It is similar in appearance to the xylophone and marimba, although the vibraphone uses aluminum bars instead of the wooden bars of those instruments. The vibraphone also has a sustain pedal similar to that used on a piano. When the pedal is up, the bars are all damped and the sound of each bar is quite short; with the pedal down, they will sound for several seconds.
This popularity led J. C. Deagan, Inc. in 1927 to ask its Chief Tuner, Henry Schluter, to develop a similar instrument. However, Schluter didn't just copy the Leedy design, he introduced several significant improvements such as making the bars from aluminum instead of steel for a more "mellow" basic tone, adjustments to the dimensions and tuning of the bars to eliminate the dissonant harmonics in the Leedy design (further mellowing the tone), and the introduction of a damper bar controlled by a foot pedal enabling it to be played with more expression. Schluter's design was more popular than the Leedy design, and has become the template for all instruments called vibraphone today.
However, when Deagan began marketing Schluter's instrument in 1928, they called it the vibraharp. As its popularity grew other manufacturers began producing instruments based on Schluter's design, marketed under a variety of names, including Leedy, who marketed their new instrument as the vibraphone and abandoned their old design.
The name confusion continues, even to the present, but over time vibraphone became significantly more popular than vibraharp. By 1974, the Directory of the D.C. Federation of Musicians listed 39 vibraphone players and 3 vibraharp players. As of 2008, the term vibraharp has disappeared except for anachronistic uses. Often, vibraphone is shortened to "vibes", and the two terms are used interchangeably.
The initial purpose of the vibraphone was to add to the large arsenal of percussion sounds used by vaudeville orchestras for novelty effects. This use was quickly overwhelmed in the 1930's by its development as a jazz instrument. As of 2008, it remains primarily, although not exclusively, a jazz instrument.
The popularity of the vibraphone as a jazz instrument can primarily be credited to one man, Lionel Hampton. The story, perhaps apocryphal, is that "Hamp", a drummer at the time, was playing at the NBC radio studios, where he discovered a vibraphone that was kept on hand to play the musical motif identifying the NBC network (g-e-c). After the gig, he spent a considerable amount of time exploring the instrument, and fell in love with it.
Later (October 16, 1930), Hampton was recording with Louis Armstrong & His Sebastian New Cotton Club Orchestra, and the studio they were working in happened to have a vibraphone. Hampton showed Armstrong what he could do, and they decided to add vibes to one of the tunes ("Memories of You"), creating the first known jazz recording using the vibraphone.
After this, Hampton decided to concentrate on the vibraphone, eventually joining the Benny Goodman Quintet, and later leading his own big bands and achieving great popularity.
Outside of the United States, the Premier Drum Company, of London, UK, after experimenting with a variety of aluminum bar instruments more closely related to the glockenspiel that were called variations of “harpaphone”, moved to the production of the Schluter vibraphone design. Bergerault, of Ligueil, France also began manufacturing vibraphones in the 1930’s.
Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, each manufacturer attracted its own following in various specialties, but the Deagan vibraphones were the models preferred by many of the emerging class of specialist jazz players. Deagan struck endorsement deals with many of the leading players, including Lionel Hampton and Milt Jackson.
In 1948, the Musser Company was founded by Claire Omar Musser. Musser was an accomplished marimba and xylophone player famous for touring the United States and Europe leading "marimba symphony orchestras". He applied his experience and observations with the current designs of mallet instruments to his eponymous company and the result was a high-quality line of mallet instruments. His vibraphones emerged as quite comparable in quality to Deagan vibraphones and Musser was able to garner a share of the top-end market.
The 1960s and 1970s saw a shakeup in the vibraphone market. Leedy and Jenco ceased operations. The Deagan operation was purchased by the Yamaha Corporation. Although Yamaha used the Deagan knowledge to improve their own designs, they discontinued the use of the Deagan name and Deagan model legacy and as of 2008 no visible trace to Deagan remains. The Musser Company was purchased first by Ludwig Drums, and then, through Ludwig, was purchased by Conn-Selmer, Inc. Unlike the fate of Deagan, the Musser brand and model line were retained by the purchasing companies, and Musser vibraphones remain a major force in the vibraphone market.
