The Plastic Saxophone

A com­pany based in Thai­land has made a plas­tic sax­o­phone, called the Vibrato. had a chance to test out a Vibrato model A1S and take a look at the mechan­ics from a sax­o­phone repairman’s point of view.

(Click on any photo for a high res­o­lu­tion version)

In the way­back times, an Eng­lish com­pany made an acrylic sax­o­phone aimed at pro­fes­sion­als called the Grafton . They are frag­ile, rare, and dif­fi­cult– but pos­si­ble– to repair. But when you find one in good shape, they play very well. Char­lie Parker famously played a Grafton for a while.

The Vibrato is a dif­fer­ent beast alto­gether. Accord­ing to the com­pany, the aim of the project was to make an afford­able stu­dent sax­o­phone, and the deci­sion was made to make it out of plas­tic to achieve that end.

 

As a bit of back­ground, I have some expe­ri­ence in the field of stu­dent sax­o­phone design, hav­ing gone so far as a sax­o­phone fac­tory in Viet­nam to con­sult and improve their prod­uct. I am my cur­rent employer’s main con­tact when it comes to improv­ing their stu­dent sax­o­phone prod­uct line– a process I have the increas­ingly enjoy­able task of wit­ness­ing first­hand as our num­ber of war­ran­teed repairs drop as the sax­o­phones increase in qual­ity. There­fore my eye is trained not only towards the imme­di­ate expe­ri­ence of see­ing the horn (which again is waaaay cool) but also think­ing about how it would hold up under years of heavy use.

The two types of springs on the horn- coiled (to replace flat springs) and U-bent needle springs. The springs were very squishy-feeling, or as I like to say, "analog". I aim for what I call a digital feel in my work as a repairman.

The idea of years of use in par­tic­u­lar is an area where theA1S has some major draw­backs. For instance, with a tra­di­tion­ally built sax­o­phone, there are ways to adjust the rela­tion­ships between the keys so that they act how they should– what we in the repair busi­ness cre­atively call the adjust­ments. These adjust­ments are nec­es­sary because we have 10 fin­gers and are actu­at­ing 23 or so keys on a sax­o­phone– there­fore cer­tain keys must act together at cer­tain times, and they must seal per­fectly air­tight with min­i­mal pres­sure and at exactly the same time. Due to vari­a­tions in man­u­fac­ture, thick­ness of pads installed and other fac­tors, these adjust­ments must be made indi­vid­ual to each horn by a qual­i­fied repair­man as the horn is put into play­ing shape. With­out proper adjust­ments, a horn sim­ply won’t play. Inter­est­ingly, this con­cept is also illu­mi­nated with the short­com­ings of the 3D-printed flute I posted/ranted about a lit­tle while back.

On the Vibrato A1S, there are cer­tain areas where it seemed there are no read­ily avail­able ways to adjust the sax­o­phone in the tra­di­tional sense! And being built of plas­tic, even bend­ing the keys into the cor­rect adjust­ment is not an option. So if the horn comes out of the fac­tory out of adjust­ment or is dam­aged some­how, your options could be very lim­ited depend­ing on where the prob­lem is– in my case it was the A/bis rela­tion­ship, which was out of whack and kept me from being able to play the horn. On a sax­o­phone made of plas­tic, every pos­si­ble adjust­ment must have a way to, er, be adjusted.

Per­haps if I had more time with the instru­ment, I may have fig­ured it out, but with­out dis­as­sem­bly it was not imme­di­ately appar­ent how to fix the prob­lem– a prob­lem that would have been a very sim­ple fix on a tra­di­tion­ally designed saxophone.

Even assum­ing that the adjust­ing meth­ods are improved upon, a sec­ond prob­lem presents itself: with­out key­work stiff enough to trans­fer the player’s energy with­out bend­ing, the horn won’t play even if the adjust­ments are cor­rect. I found the key­work on the A1S to be very flex­i­ble. In the video at the bot­tom of this post, you can see sev­eral instances where the key­work is bend­ing quite a bit under light pressure.

Per­haps these con­cerns are some­thing the com­pany will address in the future– I know that although they are sell­ing the Vibrato as of now, they are actively engaged in improv­ing the design.

