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The Selmer Varitone…….What Were They Thinking?

15 Jul

The Selmer Varitone: What Were They Thinking? by Steve “Saxgourmet” Goodson Put yourself in the shoes of a wind instrument manufacturer in the 1960’s: the “British Invasion” is in full swing, and every teenager everywhere is letting their hair grow and learning to play electric guitar. Interest in music has never been higher, but the interest is steadily moving away from the instruments you produce. A new, competitive product was needed, and many of the larger wind instrument companies accepted the challenge. Without question, the Selmer company made every reasonable effort to succeed in wooing musicians away from guitars and back to wind instruments. They produced a system which worked quite well, and spent a great deal of money promoting it, only to fail miserably. Conn, King, Buescher, Leblanc, and Vox all rushed to manufacture similar products, and although their efforts were not nearly on the scale of Selmer, they also failed miserably. All of these systems did basically the same thing: they allowed the saxophone (or other wind instruments) to utilize a pickup mounted on the horn and transmit the signal (with the wiring contained in a conduit down the side of the horn) to a control box, also mounted on the horn which enabled the player to choose from multiple effects, and then on to a pre-amplifier to boost the signal, and ultimately to a guitar type amplifier. The reasoning of the time was that guitar players had readily accepted the cords, heavy amplifiers, and other necessary accoutrements in order to be heard in the style of the day. The guitar players seemed to eagerly accept all of the additional equipment, and the fact that many keyboard players were now hauling around a Hammond B3 organ and its enormous Leslie speaker cabinet reinforced the idea that addition gear simply wasn’t a problem. As a matter of full disclosure, I must admit that during the early 1970’s I used a Conn Multivider extensively, along with a massive Ampeg amplifier. The Ampeg was a constant source of irritation to my roadies, who didn’t understand who a saxophone player needed a dual cabinet 200 watt rig, but hey, it was the 70’s! I also used a Morley wah wah and volume pedal, and an Electro Harmonix Flanger, Envelope Follower, and fuzz box. I had a separate mouthpiece with the pickup installed so I would not have to drill a hole in my neck and also so I could use various horns in my arsenal. Selmer, in conjunction with the Electo-Voice Corporation began development of the Varitone in 1965 introduced it to the public at the Summer NAMM Show in July of 1966. Selmer purchased ads in all the music magazines, and managed to secure a huge amount of publicity through very favorable articles in a wide variety of different publications, including Time magazine. The consensus of opinion within the musical instrument industry was that this was where things were headed. The initial research and development into the use of instrument mounted pickups was directed by Jean Selmer. The initial product concept was an instrument mounted microphone which would reduce the problem of feedback, but it soon evolved into much more, as musicians who were surveyed expressed significant interest in not only amplification, but also in potential tonal variation. Selmer had several stipulations about the nature of the proposed product: first, the unit should in no way require an alteration in established playing technique and must not alter the fundamental timbre and sound of the instrument. Secondly, the unit must be able to be turned off and allow the instrument to be played as and sound like a normal saxophone. Since the vision was for the primary user base to be professional musicians, durability and resistance to travel induced damage was paramount. It was also stipulated that the unit be easy to adjust , with uncomplicated controls, and that it be easily mounted on the saxophone itself. The first technical hurdle was the placement of the pickup. Since the series of standing waves and the resultant pressure nodes which are produced inside the saxophone when it is being played vary with the note being played and the playing technique, finding a single location for the pickup which could properly respond to the full range of the instrument was essential. Contrary to general assumption, the bell opening is far from the optimum location, and the perfect system of placing a pickup at every tone hole was impractical to say the least. Because all of the standing waves in a saxophone originate at the mouthpiece and neck, this is the logical location for pickup placement. Just as in designing saxophone necks, the dimensions are critical, and a thorough understanding of acoustics is essential. Incorrect placement of the pickup would result in very uneven response and tone quality. Once the correct location was calculated, the design of the pickup itself could proceed. The Electro-Voice company significantly improved the original Selmer design through the use of a ceramic pressure sensitive element. The stiffness of the ceramic element provided the necessary resistance to the extremely high sound pressure levels generated within the instrument as well as proving to be impervious to the acidic moisture produced by the player’s breath. The resultant pickup was of quite small size, being only about 3/4 of an inch in diameter and 1/2 an inch thick. The control box was designed to be mounted on the low B/Bb key guard where it could be easily reached by the players right hand. The controls included three rotating knobs (volume, echo, and intensity of the sub-octave) and four tab type switches. One tab switch turned the tremolo on and off, while the other three served to control tone quality, acting like a very basic equalizer. The circuitry necessary for tremolo, echo, and sub-octave effects was a part of the pre-amplifier, and the pre-amplifier, power supply, amplifier, and speaker were all contained in a separate speaker cabinet. The sound produced by the Varitone (in addition to the basic tone of the saxophone) could be adjusted to include varying degrees of echo, tremolo, and sub-octave. It was unique, if nothing else. Selmer offered Varitone systems for not only saxophone, but also clarinet, flute, and trumpet. The initial emphasis was placed on the sale of complete systems, including the required specialized neck, the control box, and a large amplifier. This equipment was sold with the Mk VI saxophone as a package. A Mk VI tenor with the top of the line Varitone “Auditorium” model amplifier was priced at $1,320, not an inconsiderable sum at the time. Not to be outdone, Conn offered the “Multivider” which was built by the Thomas Organ company. The Multivider was quite similar to the Varitone, but was sold as essentially an “add on” kit which could be adapted to any wind instrument. The Conn unit could be used with any amplifier and retailed for $244. A amplifier was available for an additional $399. Leblanc offered the Vitomatic system, which didn’t require drilling a hole in the instrument for $245; Arbiter offered a “bug” microphone pickup for only $49.50; the Gibson guitar company offered the Maestro system with a dedicated amplifier; and the Vox company (widely known at the time for their guitar amplifiers) offered a Beauginier made saxophone known as the Ampliphonic. Electrification fever swept the industry, and recording legends Henry Mancini and Herb Alpert both announced plans to equip new recording studios to utilize the technology. Piano maker Baldwin began construction of an electric harpsichord, and guitar maker Danelectro began producing an electric sitar. Selmer later introduced multiple variations of their Varitone system in an attempt to overcome the initial consumer resistance to the high price. Customers were able to purchase the neck and control box only, and Selmer began to offer the Varitone system with both Buescher 400 saxophones (Buescher was a wholly owned subsidiary) and on the intermediate Selmer USA saxophones. So why did it fail? The primary reason, in my opinion, was economic. The system required a massive (for the time) monetary investment. A Varitone was significantly more expensive than a high quality electric guitar, typically by a factor of three! Another contributing factor was that the Varitone simply never caught on with the professional musical community. True, Eddie Harris achieved a bit of notoriety with his 1968 release “Listen Here”, and albums The Electrifying Eddie harris, Silver Cycles, and Plug Me In. Sonny Stitt and John Klemmer also dabbled with the Varitone, but on the whole, the professional saxophone community stayed away in droves. Players considered the system to be little more than “gadgetry”, and were often unwilling to make an irreparable modification to the neck of their instrument. In recording situations, the Varitone could not approach the quality of a conventional moicrophone, and began to be considered an uncomfortable and cumbersome annoyance. By the end of the 1970’s, the Varitone was all but forgotten. Will it return? Technology has advanced a great deal, and considerably smaller and lighter units could be easily manufactured. Will players request them? Only time will tell……

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