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.
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