Tag: Orchestral Percussion

Premier 701 Vibraphone (part 1) (Job No: 1260)

This whole job is a bit embarrassing, not for me, but for all the other people who have been associated with this instrument before it ended up in my workshop.  Most of all it is embarrassing for the man who bought as a birthday present to his son, discovered a problem with lack of damping, and ten months later the son is nearly another year older!

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I do have the notes and resonators, but as can be seen the damper bar is missing – taken to be repaired.  So the job is to sort out the lack of damping.

The damper bar on these Premier vibes is rubbish and now all the parts are obsolete.  Why anyone would go to the trouble of remaking parts to get a badly designed assembly to work is a mystery to me.  The main problem with the design is the leaf springs which work harden over time and snap like the top of a tin can when you wiggle it to get it off.  I could make new springs in an hour, but why make something that is destined to break?  Furthermore, because I don’t have the original damper bar I don’t know what condition the ball joints are in, or if the bar is straight which are the other major issues.

Immediately when the instrument was delivered I noticed a problem.

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The bottom bar which carries the pedal, and around which the pedal rotates, has been welded to the frame.  How could I resolve any damping problems if I were to ignore the point of operation?  First big question therefore is why the damper bar was removed for repair when the whole instrument should have been taken.

I know why the damper bar was welded into place.  As can be seen from the photo, several attempts have been made to sort the problem.  It’s unbelievably bad and so obvious only someone stupid would have failed to realise that the pedal acts against springs which therefore will try and rotate the tube.  So the two screws in the ends didn’t work because they have created a nice axle.

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The first thing to do is to make a new bar, because the only way to that one off is with an angle grinder.  Because the damper bar and springs slide onto the tube and are riveted in place the ends need to be both the same diameter of the tube and removable.

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I put flats on the under side of these caps which sit on a little square bar welded to the leg frames to stop the rotation.

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Whilst I was welding, I put mounting plates on for the casters – in the picture above it can be seen what the previous person did.

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The damping system will not work if the legs aren’t attached to the top frame or the frame to the note rails.

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The whole thing needed to be removed straightened and refitted, so that the top and bottom are now both solid, all I then had to do was join the two halves, except the holes don’t even line up.

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I think that the owner said that he bought the instrument from a school – I certainly hope that this is not the work of the metal work teacher, but I suspect it is.  As a digression, I applied to do teacher training in the early 2000’s, become a craft and design teacher; I was told that I was under qualified.  You don’t need a bloody degree to make something square!

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That was hot, hard work!  Fire and brawn to pull the thing straight.  The frame that has been built (which actually needs to be binned) is massively heavy 6mm steel!  I would make a shelter out of this stuff and still guarantee it for life.

Finally I can assemble the instrument and begin to look at the actual damper bar which will be in 1260 (pt 2).

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Premier Series 1 timps (part 2) (Job No: 1228)

It is a long time since I wrote part 1.  This is what happens when I don’t get paid; all incentive to do the subsequent jobs fade away.  Then of course when I do finally get paid, the work has to be rescheduled.  In the mean time I have a hundred and one other jobs to do and the weeks roll by.  The other side of not getting paid of course is that I can’t buy food, or pay my bills, but that whole concept fails to register with many of my customers!

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Anyway, I digress (as usual).  So in part one I got to the point where the bases could be welded.  As you can see below, I have totally reformed and trnasformed the under side of the casting.

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Another classic bodge job is just bolting a caster on when the big tilt stem has been lost.  The caster was held on with a 10mm bolt, the hole in the casting for the tilt stem is 19mm.  I find it staggering that anyone would think that that was going to work.

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There is little that I can do with the resulting damage.  Fortunately, the casting is thick and the thread is coarse, so after re-tapping the holes, replacement tilt stems works well.  Easy job really if you have the equipment and the parts.  If you don’t have either, they shouldn’t be doing the job!

