Thursday, May 26, 2011

New Tuba Blog - Rachel Matz's Mademoiselle Tuba

above: Rachel Matz's YouTube Symphony Audition (Ralph Vaughan Williams Tuba Concerto)

If you haven't already done so, please go over and check out Rachel Matz's new blog.

The musical world is a better place with more information for players young and old. Using blogs as a tool to spread information is a wonderful thing.

In Progress - King 1241 mod project

above: in progress King 1241 Tuba

This is a bit of a passion project for me. This is a King 1241 Tuba that I am modifying. I have written about it before. Here are a few before pictures of this horn. 

The first item on the agenda was to remove the lacquer. Anyone who has had to do this on an old King knows how much of a chore it is. Most commercial strippers won't do much to it. 

Second, I swapped the upper and lower tubes on the first circuit so I could pull the first valve slide with my left hand while playing.   Next I got rid of the Sousaphone style doubled upper 3rd slide loop. Since the horn is held upright, that doubled up crook is a potential water catch. 

I then built a custom pull ring for my second slide. With the extended upper 1st and 3rd crooks, it is difficult to reach the second slide. 
I also swapped out the original thumb ring with an Olds thumb ring because (in my opinion) it is much more comfortable than the King ring. The Olds is round and smooth. 

What you cannot see is the valve alignment that I gave this horn. The valve button felts were replaced with o-rings. The stem felts were replaced with neoprene bumpers. 
The in progress picture above was taken while I was installing the 3rd slide circuit, so there is no bracing yet installed. 

I still need to add water keys to the lower 3rd slide crook and the oddly shaped 4th knuckle that catches water. I also need to replace the factory bell with a fixed upright bell. I currently have the recording bell. It works just fine, but if I have gone this far I might as well go all the way right?
This Tuba is FAR from complete. I still have to finish the dent work and find a bell. I need something to practice on!

Mouthpiece Refinishing - King 25

above: before photo of vintage King 25 mouthpiece.

We received an old King 1250 Sousaphone in the shop last week. With it came this old, beat up King 25 mouthpiece. It was going to end up in a box, rotting away on a shelf so I wanted to see if I could make it look a bit better. This is the first time I have ever done it, so let's see how I did.






Here is what I did and how I decided to do it. First, I put the mouthpiece in a lathe and cut just enough off the outer edge of the rim to get rid of the dents. I did not use the lathe on the area around the engraving because I did not want to ruin the engraving. 

I then sanded out the rest of the dents and scratches. I did not remove all of the dents from the playing surface of the rim because the dents were deep and I didn't want to change the characteristics of the mouthpiece too much. I tried to operate under the assumption that the less material I have to remove the better. After this process, I buffed up the mouthpiece and silver plated it. 
It isn't perfect, but it is a distinct improvement. What do you think?

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Engravings: past and present

above: my all time favorite engraving: J.W. York & Sons Tuba (courtesy of Richard Barth)

Engravings on musical instruments are truly works of art. Good repairmen take great care not to disturb the engravings when restoring musical instruments. In the golden age of American brass instrument manufacturing, most major manufacturers offered gorgeous, lush engravings on their instruments. Before hand engraving was widely used, many manufacturers (mostly European) hand stamped or roll stamped their instruments. 
above: a French Besson horn with a stamp.
In the US, the tradition was to hand engrave instruments. Below are a few beautiful hand engravings:
  above: Holton Sousaphone engraving
 above: the famous Conn "lady face" engraving on a 12M Sax
Hand engraving is a special skill. Below is a video of hand engraving being done on a Yamaha soprano Saxophone.
Some modern manufacturers use machines to engrave their instruments. Below is a video of how Yamaha makes Trumpets. At 5:47 you can see their engraving machine. 
Conn-Selmer also uses an engraving machine on their instruments. You can see their engraving machine in action at 1:09.
Some factories use a different technique for engraving. They use a process called "acid etching." The area to be engraved has a special stencil put over it that allows the acid to etch only the area to be engraved.  Below is a picture of this process in action.
 The end result of the acid engraving ends up looking pretty good. Below is a final example of the acid etch engraving.

And lastly, just because I love it, the 1924 Conn 50th Anniversary Jumbo Sousaphone!


