This will be the last installment for this Musser M55 vibraphone overhaul. In part one I had a general look at the vibe and worked on the note bed. In part two I did the main structural build. In this part I am essentially doing everything else, and I mean everything!
This seemingly happens a lot with vibraphones. I have said in the past that I think that they are probably the hardest instrument to get working correctly. Oh, it is easy to get them working OK, like most percussion instruments the common conception is that they are simple and therefore easy to repair. Indeed I seem to get comments and requests from people who intend to do precisely that, using my site as an instructional manual. This is totally contrary to the to the consistent message I deliver in the posts and the reason why I write them and make the videos. Obviously this is always going to happen, and there is nothing I can do about it, but it does annoy me somewhat, after all this is my livelihood.
With the frame complete I started looking at the damping mechanism. The little screw above, is one of the main connections on the instrument. The damper system is a fundamental aspect of a vibraphone. Besides the mallets, this is a massive part of player expression, so why am I seemingly on my own when it comes to spending care and time making them work smoothly and silently? I had to re-engineer every single moving component in the damper system.
My best friend thinks that I can be disparaging about the way percussion instruments are made, I guess that he is correct, but what irks me the most is that I am working on supposedly top quality professional instruments sent to me by top professional musicians and orchestras, etc. These instruments are premium products at premium prices, but what I see continuously is a lack of knowledge and skill at the design stage, and penny-pinching in production. Probably the root cause of my outbursts is a frustration with myself for not ever having the time to make a selection of instruments that I can show people – I simply do not have a stock, they are made on commission and then they are gone. The instrument that I haven’t made yet is a vibraphone, and I think that this should be high on my new agenda.
This is déjà vu. Actually I have done it deliberately; sometimes it is nice to work on two identical instruments side by side. However, the job that I have to do is completely different to the other Premier xylophone that I am working on (Job no: 1281). For a start this instrument is almost in one piece!
Unlike the xylophone in Job no: 1281, this instrument lives in cases and is frequently taken out for performances, so portability are versatility are important features that I have to retain in my design solution.
There is often a compromise between weight and strength especially when there is a budget. Unfortunately I do not have the resources or facilities of a Formula One team or Nasa, and I think that most customers would not really want to pay for composite or titanium frames. Aluminium is the option that most manufactures are taking (ignoramacies!). In my view this is the wrong direction; it is like using chocolate to make a tea-pot! Better design is the answer, and accept the fact that percussion instruments are heavy, after all, they are massive. If you want to buy a lightweight aluminium frame that can be carried, then carry it! Don’t put casters on it so that it can be wheeled around. Furthermore, when the aluminium breaks, it is harder to repair. I send aluminium out to be welded; I already spend around £500 a year on renting the bottles of gas I regularly use without needing another one specifically to weld aluminium occasionally.
So I use steel. Steel is strong, steel is cheap, it is easy to work, easy to finish, easy to repair. Steel has a lot of benefits over aluminium, the one downside is that it is heavier. But let’s get our facts right, if I were to hold two bits of tube, one steel, one aluminium, of equal length and equal strength I think that difference between the two would be negligible. Anyway, that’s something for me to find out.
Despite all that, Premier use steel, so that is what I have used to modify this frame. I have also beefed up the design so that the frame is a lot stronger. At the end of the day, it has been given to me because it is broken – the original design failed. Inevitably this means it has put on weight, but I have spent a lot of thought on how to limit it.
It is not uncommon for me to receive an instrument in a pile of bits. This Xylophone made by Premier Percussion typifies the condition of instruments when they arrive.
Whether I am doing a repair, or completely starting again these bits are really important. In this instance, a repair is possible, but the manner in which the frame has collapsed, combined with what the customer requires from the restored instrument gives me an insight as to how I am to do the repair in order for it to survive over the long-term.
One of the many things that I have learnt over the years is never to make assumptions – it is one of my golden rules. Invariably if something I do doesn’t work, when I analyse the reasons why, it is because I have assumed, for example, that the manufacturer will have drilled the holes in the right place. So when I make new frames for instruments, I really do need the instrument.
