Saturday, January 26, 2019

Tunes 86 and 87 - The High-C Roll and Don't Forget the Well

Last week I was listening to the Mongolian band AnDa Union and thought that I would try and write a melody like one of theirs.  Out comes The High Sea Roll or The High-C Roll.  That was my intent when this was written on January 18, 2019 but it came out sounding more like a sea shanty.  So it's a sea shanty.  Here's a phone recording I had made while playing it on banjo.  It's as good as any.

Then this week I was messing around with a minor sounding folk melody that I was calling Don't Forget the Well.  (I often add my  own nonsense words to serve as "lyrics" to the instrumental tunes I write.  The syllables in these words correspond to the notes in the melody and help me remember how it sounds).  Independent from that folk melody I happened upon a little new-classical sounding sequence of notes using just the black keys of a piano.  I didn't give that much thought at first, but when I realized that this little modal sounding folk melody could be shifted over a few semitones so that it lined up with the black key scale of that other little melody, then voila I had something complete enough to be considered a new tune. 

The scale being used here in Don't Forget the Well contains the notes in D-flat major:  Db, Eb, F, Gb, Ab, Bb, C, Db.  Also known as Bb minor.  Note the use of all five "black key" notes on a keyboard.  I wrote it that way on purpose so that it would focus on those notes.  When I got my new Sound Percussion Labs xylophone yesterday, this was the first thing I played on it.  Here's a recording of this tune in Db on my new xylophone, recorded the same day that I got it after taking it out of the box and getting it onto the stand.

I feel like I have more ideas brewing, steeping, simmering inside so hopefully there's more to come soon.

Review: Sound Percussion Labs 2-2/3 Octave Xylophone

My new xylophone
One week ago I had an introductory lesson with a local mallet percussion instructor.  In his studio the teacher had a 4.3 octave marimba and a 3.5 octave xylophone.  My main purpose for this initial meeting was to get to see, hear and play a marimba in person.  But while there I also struck a few bars on the xylophone.  It then struck me that xylophone ain't so bad and that it might be an excellent practice instrument to tide me over until I can get a marimba.

So after the lesson I did some research on xylophones and came across this one under the Sound Percussion Labs brand:

It has 2.6 octaves, padauk wood bars and resonators, and comes with its own stand and a set of mallets.  It's priced at $499.99 - which is not too bad for this style of instrument - but I bet with some internet sleuthing of promo codes you could at least get the price down to $425 (15% off).  I also ran across this Korogi desktop xylophone at $315 but it doesn't come with resonators, mallets or a stand.

There's not much information out there about this Sound Percussion Labs 2-2/3 Octave Xylophone but I did find this video of someone playing one.  It sounds pretty good in this video so I took the plunge:

I ordered online but had it shipped to a local store to save on shipping costs.  Four business days after ordering the store called me to say that it was in, so yesterday I drove down and picked it up.  The box it was shipped in easily fit in the back seat of my car and it was light enough for me to pick up and carry into the house without assistance.

The instrument was packaged well.  After taking everything out of the box I noticed that there were no setup instructions.  This initially concerned me but five minutes later I had it fully setup and was already playing.  I am the absolute worst with setup/assembly, so if I could have it set up within five minutes of unboxing then it must be something that anyone could figure out.

The xylophone portion comes ready to play out of the box.  You could take it out of the box, put it on a table top and begin playing right away.  The padauk bars are already in position with no assembly required.

The stand required assembly but that was super easy and feels stable once assembled.  You just insert the middle bar, line it up where a screw could go through, and then quickly screw in the included part.  Once the stand is assembled you will see that there are little nobs on top of the stands that line up with little holes or indendations on bottom of the xylophone frame, allowing it to sit securely on the stand.  On the xylophone frame there's a place where the resonators are supposed to hang from and sitting the resonators on those notches is pretty intuitive once you notice them.

35 inches long or wide.
23 inches deep at the low end.
30.25 inches high when sitting on stand (first row of bars).
Bars are a static width of about 1.25 inches.

