I was asked in 2001 by the president in Miraphone, Markus Theinert, to participate in the development of a new e-flat tuba. It should have rotor valves and be custom made to fit my needs as a soloist. My agreement with the Miraphone company makes it clear that I could end the contract at any point if I was unhappy with the instrument. In other words, I did not have to endorse the instrument if it was not the best E-flat tuba I have ever played. After all I was very satisfied with my old Hirsbrunner E-flat. I think that the fact that I now have recorded five solo CD’s on the prototype of the Star Light speaks for itself.
Two different models
From the start we set out to make one tuba. We soon realized that what I needed as a full time soloist was not necessarily compatible with what most E-flat players need.
Therefore we decided to make two models.
I play on the solo model, called Star Light. The symphonic model is the Norwegian Star. Norwegian Star has now been on the market since summer 2006. Star Light is now beeing made ready for serial production and should be on the market early 07.
What is the difference?
Norwegian Star (NS) is bigger than the Star Light (SL). NS bell diameter is 400mm (15 and 3/4″). SL is 380mm. The NS has a conical valve section and the SL has a cylindrical section and a generally smaller bore. NS can be used for solo playing, I used it myself on numerous tours, but it is mainly intended to be a chamber music and an ensemble instrument. It can be an elegant C-tuba replacement in a wind band or a small Symphony orchestra. The low register on the NS is very easy to play. Open, solid and best of all, very audible. High register is clear and easy.
The Star Light has as the name indicates a lighter sound and a slimmer approach all together. It is extremely clear, yet powerful enough to fulfill a bass role in smaller ensembles. The clarity I believe comes from its cylindrical valve section.
Taper is a word that I really has come to know as one of the most important one’s since I started to work with Miraphone. Taper is the shape of the tube. How it expands from the lead pipe throughout the tubes and in to the bell. I have also learned that if the taper is uneven, the tuba is more likely to be out of tune and have odd sounding notes. For Miraphones new chief engineer, Christian Niedermaier, the correct taper is his mantra. For each and one of the six prototypes he built he made a new design of the taper. This literally means to lay down a long piece of paper and draw the whole instrument centimeter for centimeter, making sure that the conical shape is smooth and consistent. How do you measure that you get this correct? On the prototypes every second centimeter of the tube is marked with a small stripe. In the manufacturing process for the bends and tubes it is made sure that the diameter on all these more than 200 measure points is correct. When I say correct I mean down to a tenth of a millimeter. Consider that all parts for the prototypes are made by hand! The taper design is also fed into a computer. If a note is out of tune, we can enter the data into the computer and it tells you on what measure spot the diameter is most likely too narrow or too wide. This happened once during testing on the factory. One note was to flat. Christian punched the data into the computer, that told him that the resonance point for this note were in the knee, after the valve section, before the tuning slide. He then soldered this part of, measured it and discovered that the computer was correct. The diameter was actually some tenth of a millimeter to wide. After hammering for a minute or two on this he put it back on and the tuba was in tune! To make sure that this is taken care of in the serial production Miraphone makes very moulds that are made from the prototype. The first serial produced tubas are always compared to the prototype to insure that they got it right. Moulds can then be altered if necessary.
No tuba is 100% in tune. Compromises are the nature of a brass instrument. However, these tubas are the most “in tune” instruments I have ever played on. During the recording of my last five solo cd’s I NEVER had to use the tuning slides during performance. Keep in mind that the German producers at BIS recording company are among the finest in the world and they show no mercy when they hear a note out of tune!
Why rotary valves and not pistons?
Rotary valves are faster than pistons. Consider that the stroke length of this particular tuba is 16 millimeters. A typical piston valve has a 25 millimeter length. The Miraphone valve is designed to return fast due to (in my case) strong springs. These can easily be adjusted to fit the player. Miraphone tubas are also fitted with rubber pads on the far side of the valves and cork pads on the return. Cork absorbs the shock better so there is less bouncing. I also find that rotary valves works better for bending notes in jazz, etc.
One thing is to hear a good sound play alone. A totally different thing is how the tuba blends with other instruments.
Steve Rosse and I made an experiment down in Melbourne, Australia with a Star Light prototype and another tuba of a very well known brand. We played with a trombone section and compared both how it sounded from the audience and how it felt to play. The result was dramatic. The Miraphone tuba appeared to act as a magnet to the trombones. Searching out the trombone sound like a heat seeking missile. The other tuba acted more or less like an opposite magnet. It simply would not blend. This forces the player to maintain tuning only by using your ears, getting little help from the surrounding sound. In the Miraphone case the sound from the trombones actually affects your lips, and the way they vibrate. It is worth mentioning that the trombones was from the same well known manufacturer as the other tuba.
The end of the story: Steve bought the very first Norwegian Star that rolled out from the factory.