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Thread: Octave or Unison tuning on an Octave Mandolin

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    Default Octave or Unison tuning on an Octave Mandolin

    a couple of general questions....
    1) I know that folks tune G and D strings a couple of different ways, in unison or as octaves of G and D... generally, out there, is there a "preferred" tuning, and why? I know that I have preferences, but I'm curious about others.
    2) as I have not been a member of the octace tuning club, what gauge strings are found to work for the high G and D when paired with the lower string gauges ? As anytime one buys an Octave string set, you only find paired "unison" sets, one would have to find singles to make up and alternate octave approach.
    3) does anyone have any files out there or links to hear a octave vs unison tuning ?

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  2. #2
    Registered User foldedpath's Avatar
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    Default Re: Octave or Unison tuning on an Octave Mandolin

    Just personal preference here, but I use unison strings on my OM. The two main reasons are:

    1) I believe I'm getting more volume and sustain out of the instrument when the top is driven by strings of the same diameter. I used the word "believe" there because I've never tested it objectively, but I think it probably makes sense. Thinner strings are just not going to drive the soundboard the same way as strings of twice the gauge size and mass.

    2) I play almost exclusively Irish/Scottish trad melody on my OM. Very little accompaniment. I use double-stops and partial chords to liven up a single note melody, and I don't like hearing octaves when I do that. It's a little too busy-sounding for my taste, and can bury the melody line that I want in the foreground.

    Others may differ, especially if they use their OMs mainly for accompaniment.

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    Registered User sblock's Avatar
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    Default Re: Octave or Unison tuning on an Octave Mandolin

    Well, it's really kind of a wash: yes, to drive a lower frequency (i.e., a more massive) string, it requires more energy, and the vibrating string therefore stores more energy. On the other hand, to drive a lower frequency set of modes on the mandolin body, it also requires more energy. So these effects tend to cancel, and the projected sound level is not very different for low and high strings. (It's actually a bit more complicated, because we have neglected damping, which is also frequency-dependent.) But the near cancellation to produce similar volume levels is actually a good thing, because most players seek a fairly even tone across the low, middle, and high ranges of their instrument, and the best instruments are, in fact, prized for this very quality!

    On the other hand, I agree entirely with everything you wrote about not wanting to hear octaves when playing a single-note melody. Sometimes, the listener will hear the "wrong" octave of a pair as the melody note, and this makes it sound a bit strange. This also happens when finger-picking a 12-sting guitar, particularly with that octave G string.

    Octaves can sound just great for accompaniment, but they can also make things a bit too "busy" for lead. So, the choice of octaves vs. unisons really comes down to the major use of the instrument -- solo vs. ensemble, backup vs. lead, and so on.
    Last edited by sblock; Nov-05-2016 at 6:49pm.

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    Market Man Barry Wilson's Avatar
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    Default Re: Octave or Unison tuning on an Octave Mandolin

    I have octave pairs on the top 2 on my mandocello, and while it is cool in some ways, I think I am going to remove the higher pair
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    Mando accumulator allenhopkins's Avatar
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    Default Re: Octave or Unison tuning on an Octave Mandolin

    In my (limited) experience, the OM players who use their instruments for extensive single-string melody or harmony playing tend to string the lower courses in unison, while some who use them largely for chording, prefer the "full" sound of the lower courses in octaves.

    I have both; a Flatiron 3K "bouzouki" in unison tuning, and a Regal Octofone in octave tuning on the G and D strings. I like both sounds, for different musical uses.

    As to what strings to use, a quick-and-dirty expedient is to use a 2nd-course "A" string as the higher-octave "G" string in the 4th course, and ditto for an "E" string to be the higher "D" string. In each case you're tuning the string down one full step, which is a relatively minor adjustment.

    I'd give you the string gauges for my Octofone tuning but its scale is so short that you probably wouldn't be able to easily transfer to a regular OM. Some discussion, by me and others, in this currently active Octofone thread.
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    Default Re: Octave or Unison tuning on an Octave Mandolin

    Its an Option On Irish Zouks , the Long scale Octave mandolin

    Given the A & E are already a Maj 9th higher, than the G and D .

    why not just get a 3rd A & E String..
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    Registered User Mandobart's Avatar
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    Default Re: Octave or Unison tuning on an Octave Mandolin

    I really like the sound of octave pairs on the lower courses of my mandola, OM and mandocello. I string opposite of most 12 string guitars - imagine you are strumming down with a pick. On my instruments you hit the low string in the course first. This makes it sound better when finger picking or using a pick.

    As far as gages to use its dead simple - the octave string in the pair will be at twice the frequency so it should be half the diameter of the "normal" string in the pair.

