The world of instrument making is a peculiar blend of tradition and innovation. Once a good design is found, it’s rare for major modifications to occur. The big names we have heard of, Stradivarius violins (or as Homer Simpson says, “Strada-who-vious?”), or Steinway grands, are physically quite similar to their ancestors – a quality openly sought by musicians who buy these makes. More often, the innovation occurs from within the constraints of the traditional form of the instrument. We’ve switched out the cat gut for more resilient plastics (though you can still find the purist who swears by the older string type), and moved away from wooden piano frames, which has resulted in much fewer pianos spontaneously collapsing, releasing their strings, bound so tightly they could cleanly remove a finger. It’s therefore rare to come across a trumpet that’s almost completely made of plastic.
The “tiger trumpet”, a plastic trumpet that comes in a variety of vibrant colours, is the latest in a trend of professional quality plastic instruments. Likely inspired by the “p-bone”, a plastic trombone, and the first (and arguably, simplest) of the brass instruments to depart from its metallurgical heritage, the tiger trumpet is the answer to the trumpeter with a penchant for ‘toys’, which if you know any trumpeters, is all of us. At the highly affordable price of $295, I was able to get my hands on a beautiful blue and yellow model and examine it.
The horn itself is almost entirely made of plastic. It seems like a cop out to begin by saying that plastic has its limitations, as the horn is truly quite impressive. However, the basis of function of the valves still requires a small amount of metal, and indeed, with exception to a thin layer of aluminum which coat the valves, and supply the mechanical energy in the springs, the tiger trumpet is all ABS plastic.
Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene – for the more seasoned chemists, or the well-informed consumer, this plastic may ring a bell. You’ve probably come across it in the form of the beloved (and sometimes painful) children’s toy Lego, but it’s used in a variety of other applications. The plastic is rigid through a large range of temperatures, and when molten can be coloured with a variety of dyes. The plastic does have a drawback, and this is best told by the tale of the world’s largest auto recall of which several million cars manufactured by GM were subject. As it would turn out, ABS is prone to photo oxidation, and the mechanism of the seat belts in several GM SUVs made roughly over a 10 year period contained this plastic, which degraded, and was the cause os several hundred car accidents. Beyond the inherent wastefulness in the manufacture of most plastics, which use impressive amounts of petroleum products for their synthesis, photo oxidation, and solvency in acetone (keep that nail polish remover away from your trumpet) are the principal causes for concern with an ABS trumpet.
I had the chance to play the horn too. I expected the trumpet to be lighter than brass, but still wasn’t prepared for the reality of just how light it was, weighing in at just around one pound. From the instant I placed it to my lips I sensed a difference. The deathly coldness of a metal mouthpiece was absent, and I jerked my head back only in a Pavlovian reflex from the act of putting the trumpet to my lips. Surprised, and feeling a tad foolish, I drew a breath and breathed a few notes. The ‘edge’ of a brass trumpet wasn’t present, but yet, the sound was still very familiar. With few exceptions, brass players will tell you that your tone is influenced by the metal alloy used to in moulding your horn, the lacquer which coats it, the bore size of the bell, the size of your mouthpiece and other specs. This fastidious attention to detail is sometimes dismissed by the pithy remark “mind over metal,” but is generally accepted as a reasonable set of guidelines in selecting a trumpet. As such, finding the tiger trumpet sound to be so similar to the sound of a brass horn was shocking. As I warmed up on the horn, I tested the upper and lower ranges. Here, the plastic structure revealed some weakness. It seemed like the horn sounded great in the low to mid, but not high range of a trumpet’s traditional breadth. It produced a warm and round sound that is associated with the large bored flugelhorn (German for “horn with wings”). The valve system of the tiger trumpet is impressive, albeit they do generate a fair amount more resistance than I am used to, though the trumpet I usually play on as a make is distinguished for how little resistance it’s valves offer.
When I played the horn, I could perceive the amount of research and development that came with creating a plastic trumpet. Plastics are common enough in amplifiers, and recording technology, that it seems almost surprising that they hadn’t been used in making actual instruments. Though I probably wouldn’t take out my tiger trumpet when I’m playing a show with a jazz orchestra, and I wouldn’t expect an orchestral musician to use a tiger trumpet when playing Rimsky-Korsakov, or Shostakovich, it’s quite possible that the tiger trumpet will become the first successful milestone to a rich tradition in the art of plastic trumpet making. I began by commenting on the balance between tradition and innovation in instrument making. While the tiger trumpet has not changed the traditional design of the trumpet when speaking of the how the pipes are connected, the fact that an instrument which ranks among some of the more complex brass instruments commonly played by musicians can be designed and created from less expensive plastics clears the way for greater accessibility to music and musical education, an innovation the world could use. Without music, life would B flat.