This period also saw the emergence of new vibraphone manufacturers. Notable companies include Adams Musical Instruments of Ittervoort, The Netherlands and Ross Mallet Instruments, now owned by Jupiter Band Instruments of Austin, TX, USA.
As of 2008, the vibraphone marketplace is remarkably active, considering the specialty nature of the instrument. The major players include Musser, Yamaha, Adams and Ross. Bergerault, Premier, Studio 49 from Gräfelfing, Germany and the Saito Gakki Company of Japan continue in operation. In addition to the "mass" producers of vibraphones, custom manufacturers, notably vanderPlas Percussion of The Netherlands, are also active.
Vibraphone bars are made from aluminum, which is the most obvious way to distinguish a vibraphone from the other members of the mallet percussion family. Aluminum for vibraphone bars is normally obtained from standard commercial suppliers. For example, Musser has used the #2024-T4 product from Alcoa. Different alloys of aluminum have slightly different tonal characteristics. Manufacturers must choose their preferred alloy carefully, balancing the tonal characteristics with the ability to obtain supply over the long term.
Aluminum stock is purchased in long bars of the desired width and thickness, and then cut into the appropriate lengths. Next, holes are drilled through the width of bars at the two so-called "nodal" points. The nodal points are the points near the ends of the bar where the wave-like fundamental vibration of a sounding bar causes little or no movement of the bar itself, theoretically at a proportion of 0.244 from each end of the bar.
The next step in the basic shaping of the bar is to cut a deep arch in the base running between the nodal points. This deep arch is key to the "mellow" sound of the vibraphone (and marimba, which uses the same deep arch) compared to the xylophone, which uses a shallower arch, and the glockenspiel, which has no arch at all. Vibrating rectangular bars have three primary modes of vibration. The deep arch causes these modes to align and create a consonant arrangement of intervals: a fundamental pitch, a pitch two octaves above that, and a third pitch an octave and a major third above the second. For the F3 bar that usually forms the lowest note on a vibraphone, there would be F3 as the fundamental, F5 as the first partial and A6 as the second partial.
Once the bar has obtained its basic shape, it must be fine tuned. Normally, the dimensions and tolerances of the initial bar creation process are set to create a slightly sharp bar. If the bar is flat, its overall pitch structure can be raised by removing material from the ends of the bar. Once this slightly sharp bar is created, the individual tones can be tuned flatter by removing material from specific locations of the bar.
The specific points from which to remove material are the "anti-nodal" points of each vibration mode. These are the points where there is the most movement of the bar. To tune the fundamental mode, the tuning point is in the center of the bar. Scraping material from there will lower the fundamental pitch without lowering the other partials, since these partials have nodal points there. The two outside anti-nodal points for the first partial, which has a 4:1 relation to the fundamental, are just inside the main nodal points and are used to tune that partial. For most vibraphones, only the fundamental and first partial are tuned. The second partial can be tuned using appropriate anti-nodal points from its vibration mode.
Higher quality vibraphones tend to have "graduated" bars. That is, the lower bars are wider than the higher bars, graduating through a number of steps of decreasing width. This helps to balance the volume of the instrument across the entire range. Vibraphone bars can come in a variety of colors, usually silver or gold, but other colors are available, created by anodizing the bars after fine tuning. This has no effect on the tone of the bars. Bars are also available in matte or glossy finish. Some argue that there are tonal differences due to the finish.
There is a trade-off between the amplifying effect of the resonators and the length of sustain of a ringing bar. Basically, all of the energy in a ringing bar comes from the initial mallet strike, and that energy can go to making the bar ring either louder initially, or not as loud but longer. This is not an issue with marimbas and xylophones, where the natural sustain time of the wooden bars is short, but vibraphone bars can ring for many seconds after being struck, and this effect is highly desirable in many circumstances. Therefore the resonators in a vibraphone are usually tuned to be slightly off-pitch to create a balance between loudness and sustain.
