Tag: Xylophone

Premier Xylophone Modification (Job No: 1291)


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.

IMG_20160211_102034

Premier Xylophone Rebuild (Job No:1281)

IMG_20160204_171547

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.

IMG_20160211_183728

…How to control humidity

(Every Percussionist Should Know…)
…How humidity can be controlled.

It is humidity not temperature that has the biggest effect on the tuning of wooden note bars. If you ever read so-called “experts” stating the importance of temperature controlled environments with relation to the tuning of xylophones and marimbas, they are talking rubbish. There is a very simple experiment one can do to test the hypothesis; touch a xylophone bar then a glockenspiel note bar; which one is cold? You probably already know the answer – the glockenspiel bar is cold, but why? Glock notes are metal and metal is a conductor whereas wood is an insulator. This is why radiators are made from metal and window frames are made from wood (or should be).

At the extremes, temperature will have an effect on tuning, but that would be an extremely difficult experiment to isolate temperature from humidity. The main cause of atmospheric tuning related problems is humidity. The big word used is hygroscopic in relation to wood, which means that wood absorbs and releases moisture.

A rule of thumb is that hot things like wood and air, can hold more moisture than cold things. If you are that way inclined (and thankfully some people are) you could create a graph to define the maximum amount of moisture something could hold at any given temperature. The graph would depict 100% moisture content. This state is unlikely to happen to your xylophone or marimba, but they will contain a certain amount of moisture in relation its potential maximum, so this is known as relative humidity.

Finally, because wood is surrounded by air and it is hygroscopic, it will absorb or release moisture until it reaches the same relative humidity as the air. The video I made below explains the ramifications of this and what can be done to control it.


Xylophone Tuning (Job No: 1294)

On the surface, many aspects of my job seem to be structural or mechanical, which they are, but the solutions are always to improve the musical aspect of the instrument.  Aside from increasing its lifespan, which is almost a byproduct, the main aim is to improve playability, projection, tonality, etc.  Right at the very heart of this is the tuning.  I have been working on and off on a series of articles to explain the various aspects of temprements and tunings, and they will eventually be completed, but what I realised was that I very rarely write blog posts about this aspect of what I do.

Sometimes my self protectionism manifests itself inadvertantly with a reluctance or resistance to publicise what I am doing and how I go about jobs.  This is irrational, because the reality is that even if I were to tell someone exactly how to do something, they can’t necessarily do it.  I have experienced this many times when I am on the phone to a customer talking them through a job, or even face to face teaching my past assistants – there is an empirical feel that simply cannot be taught it has to be learned through experience.  Tuning is the same, in that there is an empirical understanding of what to do.  There are plenty of misleading internet guides on how to make your own marimba or xylophone, and if you have the time, energy and don’t mind making something shit, then they are great.  However to expect an app on a mobile phone to be capable of tuning percussion instruments accurately would be naive.

So anyway, all the notes are unstrung and arranged chromatically.  I have a bench that houses trays which contain a complete instruments note bars which can be slid out to be worked on, or be put away until the following day.  It keeps everything together so that I don’t mix up the instruments.  The work bench has a top and two shelves so that when I work on a set of notes the octaves can be separated vertically up the bench.  This means that I can tune any of the octaves chromatically, or do all the Cs, all the Ds, etc in a compact space, because I do jump around selecting various notes to do side by side comparisons.

When I start tuning a set of notes I am listening to the notes with my ears as well using electronic tuners. The tuners enable me to tune the bar to exactly the pitch I want. Qualifying what I mean by exact, the tuners I use are accurate to 10th of a cent, and a cent is a 100th of a semitone, so in other words ridiculously accurate. In practice, for wooden note bars, the tuning tolerance can be greater, so I tune to within a cent of the pitch I want.

On the first day I am listening with my ears more in order to identify any issues and inconsistencies. Sometimes there is a suppressed feel to the way an individual bar sounds, and often there are slightly discordant harmonics. Additionally xylophones in particular are prone to edge damage, so all of these factors help determine how I go about removing material from the bar. Since removing material is the only way I have of manipulating the tuning, this first day takes the longest because if I get it wrong, I can’t put the material back onto the bar.


Over the following week I return to the notes each day, making smaller and smaller adjustments until they have stabilised, at which point I seal the underside of the notes with lacquer, restring them and return them to the instrument frame or the customer.

LP Xylophone Notes (Job No: 1242)

Out of the whole family of keyboard percussion instruments, xylophones suffer the most with going out of tune.  There are two reasons, first the note bars seasoning, second from being played.

Due to atmospheric changes wooden note bars absorb and release moisture, as the moisture leaves the wood, it takes a bit of matter with it, so the note will always go out of tune even if the instrument is not played.  However this is more evident in marimba bars which are wider, thinner and more extensively arched, whereas xylophone bars are more chunky and tuned to fifths, or should be, but more of that later.

