In this blog about: Ron Vaughn fixed pitch instruments
Fixed Pitch percussion instrument overview
Care, use, and storage of these fixed pitch instruments
Effects of shipping them domestically and world wide
Pitches and pitch accuracy of fixed pitch percussion instruments
Effects of different instrument mounting methods and equipment on the voice and pitch heard
Effects of different mallets on the instrument voice heard and exact pitches heard
Quick-Links to sections in this blog:
To ‘Voicing & Tuning’ our WoodBlocks
To FlexMounts for Ron’s Signature WoodBlocks
To Mallets & WoodBlocks
To Tp-770 Temple Blocks
To Log Drums & their Fixed Pitches
To Ron’s HIGH-DENSITY HEAD MALLETS + a quick mallet history
Fixed-Pitch percussion instruments:
At Ron Vaughn Percussion we have been designing and making and voicing and tuning and mounting and playing fixed-pitched percussion instruments for over 50 years. We’re learning all the time, relying on what has worked well and faithfully, and improving continuously. We have made and tuned many thousands of instruments through these decades, one at a time. Today, you can find many recorded examples of our instruments in most all musical styles and applications. These include many motion picture sound tracks, recordings of almost every imaginable style and culture, and live performances throughout the world.
Today I’m aiming to extend a better understanding of the fixed-pitch percussion instruments we make here for those of you who are interested: performers, directors, conductors, composers, and anyone who has any interest in better understanding voiced & tuned, fixed-pitch percussion instruments of the kind we make, and that so many performers, recordings, and performances depend on us for.
Why we put all this energy input and care into our remarkable raw materials, machining, genuine hand-work, and voicing and tuning and finishing?
Because this is how we create worthwhile and meaningful instruments in the dynamic world of music: of rhythms and pitches and endless creative possibilities and interpretations.
Why fixed-pitch instrument tuned pitches don’t always stay ‘exactly’ fixed indefinitely, and a few good things to know about their care:
We voice & tune for best possible performance quality outcome.
While fixed-pitch instruments are generally unable to faithfully hold their precise, originally tuned pitches indefinitely, many of them will remain very close to, or at their original tunings over time: some of them for a very long time. Each is unique, and each is made from a specific, naturally-occurring material: wood.
The sound of genuine wooden instruments is unmatched in quality within the world of percussion instruments.
So what happens to the precise intonation of these carefully voiced and tuned instruments?
Temperature fluctuations happen. Changes in humidity, and atmospheric pressure happen. The use, care, and storage of these instruments, and the knowledge and ability of the performers and organizations who use and own these instruments varies. These variations in user/owner knowledge and experience can and do greatly impact the health, well being, and longevity of these instruments.
And, we ship them throughout the United States and the world via trains, planes, ships, trucks, cars, etc.
These instruments can tolerate a fairly wide temperature range safely, as long as these temperature changes are very gradual, over time, i.e., over days rather than hours. Sudden cooling, and especially sudden heating of these instruments is risky and dangerous at best, to their overall health, intonation, performance reliability, and longevity.
Reasonable cautions and care: never place these instruments in vehicles of any kind, unattended. If you think of one of these instruments as you might a small child, a lot of the common sense rules apply to both. You almost always travel together, whether in your car, or whether the roadies are moving your instruments and you’re driving or flying to the performance.
Never leave these instruments in a closed vehicle. Never put them in the trunk of a vehicle. When transporting them for performance, remove them as soon as you reach your performance destination rather than leaving them in a car or truck over time.
Avoid leaving instruments in direct sunlight. Avoid leaving them near heat or air conditioning vents and air return vents.
When traveling via commercial jet liner, keep your instruments in a pressurized cabin whenever possible.
A perspective comparison: Marimba bars vs Single Slot, Solid Body WoodBlocks and their related pitches and their comparative stability of pitch:
From our marimba building friends I understand that replacing bars takes place occasionally when a new instrument might arrive with a bar that has changed in pitch during the shipping process.