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Premier Percussion (Job No: 1259)

When I talk to musicians about Premier Percussion, there is always an emotional response.  Emotional!  Emotions aren’t displayed unless we care about something.  Even the negative responses caused by frustration reveal that there is an underlying attachment beneath.

Maybe it is national pride; maybe the French feel the same way about Bergerault, the Dutch about Adams, the Americans about Musser.  I don’t know (I would like to find out).  But for me it is a desire to see the resurgence of a great musical instrument manufacturer.

Last week I was asked by Premier to listen to their tubular bells.  Of course while I was there, we discussed the timpani which are also made at that site.

As an instrument maker, I understand the difficulties that Premier keep coming up against, and the solutions are often a compromise.  This is the very reason for my visit – does the compromised solution still maintain the quality of the musical instrument?  And that is what Premier Percussion is known for – high quality musical instruments that sound great.

When you go to the supermarket to do your shopping, for years you will have bought the same things every time – the staples.  All of a sudden, they change.  The packaging looks the same, but an ingredient has changed and they taste different.  This is what happens all the time when you buy materials to make instruments.  For every other application the changes are not even noticed, but for musical instruments the difference in sound is massive.

Instrument manufacturers don’t make brass tube, copper sheet, or aluminium ingots.  These are made on a mind boggling scale by a few companies that constantly buy each other out until a monopoly is created and all the materials essentially come from one place.  That factory changes a machine, or the EU change legislation about the use of an ingredient, or the copper ore is mined in a different country, then the very nature of the material has changed.

Furthermore, discovering what has changed and how the problems can be resolved is a massive task in itself with the solutions being hideously expensive.  There is only one supplier now and they hold all the cards.

I fully appreciate that musicians get frustrated when they cannot buy instruments, or there are delays in delivering the goods.  Ultimately, it is out of order, unacceptable, especially if money has already changed hands.  But sometimes problems are unforseen, however I think that a corner has been turned at Premier.

Premier as a company has changed.  They had to change, because the company as it was kept failing.  So now there has been a shift in the way things are done and new people have become involved.  With new people comes new ideas and things start to change.

To say that I was impressed would be an understatement.  It was actually quite nice for me to have a totally geeky conversation with someone else, but besides the results being good and therefore the bells sounding good, it was the positivity and excitement that left its mark.

Now the problems have been all but overcome, let the instruments flow and lets change this ridiculous attitude that balanced action on timpani is a good thing, but that is another story…

Small Bass Drum (Job No: 1257)

It is funny how that what I am repairing goes in cycles; this winter I was doing timps after timps, now it is all vibes and drums. Here is yet another little drum that needs a new head.

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As usual I forgot to take a before shot, but all I have done is put the new skin in the drink and taken the old heads off the drum. This is the old style fittings where both heads pull against each other, so the tension bolts are as long as the drum is deep, and the lugs are little eyes that they pass through.

Now I have the pieces, I cut the split head off its flesh hoop so that I can reuse the hoop, onto which I lapped the new skin. I do this first so that the lapping has a bit of time to dry out.

Next all the metal work, which is nickel plated, gets cleaned up, and the threads degreased. You know how oil can soak into your hands and make them stink, stained, dry and sore? Well the same happens to drum heads, because it is the same stuff (more or less) that we are covered in. DO NOT USE PETROCHEMICAL PRODUCTS ON DRUMS WITH NATURAL HEADS. If you come across a drum smothered in grease – it has been worked on by a moron!

With all the metal work finished, I now turn my attention to the drum shell. The critical part is the bearing edge, so this gets cleaned and lightly sanded, finishing with an almost polished surface. What I am wanting is a nice surface over which the skin will slide; what I don’t want are fibres of wood standing up like little spikes.

