A Visit to the Studio 49 Factory
This past summer my wife and I had the good fortune to visit some family in Munich, Germany. When discussing the various activities we wanted to do while there she asked “what’s the one thing that you must do while in Germany?” Without skipping a beat, I replied “Go to the Studio 49 factory!” With a puzzled look, she said “seriously?”
Over the course of 16 years as a music educator I have encountered many different brands of xylophones, some good, some bad, and some just ugly. I figured this was a really good opportunity to get connected to my craft of teaching music using the Orff process. I contacted the company and received a very generous offer to visit the factory while I was in Munich. That jet lagged Monday couldn’t come soon enough but when it arrived I woke up like a boy on Christmas morning and we were on our way to the factory.
After 2 U-Bahn changes and a bus ride we made it to the factory in an industrial area outside of Munich. We were greeted by a very tall gentleman who asked us to wait a moment and he proceeded to run around and attend to an issue in the factory. After a short wait, he explained that the computer system that runs much of the factory equipment had gone down and now everything was up and running. His name was Herr Becker and he was going to show us around the factory. The tour started outside where it all begins with the wood. It comes to the factory on pallets in long strips ready to start the journey to become xylophone bars. Herr Becker explained that the strips of wood are first placed in this giant oven to be slow dried three steps only to be rehydrated two steps. This process is repeated over and over until the wood gets to the desired dryness and hardness. The slow process helps the bars retain their intonation over time. This was the first of many times on the tour I saw first-hand the quality of the Studio 49 brand.
From the ovens, we weaved our way through the factory going to the different employee stations and seeing each step in the process of building a xylophone. We stopped where they assemble the boxes for the xylophones. The employee was putting together bass xylophone boxes with precision. When a xylophone box is made they cut/router all 4 sides out of the same piece of wood to ensure an even sound and color. It was also explained that by cutting each side at the same time eliminates the small differences in size that would occur as the cutting tool wears down over time. The uniformity and care that was taken was very impressive.
Our next stop was a strange looking contraption. I wasn’t sure exactly what it was as it looked like a Rube Goldberg machine. It had conveyors, gears, cranks, cutting instruments and hydraulic hoses. The pieces of wood which were now cut to length for a specific note (we were there when they were making low D for the alto xylophones) would be put through the conveyor and go on a roller coaster ride. At the end of the ride they came out looking like a xylophone bar. Each bar was sanded and tuned by hand. It was explained that although it looked like the bars were ready to go, each bar had to go to another technician to be fine-tuned to either two harmonics or three harmonics depending on the model. Our journey continued as we saw the many other products Studio 49 makes like yarn mallets, hand drums, and concert quality marimbas for European countries.
When our tour was complete, we headed back into the office areas and passed a portrait that looked very much like our tour guide. It was then that I realized we weren’t just being walked around by a generous employee, it was the president of the company. He had taken time out of his busy day to walk a stranger who loves teaching using their product through the factory. We had the opportunity to chat a little bit before we left. I asked how he got into this business and he explained that his family had known Carl Orff and Guinald Keetman. They were looking for someone to produce high quality instruments for their school and the relationship between Orff and Studio49 continued for many years.
Herr Becker recalled a story when he had been a young boy he was at the Orff estate and was chasing some ducks by the pond and fell into the water and was soaked head to toe. It was then I realized I was now three degrees of separation from the man and woman who developed this teaching process that myself and millions of others use to teach every day. After signing their guest-book we left and the rest of our trip I kept reflecting on how lucky we were to get a snapshot on Studio 49 and this legacy. It was truly amazing to see the level of quality and care invested in each instrument from start to finish. By the end of the day it was very apparent that this company makes these instruments with love and wants that love to be spread through the music that our students make for years to come.
For more on the history and production of Studio 49 Orff Instruments, please visit MMB Music.