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Thread: Troubadour OM. Preliminary review.

  1. #1
    Talentless Hack Rick Cadger's Avatar
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    Default Troubadour OM. Preliminary review.

    Yesterday I took delivery of a Troubadour octave mandolin from David Kilpatrick in Scotland. I thought I'd offer a preliminary review based on my first few hours with it. If any subsequent experience adds to, or modifies, the opinions posted here I will add them as and when.

    David sources his mandolas, octaves and bouzoukis from Hora in Romania. The same factory makes similar instruments for the Ozark brand and for the Blue Moon brand distributed by Hobgoblin - David's Troubadour instruments are made to his spec with a different choice of woods from the other versions.

    The instrument I chose was the 'Tamburlin'. David calls this an "octave mandola" after the European preference. I know our North American friends favour the more logical (though historically debatable) "octave mandolin". With a scale length of 23 inches one could settle the argument by calling it a short-scale bouzouki.

    I had heard that these are of light construction, and they surely are. Before ordering I checked with David to make sure that he was confident that the Tamburlin would cope with D'Addario J80 octave mando strings. He said they'd be fine.

    I wasn't expecting anything spectacular for £139 including shipping (within UK. Other shipping rates for elsewhere).

    When I opened the box, the first thing that struck me was the inadequacy of the "gig bag". It is no more than a flimsy cover. Most owners will want to get a decent bag or case ASAP. The second thing that struck me was, as mentioned, the light weight of the instrument.

    Overall construction seems neat and well finished. The finish itself seems competently done. The blonde natural look is very clean and, to me, quite attractive.

    The factory strings are dreadful. The first thing I did was to replace them with D'Addarios. That done, the mando is transformed. It sounds pretty good. Adequate volume, pleasant tone and the 23 inch scale is about right for J80s. This match between strings and scale is much better than the floppiness I experienced when I tried an Ozark branded version of the Trinity College type OM.

    I would suggest that the Tamburlin is more suited to confident tweakers as an upgrade project than to someone expecting a wonderful instrument out of the box. The fretting is just adequate, with some rough ends and just a tiny bit of waviness when one sights lengthwise along the neck. The plastic nut (for string spacing only, as action is addressed by a zero fret) is awful. Mine actually came off as I was removing the factory strings. The bridge is not really up to much and the tail piece is not perfectly aligned to achieve centring of the strings on the fretboard.

    The tuners are pretty poor. They do not work smoothly, and the buttons on a couple of them are threatening to come loose. I do not have any expience of slot-headstock tuners except on low-tension Spanish-style guitars, so I don't know if this roughness of operation is usual.

    None of these limitations is fatal. A keen tweaker will be used to making new nuts, shifting tailpieces and making or adjusting new bridges. I intend to do all of these things. Once done, I suspect that the light Troubadour OM will be a pretty nice instrument. The frets would still benefit from a bit of a dress and polish, but that can be done when I have the time (and the courage, as fret tweaks are not an area of wide experience for me).

    Overall, I think the price is fair for a nice looking and sounding instrument that seems to be of sound basic construction. I do think that the slightly non-central strings, loose nut, cheap bridge and low-quality tuners may make life difficult for anyone who is not used to addressing these areas on a DIY basis.

    I'll keep you updated.
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    Registered User John Flynn's Avatar
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    Default Re: Troubadour OM. Preliminary review.

    I will wade in here also. I bought a used Troubadour OM, 23 inch scale also, about a month ago off of eBay. I have a great Mendel OM, but it has gotten me so into OM playing that I wanted a "beater." This one had been set up and fitted with a "Red" maple bridge by a violin shop local to the previous owner.

    My impressions were, on the positive side, that the instrument really looks good, it's light as a feather and playability was very acceptable, even though the fat neck is like half a baseball bat. On the negative side, as was said, the factory strings and tuners were awful. When I put John Pearse OM strings on it, the tone was improved, but it is still a bit tinny and buzzy, if played with any force at all. It sounds great played lightly, though.