My guess is that carefully voiced and tuned natural wood marimba bars, being a single wood plank, are better at holding their specific pitches over time when compared to carefully voiced and tuned open-slot woodblocks.
A quick minute of woodblock history: the single slot, solid body woodblock is something I pioneered, to the best of my knowledge, in the 1970s. I had not seen a single-slot solid body block before that time. Until then, most woodblocks had two slots, one on the top, and one on the bottom, and could be ‘flipped over’ if one side became broken or didn’t sound so great.
I made my first single slot blocks for one of the very first recording projects I was hired to play at RCA for the Smithsonian. After hearing the playback from our first day of recording, I knew I needed much, much better woodblocks, (and mallets), to achieve the sound I could hear in my imagination as compared to the sounds I heard on these beautifully recorded tracks, during playback.
The benefits of single-slot, solid body woodblocks are considerable when compared to their double-sided, double-slotted predecessors and relatives today.
One of the challenges of a single-slot, solid body woodblock’s ability to hold an exact pitch, as compared to a natural wood marimba or xylophone bar, is the openness of the woodblock’s single slot to atmosphere, temperature and fluctuations in humidity. A natural wood keyboard bar may be more stable as it is a ‘mostly’ sealed, single piece of high quality wood, whereas a single slot woodblock has constantly exposed interior grain that takes on and loses humidity, temperature, and atmospheric pressures more readily.
When we make our single slot Signature woodblocks, we do treat the exposed interior wood grain of the open slots with a ‘breathable’, transparent material that does go a long way in greatly stabilizing and ‘moderating’ this transfer of the natural elements of temperature, humidity, and atmospheric pressures. From our decades of experience, this transparent material has no audible or detectable effect on the instrument’s ability to produce it’s intended voice and pitch.
VOICING & TUNING, differences between simply ‘slotted’ woodblocks, and Ron Vaughn Signature slotted woodblocks that are both ‘voiced and tuned’:
If you look at a woodblock from Ron Vaughn Percussion, you’ll see that our blocks have a great deal of shape, i.e.: ‘sculpting’, ‘contouring’, and ‘geometry’. These shapes are created as we ‘voice’ our woodblocks. We first aim to get the ‘voice’ that we want to hear from any of our blocks, and then we tune for the ‘pitch’ of a given woodblock within that ‘voice’.
This is also why using the mallets we make for our woodblocks is very helpful to players who want to hear what we hear when we tune and finish our woodblocks.
This is not to say that other mallets could not produce great sound from our woodblocks. This is only to say that when we make our woodblocks using the mallets we make for our instruments, this is how we achieve the best possible ‘voice’ and ‘pitch’ from our woodblocks. We’ve been doing this now for over 50 years.
Pictured below is one of our shapely W-3 woodblocks. You can clearly see the ‘sculpting’ and ‘contouring’ created when we ‘voice’ our woodblocks.
Intonation, and the tuned scales:
Most all musical groups aiming for high quality performances invest valuable and focused time and resources before every rehearsal or performance to ‘tune’ their instruments. Most of the world tunes to A440, while a small number of ensembles in some parts of the world will tune to A443.
What can you hear?
Most dedicated artists in the world of music pay close attention to pitch. And still, not everyone ‘hears’ the same. Generally, the mathematic precision of today’s strobe tuners will ‘verify’ a pitch’s accuracy to the satisfaction of the most detail-oriented listeners and performers.
Some good things to know about percussion instruments and their unique, individual personalities:
Many musicians understand that every instrument is unique, even when there are several instruments together that ‘appear’ to be identical.
With tuned percussion instruments of the kind we build, (wood blocks, temple blocks, log drums), each instrument is unique, even when the model is the same, and initial tuning is accomplished with a high degree of accuracy, (typically via strobe).
The ‘quality’ of each of our instruments remains smoothly consistent and ‘evenly’ reliable. The individual ‘personality’ of any one instrument we make can and will possess subtle nuances to the very careful listener. This is especially true depending on the mallet(s) used to play the block, and the way the block is ‘supported’, or ‘mounted’, (read on for more information on these two pretty important elements of sound).
