Tag: Orchestral Percussion

Premier Fibreglass Timpani Part 2 (Job No: 1357)

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In the first part of this job I looked at the restoration of the base casting and my approach to the repair. With the drums back from the welders I can now clean up the chassis, do the painting and rebuild the drums.

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. By, “everything” I mean every little detail, so in the posts on timpani I 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!)


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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Premier Fibreglass Timpani (Job No: 1283)

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Premier Percussion have been making their timpani with glass fibre bowls for a long time now. The actual production method has varied both with developments of available materials and with expertise. However one issue constantly raises its head – empty cavities around the bearing edge often leading to osmosis.

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!)

In this video I am looking at a 22.1/2″ timpani which has never been serviced. I guestimate that the drum was bought in the mid 1990’s. During this era, Premier still had its factory in Leicester which produced virtually everything, however factory assembly workers do not particularly give a shit about the quality of the work they produce, and I think that Premier suffered because of this.


As can be seen in the video, not only were there manufacturing issues with the drum but also assembly problems. The manufacture of the bowl istelf, surely is at the very heart of making a kettle drum. Everything else on the drums are just engineered components fitted into the larger castings of the base and the legs. Yet what I find time and again, and this is not by any means limited to Premier, are low standards of quality in production methods that in most instances are outdated anyway. Furthermore I often see massive resistence to change something that is problematical; is it resistence or ability?

On top of these (sometimes badly made) components, we have the additional problem of poor assembly. When I was at university in London studying violin making, my tutor told us that making the body of an instrument is about 20% of the job, the other 80% is the setup. What he was saying is that the skills of an instrument maker is making sure that the instrument sounds good and feels good to play.

However both problems really boil down to a lack of care in the person doing the work. This lack of care in the workers, is overseen by management who call it quality control so they can quantify it, presumably to justify their existence to the directors who can make decisions as to the acceptable levels of failure. Basically what I am saying is that the level of acceptable standards comes from the top down, so it is unfair to blame the low paid workers.

The majority of professional musicians I have spoken with about what instruments they buy and why, cite the drop in standards as the reason why they don’t buy Premier. Additionally most of them, including myself expressed great frustration with the company over this obvious problem. If they can’t get the quality, they may as well buy cheap.

There is an adage, from rags to riches and back again in four generations, and it sums up wht happens to companies like Premier, like Musser, like Adams, etc. The founding craftsman who makes whatever product cares deeply about quality and the business grows. Employees are trained and indoctrinated in this mentality. When the founder retires the business is sold, or passed to the next generation who continue the growth and the business blossoms. By the third generation there are no original employees and the whole mentality of the business has changed as well as the world in which it must operate and the business starts to fail… There are many, many examples of great companies ruined by the people who take them over, a few get resurrected by a rich benefactor with a passion. I haven’t earned and lost a financial empire (yet?), but I would still like a rich benefactor!

Replacement Note Bar for a Premier Glockenspiel (Job No: 1352)

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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!

Premier Fibreglass timpani repair (Job No: 1357)

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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.

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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 Timpani Buying Guide

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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!


Workshop Love

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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.

Premier Xylophone Repair (part 2) (Job no: 1281)

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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.

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Premier Xylophone Completion (part 2) (Job No: 1291)

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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.


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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