    I got a set of German-made Rubner 710-S open headstock tuners for it. Strangely, they are only available through Australian Luthiery Supply. They have the same measurements on paper, but they needed to be "fudged" a little to fit the Troubadour. The tuners were a huge improvement! These are the some of the smoothest tuners I have ever used and I think I've tried them all, including Waverlys. They have a unique, "spring suspension" (my term) on them that makes precise line-up of the tuner holes less critical. I would definitely buy Rubners again for any mandolin. I exchanged emails with US rep for Rubner and he said he is trying to get some kind of distribution set up for Rubner tuners in the US. Stay tuned! (pun intended)

    Also on my Troubadour, the side position markers were actually gold tacks that had been hammered into the side of the fretboard. They looked kind of cool, but they had sharp edges to them. When I played up and down the neck, they would scrape my thumb! I took a pliers and pulled them out. Now I have open holes as position markers, which doesn't look great, but works fine. At some point, I may install "real" position markers. My luthier showed me a neat, easy way to do that.

    The gig bag is not much to speak of, but it seems well made and adequate for so inexpensive an instrument. My next improvement is going to be some of Ted's new Labella flatwound OM strings, which he tells me may be available sometime after the first of the year.

    All in all, if I had it to do over, I would have spent the extra money and gotten a Trinity as a beater OM, just to keep the PITA factor down. On the positive side, the Troubador is worthy beater for me, which after all the improvements, will still come in at a couple hundred dollars less than a new Trinity.
    Last edited by John Flynn; Nov-18-2008 at 11:09am.

  3. #3
    Registered User Martin Jonas's Avatar
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    Default Re: Troubadour OM. Preliminary review.

    Both of these experiences echo my own fairly closely. I've had a long-scale Troubadour zouk for about three years, and posted about it on the Cafe at the time. It's a well-made if simple instrument, but the stock setup and hardware is terrible. With decent strings and a replacement bone/ebony bridge, the tone is vastly improved, and to get decent playability I needed to lower the zero fret by about a mile. After these changes, it sounds very nice indeed although like John says it's much better played lightly than driven hard. That's fine by me -- I have a light touch anyway and I have set the action so low that hard strumming gets it to buzz fairly promptly.

    Of course, at this price point the Troubadour is pitched at the beginner or casual player, and those groups are not likely to have the knowledge and skills to do the required setup changes. So, they end up suffering with a terrible instrument, which is a shame because there's a decent instrument in there waiting to get out.

    Having said all that, I've hardly played it in the past couple of years -- the 26" scale is simply too long for my preferred playing styles. When I bought it, they didn't have the short-scale option, or else I would definitely have gone for that one instead. One of these days I may get a short-scale OM, but at the moment my octave playing needs are covered by my tenor guitar.

    Martin

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    Talentless Hack Rick Cadger's Avatar
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    Default Re: Troubadour OM. Preliminary review.

    A few further thoughts.

    You are right, gentlemen. These seem to prefer a light touch. I'd say that rhythm chord playing isn't this instrument's strong point. It sounds ok, but clarity and definition are not outstanding. On the other hand, I am getting to quite like it for melody work.

    The scale length is at the limit for my smallish hands, and I am having to improvise a few cheats to cope with some of the stretches to high B, but I've been knocking out some jigs, reels, polkas and hornpipes and it's sounding pretty good. Clear, with acceptable volume and a nice delicate edge.

    I am very conscious that my reviews read negatively, and I'd like to balance that by saying that I think the good outweighs the disappointing - especially at this price. It is just a shame that a neat and clean instrument, with some potential, is let down so by poor hardware and setup.

    I wonder if David might be competing too closely with Ozark and Hobgoblin at that price point with too little difference in quality. Nicer wood is all well and good, but it does little in itself for playability. Perhaps he could look into upgrading the hardware and setup and bag/case, and boosting the price to allow it. I believe there is a market for a direct competitor to the Trinity College style instruments. This Hora instrument is currently at the next level down, as it were, in both price and hardware/setup quality.

    BTW, I will email David to tell him about this thread so he can respond. It is intended as constructive criticism, not bashing. As I say, I do like the instrument.

    Things that I personally think may be worth exploring are:
    * a slight radius to the flat fretboard. Flat boards are fine on mandolins, but I think less comfy on guitar scale instruments.
    * a decent, smoother ebony fretboard would be good too.
    * a slightly more angled neck to allow a little more bridge height. I think it'd improve volume, and reduce rattle by increasing tension over the bridge. Would probably require rethinking the bracing though. As the top is completely flat without even the induced arch shown by the back, too much tension may collapse it. Enough bridge height to alow the option of an adjustable bridge would be great.
    * maybe a solid headstock instead of the slot one. Finding swap-out tuners for slot headstocks is a pain in the rear. If the factory tuners were better the slot headstock wouldn't be an issue.
    * a little less bulk to that clubby neck. Personally I don't find it too uncomfortable, and it is surely a good solid neck, but many will find it simply too thick.