Help your instruments sing openly and speak brilliantly: Mounts/resting surfaces & Mallets have enormous influences on the instrument voice actually heard/recorded, and ultimate audible pitches, clarity, resonance, and projection.
A couple of the most basic and most important aspects of playing wood blocks, temple blocks, and log drums are the way you ‘mount’ or support these instruments when playing them, and the tool(s) you use to make your physical performance contact with these instruments, i.e., most often these are the mallets you select. A percussionist’s choice of mallets is perhaps one of the most personally identifying elements in their musical ‘personality’. Mallets are most often how a percussionist connects physically with these instruments. At any volume level of performance, a percussionist’s choice of mallets remains one of the most identifying and intimate aspects of their ‘personal’ playing style/sound produced. Mallets are an enormous part of their ultimate performance ‘signature’.
FLEXMOUNTS, instrument mounting methods and mounting surfaces:
Much of the time, a substantial percentage of the available sound of these instruments is lost to ‘grounding’. ‘Grounding’ is when the instrument is resting on a performance surface that has an uninsulated, direct path to the floor or ground through the physical ‘construct’, (table top, music stand, percussion table, etc.), they are resting on. A good example might be a wood block that is resting on a towel, the towel is resting on a music stand, and that stand is resting on the floor. Unless the towel is folded over and over to create a substantially thick, loose pad, much of the block’s sound, or ‘voice’, will make it all the way to the floor in this setup. This is why we make our FlexMount assemblies for all of our Signature woodblocks, temple blocks, and log drums.
The most ‘pure’ sound I’ve heard from a good woodblock is when the block was held in the human hand. The block is held in the perfect sound-insulating, resilient, flexible cradle: i.e., your own hand and fingers. The FlexMounts we design and make here come extremely close to this same ideal mount for a genuine woodblock.
Here’s one of our Signature woodblock in one of our resilient FlexMounts:
Here’s a quick link to our FlexMounts for our Signature woodblocks: https://shop.ronvaughn.net/collections/flexmounts-for-signature-wood-blocks
Unless you’ve had the opportunity to hear these instruments singing at their full voice and intonation, it’s sometimes hard to justify investing in the right mounts and mallets for the work.
In contrast, once you’ve heard the true, full voice and pitch of your instrument’s potential, it’s largely disappointing and an artistic let down to a dedicated performer to perform with them any other way.
Fixed-Pitch instrument mounting considerations:
The kind and type of surface these percussion instruments rest on when played has a profound effect on their ultimate audible voice, their degree of resonance, and exact pitch when played. And ‘what’ the instrument is played with completes its ultimate audible voice, including the exact audible pitch projected and heard/recorded, depending on the mallet used and ‘where’ on the instrument the mallet is ‘applied’ by the performer.
I have had many conversations with many performers through the decades. One of the challenges I’ve experienced most often is a musician assuming that while they may be holding down a great position with a major ensemble somewhere in the world, and that they are a highly accomplished performer, conductor, composer, et al, they sometimes discount, (or are simply unaware of), these vital effects on a percussion instrument’s final sound, color of voice heard, and even the resulting pitch emitted by one of these instruments.
One of my great teachers, and later dear friend, Cloyd Duff, understood this about as well as anyone I’ve ever come across. Cloyd taught me plenty. And Cloyd was equally amazed at how prolific this errant performers’ assumption was. Many years ago, now, Cloyd would discus and demonstrate the affect of different mallets on the same timpani head, and how the timpani head had to be tuned carefully, (and often very quickly), to the pitch needed, and how that was never really possible unless the timpani head was in tune first with itself.
As fixed-pitch instruments, the wood blocks and temple blocks and log drums that we make are all subject to the same physics and needs.
Many people assume that when we recommend one of our mallets for a particular instrument of ours, that we’re simply selling mallets. In fact, the mallets we make are designed specifically for the instruments we build, and we know our mallets are capable or presenting the full intended voice of that instrument.
Are there other mallets that might produce that same result? We simply don’t know, so we share what we do know and understand.
