Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Rise and Fall of Steven Fitzhugh Regensburg, Horn Maker to the ADA [AI and trumpets]

As you know, Steve Regensburg was a drop-out from Harvard business school when he got the idea of combining bits and pieces of used plumbing with military surplus ordinance to make odd-looking trumpets that he then sold at a premium price. What made it all possible was a marketing gimmick that preyed on the insecurity and residual guilt that afflicts so many of us, especially those of us who don’t practice. He simply presented the ability to play his horns as a moral test. If you straighten-up and fly right, you’ll sound great on a Regensburg horn. If you don’t, then the Regensburg horn and mouthpiece won’t do anything for you. It turns out that just enough folks were willing to pay big bucks to prove themselves worthy that before you know it Steve was piloting his own private plane and developing a very nice collection of vintage Strads.

The trouble is, Steve started believing all this stuff himself. So he gave up gambling and drinking, canceled his annual pilgrimage to the fleshpots of Thailand – not to mention swearing off primo Thai-stick forever – and became a yoga devotee himself. He signed up for the program with Swami Ai’WannaDoYa Daddy O and rose through the ranks to become a teacher himself. But we’re getting ahead of the story.

The change in Steve’s moral outlook started one day when he was looking through one of his mouthpiece brochures and he was struck by the following sentence: “The sophisticated player will note that the improvements our mouthpieces afford depend on a relaxed physical approach to tone production. It is only though this relaxed approach that the Regensburg mouthpiece becomes a key to unlocking the trumpet player’s natural inner Wuh’P’Ahss.” When he first wrote that copy Steve had wondered whether players would actually buy into the hype, after all, if you change your way of playing, why attribute your success to the mouthpiece? Why not take credit yourself? Yet, wonder of wonders, players were more than willing to give credit to their mortgage-payment Regensburg mouthpieces.

Steve had a jivometric mind jolt. What, he thought to himself, if the mouthpiece could sense how the player was holding his body and then respond appropriately? Thus was born the first truly high-tech interactive mouthpiece.

It was relatively easy to figure out to make the mouthpiece responsive. The basic idea is to embed several hundred small heating units and cooling units at critical Kinetic Energy Nodes (KENs) arranged in a special Nodal Array Distribution (aka NADs) inside a mouthpiece made of a special high-tech ceramic. The AI technology of the Komputer Instrumentation Sonic Simulator (KISS) would activate the appropriate KENs causing the ceramic to expand or contract. The global pattern of expansion and contraction would alter the mouthpiece configuration in any way necessary – increasing or decreasing cup depth and diameter, sloping or cupping the throat, expanding or contracting the bore, tightening or opening the backbone, etc.

This alone was a revolution in mouthpiece technology, for it meant that a single mouthpiece could take on any configuration the player desired. However, the term “mouthpiece” no longer seemed adequate to this new high-tech device. Steve coined the term OFF (Oral Force Focalizer) for the mouthpiece itself and coupled it with the KISS to form a complete product package.

The KissOffs came in three different configurations. Each KISS unit had the parameters of 3,738,970 different standard mouthpiece models, with provisions for more. The major difference between the KISS’s was in the user interface. The entry-level unit was operated by a keypad on the player’s belt while the mid-level unit could also be activated by foot-actuated GUI. The top-of-the line unit had an eye-motion camera that the player could mount on his music stand; the player would then s pell out the name of the desired configuration with eye motions and the camera would pick them up and signal the OFF.

Regensburg Sonic Transducers. Ltd. sold 666 KISS-OFFs at the 2001 convention of the American Dental Association (ADA) alone. With prices starting at $1369 for the basic unit, this was quite a haul. With dentists sold – for dentists were the core of Regensburg’s market – Regensburg knew he had a hit.

But, clever though it was, the KISS-OFF wasn’t really what Regensburg was after. He wanted to be able to sense the player’s body tensions and motions while playing and adjust the mouthpiece accordingly. Then it happened, another jivometric mind jolt. Old Stevie’s inner Wuh’P’Ahss was on overdrive!

He was cruising the web in a deep meditative trance – a combination of activities facilitated by his mastery of the very advanced Loon posture – when he came across a web site explaining the flight suit Boeing had developed for the F-22 fighter. He realized that, with modifications, this suit is what he needed.

So he inked a co-development and marketi ng deal with Boeing to develop and sell the Rama-Ding-A-Ling Super Deluxe trumpet with the integral Pragma Whiz-Bang Body Suit, aka the Whiz-Ling. Of course, each Whiz-Bang suit must be custom fitted to the buyer and to his Ding-A-Ling trumpet, which is also a custom item.