    With improvements, this could be the basis for a very nice OM - Even if it meant doubling the price, my uninformed guess is that there would be as good a market as there now is for the current version.

    For the moment, I am enjoying this OM for trad tunes, and I am looking around for hardware upgrades.

    Despite the shortcomings, I consider that I got a perfectly reasonable instrument for the price, and that it has potential to become better with some tweaking.

    And don't forget that price. These things are very inexpensive. Remember that as context for my criticisms.

    Would I buy again? Well, yes, I think I would. And, knowing what issues to expect, I may yet check out the mandola version.
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    Registered User Martin Jonas's Avatar
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    Default Re: Troubadour OM. Preliminary review.

    While I agree that those changes would be nice, I don't think they are within David's power to achieve. The customisations he has specified with Hora are really quite minor -- those aren't actually different woods, David just asked them to leave off the stains to the back, neck and fretboard and those horrible cheesy inlaid pickguards. Looks much better all-blonde and without pickguard. All of the Hora zouks/mandolas are solid spruce/solid maple, regardless who distributes them and under what name. David also adds some quality control, sending back sub-standard ones. Not sure if Stentor or Hobgoblin do something similar.

    What might be within David's power is maybe to ask Hora for a better bridge, or to get a third-party bridge made that he swaps over. With these being perfectly flat tops, fitting the bridge is much easier than with an archtop, so maybe it wouldn't add too much cost. As far as strings are concerned, David himself distributes Newtone sets specifically assembled for the Troubadour scale lengths, and swapping the Hora stock strings for those is a good idea.

    Anyway, I'm not complaining about mine either, especially as I got it for 65 Pounds second-hand on Ebay. The original owner hadn't come to grips with it, which didn't surprise me, as the bridge was 2cm out of position when I got it.

    Martin

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    Registered User steve V. johnson's Avatar
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    Default Re: Troubadour OM. Preliminary review.

    Some years back, after some online familiarity with David K. and the Troubadour line, I got a Troub' mandola for Culchies fiddler T.J. Hull. I was concerned that the combination of light construction and absence of a truss rod allowed the neck to move or warp, and durned if it didn't.

    But TJ's a fiddler, so he didn't care about the action, which would probably drive a lot of pickers just barking mad. He loves the thing and won't give it up long enough to have remedial work done. (I offered!)

    The mandola bellows and barks in Irish sessions, and TJ whups on it and plays deep, dark melodies in that mandola timbre that goes great with Uilleann pipes.

    So, years later, there's real musical life in these things, warts and all.

    I should say that of the six or eight Troubadour instruments I've seen, this one is the only one that developed any anomalies, and that a couple of them, with the standard loving care (new bridge, nut, sometimes tailpiece, sometimes frets) have improved mightily and are still making
    lively music in good hands.

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    Registered User John Flynn's Avatar
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    Default Re: Troubadour OM. Preliminary review.

    Steve, you probably already know this, but for the benefit of those who might read this thread down the road, the longer Troubadors, the OM and Zouk, do have adjustable truss rods. FWIW, mine has almost no tension on the adjusting nut and the neck still has just about the right amount of relief with J80s on it.

  8. #8
    Talentless Hack Rick Cadger's Avatar
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    Default Re: Troubadour OM. Preliminary review.

    Yes the OM definitely has a truss rod. It's accessed through the soundhole. Oddly, it seems to need a larger wrench than my other instruments. None of the ones out of my mando case would fit... had to go to the tool box.

    The relief on the neck of my OM was fine out of the box. I just wanted to see if the truss rod actually works for adjustment. On some cheap instruments I've had It's already been slackened right off to the point of buzzing or, alternatively, tightened to the max without the neck exploding, just to achieve a playable relief. The Troubadour rod is fine and small adjustments change the relief just as they should. I've left it as it was out of the box.

