I have to make a replacement glockenspiel note bar to fill the gap in an instrument where a note has been lost. What happens is that the pin that holds the note in place and on the instrument has pulled out and the note bar has disappeared into the ether.
Almost uniquely, Premier Percussion spent a tiny percentage of the potential profit margin on the glockenspiels that they produced on nails with a twisted shank that hold the note bars in place. This incredible phenomenon meant that the nails were less likely to pull out. It is a shame that they used the cheapest wood available for the frame, otherwise their idea would probably have worked.
Maybe it is extravagant, but personally I just use screws, but then the frames that I make are made of hardwood, typically oak now for aesthetics, but I used to also use hornbeam and ash. Because the oak is a lot harder than the softwoods that are almost universally used in the frames produced by the big manufacturers, even if the holes were pre-drilled using nails would probably split the narrow note rails. If the holes were slightly bigger to prevent splitting, the smooth shank on the nail would be able to go in easier, but it would also pull out easier. Screws on the other hand have the fluting that cuts into the wood, the pilot hole is the size of the shank to prevent splitting and it is strong in the direction it is loaded. Finally I can adjust the height of the screw incredibly accurately on a note by note basis, where as a nail would have to be pressed in to achieve uniform height. All in all, I think it is worth spending the extra 20 pence on screws!
Same picture, same drums, but this time I am doing the work on them.
When I overhaul a set of timpani, there is a lot of work involved over a period of days or even weeks. My approach is to fix everything properly; I am after all a professional and that is what I am being paid to do. So I am fixing problems associated with the usual wear and tear, as well as “the dogs dinner” that the previous person made of the job. The posts on timpani pick out examples of problems I encounter, rather than me filming and writing, and you watching and reading the same thing every time. For the same reasons I have coloured this introductory text blue (aren’t I thoughtful!)
Commonly timpani use three points of contact with the floor (so they don’t wobble), with two wheels at the back and the pedal at the front, with the aluminium casting under the pedal sitting on the floor. As the drums are moved around, the aluminium foot at the front suffers from abrasion until they are completely worn away. This is a problem that I often have to resolve, but the biggest “problem” is reversing the shit solutions that other people have created to repair them! So in this case the “dogs dinner” was how the toes were repaired. Whatever the pads or heel blocks were made of was not the problem, it is those damn screws that were used to fix them in place.
As can be seen below, my ingenious solution of simply welding another bit of aluminium on even looks like it will last, especially in this raw state.
The source of the problem is that aluminium is so soft. It is also lightweight which is why most timpani chassis are made using aluminium castings. On a practical note it is a horrible material to work with, clogging up all my saw blades, files and abrasives like treacle tart. But because it is so soft and wears away maybe it isn’t the best material to use as a wear point. It is all about instrument design again – or the lack of it.
The conclusion of this repair is covered in Job No: 1357 part 2
Premier Percussion are (often and somewhat unfairly) much maligned due to problems behind the scenes and some dubious decisions on product development. However Premier timpani are good kettle drums. When I look at the state of some kettle drums that come in to be repaired, I can honestly say that if they were made by any other manufacturer, they simply wouldn’t be working.
It is a testament to the original design that although the drums have been developed over the years, despite the obvious and cosmetic changes, the mechanisms have largely remained unchanged. There has been development on the mechanism, which has on the whole made them even more reliable.
There is one main Achiles heel which I explain in how to release a jammed pedal on Premier timps, other than that they are very robust.
Musical appreciation is subjective, Premier drums have a “sound” which you either like or you don’t, but my thought process is who are most likely to buy drums like these, especially with glass fibre bowls? My answer is the education market, schools, colleges, music centres, etc. Now the glass fibre bowls are no way near as good as the copper bowls, but they are a lot lighter. So if you need a set of timpani for children to move around, crashing into walls and doors, do yourself a favour just buy Premier now so that you won’t have to go through the process again in a few years when you have to replace your shiny dutch crap!
