Mallet Selection

© 2001 James Walker

After roughly two decades, mallet synthesizers remain misunderstood by many percussionists. Some players have embraced the new technologies, using these instruments to make wonderful music. Others, however, reject mallet synths out of hand, often after only a brief attempt at playing them. Mallet synthesizers can be fantastic musical instruments, but for their use to be successful the player must approach them on their own terms.

"What is a mallet synthesizer?"

Basically, a "mallet synth" is a MIDI device, sending signals to a synthesizer (either internal on the mallet synth, or external) or sampler, which in turn produces the sound. MIDI is an acronym for "Musical Instrument Digital Interface," which in plain English means it translates the player's actions into information which a synthesizer can understand. These devices allow mallet percussionists access to the same synthesizer technology which for years has been available to keyboardists.

What follows are a number of questions and complaints regarding the use of mallet synthesizers, with your author's humble responses to each. Obviously, not all players will choose to use electronics; while that is a valid artistic choice, it should not be based on a lack of information.

"A mallet synth is a portable vibraphone (xylophone, marimba...)"

Unfortunately, this seems to be a significant part of the marketing schemes of many (if not most) mallet synthesizer manufacturers, and it really fails on two counts.
  • No matter how good the synth/sampler, no electronic instrument is going to sound exactly like its acoustic counterpart, especially to the ears of a musician who has been surrounded by acoustic instruments for the entire course of his development.
  • Simply using a synthesizer to imitate acoustic instruments is an approach which fails to take advantage of the fact that synthesizers can be used for sounds which no acoustic instrument can create, meaning that the vast majority of the synthesizer's capabilities go unused.

If you want to play a vibraphone or a marimba, then invest in a vibraphone or marimba; no matter what the gains are in terms of portability, using a mallet synth to substitute for the "real" instrument is likely to be a disappointment.

"This mallet synth doesn't feel like I'm playing a vibraphone (xylophone, marimba...), so I don't like it."

Of course it doesn't feel like a vibraphone; it's not a vibraphone! Playing a steel drum doesn't feel like playing a vibraphone either, but that doesn't stop many percussionists from successfully doubling on those two instruments.

It is also unfair to condemn the "feel" of a mallet synth after an hour of trying the instrument out. To wit: many college percussion programs gear their mallet curriculum around the marimba; for someone who has had years of marimba studies, their first attempts at playing the vibraphone are going to guessed it: unfamiliar. The vibraphone has to be dealt with as an instrument distinct from the marimba, with idiomatic techniques and idiosyncrasies. Most players are willing to spend the time to master the techniques associated with the vibraphone; why not give mallet synths the same opportunity?

As before, the key is to accept the mallet synth on its own terms as a musical instrument. The feel will not be exactly the same as playing an acoustic mallet instrument, but in exchange for this perceived "shortcoming," one gains the myriad options available through MIDI technology. One can program the mallet synth to respond in any number of different ways, ways never dreamed possible on an acoustic instrument:
  • Multiple sounds can be triggered with a single mallet stroke
  • Notes can be set to sustain indefinitely, or for some specific length of time; try "programming" your vibraphone to sustain a note for exactly two seconds, without using mallet dampening or pedaling!
  • Sounds can be changed instantaneously. Changing sounds on vibraphone or marimba is (for all intents and purposes) quite limited; one can achieve a great variety of difference in sound quality by changing mallets, but - for four-mallet grips in particular - this change cannot be achieved in a split second, the way it can on a MIDI controller.

"I don't like the way they sound"

MIDI controllers don't create sound; they communicate with some other device, which in turn creates sound. (Some MIDI controllers offer internal synthesizers, but the basic idea is the same.) Any MIDI controller will only sound as good as the synthesizer one uses.

Some suggestions:
  • Don't ever buy a synthesizer without listening to it first. (This sounds obvious, but many people simply look through a mail-order catalog, especially when buying their first synth.)
  • If you can afford it, purchase a synthesizer which can be programmed by you, the user. The odds are that, if you continue to pursue the use of MIDI in your music, that you will wish to tailor the sounds of your synthesizer to suit your own tastes. Unfortunately, many synthesizers are designed with convenience in mind, for a "plug in and play" approach; as convenient as that is on the one hand, on the other, it is quite limiting.
  • Make sure, if you are buying a synthesizer separate from the controller, that the brands are compatible. While MIDI has become a fairly standardized technology, there are some specialized commands which different manufacturers treat slightly differently.

Synthesizers are like any other musical instrument; some sound good, some don't. Just because there are some bad vibraphones in existence, one doesn't condemn vibraphones in general.

"What about using my vibraphone to trigger a synthesizer?"

The technology now exists to do just that: to use one's vibraphone as a MIDI interface, through the use of pickups. The advantage to this is, one is playing a familiar instrument. The disadvantage is, you're using the vibraphone to do something it wasn't really designed to do. Every percussionist I know who has modified an acoustic vibraphone to serve as a MIDI controller has had to slightly alter his technique to accommodate this new function.

Another thing to consider: unless you're recording the synthesizer in a studio, or performing in a huge hall in which the audience will only hear what is being broadcast through the PA system, everything you play will have the acoustic sound of the vibraphone bleeding into the amplified synthesizer sound. Even if the amplified sound of the vibraphone (via the pickups) is turned down to "zero," the acoustic sound is still there, meaning everything you play will have the sound of a vibraphone. Sometimes this sounds good, sometimes it doesn't; simply be aware of this when deciding whether to invest in a vibraphone MIDI system. (It is possible to minimize this situation by removing the resonators from the vibraphone; however, some players find this solution to be uncomfortable, as they are accustomed to having the natural sound of the instrument coming up at them while they play.)

Here are links to manufacturers of mallet synthesizers or pickups.
PLEASE NOTE: these links are offered purely as a convenience to those visiting this page. While all are reputable companies, their inclusion on this page does not reflect an endorsement of their products by James Walker, nor does it reflect any endorsement of or James Walker by any of these manufacturers.

Final thoughts

Mallet synthesizers aren't for everyone, and that's not a condemnation; at its best, music is an artistic expression, and for many artists, the sound of electronics is not part of their creative vision. Unfortunately, many individuals decide against the use of electronics without first exploring this new technology. Acoustic instruments have been around for thousands of years; synthesizers have been here less than a century. They have already made incredible strides towards becoming expressive musical devices, and they will continue to do so.

(This page and all the materials within copyright ©2001 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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