The Whiz-Bang is laced with pick-ups that sense body movement and pressure and feed this information to the KISS unit for mouthpiece adjustment. Beyond this, of course, the suit is pressurized by an adjustable pneumatic system so that the suit itself can respond to the player’s efforts, tightening up for support in the upper register and loosening for a relaxed feel in the middle and lower register.

One innovation made possible by this new Whiz-Bang technology was inspired by a remark Dizzy Gillespie once made about playing high: “Imagine holding a quarter between your buttocks, and don’t make change.” Steve thought about this and came up with the Gluteus High-Tone Maximizer unit. A special Butt Flange goes between the player’s buttocks. As the player ascends into the upper register the Flange senses the pressure and signals the KISS to tighten the backbore on the mouthpiece while at the same time drawing in the Body Suit tightly around the buttocks.

As an option, the player can have air pulsed into the Flange creating a pressure boost that increases internal resistance and adds as much as a third to the player’s range. This option was recommended only for the most advanced players, those whose powers of concentration allowed them to ignore the gluteal action and remain focused on their horn. [The Flange is also available with a special Invigorator attachment, aka “The Goose,” for those players seeking a “deep massage” to ease the tensions of high register work.]

As you can imagine, all the hep cats at the 2003 ADA convention in Peoria were ecstatic. Regensburg/Boeing signed up 357 customers for basic Whiz-Bang Ding-A-Ling outfits, of which only 138 were on military contracts. At a quarter-million a pop, that’s not bad for an initial production run. That’s $90 million dollars, chicken feed to Boeing, but a gold rush for Regensburg. Not only that, but they sold 128 Gluteus Maximizers at $75,000 each. Regensburg was on a roll. That’s when he bought his second plane and a private island in the Caribbean.

And then it hit, yet another jivometric mind jolt – third time’s a charm! Steve was hanging out on Samadhi Central, his island, sipping a Piña Colada, when a bird got him right in the bald spot. Zap! All in a flash he realized that all aspects of the Whiz-Ling technology are computer controlled. That means that the technology could be supplied with the parameters characteristic of any trumpet player, living or dead. The player who wanted to sound like Doc Severinson could program his Whiz-Ling technology with Doc’s parameters and practically become Doc. It was a mind-boggling idea.

Regensburg’s chief clincian and endorser, Blantone Marydimple, readily agreed to have his parameters taken, for a fee of course. But, no matter how many records Blantone has sold, no matter how many people feel that he’s the greatest jazz trumpeter since Chuck Mangione, the fact is, if they’re going to lay out $10,000 dollars for a set of parameters for their quarter-million dollar WhizLings, they want the real deal. They want Louis, or Dizzy, or Roy, or Bubber, or Bix, or Ziggy, or Mager or Clarke on the classical side. They clamored for originals, not a 21st century knock-off.

For a while Regensburg was stumped. But, as always happens to creative folk in these circumstances, necessity once again became the mother of invention. Steve contacted Shirley MacLaine, who agreed to channel the great players of the past so that Steve’s technicians could cop their parameters. For a fee, of course.

Now things were rolling along. Louis and Dizzy were hits. Regensburg/Boeing did good business with Harry James too, not to mention Rafael Mendez. Steve was happy. The money was rolling in and his clients just loved all the high tech trumpet gear they spent so much money on.

However, the technology did have some kinks. One day Steve was in the shop testing a prototype of the Whiz-Bang Din-a-Ling III while MacLaine was off in the nether regions channeling great trumpeters of yore. Well, it seems that somehow she managed to hook on to Jean Baptiste Arban and King Toot – swingmaster to the Pharaohs – at the same time. Somehow this twin-banger got channeled into Steve’s equipment and he found himself playing what sounded like Theme and Variations on “Woolly Bully”. This was amusing for about ten or fifteen minutes, but when the Invigorator kicked in with a little polyrhythmic counterpoint Steve let out a yell and started ripping the suit off. When he finally managed to tear himself free of his WhizLing III he ran out of the shop screaming, “I can’t take it any more. Too much one-ness is crazy.”

And that was the last anyone ever saw or heard of Steve Regensburg, horn-maker to the ADA. The Regensburg/Boeing joint venture fell apart without Steve to hold things together. His technicians were able to keep the suits and horns in repair for three or four years but then they began to deteriorate too far. Some folks simply mothballed their equipment while others formed a consortium to rent it out to scifi filmmakers, most notably, the producers of “Mad Max Meets the Phantom Menace.” Thus ends the story of one of the most remarkable entrepreneurs of this new century.

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Here's a post on a related item of trumpet madness, a portable, self-contained practice room and performance space called the Rama Taj Room.

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