VZC Mallet Series: Redefining the capabilities of a basic percussion mallet. — Product Design, Interaction Design — 2016—2017 — Individual Project
VZC Series: Redefining Mallet Capabilities
An innovative percussion mallet series of the highest quality aiming to provide the fullest sound
and enhance the interaction between the instrument and the performer.
As an avid percussionist, I am very selective and deliberate with my choice of mallets. Every pair of sticks or mallets provide unique sound qualities to the instrument. Depending on the repertoire at hand, percussionists would choose specific beaters to best present the timbres desired by the composer. Switching mallets mid-performance to attest to the full gamut of tone is also necessary.
Choosing which mallets to perform with can be a daunting task that often leads to compromised sound. As a composer of contemporary marimba literature, I have a very specific vision for how the tone of a marimba should sound. I wanted to design a mallet series that would create a full and beautiful tone across the entire instrument, satisfy my needs as a performer, and precisely represent the unique sound of my music.
Understanding Mallet Construction
Percussion mallets generally consist of a mallet head and shaft. The mallet head is comprised of the solid material that constitutes the core and the wrapping around the core. The core is often wrapped with special thread to provide cushioning and is sealed by a crowning stitch on the top and bottom of the mallet head. The shaft of the mallet is predominately made of either:
Birch: a lightweight hardwood with high tensile strength.
Rattan: a fibrous, pliable stem of a palm.
In order to design a desirable product that would meet the standards and specific needs that I wanted to address, I had to conduct extensive research learning everything I could about percussion mallets and the creation of them. From my research, I found that there were a wide variety of mallet wrapping techniques and videos available on the web but very little information about the development of the mallet's core. The materials and blueprints used for the core could be hidden from the public due to companies attempting to keep their "secret ingredient" secret.
The Experimental Period: Developing, Prototyping, Reiterating
Since there was little information available on the materials and methods used to produce the core, I gathered many samples of various materials, created prototypes, and tested them throughout the course of six months. This experimental period was difficult and time consuming, cataloguing over a hundred different materials and the specific way they were cast and utilized, including:
Whether multiple materials were used for the core and what quality the synergy of materials produced.
How tightly the core was wrapped, what string was used, the number of winds, and how the mallet was crowned.
The length, weight, and balance point of each prototype mallet.
Material, weight, and diameter of shaft.
The mallet's optimal range across keyboard instruments.
Documenting the qualitative properties of sound each mallet produced.
Blueprinting the mallet head for potential reproduction.
I made sure to be as exhaustive as possible during this experimental period to be certain that I wouldn't overlook any materials that may have worked surprisingly well. This six month period served as a valuable extended exercise for divergent thinking, design considerations, mechanical engineering, and creative problem solving.
An example of one of my earlier documentations where I diagrammed an iteration with intent to further develop and improve the model.
I followed this diagramming format for all of my divergent prototypes to ensure that I would be able to closely replicate each version for further development. This organization strategy helped me combine the successful implementations of materials with the optimal construction techniques I learned to create a product of higher quality and user consideration. Every divergent mallet construction led to new discoveries about how the mallets function and what steps were necessary to create a desirable mallet.
These were the initial 25 materials I experimented with before researching deeper. I utilized each material as the core of a mallet prototype to determine whether or not the material would function correctly in its context. After testing these materials and finding a handful of them that carried the right properties to create a desirable sound, I expanded my materials list in a convergent manner, seeking out materials of similar density, tensile strength, etc. By finding more unique materials to work with, I began a second round of prototyping in which I further learned how to use and combine materials to create an optimal tone quality.
It was important to me as a percussionist to have absolute precision with my sound. After the experimental period, I had developed many viable solutions to a functional mallet at hand. However, in order to get the exact sound that I envisioned, I needed to spend time usability testing each iteration. Since I was designing for a solution that I, myself needed, I participated as one of the users in this testing activity. Additional usability testing participants were my colleagues from the Juilliard School, the internationally recognized marimbist Haruka Fujii, and members of the Mercer Island percussion ensemble.
Every usability test included:
A qualitative comparison between the prototype and the user's preferred mallet
Tone comparison + analysis
Range comparison + analysis
Four-mallet capability: Stevens-grip and Burton-grip demonstrations
User feedback and suggestions
I used the data received from my usability tests to guide my future iterations keeping in mind versatility among percussionist needs. Ultimately, this led me to expand the playing range of the mallet and focus on balance points so the mallets would be easy to use with both styles of four-mallet grip.
I created a sound sample below of "iteration M2" of my VZC mallet series playing Apple's "Opening" ringtone. In this iteration, I was concerned with creating a single-tone mallet with a round sound that would be optimal for performing modern marimba phrases like Apple's iconic ringtone.
After my long search for a mature, classical sound, I finally developed what I believe is the ideal mallet for neo-classical marimba performance. This mallet iteration uses magnetic tension within the core to create dynamic movement within the mallet head, a technique I developed that has never before been utilized in mallet construction. This construction allows for increased surface area contact as well as a desirable bounceback after each stroke. In addition, the Poly(methyl methacrylate) shaft material is scratch and dent resistant, wielding a high tensile strength, which allows the performer to play with a larger range of velocity when using extended techniques in comparison to standard birch and rattan shafts. The flexible qualities of Poly(methyl methacrylate) also allow a smoother playing style and controlled mallet flow, granting the player full musical control.
I discovered that utilizing various materials in a particular and harmonious way could lead to a much warmer fundamental tone throughout the instrument and expanded playable range of the mallet. I used this concept to create a seamless multi-tone mallet that could create desirable sound across all five octaves of the instrument. With the heavier core, various materials, and innovative technologies used, the fundamental is lifted out of the bar in a way that has never been done before.
These reinvented qualities of the mallet were implemented with the user's ease in mind. I wanted to create a product that would enhance the playing experience instead of hinder it. With my VZC mallet series, players have noted that they feel less of a disconnect between them and the keyboard instrument (which can be a cognitive hinderance in mallet playing, since mallet performers can't physically touch the bars the same way piano performers can touch the keys). The way the shaft flexes and mallet head interacts upon impact with the bar addresses this issue as the mallets mimic the touch of a piano player, allowing a warmer tone and extended control over musicality.
Below is the schematic for one of the final iterations of my design:
By using design and engineering thought processes, I redefined an often overlooked but crucial aspect of percussion performance. By ideating, prototyping, usability testing, designing, and engineering, I created a solution that sparked interest in the percussion community. Since my mallet design has been finalized and manufactured, I have received orders worldwide from percussionists looking for another dimension of performance capability. Raising over $1000 dollars, my mallet design has been used by advanced percussionists for various percussion competitions and performances around the world including Juilliard's world premiere of 'Serenade in D Minor', the Eastshore Solo & Ensemble Festival, and the Washington State Finals Marimba Competition.
Look below for a sound sample of the finalized VZC mallet series: