York vs. Miraphone
Is There A Difference Between German-Style and American-Style Tubas?
Much has been said about the differences between a German and American tuba. One commentator wondered if most of the discussion was pedantic B.S. rather than substantive observation, and the point is a good one.
The best description I've seen of the difference is that the German rotary tubas make a column of sound, more about focus than foundation. But that's not to say that a good player can't get more foundation on a German horn than a mediocre player gets from an American horn.
I've listened to superb players on both types of instrument, though, and the difference in sound is substantial. One well-known orchestral player has played both an Alexander (German) and a Hirsbrunner Grand Orchestral, which is a copy of that ultimate American horn, the large York now owned by the Chicago Symphony. I thought his sound on the Alex was commanding and demanded respect. In contrast to that authoritative sound, the Hirsbrunner, with the same player, produces a warm, sweet-sounding tone, massive without being aggressive. It is possible that the Alex was a louder instrument, but not when played with an excellent trombone section, where the sound of the trombones eats up the high harmonics of the tuba. In the words of that player, when he first made a sound on the Hirsbrunner in rehearsal, the entire viola section turned around to see what made the difference. We are not talking subtleties here.
Another aspect is efficiency. This word is often confused with the issue of loudness, and that is not important to me. Any tuba of appropriate size and application will be loud enough in the hands of a capable player. I'm more concerned with how much work is required on the part of the player to get the effect he needs.
The same orchestra pro mentioned above had an opportunity to play the same Alexander that he had sold about a decade previously. After about ten minutes in rehearsal, he set the instrument aside and went back to the Hirsbrunner. He found that getting the sound and color that he wanted was just too much work. At the time he bought the Hirsbrunner, he said that the hardest lesson in that horn was relaxing and letting the horn do the work.
This notion of getting the desired results with less effort has been reported by others among the professional ranks.
So, I posed the question on Tubenet: What is it that makes a horn have these qualities? The suggested answer was: A short leadpipe and cylindrical section, a large bore through large piston valves, thick brass, a large bottom bow, a large bell, and a large bell throat.
These discussions, initiated by me in preparation for choosing a new horn, led to the opportunity to obtain a York Master. More about that instrument is said in the My Tuba Collection page, but suffice to say that this horn was supposed to have many of the playing characteristics being discussed.
Now that I own a horn of quintessential American design, and one of the most popular German-concept horns in history, I'm in a position to make a comparison, both in terms of physical measurements and in terms of playing characteristics.
The York Master does not have all of the physical attributes mentioned above. As the measurements show, its bell throat and bottom bow are not larger than other good full-size tubas. But it does have most of them, and is recognized as having the playing qualities discussed.
So, here are my own impressions, as posted on Tubenet, and revised as my impressions have matured:
The York is easier to play than the Miraphone. The notes speak
easier, the low range is much easier to center, and big intervals,
especially octaves, pop out much easier. I could do things on the York
after a few minutes that I haven't been able to do on the Miraphone
The York is not louder than the Miraphone, though the sound has much more bottom to it. The low register has much more power, but without being aggressive. The Miraphone may in fact be louder, but loudness is difficult to assess from the player's perspective. The York seems to have more dyanamic range, and the sound holds together well when pushed. Both horns seem to require about the same amount of air, but the York is more forgiving. The York is pickier about mouthpieces for intonation. I'm getting good intonation with a Denis Wick 1 and a Bach 18. A Parantucci PT-48 sounds a bit better, but the intonation wasn't initially as good. On further attempts, the intonation improved with the PT-48 after I figured out how to move the first valve slide while playing. A Conn Helleberg sounds less focused and has poor intonation on the York. I'm still working on that PT-48.
Update: A trip to visit Doug Elliott revealed some interesting discoveries. One is that the receiver in the York had not been tapered at the factory, such that it was a straight tube instead of being tapered like a mouthpiece shank. The previous owner had noted that mouthpiece rocked a bit in the receiver. Doug pulled out the appropriate reamer and cut a taper into the receiver. This increased the size of the opening to something quite similar to the size used by Miraphone, meaning that mouthpieces that insert properly into a Miraphone also insert properly into the York Master. This made a very significant difference in the intonation tendencies of the instrument, and allowed the use of mouthpiece with a much larger throat. The mouthpiece I'm now using on the York Master is a Doug Elliott multipart mouthpiece with a 132-2N rim, a T cup, and a T-6 backbore with a Miraphone shank very slightly shaved for a hair more insertion. This mouthpiece has a similar shape to the Conn, but larger, with a much larger throat. The rim is similar to the PT-48.
