Padauk Vs. Rosewood 5.0 Octave Marimba... And I Chose Padauk
Updated: Oct 5, 2019
The marimba world today has put so much emphasis on rosewood... the words ‘professional’ and ‘padauk’ are never in the same sentence.
In the last few years, I’ve been lucky enough to play on marimbas of all shapes and sizes, including ‘budget models’ like the sub-$1,000 Adams Junior 30 and the $6,500 synthetic Mode Marimba, as well as more expensive rosewood 5 octave marimbas like my own Marimba One Izzy, the Adams Alpha and Artist Classic series, the Malletech MJB and Grand Imperial, as well as a few test runs on DeMorrows, Majestics, Yamahas, Korogis etc.
And yes. There is definitely a noticeable difference between rosewood instruments and those made from other materials. If presented with the choice at a concert, masterclass or any other performance opportunity, despite the environmental implications, most of us would pick the rosewood instrument without hesitation.
Yet, after my recent visit to my friends at Buffalo Percussion in Taiwan to try out their new marimbas, I walked out of that factory thinking… did I really just willingly pick a padauk marimba over its rosewood counterpart?!
Let’s start from the beginning.
I first met the Buffalo team when Wendy, Mario and Michelle decided to come visit Perth for Marimbafest as one of our international sponsors. They were so kind to everyone and left a whole bunch of their instruments in Perth, including their tour drum kit (which is super cool and I will feature on the show soon) and tour snare drums. They said if we ever had a chance, we should go visit their factory in Taichung, Taiwan.
So... after the Kaohsiung masterclasses in my last blog post, my friend Wilson and I took a Taiwan High Speed Rail train to Taichung, which took just under an hour. If you’ve ever taken the bullet train in Japan, this is pretty much the same thing but cheaper!
We were so excited to be greeted by Wendy and Mario at the station, who drove us all the way to their factory. Let’s just say… they are doing really well.
If this is the first time you’ve heard of Buffalo Percussion, they are a popular Taiwanese manufacturer of marimbas, drums and accessories. Everything they make is made domestically or in-house, and their instruments can be seen in schools and homes across Taiwan and other parts of the world. Other than their ever-expanding line of own products, they are also a distributor in Taiwan of many international brands like Balter Mallets and Encore Mallets etc.
In addition, to suit all budgets and needs, they are dedicated to providing you with as many customisation options as you want, including bar width, wood material, and the colour of pretty much every component on the instrument.
For example, one of the marimbas I tried had a purple accent colour on the wood ends, and Buffalo have also recently made some Captain America and Optimus Prime inspired drum shell designs. Amazing.
Before we get into my padauk fanboyism, this is what Buffalo's 2019 marimba lineup currently looks like. (Note: These list prices are just for reference, and the price can be lower or higher depending on your preferences.)
Tenuto: entry-level aluminium frames with round resonators.
TX435 4.3 octave (non-tunable): $3,000 (padauk) / $5,250 (rosewood)
TX505 5.0 octave (tunable): $8,000 / $13,380
Lux: mid-range aluminium and wood frames with round resonators.
LUX40X 4.0 xylo: $2,500 / $4,100
LUX435 4.3 oct: $3,550 / $5,950
LUX505 5.0 oct: $10,375 / $15,560
Solemio: premium aluminium and wood frames with advanced tunable oval resonators.
Solemio 505 5.0 oct (standard width bars): $12,350 / $16,900
Solemio 507 5.0 oct (extra width bars) $14,300 / $20,250
You can download a detailed PDF list here.
Anyway, back at the factory, I was introduced to two of their premium 5.0 octave marimba models - the Solemio 505 (standard width bars) and Solemio 507 (wider bars).
On first glance, the frames look really quite simple and elegant. The Solemio frame ends bear similarity to the Adams Voyager frame design with its ‘hourglass’ triangular shape, but with the addition of a strong horizontal beam on the bottom. Thank you, Buffalo. Thank you for fixing my biggest pet hate – fundamentally unstable frame designs...
The best part – all of Buffalo's instruments have height adjustment, with all Lux and Solemio models having a gas lift (my favourite!!!).
What's more - the Solemio's gas lifts had engraved height numbers. That being said, I still think my Marimba One's gas lift feels more secure and has more pressure, and is able to support the instrument's weight without me having to hold it up with my other hand.
I also wish this engraving was a bit easier to read (paint the engravings maybe?). I had to underexpose the photo below to be able to catch the numbers.
