© 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.
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 feel...you 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:
"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.
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.)
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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