Ah, the magic, airy sound of the vibraphone.
Come to think about it, how come the sound of the vibraphone is so unique…
Yet so many people mistake it for other instruments from its family, like the marimba or the xylophone?
Well, probablyb because they all look very much alike.
But as it turns out, the vibraphone might actually be the only mallet percussion instrument to have broken through its “initial” purpose (classical music)…
To end up being one of the pillars of modern jazz music.
This might be due to its couple of unique features that aren’t present on any other mallet percussion.
So whether you’ve always dreamed of being a vibraphone virtuoso, you just fell in love with the vibraphone’s unique sound…
Or you are already a vibraphonist looking to up their knowledge…
You’ve come to the right place as I have in today’s post EVERYTHING you need to know in order to:
- Get started on the vibraphone
- Buy your first vibraphone, or…
- Upgrade and buy your next vibraphone
Sounds good? Then let’s start.
A Little Bit of History, and Some Important Facts
In the mallet percussion (or struck idiophone) family — which is also comprised of the xylophone, marimba and glockenspiel –, the vibraphone is actually the latest addition.
And I say “actually” because given its popularity, one would think it’s been around for a long time…
Turns out the vibraphone was invented in the 1920’s and gained massive popularity in jazz ensembles during the 1950’s with the advent of “exotica” jazz.
Not sure what I’m talking about? Listen to the video below and you’ll know exactly what I’m referring to:
You can actually hear the vibraphone straight from the beginning in this tune. Along with the flute, they were the iconic duo of “Exotica Tiki Lounge” music…
Which inevitably led the vibraphone to being widely used in jazz, so much that today it is safe to assume most vibraphone players are jazz musicians.
Compared to its cousins, the vibraphone is a little bit more complex: not only do you play it with 4 mallets (just like the marimba btw) but it also has pedals, a bit like a piano.
Finally, the biggest difference between the vibraphone and other mallet percussion stands in its very name: the vibrato effect.
As a result, it is actually rather unpopular among high school bands, band directors and even college professors, precisely because of the “minimum requirements” needed to start playing.
So now that we’ve understood the role of the vibraphone in modern music, let’s take look at the…
Anatomy of the Vibraphone
First things first, we need to know how the vibraphone is made, and what’s the role of every part.
The vibraphone is made of 5 main parts:
- The Tone Bars – which are the metal bars you hit to produce sound
- The Resonators – which are the metal tubes placed under each tone bar and meant to amplify the vibration created by the mallet hitting the tone bars
- The Resonators Disks – Arguably the most important feature of the vibraphone, these are small disks inserted on the top-end of the resonator, right between the tone bar and the resonator.
- The Controller – which is an electronic devices that allows the player to control the speed at which the resonators disks rotate
- The Pedal – which is the “engine” that drives the flaps/disks
So let’s now look at each of these elements with more details, shall we?
1. The Tone Bars
The tone bars are literally the elements of the vibraphones that create sound.
They vibrate when hit with a mallet and then send those vibrations to the resonators.
When looking at vibraphone tone bars there are a few factors you need to be aware of. These are:
- Graduated or non-graduated – graduated vibraphone have bars whose width varies depending on the note. Non-graduated vibraphones’ tone bars all have the same width.
- Shape – Probably the most important factor, tone bars can be shaped differently depending on the manufacturer.
- Material – although vibraphone bars are 99% of the time made out of aluminum, their finish can vary.
A. Graduated vs. Non Graduated
That’s a pretty straight-forward characteristic:
- Graduated bars – become wider the lower the note. They produce a more accurate and rich pitch.
- Non-graduated bars – are of same width, whatever the note and therefore allow for more compact vibraphones
Now, according to most vibraphonists, this feature is a no-brainer: if you can afford it, ABSOLUTELY go for a graduated vibraphone.
The sound and feel is miles better than a non-graduated one.
The only reason you’d ever go for a non-graduated vibraphone would be if you need a smaller vibraphone, or if you’re on a tight budget.
B. Tone Bars Shape
Here’ a pretty broad subject and, honestly, I could right a whole article on tone bars’ shapes.
As a matter of fact, it turns out many scientific papers were released on the subject since tone bars’ shapes mostly are dependent on mathematical and physical factors.
Of course this would all be way beyond the grasp of this post but to sum it up, there a several “modes of vibration” which is essentially refers to how the tone bars vibrates, as in “in which shape”.
Just know that different manufacturers shape their tone bars (slightly) differently.
