Yamaha at Hamamatsu

John Robert Brown

The name Yamaha is almost the first thing one sees on alighting from the bullet train. Hamamatsu station contains a small permanent exhibition, a walkthrough display of Yamaha pianos and string instruments. Celebrating one hundred years of instrument manufacture by the company, the exhibition is unattended. You can reach out and touch. It's typical of the good behaviour of the Japanese. Here is a society where graffiti is rare, where there is no chewing gum on the pavements, no litter, where women can walk confidently anywhere at anytime, and cyclists don't bother locking up their bikes. The Yamaha exhibition is safe.

Hamamatsu is a city of 560,000 people, on the Pacific coast of Japan's largest island, Honshu, midway between Tokyo and Osaka. The Suzuki and Honda companies have factories here, making it the home of the motorcycle industry. Yet the city fathers have dubbed Hamamatsu the City of Music.

Hamamatsu's Piano Competition is famous: Visit the website via this link. The 2000 winner of the Leeds, Alessio Bax, won at Hamamatsu in 1997. Musical instrument manufacturers Kawai and Roland are based in Hamamatsu. As is Yamaha, today's destination. I am here to see saxophones being made.

Hiroaki Ohashi, with whom I spent the previous afternoon at the Yamaha atelier in Tokyo, meets me. He is to drive me to the Yamaha factory at Toyooka, forty minutes away. The journey takes us along a levee alongside a wide river meandering down from the mountains. We pass small paddy fields and an orange grove. This is a delightful, quiet contrast to Tokyo. There, the railway station next to my hotel in Shinjuku suburb deals with three million people each day.

During the journey to the factory, Hiro explains that some Yamaha instrument parts are assembled, and in some cases are made, in Indonesia. In some instances components are exported from Japan to China, where they are assembled for sale locally. Chinese workers are trained extensively in Japan before they work in China. Components are also sent to Michigan, where they are assembled into instruments and sold in the USA and Canada.

Before we reach the factory we stop for lunch. We are joined by Mr Mitsuo Ono, Manager of the Handmade Instruments Section, Hisashi Kenmochi, the saxophone designer, and Roger S. Manners. Roger is American, the Manager of Yamaha PR and Marketing, in the Band and Orchestral Division. A former professional trumpet player, Roger has an impressive résumé . Because of that background, and because of his current position, he rubs shoulders with the elite of the playing world. His conversation is littered with casual and unforced references to the opinion and experiences of Bobby Shew, Alan Vizutti, Randy Brecker and a dozen other highly regarded players.

At lunch I sit opposite Hisashi. To have the opportunity to quiz a famous saxophone designer is the opportunity of a lifetime. Where does one start? At the beginning, of course - knowing that Hisashi was with the company at the very start of their saxophone programme, I ask where he began when designing a new saxophone.

He tells me that, sensibly, the design team set out by looking at good existing instruments. Remembering the difficulties that the Selmer company seemed to have in improving their own celebrated Mark VI, I wondered if copying a successful design is tricky. If Selmer had a problem with their own instrument, how could one possibly copy - or develop - other makes with any success?

'You have to remember that although the best ones were very good, the Mark VI and other leading brands were very inconsistent,' Roger points out. 'And they were hand-made.' When the first Yamaha saxophones appeared, they were designed to be manufactured on more of a mass-production style than, say, Selmer had used. Thus, after Yamaha designers had learned how to hand-make a top grade professional saxophone, they then had to consider how to produce it in large quantities without sacrificing quality and consistency. Eventually the Selmer company themselves were to go over to a similar style of manufacturing.

Both Roger and Hisashi list some of the factors affecting the tone and response of a saxophone. Lacquer makes a difference, as does a finish in silver plate or gold. Astonishingly, even the finish of the key work makes a difference to the final sound. It seems that the brass keys on the 275 make for a warmer sound. Nickel makes for a colder or more austere sound.

Brass, used for the saxophone body, is an alloy of copper and zinc, and can be of various types. More copper or less copper, for instance, makes a difference. So does the thickness of the metal. Then there's the effect of changing the rate of taper of the bore, or changing the thickness of the metal along the length of the instrument. Even placing a wire in the bell rim, as has recently been done with the 275, makes a difference. The curve of the body changes the sound. A curved soprano will inevitably sound different from a straight one. In what I'm sure is a massive understatement, Hisashi says: 'Curved tubes are problematical.'

Items nearer to the reed make the most difference. That is, the mouthpiece is of first importance, followed by neck, upper body, lower body, then bell. To my surprise, I learn that the various styles of necks, though advertised as an ideal way to refine sound and response, are not only produced to give differences in sound, but also to provide choices to aid the comfort of the player. Two tapers are offered, with a choice of finish.