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    Lord of All Badgers Lord of the Badgers's Avatar
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    Default Re: Octave or Unison tuning on an Octave Mandolin

    OK just to throw this one in, but as most will know here, Sarah Jarosz uses octave pairs on her Brock. Except the high ones are below the low ones.

    I've also experimented with my old mandolin (ie NOT an octave) in octave pairs and zouk GDAD tuning. Was a lot of fun, and I know it's been done before of course (I have seen vids of a guy in the states who does it, perhaps in GDAE)
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    Registered User G7MOF's Avatar
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    Default Re: Octave or Unison tuning on an Octave Mandolin

    Does any member have a sound recording of the octave tuning they could post?
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    Default Re: Octave or Unison tuning on an Octave Mandolin

    Quote Originally Posted by Lord of the Badgers View Post
    OK just to throw this one in, but as most will know here, Sarah Jarosz uses octave pairs on her Brock. Except the high ones are below the low ones.
    I wonder if she's carried that tendency over to the Northfield octave that she's been playing on PHC.
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    Mediocre but OK with that Paul Busman's Avatar
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    Default Re: Octave or Unison tuning on an Octave Mandolin

    Quote Originally Posted by foldedpath View Post
    Just personal preference here, but I use unison strings on my OM.
    2) I play almost exclusively Irish/Scottish trad melody on my OM. Very little accompaniment. I use double-stops and partial chords to liven up a single note melody, and I don't like hearing octaves when I do that. It's a little too busy-sounding for my taste, and can bury the melody line that I want in the foreground.
    I tried octave tuning once and agree with you. I also play mostly Irish melody lines and found the tonal change from the D to A pairs jarring. For chords it was OK but not worth it for me.
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    Mediocre but OK with that Paul Busman's Avatar
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    Default Re: Octave or Unison tuning on an Octave Mandolin

    Quote Originally Posted by Mandobart View Post
    As far as gages to use its dead simple - the octave string in the pair will be at twice the frequency so it should be half the diameter of the "normal" string in the pair.
    I don't think it's that simple. String diameter is only one factor that changes pitch. There's also string mass (diffent in solid steel unwound strings vs wound bronze) and string tension.
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    Mandolin Botherer Shelagh Moore's Avatar
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    Default Re: Octave or Unison tuning on an Octave Mandolin

    I prefer unison on my OM.

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    Default Re: Octave or Unison tuning on an Octave Mandolin

    In order to choose good gauges for the octave strings, you can use the D'addario string tension calculator:
    http://stringtensionpro.com/

    It is very convenient. You choose the string materials (e.g., phosphor-bronze or silver-plated), the scale length and the gauges, and you get all the tensions. I used it to select custom gauges for my Greek Bouzouki.
    Afterwards, you can simply order the desired D'addario gauges from some internet shop (I can write which, but don't want to advertise ).

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    but that's just me Bertram Henze's Avatar
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    Default Re: Octave or Unison tuning on an Octave Mandolin

    unison here. I play much ITM melody, with the unison preference resulting as others have pointed out above. When I want octaves ringing out, I doublestop them (G-D=0-5 is one I do often).
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    Professional Cat Herder Phil Vinyard's Avatar
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    Default Re: Octave or Unison tuning on an Octave Mandolin

    I play melodies and chords on my octave. I've put strings in octaves on the G and D before but it bugged me switching between unison and octaves depending on the tune. A few weeks ago I decided to figure out how to do octaves on all four courses.

    I tried the D'addario string calculator and must have put something in wrong because I broke every dang one I tried on the A and the E.

    Anybody have a specific string that has worked for them?
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    Notary Sojac Paul Kotapish's Avatar
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    Default Re: Octave or Unison tuning on an Octave Mandolin

    Quote Originally Posted by G7MOF View Post
    Does any member have a sound recording of the octave tuning they could post?
    These are couple of pretty old recordings I did with Kevin Burke's Open House, but you can hear the octave mandolin with split (octave) courses on the low strings. I use(d) the instrument mostly for accompaniment, but rarely did the big strum thing and I like the way the octaves sound on the arpeggios and cross picking. The second one has a bit of melody on the OM in the intro.



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    Registered User Mandobart's Avatar
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    Default Re: Octave or Unison tuning on an Octave Mandolin

    Quote Originally Posted by Phil Vinyard View Post
    I tried the D'addario string calculator and must have put something in wrong because I broke every dang one I tried on the A and the E.

    Anybody have a specific string that has worked for them?
    I've never tried to octave the E. On my 21" OM I use a .024 for the 220 Hz string and a .012 for the 440 Hz A. Are you putting the correct frequencies in the calculator for the octave A (440) and octave E (659.26 Hz)? My "twice the frequency, half the diameter" thumbrule has never failed me in 5 instruments over 8 years. But it would mean I'd need a .0065 for my octave E. If the calculator results tell you to use an octave string bigger than half the "normal" string then you're probably doing something wrong.

