Plastics aren't out of breath
Midrange instruments worthy of the conservatoire !
Like other industries, instrument making has to contend with changing standards with regard to health and safety, and the environment.
Some of the natural materials traditionally used in instrument making are now subject to stringent and sometimes impossible regulations. This has happened for the Pernambuco wood used to make bows for stringed instruments and certain species of wood used for making guitars and percussion instruments.
Both established brands and young upstarts are currently faced with the major challenge of looking at appropriate and alternative materials. Not just to meet the increasing demand for affordable instruments.
It has become necessary to use the innovative materials developed in polymer chemistry to continue striving for excellence and to meet the requirements of teachers and professional musicians.
Plastics are taking the recorder back to school.
Since 2008, recorder lessons have quietly disappeared from music programmes in France, to the delight of thousands of schoolchildren and parents who are happy to see the back of an old ritual that was kept alive for over half a century.
This particular instrument was the staple of many a school's musical activities throughout Europe and has actually been a great test-bed for the use of plastics in the manufacture of wind instruments. And not for monetary reasons alone!
The wood commonly used to manufacture flutes is not necessarily suited to large-scale practice. Wooden flutes are both fragile and sensitive to moisture and require frequent oiling. The first celluloid recorders intended for use by schoolchildren at the end of the nineteen thirties were progressively replaced by Bakelite models which were less sensitive to temperature variations.
Japanese manufacturer Aulos claims to have launched the first acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) recorder in 1966. This may be true, and the fact remains that it was quickly imitated by all serious competitors, whose products, music teachers deemed to have the same pedigree.
ABS resin now in all woods
Recorders are the simplest of all wood instruments. Other instruments - flutes, clarinets and oboes, are fitted with the Boehm metal keywork system. This type of keywork entails new mechanical constraints in addition to the acoustic constraints which require the use of dense and rigid materials. This led instrument makers to prefer easily-machinable materials such as ebony or African Blackwood, metal alloys for saxophones and silver for flutes.
Although they meet the requirements for luxury craftsmanship, these materials are not suited for mass production for the use of music schools and marching bands. Hence the idea of using less expensive synthetic materials.
Ebonite, already widely used for the mouthpieces, replaced ebony in the bodies of practice clarinets in the 50s. Other brands, such as the Belgian Stagg opted for Bakelite. Buffet Crampon developed the Green Line composite, made from 95% recycled grenadilla fibres, carbon fibre and epoxy resin.
Most manufacturers and importers also offer instruments made from ABS resin. Some of them, machined and drilled in the traditional, way present all of the mechanical and acoustic properties required for playing music. However, they now face competition from very cheap models made of moulded plastic.
Plastics give you the keys to start
Up until recently, the synthetic materials used in instrument-making have been mostly substitute materials with a minimal impact on the structure, mechanisms and especially, on the actual playing of the instrument.
Recently, however, nonconformist teachers such as Graham Lyon have encouraged a more innovative use of plastics. In a bid to make the clarinet more accessible to a wider audience from a younger age, this English musician developed the Clarinéo in collaboration with famous instrument maker Ted Planas.
The Clarinéo , in C, is composed of three clippable elements which can be easily assembled. Its ABS body and simplified Delrin acetal resin keywork make it much better suited to the requirements of aspiring virtuosos than do conventional models: it is extremely light (weighing only 250 grams, having been reduced by 60%), easy to manipulate, is hard-wearing, requires minimal maintenance, doesn't need to be adjusted and can be easily repaired thanks to its replaceable components…
Although it is made to last, this hard-wearing instrument is intended for use with a varied repertoire, from classical to jazz, and even for seasoned musicians. It is the result of a long development process started in the 80s and it has only been a few months since it first began being adopted by a wider audience. It has been so successful that, Nuvo, the company founded by Graham Lyon and his associate Max Clissold, launched the JFlute soon after.
This flute was developed according to the same principles and is fitted with a unique component called "Firstnote" which enables beginners to blow into the block as easily as if it were a recorder.
Is it really “Bird”? The first plastic sax…
When Charlie Parker took to the stage of Toronto's Massey Hall on 15 May 1953, the audience immediately noticed that he had traded his shimmering bronze alto for an amazing art-deco ivory horn.
The body of the new saxophone, a Grafton was made of acrylic plastic. Its designer, Hector Sommaruga, an Italian living in London, decided to create a low-priced instrument after the end of the Great War.
First sold in 1950, the instrument garnered a cool reception despite its attractive price of approximately £55, almost half the price of a brass instrument. It was rather fragile, its metal keywork wasn't particularly ergonomic and tended to capriciousness, and it was difficult to adjust and repair. Its muted tones also couldn't rival those of a traditional metal saxophone.
It was Bird's misfortune which saw his sax end up in a pawnbroker's shop - maybe in exchange for a heroin “bag” - eventually making the fortune of this surprising sax, and its inventor. Despite its flaws, the Grafton went on to enjoy notoriety through famous saxophonists such as Ornette Coleman, until its career came to an end in 1967, when the last workshop was closed down. As for Bird's model, it was sold at Christie's in 1994 for £93,500.
Plastic sax back in action!
Were the Grafton and the concept of a plastic saxophone lost to the mists of time? No! In 2010, Piyapat Thanyakij, a Taiwanese musician wanting to make the instrument more accessible in his country took up the mantle under the brand of Vibratosax.
More ambitious than its British predecessor, he designed four alto models made almost entirely of plastic. Apart from the metal key springs, all of the individual pieces are moulded from polymers selected by Bayer to meet the acoustic requirements and mechanical constraints of amateur and seasoned musicians alike. Bayblend, a mix of polycarbonate and ABS for the entry-level model, and Makrolon alto, a fibreglass-reinforced polycarbonate for the customisable alto with multicoloured keywork.
This affordable range of alto saxophones, whose most expensive model costs less than €500 in Europe, garners curiosity and sometimes outright enthusiasm. It has been so warmly received that Vibratosax is already preparing the launch of a series of tenor saxophones, with a version delivered in kit form, aimed at enabling musicians to build their own instrument.
Pbone: plastics take centre stage
Plastics have long proven themselves in the manufacture of "woods", even when the latter are made of metal, like the saxophone. Until recently, however, polymers had yet to play a part in the manufacture of brass instruments. A new day dawned in 2010 with the launch of the Pbone.
The ABS resin trombone, with its fibreglass slide and its various multicoloured models, brings a playful touch to the instrument while standing as a serious alternative to conventional trombones to which it is almost identical.
The Pbone is fitted with a water key and a locking system and can be fitted with any other trombone mouthpiece available on the market in addition to the brand's resin models.
Its designer, English trombonist Hugh Rashleigh, is still surprised by his invention's success. He had only aimed to put the conclusions of his thesis on the usefulness of plastics in instrument-making into practice. And rightly so! The first 200 models put on sale in 2010 were sold out within a quarter of an hour.
Upmarket go upscale thanks to plastics
Oboes are also a band apart among wood instruments. Much like the recorder, although for different reasons! These double-reed instruments with complex keywork often fitted to a body made from precious woods often conjure an elitist image; a distinctive trait which they share with oboe players.
Even when they allow themselves to use thermoplastic polymers, instrument manufacturer consider it a point of honour to work in the traditional way. No moulding here, not even on the rare ABS practice models.
Highly respected Parisian manufacturer Marigaux even went so far as to manufacture an oboe from a block of polymethyl methacrylate, better known by its trade name of Altuglas. There was no intent to reduce production costs on this occasion! On the contrary, in fact, as its protracted and delicate machining makes it an exceptional instrument intended for a coterie of oboe players who can fully appreciate its very specific acoustic properties.