Mallets, Amplification and MIDI
Dave Samuels recalls the ongoing history of mallet-keyboard electronics
BY RICK MATTINGLY
In a world where amplification of musical instruments has become so commonplace that it is typical for an 94 acoustic" band to include an electric guitar and/or electric bass, vibraphonists and marimbists who wish to be heard often continue to rely on hard, brittle mallets that produce more attack than tone, and on microphones that only pick up some of the notes, some of the time. Through his work in clubs, concert halls and recording studios with bands and artists such as Double Image, Frank Zappa, Spyro Gyra and the Caribbean Jazz Project, Dave Samuels has had the opportunity to try a variety of approaches to amplifying and MIDIing his instruments. As a result, he knows what works and what doesn't. Here, he shares his memories of various amplification and electronics systems he has used, and offers advice to mallet players who wish to amplify or enhance their acoustic sound.
Rick Mattingly: When you first became a vibraphonist, the only way to amplify the sound of the instrument was with microphones. When did you first encounter an alternative?
Dave Samuels: When I was in school at Boston University in 1970, I bought a Deagan ElectraVibe. I not only wanted to be heard, I also wanted an instrument that I would be able to use effects with, because at that time, everyone was using ring modulators, wah?wah pedals, echoplexes and phase shifters. I was disappointed in the sound quality of that instrument. The ElectraVibe had no resonators, and the bars?which were thin and not graduated?never came off. My understanding of the ElectraVibe was that it used Barcus-Berry pickups that were drilled into the bar. This was the system that was also used by a guy in Chicago named Gilberto, who was retrofitting people's instruments with pickups. You drilled a hole in the bar, put the pickup in there, and put a glob of epoxy on it. It wasn't until years later that Ray Ayotte came out with a system in which a piezo transducer was glued on the bottom of the bar and there was no drilling. It not only saved the bar, it also allowed you to fix pickups more easily if anything broke. With the pickup that was inserted in the bar, you had to re-tap that bar to get all of the old pickup out in order to put a new pickup in. Then I got involved with a drummer who lived in Boston at that time named Cleve Pozar. He was the original drummer in the Bob James Trio. He was very inventive, and I talked to him about wanting a pickup system that would work well. He said, "Let's make one," which was not something I had ever thought of. I spent two or three weeks down in his basement winding coils for a pickup system. We bought shimstock, which are little bits of metal that we glued to the bottoms of the bars so we could use a magnetic pickup. After spending hours and hours doing that, we had a system that was fair at best. So I lived with the frustration of playing the ElectraVibe.
Mattingly: Gary Burton told me that Musser made a few prototypes of an instrument similar to the ElectraVibe but it never went into production. Musser did eventually come out with electronic pickups that could be mounted on acoustic vibes, which was also marketed by Deagan.
Samuels: Right. After I got rid of the ElectraVibe, I got an endorsement with Musser and got this system they had called the AmpliVibe Pickup. It was a magnetic pickup bar that attached to the outside of the rails. It was inexpensively made, and you mostly got a thumping sound--not much pitch. I never really liked the sound, but it was the only thing on the market. Essentially, the story of electronics for mallet instruments is one of lack of interest on the part of manufacturers, and also lack of competition. Without interest, you don't have a lot of money being spent on research and development. Without competition, you don't have alternatives. My sitting in a basement winding coils sounds absurd, but there weren't any alternatives. Mike Mainieri spending thousands of his own dollars and ending up with an instrument that kind of worked, but then didn't work, represented the frustration that mallet players had trying to amplify themselves. It's a commentary on the position of mallet instruments within the industry.
Mattingly: During this time, were you also looking into amplifying marimba?
Samuels: I really didn't start playing marimba until '72 or '73 after I met David Friedman and we started Double Image. By that time, I wasn't using amplification with vibes anymore. I used microphones. The next time I was involved with pickups was in 1976 when I did a record with Frank Zappa. Ruth Underwood and I were playing marimba and vibes that were set up with state-of-the-art Barcus-Berry pickups. The electronics were of better quality than what Deagan and Musser were using. Zappa had tech guys out on the road who were able to shape the sound so that the instruments sounded really good live--and that band was loud.
