HITTING THE RIGHT NOTE WITH PIERSON WORKHOLDING: Harrelson Trumpets

By November 20, 2016Articles

Jason Harrelson went to St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota as a performance trumpet major. After trading horns with a rival band member he learned the value of a good instrument. “We were both competing to get into the best band in school,” tells Jason. “I met him in the hallway before our auditions. We had a lot in common and eventually became good friends. One day before practice he suggested we trade horns.” Jason played a vintage Bach Stradivarius while his buddy had a brand new version that he had just got as a graduation present from his parents. Jason’s parents didn’t have a lot of money so they had bought the vintage horn from an uncle for $200. All they knew was that the Bach Stradivarius was the best and they wanted their son to have one. “We came out of the practice room and I was freaked out by how good his horn was. It was way better than mine. He handed my horn back and said, “your horn sucks and I can’t play this.” I thought ‘how odd it was that they were the exact same model just 30 years apart in manufacturing. What could make those horns play so differently’.

Even though his buddy was a better player Jason began to question his abilities and became obsessed with how a different instrument could make him a better player. He had experience working in his dad’s diesel shop and knew the basics on how engines and transmissions worked. He remembered reading how harmonic vibration caused cars to break motor mounts at a certain RPM. “I wondered if the harmonics and vibration were somehow causing the instrument to lose energy,” details Jason. “I went to the physics lab and started studying just that. I was right. Every peak of the waveform is called the anti-node and has the most energy. Inside the instrument this is a high-pressure zone in the tube. Antinodes exert force on the tubing that sets it into motion. You are transferring sound wave energy into motion. As you play higher and higher you have more anti-nodes and the instrument becomes more difficult.” Anyone who has ever puffed out a few notes on a trumpet will tell you the low notes are way easier to play than the high ones. They just can’t tell you it is because the higher notes are losing more energy.

A really inefficient instrument will vibrate all over so he set out to build his own horn and reverse that condition. He bought a cheap $20 trumpet at a pawnshop and took it all apart. “When I put it back together I created four tubes where there would normally be only two,” explains Jason. “I did that so there would be more wall thickness, preserving more energy in the standing wave. I had no way of making thicker tubing at the time, I didn’t have a lathe, or even knew what a lathe was so I just added tubes inside the other ones.” He practiced “The Carnival of Venice” on the $20 trumpet over and over. It was the hardest song for him to play and once he had it down he recorded himself playing it. He played his modified version and it was drastically better. He knew it was, but without sophisticated recording equipment and a spectrum analyzer he questioned if it really was better. “I knew I was biased so I went back to the pawnshop and bought the same $20 horn again so I could play them back to back. It was so much better that my playing became that much better too.”

Jason used his trumpet business as the model for the school’s entrepreneurship program, but in 2001 he quit everything to focus on making Harrelson Trumpets. From the time he left college Jason had been everything from a music teacher to a police officer and made a living touring with different bands. “I had so many people asking me to modify their trumpets, or rebuild a mouthpiece that it consumed all my free time,” explains Jason. “So I made the leap to trumpet manufacturer and it was a huge risk for me. I was poor for a long time, but I’m really glad I did. In the beginning everything was fabricated the traditional way by hand, but Jason’s vision included technology and efficient manufacturing processes. “CNC gave me the ability to solve problems and be creative at the same time,” describes Jason. “I first bought a table top Roland MDX20 in 2005. It could only take a 1/8th end mill but it taught me a lot about CNC. I had no experience, I was self-taught out of necessity. Read a lot, watched videos, talked to other people and just figured it out. It took 80 hours for it to machine through a .5” x 2”x 8” piece of brass. I didn’t care because I knew I would have the top brace just the way I wanted it.” Harrelson Trumpets wore that Roland out and Jason kept moving up to larger and more sophisticated machines. Six years ago he purchased his first VMC, a Republic Lagun. “I felt I would put myself on the map with that machine,” jokes Jason. “What it really did was teach me I needed to learn more about machining.”

Today, Harrelson Trumpets are 90% CNC machined, getting closer each year to Jason’s vision of a fully CNC’d instrument. “The only thing that isn’t machined is the bell and the slide tubes,” elaborates Jason. “We have well over 100 parts on each horn that are all machined on our Hurco VM20 or our Intertech 42-9LSS brand lathe. All other companies, both high and low end still use old school practices and only the caps, finger buttons, and parts with treads are CNC machined.” With only a five-person team at Harrelson Trumpets, efficiency is a key part of their manufacturing process. Jason was quick to discover the value of having a pallet system on his original VMC. Admittedly his homebuilt pallet setup was not awesome and with daily use it deteriorated quicker than it should have. “I was looking for a company to sell me a pallet system that didn’t cost a fortune,” tells Jason. I searched high and low until I was introduced to Pierson Workholding out of California. I called them up and said I need a pallet that is this size and does this. Can you do that? They said yes and I ordered it. In the back of my mind I knew that the next machine I bought I wanted it to have three pallets instead of one. So once I bought the new Hurco VM20, I had them work up a three pallet system for the new machine.”

