Discussing the differences between plastic and metal brass instruments...

It's nearly ten years since we launched pBone, the world's first plastic brass instrument. At the time pBone created what was quite simply a trombone revolution as the trombone world took our humble instrument to its heart. Since then pBone has become the largest selling single model of trombone ever made. We followed with pBone mini, pTrumpet, pCornet and the hybrid metal/plastic trumpet "hyTech". We also have our brass training instruments; pBuzz and pBugle. We have made over 500,000 plastic, brass instruments, sold worldwide.

Many brass players found it difficult to understand our "why" for inventing these instruments, comparing and contrasting them with existing, and often highly expensive and professional, brass instruments.

Quite simply our "why" is that we wanted to remove existing barriers to playing brass for all of those interested in starting playing, but especially children: "Making the joy of brass playing sustainable, accessible and fun".

Our instruments are very different to those made from traditional materials. There are benefits and trade-offs both ways and I'll try to discuss the biggest issues in this blog.

  • Cost
  • Robustness and Repair
  • In use and learning
  • Sustainability
  • Cleaning
  • Pre-brass learners

Cost

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Ok, pBone or pTrumpet are NOT the cheapest trombone and trumpet on the market. If you look around you might find some brass trombones slightly cheaper and you can certainly find cheaper brass trumpets than pTrumpet. But in terms of a beginner instrument from a reputable company with good customer service that plays in tune and all parts work, our pInstruments are certainly competitive or cheaper than the rest of the crowd. Indeed, unless you want to end up with a "trumpet shaped object" made from brass, prices for beginner trumpets and trombones in brass start from about £175-£275 and a really high quality brass beginner instrument will be more than £400. If you are a parent shopping for your child these differences may or may not be so significant but if you are buying tens or hundreds of instruments for a school, band or music hub the differences add up. So cost is a differentiator in brass vs plastic, but maybe not a massive one.

Robustness

This is a tale of two halves. On trumpet, the brass beginner trumpet is pretty robust although no way near as tough as a pTrumpet. A dropped brass trumpet will almost certainly need a repair and most technicians will only work with decent quality instruments as the very cheapest ones are almost impossible to repair. "Well, we can live with a few scratches, dings and dents" you might say but the stress and tension that dropping or bashing a trumpet can often lead to sticking valves and tuning slides, even if the damage is cosmetically insignificant or sited away from the valves and slides themselves. pTrumpet in comparison will basically shrug off this kind of abuse with the plastic material hell-bent on returning to it's original shape. Basically, if any part is knocked off or cracked on pTrumpet it can be super glued back on or we can provide a replacement part.

Screenshot 2021-09-10 at 11.22.49Trombones are in fact much, much more fragile than any other brass instrument. Because they are so open in shape there is little in terms of tubes being able to support each other and the bell is as thin as a trumpet yet much bigger and less well supported.

The real Achilles Heel of the trombone is its slide.  Less than a millimetre thick with a millimetre gap between them, the brass and chrome plated tubes that make up the inner and outer slides need only the slightest of impacts to render the slide immobile. The same goes for any twisting, bending or bashing, whether in or out of the case! By comparison the pBone is almost indestructible, we only supply a cloth bag because the pBone is made from the same materials that trombone cases for brass trombones are made from! Other than standing with all your weight on the slide there is little that will put a pBone out of action. Similarly to the pTrumpet any parts that become dislodged or cracked can be fixed with super glue or replaced by us.
When it comes to robustness the difference is massive; and we stock and supply all the components as spares or replacements here in the UK.

