Brass instrument-maker thrives with craft, not automation
October 10, 2011
Getzen Co. uses 200-year-old technology to make its high-end trumpets and trombones. Walking into the company’s Elkhorn, Wis., facility is a bit like walking into a metalworking museum. Here, worker experience and skill reign supreme.
Holding the new Alessi model Edwards trombone, I was in band-geek heaven. I closed my eyes and blew. Never mind that the person standing before me had fitted horns for some of the world's greatest symphony players, including Joe Alessi, the model's namesake and principal trombonist of the New York Philharmonic. Never mind that I sounded like a person who doesn't play for a living, way too loud and out of tune.
Despite my shortcomings, the instrument responded. The horn body vibrated. It sang, so unlike my old ax I drag to community band rehearsal Thursday evenings. That resonance all starts with vibration from buzzing lips, plus the 70 workers at Getzen Company who manufacture brass instruments that amplify and shape the tone of that lip vibration. It's delicate work.
Christan Griego, the one standing before me while I blew out of tune on the Alessi trombone, pointed out that the shop still manually spins every brass bell. You won't see any CNC or even basic hydraulic spinning machines on the floor. The tube benders have no computer control either; they're all manual.
Griego is director of development at Edwards Instrument Co., a Getzen subsidiary that makes high-end trumpets and trombones—the luxury brands, so to speak. The Edwards facility is two doors down from the Getzen plant in Elkhorn, Wis. If a trombone or trumpet has an Edwards logo on it, its manufacturing began in the Getzen plant and then transferred over to the Edwards facility for final fitting, assembly, inspection, and testing.
As Griego explained, every horn coming off the line sounds a little different, and the company feels hand-craftsmanship plays a role. It's a bit like fine dining. Every meal the chef creates may taste wonderful, but one perfectly prepared filet is likely to taste slightly different from the next.
Getzen has held on to this strategy in a niche unique in metal manufacturing. There's no evidence of just-in-time practices here. A significant amount of work-in-process sits on the floor, and a new horn can take weeks to make. But such an arrangement, sources said, is necessary to maintain the company's hands-on approach to metal forming and fabrication.
This has worked, Griego said, because of what Getzen's core market demands. The company sells to professionals and those who aspire to sound like them, including college students. Sound matters. To them, a horn has character. It's an individual relationship and, for pros, a vital one. Their instrument is their voice. It helps them win auditions, get jobs, and support families. That's a tall order for a piece of bent, hand-hammered, soldered, brazed, spun, plated, lacquered, and polished brass.
Brasswind manufacturing isn't unique when it comes to globalization. Walk into any high school band room and you'll find that many, if not most, of the brass instruments come from China.
In this respect, Getzen reflects the broader metal fabrication business, but it solves the problem differently. To compete with overseas manufacturers, precision metal fabricators invest millions in automation to reduce direct labor content and lead-times. For the right job, a laser cutting system with a material handling tower can run unattended all weekend.
But as a brasswind manufacturer, Getzen takes an alternative approach, because it sells to a market with unique demands. Brass instrument players develop a unique sound; it's unavoidable, because everybody's lips are shaped and vibrate differently. Mechanized hydraulic spinning machines may form trombone and trumpet bells to precision, each one identical to the next, but as sources at Getzen put it, that's not what customers demand. They want a unique sound. The metalworkers on the floor put their signature on the instrument. Match that signature with the right player, and Getzen will probably sell another horn.
Towns like Elkhart, Ind., Mount Vernon, N.Y., and Getzen's home of Elkhorn are known as historical centers of brass instrument manufacturing. A specialized business, wind instrument manufacturing has flourished where the talent resides. In the late 1930s, Tony J. Getzen worked as plant superintendent at Holton Co., a musical instrument-maker founded by Frank Holton, who at one time was principal trombonist for John Philip Sousa's band. In 1939 Getzen Co. Inc. launched in Elkhorn behind the Getzen family residence, in a converted dairy barn—appropriate beginnings for a Wisconsin company.
In the following years more well-known musicians began to take notice, including Doc Severinsen of "The Tonight Show" fame. For years the trumpeter played the company's horns and worked with designers to develop new ones.