Jason was introduced to Pierson Workholding five years ago and has been a fan ever since. When others had no interest in working with a company his size, Pierson Workholding came in and designed a system around his needs and budget. He got everything he needed in a fast, easy, affordable and repeatable setup.

The Pierson Workholding three pallet system has been in for just over a year and Jason couldn’t be happier. “The size of the pallets are perfect, they are premade and inexpensive to buy,” details Jason. “For under $200 bucks I can get a pallet with the inserts all ready to go. Their quick change system is fast, easy, repeatable and accurate. I have limited down time between change overs now.” While the parts are running Jason is loading the next batch of parts. Once the machine shuts off he unloads the three pallets and loads on the new preloaded ones. Simple as that, and under five minutes he is cutting again. Harrelson Trumpets has close to 200 part numbers they run on the Hurco, but none of it is high volume. “We don’t run 1000’s of a single part like a job shop would, but Pierson Workholding has saved me a ton of valuable man hours. What really stood out to me was their desire to work with us to design an affordable work holding solution. Other companies didn’t want anything to do with us because we are just a small shop.” Harrelson Trumpets was able to run lights out over the summer for the first time in the history of the company. Jason can load enough parts into the Hurco before he leaves and he gets almost a full shift worth of work done ready to be changed out in the morning. “A lot of the reason we are catching up on our back log of orders is because of more efficient use of technology. Our Pierson Workholding pallets are part of that technology that we can’t do without.”

As you can imagine surface finish and tooling are important parts of manufacturing high end trumpets. Harrelson gets theirs through the use of Big Kaiser spindle speeders. “We have three mechanical speeders in the tool changer right now, and an 80k air spindle,” tells Jason. “The Hurco normally spins at 10,000 RPM and now we have three tools spinning 20,000 and one that spins at 80,000.” The high RPM gives them a better than normal finish, and saves them time when it comes to hand sanding and polishing each part. “We really want to partner with a tooling company. I like building beneficial relationships and I think our shop offers a unique experience that you don’t get everywhere.” People love touring Harrelson Trumpets because of the accessibility. There are no secrets, no ITAR, no aerospace, and no way anyone is going to steal their customers. It is an open book. You can see the tools they use, see how they manufacture and then hear it the final product in action. “We would be an excellent tooling partner and I hope someone reads this article and gives me a call to see how we can work together. We do complex parts, but nothing we can’t take a photo of.”

Harrelson Trumpet’s customers range from high school students to professional musicians. Orchestra players, jazz guys and ten-time Grammy winner Arturo Sandoval all use Harrelson Trumpets. Their biggest competition comes from other manufacturers who hand out endorsement deals. Jason is of the philosophy that if you like their horns, you want the value that it brings, then you buy it. “Our trumpets are high end and range from $5400 and go up to $10,000,” explains Jason. “You can pay twice that from our competitors for a horn that doesn’t offer the features, options or efficiency that ours do.”

Harrelson Trumpets have divided musicians around the world with their non-traditional methods. They have disciples who want to convert everyone over to a Harrelson Trumpet and those that try and prevent anyone from discovering them. “Every horn we make is a fully customized piece of science, and art,” brags Jason. “Customizations range from a signature inlayed in the slide to adding decorative designs and finishes. The most important customization though is the sound and fit. A jazz guy will want it to sound different than a studio musician and so forth. Do you want it to sound bright or dark, we can change all of that.” With thousands of combinations, each horn is fit guaranteed for a year. If you want a Harrelson Trumpet, be prepared for a minimum wait of six months. Lead time on their most custom Art horns is 3 years. Four years ago Jason had a massive stroke and lost his ability to walk, speak, play and machine. It took over a year for him to relearn a lifetime of skills. The Harrelson Trumpets team have spent the last three years catching up. By the beginning of 2017 they should be back on schedule. The day CNC West interviewed Jason, a man from Iowa was there picking up a horn he had ordered 3 years earlier. He traded in a ten year old Harrelson towards the purchase of his new one. In a world of instant gratification to wait three years for something really says a lot about Harrelson Trumpets and their customer base.

Harrelson Trumpets is always trying to improve and take things to another level; reach a higher note so to speak. “Right now we are really close to my original vision of 100% CNC machined horn,” explains Jason. “Every year we release new features and new technology that improves our product. Next step is to machine everything. I’m working on a way right now to machine the bell.” Showing up with a triangle shaped trumpet will certainly raise some eyebrows, especially when it out preforms the competition. Jason will be debuting this winter on Kickstarter a modular hybrid trumpet. It will be half machined out of aluminum and the other half 3D printed out of a carbon fiber or Kevlar thread. It will lower the price point enough that every trumpeter can afford one. “The high school and college band players will be able to get a Harrelson trumpet for half the price that has many of the same features as our more expensive horns,” concludes Jason. “It will be the next generation users who embrace the technology of having a hybrid 3D printed horn. “Where science meets sound” is more than just our slogan, it’s the way we do business.”