I used to make up new bottom bars to be fitted to Musser M55 vibraphones, they were made on a jig for consistency and individually checked. They were all good, but the next time I had an M55 in to the workshop requiring one to be fitted, it didn’t work. It was miles out (exaggeration), so I had to make one from scratch anyway. Lesson learned; don’t assume that just because something is mass-produced that it will be the same shape as the next one coming out of the factory.
Premier Percussion generally have higher standards than most using smaller tolerances, but even this xylophone (when assembled) is different to the next job I have to do, which is the same model of xylo. However the two customers have totally different requirements; this customer wants the simplest of frames so that there is nothing to go wrong, so this is what they will get.
The work finally begins! In Part 1 I looked into the problems of the M55 vibraphone in detail. Now I am actually ready to do some work!
It is my opinion that in order to minimise the unwanted noises produced when playing vibraphones, the most import factor in the design of the instrument is its structural rigidity. From this all else follows.
Think about what a vibraphone is and how they are played and work. It is a 3 octave percussion instrument with aluminium note bars laid out flat so that a foot operated damper system can control the sustain of the note bars. Additionally they have a system of opening and closing the resonator tubes which creates the “vibrato” effect. Complicated even to define. For an instrument maker (not a manufacturer – they are not instrument makers in the same way that, for instance, I am) there a several potential problems:
Percussion instruments by definition are struck with mallets, so the frame continually absorbs impacts.
The aluminium bars are heavy and consequently have a lot of inertia. Furthermore musical instruments by definition vibrate, so the frame has to cope structurally over a large frequency range and fixings and fittings are always going to be shaken loose.
The foot operated damping system has linkages and moving parts under tension.
The “vibrato” effect most commonly uses electric motors and rotating butterflies set in the top of amplification tubes.
And I could carry on. When listed like this, it is no wonder really that vibraphones cause a lot of problems. Manufacturers simply don’t understand this, they never see what happens to their instruments over time, and I am convinced that they don’t have the correct skill sets to draw on. If they did, a dullard like me wouldn’t be able to rip their designs apart.
I suppose it all comes down to money. On the one side global vibraphone market isn’t big, we are not talking small car production. So the potential revenue is limited and the competition is large. And on the other side, managing directors want to live in big houses and drive expensive cars, shareholders need their dividends, and workforces want pay rises. So the companies have to continuously grow and increase their profits, something has to give and invariably the wrong decisions are made; the key staff are dispensed with, the products never change, the cost of materials is reduced, the marketing and promotion budget is increased. These high-profile endorsements and collaborations must be expensive!
Please don’t misinterpret me – I think that Musser vibraphones are probably the best buy on the market. The sound is good, the frames are simple and (erm) sort of reliable. The problem is Ludwig/Musser, they are just not very good at making stuff. Yeah, yeah they have, or rather shout about having a reputation for making great instruments, but it doesn’t mean that they are well made. The sorry fact is that most of the drums I see by Ludwig are garbage and sound shit and year after year get more cheap and nasty but with a premium price tag. The same is true of the Musser vibe, they used to be amazing, now they are just the best of a bad lot.
Being realistic, there is a state of over-supply in the global vibraphone market. Everyone thinks that they can make percussion instruments and everyone makes a vibe. People or companies appear out of nowhere and disappear just as quick. Even VanderPlas Baileo has gone bankrupt; I don’t know the reasons but I sympathise with Nico who has been making vibes since the new millennium [see amended comments below]. But let me clear, vibraphones are probably the most difficult of the tuned percussion instruments to make.
This Musser vibraphone was bought second-hand, so the historical usage is unknown, but for the last few years the vibe has predominantly been set up and used in a recording studio. The general condition indicates to me that it has gone from a lounge to a studio, it does not show the signs of being dismantled and assembled all the time and banged in and out the back of vehicles. Neither has it been wheeled around the corridors of music conservatoires. Essentially it has an easy life, but like all vibraphones it has lots of creaks and squeaks which is why the player has been brought it in to me.
The plot thickens in part two
VanderPlas Baileo may well have ceased to exist but instruments designed by Nico VanderPlas are thankfully back in production available from Tal Vibraphones
Musser vibes are the industry standard. I have used the M55 model number because to me they all look the same. Yes sometimes I see gold paint instead of silver, sometimes there are more bits of useless metal getting in the way, but they all work the same. So if it looks like an M55, I call it an M55.