When xylos are played, hard beaters are used, and these damage the surface of the note bar leaving indentations.  Therefore nothing harder than the note bar should be used to play it, so no hard plastic beaters if the piece has lots of fortississimo.  Furthermore the edges of the bars take a battering, and they become frayed.  When the bars are tuned, I have to remove this loose material, which further affects the tuning.  Eventually I run out of wood to tune the bars, or the internal structure of the wood has been softened or split thus killing the sound, so new bars need to be bought or made.

One last bit to finish off, there is a trend now in new instruments towards thinner bars which have been octave tuned as well as using cheaper woods like padouk.  Wrong, wrong, wrong!  Thinner bars don’t give the stacato sound of a xylophone, octave tuning just sounds wrong – a xylophone has a jarring sound, that is what it is for musically, and padouk is even more prone to damage and splitting.  So not only are they not xylophones, but more like piccolo marimbas, they will not last very long – years instead of decades!  Finally, because the bars are so thin, my job of retuning them is severely limited.

So lets get into the job.  First I get a plank of Honduras Rosewood that will do the job.

wpid-wp-1422608145557.jpeg

This is then ripped to give me the width.  I got two lengths out of this plank which is enough to do all the notes.

wpid-wp-1422608240959.jpeg

These batons are then cut down into the lengths required for the note bars, resulting in lots of sticks of wood.   I then plane to faces to get them flat and square.

wpid-wp-1422608379040.jpeg

I can then thickness them to the correct width and depth.  I now have a pile of equally sized sticks of wood.

wpid-wp-1422608526871.jpeg

The next job is to drill the holes for the note cord.  It takes ages to set the drill up so the notes are held in the correct place, and flat on the bed of the vice.  Getting the angle right is the easy bit (if you have the right equipment).  However once everything is set it is quick to drill all the sticks.

wpid-wp-1422608572835.jpeg

I can now put the radius on the edges of the bars.

wpid-wp-1422608880353.jpeg

Now I finally have note bar blanks which can be varnished and tuned.

Premier 600 Xylo (part 2 of 2) (Job No: 1187)

This blog post follows on from 1187: Premier 600 Xylo (pt 1)

After all the xylo notes have been varnished, they get tuned and resealed.

The last part of the job is to service the frame.  The note pegs on these Premier xylophones are solid rubber mouldings.  Because they are natural rubber they do age and become brittle, this process can be slowed by removing UV exposure.  Just like people do to prevent sunburn, this can be achieved simply by covering up with a blanket.

I do have a diminishing supply of these note pegs; like most parts I have for obsolete instruments, I strictly control the distribution.  The last few are to be used to repair as many instruments as possible.  They are not to sit on someone else’s shelf just in case they need them for their particular instrument in the future – I deem that selfish, and it won’t happen on my watch!

Premier offered me the moulds to make these parts, however besides storage problems (they are massively heavy), the cost of making the parts was prohibitive.  Essentially the moulds are too old compared to modern techniques.  At some point however, (when funds allow,) I will invest in the equipment I need to make alternative spares using different materials.

Getting back to the Xylophone; besides a few broken note pegs, the frame was in excellent condition, and just needed a thorough clean.  Once the notes were back on, it looks like a new instrument.
wpid-wp-1415005454153.jpeg

Vintage Premier Xylo (part 2 of 2) (Job No: 1188)

The first part of this blob post is Vintage Premier Xylo (part 1)

After the note bed is completed, I make the frame that the instrument sits on.

The first thing I do is make the top and bottom transoms, which are either end of the legs.  The top transom is a known length as it is defined by the note bed, the only decision to make is where to put the hinges.

The bottom transoms have the casters attached.  I make these 10mm longer than the upper transoms at the low end of the xylo, so they are 5mm wider than the instrument on either side.  This is so that it is the very bottom of the instrument that hits a wall or is a positive contact point for tying into a van.  This is also when I calculate the caster swing, and the bottom bar fixing points, and decide on the width of the high end legs.

After the bottom transoms and fixings points are made, I can join them by adding the bottom bar because I already know the length of the instrument.  The only decisions is where to weld the bottom bar in the horizontal plane, front to back.

The leg length is a matter of mathematics – I have been told how high the customer wants the instrument, so I make it to the correct height.

So now I have a note bed, two sets of legs and a bar for the bottom, in other words a complete square, I can assemble the instrument, and put in a brace to keep it square.  Depending on the instrument, I use one or two braces.

All the metal work can now be sent off to be powder coated.

