Friday, February 24, 2012

The journey to build the Gemeinhardt tubas

Chapter One, becoming a tuba player.
I wanted to play trumpet. My mother talked to some educators who told her to have me start on piano and hold off on trumpet until fifth grade. And so I learned that the white note scale was the C scale. When I got my trumpet the music was written in Bb so the ‘white note scale’ was still the C scale. For reasons more macho than musical I volunteered to play tuba during sixth grade summer band, never expecting that I would not be allowed to go back to trumpet. It was an EEb Sousaphone and I was told to subtract three flats and play it like trumpet. And so the white note scale was still the C scale. When I got to Junior High I was ‘invited’ (I had no choice) to play the BBb Sousaphone. I was told that Bb and F were open, Eb was first valve and “I could figure out the rest”. Gosh I was frustrated. The white note scale was no longer the C scale. I kept up with my piano and trumpet lessons but in band I was a BBb tuba player. I kept making mistakes like playing Gb second valve. It seemed C fingerings came second nature but BBb fingerings were anathema. I wondered why tubas weren’t simply built in C. When I found out that they were, I resolved to purchase one. There were none to be had in Cleveland so off I went to New York City. Bill Bell’s old Cerveny was for sale for $425 and Walter Sear wanted to sell me a Mahillon because it was compact enough to ‘take on the subway’. Bell’s Cerveny was pretty well worn out and the subway argument didn’t resonate with this mid-Westerner.

Still looking for a CC tuba I called the local musical instrument manufacturer. (Doesn’t every city have one? LOL I was born in Cleveland.) They told me they had built eleven CC tubas for Bill Bell but were back ordered on BBb tubas and Sousaphones so had no desire to build any special orders. Meinl-Weston tubas were just being introduced by a man in Cincinnati. I found a CC tuba but continued to petition the local manufacturer to build a CC tuba. Fast forward to 1980. I was teaching at the University of Akron and had a budget to buy some tubas. The design engineer at the local manufacturer was, and remains, a good friend. We discovered one Bill Bell model remained in parts on the shelf. I was now more particular and wanted a larger bore tuba but convinced my friend to assemble the tuba as a market test, promising to buy it, no matter what the market test showed. (There is more to this but it is tangential to the story.)

Fast forward again. I quit playing and teaching and was now a district manager for that same manufacturer. I lobbied manufacturing and marketing to make a CC tuba, drawing pictures, pointing out tooling, showing sales forecast and pointing out the prestige and referral benefits to the entire line. It took twenty years but a CC tuba was finally made. It was not as I would have built it, but it was progress. The tuba made it to market and had moderate success. An F tuba was proto-typed but never made it to production.

The manufacturer became part of a larger conglomerate and the F project was dropped. Shockingly the CC tuba was eliminated from the line. It seems the smaller sales did not justify the inventory dollars to corporate minds.

There you have it. That is why the Gemeinhardt tuba is made overseas. American business thinking does not relate to small quantities. And yes, I have, at various times, been in contact with other stateside manufacturers. The type of tubas I wanted to build were not an option, at least with the bore sizes I had in mind, and certainly not what I consider ‘affordable’. The Chinese have been extremely cooperative. (I have additional thoughts about the ‘built in America’ goal but again that is tangential to the story.)

Chapter Two, the continued search for a CC tuba
I quit that ‘local’ company after it had been absorbed by a larger company (and incidentally eliminated another CC tuba it had acquired in a purchase of a Wisconsin manufacturer) and went to work for a flute company at a job I believed to be an independent salesman. I thought I would ride that out to retirement. As luck would have it they were contemplating expanding to become a full line band instrument distributer and there I stood as the resident brass expert.

After exhausting the possibilities of working with or acquiring an American brass company, I contacted a friend in China who built French horns and trombones. Simultaneously I contacted Walter Nirschl in Germany. Being a student of Arnold Jacobs I have a preference for a .750” piston tuba and Walter was building what I believed to be the best tuba on the market. Walter convinced us to consider trumpet and Euphonium production at a factory in India with which he had some ties. We built trumpets and Euphoniums there for two years under the W. Nirschl brand name.

After being approached to distribute for a Brazilian company we decided to shift the Indian production to Brazil. We found business concepts in Brazil and India challenging but Gemeinhardt had experience partnering with a Chinese company to build flutes. The horns and trombones from China were doing well and had demonstrated to us the potential of a good partner in China. Ultimately a decision was made to move all production to China. Our business formula was to partner with a Chinese factory, design instruments rather than simply copy and finally to work with them to achieve quality levels for the American market. It has proven to be a good decision. We have brought good instruments to market in a timelier manner, with better quality, and at a more affordable price than we could have done in Brazil, India or even the U.S.