    Martin, I agree that the changes I mentioned are more than Hora currently accommodate. I suppose I'm just suggesting sounding them out about adding to the line or modifying the existing instrument. When you see a promising basic instrument it's tempting to wonder why they don't just tweak it to make it very good.

    This instrument is a real odd case. It feels great: light but fairly solid. A good sized body, a good, if slightly thick, neck. The scale length is great: long enough to be playable with strings less than an inch thick, but short enough for someone who couldn't handle a full sized 'zouk. And that's a big selling point - there aren't many budget instruments around at that scale as far as I have seen (the TC is around 20", which causes setup and string gauge probs for a lot of people) - but it is let down by the hardware and setup.

    As has been observed, this level of mando is probably going to be bought largely by the uninitiated, who may well not be equal to the task of swapping out parts. moving tailpiece alignment etc. Those people will not see the potential. They will see an instrument that has some issues, and they may not persevere.

    When I said about the choice of woods I chose my words poorly. I meant that David requires woods free of so many blemishes for his uncoloured versions, as he says on his site:

    "We want perfect wood! That’s why we asked for the unstained, natural instruments right from the start. We were rewarded with everything from good plain matched sets to the occasional lovely examples of quilted maple or bearclaw spruce. Check our ‘versions’ against Ozark, Montana or Blue Moon and you will find a completely different grade of instrument."

    To be honest, I have checked out the Blue Moon version (well, of the full scale 'zouk, actually) in the Hobgoblin shop in Newport Pagnell which is quite local to me. The biggest differences I saw were the tacky inlays on the Blue Moon and the fact that the bass courses on that were octave strung (yuk). The woods on that one seemed ok so far as the stain allowed me to see, although I do think the wood on the Troubadour is good. On the top and body of mine I do agree that the wood is very nice indeed - flawless. Theres a knot in the middle of the back of the neck, but so what? Not a problem.

    I really like the idea of someone taking the trouble to get a few specs adhered to in the instruments they order from Hora. And I like the OM. I just wish it could have a few improvements so I'd like it even better. If I had paid £239 instead of £139 and received a version with better bridge, better nut and better tuners and a bit more polish to the frets I'd have been quite happy.

    The existing tail piece is fine. On mine it just needs moving 3 or 4 mm over - which I'll do next time I restring.

    I don't think the high zero fret is a problem. I'd rather have that too high than too low. Easier to file down than to add height!

    I think there's a good chance I may check out the mandola version after Xmas. And if there was a mandolin version from Troubadour I'd be even more likely to get one! The Ozark and Blue moon version of the mandolin look awful with that dreadful inlay...
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  9. #9
    Talentless Hack Rick Cadger's Avatar
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    Default Re: Troubadour OM. Preliminary review.

    Steve's mention of frets has me wondering... When the time comes for a refret I'd live to see what slightly thicker frets, maybe stainless steel, could do for this OM.

    John, did you look at any other tuner options when you were planning your upgrade?
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    Registered User Martin Jonas's Avatar
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    Default Re: Troubadour OM. Preliminary review.

    Dave used to have the mandolin, too, but I think he stopped due to lack of demand. The mando is different in construction, it's a German-style bulgeback with a five-strip domed back (what they cutely if inaccurately call a "Portuguese-style" in Germany) rather than a flatback.

    Martin

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    Registered User steve V. johnson's Avatar
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    Default Re: Troubadour OM. Preliminary review.

    Sa'nt Louie Johnny reminded me, "Steve, you probably already know this, but for the benefit of those who might read this thread down the road, the longer Troubadors, the OM and Zouk, do have adjustable truss rods. "

    Yeah, I did, but I left it out and it's very good that you mentioned it in this context.

    Thanks!

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    Registered User Kyle Baker's Avatar
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    Default Re: Troubadour OM. Preliminary review.

    I have a Hora short scale bouzouki that I've been trying to improve. When I first got it, I noticed there was too much relief in the neck, so I tweaked the truss rod and it improved slightly. After that, I wanted to lower the action, so I lowered the factory cheasy little bridge and that helped. In an effort to make it even better, I installed a ebony bridge, but the thing that bothers me about these Romanian instruments is that the bridge has to be so low to get good action, there is hardly enough break angle on the bridge to keep the bridge from moving if it gets bumped.
    Another thing, is I'm just not happy with the intonation on this thing and I'll probably have to try and compensate my bridge to remedy that.
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