A typical vibraphone
|Other names||Vibraharp, Vibes|
(Directly struck idiophone)
|Marimba, Xylophone, Glockenspiel|
|Lionel Hampton, Milt Jackson, Stefon Harris, Ed Saindon, Dave Samuels, Gary Burton, Bobby Hutcherson, Monte Croft, Joe Locke, Steve Nelson|
|Musser, Yamaha, Adams Musical Instruments, Saito|
The vibraphone, sometimes called the vibraharp or simply the vibes, is a musical instrument in the struck idiophone subfamily of the percussion family.
The vibraphone is similar in appearance to the xylophone, marimba and glockenspiel but uses aluminum bars; not wooden bars like the first two instruments. Each bar is paired with a resonator tube having a motor-driven butterfly valve at its upper end, mounted on a common shaft, which produces a tremolo or vibrato effect while spinning. The vibraphone also has a sustain pedal similar to that used on a piano; when the pedal is up, the bars are all damped and the sound of each bar is shortened; with the pedal down, they will sound for several seconds.
The most common uses of the vibraphone are within jazz music, where it often plays a featured role, and in the wind ensemble, as a standard component of the percussion section.
The first musical instrument called "vibraphone" was marketed by the Leedy Manufacturing Company in the United States in 1921. However, this instrument differed in significant details from the instrument now called the vibraphone. The Leedy vibraphone achieved a degree of popularity after it was used in the novelty recordings of "Aloha 'Oe" and "Gypsy Love Song" by vaudeville performer Louis Frank Chiha ("Signor Frisco").
This popularity led J. C. Deagan, Inc. in 1927 to ask its Chief Tuner, Henry Schluter, to develop a similar instrument. However, Schluter didn't just copy the Leedy design, he introduced several significant improvements: making the bars from aluminum instead of steel for a more "mellow" basic tone; adjustments to the dimensions and tuning of the bars to eliminate the dissonant harmonics in the Leedy design (further mellowing the tone); and the introduction of a damper bar controlled by a foot pedal, enabling it to be played with more expression. Schluter's design was more popular than the Leedy design, and has become the template for all instruments called vibraphone today.
However, when Deagan began marketing Schluter's instrument in 1928, they called it the vibraharp. As its popularity grew, other manufacturers began producing instruments based on Schluter's design, marketed under a variety of names, including Leedy, who marketed their new instrument as the vibraphone and abandoned their old design.
The name confusion continues, even to the present, but over time vibraphone became significantly more popular than vibraharp. By 1974, the Directory of the D.C. Federation of Musicians listed 39 vibraphone players and 3 vibraharp players. As of 2008, the term vibraharp has disappeared except for anachronistic uses. Often, vibraphone is shortened to "vibes", and the two terms are used interchangeably.
The initial purpose of the vibraphone was to add to the large arsenal of percussion sounds used by vaudeville orchestras for novelty effects. This use was quickly overwhelmed in the 1930s by its development as a jazz instrument. As of 2008, it remains primarily, although not exclusively, a jazz instrument.
The popularity of the vibraphone as a jazz instrument can primarily be credited to one man, Lionel Hampton. The story, perhaps apocryphal, is that "Hamp", a drummer at the time, was playing at the NBC Radio studios, where he discovered a vibraphone that was kept on hand to play the musical motif identifying the NBC network, the "NBC Chimes". After the gig, he spent a considerable amount of time exploring the instrument, and fell in love with it.
Later (October 16, 1930), Hampton was recording with Louis Armstrong & His Sebastian New Cotton Club Orchestra, and the studio they were working in happened to have a vibraphone. Hampton showed Armstrong what he could do, and they decided to add vibes to one of the tunes they were scheduled to play, "Memories of You", creating the first known jazz recording using the vibraphone.
After this, Hampton decided to concentrate on the vibraphone, eventually joining the Benny Goodman Quintet, and later leading his own big bands and achieving great popularity.
The first manufacturer of vibraphones in the modern configuration was J.C. Deagan, Inc., of Chicago, Illinois, United States, although they called the instruments vibraharps. As the market for vibraphones was proven, first as a vaudeville novelty instrument and then as a jazz instrument, several other manufacturers stepped in to supply the demand. These included the Leedy Manufacturing Company, of Indianapolis, Indiana, who retained the vibraphone name of their earlier product but abandoned its design in favor of the Henry Schluter innovations, and the Jenco Company, of Decatur, Illinois, who initially marketed their instruments as "vibrabells".