Sunday, May 8, 2011

How it's Made: Sousaphone (Weril factory) part 1: the bell

above: Weril's factory in beautiful Sao Paulo, Brazil
Weril has been making musical instruments for over 100 years, with origins going back to Europe. They don't just make musical instruments that bear their own name. They have made instruments for many manufacturers that you have probably heard of including; DEG, Holton, Dynasty and W.Nirschl. They even make parts for well known European brass instrument makers. They have a great facility with a kind, hard working staff. 
Here is a brief mini-tour of the construction of a J-470 (and sometimes 4 valve Dynasty) Sousaphone. It isn't a complete step-by-step construction but you do get some neat snap shots of what goes into creating a Sousaphone. 
First lets start with the bell.
First, a single sheet of brass is used to make the bell flare. The center is left intact so it can be mounted to a bell mandrel for spinning. 

 The worker uses a peg on a mount to provide leverage while pressing the bell against the mandrel. The bell is mounted to a motor that spins (or a lathe) so that the shape of the bell is even.
Next, a special tool is used to grab the edge of the bell and roll it over. This is how the rim is formed. Below is a close up picture of the tool.
Once finished spinning, the bell goes to the sander to even out the surface of the flare.
Here, the bell is not yet finished being sanded.

The bell spout is made by forming sheets of brass to the proper shape.
Below are pictures of the pieces before brazing.

Then the two pieces are brazed together.

The large U shaped tube is now balled out to the proper shape using large dent balls.

 Once the proper shape is formed, then the spout is cut.

Then the spout is polished and ready to be soldered to the bell flare.

Next...part 2: the body!


Friday, May 6, 2011

Oddities - Tiger Sousaphone

Above is a Jupiter fiberglass Sousaphone. This particular image came from an eBay listing in Europe. I cannot make out what the inside of the bell says, but it is plain as day that the paint job is tiger stripes. Let me be the first to say that while this kind of thing isn't for me, that is a nice paint job. The airbrushing looks great from the pictures. 

More on Jupter later...  

and one from the back...

 Thanks to Klaus (imperialbari on the Tubenet message board) for posting this some time ago.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Interview: Jim Self

Jim Self is an amazing free-lance multi-instrumentalist based in Los Angeles, California. In addition to being a studio musician he is also a first call Tubist for many movie composers and plays in many orchestras in addition to teaching private lessons and chamber music at USC. He is a real “jack of all trades” and in reality, a master of them all.

Jim took some time from his busy schedule this weekend to talk to me about movies, equipment and being a free-lance Tuba player.

[questions in BOLD answers in plain type following a “J.S.-”]

I am excited to be speaking to such a great player, especially one who gets to work with John Williams on a regular basis. You have played many works for John Williams and Steven Spielberg. Which one was your favorite?

J.S. - That's a tough one, I've done so many. I have been first call for John Williams for over 20 years now—beginning with Home Alone in 1990. Before that in 1976 I was the “voice of the mothership” on Close Encounters of the Third Kind and it remains probably my most important job. I caught a break on that one.  At that time Tommy Johnson was the first call Tuba player for John, but he was on vacation and couldn't make it so they called me. It was just one of those lucky things.

above: Jim Self, voice of the mothership

Even though it's very simple, one of my favorites is the solo at the end of Jurassic Park.

J.S. - That tritone at the very end of the credits? You know what that means don't you? That means there's going to be a sequel! (and there was, of course)

above: end credits from Jurassic Park. Jim's solo starts around 2:40

What exciting movie projects have you worked on lately?

J.S. - For John Williams I recently finished recording for the film War Horse. It's a war movie so the score has a lot of brass—but it was gentle music often. I just finished The Green Lantern today. It's sci-fi and very brass heavy. The instrumentation is:

8 – French Horns
8 – Trombones (all doubled on Bass Trombone and/or Contra-Bass Trombone)
4 – Trumpets
2 – Tubas (who both doubled on Cimbasso)

above: trailer for the upcoming film, The Green Lantern

Being a free lance Tubist sounds very exciting. What all does being a free lance Tuba player entail?

J.S. - It's extremely difficult to be a free lancer. To make a good living It only really works in Los Angeles and New York--because that is where the jobs are. You have to do many different things, from studio work to concert work to teaching. Every job is an audition. Sometimes it is just word of mouth and the composer will ask you back if he likes you.

