Ten Questions with Steve Shires

By Steve Shires • October 01, 1998 • 8 min read

Shires brochure coverThe S. E. Shires Company was founded in 1995 for the sole purpose of building custom trombones of unparalleled professional quality.

Steve Shires, owner and chief designer, has an extensive background as a professional trombonist in the Boston area. He has also had many years of experience as a brass instrument technician, specializing in custom modification of instruments for professional clients, and has worked as a design consultant to several brass instrument manufacturers.

He now brings his extensive background and experience as a performer and craftsman to his own workshop, devoting himself to the custom production of world-class instruments.

I'm from Australia, and would like to know which valve is better for a bass trombonist. I'm still in high school but am pretty serious about my playing.

Choosing a valve for your instrument is a very personal decision. This is the reason we offer three types of valves on our instruments.

Any of these valves represents a vast improvement over conventional rotary valve design. There are great players who choose to play each of these options.

Players talk of inconsistency in sound, intonation, resonace, etc.from trombone to trombone even of the same make and model. Would you say this is due to "the spirit of the muse" residing in some horns and not others, or is it just lack of good manufacturing process control by the factory? Expressed in the positive, is the foundation for building good trombones Zen or industrial engineering?

Certainly it is important to develop manufacturing techniques that produce a good consistent product, but don't discount Zen. What I mean to say is I think it is important to use the best technology you can in producing your instrument without sacrificing the personality built into the instrument that comes from having the bell hand made and everything carefully fit and assembled by a craftsman. This is why we have a computer-controlled lathe to make our valve and other machine parts more accurately than we could ever do it on a manual machine. Our bells, on the other hand, are hand formed and spun by myself or one of the other experienced craftsman at S. E. Shires Co. Many of our workers are serious brass players. I think that their feelings about music shows in their attitude about work and can be heard in the sound of our instruments. In this way, I think it is possible to make instruments that have a consistent and even response, but each having its own personality.

I have enjoyed surfing your website. I don't however, see any reference to bass trombones there. Will you be developing bass instruments anytime soon?

We do offer a bass brombone at this time. We simply have not had the time to do the artwork, photography, proofs, etc., to update our brochures and website. We hope to remedy that this fall.

Our bass brombone has the same options available as the tenor: the same three types of valves, alloys of bell material, and bell weight options. Bells are available in 9", 10, and 10" diameters. The instruments are available with one valve, two valves in line, or two valves in a dependent configuration. Slides are available in standard and dual bores, standard or light weight construction, in yellow brass, gold brass, or nickel alloys.

Are the alloys of brass that you use different that the ones the"big" companies use. I have talked with many players and have played old horns myself and find an unpleasant difference in the new horns. I suppose the cryo treatment might help, but manufacturer's representatives from two different companies have told me how little control they have over their brass suppliers. I have also noticed extreme variation in the malleability of slides while repairing them. Any input?

The alloys of brass we use are the same ones the larger companies use. I think brass sheet and tubing is probably similar in quality to the brass of twenty or more years ago. Much older instruments (turn of the century and older) used brass with a less pure and consistent make up. Some companies today choose materials more on their ease of manufacture than their acoustical properties. Still, I believe the biggest differences between new and old instruments comes from the natural aging process of instruments, and the changes that take place over the years in a companies manufacturing process. According to a metallurgist I know, brass both relaxes and hardens to a degree as it ages. This certainly effects the way an instrument sounds and responds. It can be simulated through cryogenic treatment. Manufacturing processes can effect the hardness and thickness of the brass in an instrument. Bells usually vary significantly in thickness in different areas of the bell. These variations are critical to the instrument's sound. Even small changes in the manufacturing process effect thickness and the hardness of the brass. If a company chooses to draw their slide tubing from slightly thinner stock, it may draw more easily, but the tubing can be significantly softer. These issues account for some of the variations in instruments from year to year.

What must be done (training, experience, etc.) to become a licensed instrument repair technician, and how can one verify that the person reparing his/her instrument is licensed?

There is no formal licensing process for brass instrument repair technicians. There are a number of repair schools of varying quality. Most of the programs, however, are only one year or less. This is a far cry from the old German school in which it took many years of apprenticeship in order to become a Master Craftsman. Then it was necessary to all aspects of instrument making, something that the average repair technician in the U. S. is not equipped to do. This is not to say that there are not a lot of good brass repair technicians out there. The best course of action is to get recommendations from local teachers and professionals in your area.

Have you (or has anyone else to your knowledge) tried a PVD finish on a trombone bell? What are your thoughts on this process as an improvement to the durability of finish on brass instruments?

We have done some experimentation with lacquer and its acoustical effects. The lacquer we use is a thin epoxy lacquer, possibly thinner than that used in the study you read. We have found that though it does effect the sound somewhat, the change in response is slight if any. We would describe the sound with lacquer as maybe a little more refined than raw brass; a little less bright, but not a lot. We have not experimented with "PVD," and I am not aware of any brass musical instrument manufacturers that have tried it. While I am open to the idea, I worry about its acoustical effect. I think thicker lacquer can have a negative effect on response, and would choose to give up durability in the instrument finish in favor of sound quality and good response. I hope we can get some time in the future to give it a try.