As an included part of this same conversation, what the wood block, or log drum rests on when played makes an enormous difference in the ultimate sound heard from our instruments.
As a temple block side note: if you look carefully at our Tp-770 Genuine Temple Blocks you’ll see that they are not mounted to the bar rigidly, but instead they ‘flex’ when they are played. This important mounting system allows the temple blocks to ‘breath’ as they are played. They are allowed to ‘sing’ freely, without ‘grounding’ their sound through a rigid connection to their mounting bar.
And again, we don’t simply sell our FlexMounts for our wood blocks and log drums. We know that these instruments of ours sound as intended when mounted as designed, and played with the mallets that are made for them. They can and will ‘sing’ beautifully.
Lastly for this part, we also understand that not everyone has the time, (band directors, managers, etc.), or perhaps the resources, to invest in this level of information and knowledge, and equipment.
For this article, offering the best information we have is the point and purpose. It’s taken us several decades to develop and understand much of this. We share what we know to make the best possible difference in the use and resulting sound of the instruments we invest our lives making for the performers of the world.
We also understand that a professional player with many years performing will bring a lot of their experience to bear on instrument selection, instrument mounting selection, and choice of mallets. We offer this detailed information as a help, based on our decades designing and building these instruments, mallets, and related equipment.
Some good things to know about how we tune:
For reference, we have and do tune instruments by ear, by relative pitch references such as tuning forks, and by highly accurate, sensitive electronic strobe tuners. For any instruments needing exact, mathematically accurate pitches, we rely on our strobe tuners for finest resolution intonation.
Strobe tuners and how they do, and don’t work with our specific fixed-pitch percussion instruments: Strobe tuners can be very effective, useful, and can identify when a given pitch is ‘centered’ to a formidable, exacting standard of accuracy. Different strobe tuners have varying degrees of ability in how and what they ‘hear’ in pitches with specific percussion instruments. They don’t all have the same default ‘abilities’, though their intended purposes and functions are all based on the same or similar science and math. Much depends on how these strobe tuners are engineered, designed, and built. They’re certainly not all the same. While we are not experts in building strobe tuners, we know some things about how the available strobe tuners of today react to and handle the various fixed-pitch percussion instruments that we build and tune here. And we know some things about how to get the best performance from those tuners with our instruments.
Emitted pitches and ultimate sound from our wood blocks, temple blocks, and log drums that we make:
Comparing the kind of audible pitch emitted by a wood block with, let’s say, an oboe, the oboe is going to be the easier pitch to hear as a precise pitch, especially as a sustained tone. The musician playing the oboe can produce a sustained sound/pitch/note. Blocks, on the other hand, are ‘momentary’ in their audible sound/pitch, and only sustain their sound through repeated, individual strokes. Additionally, while the oboe is played with great consistency by holding the instrument in the performers hands, a wood block may be resting on any number of surfaces and may be played with any one of a vast variety of different mallets, depending on the performer’s knowledge and personal mallet choice and collection. Also, ‘where‘ on the instrument’s playing surface the instrument is contacted with a mallet can and will make a difference in the resulting pitch produced/heard.
It’s a good investment for a performer to take the time to play and learn these characteristics of their instruments.
As many experienced performers know, the ultimate sound produced by these instruments extends well beyond simply contacting the instrument with a given mallet, on a given surface.
MALLETS & WOODBLOCKS, pitch consistency in ‘performance’, and a little more information about the High-Density-Head Mallets we make for our woodblocks: a single wood block can and will emit different pitches, depending on ‘where’ on their playing surface they are played. We make and tune our WoodBlocks so that the ‘sweet spot’ is generally in the center of the block, and a little forward of the center of each block, which is where most players play a block.
Generally, very small wood blocks, or ‘piccolo’ wood blocks will need a different mallet than, let say, a regular small wood block. And a medium sized block will need a different mallet than, let’s say, a very large wood block. As an example, if you play one of our W-2 wood blocks with its best mallet, which is our SMB-1.5R mallets, and then you play one of our W-8 big blocks with that same mallet, the big block will sing, though not at its full, tuned and intended voice.
