© 1999 James Walker
(adapted from James Walker's instructional CD-ROM, "Signal Processing for Vibraphonists," now available at malletjazz.com)
For years, guitarists and synthesizer players have made use of digital effects in creating their sounds. Now, with the availability of good-quality pickups designed specifically for the vibraphone, the sound of this instrument may now be treated with some of the same effects. (And remember, effects can also be used on a mic'd vibraphone, but primarily in a controlled environment, such as a recording studio, where the vibes' sound is isolated from the sounds of other instruments. In fact, the vibraphone tracking for this page's sound files, was done with microphones rather than with pickups.)
Certainly, effects aren't for all vibraphonists. There is something to be said for the natural sound of the instrument, perhaps only embellished by the use of the motor for vibrato. Even those of us who use effects will (usually) be among the first to admit that there are circumstances when the use of any effects would serve only as a detriment to the music. Still, for those of us who are of a mind to use electronics, effects can be used to redefine the personality (or personalities!) of the vibraphone.
There are two basic uses for effects: enhancing an existing sound, or creating an entirely new sound. Let's take a look at some examples of these applications.
The chorus effect is one of the most common applications of electronics to the vibes' sound. One part of any chorus effect is a slight amount of pitch detuning. Used judiciously, this detuning can add a wavy effect to the natural sound of the instrument, not unlike the vibrato achieved through the use of the motor and fans. Different chorus effects will have slightly different characteristics; some create a fairly consistent rate of vibrato, while others effect a more dynamic alteration of the sound. In non-technical terms, chorus is often said to "warm up" the pure tone of the metal bars.
Here is the same recording presented twice: once "dry" (no added effects), once with chorus mixed in:
2. Pitch Shifting
Anyone who has played vibraphone in any sort of amplified ensemble has had to deal with the problem of being overpowered by the volume of sound created onstage. Certainly, one solution is to adjust the balance, either by making the vibes louder through the use of amplification, or by decreasing the volume of the rest of the ensemble. Another option is to change the sound of the instrument. Traditionally, the way to do this would be through mallet choice, opting for a harder mallet with a stronger contact sound. An effects processor may offer another solution, such as pitch shifting. In this example, the vibraphone tracks are run through a pitch shifter, adding the note one octave above the original pitch. Since the original and processed sounds are blended together, one not only hears the melody transposed one octave higher, but also the same line sounding at its original pitch. The resultant parallel octaves really make the line stand out in a fairly busy musical context:
NEW EXAMPLE - ADDED AUGUST 13, 2001
The following example was created using a "guitar synth" patch on the Boss VF-1 effects processor. Note how the patch adds a horn-like, if not vocal, quality to the sound, standing in stark contrast to the clean and pure natural vibraphone sound.
These are only a few of the options available to those who choose to embellish their sound through the use of electronics. While nothing will replace the beautiful natural tone of the vibraphone, it is nice to have the options available to create a variety of timbres and sounds.
(This page and all the materials within copyright ©1999 James Walker, All Rights Reserved. No portion of this page may be duplicated or distributed without the author's written consent.)
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