As I wrote before, vibraphone bars are always made out of Aluminum, except for maybe 1 or 2 models that use carbon fiber bar.
However, their finish generally vary between either of these options:
- Matte Gold
- Glossy Gold finish
- Anodized Silver finish
So far there isn’t really any “proof” these finish have any sort of impact on the sound, and it’s pretty safe to assume they only exist for aesthetic purposes.
However, some models of vibraphones are actually more expensive with one finish than another, so beware of this detail.
2. The Resonators
The resonators are the tubes placed right under the tone bars in which the vibrations created by these very tone bars go through…
Ending up being amplified so as to produce a loud enough volume.
A vibraphone’s resonators are always closed at the bottom end (the end nearest the ground) and open on the upper end (the end right under the tone bars).
The vibrations created by the tone bars travel all the way down to the closed end and back to the upper end.
Here’s the thing though: unlike xylophones or marimbas which tone bars are made of wood, and which sustain is therefore naturally very short…
The vibraphone‘s metal tone bars produce a naturally long — up to several seconds — sustain. And you might wonder:
So why is he talking about tone bars sustain in the Resonator section?
Well, it turns out resonators need to be tuned so as to adapt perfectly to each note — or tone bar.
So how does one determines the right length for each note? Well it’s quite simple:
Wavelengths are calculated by dividing the speed of sound (340m/sec.) by the frequency.
Let’s take the note A4 as an example, which frequency is 440Hz. In order to determine the length of the resonator, we would divide 340 by 440, which gives us 0.77.
The resonator tube for the A4 note should therefore be 77cm, right? Well, not quite…
Here’s why: since the greatest possible wavelength on a tube that’s open in both end is only half of the tube length…
In the case of a vibraphone resonator — which is closed at one end — the greatest wavelength is only a quarter of the whole tube length.
Meaning that we simply need to divide the result we got earlier by 4:
Therefore, the final length of an A4 vibraphone resonator is 19cm. But we’re still not completely done here, as we still need to take into consideration the End Correction.
The “end correction” is a process used to correct possible errors of the wavelength, which might make it start before the actual resonator, right between the tone bar, and the said resonator.
After many theories and studies it has been determined that the best value to apply to this shortening needs to be of a third of the total length of the resonator.
Got it? Next up..
3. The Rotating Disk
Without a doubt THE trademark part of the vibraphone, the rotating disks are in fact what gives the vibraphone its signature sound:
The Tremolo effect, which is a rapid variation in amplitude, or volume not to be confused — as it often is — with the vibrato which is a rapid variation in pitch.
On top of each resonator tube is a disk installed on a rotating shaft. These disks are used to obstruct the top end of the tube…
Therefore letting the sound vibration produced by the tone bars enter, or not.
By creating this “sound shutter”, the vibraphone is able to create its tremolo sound.
Now, where things get interesting is in the fact that you can control the rotating speed of the shaft, and therefore of the disks.
In other word, the vibraphone gives you full control on the specific tremolo effect you winch to achieve.
To see all of this in action, check out this video:
Now you should have a better idea of how, and why you can modify the rotating speed of the disks.
4. The Motor
Obviously, in order to modify/drive the rotation speed of the disks, you need some sort of device. Good thing vibraphones have a motor built-in then!
The motor is usually placed on the right side of the vibraphone and is a simple belt motors.
Not sure how these work? Well, on their simplest form you use a “belt” to transmit motion between 2 pulleys and eventually a shaft, which holds all of the disks.
By regulating the speed of the motor, you can change shutter speed of the disks.
A typical vibraphone motor allows for speeds ranging from 40 to 140 Rotations Per Minute.
Now, the only thing you’d really have to look for when choosing a vibraphone is whether you can choose freely the speed rotation of the disks, or if there are already pre-set speeds.
For example, most vibraphones allow choosing a speed anywhere between the full speed range offered by the motor…
BUT some student models (aka. cheaper models) only offer 3 speeds – low, medium and high.
Lastly, some models are “motorless“, so be aware of that too.
So keep that in mind when selecting your next vibraphone.
Got it? Next up…
5. The Pedal
Second to the resonators disks, the biggest element that sets the vibraphone appart from other mallet instruments is probably the pedal:
- When pressed – notes will ring longer
- When released – notes don’t ring for as long
But although you might think:
Well there isn’t that much to know about the vibraphone pedal, is there?