How Does It Sound?
You can already tell from the video that I shared above that it sounds pretty good.  I am even more impressed by its sound in person.  I feel like xylophone is one of those instruments that doesn't always come across well in YouTube videos or sound samples, but in-person the sound of this instrument is quite pleasant.  It's a BIG step up from a bells glockenspiel, for sure.

For a student or beginner-level instrument made in China I'm about as happy as can be with this instrument.  I haven't done much testing of the sound with our without the resonators to see what difference they make.  The mallets that it comes with do seem to be cheaply made when compared to the quality of the rest of the instrument.  They are fine to begin with but that is something you might want to upgrade eventually.

I made this little recording yesterday after getting the xylophone onto its stand.  Here's how I sound on my first day of playing this new instrument and here's how it sounds on its first day in my living room.  I used the mallets it came with.  This is a tune I had written the day before getting the xylophone.  I wrote it in Db in anticipation of getting the xylophone, knowing that the notes in that scale primarily reside on the back row.  Just to make it more fun.


Sunday, January 13, 2019

The Mallet Percussion Instrument Dilemma

Even though I've never played a proper one, for many years now I've had the feeling that I want to add a mallet percussion instrument to the list of instruments I own and play.  Related to that, in 2017 I took a few piano lessons, enough to realize that I don't want to actually play piano the way you're supposed to, but also enough to realize that from a musical standpoint I really like the layout of a keyboard or keyboard-like instrument with the notes of the C major scale running low to high left to right across the first row (the white keys) and the other five notes of the chromatic scale - the accidental notes in the key of C - across the second row (black keys).  A keyboard design like that has the same 12 musical notes as found on my tenor banjo but it really gets me out of my comfort zone, especially as a left-handed stringed instrument player.

Chromatic mallet percussion instruments like the marimba, xylophone, glockenspiel and vibraphone utilize that keyboard design.  So, last year I purchased a 2.5 octave glockenspiel (the most inexpensive and compact option) as a stepping stone to find out if I really wanted to play a mallet percussion instrument and the answer is YES.  I actually don't dislike the bell-like tone of the glockenspiel, but I am close to being ready to take the next step.

Of the three - xylophone, marimba and vibraphone - I like the sound of the xylophone the least so xylophone is easy to eliminate.  I love the sound of vibraphone in jazz and elsewhere (moe., Tortoise) but I haven't been able to find a viable vibraphone option in my budget range or space range (condo living doesn't leave much room for very large instruments).  So, sadly, the traditional vibraphone is out as well.  

That leaves marimba and fortunately there are some marimba options.  (There is another option, the MalletKAT, that I will get to in a moment). 

I've learned that there are basically two two very different marimba communities - the orchestral/academic community and the Zimbabwean/Shona community.  Both have marimba designs that have evolved to suit the repertoire and traditions of each group.  Me, being someone who just likes to write his own little melodies to be played on any instrument capable of producing those notes...I don't align with either community.  

In the orchestral/academic world the marimbas tend to be 4.3 or 5 chromatic octaves (meaning very big and very expensive) with graduated key widths and are designed to be easy to play/get around on while blending in with the rest of the orchestra.

In the Zimbabwe style, the soprano marimba plays the melody.  It is designed to be loud and serve its function by cutting through in the dense sound of multi-instrument marimba ensemble.  These soprano marimbas have wide keys in the 2.75 in to 3 inch range and are not chromatic.  This means the keys are all in one row and you don't have all 12 notes at your disposal.  I would need all 12 notes.  The Zimbabwe marimbas, being folk instruments, are often more rustic looking.  

 So what to do?  Well, in the orchestral/classical world there's a thing called a "student" marimba, designed as a less expensive practice instrument for the high school or college student to play at home.  These are usually three octaves and the absolute best option in this category that I've been able to find is the M1 3 Octave Marimba by DeMorrow Instruments.  These are hand made in Arkansas and the owner/builder Doug DeMorrow has an unsurpassed reputation.  The M1 would meet my needs and can be considered a real instrument.  It's about 54 inches long though, so still a relatively large instrument despite being compact by marimba standards. 

