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.

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