You wouldn’t be completely wrong. However, different manufacturers have different pedals. as shown on the image on the right.
And switching from one vibraphone to another sometimes require an adaptation period, as the sensitivity between different models varies.
For a good illustration of how you would use the sustain pedal, watch living legend Gary Burton explaining it:
Unlike marimbas, vibraphones’ range is generally consistent: always 3 octaves. from F3 to F6.
However, lately some manufacturers have been extending the vibraphone’s range up to 3.5, and even 4 octaves for some models.
But unless you have a specific reason to go for vibes with higher range than 3 octaves, gor for a regular, 3 octave vibraphone.
For this list I’ll order my picks in 2 categories, student and professional models.
Student Vibraphones under $4000
Yamaha YV520 – (Thomann)
Bergerault VU– (Thomann)
Adams VSWV31– (Thomann)
Yamaha YV1605– (Thomann)
- Musser Combo – (Thomann)
Professional Vibraphones above $4000
Adams VAWT30 – (Thomann)
Musser M55 – (Thomann)
- Musser M75 – (Thomann)
- Musser M75 Lionel Hampton Signature – (Thomann )
Guess what, you can’t play the vibraphone without mallets. Which means you’re going to have to learn a bit about them.
But no to worry though, it isn’t that much.
In order to choose the right mallets, you’ll need to consider 4 factors:
- Hardness of the head – there are usually 3 types of hardness, light, medium and hard
- Materials – of the shaft and of the head
- Overall weight of the mallet – heavy mallet will tend to “fall” over on the tone bars and thus produce loud volumes without too much effort, and the opposite goes for light mallets.
- Length of the shaft – A less important factor, the length of the mallet can still have an impact on
So let’s look at all these factors into more details, shall we?
1. Hardness of the head
The harder the head, the sharper the attack. The softer head, the milder the attack.
So that’s the rule of thumb, but the attack is not the only outcome you have to look at.
In fact, there are ranges you should take into consideration when selecting mallet hardness. These are:
- The Attack – the harder the head, the sharper the attack
- The Harmonics – the softer
- The Fundamental – soft mallets also highlight the fundamental
Now some mallets actually won’t ba able to produce either fundamentals or harmonic at all, especially on the lower notes.
For example, very hard mallets will hardly produce the fundamental of a low F and you’ll mostly hear the harmonics, which is rarely desirable.
The consensus in the community is that for soloing with a jazz band for example, you’ll want hard mallets;
For playing ballads or classical pieces however, you’ll probably be better off with soft mallets.
So that’s pretty much what there is to now about vibraphone mallets hardness.
Got it? Next up…
Usually, when referring to mallet materials on a mallet we’re talking about the shaft, and not the head, since the yarn material is virtually the same on all models.
Now, material choice on the shaft has actually little to no impact on the sound. It is essentially a matter of playing comfort and grip. And so:
- Rattan – has a smooth surface and is very flexible
- Birch – has a porous surface which helps with grip but is very stiff
Got it? Next up…
Heavy mallets make it easier to produce high volume whereas light mallets might simply not allow you to produce a loud enough sound.
For a — relatively– silent practice session, very soft mallets might be good.
On the other hand, if you’re going to play with a jazz band and a loud drummer, heavy mallets are pretty much mandatory.
4. Length of the shaft
All mallets aren’t actually of same length. Now, to be honest, there aren’t a whole lot of resources about mallet lengths.
Which means nobody’s really sure what the benefits/downsides of playing with long or short shafts is.
Now, if we think in terms of pure physics, a long mallet will always require less effort to hit the otne bars, whereas a shorter mallet will always require more effort.
So keep that in mind when selecting your next pairs.
And that’s pretty much everything you need to know about vibraphone mallets.
Let’s now see my…
For this list I decided to order the mallets in 3 categories: Hard, Medium and Soft.
1. Soft Mallets
Mike Balter 44R– (Amazon)
2. Medium Mallets
- Mike Balter B23B – (Amazon/Thomann)
- Innovative Percussion AA20 – (Amazon/Thomann)
Innovative Percussion F5 – (Amazon)
3. Hard Mallets
Innovative Percussion DM28 – (Amazon)
- Mike Balter Dave Samuels Series – (Amazon/Thomann)
Innovative Percussion F4 – (Amazon)
Mike Balter 322R – (Thomann)
And That’s All
So there you have it guys, The Ultimate Guide to the Vibraphone.
Hopefully you’ve found answers to all your questions!
See you next time.