Category: Vibraphones

Musser M55 Refurbishment (Job No: 1410)

Originally this vibraphone had a “field frame” which is one of those massive bloody things with huge wheels that Musser created for the farming community. In true entrepreneurial style some clever person at Musser discovered that literally millions of farmers worldwide get so bored when ploughing their fields that they often feel the urge to learn a musical instrument, so why not the vibraphone? Hence the field frame was developed by Musser and I threw it in the bin as crap.


Premier 701 Vibraphone Overhaul (Job No: 1351)

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This is the second of the three Premier 701 vibraphones that I am simultaneously working on and is therefore episode two in the, “aging Premier vibes” mini series. If this blog determined what I do in my workshop, the first episode would be the last in the series as it is the youngest of the three vibes. However that is not how it happens, so this vibraphone is actually the oldest of the three.

The most obvious aesthetic difference of this vibe compared to the other two is that at this time Premier were still polishing the resonators. The motor unit has changed, gone is the two cone gearbox design with the push/pull rod that to change the speed (the gearbox that was forever breaking) replaced by a three stage pulley.

As intimated, losing the gearbox was probably done for reliability but we do start to see the introduction of cost savings and the loss of the gearbox would almost certainly have saved Premier a bob or two.

The external note rails were still being polished, but the inner two are now being painted. However the rest of the components are from the original patterns: black balls in the damper bar, white end pegs, and chunky fanshaft bushes.

When I overhaul vibraphones, my approach is to fix everything that I find wrong, striving to make the instrument better than it has ever been. This process takes time, sometimes even months of work as I deal with a long list of minutia. In an attempt to avoid repetition (although that is inevitable), I try to pick the pertinent aspects of the repair 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!)


This Vibraphone is generally tired, after all it is getting old. As I well know, once you pass thirty your body starts to acquire various aches and pains, now passed forty I am well aware that my body just doesn’t work as well as it did. This vibe is older than me, so it is no wonder that it is falling apart.

As you know I started working on all the resonators which is mainly a job of cleaning up and replacing loose rivets, but there can be issues as seen in (Job No: 1354). On that instrument the whole row of tubes were out of alignment, whereas on this instrument the damage to one of the tubes was just cosmetic.

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Premier 701 Vibraphone Repair (Job No: 1354)

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Premier updated the 700 series vibraphone to the 701 series in 1963. There is no further differentiation in terms of model and serial numbers to go on to help determine the age of an instrument. Old spare parts manuals do provide a guide and put a time period around the type of motor used. However the problem is that Premier went through a development period where several different systems were employed, more than listed in the parts manuals.

I have three vibes in for repair, so I have taken the opportunity to look at the development of Premier’s vibraphone as well as discussing the repairs. Therefore this is the first of mini series, “Aging Premier Vibes”.

When I overhaul vibraphones, my approach is to fix everything that I find wrong, striving to make the instrument better than it has ever been. This process takes time, sometimes even months of work as I deal with a long list of minutia. In an attempt to avoid repetition (although that is inevitable), I try to pick the pertinent aspects of the repair 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!)


The biggest problem that I have to fix on this vibraphone is the bent note rail. Premier 700 series vibraphones are meant to be packed away and carried from place to place. They are very good at being portable, in fact they are probably the most portable whilst still being easy to assemble. What they are not good at is being wheeled around whilst set up because they simply aren’t strong enough. The most common way that the note rails bend is downwards, caused by thoughtless dick heads who use the instrument as a convenient trolley to carry heavy objects like amplifiers. I have even seen them used as a bench for kids! In this instance there has been an impact from the side which has caused the bend.

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Musser M55 Vibraphone (Part 3) (Job No: 1321)

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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.

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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.

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Musser M55 Vibe Repair part 2 (Job no: 1321)

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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!


Musser M55 Vibraphone repair part 1 (Job no: 1321)

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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

Additional Comment
VanderPlas Baileo may well have ceased to exist but instruments designed by Nico VanderPlas are thankfully back in production available from Tal Vibraphones

Premier 751 Vibraphone (Job No: 1327)

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…


Premier 700 Vibraphone (Job No: 1227)

There has been a little discussion on another blog post regarding the note pegs on this vibraphone, so I thought that it was about time that I wrote up the work I did to the last Premier 700 series vibraphone that came through my workshop.

