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Yamaha center will use tech to give artists their sound

The Buena Park instrument facility, which opens today, is solely for professionals. It is part repair site and part marketing tool.

January 15, 2008|Victoria Kim | Times Staff Writer

To get the right sound in the little-known world of high-caliber musical instrument repair, some say it takes a certain touch, perhaps even a degree of voodoo.

Musical instrument giant Yamaha Corp. has a different approach, involving cryogenics, fiber optic endoscopy and an ultrasonic cleaning lab.

Hoping to strike a high note with professional artists, Yamaha today debuts a Buena Park service center that offers a modern twist on an old-world craft, featuring technology used in medicine and automotive manufacturing.

Filled with state-of-the-art machines, the 5,000-square-foot facility resembles a small industrial plant. It is only the second such center in the U.S. and, unlike Yamaha's first entry in New York, goes beyond repair to research new ways to improve how musicians do what they do.

At the Buena Park center, alterations can be as slight as shaving a component by 50-millionths of an inch or as dramatic as plunging a French horn into liquid nitrogen, freezing it at 300 degrees below zero to enhance its sound.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, January 16, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction
Yamaha center: An article in Business on Tuesday about Yamaha's new instrument repair facility in Buena Park misspelled the last name of local artisan Larry Minick as Minnick.

The machines, starting at $5,000 apiece, are simply "additional tools in the tool chest," said Bob Malone, a brass instrument expert who built his name in the Los Angeles music scene before he was hired by Yamaha in 2001. "You have more choices to work with in any given situation," he said.

For Yamaha, the artist center is the ultimate marketing tool combined with research and development. Malone's crew will offer services exclusively to top artists and do so free of charge, including a simple tuneup, completely overhauling instruments or designing new ones.

And by putting its instruments in prominent musicians' hands, the Japanese company also hopes to attract aspiring music students to the brand.

"Our development strategy is to focus on one highly regarded player, then go through the process of developing an instrument that the player is 100% happy with," said Malone, director of both U.S. facilities.

Local trumpet player Wayne Bergeron plans to frequent the joint.

"We [musicians] are always trying new things, searching for the perfect mouthpiece or the perfect instrument," said Bergeron, a Grammy-nominated studio artist who plays lead trumpet for the musical "Wicked" at the Pantages Theatre.

The high-tech gadgets enable technicians to tweak instruments in ways never imagined by centuries of artists and artisans.

By freezing brass instruments in a computer-modulated cryogenic machine, technicians alter the molecular structure of the material and significantly change the "color" of the sound.

Using fiber optic endoscopes with a diameter of 7 millimeters or smaller, technicians can view the inside of tubular instruments, much like a doctor looks inside a patient's intestines, to identify obstructions.

Another piece of equipment, akin to a key-making machine, will duplicate all dimensions of a prized mouthpiece.

The center's crew will also have at its disposal accurate prototyping lathes, microscopic arc welders and micro-flame generators -- all to create personalized sounds and make instruments easier to play.

But excited as he is about the new possibilities the high-tech gadgets bring, Bergeron contends that the magic can't be taken out of the craft. "There's no rhyme or reason to it," he said.

And that's where people such as Malone come in.

Himself a trumpet player, Malone started learning the trade as a way to pay the bills at Minnick's Music Instrument Co. with local artisan Larry Minnick. One of only a handful of craftsmen that top performers would trust, Minnick believed in the old way of doing things. Malone apprenticed under Minnick and eventually set up his own shop, which he ran for 18 years.

Malone says Minnick, who died a few years ago, would have appreciated some of the equipment but would be horrified at the idea of putting instruments through others.

Woodwind technician Jeff Peterson is another person at the center who has honed his skills the old-fashioned way. Peterson is a saxophone player who started tinkering with instruments in his garage in the early 1990s, equipped with little more than screwdrivers, pliers and butane torches.

Peterson said he learned over the years through trial and error, leading to his own shop and a reputation that caught Yamaha's eye.

"Their touch is at the highest level; they know how to manipulate the material to get what the artists want," Malone said of his team.

Because musical instruments require this touch, Malone says, no matter how advanced the science becomes, the old-world craftsmanship will never become obsolete.

"There are computer programs out there where you can design, theoretically, any instrument," he said.

"But the audience isn't a computer; they're flesh and blood. That's where the art and the science come together."

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victoria.kim@latimes.com

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