Outside of the United States, the Premier Drum Company, of London, UK, after experimenting with a variety of aluminum bar instruments more closely related to the glockenspiel that were called variations of “harpaphone”, moved to the production of the Schluter vibraphone design. Bergerault, of Ligueil, France also began manufacturing vibraphones in the 1930s.
Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, each manufacturer attracted its own following in various specialties, but the Deagan vibraphones were the models preferred by many of the emerging class of specialist jazz players. Deagan struck endorsement deals with many of the leading players, including Lionel Hampton and Milt Jackson.
In 1948, the Musser Company was founded by Claire Omar Musser. Musser was an accomplished marimba and xylophone player famous for touring the United States and Europe leading "marimba symphony orchestras". He applied his experience and observations with the current designs of mallet instruments to his eponymous company and the result was a high-quality line of mallet instruments. His vibraphones emerged as quite comparable in quality to Deagan vibraphones and Musser was able to garner a share of the top-end market.
The 1960s and 1970s saw a shakeup in the vibraphone market. Leedy and Jenco ceased operations. The Deagan operation was purchased by the Yamaha Corporation. Although Yamaha used the Deagan knowledge to improve their own designs, for vibraphones they discontinued the use of the Deagan name and Deagan model legacy; as of 2008, no visible trace to Deagan remains, although Yamaha continues to use the Deagan name for a line of orchestra bells and chimes. The Musser Company was purchased first by Ludwig Drums, and then, through Ludwig, was purchased by Conn-Selmer, Inc. Unlike the fate of Deagan, the Musser brand and model line were retained by the purchasing companies, and Musser vibraphones remain a major force in the vibraphone market.
This period also saw the emergence of new vibraphone manufacturers. Notable companies include Adams Musical Instruments of Ittervoort, The Netherlands and Ross Mallet Instruments, now owned by Jupiter Band Instruments of Austin, Texas, United States.
As of 2008, the vibraphone marketplace is remarkably active, considering the specialty nature of the instrument. The major players include Musser, Yamaha, Adams and Ross. Bergerault, Premier, Studio 49 from Gräfelfing, Germany and the Saito Gakki Company of Japan continue in operation. In addition to the "mass" producers of vibraphones, custom manufacturers, notably vanderPlas Percussion of The Netherlands, are also active.
The standard modern instrument has a range of three octaves, from the F below middle C (F3 to F6 in scientific pitch notation). Larger three-and-a-half or four octave models from the C below middle C are also becoming more common (C3 to F6 or C7). Unlike its cousin the xylophone, it is a non-transposing instrument, generally written at concert pitch. However, sometimes some composers (for example, Olivier Messiaen) write parts to sound an octave higher.
In the 1930s several manufacturers made soprano-vibraphones with a range C4-C7, notably the Ludwig & Ludwig model B110 and the Deagan model 144. Deagan also made a portable model that had a 2½ octave range and resonators made of cardboard (model 30).
The major components of a vibraphone are the bars, resonators, damper mechanism, motor and the frame. Vibraphones are usually played with mallets.
Vibraphone bars are made from aluminum bar stock, cut into blanks of pre-determined length. Holes are drilled through the width of the bars so they can be suspended by a cord. To maximize the sustain of the bars, the holes are placed at approximately the nodal points of the bar, i.e. the points of minimum amplitude around which the bar is vibrating. For a uniform bar, the nodal points are located 22.4% from each end of the bar.
Material is ground away from underside of the bars in an arch shape. This serves to lower pitch so the low bars are not excessively long, and is key to the "mellow" sound of the vibraphone (and marimba, which uses the same deep arch) compared with the xylophone, which uses a shallower arch, and the glockenspiel, which has no arch at all. Vibrating rectangular bars have three primary modes of vibration. The deep arch causes these modes to align and create a consonant arrangement of intervals: a fundamental pitch, a pitch two octaves above that, and a third pitch an octave and a major third above the second. For the F3 bar that usually forms the lowest note on a vibraphone, there would be F3 as the fundamental, F5 as the first partial and A6 as the second partial. As a side effect, the arch causes the nodal points of the fundamental vibration to shift closer towards the ends of the bar.