Premier made the 700 series vibraphone from 1947 – 61, then updated the frame calling it the 701 from 1961 – 79. So I was 5 when the latest version of the Premier vibe was made, which is why I am slightly confused as to exactly what model this vibe is. Confusion is my normal state especially when it comes to Premier’s instruments, this looks like a 700 series, but with a new (at the time) pedal system. The 700 had a damper system with a central pull rod and a small toe pedal, whereas the 701 has the long pedal. However I can’t remember how the top frame worked on the last 700 (with centre pull) I worked on, I think it was like this instrument.

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Although these weren’t the first vibraphone that Premier made, they are very old now.  This is not a bad thing, especially with vibraphones.  This is because of the aluminium that the notes are made from simply isn’t available now.  The two aspects of the material that have changed are, the recipe/purity of the alloy that is used and the treatment process it is subjected to.  Material science has moved on since the days when these instruments were made, and newer materials with more desirable properties to wider industry have been developed resulting in a lot of aluminium alloys and treatment process becoming obsolete.  Like most scenarios, what is good for the major consumers of materials is bad for musical applications.

So the note bars are great, but what is not so great about these 700 series vibes is just about everything else.  To make matters more difficult to discuss, like a lot of manufacturers during this period, instruments were being continually developed.  So there are several different versions of the 700 series which eventually became the 701/751 which in turn went through several versions.  This evolution of instruments at Premier slowed down in the 1980s and eventually stopped in the early 1990s, obviously due to the key personnel leaving or retiring, and resulted in Premier’s orchestral range becoming dated which is a great shame, but that is progress, ultimately only the companies that specialise in selling high quantities of low quality instruments survive.  When will we ever learn?

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Anyway I digress as per usual.

The problems with these vibraphones is in the nature of how they are assembled and disassembled.  I still don’t really know the best way to go about it.  The central two note rails and the damper bar comprise one unit which is attached either end of both rails to the leg frames with four wing screws.  The same method is used to attach the outer two note rails, whereas the damper pedal is located on two plastic pegs and secured with “J” bolts as per the later vibes.  The challenge is to assemble the instrument out of all the components by yourself, if you succeed give yourself a pat on the back, you are better practised than I.  It is only after all the rails are in that everything can be tightened and the frame becomes more rigid, before that point the instrument is liable to collapse at any given moment.  If you try and cheat by tightening the screws too early you physically can’t get the other rails into the gap.  After the square is secure it is simple to fix the resonators with their diagonal braces, which ironically make the 700 series vibe more stable than the 751 series.  It is at this point that you will realise that you forgot to put the vibe belts around the inner two note rails, and you have to walk away, make a cup of tea and regroup.

Obviously there is nothing that I can do to repair the inherent design flaws and the subsequent frustrations incurred, my job is to make the instrument playable.  In order to play the instruments the notes need to be suspended off the frame, and this is another case of those perishing rubber note pegs. As can be seen from the photograph above, the rubber note pegs on this vibe are organised in pairs. The reasons for the rubber perishing is discussed in 1264: Premier Vibe Note Pegs, the approach to the repair on this vibe is also essentially the same, and indeed I did the two instruments concurrently. The main difference being that I made only one mould for each rail I needed to work on because these vibes come in to be repaired so infrequently. Typically, I now have more enquiries so I should have made more and not just thought of myself!

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(Photographic evidence that the instrument can indeed stand upright with only three note rails attached!)

The rest of the instrument, in terms of the overhaul, is very similar to all the other Premier vibraphones I seem to have been working on this year. The damper bar is the same as later models, as is the damper pedal with the exception that the 751 series vibraphones have two connecting rods which is preferable to the one that was on this 700 vibe. Had I had all the spare parts available, I would have modified this vibe to include that second connecting rod, but I didn’t, so I didn’t. The omission is not disastrous, just not ideal. When there is only one connecting rod, there is an inbalance in the damping system whereby the end without the connecting rod has a certain level of ambiguity in the damping. The ramifications are that I had to set the instrument up less precisely than I normal like to do. In normal circumstances I set the vibraphones up so that I can make the transition between fully damped/pedal up to fully open/pedal down within the flexure of my toes. On this instrument the ankle has to be used also.

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Of course a vibraphone made in the 1950/60’s will have no consideration to electrical safety. As can be seen, the flex has been condemned by someone who quite rightly cut it off, it is the old cloth wound flex after all. I updated the wiring to use an IEC15 plug and socket after determining that the motor did indeed still work even after all these years, and it passed the PAT test.