Mattingly: Outside of the Zappa gig, though, were you still using microphones?
Samuels: Yes. I should mention one experiment I tried for a while. In the early '80s when the first PZM microphones came out, I bought a lavaliere PZM. A PZM was a flat-surface microphone, not a tube microphone. It was pressure-sensitive and you could put it on the floor or the wall or the soundboard of a piano. I made a little harness out of Plexiglass and put the PZM on that, and then made a belt so I actually wore the microphone over my stomach, and my body acted as a baffle to whatever was behind me. I could move back and forth between vibes and marimba, and wherever I was playing, the microphone was right there. It wasn't great, but it worked okay. When I started going out with Spyro Gyra in '82, I used regular microphones. I had mic's under both instruments and it was a real struggle. At that point I started to look around to find out if somebody could make a pickup system. That's when I ran into Ray Ayotte in Vancouver. I told him how frustrated I was at not being heard, and he decided to take on the task. He came up with a really good system that used a piezo transducer that was glued onto each bar, with a bus bar on each rail so that each pickup was plugged into its own jack with its own pot (potentiometer) so you could control the volume. It worked well and I used that for years. But he ultimately got out of that business; he was more interested in making drums. Ray also customized my first marimba from 4 1/3-octave to 3 1/3. I was very concerned about going out on the road and having an instrument that was practical. I wanted an instrument that was smaller, but I wanted to keep the lower register, so I chopped off the top octave. Yamaha made the one I'm using now.
Mattingly: Were you able to use the Ayotte system when MIDI came along?
Samuels: No, Ray's system was amplification of the acoustic sound only. It had nothing to do with MIDI. Bill Katoski was the first person to develop a MIDI mallet controller, the malletKAT. Another instrument I experimented with briefly in the early '80s was made by J.L Cooper. He came up to me at a NAMM show and told me that he had made an electronic vibe that could be MIDIed, and he asked if I would like to try it. It was a 3-octave instrument with plastic bars. They were nongraduated, but they were fairly wide. There was no acoustic sound and no resonators. This was before digital technology, but it could control all the synths. It worked really well and the bars felt comfortable, but all of a sudden he just dropped it. At the same time Bill Katoski came up with his malletKAT, which had rubber bars. Bill's instrument had capabilities that were very sophisticated and thorough, way beyond the use of most people. His instrument did everything but make coffee. I've used every version of the malletKAT that Bill made. They are always reliable and sound great. There were some attempts by other companies to make instruments like the malletKAT, but nothing every saw the light of day.
Mattingly: Around the same time the malletKAT came out, Simmons introduced the Silicon Mallet.
Samuels: That was such a sham instrument that I don't consider it in the same league as the malletKAT. It didn't even have three full octaves; it went from C to B, which was completely mindless. The playing surface was very hard and hurt your hands. Simmons had taken their drum technology and assumed that mallet players used the same kinds of sticks that drummers used. It was silly; no wonder they put themselves out of business.
Mattingly: Still, that and the malletKAT allowed mallet players to get involved with MIDI. Did any type of MIDI interface come along that you could use with the Ayotte system so that you could MIDI your acoustic vibes and marimba?
Samuels: There wasn't an interface. Mainieri had an interface built for him, but that was a serious piece of change.
Mattingly: So there was no way for the average vibes player to MIDI an acoustic vibraphone?
Samuels: Absolutely not. The K&K system, which came out of Germany, was the first that allowed you to play an acoustic instrument and also send out MIDI information. K&K is very reliable and they make a good product. It's the only product of its kind, both in terms of an electronic pickup system and a MIDI system. Nothing else is commercially available now. So your choice is K&K or microphones.
Mattingly: Is the K&K pickup system and MIDI system the same thing?