In 1960 the founder sold Getzen to an investor outside the family. The decades that followed involved a factory fire and other family members launching their own music products companies. In the early 1990s financial hardship forced the company to declare bankruptcy. At this point the founder's grandsons purchased the assets and brought the Getzen organization back under family ownership.
Over the years many of Getzen's competitors have been bought, sold, and sold again. T. J. Getzen's old employer Holton, for instance, is now a brand sold by Conn-Selmer, a division of Steinway Musical Instruments. A few boutique manufacturers also have emerged, such as Massachusetts-based S.E. Shires Co., launched by a former Edwards product development manager.
Competition is fierce. With school band programs being cut and even professional symphony orchestras under financial duress, the brasswind market is a shrinking pie, and overseas companies have stepped in with massive price cuts. (Sound familiar?) To compete, Getzen has focused on the mid-range and high-end trombone and trumpet markets. Top professional players give the company its reputation, but college and advanced high school players provide the company with most of its revenue.
Change is constant in the brasswind industry. A significant number of Getzen employees used to work at now-shuttered plants, including Sales Manager David Surber. He worked at the Holton plant in Elkhorn, at the time just a few miles from the Getzen and Edwards facilities.
"I've been here six years," he said. "Getzen is the last one left in Elkhorn—and we're hiring."
A brass instrument looks simple, just a brass tube with pistons or a slide and a tapered bell section that flares out at the end. But this isn't straightforward plumbing. Piston action must be extremely smooth, slide tubes extremely straight. In a pro-level horn, the tapered material leading to the flare must be of a consistent gauge throughout, so just stretching a tube sometimes doesn't produce the best results.
Three elements contribute to a player's sound, and the first—the player's buzz—must be matched up with the other two: the material attributes and the shape of the instrument's interior, which defines the pathway for the player's air. Change the brass grade or gauge, and you change how the instrument sounds and projects (see Figure 1).
A darker, rounder, heavier sound comes from darker brass, while a brighter, lighter sound comes from lighter brass. Brass becomes darker by increasing the copper content and decreasing the zinc. Getzen uses yellow brass consisting of 70 percent copper, 30 percent zinc; rose brass having 85 percent copper, 15 percent zinc; and red brass, with 90 percent copper and 10 percent zinc. The company also uses nickel-silver alloys for components like the inner tubes of trombone slides.
"It's an acoustic soup," Griego explained. "Every instrument needs these materials to have the right response and resonance. If you have too much soft material, the instrument's response will suffer. If you have too much hard material, you get a great response, but you have a thin, bright-sounding instrument. Every person has an acoustical signature themselves. For instance, if they may need a greater amount of harder material to get a brighter sound, we can use more zinc. We fit each musician with the right materials, so the instrument responds accordingly."
The material gauge makes a difference as well. A thicker gauge creates a heavier sound with greater projection, ideal for, say, a bass trombonist in the very back of the symphony. A lighter gauge creates a lighter sound with less projection, ideal for a jazz trumpeter playing into a microphone.
Tempering plays a role too. Every time you work-harden and anneal with ovens or hand torches, the process can affect the sound. "On a pro-level bell, we might anneal it between seven and 11 times," Griego explained. "So we study the hardening and softening processes to achieve the outcomes we want."
The amount of tempering in part governs the processes horns go through in manufacturing. For instance, years ago tapered brass tubes were filled with pitch material before being bent around a die. The pitch did work, but afterward workers had to heat the bent tubes to relatively high temperatures to remove that pitch material. Such dramatic temperature changes can alter the material properties and, hence, the sound of the instrument.
For most tube bending the company now uses alternative methods. One way is to fill the brass tube with Cerrobend® material, which has the consistency of lead at room temperature and becomes a liquid at less than 200 degrees F. For certain parts, such as the tapered stem of a trumpet bell, the company fills the component with a soap and water solution and freezes it to -65 degrees F. The ice doesn't crack during bending because the soap makes it pliable (see Figure 2).
Tube diameter is critical. Changing the tube inside diameter ever so slightly can cause fit-up problems with other tubing. To ensure a bent tube retains its diameter, the company uses balling-out dies. The die clamps the bent tube in place, a worker applies lubrication, and a large ball followed by slightly smaller balls are inserted into the tube, bringing the bent tube ID into tolerance (see Figure 3).