In the interim, I finish the note bed, by putting in the note pegs.
wpid-wp-1412497901333.jpeg

And the original badge.
wpid-wp-1412497969607.jpeg

Once all the bits are back from painting, I clean everything, and put it all together and put the notes on.  Below you can see the figure in the end boards.
wpid-wp-1412498076674.jpeg

Finally below is the finished xylophone.
wpid-wp-1412498173634.jpeg

Vintage Premier Xylo (part 1 of 2) (Job No: 1188)

It is always nice to receive a pile of bits and asked to turn it into a usable instrument.

wpid-img_20140911_104959.jpg

The xylo is actually complete, including the frame, however requirements and expectations have moved on somewhat since this was made.

The first thing I need to do is get the note bed repaired.  All the joints are loose, and it looks horrible, so I will disassemble it down to components, and strip the finish off.

wpid-img_20140911_122118.jpg

wpid-img_20140911_141238.jpg

In the first image, it can be seen that the notes originally sat on felt strips with the note cord running along the outside of separation pins.  This is rubbish, it’s going to be really noisy, so I will substitute the pins for note pegs which means drilling bigger holes.

The consequence of this is that the rails need to be moved further apart, because the note cord now runs down the centre of the note rails as opposed to the outside edges.  The benefit is that the instrument will be that little bit wider, which is no bad thing.

wpid-img_20140912_194610.jpg

Above you can see new end blocks between the note rails which have been glued and pegged in place.  I don’t often use nails or screws when making a frame.

wpid-img_20140912_19461022.jpg.jpeg

Zooming in on the photo, it can be seen that the note rails are a bit arbitrary in length. There are several reasons, but essentially it is because it was made wrong in the first instance  I have tried to reach the best positioning of the notes, so they run parallel to the ends.  The ends need to be parallel so I can make the base frame square.

wpid-img_20140913_170443.jpg

Underneath all the clamps, I have added onto the outside of the instrument a spacer and and end plates.  The end plates will make it look nice, and protect the notes, and cover the top of the legs.  The spacer is just another bit of wood (the offcut from the board after the end plates were cut out), but it will give me something to work with when I make the base frame.
wpid-img_20140913_191256.jpg

I mixed up some stain to colour the end plates to somewhere near the colour of the note bars, so that the instrument will hang together aesthetically.  It will also bring out the figure in the wood.  It is now ready to be varnished whilst I make the base frame.

The second half of this project in in Premier Vintage Xylo (part 2)

Premier 600 Xylophone (Job No: 1187)

I have an old Premier xylo in for refurbishment.
First job is to refinish the note bars which have water damage in the varnish. So the bars are stripped of all the old varnish

wpid-img_20140908_125911.jpg

Day 1: There are three ways to remove varnish: heat, abrasives, chemicals. Heat poses a high risk of scorching the wood. Abrasives alone get clogged up, so a lot of material expense unless very coarse abrasives are used, but they have too much effect on the dimensions of the note bar and thus dramatically affect the tuning. My preferred method is a paint stripper, they are pretty much all water based now. It is a sticky messy job, and time consuming, but effective. After scraping off as much varnish as possible, the note is washed in soapy water to neutralise the paint stripper, then left over night to dry.
wpid-img_20140909_100143.jpg

Day 2: Start sanding, and keep sanding way past the blister stage, way past the point of boredom. This is the tedious part, concentration is needed to remove the last bits of varnish, then they need to be cleaned up of the whitish residue, and any surface imperfections removed. I do this all by hand, its the only way. Any light weight sanding machine (orbital or palm sander) will leave little circular marks that look awful – and I’m not employed to make stuff look awful. A belt sander will be way too aggressive. I do have two machines that I built for use when re facing note bars, one of which takes off 0.07millimetres each pass, even this is too aggressive for re-finishing! At this stage I also repair any edge damage.

wpid-img_20140910_143749.jpg

Day 3: Yep still sanding and feeling insane! However they will be finished today.

After all the prep work is complete, I do a primary tune. This is one cycle through all the notes to bring them back up to pitch. It is easier to tune things that are too sharp, but more invasive bringing notes up from flat (which need to be made shorter). I do this at this stage so that the ends of the bar can be varnished, without the need to re-seal them when I come to properly tune the bars later.

Once tuned, I wipe off all the dust, then start varnishing.

wpid-img_20140910_182828.jpg

I do all sides except the face on the first run, then leave them overnight.

Day 4: De-nib the notes, which means lightly sand with fine abrasives to remove any dust particles that landed on the wet varnish, thus creating a “nib”. Then I varnish the faces with the first coat.

Day 5: De-nib, varnish bottom and sides.
Day 6: De-nib, varnish face.
Day 7: De-nib, varnish bottom and ends (not sides).
Day 8: De-nib, varnish faces and sides. Have a celebratory beer, the varnishing is complete. I then put them to one side for as long as I can to let the varnish cure prior to tuning.

This post continues