For performance pieces where there is no time to switch mallets during the performance of the piece or movement, we make our MPM-1.75R mallets. These are our Multiple Percussion Mallets. They won’t produce the absolute optimum sound from most of our wood blocks, but they will produce a very good sound from one of our piccolo blocks all the way down to our big blocks, i.e., the W-5, W-6, W-7 & W-8 wood blocks. (These MPM-1.75 mallets will also produce excellent results on toms, other drums, marimbas, xylophones, vibes, timpani, suspended cymbals, etc., when playing multiple percussion pieces, where there is no time to switch mallets).
Here’s a quick link to our MPM-1.75 Multiple Percussion Mallets: https://ronvaughn.net/multiple-percussion-mallets/
Many top-flight performing percussionists rely on our MPM-1.75R mallets for playing fast moving, demanding multiple percussion pieces where there is simply no time or opportunity to change mallets mid-stroke.
We publish a complete list of our Signature WoodBlocks, their pitches, and the optimum mallets we build to play them with. You can find this list at the following link below. When at this page, just scroll on down the page to the block/mallet chart:
Tp-770 Temple Blocks, Fixed-Pitch info. + mallets & mounting, and some other really good-to-know information: our Tp-770 Temple Blocks produce the authentic, full, dark, mellow sound of genuine temple blocks. When played with our LBM-3R mallets, these temple blocks will deliver their full, dark, mellow, authentic beautiful sound. These temple blocks will have a ‘sweet spot’, that will produce their best sound and the most faithfully ‘centered’ pitch that we tune them to. This ‘sweet spot’ is typically in the center of the block’s surface, and a little forward of the center of each block. And again, if you play ‘around’ the surface of these temple blocks, you will hear variations in their pitch and resonance. With temperature, humidity, and changes in atmospheric pressures, their fixed pitch may vary over time. With mallets other that the LBM.3R mallets we make for these temple blocks, you will hear a different voice from these temple blocks than the voice we create and tune in them. We simply don’t know how different a sound they will produce with mallets we are not familiar with?
When playing our Tp770 Temple Blocks, you can also see that they are mounted in a resilient, flexible mount design that allow them to freely move slightly when played. This slight flexibility is central to their sound and resonance, and longevity. This allows the blocks to ‘breath’ and sing in their unique, dark, mellow, genuine voices when played with our LBM-3R mallets.
Effects on temple block pitches of storage and care:
Like most fine wooden instruments, our temple blocks can tolerate a reasonably wide range of temperatures as long as those changes are gradual. Sudden changes in temperature are not good for these blocks. Avoid leaving them in vehicles beyond the time it takes to transport them. Never place them in the trunk of a car. Avoid storing them in areas that are not temperature controlled environments.
Here’s a link to our Tp-770 Temple Blocks: https://ronvaughn.net/temple-blocks/
And here’s a link to our LBM-3R mallets we make for our Tp-770 Temple Blocks: https://ronvaughn.net/mallets-for-large-blocks-and-tp-770-temple-blocks/
Log Drums, and the notes of these ‘Fixed-Pitch’ instruments: each of our log drums is built a with generous, beautiful resonating chamber. Our Log Drums are pretty sensitive to the surface they rest on when played, and the mallets used to play them with.
With the mallets we make for our log drums, the full depth of their dark mellow voice will be heard, as well as the pitch to which they are tuned. ‘Moving’ the air in one of our log drums is not completely unlike moving the air in the bowl of a good Dresden designed timpani bowl.
As we build our log drums, the pitches are determined and ‘voiced’ by the selection of wood we use for the sounding surface, (N. American Black Walnut), and to a great extent the mallets.
For one of our log drums to sing at full voice and tuned pitch, the mallets used need to be capable of moving the air inside the resonating chamber relative to its overall size and pitch. With log drums it is especially true that different pitches will be heard with different mallets. The resting surface a drum is on will greatly determine how freely one of our log drums will ‘sing’, and ultimately the pitch it will produce.
Pictured below is one of our log drums mounted with our FlexMount hardware.
