Posted on May 15, 2011
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 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.
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:
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!