After beveling or rounding the edges, fine-tuning adjustments are made. If a bar is flat, its overall pitch structure can be raised by removing material from the ends of the bar. Once this slightly sharp bar is created, the secondary and tertiary tones can be lowered by removing material from specific locations of the bar. Vibraphones are tuned to a standard of A=442 Hz or A=440 Hz depending on the manufacturer or in some cases the customer's preference.
Like marimbas, professional vibraphones have bars of graduated width. Lower bars are made from wider stock, and higher notes from narrower stock, to help balance volume and tone across the range of the instrument. The bars are anodized, typically in silver or gold color, after fine tuning, and may have a smooth or brushed (matte) finish; cosmetic features which have a negligible effect on the sound.
Resonators are thin-walled tubes, typically made of aluminum, but any suitably strong material will do. They are open at one end and closed at the other. Each bar is paired with a resonator whose diameter is slightly wider than the width of the bar, and whose length to the closure is one-quarter of the wavelength of the fundamental frequency of the bar. The resonator for A3 (the lowest A on a vibraphone) is approximately 15 inches long. When the bar and resonator are properly in tune with each other, the vibrating air beneath the bar travels down the resonator and is reflected off the closure at the bottom, then returns back to the top and is reflected back by the bar, over and over, creating a much stronger standing wave and amplifying the fundamental frequency. The resonators, beside raising the upper end of the vibraphone's dynamic range, also affect the overall tone of the vibraphone, since they amplify the fundamental, but not the upper partials.
There is a trade-off between the amplifying effect of the resonators and the length of sustain of a ringing bar. Basically, all of the energy in a ringing bar comes from the initial mallet strike, and that energy can go to making the bar ring either louder initially, or not as loud but longer. This is not an issue with marimbas and xylophones, where the natural sustain time of the wooden bars is short, but vibraphone bars can ring for many seconds after being struck, and this effect is highly desirable in many circumstances. Therefore the resonators in a vibraphone are usually tuned to be slightly off-pitch to create a balance between loudness and sustain.
A unique feature of vibraphone resonators is a shaft of rotating discs, commonly called fans, across the top. When the fans are open (vertical) the resonators have full function. When the fans are closed (horizontal) the resonators are partially occluded, reducing the resonance of the fundamental pitch. A drive belt connects the shafts to an electric motor (see below) beneath the playing surface, and rotation of the fans creates what many people call a "vibrato" effect; however in actuality it is a tremolo, i.e. periodic modulation of amplitude, not pitch. 
For the first few years of production the original Leedy Vibraphone did not include a mechanism for damping, or stopping, the sustaining tones. In 1928 the J.C. Deagan company introduced a pedal mechanism that has not changed substantially since.  A rigid bar beneath the center of the instrument is pressed upward by an adjustable spring, and engages a long felt pad against the sharps and the naturals. A foot pedal lowers the bar and allows notes to ring freely; releasing the pedal engages the damper and stops any vibrating notes.
The damper mechanism is a sensitive feature of the instrument, as the pad must contact all notes evenly and produce no extraneous noises, and require minimal foot or toe motion. Felt dampers can compress over time and cause uneven damping or buzzing on contact with the bars. In the early 1990s, vibraphonist John Mark Piper designed a new vibraphone for Musser that, among other innovations, included a water-filled damper pad. Later that decade, custom vibraphone maker Nico van der Plas improved on the idea by using silicone gel as the filling. This retro-fittable gel pad reduces impact transference (frame noise from mallet strikes) and provides more even and more complete damping than felt.
Vibraphones usually have an electric motor and pulley assembly mounted on one side or the other to drive the disks in the resonators. The early vibraphones used motors that were intended to power record player turntables, and had limited or no speed adjustment capabilities. Whatever speed adjustments were possible were made by moving the drive belt among a small number of pulleys (usually three) of varying diameters.
