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.
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