Vox humana: human vibrations
This young instrument developed entirely in the USA at the time of the First World War. In 1916 the instrument maker Hermann Winterhoff began working on the production of vibrato effects with the aid of a motor-driven mechanism for the firm of Leedy in Indianapolis. The aim was to create a vox humana sound, a kind of artificial human voice. He carried out his first experiments on a three-octave marimba with steel bars, a new instrument at the time that was being used in variety theaters. He installed a motor that was connected to the cover disks at the upper end of the resonators by means of a spindle. In this way he achieved the typical pulsing sound, the vibrato effect, which gave the instrument its (original) name: vibraphone. The sound was introduced to the general public via radio recordings in 1924, and musicians began to take an interest in the new instrument.
Vibraphone, vibraharp and vibes
In 1922 the Chicago firm of Deagan began marketing its own version of the vibraphone under the name vibraharp, which boasted several innovative features. Deagan had been making mallet instruments and organs with percussion for half a century, and had been responsible for the production of Leedy’s modified steel marimba. The so-called “Model 145” already possessed all the properties of a fully developed vibraphone: its 1.2 cm thick aluminum bars were held in place by a thread, tuned to equal temperament and had a range of F3–F6; it had a damper pedal and adjustable vibration speed. This model served as the blueprint for all subsequent instruments. The basic features of the vibraphone have remained unchanged since about 1927; any modifications have been principally of the size and weight. Different sized instruments were constructed, for example smaller models which were easier to transport. The new instrument rapidly gained popularity; band leaders and percussionists used it increasingly as the lead voice in their ensembles.
While Leedy continued to make vibraphones, other firms began producing instruments which were virtually identical but marketed under different names: vibraphone and vibraharp. This caused some confusion, until the terms vibes for the instrument and vibist for the player became common among professional musicians. To ensure that the instruments could perform a variety of different tasks, all sorts of models were produced, with ranges of three, three and a half or four octaves. At the same time luxury models and portable versions were also made. This variety was also reflected in the choice of alloy for the bars: aluminum, brass, lacquer and gold were all available. Whether this variety was the result of the search for a better sound or a more attractive appearance is hard to say; it is probable that both considerations played a role.
In the sixties experiments with electronic amplification systems were carried out with the double aim of improving the resonators’ function and replacing the vibration mechanism. A microphone was installed inside each resonator, which was later joined by a magnetic strip. The difficulty was achieving a pure sound that could be amplified with no restrictions. Today the situation has been improved by means of a purely electronic system that uses a piezoelectric chip attached to the underside of each bar and connected to a control and amplification unit. Whenever pressure is exerted on a bar an electronic signal is sent to the control unit, enabling the musician to regulate the volume and speed of the vibrato.
Lionel Hampton (1909–2002) began playing the vibraharp in a band in California at an early age, and was soon heard by the great Louis Armstrong (1898–1971), who was impressed by the instrument’s sound. This enthusiasm led to a joint recording session in 1931, which was probably the first recording session to feature the vibraphone genius Lionel Hampton. The vibraphone’s sweeping success in jazz circles next reached the band leader Benny Goodman (1909–1986), who immediately added its vibrato sounds to his orchestra. Orchestras, big bands, jazz sextets and jazz quartets in every conceivable constellation were being enriched by the new instrument’s sensitive melody lines and resonant harmonies. The vibraphone is hugely important in jazz not only as a solo instrument (Lionel Hampton, Garry Burton) but also as an integral part of band and big band music.
In the orchestra
The vibraphone was first scored for the orchestra from about 1933, albeit rarely. It began to be used more often from 1945, especially by composers of film and theater music, who were therefore the first to include the new sound in the orchestra. The vibraphone became part of the essential equipment of the recording studio. In modern ensemble and orchestra music it became more and more important, although it never achieved the status of other mallet instruments such as the xylophone, glockenspiel or marimba. Since the sixties it has been scored more often in ensembles than in the orchestra.