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Marching to the Beat of a Different Slide Instrument

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As a companion piece to Jason Plautz's College Football Traditions quiz, Steven Clontz is here to make sure the marching band gets its due. Here's a picture of him with his trombone, to prove he's qualified.

Over the next few months, he'll be contributing a series of band-related stories, including the definitive list of celebrity marching band alums (Know of any? Make his research easy and leave names in the comments -- rock stars, musicians, CEOs, politicians, etc.) His first story explores the seedy underbelly of the pseudotrombone world. Enjoy.

Talk to me for ten minutes, ten minutes tops, and I'll probably mention that I'm a member of my university's marching band. This is because we take marching band seriously around these parts, calling ourselves "band athletes" and running rehearsals until half the clarinet section is unconscious from heat stroke. But this aura of solemnity ends right at the edge of the field where you can find my own section warming up, the trombones. In fact, the only thing we take seriously is our dedication to slacking off. And I'm sure that more than once, our director has considered giving us the boot because of it. The highest organization of marching ensembles, Drum Corps International, doesn't even include trombones on its list of approved instruments, opting for the more valve-centric euphonium.

I suppose, though, that we're pretty safe in our inclusion on marching bands across the country. We are, after all, the only mainstream brass instrument that uses a slide rather than valves in order to change pitch. (Brass instruments in general change notes by changing the length of the instrument being blown through; the longer the instrument, the lower the pitch. Aside from the trombone, however, most do this by pressing valves, which then redirect air through extra tubing, before returning to the instrument proper.) So I'd argue we're protected by some sort of bizarre musical affirmative-action.

However, we are not the ONLY slided instrument to grace God's green Earth. So let's take a moment to look over some of the lesser-known pseudotrombones, and I'll thank my lucky stars that I get to play the real thing.

5. Sackbut

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This funny-sounding instrument (at least its name sounds a little funny) is actually the great-granddaddy of the modern trombone. Alternate spellings include "sacbut", "sagbut", "shagbolt" and "shakbusshe". (Gesundheit!) While its exact origins aren't certain, we do know that it was being regularly used by the 1500s, being mentioned and illustrated in documents from the time. Those brave enough to play the sackbut in modern times experience the musical equivalent of "roughing it". Many of the precious amneties we trombone players enjoy today were not present in the ancient sackbut. There was a smaller bore (the hole a mouthpiece is inserted into), a smaller bell, no lock for the slide, no tuning slide, and no water key (a nice way to say "spit valve" for those of you not in the know). While the range of a typical tenor sackbut is similar to the modern trombone, it produces a much more mellow sound. Judging from the loud, edgy tone many of my peers like to produce on the trombone, I'd doubt there'd be much of a market for the sackbut today.

4. Soprano Trombone

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The poor, poor soprano trombone. This little bugger is, in many ways, identical to the typical tenor trombone played by most trombonists. The main difference being, of course, it's so small. Created in the late 1600s, it was used to play the treble parts of chorales, which are typically covered by trumpets or cornets in modern orchestral ensembles. This is with good reason, as well. Soprano trombones often prove difficult to play in tune, as slight movements of the slide cause a much greater discrepancy in pitch as compared to the larger tenor or bass trombones. In fact, due to its short slide, it often has small gaps in its playable range, such as a concert B natural, which may require more than the full extended length of the slide in order to be played in tune. I'll begrudgingly admit that a trumpet is often better suited for the job of playing the treble clef, as long as you promise not to tell any of my trumpet-playing friends I said so.

3. Slide Whistle

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Okay, maybe this is more of a joke than anything. The slide whistle just isn't given much respect; in my experience, it's used mostly for gimmicky sections of marching band shows where a bit of a comic flair is needed, or as a sound effect on Wheel of Fortune. Actually, slide whistles are more closely related to recorders, flutes, and other woodwinds rather than the brassy trombone. Notes are played by blowing into a mouthpiece known as a "fipple", which directs air towards a bladed edge, located at the big hole you'll see at the top of most whistles. This causes the instrument to resonate, and produce a sound. Similarly to the trombone, the slide whistle changes notes by moving the slide out in order to lower the pitch.

2. Electric Trombone

So, for all intents and purposes, the electric trombone is basically a pimped-out regular trombone. One of the biggest proponents of the electric trombone is jazz trombonist and bandleader Robin Eubanks. He describes the electric trombone as an "acoustic trombone [with] a microphone on the bell [run] into a bank of processors; usually a basic guitar multi-effects processor that's been around for decades." The result? Well, listen to it for yourself. Eubanks has a piece called Blues for Jimi Hindrex, which you can check out on YouTube.

1. Superbone

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It's a bird! It's a plane! Actually, it's hardly either! The Superbone takes the precision of a slided instrument, and combines it with the speed and reliability of a valved instrument. Sometimes referred to as a "valide trombone", the term "Superbone" was coined by the legendary bandleader Maynard Ferguson, who used it in many of his charts. At first, the Superbone seems exactly like a regular trombone, with a slide that is maneuvered using the player's right hand. However, just past the slide comes a set of valves controlled with the left hand. In theory, the Superbone can be played like a regular slide trombone by ignoring the valves, or it can be played like your typical valve trombone by ignoring the slide. However, those who are true experts at the device can use both in tandem, providing many alternate positions to play a given note, and thus allowing for a greater combined speed and accuracy than your AverageJoeBone. The Superbone also has a cousin for trumpet players known as the Firebird, which is a valved trumpet with an attached slide. I am, tragically, not enough of a man to wield either with much success, but it's good to know that somewhere out there, there is an instrument that can do it all. Just don't try playing it near any shiny green rocks.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Name the Author Based on the Character
May 23, 2017
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