Motor talk

Hi All-

My motor troubles have had me thinking about that aspect of the instrument; been wondering what it means to YOU.

It's a funny thing; one of the last truly mechanical effects being used in contemporary music; that and the B3 with a Leslie are the only ones I can think of.

In my college years I didn't much use it; my teacher didn't, preferring to put a clean tone through chorus or tremolo pedals to get what he called a similar effect. My understanding is that Gary Burton hasn't used his in decades, and I seem to recall reading somewhere that Red Norvo stopped using it because Benny Goodman accused him of missing a note that they then realized was swallowed up by the motor.

It does make it hard to express really fast or really highly articulate lines sometimes, I'll give you that. But in recent years, I've been less and likely to get through a whole tune, let alone a whole gig, without turning it on. It's kind of the sound of the instrument, and I want it both because I like it and because I know lots of people who hire me to play VIBRAphone are not expecting to hear just a metal marimba, or a baritone glockenspiel.

In the last few years I've gotten really into varying the motor speed tune to tune, section to section, even note to note, or in the course of one note. Sometimes it really works, sometimes it's a bit indulgent and busy; working on consistency in that area.

What's it mean to you? IS it part of what makes the vibraphone the vibraphone?

My opinion is that the motor has fallen by the wayside due to the predominance of four-mallet playing over the last 40 years. Playing full chords with the motor on all the time tends to create a mushy accompaniment, so I can easily understand why Red and Gary chose to discard the motor and everyone from that school of playing.

On the other hand, the guys who tend to play single lines (horn/vocal style tending towards the use of two mallets for finer control) tend to use the motor for the most part; not everyone, but most that I can think of - Terry, Milt, Cal, Khan Jamal, Walt Dickerson, Lionel, and probably a host of others I can't think of right now. I've seen Bill Ware play acoustically and he used the motor. Of course, all of those guys could play with four mallets and did so on occasion but overall those guys played chords more for effect than full-time accompaniment like Gary does. More recently I hear a lot of guys who use pickups using the chorus effect in their amplification to simulate a degree of movement in their sound (such as Mike Mainieri).

Personally, I'd be more in your camp and use it whenever just to have it when I hear it needed. For a vibist who is a sideman and not the leader, I tend to think it's pretty crucial to be able to offer that sound option to a leader.

I guess part of the reason I'm into the motor is that in the last few years I find myself using the vibes much more as a textural instrument; something towards what Bill Frisell and great men of his ilk do with reverse loops and long, ringing notes; not so much pounding out rhythmic comping to bluses and rhythm changes in my life, so things being 'swallowed' or 'overwhelmed' by the motor are not such an issue. I tend to play less (or try,) and when I do, I want it to have a lush sound, with a lot of character. Thus the motor.

On my morning drive to teaching my class this morning, I pulled out Emmylou Harris's great album Wrecking Ball, where the title track has the most ethereally processed vibes playing I've ever heard on anyone's album. In fact, you'd never recognize it as vibes if you hadn't read the credits. It's played by the record's engineer, which just goes to show that sometimes a non-vibes player can get a more unusual sound out of the instrument than a schooled player. Anyway, the song "Wrecking Ball" was written by Neil Young, and that reminded me that Neil's first country album Comes A Time is loaded with vibes playing - not exactly what one would expect on a Neil Young album, although one could make the case that one should only expect the unexpected from Neil Young.

I played a benefit about a month ago where k.d. lang's song "Constant Craving" came on the house system and I was telling the guitar player about the vibes part on the track. Of course, he had never noticed a vibes part on it, so we walked right in front of this gigantic JBL PA system where you could hear every nuance of the song and sure enough, there was Gary's vibes part under the song and really adds an understated color to it.

In my opinion, vibes sound dry and emotionless without the motor... No offense to anyone that prefers not to use it (many of my idols dont, and I never think "man this would sound better with motor"). I don't feel like it interferes with my comping. I actually think it makes chords sound way better and more full. Even on fast tempos it just makes sustained notes sound better. In fast lines, if the motor is at a nice medium slow roll, it doesn't really make the lines less clear to me. It is in the name of the instrument! I think we should stop thinking about our roll being a severely handicapped piano and switch to thinking about playing the vibraphone. The motor makes it sound less like a computer and more like an instrument.

