PIPER's Workroom 1
Piper’s Work Room (first post)
Tony asked me to present my story along with a series relating to the vibraphone's various mechanical functions from both a player and a builder's perspective. The objective is to systematically address the entire instrument and share what I learned going through the process of designing, building, marketing and pitching the PIPERvibe to Musser. I’m hoping that you will ask questions, answer questions and present new ideas. Building a great vibraphone is simple - until you actually do it.
There's more to building a vibraphone than just creating a cart to hold the bars and resonators. That part is simple. When you add the most important part (the player), the equation becomes a lot more complicated. Some players like the instrument they’re use to without change while other players wish for an instrument that makes their particular style of playing easier, and in some cases possible to execute.
To begin with, before the PIPERvibe I experimented constantly with my M55. The Musser/Piper M58 Vibe was the first instrument I built from scratch. I only focused on the frame and tuning of the resonators. I know very little about designing or building the bars other than I know what I like.
Before the Musser/Piper M58 Vibraphone, there was little to no attention and money spent on the damper, the wobbly/noisy frame, uneven damping, height adjustment and extraneous noises coming from the string, damper and pedal. The traditional instrument stayed basically the same for long periods of time because there was nothing forcing the manufacturers to come up with better instruments – no competition. When changes or updates were made (rarely) engineers acted more as “middle men” trying to interpret the needs of the player and convey those requirements to the manufacturer because the engineers were not vibraphone players. As I worked with Musser, I realized that though the engineer there at the time (Ken) was a fantastic guy and a skilled, dedicated, top of the line engineer, he was not a mallet player.
I realized early that J.C. Deagan was a brilliant creator of tuned things such as wood, metal, resonators etc. Musser was a marimba player and worked for Deagan in the beginning but branched off on his own and developed the great M75 Century vibraphone and later the M55 Pro vibe that is still a brilliantly simple design. After Claire Musser, there were no players directly involved with the actual engineering of the instrument until Leigh Stevens stepped up as Musser Artist/Consultant and made improvements to Musser marimbas. Leigh and Clair Musser both being marimba virtuosos made that extra difference to the marimba. Gary Burton was highly influential in the process and was the “Ringo Starr” of the Musser instruments for the vibraphone. His tremendous playing put Musser Vibraphones into the schools (that’s how I heard it).
When Clair Musser left the manufacturing scene and sold to Ludwig, very few things evolved or improved on the instruments because there were no players actively working as frontline engineers. Gary Burton offered great ideas for the engineers to follow up on but didn’t (to my knowledge) actually design solutions - probably because he was very busy creating musical greatness. These are from stories I heard from Bill Ludwig and factory engineers at the time I was artist/consultant with Musser shortly after Leigh H. Stevens left Musser.
There was also a short time prior to my involvement when Dave Samuels and David Friedman were Musser artists but from what I heard at the factory, they didn’t agree with each other on vibraphone sound and design and left Musser to become Yamaha artists.
As players and music became more demanding following the original Deagan instruments and manufacturing options became more available, the vibraphone still stayed the same. Same problems with uneven damping and noisy mechanics. Granted, some players didn’t notice the problems but some players (like me) were plagued with it. It finally started to evolve and attempts to meet the demands of concert and recording artists of the modern era when the players re-involved themselves in actively designing and innovating their own instruments out of necessity. The engineers at Musser were top notch but they were not percussionists and could only imagine how to raise the bar without upsetting the status quo.
The Piper Vibraphone addressed these issues and was extremely innovative for the time and I was a player acting as engineer. I was a self-taught, pseudo-engineer doing my thing the best I could out of total commitment to solve problems that frustrated me and many others with regard to the vibraphone frame.
I’ve included some old pictures of the original Piper Vibe prototype and the final product by Musser back in the 1990’s. On this area of VibesWorkshop.com, I’ll tell stories of how it all came to fruition (if there’s interest from readers). From dinners with Mr. Ludwig, Mr. Selmer, to the Piper Vibe presentation for Tom Burzycki (president/ceo of Selmer) and others, that landed me the enormous opportunity to have a voice, this was an adventure from the ranks of ordinary to extraordinary that I hope some of you may find interesting.
After this initial post, I’ll offer technical advice and observations and hopefully you too will chime in with your views. One thing I learned is that the instrument doesn’t make the player but it certainly does contribute to the comfort or discomfort in the quest for your personal sound. Some players can accomplish their musical objective with a primitive pentatonic African marimba while others prefer the latest refined version. Regardless of which category you lean toward, this subject is part of the picture.
After the Piper Vibe was on the market, companies began to look at the innovations and startup companies like Nico’s took the ball and ran with it. Leigh H. Stevens really wanted me to sign with him but I had to go with the sure thing – Musser. They had money (lots of money) and at the time, Malletech was struggling.
Musser purchased very high-dollar adds in PAS, The Instrumentalist, and Down Beat magazines that put me on the map all over the world. Musser rented out a beautiful historic concert hall in Indiana for the photo shoot and hired the best damn advertising firm money could buy and created a beautiful PiperVibe Poster. In addition, they paid the total bill for the lawyers to patent the instrument on my behalf. I heard a figure of well over 100K for that patenting process. Very pro. They also paid me well. In addition to a sizable up front chunk of many, I was also on the payroll at 50.00 per hour to work out of my garage and come up with R&D solutions to problems. They flew me to Chicago once a month to check the PIPER vibe progress out at the factory. I was paid 500.00 per day plus expenses to teach about the instrument to factory workers (who I loved). This was HUGE! At the Musser factory, there was a substantial section dedicated to the PIPER Vibe. I LOVED going there and working in the factory. Ken Sieloff (lead engineer) become a very good friend of mine. We saw things the same. I got clinics and concerts as a result of my new fame that Musser bought for me. It was fun. The first couple years, Musser sent a brand new Piper Vibe to each of my performances, set up and ready to play. I remember doing one concert/clinic at Berklee and the vibe was on a pallet waiting for me when I arrived.
All this was great except that once the instrument was on the market…. It never improved or changed. I submitted upgrades that would have made the instrument lighter, more portable and better in many ways but the instrument didn’t budge. This, by the way, was all predicted exactly as it happened by Leigh H. Stevens back in 1995.
Please enjoy the photos here and let’s continue this topic. There’s so much more and don't hesitate to jump in there and set me straight if I get details slightly off.