In use and learning

This is where things begin to get interesting! Plastic is less resonant than brass. Our designs have optimised the resonance of the materials we use, but brass, especially in a well designed and well-made instrument, will speak more easily and have more brightness to the sound than plastic. For a serious performer these differences are important and that is why a high-level brass player, amateur or professional, will invest thousands of pounds on his or her instrument. In fact a pro-level, custom mouthpiece can cost hundreds of pounds on it's own! However, we are talking about instruments to help beginners start their journey, make music and have fun. The pBone and pTrumpet need a bit more air to get them speaking, but I'm not so worried about that: lets's encourage our learners to blow! Our plastic instruments make a warm sound that steers the learner's ears in the right direction, helping to calm down the "shouty" sounds that beginners so often make. On plastic you may need to work a little harder and be more focused for the low register but the upper harmonics are easier to get and are nicely in tune. When players move onto a good, step-up brass instrument from pBone or pTrumpet they often find they have energy to spare and can make great progress very quickly. 


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The next difference of note in use is weight. This is a double edged sword too because it ispartly the weight of an instrument that adds to the ease of speaking and brilliance of tone. Our plastic instruments are half the weight of their brass cousins so from a sonic perspective are at a disadvantage. Plastic instruments cannot compete on clarity, projection, brilliance or presence. What's the trade-off then? Posture! Posture is so important in brass playing. Allowing the body to be relaxed, breathing in and suppling the correct stream of air to the instrument, controlling the angle of the instrument to the lips, supporting the weight of the instrument in the left hand freeing the right hand to be relaxed and control the valves or the slide...these aspects of playing are so important at all levels but never more so than in the first, formative weeks of playing. Our plastic instruments have been ergonomically designed to allow hands of all sizes to form a comfortable grip that leads to good habits and the lack of weight allows players young and old to nail great posture and develop a wonderful platform for their progression going forwards. For those who struggle to hold a metal trumpet or trombone these plastic instruments are great. They allow the keenest of pupils to start their journey years early, hastening and deepening their skills before others have even started. Existing players who are finding holding the weight of a brass instrument a challenge can continue playing or expand their practice time on a plastic instrument.

A further, massive advantage of plastic is that the slide on pBone and the valves on pTrumpet are virtually maintenance free. No water and gunk on the slide is needed and oil on the valves will slow them down. In terms of reducing hassle for both players and teachers this not to be underestimated, especially at the beginning of learning brass. Sure, eventually when a player gets deeper into their playing they will spend hours getting the perfect oil or slide mix for their instrument, lovingly cleaning and pampering to perfection! but when you first start these are all obstacles, now multiply this by 4, 10 or 30 for group lessons and whole class teaching and the advantages really rack up. pBone and pTrumpet can be stored for weeks and then played straight out of the cupboard...try that with a metal horn!

Sustainability

When we first embarked on our journey of making plastic brass instruments I guess we all had the thought at the back of our minds that plastics were, in some cases, becoming a problem material for the environment. Ten years on and a lot has changed, it would have been hard to imagine then where the sustainability and climate change arguments would be now, high on nearly everyones agenda.

Carbon Neutral ProductAssumptions are rife in this area and so we decided to grasp the nettle of sustainability in a very serious way in our business. We had an independent, third party review of our position with regard to sustainability and much to our delight we found that both making and transporting instruments in the way we do saves tonnes and tonnes of CO2e in comparison to metal instruments.

All our ABS is recyclable and we offset all the CO2e we use, not only in manufacturing our instruments but also in transporting them to markets all around the world.

In summary

Some of these differences are completely as one would expect, some are rather surprising but all the positive and negative aspects of each material must be viewed against the proposed use case. I really don't think that the Chicago Symphony are going to play instruments wholly made from plastic anytime soon but even as we speak some high level, professional orchestral players are beginning to swap out heavy components of their instruments for custom made carbon fibre alternatives. That's a sound versus weight decision and as we get older weight becomes a bigger and bigger issue, especially on the heavier instruments like tuba and bass trombone.

Clearly our all plastic instruments can be used in a whole host of ways and the benefits have been utilised in many innovative and creative settings all over the world.

However at the heart of what we do is helping brass instrument learners, especially children, off to a great start.

We always want to make the joy of music accessible, sustainable and fun!

We also love to hear your thoughts so don't hesitate to get in touch!

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Brass instrument photo by Gabe Pierce