Samuels: The pickups themselves don't change, whether it's for the MIDI system or the amplified system. With the MIDI system, you need some different cables and a "MIDI Master" box that attaches to the side of the instrument. K&K has never designed a system that will allow you to MIDI anything over three octaves. The pickup system can be any size, but in terms of sending and receiving MIDI information, it only goes up to three octaves. That's fine for vibes, and for marimba you can have a pickup system for the whole instrument, but the MIDI portion of that would only be good for three octaves.
Mattingly: What are you using now with the Caribbean Jazz Project?
Samuels: I've got a K&K pickup system for both the vibes and marimba. I take out a 3 1/3-octave Yamaha Acoustalon marimba with no resonators. I play a normal 3-octave vibe, and in addition to the pickup system, we put two microphones underneath to warm up the sound. Our sound tech seems to think that it makes a huge difference. It's hard for me to tell from the stage.
Mattingly: Are you using MIDI with your Caribbean Jazz Project setup?
Samuels: Not with that group, but I do in other situations. I did a record date for Art Garfunkel recently where they wanted a bass marimba, so I used the malletKAT's internal marimba sound, tuned it down, and it sounded absolutely fantastic. I also use the malletKAT when I play with a group, called the Fantasy Band with Chuck Loeb, Marion Meadows and John Lee.
Mattingly: What is gained and what is lost when one MIDIs an acoustic mallet instrument?
Samuels: Obviously what is gained is that you have the whole electronic palette of sounds to choose from, which you can combine with the amplified acoustic sound of a vibe or marimba. What you can lose is your musical identity. If you're using the vibe and marimba strictly as a triggering device, there's a possibility of sounding like a generic synth player. Depending on the type of sound you're using, you may very well have to alter your technique and the way you phrase. Part of being able to successfully use another sound is to be able to assume the playing posture of that particular sound. When playing marimba, we are used to playing sounds with relatively short durations, so if you are using a sound with a long sustain, you have to adjust the way you play. On vibes, it can be a little easier because you have more control over the sustain. But you have to be able to tailor your technique to fit whatever sound it is. If you're combining the MIDIed sound with an amplified vibe or marimba sound, you've got to either adjust the sound so that both decays are similar or get used to the fact that the acoustic sound may die out while the MIDI sound continues on. It can also be problematic if you want to play something very staccato and fast. You have to make sure that the retrigger function is working properly and the setup is exactly right so that it does, in fact, retrigger consistently.
Mattingly: What advice can you offer mallet players regarding the use of microphones with mallet instruments?
Samuels: If you are going to buy a couple of microphones to use for live playing, you are also going to have to get some kind of power amplifier and speaker system so that you can create a consistent sound. That is a relatively expensive process, and is also contingent on what type of group you are playing in because that will determine the power of the amplifier and what kind of microphones you need. Are you playing in an amplified band where you are the only acoustic instrument? Where do you set up on stage? Are you in front of the drums or somewhere that you can minimize the amount of leakage going into those microphones, because microphones never discriminate.
Mattingly: Singers can use a mic that won't pick up anything further than an inch away, but if you are going to cover three octaves with two mic's, it has to cover a wider range, which means it's going to pick up all kinds of stuff.
Samuels: That will absolutely happen. If you do end up using microphones that only cover a small distance, you have to use several of them. Then you have to be concerned about phase cancellation, and you have to have a microphone mixer that can handle all those inputs. You also have to decide whether to mic from above or below. Depending on whether you're playing in a concert or a club, does the person who is doing the sound have any idea what it's supposed to sound like? So it's kind of a multi-layered problem and solution. The nicest thing is if you can create a consistent sound no matter where you are--something that can go to the audience directly or to go to a house engineer so that the sound quality he's getting is the sound quality you want. I generally recommend that anyone who is performing on a consistent basis buy a pickup system. It's really going to be your first line of defense in terms of being able to get a consistent sound. Of course, that's making the assumption that you're playing in a group where there are other amplified instruments. If that's not the case, then you may not need a pickup system. I do some work in small clubs with a trio with electric guitar, bass and vibes, and I don't use a thing--not even a microphone. It's fantastic to be totally unencumbered, and it sounds fine.
©Percussive Notes / June 1997 / pg. 66-68