Another difference in vibraphone resonators is the presence of a rotating disk at the top of each resonator. The disks for a group of resonators are ganged together with a shaft that can be driven from an electric motor to cause the disks to rotate. When the disks are open (standing vertically) the resonators have full function. When the disks are closed (lying horizontally) the vibrating column of air is blocked, reducing the amplification effect. As the disks rotate, this varies the amplitude of the instrument, creating a "vibrato" effect.
Some argue that calling this effect vibrato is incorrect, saying that vibrato is a variation in pitch, not amplitude. The correct term should be tremolo, a variation in amplitude, and therefore the vibraphone is incorrectly named; it should be called a tremolophone. Others argue that the common usage of vibrato and tremolo is nowhere near that precise, even among experienced musicians who should presumably know better. Additionally, in this context, there is the extra consideration that the rotating plates interfere with wave-fronts in the resonator tubes to cause doppler-effect pitch variations. This can be observed using an oscilloscope.
The damper pad is the source of many maintenance headaches for vibraphone players. The pad must be perfectly level, both left-to-right and front-to-back, in order to contact all of the bars simultaneously. When it is not level, some bars will stop ringing before others, making it difficult to cleanly articulate. After some years of use, the bars can make indentations in the pad where they normally rest, compressing the felt and sometimes causing buzzing as the bars contact the pad. Also, when the bars are struck while the damper pad is up, the pad can transfer the force of the impact into the frame, rattling anything that is loose.
In the early 1990s, vibraphonist John Mark Piper designed a new vibraphone for Musser that, among other innovations, included a water-filled damper pad. Later that decade, custom vibraphone maker Nico van der Plas improved on the idea by using silicone gel as the filling. These pads eliminate impact transference and provide more even dampening. Many vibraphones have been retrofitted with gel pads, although the vast majority of vibraphones still use felt dampers.
Later, variable speed AC motors became available at reasonable prices. These motors allow the adjustment of the rotating speed via a potentiometer mounted on a control panel near the motor. They typically support rotation rates from about 1 Hz to about a dozen Hz. These motors remained the preferred solution until the 1990s, and even as of today are still the most widely used.
During the 1990s, some manufacturers began using computer-controlled servo stepping motors. These motors allow rotation rates so slow that they approach 0 Hz. The computer control also allows operations that are not possible with an analog motor, such as the ability to synchronize the rotation of the two resonator sets and stop the rotation at a desired state (all open, all closed, all half open, etc.).
Vibraphone frames consist of two end blocks, made of metal, wood or a combination, attached by various support members. Usually the end blocks are approximately the same size as the two bars that are at the same end; therefore one block is significantly larger than the other.
The motor is attached to the frame at one end. The hinges for the damper bar are attached at each end, and the spring assembly and the pedal are usually attached in the middle. Two banks of resonator tubes are laid into grooves in the frame so that they straddle the damper bar. The resonators are not firmly fastened to the frame. The ends of the shafts that gang the disks are attached to the drive of the motor via a drive belt similar to an O-ring.
A bed for the bars is made by laying four wooden rails onto pins on the end blocks. Like the resonators, these rails are not firmly attached to the frame. Each rail has a series of pins with rubber spacers that will support the bars. The bars are arranged into two groups, and a soft cord is passed through the nodal holes in the bars of each group. The bars are laid between the support pins, with the cord hooking the pins. The pins on the outside rails have U-shaped hooks and the cord just rests in the bend. The inside pins have a hook that grasps the cord and holds the bars in place against the force of the damper pad. The two ends of the cord are attached with a spring at one end to provide tension and flex.
The two rows of bars follow the piano convention of white and black keys, with the row nearer to the player corresponding to the white keys. As with the piano, the lower notes are on the player’s left. Unlike the marimba and the xylophone, the two rows of bars are in the same horizontal plane so that the damper bar will come in contact with both rows at the same time.
