.”

Francis began his own training as a drummer at 10 years old. Though he wasn’t able to afford a professional kit until years later, he was always attuned to the sound of cymbals.

“If you were to look at some of the pictures from high school,” he says, “my cymbals would cost more than the rest of the drum set. The cymbals really color the drum set. It’s the accents. It’s the exclamation points. I always had professional-series cymbals.”

After his graduation from Quincy High in 1986, Francis dreamed of fame and fortune as a professional musician. He studied briefly at Berklee College of Music, earned a certificate in drumming at New York City’s Drummers Collective, and then headed back to Boston, where he moved home and began to confront the stark realities of trying to earn a living as a gigging drummer.  

His parents were supportive, but also practical, and they insisted that he find a day job. He landed an interview at Zildjian through his drumming teacher in 1989 and soon shoehorned his way into an entry-level position that had him sweeping the factory floor and hanging Christmas decorations in the front office lobby.

For a young drummer, Francis says, working at Zildjian was “much like being Charlie in Willy Wonka’s candy factory.” His enthusiasm and hard work impressed the bosses, and within a month he had begun to train as a lathe operator, using carbide cutting tools to shave material from each cast-metal discus until it reached the target weight for the cymbal it would become. For the next seven years, he honed his skill at lathing, the most difficult process in cymbal making, and in 1995 he was promoted to research and development technician, developing new cymbals for artists and the marketplace.

Making great cymbals, Francis says, is as much art as science. At Zildjian it started as a form of magic. According to the company’s website, Avedis Zildjian was “an Armenian alchemist in the city of Constantinople in the early 17th century. While attempting to create gold by combining base metals, he discovered an alloy of copper, tin, and traces of silver with unique sound qualities.” 

Sustaining that tradition is part of Francis’s job. Following his 1995 promotion, he apprenticed under Armand Zildjian, then president of the company, who had learned the craft from his father, Avedis Zildjian III. 

Under Armand’s tutelage, Francis became a master. Before Armand’s death in 2002, the two worked together to develop an array of Zildjian products including K Constantinople Orchestral and drumset cymbals, A Zildjian & Cie Vintage series and the A Zildjian 15” Sweet hats and 21” Sweet Ride. But there was much more to come.

“One day,” Francis says, “I got called up from the factory to one of the conference rooms. The vice president of manufacturing was there, the Zildjians were there, and my direct boss was there. I was thinking, ‘uh-oh, I must be in trouble.’” 

Instead of a reprimand, they offered Francis the opportunity to continue his education. Soon he was enrolled in evening classes at Northeastern’s Lowell Institute School and on his way to a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering technology. He was also learning that returning to school as an adult was not without its challenges.

“In the beginning it was very scary,” Francis says. “I hadn’t taken a math or science class for many, many years.”

Some of those early nerves settled as he began to form bonds with his peers, many of whom were, like him, professionals earning degrees related to the fields in which they worked. In study groups at Snell Library, they would meet to work out problems and help each other understand the course material. Under the pressure of learning a new discipline, lasting connections were forged. “I have some lifelong friends because of Northeastern,” Francis says.

Still, there were times when he thought he might not make it.

“I ran into some trouble my first semester with pre-calculus and was going to quit school,” he says. “I just didn’t get it. I was getting tests back with grades of 40 and 50. I just could not wrap my head around that material.”

His wife suggested he seek help from his professor outside of class, and he followed her advice. During office hours, and in the teachers’ lounge before class, Francis turned problems over and over with instructors who, he says “just wanted you to learn.”

The persistence paid off, and Francis was particularly proud that his mother, his wife, and two of his three children were able to attend his 2007 graduation. Promotions followed at work, and in 2017 he returned to Northeastern to present a speech at a scholarship reception. Addressing current students at the college, he reflected on his own experience and offered some words of encouragement. “Especially for night students,” he says, “it’s tough. I was raising a family and working 50, 60, 70 hours a week. The only thing that I can say is, and it’s in that speech: Don’t stop. Just keep going. It’s worth it.”

His employer agrees. Craigie Zildjian, Armand Zildjian’s daughter and the company’s president and chair of its board of directors, says Francis is an essential member of the Zildjian team.

“My father devoted the last ten years of his life to achieving his succession plan,” she says. “In working closely with Paul Francis, Armand provided us with a seamless transition and an even more ambitious level of product innovation for the future.”