Later, variable speed AC motors became available at reasonable prices. These motors allow the adjustment of the rotating speed via a potentiometer mounted on a control panel near the motor. They typically support rotation rates from about 1-12 Hz. These motors remained the preferred solution until the 1990s, and even as of today are still the most widely used.
During the 1990s, some manufacturers began using computer-controlled servo stepping motors. These motors are capable of slower rotating speeds approaching 0 Hz. The computer control also allows operations that are not possible with an analog motor, such as the ability to synchronize the rotation of the two resonator sets and stop the rotation at a desired state (all open, all closed, all half open, etc.).
The vibraphone frame offers a number of challenges to designers. It must be sturdy enough to endure the torsional forces created by the damper/spring/pedal assembly and the stresses of repeated transport and playing, while still being light enough for easy transport. Considering the weight of the bars alone, that doesn’t leave much left for the frame. Also, the bars must be securely attached to the frame, but not rigidly. Each bar must have some independent flex in order to ring.
Vibraphone frames consist of two end blocks, made of metal, wood or a combination, attached by various support members. Usually the end blocks are approximately the same size as the two bars that are at the same end; therefore one block is significantly larger than the other.
The motor is attached to the frame at one end. The hinges for the damper bar are attached at each end, and the spring assembly and the pedal are usually attached in the middle. Two banks of resonator tubes are laid into grooves in the frame so that they straddle the damper bar. The resonators are not firmly fastened to the frame. The ends of the shafts that gang the disks are attached to the drive of the motor via a drive belt similar to an O-ring.
A bed for the bars is made by laying four wooden rails onto pins on the end blocks. Like the resonators, these rails are not firmly attached to the frame. Each rail has a series of pins with rubber spacers that will support the bars. The bars are arranged into two groups, and a soft cord is passed through the nodal holes in the bars of each group. The bars are laid between the support pins, with the cord hooking the pins. The pins on the outside rails have U-shaped hooks and the cord just rests in the bend. The inside pins have a hook that grasps the cord and holds the bars in place against the force of the damper pad. The two ends of the cord are attached with a spring at one end to provide tension and flex.
The two rows of bars follow the piano convention of white and black keys, with the row nearer to the player corresponding to the white keys. A rare alternate form is one in which each row of bars is arranged in a whole-tone scale, and the rows are a semitone apart. As with the piano, the lower notes are on the player’s left. Unlike the marimba and the xylophone, the two rows of bars are in the same horizontal plane so that the damper bar will come in contact with both rows at the same time.
Frames come in a variety of styles, from functional to ornate, but, except for negatively via squeaks and rattles, they don't really contribute to the tonal qualities of the vibraphone. Some frames allow the distance between the bars and the resonators to be adjusted, to compensate for variations in air temperature, pressure and moisture that change the speed of sound and therefore the tuning of the bar/resonator system, but this is more common in marimbas than vibraphones. Other frames allow the adjustment of the height of the bar bed. It’s common to see players who don’t have this capability hunched over their instruments while they play as the standard height of non-adjustable frames is often too low for men of average height.
Vibraphone mallets usually consist of a rubber ball core wrapped in yarn or cord and attached to a narrow dowel, most commonly made of rattan or birch and sometimes of fiberglass or nylon. Mallets suitable for the vibraphone are also generally suitable for the marimba.
The specific mallets used can have a great effect on the tonal characteristics of the sound produced, ranging from a bright metallic clang to a mellow ring with no obvious initial attack. Consequently, a wide array of mallets is available, offering variations in hardness, head size, weight, shaft length and flexibility.
Classical players must carry a wide range of mallet types to accommodate the changing demands of composers who are looking for particular sounds. Jazz players, on the other hand, since "we don’t know what we’re going to want to play until the second or two that we're there", often rely on a single general-purpose mallet type that works well in all dynamic ranges. Often this choice becomes one of the defining items of the player's personal sound. Some vibraphonists alter commercially-made mallets to get a precise nuance of tone.
The world of vibraphone players can be roughly divided into those who play with two mallets, and those who play with four. In reality the division is not quite so neat. Many players switch between two, three and four mallets depending on the demands of their current musical situations.
Furthermore, concentrating on the number of mallets a player holds means missing the far more significant differences between the two-mallet and four-mallet playing styles. As of 2008, these differences are not quite as extensive as they were when Gary Burton first introduced the world to the four-mallet style in the 1960s, but they still exist to a large degree.
