By Gregory Daurer | Oct 27, 2020
Marimbas, vibraphones, and xylophones
"Marimba One designs and builds concert-level marimbas, vibraphones, xylophones -- and we build them all here in Northern California," says Samuels. "We don't have them made overseas and bring them in here -- we design and build them all here."
Marimba One makes percussion instruments played by respected musicians -- whether within the fields of classical, jazz, or experimental music. The company teams up with top players across the globe, with some lending their names to product endorsements for the company's mallets (e.g., Ivana Bilic, Jason Marsalis, and Lynn Vartan), used to strike the instruments' tone bars, thus producing the instruments' radiant and enveloping sounds.
Before the instruments are offered for sale in countries such as Ecuador, Germany, Spain, and China, they're manufactured domestically in Arcata. That sets the company apart from most of its competitors.
Workers at Marimba One utilize over 50 injection-molded tools to create parts. All the aluminum pieces are extruded from the company's proprietary dies, which also number around 50. "There's probably very little hardware on the instrument that we haven't designed," says Samuels. He adds, "We have half a dozen patents or so -- and one of them is a fairly extensive patent on our mallets. We patented a specific way of wrapping the mallets."
The company also holds a patent on the magnetic-drive system within its vibraphone. Samuels says, "We developed the magnetic drive system, so that there's absolutely no mechanical connection between the motor and the drive-pulleys and the fan system. There's like a little 3/16th gap in there. We just use rare-earth magnets. . . . It's really super-simple -- and it's really quiet."
On its marimbas, workers cut to size the aluminum which forms the 13 different resonators (five round, eight oval) that project sound from the underside of the marimba. Next, the resonators need to be positioned in order to optimize their tuning and amplitude. "What we learned how to do is treat the resonators as if they're graphic equalizers," says Samuels. "I'm really into putting the time and energy into figuring out how to keep making them better."
A similar attention to detail goes into the wooden tone bars on the top of the marimbas. After employees travel to Belize and Guatemala in order to personally select the ethically-sourced rosewood the company purchases, it air-dries and then kiln-dries it in Arcata. The people who do the tuning on the instrument cut the rosewood themselves in order to form the shapes of the marimbas' tone bars, then they grind the underside of the tone bars, in order to achieve the best sound, the best harmonics. The workers use strobe tuner devices -- and their ears -- in order get the bars into the best sonic shape. It's company policy: whoever is doing the tuning "should take as much time as they need to make it sound good."
Samuels discusses why some listeners experience an emotional resonance with the sound of marimbas: "The marimba, particularly in the mid-range and lower notes, to me, have a visceral sound, in that you can really feel it. Sometimes you can actually feel the sound waves without even having to strike the sound bar very hard. The bass frequency, the low frequencies, those are the amazing ones. . . . Those have, to me, more of an enveloping characteristic to them."
Samuels was smitten by the sound of marimbas when he was a student at Humboldt State College around 1983. First, he practiced how to play them at school. Then, since he couldn't afford to buy a marimba, he set out to make his own. In 1986, he founded his own company.
Along the way, he's had help from Steve Cole, an engineer who, at one time, co-owned another Arcata company, Yakima (the maker of automobile roof racks). Cole introduced Samuels to the use of injection-molding technology and extrusion dies for the company's wide range of parts. "We're the only ones doing injection molding [to make these types of instruments], and injection molding is pretty capital-intensive," says Samuels. "It's expensive to get there, but once you have your molds, the parts are very inexpensive." Other companies, he notes, utilize "super-low labor costs" to make stamped parts overseas.
What does it take to make a stellar marimba? Listening. Over the years, Samuels says he's listened to hundreds of musicians and customers, in order to devise ways to improve the instruments. "I've had to learn to translate people's comments about sound into how we design the acoustics of the instrument," says Samuels, before adding, "We've been really diligent to engineer out every problem we've come across, so that when the musicians get the instrument, they're going to last a long long time . . . and sound really good."
There are different price levels, but the company's top-tier marimbas range from around $11,000 to $22,000. Marimba One's products are sold by dealers across Europe, the Middle East, Central and South America, Asia, and North America (Guitar Center, being one of them in the United States). Early in the company's history, Samuels says, "No dealers wanted to talk with me." Things have changed since then: "Everything we build here is sold before we build it."
It all comes back to manufacturing world-class instruments with unrivaled acoustics. "Our goal is to clearly be making the best ones in the world," says Samuels. "We're not looking to cut any corners. We want to make them as killer as we possibly can, because we love them. That's really what it is."
Challenges: "Making sure we have capital to keep investing in new designs and more efficient machinery," says Samuels.
Opportunities: To make marimbas more affordable, giving more people the ability to own them or to study playing them. "We've been working on a project to make a [synthetic composite] tone material that would be the equal of rosewood, and I think we've done it," says Samuels. "It'll have applications definitely throughout the marimba industry -- and beyond." Guitars could be made using the material, as well, replacing rare woods that are no longer commercially available.
Additionally, Samuels says, "We just launched, last month, a line of educational instruments at a much lower price point. And those, so far, seem to be pretty hot in the market." He adds, "We didn't realize how strong the demand was going to be for those. We figure it's because our brand is [widely known] out there, and it's the first time a lot of people could afford a Marimba One, finally."
Needs: "Any business, you've got to feed it," muses Samuels. "And so, you always have to have sales. We're always working to keep the business fed, so it's happy."