Recording with antique Deagan marimba

The Deagan mallet intstrument in question. Photo by Dani Seiss.

The history of North American instrument manufacturers is a deep well of interesting personalities and innovation. Of those, John Cahoun Deagan (of J.C. Deagan, Inc. of Chicago) is particularly notable with his line of early-20th century idiophone instruments. He pioneered quality and tuning in glockenspiels, marimbas and xylophones, and in what later became what we now call the vibraphone (the development of which has its own interesting story).

I happen to own a small 3-octave Deagan marimba. Depending on who you speak with, it could be classified as a marimba, xylophone, or a xylorimba. With rosewood bars and no resonators, it sounds woody and mellow with good attack but virtually zero sustain. Mine is G to C, which is uncommon in this class instruments (serial number 26094 if you happen to know about Deagan please get in touch!). The main issue in recording is the lack of tuning in the overtones. While the bars are tuned to an A 440 standard, the overtones can become dissonant and often impossible to fit into a mix. Apparently the last remaining Deagan tuning master still operates a repair/restoration company out of the old Deagan factory in Chicago and this is an issue that can be remedied as personal economics allow.

I recorded the following piece recently while working on a score. I am using hard rubber mallets covered in several layers of cotton cloth to soften the attack. This piece is in C, and was produced as a mood experiment to gauge the viability of the texture and sonics of the Deagan in fitting with the visuals of an early 20th century black and white film. As I continue experimenting with various arpeggios and outboard delays to create layered, hypnotic atmospheres, I am fighting the overtone issues that result in a muddy recording (using a large diaphragm condenser microphone), and preventing other live instruments from being properly mixed in the multi-track recording. It does however sound decent on its own, and may end up serving a textural leitmotif in its own regard.