The M55 is a great vibraphone, but like most percussion instruments the design and build quality is sometimes a little dubious. Whilst I have this instrument in my workshop, and before I start doing any work on it, I thought that I would do another buying guide and supplement the first one I did on the Premier 751.
There have been many versions of cymbal cradles over the years. What happens is that a fabricator is given an example to copy, they then modify the design to suit their tooling and style of work. All the old style cymbal cradles have disappear into the ether, so when a new fabricator is needed, the process is repeated with the latest version. It is like chinese whispers and is exactly what has happened with this job!
The cymbal cradles that are available commercially work OK but don’t fit the specifications of my customer. So I have been asked to reproduce some from their existing cradles. Of course I want to make the best product possible, which means listening to what problems musicians experience and coming up with solutions.
The first part of a project like this is to define a starting point from which subsequent alterations can be made. I find that the best way to do this is to make up some jigs so the parts can be replicated consistently.
The prototype will now be put out for testing. When it comes back I will probably have to modify the jigs and make a second prototype which in turn will need to be tested.
So many times I get glockenspiels with a note bar missing and enquiries about the cost of replacement. So many times people are shocked at how expensive glock notes are to be replaced.
My Dad used to drive my Mum up the wall when, for instance, he moaned about the price of restaurants when visiting me in London. My Mum’s philosophy is, that if you want to go to London you will have to eat, so it will cost what it costs. This is the same philosophy that is needed for the missing note bar on that beautiful old case glock. Furthermore Murphy’s Law dictates that the missing note will invariably be the one that is needed.
My blog posts continually demonstrate that jobs are not straight forward when done properly. If you want to replace your glockenspiel note with a shiny bit of metal with a hole drilled in it, I am not your man, there are plenty of pretenders who can do that. But if you want to fill the space in your glockenspiel with a note, then you need an instrument maker to make one and making things takes time.
So what is the difference between “the shiny bit of metal with a hole in it” and a glockenspiel note? Well first of all there is material selection – that bit of steel I used is very good quality high tensile steel which is over 70 years old. You just can’t buy this steel anymore, and this is what gives the note bar sustain. It was then cut to size and a hole drilled into it which is the easy bit. After pre-finishing the bar, I tuned it paying special attention to matching the timbre so that it blended with the adjacent notes. With the note acoustically close to where I want it, the metal is polished and plated. In this case I Nickel plated it so it will age to look like the rest of the instrument, then it got its final tune and was put on the instrument.
Because money is always an issue, I do try very hard to keep costs down. In fact I invest all the time in tools and jigs if they will both increase efficiency and elevate standards. However sometimes I just have to draw the line. My milling machine needs replacing, so thicknessing the metal had to be done by hand. I took about 1mm off, but the finished bar was still higher than the others, but it would have taken ages to get it exact.
Compromises aside, there is an argument for keeping repairs and replacements visible. I never worry too much about getting things absolutely identical. For instance, the pitch marking is different, but who cares? For me the main thing is the musicality, making it sound like the original.
There are a lot of vibraphones coming through my workshop at the moment, including the Premier 751. In fact, when I pause to think about it, I seem to have been working continuously on various aspects of the Premier vibraphones for nearly a year now. Whether I have been developing moulds for reproducing the rubber parts, making jigs for the metal components, or working on whole new assemblies, there always seems to be something going on with these vibes.
What I find is that work comes in waves; for months all I seem to have worked on are vibes, before that I just seemed to be doing timpani, then I had three sets of tubular bells in a row… So this is what has happened, and the result is that my stock of parts is being used up. I keep stating that these parts are obsolete because the instrument isn’t produced any more, so now I have been forced to come up with alternative solutions which all take a lot of time over prolonged periods.
Instead of focusing on particular details, with this post I decided to give more of an overview of the work I do. What you will see in the video is that jobs are never as straight forward as you would think, and soon I find myself surrounded by bits…
It is a rarity for me to work on location, but sometimes it is just not practical to remove and return a whole instrument.
This xylophone needed some note pegs replacing, so whilst I was in London collecting and delivering other work, I took the opportunity to repair it.