The Yamaha Silent Brass System for Trombone: A Review
Every trombonist must practice - but that may be easier said than done. A practice space should have decent acoustics and room to work a slide, and should also be a place where the sounds of practicing won't bother anyone or conversely, where noise from the surroundings won't be a distraction.
One answer is a practice mute. Inserted in the bell, it muffles the sound of the trombone to very low levels which can make it possible to practice where one couldn't or wouldn't dare normally. The trade off is that most such mutes tend to greatly increase resistance and make it hard for the player to hear what they're doing. Using one is better than not practicing at all, but it's a long way from an ideal solution. Yamaha has come up with an alternative which addresses the above concerns - the Silent Brass System.
Five Easy Pieces
The Silent Brass System (SBS from here on) consists of five components: a special mute, a cable, a control unit, an AC power adaptor (six AAA batteries will power the system as well), and headphones. The control unit, called the "Personal Studio," is about the size of a Zip drive (111 x 159 x 41mm). There is also a belt clip so that the user can use the SBS while walking around a room.
The mute looks much like a conventional straight mute for trombone. (There are comparable versions for trumpet, flugelhorn, French horn, upright bell euphonium, and upright bell tuba.) It has a rubber strip around the top end that seals it into the bell. All air passes through the mute by way of a set of baffles which almost completely muffle the normal sound of the trombone. While a practice mute has the same effect, the SBS mute does much more.
A microphone inside the mute connects to the studio through the cable which has a screw-on connector at the mute end and a plain mini-plug on the other. The electronics inside the studio take what the mike picks up, works some electronic magic, and feeds it to the player by way of a set of headphones.
What comes through the headphones does not sound exactly like an unfettered trombone, but it does come close. Further, the Personal Studio allows the user to adjust the character of the sound. A master volume control handles the total volume going to the headphones while a reverb control and a three position mode switch tailors the sound to produce the effect of different acoustic environments.
The instructions in the SBS kit describe it as going from the dead sound of a practice room to the more open sound of a concert hall, all the way up to the vast echoing spaces of a church. The mode switch cycles quickly through the three, starting with the reverb level in the middle of its' range, allowing each setting to be adjusted to the user's preferences.
The SBS in Action
One way the SBS is different from playing an open trombone or using a practice mute is that the sound is routed directly to the ears of the player. I find it can make it easier to concentrate on my sound, and I find that I also hear my articulation more clearly. As an additional benefit, extraneous noises around me are deadened by the head phones which reduces distraction. This is an advantage over a standard practice mute.
The SBS mute effectively reduces sound levels to the point where someone in the next room would hardly be aware of the trombone at all, especially if the door between is closed. The mute does noticeably increase the resistance of the trombone, but it is responsive enough to handle my efforts over nearly a full dynamic range, which thanks to the headphones I can hear while those around me don't.
But Wait-There's More!
If all the SBS did was allow a trombonist tp practice while playing almost normally without othering those nearby, that alone might be worth the price. But the SBS does more. Whoever developed this product put a lot of thought into it. The Personal Studio component of the SBS has some features whose benefit may not be apparent at first blush, but which enhance its' utility.
Besides allowing the user to adjust the volume in the headphones and tweak the reverberation, it also has additional inputs and outputs. There are two separate jacks which allow two mutes to be connected to one Personal Studio at the same time, and two separate headphone jacks. The volume level from each mute can be adjusted separately and a Master Volume switch controls the overall level. This allows two players to use a single Personal Studio to play together, as for example a student and an instructor, or two people working on a duet.
There is another jack for AUX input, as from a CD player, a tape deck, or other external source. It has a separate input volume control as well, so the amount of sound coming in from the external source can be mixed to the user's taste. Anyone who has tried to practice a solo performance with a recorded accompaniment would find this invaluable. You can play the recording back through the headphones of the SBS while you play along, with the volumes balanced - and again you don't have to worry about bothering anyone else.
Along with the input options the Personal Studio has one more feature: a LINE OUT output jack. This will take what is coming out of the Personal Studio and send it to anything: tape recorder, tuning meter, sound system, etc. Not only can you practice with the SBS, you can record your session and play it back for review later. You can experiment with the sound tailoring features and play them out through a sound system. The possibilities are limited only by your desires.
Along with the benefits noted above, there are some caveats. The biggest hurdle for most people is the price. A complete SBS for trombone costs somewhere around $250.00 (US). A conventional practice mute can be had for something between $20.00-$50.00 (US).
Another drawback is the weight. The mute adds noticeably to the weight of a trombone, and you can't put the trombone down on a standard up-the-bell trombone stand for a break without taking the mute out first. The weight of the Practice Studio is not quite so noticeable because it can be worn on your belt.
The cables can be a bother. There is the cable from the mute to the Personal Studio, and the cable of the headphones. If you are also using the AC adaptor, you have three separate things to get tangled, caught on obstructions, or otherwise hung up on.
The resistance of the SBS mute may be a problem for some. All the air going through the trombone ends up going out through the mute. The resistance is readily noticeable and it may be more than is tolerable for extended practice sessions.
The documentation that came with my SBS was fairly straightforward and illustrated with clear drawings in several languages. However, it doesn't provide as much information as a user might want in order to get the most out of the SBS. Someone not comfortable with gadgets or unwilling to put in much effort experimenting might want more hints and tips.
In addition to the practical concerns noted above, there are also theoretical considerations. Habitual use of the SBS may lead to dependency. Your playing technique, intonation, breath support, etc. will become accustomed to the presence of the mute and the increased resistance it provides. Your ear will become accustomed to what you hear through the headphones. In other words, you will still need to find practice time for your trombone without the SBS so that when you play without it you will be able to play naturally.
Perhaps the single most important consideration about using the SBS is personal preference. It may not be for everyone. People who don't like fiddling with gadgets, wearing headphones or playing against the resistance of the mute will probably not like the SBS. Not everyone may care for the sound that comes through the headphones. It has to be tried to be judged fairly.
The Yamaha Silent Brass System will not completely replace the need for straight practice time with an open horn, but it can certainly make it a lot easier to get practicing in when or where you otherwise couldn't. If you learn how to make proper use of it, you just might wonder how you ever got along without it.