The Custom models are explained to me. 'Don't classify one or other model as jazz or classical,' says Roger. The Custom 875 has a larger dynamic range. Generally speaking, players of popular music play at higher dynamic levels, and will enjoy the benefit of sound reinforcement (amplification). That is, they won't need the large dynamic range of the 875, which is how it sometimes comes to be categorised as a classical instrument. Which is misleading, and obscures the real difference between the two models. Eventually it comes down to individual playing preferences, and factors such as the type of mouthpiece used. Neither the 875 nor the 62 has been conceived specifically for jazz or classical styles. That's up to the musician.

We finish lunch and head for the factory. There are several Yamaha factories. At Toyooka, brass instruments, clarinets, recorders and saxophones are made - but altos and tenors only. Sopranos and baritones are produced elsewhere.

The site is large. Production takes place in the equivalent of several aircraft hangers. Roger Manners explains the importance of environmental issues. Water used by the factory is recycled, and treated carefully. Most of the employees live nearby, which gives added relevance to environmental preservation activities. The company has a series of environment-related action plans. These include prevention of environmental pollution, reduction of ozone layer damaging substances, reduction of wastes, promotion of recycling and the protection of rare resources.

The plant is so large, and time so limited, that we decide to concentrate on saxophone production. Actually, it's not that easy to pick out one strand, because some of the processes cater for more than one type of instrument. They overlap. So, although we follow the process of making saxophones, we continually encounter components of flugelhorns, trombones or euphoniums.

We begin at the point where sheets of brass are cut and folded into cones or into the silhouettes that will later become bells. The work on forming the saxophone bell eventually leaves no trace of a seam, a process that literally and figuratively impresses. The joint is squeezed to invisibility.

The process of forming the neck holds some surprises. The engineering drawings, prepared using Computer Aided Design (CAD), are so very specific. On one working print lying on a bench I notice that the acuteness of the curve of an alto crook is specified precisely - something like 49 degrees and 17 minutes, I don't remember. This is the precision of the aerospace industry, not what I had expected in a saxophone factory. Another reminder of aircraft production is the way that some craftsmen store their tools, in a silhouette holder, each implement clearly displayed. Anything missing can be spotted instantly.

The second surprise lies in the way that the curve of the neck pipe is induced without the tube kinking or flattening. The traditional method used by pipe fitters and plumbers in the UK is to insert a specially made coil-spring into the pipe, to support the tube walls and prevent it from flattening during bending. Here one sees developments of that. One is to load the brass tube with soft lead before bending. Another method is to use ice! Water us poured into the tube, then frozen. The ice supports the tube. A third method, which seems to be used for semicircular curves on brass tuning slides, is to allow the tube to flatten as it is curved. Then the tube is re-inflated with water under pressure, the tube held in a jig.

The process of saxophone manufacture uses a mix of machine tools - shears, presses, piped lathes, milling machines, grinding machines - and hand tools, such a tiny hand-held polishing machines, dental burrs, leak lights, files and diminutive soldering torches. There are even handmade special-purpose tools, developed by the individual craftsmen. The engraver who decorates the saxophone bells possesses good examples. He has taken a series of half-round files (about 2 centimetres wide), cut them off short so that the blade is almost square, then ground them to a short end for use as engraving tools. Files, being of good quality hard metal, are ideal for adapting as hand tools.

The etching of the bell is fascinating. The motif is marked onto the metal as a series of guide dots, then cut into the brass freehand. The craftsman works swiftly, with impressive skill. He doesn't appear to be fazed by being watched. It takes forty to fifty minutes to inscribe each bell. Have a look at the engraving on a saxophone bell. Lovely work, isn't it? Naturally, each design is slightly different.

Inside the factory I hear no music reproduction system, only the sound of the machinery. Occasionally, a few notes sound as an instrument is test-played. Roger tells me that many of the people working there are players. The Yamaha band, consisting of factory musicians, is the only band never to have received less than the Gold Prize at the All Japan Concert Band Competition. Though one occasionally hears a few notes of test-playing, the assembly of the saxophones, clarinets, flutes and bassoons is checked by using a leak light. Once the saxophones are travelling on a conveyor belt, moving so slowly as to be almost imperceptible, they are fitted with a rubber collar over the bell, to prevent damage. Almost all of the workers wear white gloves, the sort seen everywhere in Japan.

I've hardly had time to look at the clarinet production, or that of any other instruments, but already it's time to head back to Hamamatsu station. Roger drives. He slips a Bobbie Shew CD into the player, and to the accompaniment of beautiful trumpet playing we talk of many things - the new popularity of soccer in Japan, his own children growing up away from America, his links with the various Yamaha artists, and the challenge of learning the Japanese language. I'm sorry to leave so hurriedly; it's been a memorable day. Perhaps there will be a next time, when I can look at clarinet production.

The train, of course, is precisely on time.

First published in Crescendo magazine, February 2001
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