Sunday, August 9, 2009

PVC Luthier

I love Blue Man Group music. It's all about taking a bunch of little things to create a complex whole. The rhythmic motifs are simple, but they interlock to form a very intricate song. Then there's the really cool part - the PVC instruments.

I have wanted one of their instruments, preferably a base-range one, for a while. Now that there's no longer an imminent move, I am building one. The whole dynamic of the acoustic, yet synthesizer-like tone produced by plumbing parts and paddles intrigues me. I want to see how it fits with other music.

Basically, there's four kinds of the instruments.

1. Original instrument
It's almost a xylophone made of PVC. The major difference is that instead of hitting a pole or plate on its side, you use a paddle to strike the air column in the end of the tube. They usually are made of 14 tubes arranged in two rows. They have one octave doubled so faster notes can be played. It used to occupy all three octaves, but now the tubulum holds down the base. It has a very clean "donk" sound. Used almost everywhere, but exemplified in "PVC IV."

2. Tubulum
This is an updated version of the first instrument. It has rubber reeds that are struck with sticks. It can be found in the newer albums doing all the low-range stuff. It has a growlier sound thanks to the rubber, and it's usually going pretty fast, so it sounds like "doodoodoodoo." It has fewer notes than the original instrument because you can fit two drumsticks onto a reed, rather than one paddle to a tube. Used for the main riff in "I Feel Love" and inspired them to cover the song in the first place.

3. Backpack tubulum
One of the PVC instruments mounted onto a backpack. It has flexible draining for its resonating tubes. These vary so widely, they're hard to classify and they're indistinguishable in sound from their floor-bound counterparts. Used in Vegas for "Rods and Cones."

4. Drumbone
This is the most special of the instruments. It consists of a larger and a smaller J-shaped section. One Blue Man holds each section, and the other plays them with drumsticks. Each section has a telescoping part like a trombone (hence the name). Disassembled, each section gets two notes, and it gets four notes when the two are joined end to end. It's easy to build sloppily, but if you want to do it right, it's a bit harder. It's used only in the song "Drumbone."

I am going for a mid-range original instrument using 3" triple-wall pipe. The triple-wall has some internal resonance, which gives it a slightly more tubulum-like sound.

1. Testing tubes
2. Building paddles
3. Designing instrument
4. Assembling tubes
5. Assembling stand
6. Final assembly