With the notes cleaned and re-strung, the resonators and butterflies serviced and cleaned, the end result is a nice, tidy, fully working instrument which sounded great.

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Premier 751 Vibraphone (part 2) (Job No: 1279)

This Premier 751 Vibraphone is one of those instruments that seemed to have everything wrong with it; the frame was out of shape, major elements like the damper system were broken, and the motor was hanging off.  In 1279: Premier 751 vibe (pt 1) I discussed the structural work that I have done, starting from the ground up, and ending with the commencement of a new damper system.

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Most of the work in making a new damper system is in the set up, by which I mean how this intrinsically simple system is fitted to the instrument. This is discussed in greater detail in 1260: Premier 701 vibe (pt 2) and it can be seen that I take great care in ensuring that everything is set parallel so that when the damper is used, it rotates freely around its fulcrum points. In reality, because I do not compromise on the quality of materials, the felt I use is of exceptional quality and soft enough to compress around any localised discrepancies. Therefore ironically I have more leeway in the set up of the damper bar, but I cannot guarantee that the same felt will be used from now on, and if a job is worth doing, do it properly. Of primary importance is how the bar makes contact with the underside of the note bars, this is it’s function after all; it needs to be simultaneous across the entire range (left to right or up and down the vibe) as well as between the naturals and accidentals (front to back). So as well as getting everything mechanically efficient, it is this element that I want to get right. I have only ever seen an adjustable system on an Adams vibraphone, and it struck me as a very good idea, especially considering their history of inaccuracy when mass producing components; needless to say despite their system being adjustable, no one had set it up properly before I finally got hold of it, but that is a question of mass produced instruments being assembled by minimum wage factory workers.

The final part of the damper system is joining it to the pedal. In the photograph above I have dropped plumb lines down so that I can mark where, along the damper bar, I want the connections placed. This is an example as to why, when I built the workshop, I put a raised floor in. Besides the added comfort of standing all day on a wooden floor, as opposed to the great discomfort (and harm) from standing on concrete, installing a floor meant that I could get the whole area perfectly flat using a laser level. With a horizontal surface to work off, I know that every time I drop a plumb line down off an instrument, it will be perpendicular to the floor. In practice this means that the two rods that pull the damper are now both pulling at the same rate in the same direction – this is so difficult to achieve that most manufacturers opted to have one pull rod and a central pedal.

I suppose the big question is why do I bother? There are several perspectives to the answer. A vibraphone player generally has an indirect contact with the instrument, they use mallets or bows to generate the sound. To control the sustain and decay on (and in) the whole they rely on a mechanical system. It is my task to give them the very best tools to do their job, so I want the damper system to be expressive as possible and I want consistency across every note. When I say this is my job, it seems blindingly obvious why I go to great lengths to get things perfect. The counter is also true: if a vibraphone does not have this done by a maker or repairer, then they are not doing their job. Furthermore, it is in my nature to be extremely particular and exacting, which why I became an instrument maker, but despite the lack of financial reward the main rewards are in job satisfaction. Over time, to achieve the same level of job satisfaction and therefore reward, I have to aim higher and higher and only my very best work gives that satisfaction. Consequently I always do my best, still living to the Scout promise after all these years!

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Whilst I was working on this vibe, I use the opportunity to try out my moulding system for replacing the note pegs. There are more details on this kit in 1264: Premier Vibe Note Pegs. There was also a new motor system fitted (1101: Premier vibe motor conversion) and some new alternative spare parts that I have made. In the photograph below the motor speed control can be seen tucked away inside the top transom, and two new note cord hoop mouldings. The Two cord hoop mouldings I have made in bronze as opposed to plastic, so I will be very surprised if they ever break again. They are a little bit more expensive than the originals were, but the originals are obsolete and I have run out, but my replacements are far superior, but it is the unit cost which has prevented me from replacing all of them.

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Deagan Aurora (part 3) (Job No: 1256)

It can be seen that I tend to employ a systematic approach to overhauling percussion instruments, and vibraphones in particular typify my methods.  Sometimes I deviate from the logical order of doing things, so in 1256: Deagan Aurora (pt 1) I looked at the damper system and in 1256: Deagan Aurora (pt 2) I looked at the whole frame.  This was just because of the way my working week fell – it was Friday late morning when I started looking at this vibraphone, and I didn’t want to immerse myself into a new project only to have to break off immediately, so I removed what I thought would have been a small element.  Anyway in this post I hope to finish the instrument by looking at the final three elements: the resonators, motor and notes.