Frames come in a variety of styles, from functional to ornate, but, except for negatively via squeaks and rattles, they don’t really to contribute to the tonal qualities of the vibraphone. Some frames allow the distance between the bars and the resonators to be adjusted, to compensate for variations in air temperature, pressure and moisture that change the speed of sound and therefore the tuning of the bar/resonator system, but this is more common in marimbas than vibraphones. Other frames allow the adjustment of the height of the bar bed. It’s common to see players who don’t have this capability hunched over their instruments while they play as the standard height of non-adjustable frames is often too low for men of average height.
Vibraphone mallets usually consist of a rubber ball core wrapped in yarn or cord and attached to a narrow dowel, most commonly made of rattan or birch (other materials, such as nylon, are sometimes used). Mallets suitable for the vibraphone are also generally suitable for the marimba; very few mallets are marketed as specific to one or the other instrument.
The specific mallets used can have a great effect on the tonal characteristics of the sound produced, ranging from a clang of harsh clashes to a mellow ring with no obvious initial attack. Consequently, a vast array of mallets is available, offering variations in hardness, head size, weight, shaft length and flexibility.
Classical players must carry a wide range of mallet types to accommodate the changing demands of composers who are looking for particular sounds. Jazz players, on the other hand, since "we don’t know what we’re going to want to play until the second or two that we're there", tend to stick to a single general-purpose mallet type that works well in all dynamic ranges. Often this choice becomes one of the defining items of the player's personal style. Many jazz players alter commercially available mallets to get just the tone they want.
The world of vibraphone players can be roughly divided into those who play with two mallets, and those who play with four. In reality the division is not quite so neat. Many players switch between two, three and four mallets depending on the demands of their current musical situations.
Furthermore, concentrating on the number of mallets a player holds means missing the far more significant differences between the two-mallet and four-mallet playing styles. As of 2008, these differences are not quite as extensive as they were when Gary Burton first introduced the world to the four-mallet style in the 1960s, but they still exist to a large degree.
Two-mallet players use several different grips, with the most common being a palms-down grip that is basically the same as the matched grip used by drummers. The mallets are held between the thumb and index finger of each hand, with the remaining three fingers of each hand pressing the shafts into the down-facing palms. Strokes use a combination of wrist movement and fingertip control of the shaft.
Another popular grip is similar to the timpani grip. The mallets are again held between the thumb and index fingers and controlled with the remaining three fingers, but the palms are held vertically, facing inward towards each other. Most of the stroke action comes from the finger-tip control of the shafts.
Passages are usually played hand-to-hand with double-sticking (playing two notes in a row with the same hand) used when convenient in minimizing crossing the hands.
The player must pay close attention to the use of the damper pedal in order to cleanly articulate and avoid multiple notes ringing unintentionally at the same time. Since the notes ring for some significant fraction of a second when struck with the damper pad up, and ringing bars do not stop ringing immediately when contacted by the pad, a technique called "after pedaling" is necessary. In this technique, the damper pedal is depressed marginally after the note is struck, shortly enough after so that the recently struck note continues to ring, but long enough after so that the previous note has stopped ringing.
Another damper technique is "half pedaling", where the pedal is depressed just enough to remove the spring pressure from the bars, but not enough so the pad has lost contact with the bars. This allows the bars to ring slightly longer than with the pad fully up and can be used to make a medium-fast passage sound more legato without pedaling every note.
Although some early vibes players made use of four mallets, notably Red Norvo and sometimes Lionel Hampton, the fully-pianistic four-mallet approach is almost entirely the creation of Gary Burton. Many of the key techniques of the four-mallet style, such as multi-linear playing and the advanced dampening techniques describe below, are easily applied to playing with two mallets and some modern two-mallet players have adapted these devices to their playing, somewhat blurring the distinctions between modern two- and four-mallet players.