So now I have got the bearing edge how I like it, I now seal it to stop water going in and lifting the wood fibres. Candle wax, being made from paraffin which is an extract of oil is exactly what I don’t want to use to seal the bearing edge. Beeswax would be OK, but I use tallow which is a boiled sheep. I rub this into the wood using friction to generate heat enough to melt the tallow so that it can run into all the microscopic gaps in the wood fibres. I go over the drum a second time but also go down the sides a little so that the inside of the flesh hoop doesn’t stick to the drum shell as it dries. Finally I use tallow to lubricate the threads on the tension rods, and where there is metal to metal contact.

With everything clean and slippery, now the easy part – I put the drum head on, and the job is finished.

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Vintage Bass Drum (part 1) (Job No: 1233)

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It seems like I have been occupied taking lots of small steps with large projects recently and have neglected to take photographs and write posts about them. This is one of those jobs that have been on the go for a while.

As can be seen this vintage bass drum has seen better days. There are several aspects that need to be repaired. First on the list to make a new counter hoop to replace the original which is in several pieces and cannot be practicably repaired.

I have never needed to make a counter hoop in wood before, the hoops I make are normally polished stainless steel. This lack of prior experience is never a problem, the reality is that I spend most of my working life going into the unknown, which is how I develop new methods and techniques to constantly improve quality. What I therefore do have is a lot of know how.

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So I started by planing a long board of oak to the depth of the hoop and cutting off a thin strip, in the above picture I am using the thicknessing sander I built to clean up the sides of saw marks and make the width uniform.

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There are two types of jigs or pattern used to make things; internal or external. A pie dish is an external mould. I made an internal mould to prevent the hoop forming below the correct diameter. Then I calculated the circumference which gives me the length of the strip of wood so that I could angle the ends to create a scarf joint.

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The long strip is then steamed (inside a long tube) until it goes floppy, then bent around the mould and clamped in place until the wood has cooled and set. The next day the hoop came out of the mould so that it could dry off for a while.

When oak gets wet, the tannins are pulled out and the surface of the wood (and my hands) get stained black. The moisture will also lift surface fibres. Both issues are resolved by sanding until that surface layer is removed. The final step before varnishing is to create the radiuses on the external edge.

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The next job is to make replacement barrels for the tuning lugs. These are solid with the thread cut into them, so to replicate them it is lathe work: drilling a small pilot hole a long way into a thin rod. This is a heart in the mouth process, if that drill bit snaps inside the rod, then it goes in the scrap bin; obviously there is a hole at either end. Patience, care and feel gets there in the end.

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With the barrels made, they can be sent to be chrome plated. In 1233: (part 2) I will assemble and finish the drum.

Rope Tension Drums (part 3) (Job No: 1249)

In the previous part of this post – 1249: ropey drums (pt2) I was making up new lengths of rope and repairing the buffs, all preparation to do most of the drums.  However I was left with three drums that needed new buffs to be made because I have changed the rope to match all the others in two cases or there were several missing in the third case.

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As you would expect, there were also repairs to be made, whilst the drums were in pieces in my workshop.

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Flesh hoops had to be made the correct size for the heads to be lapped onto.

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But finally, having everything needed and repairs and parts made, I am ready to put new heads on the drums.

The first thing I do is to spray the heads with water to make the skin become soft and pliable.  There are a few reasons for doing this, skin (and wood) are hygroscopic which means that they absorb and release moisture.  If it is cold and dry, our own skin suffers, if we stay in the bath too long it becomes baggy soft and wrinkly.  Therefore we utilise this property to our own advantage.

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First of all by wetting the playing surface (but leaving the lapping dry), the strain is taken off the flesh hoop allowing it to flatten.  When the head is put on the drum, the skin will mould itself to the profile of the bearing creating a good contact.  If this is not done, then the head may buzz in the areas where there is a fraction of a millimeter gap.  Lastly, it can be easily stretched, so that when I put it on the drum, I can pull the skin down the sides of the drum and create a collar.

However, in use, the hygroscopic nature of the skin can be a problem,  well judging on what I see coming in for repair, it is a problem.  Therefore I have written a post in the Every Percussionist Should Know…   series called: …How to look after vellum heads.

