Like the cimbasso, the Wagner tuba is a mystery to a lot of orchestrators. Wagner tubas are also often referred to as tuben. This is just the plural of tuba in German.
First of all, some quick history; but as that is not my strong point, I will let someone else explain it. Here is studio legend Jim Thatcher talking about the instrument.
Wagner Tuba vs the Horn
The main physical difference, and the reason for the sonic difference between the two, is the bell. It points up instead of back. In both the concert hall and the recording studio, this means the sound goes up and around the room like that from a euphonium or tuba. The Wagner tuba is played with a horn mouthpiece and the fingering is the same. The bore is conical and the instrument has rotary valves, the same as the horn. Traditionally there are F bass and Bb tenor versions. A score often called for a pair of each. These days you can get a double (same setup as the modern horn) or a compensating instrument, where instead of two sets of valves, the F ‘side’ is created by a fourth, compensating valve that adds some extra tubing, a bit like a trigger on a trombone, but with some nifty extra plumbing to improve intonation.
Due to the position of the bell, the tuba is not played with a hand in it. This can be both good and bad. On the positive side, the bell is now open, leading to a more open sound. On the negative, horn players are used to tuning with their hands and they cannot do this on the tuba. Add to this the fact that they do not play tuben every day, and often rent or borrow the instruments when they do, and you will find that you can have some intonation problems. You might need one or two more takes than usual to get it together.
Due to all of these factors, the sound of the tuben can be described as mellow when soft, full and round when medium loud, and a bit raucous when very loud.
The range is a little less than that of the horn, and you will not hear quite the same brilliance or focus up in the high range. The medium low range, however, is more round than on the horn. The extreme ranges are not as useful as the those of the horn. In modern scores it is written in F, just like the horn is.
When I was working on the Book of Life score I mentioned to the engineer that I was going to use them, and he grew a little worried and said he had had some bad experiences. I did not mark them in the score as I was not sure if I would go through with it, but I had the contractor book them. Eventually the cue comes up that I wanted them on, and I only see two of the six players have them. I asked where the rest were, which then led to a hunt for the instruments they had rented. It was probably only a few minutes, but with the 90-piece orchestra, director, producer, and studio executives all waiting for me to try something that I might regret, it felt like an eternity.
So they finally find the tuben and we give the cue a go. I thought I was in trouble; the pitch was not good, and that was just for the the ones they found! (OK, exaggerating a bit, but you know what I mean.) It worked out, though. The scene is a bull fight in a huge arena, and I wanted a big, broad sound. They were perfect.
This whole cue uses them, they especially shine in the opening.
These are not the greatest recordings, my mic was set up for interviewing not recording the tuba, but these will give you some idea of the sound.
So the next time you need some mellow chords or a melody that blasts over the top of the orchestra, make some horn players very happy (they get extra money to double) and try it out.
Here is a great resource – http://www.wagner-tuba.com/
Universal Logo Music
The first phrase is 8 horns, the 2nd phrase is played by 8 tuben.
This finally answers my question of why tuben appear sporadically and just for a few measures at a time in Silvestri’s Back to the Future score. Amazing, thank you!
Never realised before now about their use in the Universal Logo Music. It’s a brilliant for a side by side comparison