Sometimes everything just has to stop. In order to make progress, often prior consolidation is required. I have just had another period of consolidation, that is where I have been, what I have been doing.
There are so many pressures from so many directions when you run your own business that sometimes, to me, it feels like I am on a conveyor belt. Everyday answering emails, doing paperwork, working on instruments, ordering parts, going to suppliers, etc, etc. But it is also fantastic being your own boss, the diversity and endless stream of work makes it constantly interesting and challenging. This contradiction is just me and how I deal with the stress, sometimes I am compressed, at other times I am exuberant.
When I look at my business and how I run it, what I see happening is time going by very quickly and not much progress in the bigger picture. This is because I am more than fully occupied in the day-to-day management. This is something that I have changed this year, one day a week is spent moving in the right direction to achieve these long-term goals, but sometimes everything just has to stop. It is the only way that I can actually fully devote the time to making the necessary changes to the workshop infrastructure. For instance, my workbench…
As I intimated in the video, I actually had/have pressing reasons to stop everything and build the bench; not only do I need the organised storage for efficiency and space, primarily I need the bench so that I can do some work!
What I didn’t really mention is that in order to efficiently make the bench, work on various long overdue jobs, and make progress in the bigger picture, I have also invested a lot of time and money into machinery and jigs. All of the things that I invest in have to be assembled, set up correctly or even repaired if I buy them second-hand (which I predominantly do) and in the case of the table saw, this process is so complicated it took me two and a half days! Of course after I have got the things working properly I need to practice using them before I start working on your instruments, and this is another reason why I chose now to build my bench.
And hallelujah! What a difference it is already making. Once again I have a massive long work surface. Although it is certainly not finished, I have already been taking full advantage of it.
With the new, simplified trolley built in part one and away being painted, I turned my attentions to repairing the note bed of this Premier Xylophone. Obviously it is a good excuse to get out my longest clamps!
What I didn’t say in the video is that the pegs were originally glued in with a clear silicon. I have seen this technique used before, and really don’t understand why. If you have used it to seal around window panes, bath panels, or the kitchen sink, you will understand that the real reasons are that it is really cheap, comes in a well designed tube so that it can get into awkward corners and stays wet in that tube for a long time. This is useful in a factory, it means that the lid can be left off overnight without the glue spoiling.
However what I don’t understand, and maybe I need to mull it over more, is why silicon sealant would be used to secure a structural joint. Surely the very same attributes that make it perfect for bathrooms – water-resistant, flexible, gap filling and slow cure, make it the worst choice for musical instrument manufacture, furthermore it will absorb vibrations and deaden resonance. Did I mention that it is gap filling and you can leave the lid off overnight?
The problem for me of course is that I have to remove all the silicon goo because nothing else will stick to it.
I do use synthetic glues, they are great in the right place, easy to use, easy to clean off the excess, good shelf life, etc. But more and more I choose to use animal glue, after all it has all the same attributes whilst using it and it is exceptionally strong. It is not water-resistant, but that means it is easy to un-glue something, so for me the only down side is that it takes longer to use. Even then it only takes longer if you forget to warm it up before you need it and have to wait; what a disaster you have to make a cup of tea.
There is not very much left to do on this Premier xylophone since the vast majority of the work was modifying the metal trolley which was shown in part one. As with most instruments, finishing (by which I mean applying a finish, paint, varnish, polish, etc) happens towards the end of the process. I suppose it is like decorating a room in your house, there is a lot of preparatory work then the final coat goes on and everything comes together.
However unlike decorating, applying a finish to an instrument is not finishing an instrument. The final process is what is setting it up. On a xylophone this is straight forward, simply a matter tweaking note pegs, whereas on a timpani the set up is most of the job, the repair often being a minor element.
Along with tweaking note pegs there is invariably some fragging to be done, some cleaning, and checking the bits I haven’t looked at, in this case the resonators. Making sure the instrument works properly and is ready to be returned to the customer.
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!