Walking through the Getzen factory is a bit like stepping into a metalworking museum. Lying on work benches are notching tools, snips, as well as rawhide and nylon hammers. Some lower-end trombone bell stems are made from formed tube, a much simpler process. But this requires turning a straight tube into a tapered one, which stretches the metal, meaning the gauge changes—thick where the tube ID is smallest, to thin where the ID is largest, near the bell flare (see Figure 4).
This is why most professional-level bell sections are made from a precut sheet that is bent and notched together, then hand-hammered into a rough bell shape (see Figure 5). The vertical bell-section seam is brazed using a brass filler material.
After hand hammering, drawing, rolling, and other forming operations comes perhaps the most characteristic process of brass instrument manufacturing: metal spinning (see Figure 6 and Figure 7). The manual spinning lathes make Getzen's shop floor unusual, especially considering the product mix. Most spinning shops use manual spinning only for low volumes, for which a mechanized or fully CNC spinning system would be unpractical. Other shops invest in mechanized systems simply because they cannot find the talent to operate a manual spinning lathe.
But at Getzen, the talent is there, and the process remains manual. According to sources, there's a good reason for it. The operator feel is paramount, and slight variations give a horn its character. Yes, a mechanized spinning center could produce precise, perfect bell sections time after time, but that would make the horns sound a bit homogenous—not what Getzen's market niche wants.
The trombone requires the spinning of two components: the bell flare, then the bell-flare and stem assembly. First, a circular brass plate blank is placed on the spinning lathe to make the bell flare. The worker manually moves the spinning tool so the brass forms against the mandrel into the bell shape. Then the worker brazes the flare to the bell stem, and again places it on the spinning lathe. He then flattens the brazed seam between the bell and flare. For the final pass, the worker moves the spinning tool very slowly across the entire workpiece to ensure a smooth and even surface. Periodically the spinner anneals the workpiece to avoid excess work-hardening.
After trimming material from the outer edge and scraping excess braze material from the joint, the worker uses a file to remove marks created by the spinning tool. He then uses emery paper to remove file marks, preparing the workpiece for buffing.
Near the back of the factory are chemical baths for plating. A trombone's nickel-silver inner slides, for instance, receive a chrome plating. Upon customer request, a horn can be plated in silver or (for a price) even gold. In an adjacent booth a worker sprays a lacquer (the most common finish) on the horn.
Next comes buffing and polishing. After this and assembly, some components require final processing, such as honing the piston casing for a trumpet (see Figure 8). "After buffing and assembly, the piston casing's bores can come out-of-true," Surber explained. "So we hone them to true them up and get them to the final diameter. Then the piston is fitted inside, and then hand-lapped at the very end." The honing, he explained, involves cutting ever-so-small amounts of the piston tube ID to a precise diameter, and the abrasive lapping compound "removes the high spots and low spots between the valve casing and piston."
Such a process is so critical because the better a piston responds, the easier it is for the trumpeter to play. The same holds true for the trombone slide. In an adjacent room (aptly called "the slide room") a worker places an assembled slide on a granite slab with a backlit surface to ensure the tube is perfectly straight and true. If light shows between the granite and slide tube, the slide isn't straight (see Figure 9).
"The only way to remove this is to massage them out by hand," Griego said. "This is achieved based solely on feel and experience. If too little pressure is applied, the bend will not be removed. Too much pressure will cause a bend in the opposite direction and just compound the problem. The process of checking, massaging, and checking again is repeated until the tubing is straight."
Driving into the Getzen parking lot I spotted a small sign—a rare find these days: "Now Hiring."
Despite the lagging economy, the company can't make some instrument models fast enough—including that Alessi trombone model I tried during my visit (see Figure 10). New hires may start with relatively simple buffing, soldering, or general assembly. After several months that worker may move up to more difficult processes. After years of experience, he or she can be promoted to some of the most highly skilled positions like metal spinning and slide straightening. The entire environment requires highly skilled people—no button-pushers.
Each product, in fact, has some eye-popping direct labor content. So will Getzen ever consider automation to compete with Asian manufacturers? According to sources, it's not likely.
"We don't look at a trumpet or trombone as a machine," Surber said. "It's a musical instrument. The crafting of it—the valves and all of its components—there's character in that. If an instrument is produced on an automated production line, and each is absolutely identical to the next, where is the art in that?"