Mbiraski Custom - 2.Note Rearrangement and Circle-Of-Fifth Layout

[Link to the previous article of Review]

(This is not my mbiraski, I can't find a pic of mine in factory tuning) This is the 1st tuning when it is arrived. It is very easy to understand since it is similar to a piano keyboard.

You can read this article by Mark that discusses about a few possibilities of chromatic tuning kalimbas. http://www.kalimbamagic.com/newsletters/newsletter3.03.html#chromatic. And this is the simple linear layout, if you read Mark's article you know that it will sound horrible. How horrible is it? Here is an example:

The 1st sound is recorded with my fingers muting as many adjacent tines as possible, while the 2nd sound is just normal open sound, which will be the case of normal playing. You can hear how much of the inharmonic sound happens, and notice that this sound can be much more than this if you play a melody, because the adjacent tines will be excited for many times, so the volume will be higher and higher. It surely sounds uncomfortable.


The 2nd tuning :

It's a layout that I developed on my custom 24 notes thomas bothe kalimba. I like so much (I will write about it in depth later). But it is not good for the mbiraski here. I've stated the reason before - many notes would be out of the best sounding range. There are 6 notes (above C5) that you almost only hear the plucking noise.

This plus the learning from my experiment of polyphonic pitch shifting (in short word - polyphonic pitch shifting are not really good to use with kalimbas, except when you want special effect) - I've rearranged the tines again (and added 2 stickers under the tines :D):


The 3rd tuning :

This time it is the straight forward circle-of-fifth tuning, it is very simple - in the lower row, major 2nd up one by one, from left to right, then a 5th up for the upper row. You can see a diagram that Mark had made to make yourself more clear:

With this tuning, I can achieve chromatic tuning and at the same time keeping all the adjacent tines in harmony. It require some practicing tho - since the scale shapes are not seen anywhere. I've made these pics for you to get the idea easily (C as root for lower, F as root for higher):

Scales with root notes on lower row (mouse over for text) :
Scales with root notes on higher row (mouse over for text) :
As far as you can see, it is not that hard to understand, just "3 up 4 down" or "4 up 3 down" kind of thing. And every interval has two corresponding shapes (one for the lower row, one for the higher row), the shapes for all notes in the same row are the same.

The cons that it has is there is no visual reference, like the white and black keys on a piano. And the shapes are harder to remember and understand than an Array system.


The 4th tuning :

It is the same as what ArrayMbira uses for their kalimbas. It is a kind of circle-of-fifth tuning that's very easy to learn and to play - same kind of scale have exactly the same shape - except at the edge of the "keyboard" - where you may need to go to the other side of the "keyboard" for notes.

There is some repeating notes at the left and right side - that would serve 3 purposes : 1) to make some scales easier to play; 2) every note is within the best sounding range on this kalimba; 3) the buzzers are all on the high ocatve notes, and almost all of them, this gives the different 2 octaves 2 different kind of tone, and more consistency in each octave.

Mbiraski Custom - 1.Review

[Link to the next article about Note Rearrangement]

Mbiraski is an kalimba made by Japanese musician and instrument maker Yasushi Yoshida. It is one of the 3 brands that sells really expensive kalimbas (Sosaku/Mbiraski/ArrayMbira), and based on my knowledge, it is the only one that provides built-in preamp on kalimbas.

Before buying it I did searched for days online for some kind of "review" of mbiraski, but there is nothing like that. Even the only user (and the only user track) I can ever find is the Edmund Eagan from Twelfth Root Studio. Apart from that, there is no user reviews, user youtube videos at all. Nobody is saying something about this really nice instrument. So I decided to give it a go and write my review.

My Mbiraski custom is the standard model with deep body and buzzers option. It is a cheap mbiraski, but while saying that, it costed around 820$. Which is not really cheap for kalimbas.

I've experienced the pro and cons of this instrument, and rearranged the note layout for 4 times. And finally settled on one that I really like. Please read below for all the details.


Overview :

The 1st thing I feel when I unpacked the mbiraski, is that it is a very nicely made industrial product, very different than most of the kalimbas - which are mostly handmade and primal.

The body is a hammond aluminum box. The bridge is finely made of aluminum, machined to support 31 notes, each with its own screw that holds the tine. Tines are made of colorful 3/2AlV titanium bicycle spokes. Buzzers are made of tiny nuts and the washers that holds the nuts in place. Due to the design limits they can only be equipped on the upper row of tines.

The bridge is beautiful. Having one screw that exclusively holds one tine is very good, it makes tuning easier and at the same time, make it harder to lose the tuning. The con is that it will limit you when you want to rearrange the tines, because the place of each tine is fixed. But that's not a big deal.

The bicycle spokes are much thicker and heavier than usual kalimba tines, thus the best sounding note range would lie in the low notes. The lowest note must be lower than the one I get which is a Bb2. But on my instrument it is the longest tine I have. When the note goes up to D#4, the sustain is already very short. As a 31 note instrument, its born for chromatic (unless you arrange a lot of redundant notes there, or there will almost always be quite a few notes that fall far out of the best sounding range).