When you asked about The Green Lantern, many of those musicians double because they have to. You have to be a very versatile musician. If necessary I can pick up Bass Trombone or Cimbasso or Bass and play it well. You really have to be a good classical musician. I may get hired because I know what a samba feels like. I know how to play the blues. I know dixieland. So often I am the one to call for commercial styles.

For any young student who wants to pursue a career as an orchestral Tubist, what suggestions could you offer for them?

J.S. - Be aware of your chances. It's very rare that there is an opening and there aren't that many jobs. Follow your dreams, but be realistic about it. Only a small fraction of my students have gone on to be professional musicians, but not one has regretted getting a degree studying Tuba. Pursue your dreams, but be realistic.

What advice could you provide for people who are about to audition, students, professionals or otherwise?

J.S. - You have to be flawless technically, rhythmically and in tune. Rhythmic accuracy is paramount. You just can't miss any notes in an audition.

Then sound. You have to have a special sound. If your sound is not warm or dark or whatever they are looking for, then you might not get the job. Work on developing your sound.

CC or BBb? Why?

CC - They are just easier for me to play. Personally I think it is easier and more accurate to play in the higher and lower registers on a CC Tuba. They are also more versatile key wise, especially sharp keys (which are used more often in orchestral playing), but that's just my opinion.

You are known for owning a lot of unique equipment. Can you tell me what inspired the Fluba?

J.S. - I'm a secret jazz musician. The guys I like best are guys like Clark Terry and Art Farmer who were great Flugelhorn players. I really wanted a tuba-sized Flugelhorn. Robb Stewart built it for me. The bell is from a small F Tuba and the valve section is from a Yamaha compensating EEb. The first taper had intonation problems. The final horn was great. I have used it on many of my solo records. I even used it on Petrushka once with the Pacific Symphony.

above: Jim Self playing the Fluba in his music room

On your website, you have as part of your personal collection a Yamaha YCB-826 “Monica” which you describe as"Monica" (pictured at right), 6/4 prototype, silver, 4 piston valves-1 rotary.  A precise copy of the better of Arnold Jacobs' Yorks.” Could you tell me a bit more about this horn?

J.S. - This is one of the original prototypes from the horn that they produce today. I understand that Yamaha took Jake's [Arnold Jacobs] York and put it into an MRI-like scanning machine that could measure detail and even the thickness of the metal throughout the instrument. The metal on Jake's York is quite thin. It has been polished and worked on so much--and this affects the instrument.

The first one was made by Thomas Lubitch in Frankfurt and was great! The next couple they made weren't as good. I tried them all. Then they took another year and produced a three more and “Monica” is one of those. They were much, much better.
above: "Monica" Jim's YCB-826 CC

I am a bit of a Sousaphone geek, so I would kick myself later if I didn't ask you about the “Selfone” your custom made F Sousaphone.

J.S. - That's just a novelty. I really like it, but I don't really play it that often—mostly for jazz too. That is another one that Robb Stewart made for me. Right now it plays a bit flat, so I need Robb to take some length out of it. It is a great playing horn though. I can play Bydlo from Pictures at an Exhibition on it better than I can on my F Tuba—although I doubt if any conductor would go for it!

above: Jim Self's "Selfone" in F

What is your “go-to” equipment? I ask because you have a large collection. What do you rely on the most?

J.S. - It really depends on the job.
For orchestra work I use “Monica.”
On studio jobs I use a custom made Yamaha 4/4 CC prototype that is a copy of my 1938 York CC.
I use a Yamaha 822 F for some other work, but not as often as my Yamaha 4/4 CC. I also play Cimbasso—a lot—on many movie calls and at the LA Opera too.

I really love the Yamaha Custom double Tuba in your collection. Can you tell me a little more about it?

J.S. - It is one of two F/CC custom Tubas made for Tommy Johnson by Robb Stewart. Tommy used them professionally for a while. They were F Tubas that had a CC side for playing the lower notes. I bought one of them after Tommy's passing. The proceeds from the sale of his horns went to Tommy's scholarship fund at USC.  

Was it a really versatile horn? How did it play?

J.S. - Well it is a compromise. I have played many double Tubas and I haven't played one yet that isn't a compromise in some fashion. You can only have a good CC side or a good F side, but it has been my experience that you can't have both. The one I have Tuba is a Yamaha F Tuba with the added CC side, so the F side is very good but the pitch for the CC side isn’t be as good as my 4/4 Yamaha CC.

above: Jim Self's Yamaha double Tuba

above: Tommy Johnson playing one of the Yamaha doubles made by Robb Stewart

Is there any advice in general you can leave with young Tuba players who want to be successful?