The most popular four-mallet grip for vibraphone is the Burton grip, named for Gary Burton. One mallet is held between the thumb and index finger and the other is held between the index and middle fingers. The shafts cross in the middle of the palm and extend past the heel of the hand. For wide intervals, the thumb often moves in between the two mallets and the inside mallet is held in the crook of the fingers.
Also popular is the Stevens grip, named for marimbist Leigh Howard Stevens. Many other grips are in use, some variations on the Burton or Stevens, others idiosyncratic creations of individual vibes players. One common variation of the Burton grip places the outside mallet between the middle and ring fingers, instead of between the index and middle.
Four-mallet vibists usually play scalar linear passages much the same as two-mallet players, using one mallet from each hand (outside right and inside left for Burton grip), except four-mallet players tend to make more use of double strokes, not only to avoid crossing hands but also to minimize motion between the two bar rows. For example, an ascending E flat major scale could be played L-R-R-L-L-R-R-L, keeping the left hand on the "black" bars and the right hand on the "white". For linear passages with leaps, all four mallets are often used sequentially.
Pedaling techniques are at least as important for the four-mallet vibist as for two-mallet players, but the all-or-nothing dampening system of the pedal/pad presents many obstacles to multi-linear playing since each line normally has its own dampening requirements independent of the other lines. To overcome this, four-mallet players use a set of dampening techniques referred to as "mallet dampening", in addition to the pedaling techniques used by two-mallet players. The mallet dampening techniques "are to the vibist as garlic and fresh basil are to the Northern Italian chef" and contribute significantly to expressive four-mallet playing.
Mallet dampening includes "dead strokes" where a player strikes a bar, and then instead of drawing the mallet back, directly presses the head of the mallet onto the bar, causing the ringing to immediately stop. This produces a fairly distinctive "choked" sound and dead strokes are often used just for that particular sound in addition to the dampening aspects.
In hand-to-hand dampening, the vibist plays a note with one mallet, while simultaneously pressing another mallet onto a previously ringing bar. Usually the dampening mallet and the striking mallet are held in different hands, but advanced players can, in some circumstances, use two mallets from the same hand. This is the most powerful of the mallet dampening techniques as it can be used to dampen any note on the instrument while simultaneously striking any other note.
Slide dampening can be used to dampen a note that is physically adjacent to the new note being struck. The player strikes the new note and then controls the rebound of the mallet so that it slides over and onto the note to be dampened. Sometimes slide dampening can make the new note sound "bent" or as if there is a glissando from the dampened note to the ringing one, as the two notes normally ring together for some short period of time.
Hand dampening (also know as finger dampening) can be used to dampen a white note while striking a nearby black note. As the player strikes a black note with a mallet, they simultaneously press the heel of their hand or the side of their pinky finger onto the ringing white bar, using the same hand to strike the black note and dampen the white note. Using both hands, it's possible to dampen and strike two notes at once.
Bowing: In addition to striking the bars with mallets, the bars can be made to sound by drawing the bow of a string instrument along the edges. Since bars are fairly massive compared to strings, better results are obtained by using bows from the larger string instruments, at least a cello bow and often a double bass bow. Often a player will use two bows, one for the white bars and the other for the black. With bowing, the player is able to excite the bars directly to the pure ringing tone and eliminate many of the transient dissonant sounds that are present immediately after a mallet strikes.
Five or six mallets: In order to achieve greater density of sound and richer chord voicings, some vibraphonists have experimented with three mallets per hand, either in both hands for a total of six mallets or in just the left hand for a total of five. Results can be interesting, especially five-mallet playing where the left hand "comps" in three note voicings while the right hand plays melodic lines, similar to the popular piano technique. However, the grips tend to lead to limited musical possibilities, with little ability to adjust the interval between the outside and middle mallets and difficulties in playing hand-to-hand lines, and therefore use of five or six mallets is rare.
Other techniques: The vibraphone solo, "Mourning Dove Sonnet," composed by Christopher Deane, utilizes a four mallet grip with two cello (or bass) bows held where the outer mallets would be, with a yarn mallet for the main melodic playing and a plastic mallet for pitch bending in the inner positions.