The Miraphone makes a more aggressive sound than the York. It is certainly more focused and intense. The York is bigger, broader, and more rich in fundamental. (Update: That phrase "more rich in fundamental" turns out to be a false impression. For an explanation of why, see the article The Tuba Sound.) For someone of my ability (limited), it is easier to get clean attacks in difficult circumstances such as double-tonguing. It responds better to vibrato using movement of the jaw. This is standard vibrato technique for many players, and it just plain works better on the York than on the Miraphone. So I use it more.
The first-valve slide on the York is hard to reach--you have to go through the horn to get to it. But my hands are bit too big to do this comfortably, though I'm getting this figured out. I worked on the slide a bit to speed it up, and I think that will make it easier. The lanolin that the previous owner had used was just too stiff, and the best action has come from a high-grade lithium grease intended for racing bicycles. Also, the fourth valve button is a long reach, even for my monster hands. This horn would be difficult to manage for a player with small hands. Bigger valve buttons might help there. (Update: A Tubenet contributor has made a custom offset valve button for the fourth valve, which is a significant improvement.)
The York Master and the Miraphone 186-4U (both BBb) are almost
identical in volume. Here are my measurements:
Volume: 2040 cubic inches
Length of open bugle: 215 inches
Weight: 30 pounds
Bore: .77" (20 mm)
Volume: 2000 cubic inches
Length of open bugle: 209 inches
Weight: 18 pounds
Based on volume, the York can only be called a 4/4, but it sure has the depth of sound that bespeaks a bigger horn than the Miraphone. The volume measurements are probably not different enough to overcome measurement error, so let's call them the same.
In comparing the taper designs of the two instruments, the big difference is not volume, but the length of cylindrical tubing. Here are few interesting measurements:
Cylindrical tubing in open bugle:
Miraphone: 34.8" (to the downstream tip of the main tuning slide)
York: 11" (to the beginning of the main tuning slide crook)
So, the distance from the mouthpiece to the beginning of the tapered section is 27.5 inches for the York, which is less than half of the Miraphone's 62.4 inches. You can see in the picture that the Miraphone main tuning slide is not conical--the bore of the valves is carried all the way through the main tuning slide. The tuning slide on the York is larger than the valve bore, and the downstream half of the slide is larger than the upstream half.
Interestingly, the characteristic of a short distance from the mouthpiece to the taper is also present in my small Yamaha F tuba. I think this is why that horn plays so much bigger, with more projection, than is suggested by its size.
Because of the much shorter cylindrical section, the tapers are bigger on the York all the way to about 18 inches from the bell opening, with the biggest differences in the smaller branches. The Miraphone has a larger bell throat (by a little), and that makes up the difference in volume.
Another difference apparent in the photo above is the shape of the bell throat. Show this picture to an audio engineer who understands loudspeaker design, and he would say that the Miraphone has an exponential horn and the York has a bi-radial horn. Exponential horns are used in loudspeakers that must be efficient in terms of volume, and are used when the loudspeaker must project the sound long distances (called a long-throw speaker). They are popular, for example, in movie theatres. The bi-radial horn is used in near-field speakers where the sound must radiate in all directions without any changes in the quality of the sound. This difference in loudspeaker horns matches the presumed difference in sound characteristics of these two tubas, and lends support to these observations.
The weight of the two horns is profoundly different. The Miraphone weighs about 18 pounds, and the York about 30 pounds. The removable bell of the York means that it has a heavy bell attachment ring, but that cannot account for more than a fraction of the difference. The main difference must therefore be the thickness of the brass.
Both the York Master and the Miraphone 186 are excellent tubas, and represent good examples of their respective styles. I would prefer the Miraphone in ensembles that have mostly German-style instruments in the tuba section, particularly if the trombone section is not strong. I would also prefer the Miraphone when the tuba voice is solo and must cut through high ambient noise, such as in a beer-tent polka band.
For large ensembles requiring the tuba to provide a broad foundation under the group, without being aggressive, the York will work better. This includes orchestra and bands with similar horns, or bands with strong trombone sections that require a contrasting sound from the tubas.
So, I have no conclusions about which horn is better. I'm just glad I own both of them.