Whilst the drum heads are softening, I prepare the bearing edge by lightly sanding it so that all the dirt and proud wood fibres are removed.  I want a nice smooth surface for the head to slide over when it is being tuned.  To further help the head slide, and to prevent it from sticking to the wood (the proteins in skin make exceptionally strong adhesives) I lubricate/seal the surface with tallow.

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Now it is just a case of threading the long bit of rope through the counter hoops and buffs, and tightening it up.

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The drum above is the shell that I painted to make it look, “as natural as possible,” as was the remit.  It has new rope and the new buffs I made above.  To remind yo what it looked like I shall end with a before after picture.

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Rope Tension Drums (part 2) (Job No: 1249)

A lot of rope has now arrived. In 1249: ropey drums (pt1) I started to dismantle and paint stuff whilst the materials I needed were on order.  Now they are here, I can start tackling the pile of drums and try to reduce its height.

When these types of drum are sat on the floor, the rope going around the counter hoop gets abraded.  Obviously this considerably weakens the rope until it snaps, but it also makes getting the rope off the drum all but impossible without cutting it anyway.

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What I get invariably are drums with various types of rope on them.  What I always notice is that some ridiculous made up knot is used to join the rope.  There is a guideline for rope work; “if it looks like shit, it probably is”.

So, what knot should you use?  One of the easiest, the Reef knot.  Used to join dissimilar ropes, also lies flat so it is also used for tying bandages and slings – so everybody should know it!  If you can play a paradiddle, then this knot is similar:

Right over left and under.
Left over right and under.

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Compare the two pictures, and you can see immediately what I mean when I say, “if it looks like shit…”  Without getting too in depth about why, but the reef knot is also a lot stronger, and a lot easier to untie after it has been tensioned.

I often get amused by how many of my life experiences get used in my work.  When I was a boy scout I learnt about knots, we had to know, we built everything we needed when we camped.  Then rope was a tool, and different applications required different knots.  Later as a rock climber I was using knots to protect myself and others, in two instances it was my skill that got fallen climbers off cliff ledges and into the back of ambulances (that makes me feel proud!)  Now I am reminded about all this when I am making drums.

So I will have been about eleven when I learnt to splice a rope, which simply means weaving rope together.  On these drums it is an eye splice that is needed to create a loop for the rope to feed through.

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The splice doubles the thickness of the rope, so it won’t physically go through the hole in the counter hoop.  So a back splice (just folded back on itself) wouldn’t work on the other end.  In order to stop the rope from fraying a whipping is tied.    

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The whipping is very tight, using special thread it actually compresses the rope.  It certainly makes it easier to thread the rope when assembling the drum.

With the rope prepared, the last part of the equation are the buffs or tensioners.  These are tied together with vellum or gut.

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If they are present but broken, I cut a strip of vellum off an old drum head, and repair them.

In the next post, 1249: Ropey Drums (pt3) I might even get around to assembling a drum!

Bergerault Pedal Glock (part 2) (Job No: 1239)

All the metal work needed to stop this Bergerault pedal glock collapsing at every inopportune moment was made in 1239 Bergerault pedal glock (pt 1).

I have a few golden rules when it comes to making and repairing percussion instruments, for instance it has to sound good, work, last, etc. In application I also have considerations to make and using experience I identify and remove potential problems before they happen.

This glockenspiel has two examples, first on the list are rattles.  Has it not dawned on the manufacturers that percussion instruments are played by hitting them, and that due to their very nature of being musical instruments they vibrate.  So anything that can work loose and vibrate will do.  Why on earth then would you choose to use a buckle on a percussion instrument?

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Needless to say, they go in the bin!

The next problem is the damper pedal which just hangs off the end of the connecting rod.  Of course this is fine if the instrument never moves and of course the world has a perfectly flat uniform surface.  The damper bar is sprung, so any movement on the instrument will cause movement in the springs – they bounce.  Low and behold the pedal becomes detached, bits snap off, get bent….