J.S. - Do what you say you are going to do and finish what you start. Doing that will help people respect you.

above: Jim Self through his 1916 Keefer sousaphone with his fluba


Jim Self's homepage is at:

You can purchase Jim's recordings and sheet music at:

Jim's faculty profile at USC:

Tuesday, May 3, 2011


- How to use a pitch tendency sheet
- Valve Alignments
- May Events
- Interview with Jim Self
- Album review of "Tricky Lix" by Jim Self

The 4th Valve - What is it for?

above: Current model King 2341 Tuba
Note: All fingerings discussed in this will be for BBb Tuba.

As students progress, they upgrade from 3 valve Tubas to 4 valve Tubas. Why? What is the fourth valve for?  It is mostly for two uses: extending the lower register and helping with tuning. 

Tuning - Tubas, like all brass instruments share a fundamental problem (in non-compensating systems): you can tune the individual valves, but when used in combination the pitch can fluctuate depending on the partial. David Werden does a good job of explaining the math behind this in his article about compensating Euphoniums:

"Usually unnoticed by the musician, a great deal of mathematics is going on under his fingertips. Based on acoustical theory, each time the player wishes to lower the pitch by 1/2 step, he must increase the working length of the instrument by approximately 6%. For the sake of mathematical convenience, imagine an instrument with a basic length of 100" when no valves are depressed (this is only slightly longer than a Bb euphonium). If the 2nd valve is to lower the pitch by 1/2 step, its tubing would then have to be 6" long (6% x 100"). The total working length is now 106". To lower the pitch another 1/2 step below this level, the instrument needs an additional 6.36" of tubing (6% x 106" = 6.36"). Therefore, in order for the 1st valve to be capable of lowering the pitch of the basic instrument by 1 step, its tubing should be 12.36" long (6" + 6.36"). With just the 1st valve depressed, the total working length is now 112.36". For another 1/2 step below this level, an additional 6.74" of tubing (6% x 112.36") is necessary. Therefore, the 3rd valve's tubing should be 19.1 " long (12.36 + 6.74) in order to produce the desired 1-1/2 step change.As seen in the preceding paragraph, changes of 1/2 step, 1 whole step, and 1-1/2 steps, require adding 6%, 12.36%, and 19.1% respectively to the working length of the instrument. While each of the 3 valves can be designed to provide exactly the length needed when itis used alone, a conflict arises when 2 or 3 valves are used at the same time. Using the example of a 100" instrument, the working length with the 3rd valve depressed would be 119.1". To lower the pitch by 1 step from this point, 12.36% must be added to its length, which in this case would be 14.7" (12.36% x 119.1 " = 14.7"). Since the 1st valve's tubing is only 12.36" long, the 1 & 3 combination will be quite sharp. Because of similar discrepancies, 2 & 3 will be slightly sharp and 1, 2 & 3 will be a full 1/4 step sharp."

Dave Werden does continue this article, which will be linked at the end of the article.

To partially help correct this problem,  you can use 4th valve for 1+3 combinations like second line C below the staff or 2+4 for 1+2+3 combinations like B natural 2 lines below the staff. As you go lower in the Tuba register, the tuning gets a bit more difficult but this can be corrected with "false" fingerings. On some Tubas, there are tuning issues within the staff. Some Tubas have a problem with second space C (1st valve). You can sometimes correct this also by using the 4th valve.
Remember, Tubas don't play or tune themselves, Tuba players do and not all Tubas have the same pitch discrepancies.  It is important to understand pitch tendencies of your Tuba (this article is coming in the future). 

Extending the lower register or making it easier to play the low notes-

You can play in the lower register with a three valve Tuba, but it becomes difficult for younger players to play below pedal F (1+3 or 4). 
 Using a four valve Tuba you can begin to more easily play the notes below this F. It isn't an automatic skill. It has to be developed just like any other musical skill. On the fingering chart below, you can see the extension of the range on the lowest notes. In my opinion it is possible to reach those notes on a three valve Tuba, it is just more difficult without a fourth valve.
(click to enlarge)


Master at Work: Valve Alignment

The master takes a few moments before bed to align the valves on a King Tuba. She claims the binky helps her concentrate, but I am skeptical...