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On Roy Pertchik’s three-color vibraphone

January 2003
Vince Hyman: Last week (1/20/03), I had the great pleasure of meeting Roy Pertchik in his New York office/home. Roy has invented and patented a unique system of keeping track of the notes on a keyboard-—and he commissioned Nico van der Plas to build a vibraphone using that system. You’ve probably read Roy’s and Nico’s postings on his new instrument, but I thought it might be of interest to some to get an outsider’s perspective, first on the chromatic arrangement and then on the vibraphone.
         Roy’s vibraphone has a 3.25 octave compass (E-flat – F). The instrument is based on two whole tone rows, starting with an e-flat where the “naturals” would be and with an e-natural where the accidentals would be. Unlike a standard keyboard arrangement there’s no visual or physical break to orient the player to the instrument (the usual arrangement of 3-2 “black notes” isn’t there). To overcome this disorienting effect, Roy uses three colors. In his arrangement, you can immediately see octaves, tritones, and minor thirds, because they are all the same color.
         Chromatic keyboard layouts have been experimented with for centuries, and there are some great advantages to the chromatic layout: For example, one must learn only two physical patterns for any type of scale, arpeggio, or other sequence-—a pattern that starts on the inner row, and a pattern that starts on the outer row. But there’s a problem with chromatic layouts because, without the standard 3-2 arrangement of accidentals the keyboard lacks a center of gravity; it is completely disorienting. It is here that Roy has really made an important contribution to keyboard design: He has found an elegant solution to this problem by the use of three alternating colors. You need to visit his website to see how it works, but basically, the arrangement makes obvious important harmonic relationships in music—tritones divide the octave in half, so one can “see” tritone substitutions; minor thirds divide the octave in quarters, so one can see important diminished relationships; and the basic layout makes clear the two whole tone scales. For jazz musicians, important progressions such as ii b5 to V7 are made obvious, as are tritone substitutions.
         I can’t stress how important this is for the way we’ve been making music for the past century. Roy’s system clearly reveals harmonic relationships, and is not tied to a single key the way a traditional keyboard is. With the traditional keyboard, there is one “natural” key and all other keys are made up of “accidental” additions to that key. With the chromatic keyboard and Roy’s unique three-color labeling of the keyboard, all tonalities are equal. The symmetry of the twelve-tone system is made manifest in the keyboard, rather than fighting against it. Transpositions are simply a matter of starting in a different place rather than figuring out a completely new set of physical relationships. One key is not more difficult to play in than another. It’s a keyboard player’s declaration of independence: all notes are created equal.
         That’s the theory, at least, but when you first approach the instrument, it is very disturbing. There’s no “home.” I couldn’t do much with it in the twenty minutes I tried to play. But I believe this is something one could easily overcome— as evidence, Roy had had the instrument for three months, and he played some wonderful improvisations for me. If I had not been watching him, I would not have known that there was anything physically different about the instrument.
         I don’t know if Roy’s system will catch on. If I were a beginning player, I would strongly consider commissioning a vibe like this for three reasons: 1) Time spent learning scales, arpeggios, and other patterns will be greatly reduced. Learn two stickings for each sequence, and you’re done. 2) Time spent understanding harmonic relationships will be reduced, because they are apparent in the keyboard. 3) Time spent memorizing melodies and transposing them will be reduced, because muscular memory matches visual memory.
There are other benefits, but those are the critical ones, in my mind.

Part II: The instrument
This is one lovely-sounding instrument. That low e-flat could melt hearts. The alloy produces a wonderfully full, dark tone. I have also played on one of Nico’s 3.5 octave instruments, and I liked the sound of this even better. It was lush, rich, and very resonant and it has a hint of the earthen tone at the low end of the marimba. It would be a magnificent instrument in a solo situation, and I’d love to hear Gary Burton or John Mark Piper on it. The sound filled Roy’s office. Roy noted that it had a shorter sustain, and this is true, but the tone quality may be worth the trade off. He also felt it had less volume than a standard vibe, but I was not convinced of that. If one were to use pickups, the sustain would not be a problem. I would like to put a Musser ProVibe next to this one and compare the sounds.
         The frame is rigid and height-adjustable. The bars stay on the keybeds, so that the entire vibe breaks down and assembles quickly, and the keys are kept safely attached to the frame. A drawback is that the heavy construction means that those keybeds are a little difficult to lift and move—-at least for me. You’ve got to grasp handles at the upper and lower end of the instrument and lift straight up to remove them. At 5’6, I’m short and have short arms. For the average-size male, this would be less of a problem, and probably more of a problem for women. Of course, this is a custom instrument, meaning that Nico could execute a different design.
         The vibe looks good. The frame is black, and the red, black, and silver bars are fascinating to look at. Any of these colors would make for a great looking vibe—we’re used to silver, but the red would be great and the black, too. Pedal mechanism, frame—these things are all superior to other instruments. Vince Hyman, 1/30/2003

Roy Pertchick: Thanks for your great comments, Vince. I should mention that with a little touch up resonator tuning since your visit, Nico and I have solved the sustain and volume issues 🙂