Another inter­est­ing design fea­ture is that the horn body tube is assem­bled from many sec­tions, and each sec­tion is rein­forced with a thicker por­tion where the sec­tions meet. The exte­rior of the body tube is smooth, but the inte­rior reduces at each of these rein­forced sec­tions to make room for the extra bulk. Per­haps they have made acoustic allowances for this (again, the horn was in a mostly unplayable state so I was unable to test into­na­tion), but it flies in the face of acoustic design. The inte­rior dimen­sions of the bore are what give the horn its into­na­tion– or lack thereof– and as far as I know this is the only sax­o­phone ever made with dra­matic reduc­tions in the bore at cer­tain areas. This phe­nom­e­non is most eas­ily viewed in the video at the bot­tom of this post.

While the horn was in my pos­ses­sion, I was able to shoot a few pho­tos and a quick hands-on video. I apol­o­gize for the qual­ity of the shoot­ing– I held the cam­era while try­ing to film and also had no time to prac­tice what I was going to say. I left it unedited. The video is below, and is view­able in full 1080p on youtube.

The Vibrato A1S sax­o­phone, while oper­a­ble in its most opti­mal state, seems frag­ile, and hon­estly feels pretty awful under the fin­gers because of spring design, the flex­i­bil­ity of the plas­tic, and the gimbal-mounted pads that work their way sealed incre­men­tally as you press down. My expe­ri­ence was also poor due to the fact that the par­tic­u­lar horn I had access to had either ship­ping dam­age or a flaw in its man­u­fac­ture that I did not know how to prop­erly cor­rect (which again would have been an easy fix on a tra­di­tion­ally designed sax). So far, the pric­ing for these instru­ments is in the $400 range, for which price you can eas­ily buy a used Yamaha YAS-23 or any one of sev­eral accept­able new import stu­dent saxophones.

Accord­ing to my expe­ri­ence so far, while what Vibrato has done is excep­tion­ally cool and wor­thy of admi­ra­tion for the sheer inven­tive­ness of their efforts, they also have excep­tion­ally far to go to defeat the sta­tus quo.

 

 

 

————–UPDATE————

After pub­lish­ing my quickie repairman’s review, I received a nice email from the pres­i­dent of Vibrato, Piya­pat Thanyak­ijj. I have received his per­mis­sion to pub­lish it here:

Hi
I’m enjoyed watch­ing your video on A1S. Thank you for all your rec­om­mended improve­ment. How­ever on your video you’ve men­tioned that the A key and the arm with pad are split­ting that was wrong, they are on the same rod. If you found the plays , it’s mean that the key or the arm was lose from the hex-rod ( one of them ). You can glue it back on by using Meth­yl­ene Chlo­ride just a tiny drop on the join between Rod & Key.

We have checked all of the sam­ple short for each batch and found out that some batch have uneven tone hole sur­face on A due to injec­tion con­di­tion. If you still found the leaks after glu­ing please file the tone hole just to make sure it flat & even ( we’re now doing it before assemble ).

We are now suc­ceeded with replace all nee­dle springs with coil spring. It gives us some advan­tage over nee­dle spring for exam­ple elim­i­nate all ten­sion on plas­tic post , solve the prob­lem of attach­ing the nee­dle spring on plas­tic post, the player can now be able to choose their own ten­sion of spring pres­sure since we will make it in 2 or 3 dif­fer­ent ten­sion available,improve the action speed.

We also have beef up sev­eral keys on lower stack and make it more rigid . The flex you’ve found is most likely cost by when the pad was seated while there are some room for the key to move by our fin­ger so we add a stop­per to all those keys which we believed it will gives more rigidFEEL when played.

And a sec­ond email:

You can pub­lish on your blog as you wanted. This might be our final mod­i­fi­ca­tion on A1 because I have to start design­ing T1 soon all the issue from A1 will be addressed I think we will make it right on Tenor if we suc­ceeded those idea will be trans­fer back to A1 but it will call A2 this time.“

He also sent a few pho­tos of body and key­work mod­i­fi­ca­tions, some of which I have posted here.

It’s not every day the pres­i­dent of a com­pany takes the time to address youtube videos and reviews writ­ten by Joe Repair­man out in the field. Here’s to Vibrato for being open, inter­ested, and moti­vated to improve their prod­uct. I look for­ward to see­ing the A2!

 

 



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