Anyway, Wendy, David and Mario quickly tuned and tightened all of the frames and resonators before I was asked to try them. Yes, both the 505 and 507 have tunable resonators!
I started by trying out the Solemio 505 (the purple one), which was already sporting a standard width rosewood keyboard. Wendy and David agreed that the particular batch of rosewood on the 505 wasn’t their best, and you could see all the grains were not consistent. That being said, I thought their ‘not best’ rosewood sounded on par with most entry-level boards used in more expensive 'graded' brands like Yamaha, Korogi, Musser, Marimba One etc.
Of course, the Solemio 507 was right next to it so I had to try that. Wendy said that the extra wide bars on the 507 would probably impress me even more. And, to make it even more interesting, she said that I should try the Solemio with both padauk and rosewood bars to see which one sounds better.
This was where I got the biggest surprise of the day.
The Solemio already had a pretty decent looking set of bars attached to it, and honestly, these bars sounded REALLY good. It was bright, it had character, but it also had considerable warmth.
And yes, they were PADAUK bars.
Was I going crazy?
I was super impressed at how resonant and clear the notes were without that super tacky 'ultra-bright' character that some padauk instruments are known for, and there was so much warmth and character in the lower notes.
And think about this for a second – this top of the line Solemio 507 is listed as USD $14,300 for padauk and a whopping USD $20,250 for rosewood. That’s a $6,000 difference. It’s even more pronounced in the Tenuto lineup, where you can get a padouk 5 octave instrument for just USD $8,800!
After I fanboyed about the padauk, David disappeared and returned with a box of brand new rosewood bars, just shipped in from their supplier. Unlike the ones that were already on the Solemio 505 frame on display, these bars were pretty much perfectly consistent. Quite possibly the most beautiful rosewood bars I’ve ever seen!
After a quick bar swap and tuning check, it was time to test out the new rosewood on the Solemio frame.
YES. Oh yes. That rosewood sound is amazing. Longer releases, warmer notes, deeper fundamentals.
I played a whole range of music on it, including some Bach, some of my pieces, some Taiwanese pop music (shout out to 田馥甄) (recordings will be on THE STUDIO show in the next couple of weeks!). But I was also a little underwhelmed.
It didn’t feel like it was $5,000-$6,000 better.
I didn’t find myself rushing to throw away the padauk bars.
Was I really choosing padauk over rosewood?
I explained to Wendy that I’ve always been more fascinated in padauk instruments that perform amazingly, as opposed to rosewood instruments that perform as expected. I’d played so many average sounding ‘student’ padauk models that I’d almost given up hope on ever finding a concert-worthy padauk instrument.
She was surprised that I’d even considered padauk at all, since I own a rosewood instrument.
But that’s just it isn’t it.
The marimba world today has put so much emphasis on rosewood, from solos named ‘Rosewood Blues’, to constant allusion to the history of marimba being founded on rosewood bars, to the thousands of pictures of solo marimbists with rosewood instruments. The words ‘professional’ and ‘padauk’ are never in the same sentence.
But maybe it’s not that rosewood itself is that much better than padauk. Maybe it’s that padauk instruments are a relatively new invention and have never really been treated with the same significance as high-end rosewood marimbas.
So, I really have to applaud Buffalo for pushing both padauk and rosewood professional grade instruments, as opposed to resigning padauk to smaller 4 and 4.3 octave frames only. Especially when they sound this good.
So would I buy any of the Buffalo marimbas? Short answer: Yes, I'd love to own one of their 5.0 octave padauk instruments if they sound that good! I wouldn't be giving up my Izzy any time soon, but it certainly would be a fantastic instrument to take for gigs and other external performances. And because setup process is a dealbreaker for me, I wish we'd had time to see what it was like to build and disassemble the marimba, but there's always next time!
And yes, I'd also make all the hardware matte black. Because I love black.
Anyway, after we wrapped the recordings and chatted for a while, Wendy and Mario took us around to eat beautiful Taichung food and see a bit of the city before we had to catch our train back to Kaohsiung. And through all this, I thought about how I’d thoroughly enjoyed the experience of playing a padauk 5 octave marimba.
Maybe it’s time we gave padauk instruments a chance.
Buffalo Percussion is now building Tenuto, Lux and Solemio marimba frames as well as drum kits to order as per your specifications. If you want to know more about their products, check out this PDF price list or email email@example.com. I’ll also be making a THE STUDIO episode with my recordings of the instruments in the next few weeks, so keep an eye out for that!
Disclaimer: This article is NOT sponsored by Buffalo Percussion. All opinions are my own.