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In the photograph above, the resonators on the left have yet to be done, whereas the resonators on the right are complete.  What doesn’t come out so well in the photos is just how dirty these resonators were.  Thankfully it was a nice summer day, so I sat outside with a bucket of hot soapy water and literally scrubbed them until they were clean, whilst hosing off the filth periodically to prevent it from baking back on.  And that was just the tubes.

The important thing about vibraphone resonators are the butterfly valves that rotate, opening and closing the tube.  The tube, as the name implies, is simply an acoustic chamber that resonates in sympathy with the second harmonic of the note under which it is hung.  As the butterfly valve is rotated it opens and closes this acoustic chamber so it cycles through being activated and therefore heard, then not.  This is what give the vibraphone its sound and presumably its name; although the name is misleading because I have no idea what the “vibra” stands for, because it is not vibrato.  It should be called an Oscillating Amplitude (Second Harmonic) Metalaphone which would have been way more cool.  Of course I could be showing my ignorance and the “vibra” could be an aspect of the inventors name as in Adolf Sax.

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The butterflies are attached to a fan shaft which runs down the length of the resonator tubes, and this shaft is driven typically by a belt connected to a motor via pulley wheels. There are other designs, but they are just marketing gimmicks that add needless complication into a simple and efficient system and demonstrate (to me) complete ignorance of the principles of mechanical engineering, a misunderstanding of the acoustics, a lack of consideration for the gigging musician, or a combination of all three. This design works, it has always worked; it is simple, rarely goes wrong, and is quick and easy to set up when assembling the instrument. I never understand why manufacturers can be bothered to put effort into developing an alternative system that ultimately is worse than the starting point unless it is simply to give them something to talk about when they are trying to sell the instruments. My “USP” is that it sounds good, oh and it has a life time guarantee.

Because the fan shaft is so long, it needs to be supported, certainly at either end, but also in one or two other places. It is these supporting bushes that introduce noise into the system, and of course that noise is amplified through the resonator tubes. I often have to make up new bushes to replace parts that are damaged or simply missing as was the case on this Deagan vibraphone.

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All of this cleaning, making parts, repairing and polishing fan shafts, aligning, etc all takes time time, and unfortunately there really is no short cut; cutting corners results in a noisy system. So after all of this work, the next stage is the motor. This is where things went wrong for me. The problem is that I am damned if I do and damned if I don’t. Because the motors are generally very old, they are really dirty and essentially operating under a 15 tog duvet of dust which means that everything gets very hot – not good. However, because everything has been getting very hot for a very long time, all the wires are extremely brittle and on the very edge of breaking down – also not good. So if I leave things alone the motor will fail and if I try and clean and service it, the motor could fail. The final element is the wiring; because the motors are invariably very old, health and safety simply was not even taken into consideration. Today things are different, I simply cannot let an electric appliance leave my workshop if I know it to be unsafe – regardless of legislation on a personal level I will not let people expose themselves to life threatening dangers in ignorance. However there is legislation and appliances need to be inspected by a qualified person, and if the wiring is dangerous, then it fails the test and legally cannot be allowed to be used.

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So all I did was to put on a strain relief system. This meant desoldering wires, threading new cables through and reconnecting. After my intention was to blank off the exposed components. This minor bit of work introduced an inconsistent fault, which, whilst trying to identify gradually became less inconsistent until it achieved permanent. Ultimately, a decision has to be made – is it really worth spending time and effort trying to fix a motor that is forty years old? The answer is no.

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The final stage of the overhaul is to clean the notes. Finger grease, beer, sweat, spittle, smoke, etc multiplied by years equals a nasty film of crud that inhibits the notes from vibrating. Unless I have be asked to tune or refinish the notes, it just a case of cleaning it all off which requires more time and elbow grease. The results however are rewarding; not only do they look a lot better, they sound so much better and respond when played. When the whole instrument is assembled and clean notes go on it is like the icing on the cake, although it is the notes that are at the very heart of the instrument. But this is not unusual, it is the same with all instruments: for instance the strings on a violin, guitar or piano make the vibrations, but it is how the rest of the instrument utilises those vibrations that is important.


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