Just my opinion. In the long run, its just about what you like hearing I guess.

-Joe Doubleday
http://www.youtube.com/user/Issossk?feature=watch

Hey Joe,

I agree with you. I've always gone back and forth with the motor. At first, I never used it. Then I started using it. Then I stopped. Now I've been using it again the past few years. I think your comment about it sounding fuller on comping is absolutely correct. Everyone I ever comp for says the same thing. The other thing we need to keep in mind; when people hire a vibraphone for an ensemble, they want the motor sound 9 out of 10 times. Most people like it.

The only slight disagreement I have is that I turn it off sometimes during solos, unless it's a ballad or something with alot of sustained notes. I feel like lines are clearer without it. Even when it's on, it doesn't really make much of a difference anyway for fast stuff, so I don't think anyone misses it very much.

I like both ways. For me it depends of the music actually played, what I'm hearing, what's the place's sound. The place's acoustic is a very important item very often neglected. It's the same kind of thing that reverb use : in some places you need a bunch, in others quite nothing (particulary true for singers and guitarists). In some places motor will give you a very - as time, too - warm sound with less precision, when in another places motorless is going to be too dry... What I do systematically in a new place, I try different mallets and I try to imagine the sound in audience's place. Not easy at first but with some training it becomes easier.
Imagine a hall with some important natural reverb, your motor-with vibe amplified in the PA system an the sound guy putting some bright reverb to your sound, the result can be very weird... and now a place with some short reverb with bad resonance in the highs, giving a clunky sound, if motor-less it can be weird too, motor use can sometimes soften the sound...
In another hand I feel motorless playing is more demanding, but maybe it's a personnal problem, a lack somewhere in my playing.
I often switch motor on/off during a tune (AA on, B off, A on, for instance), giving a bit more life to the music. (guitarist reflex ? :o) )
Now, vibe masters all have their own original sound, they don't need to have more that one sound, they don't need anymore to adapt their playing, that's the other people who adapt to them.
Finally, it's up to us to find our own way and our own voice and if motor is an issue or a positive thing for our playing depends on who we are (or want to be) as musicians, no ?

Babu, have you had the opportunity to take your new Piper Flyer out to play? I would like to know how that particular instrument has affected how you play now compared to the past. It has some very unique features, and do you have a motor with that instrument?

I bought a M55 3 monthes later the Piper prototype, using it on gigs, then the Piper stayed home and it doesn't have motor. This gave me the oportunity to really accustome myself with dry sound. And now I can play the same tunes with or without motor. The feeling is quite different but each way is great IMHO. Playing with a dry sound, I feel more "exposed", I need more accuracy when beating the bars, but harmony is clearer, lines sound sharper. Motor on, I have a lot more choices about how to make sound a tune, and the "fluctuating" sound somehow compensate the acoustic issues in the places where I play. But after practicing a lot with only a dry sound, I'm not afraid anymore to play motorless on gigs. I have the two sounds in my head now, and I feel confident with playing both.
What I have to say about the Piper : ways more precise sound, no setting issues, always full bright sound, etc... Let's say it's a M55 without any issue, and a more consistant sound. (with same Musser bars and resonators), and no shaking, buzzing, trembling, etc... AT ALL. You get the pure sound from the bars. Cotton thread for the bars helps too. A marvellous instrument I really dig to play everyday (it's very important to know you'll never be disapointed by your vibes).
M55 in comparison is a toy, no stable settings, some noises, buzzes, shakings, frame noises, the motor control panel is a JOKE (no way to get the same fan velocity when playing the same tune two different days - my old tiny TAMA was ways better for that : very reliable linear-quick set-fader), bad casters etc... but handy about transport and I had it for a cheap price...
The Piper is really at a professional level, really serious stuff and it's just a prototype !