The two-mallet approach to vibes is traditionally linear, playing like a horn. Two-mallet players usually concentrate on playing a single melodic line and rely on other musicians to provide accompaniment. Double stops (two notes played simultaneously) are sometimes used, but mostly as a reinforcement of the main melodic line, similar to the usual use of double stops in solo violin music. In jazz groups, two-mallet vibraphonists are usually considered part of the "front line" with the horn players, contributing solos of their own but contributing very little in the way of accompaniment to other soloists.
Two-mallet players use several different grips, with the most common being a palms-down grip that is basically the same as the matched grip used by drummers. The mallets are held between the thumb and index finger of each hand, with the remaining three fingers of each hand pressing the shafts into the down-facing palms. Strokes use a combination of wrist movement and fingertip control of the shaft.
Another popular grip is similar to the timpani grip. The mallets are again held between the thumb and index fingers and controlled with the remaining three fingers, but the palms are held vertically, facing inward towards each other. Most of the stroke action comes from the finger-tip control of the shafts.
Passages are usually played hand-to-hand with double-sticking (playing two notes in a row with the same hand) used when convenient in minimizing crossing the hands.
The player must pay close attention to the use of the damper pedal in order to cleanly articulate and avoid multiple notes ringing unintentionally at the same time. Since the notes ring for some significant fraction of a second when struck with the damper pad up, and ringing bars do not stop ringing immediately when contacted by the pad, a technique called "after pedaling" is necessary. In this technique, the damper pedal is depressed marginally after the note is struck, shortly enough after so that the recently struck note continues to ring, but long enough after so that the previous note has stopped ringing.
Another damper technique is "half pedaling", where the pedal is depressed just enough to remove the spring pressure from the bars, but not enough so the pad has lost contact with the bars. This allows the bars to ring slightly longer than with the pad fully up and can be used to make a medium-fast passage sound more legato without pedaling every note.
The four-mallet vibraphone style is multi-linear, like a piano. "Thinking like a pianist, arranger, and orchestrator, the vibist approaches the instrument like a piano and focuses on a multi-linear way of playing." In jazz groups, four-mallet vibraphonists are often considered part of the rhythm section, typically substituting for piano or guitar, and providing accompaniment for other soloists in addition to soloing themselves. Furthermore, the four-mallet style has led to a significant body of unaccompanied solo vibes playing. One notable example is Gary Burton’s performance of "Chega de Saudade (No More Blues)" from his Grammy-winning 1971 album "Alone at Last".
Although some early vibes players made use of four mallets, notably Red Norvo and sometimes Lionel Hampton, the fully pianistic four-mallet approach is almost entirely the creation of Gary Burton. Many of the key techniques of the four-mallet style, such as multi-linear playing and the advanced dampening techniques described below, are easily applied to playing with two mallets and some modern two-mallet players have adapted these devices to their playing, somewhat blurring the distinctions between modern two- and four-mallet players.
The most popular four-mallet grip for vibraphone is the Burton grip, named for Gary Burton. One mallet is held between the thumb and index finger and the other is held between the index and middle fingers. The shafts cross in the middle of the palm and extend past the heel of the hand. For wide intervals, the thumb often moves in between the two mallets and the inside mallet is held in the crook of the fingers.
Also popular is the Stevens grip, named for marimbist Leigh Howard Stevens. Many other grips are in use, some variations on the Burton or Stevens, others idiosyncratic creations of individual vibes players. One common variation of the Burton grip places the outside mallet between the middle and ring fingers, instead of between the index and middle.
Four-mallet vibists usually play scalar linear passages much the same as two-mallet players, using one mallet from each hand (outside right and inside left for Burton grip), except four-mallet players tend to make more use of double strokes, not only to avoid crossing hands but also to minimize motion between the two bar rows. For example, an ascending E flat major scale could be played L-R-R-L-L-R-R-L, keeping the left hand on the "black" bars and the right hand on the "white". For linear passages with leaps, all four mallets are often used sequentially.