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It is only because I am also a quantum physicist as well as an instrument maker, who does a bit of neuro surgery on the side, that I am capable of coming up with solutions to these problems.  Webbing loops instead of buckles, and I remake the pedal connector with bigger sides so the pull rod cannot come off (which is fine if the instrument always stays set up). 

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With those bits of idiocy resolved, the instrument can be assembled and finished.

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Musser M55 Vibraphone (Job No: 1251)

Of all the vibraphones on the market, this is the one to buy, especially if you want an instrument that you might be able to sell again in the future and get a decent price.

The Musser M55 is the bench mark vibe, when I look at other instruments from different manufacturers, I can see that they have essentially copied this design.

There are however problems with this vibe, mainly down to using poor materials in the frame, but you show me a major manufacturer who doesn’t make frames for percussion instruments as cheaply as possible.

If distributors don’t send me catalogues I am never going to see “new” instruments until they have broken, so consequently I’m not very up to date on Musser’s entire range of vibraphones, but I can’t see any reason to not buy this vibe with no added extras that cost extra money but don’t do anything or work.

Anyway, I last saw this vibraphone when I had a workshop in London, probably around 2003.  This is the players gigging vibe as opposed to the practice instrument at home, and it gets used a lot, but now it needs some attention.

The biggest problem is that the pedal moves all over the place, and as soon as I take a look, I can see why.

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Basically the screw that holds the pedal onto the bottom bar acts like a rasp on the very thin aluminium.  The main issue I have with the way this instrument is built is the thinness of the aluminium.  Structurally it is not up to the job, and this level of wear is a further reason why it is no good.

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What I did was make a new bit to replace the old bit – I have no idea what to call the extra bit of square tube that Musser put on the underside of the main cross bar, the piece that makes the pedal sit at the correct height.  (A classic case of bodging it when you make a mistake on the drawing board, which never gets changed.  I reckon that even Musser believe the excuse for it’s existence – but let’s face it, it’s a cock up!)

So yes, I made a new “bit” and enlarged the holes through where the pedal attaches.  Then I made a nylon insert through which the pedal fixing bolt passes.

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This was made so that it is held in place by the ally plate on top and the “bit” underneath.  Because the nylon is now proud of both surfaces of the cross bar, the pedal rotates silently and smoothly – no metal to metal contact.  The bolt is now supported over its length, so the pedal cannot twist backwards.

I was unwell at the time, so didn’t take enough pictures, because my brain was like custard.  I did find other problems but I will undoubtedly cover them in the future on other vibes.

Rope Tension Drums (Part 1) (Job No: 1249)

I have a big pile of tenor drums, snare drums and field drums to repair.  All have calf skin heads, and are rope tensioned.

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Just like doing the job, it is difficult to decide where to start.  All of the drums have something broken, missing or worn out, so whilst waiting for materials to arrive, I just started doing what I could.

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There are two drums like the one above which I am changing.  The maker has used the wrong type of rope.  These drums are often to be used on stage as a period prop, the rope used is a 16 strand weave which is modern.  I’m not sure what the material is, (I know what it isn’t) but it is thin, course and aggressive (just like me!)  So I can modify the counter hoops to accept the same diametre rope as all the other drums.

There are two drums that require some sort of aesthetic treatment.

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The drum on the left has just been really badly painted, the drum on the right, well it’s just hideous!  Both need to painted so they look more natural – brown then.

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According to the man at the Dulux shop (I only use Dulux oil paints) who has worked there for 22 years, he has never mixed up brown paint.  I’m not surprised, the previous owner of my house liked brown – I have it on all the skirting boards and doors, and yes it does look horrible.  Because of this, there are only three shades to choose from, so I went with hazelnut which was actually the only one close.

To break up the brown and make it look a bit more natural, I used black to replicate knots and grain.

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For now, the paint has to dry, and rope has to arrive, so in 1249: Ropey Drums (pt2) we will see a lot more knots.