Chapter three, building a CC tuba
Backing up slightly: Walter asked me what kind of tuba we should make in India. That was a no brainer for me. Walter’s 4/4 BBb and CC tubas were, in my mind, the best on the market. Producing them at a more reasonable cost was the next step. Gemeinhardt contracted to purchase Walter’s tooling for his 4/4 (some call it 5/4) BBb and CC tubas.

The intention was to manufacture in India.
When we moved the Indian products to Brazil we decided to move Walter’s tooling to Brazil as well. Some tubas were built there but the relationship was not long lived. Subsequently the tooling was moved to China.

Although there will be some ergonomic changes of hand position as described regarding the F tuba, the bell and branches will be built precisely according to the German tooling. Testing has convinced me that a dependent fifth rotor is superior. For those who disagree there remains another CC tuba on the market utilizing Walter’s design.

Chapter Four, The F tuba
I have been asked if my tubas are copies of anything or what was the point of departure. All instruments (and all music) pay tribute to what came before. Although my designs are not copies of previous instruments, there are features and characteristics that draw on what came before. What did I use as inspiration?

What would I have wanted in an F tuba when I had chops? A tuba that played like a York. Big, full open, and with a bright lively sound that projects; an F tuba like Pop Johnson (who designed the York tuba that Arnold Jacobs played) would have designed; one that Arnold Jacobs would have liked. I wanted a very efficient tuba; the most sound with the least effort. Hopefully it would conform to normal tuning tendencies. Need I say it would be a front action piston valve tuba? An argument about the pros and cons of pistons is another diatribe but there are some inherent characteristics of a piston tuba that I find preferable.

Although a student and fan of Arnold Jacobs, I don’t find his recording of the Vaughn Williams tuba concerto to be the best example of that concerto nor a good representation of how he sounded. He recorded it late in his career on a tuba that he never used for anything else. I heard him perform it years earlier with the Evanston Symphony. He used his York tuba but tried to make it sound smaller with a shallow cup mouthpiece. I remember sitting in his basement on Normal Avenue listening across the room, and holding his db meter, as he played it on a bell-front rotor CC tuba, the Besson F and finally his York. He ultimately settled on the old friend that he had played most of his life for that performance. Walter Sear told me “When the chips are down you got back to the tuba you’ve played most of your life.”

Yet when Mr. Jacobs ultimately recorded the Vaughn Williams with the Chicago Symphony he used the small Besson F tuba as was used on the London premier of the piece. He had earlier described a recording on that tuba as “rather farty”. It is not my idea of the perfect F tuba. There are a plethora of rotor valve F tubas on the market. My goal was to make an F tuba in the style of the York tubas, the F tuba that Pop Johnson would have created.

John Fletcher’s recording of the Vaughn Williams sounds right and proper to my ear. So as I looked to the F tuba I wanted to create, I looked for a bell that was similar to what he used. It has a taper reminiscent of the big York but appropriately smaller as required for an F tuba. Fletcher’s tuba was in EEb with top action pistons. So the .681” bore was not appropriate to front action pistons which are a little farther down the taper. I felt .750” was too large. .730” seemed a good size and is the approximate size of the fourth valve on the Besson, a similar point in the taper. In keeping with the magic of the York CC design, I reasoned that the fourth valve needed to be larger just as on the York. .750” was chosen.

I have owned and played and built tubas with bell sizes ranging from 14” to 22”. I believe the bell flair should be proportionate to the throat. Mr. Jacobs described a tuba with a bell too large as sounding like a fluffy fart. Additionally a bell flair too large causes the low register to respond too slowly. One only needs to take the bell off a Sousaphone a detachable bell tuba to hear the effect of too small a bell flair. Response is quick but breadth of sound and projection is reduced. I find 18” to be the point of departure for a medium sized tuba. Bessons were made with 17” bells but Georg Solti encouraged Fletcher to get a “bigger” tuba. The result was his regular EEb tuba but with a 19” bell resulting in a visual image similar to what Solti saw in Chicago. Psycho-Acoustics?