Pedaling techniques are at least as important for the four-mallet vibist as for two-mallet players, but the all-or-nothing dampening system of the pedal/pad presents many obstacles to multi-linear playing since each line normally has its own dampening requirements independent of the other lines. To overcome this, four-mallet players use a set of dampening techniques referred to as "mallet dampening", in addition to the pedaling techniques used by two-mallet players. The mallet dampening techniques "are to the vibist as garlic and fresh basil are to the Northern Italian chef" and contribute significantly to expressive four-mallet playing.
Mallet dampening includes "dead strokes" where a player strikes a bar, and then instead of drawing the mallet back, directly presses the head of the mallet onto the bar, causing the ringing to immediately stop. This produces a fairly distinctive "choked" sound and dead strokes are often used just for that particular sound in addition to the dampening aspects.
In hand-to-hand dampening, the vibist plays a note with one mallet, while simultaneously pressing another mallet onto a previously ringing bar. Usually the dampening mallet and the striking mallet are held in different hands, but advanced players can, in some circumstances, use two mallets from the same hand. This is the most powerful of the mallet dampening techniques as it can be used to dampen any note on the instrument while simultaneously striking any other note.
Slide dampening can be used to dampen a note that is physically adjacent to the new note being struck. The player strikes the new note and then controls the rebound of the mallet so that it slides over and onto the note to be dampened. Sometimes slide dampening can make the new note sound "bent" or as if there is a glissando from the dampened note to the ringing one, as the two notes normally ring together for some short period of time.
Hand dampening (also known as finger dampening) can be used to dampen a white note while striking a nearby black note. As the player strikes a black note with a mallet, they simultaneously press the heel of their hand or the side of their pinky finger onto the ringing white bar, using the same hand to strike the black note and dampen the white note. Using both hands, it's possible to dampen and strike two notes at once.
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Pitch bending: This technique allows the pitch of a ringing bar to be smoothly lowered, or "bent", downward, by a half-step or so. To do this, the player replaces one of the normal mallets with a hard-headed mallet such as a hard rubber or plastic xylophone mallet. The player presses the special mallet onto a ringing bar at the nodal point, and then slides the mallet out towards the middle or edge of the bar. This causes the mallet to start vibrating with the bar, adding its weight to the system and slowing the vibration. The player must be very careful in placing the hard mallet onto the bar in order to avoid a rattling as the mallet and bar come into contact.
Bowing: In addition to striking the bars with mallets, the bars can be made to sound by drawing the bow of a string instrument along the edges. Since bars are fairly massive compared to strings, better results are obtained by using bows from the larger string instruments, at least a cello bow and often a double bass bow. Often a player will use two bows, one for the white bars and the other for the black. With bowing, the player is able to excite the bars directly to the pure ringing tone and eliminate many of the transient dissonant sounds that are present immediately after a mallet strikes.
Five or six mallets: In order to achieve greater density of sound and richer chord voicings, some vibraphonists have experimented with three mallets per hand, either in both hands for a total of six mallets or in just the left hand for a total of five. Results can be interesting, especially five-mallet playing where the left hand "comps" in three note voicings while the right hand plays melodic lines, similar to the popular piano technique. However, the grips tend to lead to limited musical possibilities, with little ability to adjust the interval between the outside and middle mallets and difficulties in playing hand-to-hand lines, and therefore use of five or six mallets is rare.
Harmonics: It is also possible to play harmonics on the vibraphone. This is achieved by placing one mallet in the centre of the bar in an almost vertical position, while the other mallet strikes the bar over one of the nodes. When the second mallet strikes the bar the first mallet is removed. The strongest harmonic is the first partial which on the vibraphone is 2 octaves above the fundamental.
Rolling with one hand: Another extended technique is the rolling of a note with one hand. This is for vibes, xylophone and marimba. With two mallets in one hand, by putting one mallet beneath the key and another above it, and by moving the wrist vertically, the percussionist can make a rolling sound with just one hand as opposed to using both. Obviously, this does not work on the sharps and flats.
Other techniques: The vibraphone solo "Mourning Dove Sonnet," composed by Christopher Deane, utilizes a four mallet grip with two cello (or bass) bows held where the outer mallets would be, a yarn mallet for the main melodic playing and a plastic mallet for pitch bending in the inner positions.
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