The M1 - 3 Octave Marimba by DeMorrow Instruments

The other option is to find a maker in the Zimbabwe style willing to make a customized chromatic Soprano style marimba - two octaves C4 to C6.  Eric Orem at Padauk Dust Marimbas in Oregon is just such a person.  Why just two octaves though?  Well for one thing a two octave range would fit 95% of the melody lines I like to play and secondly due to the larger key widths of a Soprano style instrument anything more than 2 octaves is going to be longer than the 3 Octave DeMorrow shown above.
A Chromatic Marimba made by Eric Orem at Padauk Dust Marimbas

Did you see the video at the top of this article?  In my mind a 2-octave chromatic soprano would be the best of both worlds - you'd be playing an instrument designed for lead melodies but you'd also have all 12 notes at your disposal.  Unless it's just TOO LOUD for my living space.  You could also dial back the width of the keys just a bit...a 2-octave instrument with keys at about 6cm wide would come in at about four-feet in length or less.  I don't know if on an instrument like this you would need width-graduated keys or if the keys could be a static width.

There is a 3rd option, the MalletKAT.  I think of the MalletKAT as being like a synth option.  It's electronic and they no longer make them with internal sounds, so you would need some kind of external sound source like a KETRON sound module or a computer program or app to create the sounds, and a speaker or amplifier to hear those sounds.  The one I would get is the MalletKAT Express.  It's compact at just 32" wide and already comes in that C to C two octave range that I like.  The question I keep asking myself is do I want to have to deal with all this technology?  I just want to be able to play melodies on a mallet percussion instrument.  The banjo I play isn't electric so why would I want that in a different instrument?  But I'm still considering the MalletKAT.  The versatility in sounds would be cool and once you learn how it's programmed it's probably pretty easy to operate.  (I realize there's also a competitor to the MalletKAT called the Pearl malletSTATION but that instrument is of less interest to me).    

The MalletKAT Express

I've been deep into research mode and hope to make a decision soon.

The Melody Creating Continues Into 2019

Since reading Jeff Tweedy's memoir I've been more inspired than ever to try and create something new (almost every day).  It doesn't have to be good or that different than what came before.  The act of creating is the goal not the end product.

With that in mind, the tunes have continued into 2019.  I found an old Guatemalan Marimba Chapinlandia LP at a thrift store and this one called Liquid Yepocapa is inspired by the music on that album.  Guatemalan marimba music often has a ragtime or foxtrot feel.  This was written from January 4 to 5.  I recorded this on 1/5/19 using my Ome tenor banjo.  The tune is a little tricky to play and I was still getting the feel of it when this was recorded.

Fortunately I've never really gotten into too much of a rut, but when I am feeling that way one option is to scan through this book of scales I have called Musical Scales of the World by Michael Hewitt.  It's one of the best music books I own.  On January 9 I was looking through the section of this book on Japanese pentatonic scales and happened upon this melody while playing the Minyõ scale (page 157).  With C as the starting note, the Minyõ scale is C, Eb, F, G, Bb, C.  This is a super simple melody that is fun to play.  Here I am today playing it on glockenspiel.  Hopefully this year I'll get a better mallet instrument.

On January 10 I came up with this melody called Walls and Ceiling while playing my Keith McMillen K-Board.  I'll spare you the placeholder words I used to flesh out the melody, but this was an example where by syncing the syllables of words to the sound of the melody helped solidify it in my mind.  This is just a one part tune.  It's rare that something feels complete without at least a 2nd part but this one feels good as it is.  I hadn't played guitar in a few weeks so I was figuring out where the guitar notes were for this melody as I was recording it.  This is one of the first takes where I got through with no major note flubs.

Last night I picked up the banjo at about 10pm with no intention of playing for a long time or doing anything in particular.  Three hours later it was 1am and I had been playing that whole time, with a bunch of musical notes written out on tab paper.  Some of those notes come from here.  No Hamsters Allowed.