And below the image of the mounted drum, you can see an image of just one of our FlexMounts for our log drums.
If you own one or more of our log drums, and you are unable to purchase the mounts for our log drums, we encourage you to look at these pictured mounts carefully, and try to provide something similar for your Ron Vaughn log drums. Note the way the drum is completely isolated from any direct path that would ‘ground’ the sound of one of these drums. Also, look at where along the body of the drum it is supported by the mounts.
Fixed Pitches: these drums are naturally sensitive to changes in temperature, humidity, and atmospheric pressures too, and this can and will affect the exact pitch they produce on a given day, in a given recording studio/music hall.
These are all great things to know and consider when choosing and playing any log drums.
A Single Resilient FlexMount, shown below. Two mounts are needed to play one drum, as seen above:
Ron Vaughn HIGH-DENSITY HEAD MALLETS, more about the mallets we make here and their effect on the fixed-pitch percussion instruments we make:
We have always made our own mallets specifically for our tuning work here, and for performers performing with our instruments. Our mallets make an enormous difference in all aspects of ultimate performance and produced live and recorded sound from our instruments. This is especially true in recording work.
Knowing who and what to trust: one of the challenges for performers today is knowing what mallets will work the best. We encourage players to always use our mallets with our instruments because that’s what we know. We understand that mallets can literally change what players hear from our instruments, including tonal voice color and exact audible pitches.
What we don’t know is how many other mallets are offered by others, and what those mallets are best used for. In the world of percussion and small businesses, more mallet companies come, (and go), than most others combined. Mallets are often viewed as the easiest point of entry into the percussion business, hence the (constant) flood of mallets that players young and experienced must wade through to try to find what will work for their performance style, needs, and career.
Exceptional mallets, like anything of exceptional quality and great usefulness, are often not all that easy to make.
We aim to stay close to what we know and understand, while always experimenting and learning.
Ron Vaughn HIGH-DENSITY HEAD MALLETS, a one-minute history: When I genuinely began my studio career in the 1970s, it was the first time that I regularly and routinely heard immediate and complete playback of all the tracks we were creating, coming through world class sound systems in world class studios. We were always in someone’s remarkable studio, i.e., RCA, United Artists, Columbia, etc. Their equipment was the best of the time, as were the over-sized, (super comfortable), playback rooms with their remarkable, stunningly crystal-clear playback systems.
That’s when, for the first time, I could consistently hear the results of my recorded playing. I was hearing the clarity, or lack of clarity, of the sound of the mallets I was using for the various sessions I was playing and the instruments I was using.
I initially heard a lot of what I have always thought of as ‘contact noise’, i.e., the sound of the mallets striking an instrument, along with the sound of the instrument itself. Clearly, the goal has always been to hear the purest sound that an instrument is capable of producing, without the interference of the ‘contact’ sound of the mallet used.
This was the beginning of what I have always called my ‘High-Density, Zero-Contact Noise’ mallets. I spent a few years developing my ‘High-Density-Head- Mallets’. Today, these hand made mallets have become some of the most relied upon and consistent tools for players and recordings of all types, throughout the world of percussion and recording.
For quick access links to Ron Vaughn High Density Head mallets and Petite mallets, here are a couple of handy links:
High-Density Head Mallets, generally: https://ronvaughn.net/mallets/
Suspended Cymbal Mallets, specifically: https://ronvaughn.net/ron-vaughn-high-density-head-cymbal-mallets/
Mallets for Piccolo Blocks: https://ronvaughn.net/ron-vaughn-high-density-head-piccolo-block-mallets/
Mallets for smaller & medium size blocks: https://ronvaughn.net/mallets-for-small-and-mid-range-wood-blocks/
Mallets for large blocks: https://ronvaughn.net/mallets-for-large-blocks-and-tp-770-temple-blocks/
Petite Mallets, including Ron’s amazing TBells: https://ronvaughn.net/petite-mallets-for-cymbals-bells-triangles-xylophones/
I hope this information is helpful and may genuinely contribute to your future plans and performances.
Owner, Ron Vaughn Percussion