Acoustical Sound :

Although mine is with deep body option, which is aimed for a better acoustic sound, but the acoustic sound of Mbiraski is just acceptable for practicing. The same as most box based kalimbas - there are resonating holes at the both sides of the instrument, but they are virtually no use. No wah-wah sound will be made when you cover/uncover them.

Electrical Sound :

It uses a long piezo film attached under the bridge to pickup the sound, with a preamp based on OPA2134 op-amp to boost the signal.

Best pickup sound I've heard from a kalimba so far. And of course the output can be much higher when compared to other pickup kalimbas due to the preamp built inside. Its pure electric pickup sound is also very nice to be used with various effects.

Next article is about how I rearrange the tines of my Mbiraski, what I think to be the best layout for such a note range, and the info about the arrangement.


AMI Treble Chromatic Kalimba Review

You won't find this model on AMI's website, because all their standard chromatic models are based on the Alto sized kalimbas. This model is a custom order of Kalimbamagic. This one is, hands down, the most complicated kalimba of AMI products line.

It seems all AMI models share the same materials and workmanship. The box is nicely made of native African kiaat wood. The spring steel tines are easy on the fingers, and there is almost no dead notes, every note is clear sounding.

The Sound :

As of all the AMI kalimbas, the acoustic sound is very nice, simply great. The electric sound is ok, but it does not have the details in the sound, here is a comparation :

I've recorded my free playing, both from K&K Silver Bullet mic and the internal pickup at the same time. No processing. This pic shows how I record :

This is the recording from internal pickup :
AMI TC 2 - Internal Pickup by MengQiMusic

This is the recording from K&K Silver Bullet mic :
AMI TC 1 - Silver Bullet Mic by MengQiMusic

As you can hear, we can not say that the frequency response of the internal pickup is good. It sounds dull and muffled when compared to the mic sound. Most importantly, it does not pick up the "sparkle" from the kalimba sound, is it part of the charm of kalimba. That may be something to do with AMI's use of normal cheap piezo elements and the raw way of installing them. So if you really want it to be recorded with nice result, you should use mics.


The Note Layout :

This treble chromatic kalimba has 2 bank of 17 notes, the notes on the front is a C major diatonic scale, the notes on the back are 1 semitone lower - so there are some redundant E and B notes. The size is standard treble kalimba. It is very small, and the spaces between tines are small enough to create trouble for me - I guess the Americans have bigger hands than Asian so imagine they would also have some hard times trying to play this.

When practicing, there is one technique that the players must grow. It's to grow the correct feeling about the positions of the back tines. I don't know if others would have this trouble. But when I began playing this kalimba, it was had for me to find the exact tine that are on the back of each front tine. The small spaces between tines make it even harder. I guess once you've grew the feeling of the position it would be easier to play.


Upcoming Activties

I am going to write a series of reviews of the kalimbas I've played, and the effect units that I've tried with kalimbas, both in the software and hardware realm. I'll try to let you know about the pros and cons of each product. And some thing to pay attention to.

Also, I've been messing around with note arrangement a lot. I've ordered several kalimbas with custom note layout, and I've disassembled a few kalimbas to rearrange them. There is quite a few thing that I've learned during these processes. Working with those gave me more understanding of the relationship between tone, note layout and playing technique. I would be very happy to share them with you.

Here are the kalimba collection I have (photo taken on 25th, April):

They (from the left to right, upper to lower) are:

Eric Freeman Diatnoic Bass

Andrew Masters Custom Steel Drum Sanza 19-notes

Catatonia Pentatonic Electric 11-notes

Anklang NSR

Mbiraski Custom

Mbira by Jona

Rearranged Mugen Chromatic

Mugen Diatonic

Mugen Original Chromatic

Hokema B5

Rearranged Thomas Bothe Custom 24-notes

AMI Treble Chromatic

Also I was the owner of the JBH chromatic 3 octaves. Due to the unbalanced pickup sound I've returned it. Josh had improved it since then so I think it may not have the problem before, here is a link for it if you are interested:

And this is the current pedal board that I use my pickup kalimbas with :

It contains : Devi Ever Soda Meiser / Strymon El Capistan / Gotharmans Demoon / Boss DD-3 / Moog MuRF

I also use K&K sound's Silver Bullet microphone for micing the kalimbas that are without pickups.


The beginning of this blog.


My name is Meng Qi.
I've been making electronic music for more than 11 years. And I am in love with kalimbas for quite some time.

I've been buying them, making my own arrangement/tuning, trying best way to record them and most importantly, trying to be able to express myself as much as I can with those little wonders.

This blog (Kalimba Innovative) is for sharing my knowledge, research, experience and thoughts about the instruments and playing technique, also I'll share anything nice that has something to do with kalimbas.

Best luck, stay calm, be nice, enjoy music and enjoy your life.