Chapter 5, Description: INSTRUMENT SPCIFICS
The dependent fifth valve was decided on for two reasons. First, placement. Putting it before the pistons does not appeal for acoustic reasons. It is a low register valve and should be in a bigger part of the taper so it can be larger tubing. Putting it after the pistons makes for a very short tuning slide unless the conical taper is postponed. Putting it on the big side of the tuning slide is problematic because the F tuba is quite large there, much larger than the CC, .866”. The angles of such a large rotor and the size of the rotor itself are not desirable. Secondly it has been demonstrated that more valves, especially rotor valves, make for more resistance. Early testing of the CC tuba showed that the instrument played almost ‘too good’ for one particular player without the rotor. An axial flow or other modern valve of that bore would be enormous.
And so the dependent rotor seemed logical. Positioning where I did allowed for a very simple mechanism without levers; and it is adjustable in several ways. The size of the post can be changed, the rotation of the post can be changed, and if the rubber band option is employed, the tension of the return can be changed. I have posted on my blog a link to fingering suggestions for the dependent fifth valve.

The 5th valve mechanism can be rotated, the nylon lever can be tightened down by shortening the screw, the nylon can be removed to use only the rod, it can be moved inward or outward for increased or decreased leverage and the nylon can be covered with tubing to make it larger or softer. The valve can be operated with a clock spring or with a rubber band. The tension can be increased or decreased by the rubber band. Thus this, the simplest mechanism I could devise, may be the most adjustable and customizable 5th valve mechanism on the market.

I’ve seen some talk on the internet about alloys, especially bell material. My experience shows the York tubas were yellow brass. I have seen and played lacquered CC tubas that are clearly yellow brass and my own 6/4 York/Holton was yellow brass. Regardless, my experience has shown that the thickness of the metal and the anneal vs work-hardened condition is more important than the alloy. I have been involved with comparisons of yellow, rose and brass bells on trombones and horns. Rarely do such comparisons take into account the gauge, comparing thin nickel to heavy yellow etc. Construction, i.e. two piece vs three piece or in the case of trumpets, one piece are also a factor because they affect wall thickness. I have seen literature that indicates the seam somehow affects the resonance. I reject that notion. Wall thickness and temper caused by annealing are the contributing factors. I opted for a standard gauge yellow brass bell.
I have found that a nickel silver mouthpipe is longer lived and more responsive. I have made that a standard feature of Gemeinhardt tubas and Euphoniums and trumpets.

I believe I am typical enough to use my own hand for the valve placement ergonomics. I am puzzled by some tubas that offset the fourth piston closer to the bell. That is the opposite of many of the old tubas that essentially had a Sousaphone compatible valve block. I realize that it this ill-advised fourth valve position is because these tubas were designed with valve blocks from top action tubas. And the opposite, the diagonal placement of the Sousaphone valve block requires the player to reach farther across the tuba. And so I set the second and third valve vertical with the fourth valve back a little and the first back a little more just as the right hand would lie on your sternum. I reason that tilting the horn to the bell side or player’s left is a matter of personal ergonomics and angling the wrist down a little is not a problem but angling the wrist upward is not comfortable.

Chapter 6, Description: MODEL NUMBERS

I am sentimental and when sentimentality combines with logic I cannot ignore it. When I first started to build a brass line for Gemeinhardt in 2005 I contemplated the model numbering system. I saw manufacturers who used one digit, leaving no room for upgrades or improvements. I resolved that three digits with 100 at the student level and 700-900 at the top level would be used. Conn used a letter system dating back to at least the 1920’s. The brass was organized in score order. A was cornet, B=trumpet, …D=French horn…H=Trombone, I=Euphonium, J=Tuba, K=Sousaphone. I noted that if I adopted the same system and put the letter first instead of last like Conn did, a list would sort itself in score order in a spreadsheet. Using the same letters seemed natural because once you know what size Florsheim’s you wear, you want to buy the same size in Skeechers or Foot Joy. (The J is not a holdover from any brands Gemeinhardt distributed in the past.)
When it came to tubas I used the first digit to identify scale degrees like solfegio so 3 is EEb, 4 is F, 7 is BBb and 8 is CC. The second letter identifies overall size. The third is the number of valves. OK, OK. Size is subjective. The J-744 and J-845 could be called 4/4 or 5/4 depending on your definition. When I studied with Mr. Jacobs we referred to his big York as 5/4. Now the same instrument is called 6/4. Same horn. What changed?
And did you notice another tip of the hat to the Conn tubas of yesterday? The bottom of the valve caps on tubas and Euphoniums is slotted for a quarter. In our shop we have a quarter mounted on a T handle which is very handy especially on Euphoniums.

The York CC tuba that Chester Roberts used in the Cleveland Orchestra.

Nirschl tuba from Tooling used to make Gemeinhardt J-845 next to another Grand Rapids York CC.
Judge for yourself how close they are.

Wilbur Wurtsbaugh assembling the F tuba prototype in Elkhart