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    Registered User Mandobart's Avatar
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    Default Re: Octave or Unison tuning on an Octave Mandolin

    Quote Originally Posted by Paul Busman View Post
    I don't think it's that simple. String diameter is only one factor that changes pitch. There's also string mass (diffent in solid steel unwound strings vs wound bronze) and string tension.
    You are correct, since the diameter of a wound string includes the winding and any air gap resulting from winding around a hex core, and only the core carries the string tension. And since the cross sectional area is proportional to the radius squared, halving the diameter does not halve the area. But it has proven to be a useful thumbrule for me.

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    Registered User Carl Robin's Avatar
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    Default Re: Octave or Unison tuning on an Octave Mandolin

    Octaves or not, it's a matter of taste. I love the way they give a sparkle to notes played on the G and D strings. The strings I use come as a set. Octaves on the A and E strings would be too much, in my opinion. There is a subtle, and arbitrary transition though, between the lower 2 and the higher 2 strings, and that is what, I think, bugs some people.

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    Registered User foldedpath's Avatar
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    Default Re: Octave or Unison tuning on an Octave Mandolin

    Quote Originally Posted by Carl Robin View Post
    There is a subtle, and arbitrary transition though, between the lower 2 and the higher 2 strings, and that is what, I think, bugs some people.
    Well, it's not so subtle when you're playing a single-note melody line.

    I don't want to be playing notes that aren't actually in the tune, and that's what happens when a melody line moves across that threshold and you suddenly hear an octave jump. I like doing occasional variations on the written notes in a tune, but I don't want the strings doing the variations for me.

    That said, I agree it's just personal taste and application. There's nothing wrong with playing melody on an octave-strung instrument whether it's OM, Zouk, or 12-string guitar if it sounds good to your ears. If I played more accompaniment on the OM I might use octaves too.

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    Registered User sblock's Avatar
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    Default Re: Octave or Unison tuning on an Octave Mandolin

    Quote Originally Posted by Mandobart View Post
    I really like the sound of octave pairs on the lower courses of my mandola, OM and mandocello. I string opposite of most 12 string guitars - imagine you are strumming down with a pick. On my instruments you hit the low string in the course first. This makes it sound better when finger picking or using a pick.

    As far as gages to use its dead simple - the octave string in the pair will be at twice the frequency so it should be half the diameter of the "normal" string in the pair.

    Yes. Folks might be interested in the reason for choosing a string that's half the diameter to tune up by an octave, from a basic physics standpoint. The frequency of a string held at a given, fixed tension, T, is (1) inversely proportional to its length, L, and (2) inversely proportional to the SQUARE ROOT of its mass-per-unit-length of the string, mu.

    Therefore, if it were a solid string, you could achieve double the frequency (an octave) by either (1) halving the length (which is what happens when you fret it at the 12th fret, as we all know) OR (2) by going to a string with one quarter of the mu (mass per unit length) value.

    When you halve the diameter of a solid string, you reduce its cross-sectional area (which is a circle) by a factor of four, since A = pi*r^2 and all that! And that reduces mu by the desired factor of 4.

    But, of course, nothing is ever quite that simple in the real world. For a round-wound string (as opposed to a flat-wound string, or a solid-core string), the winding around the core is not perfectly solid and filled up with metal: there are small air gaps, because the winding is made from round wire, and this doesn't quite fill up all the surrounding space. Halving the diameter of a given wound diameter means going to still finer-diameter windings, and these do a slightly better job of filling in the air space than larger windings do. So, the value of mu may go up by slightly more than the desired factor of four when you halve the string diameter. This is not a really big effect, but it's worth considering. On top of that, the density of the winding (often made of bronze) is different from the core (steel), and so the mu value depends on the ratio of the winding thickness to the core size, which becomes different when you halve the diameter. It's therefore not as simple as just halving the string size, but that's definitely the first pass at the right answer.

    In the end, it pays to have some "ground truth," to augment all this theory. D'Addario provides an excellent string chart online that lists the mu values for all sorts of strings that they produce, including round-wound, flat-wound, etc. This is a great place to start when selecting a customized string set. Download it by clicking here.
    Last edited by sblock; Nov-08-2016 at 2:26pm.

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    Registered User Carl Robin's Avatar
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    Default Re: Octave or Unison tuning on an Octave Mandolin

    Quote Originally Posted by foldedpath View Post
    Well, it's not so subtle when you're playing a single-note melody line.

    I don't want to be playing notes that aren't actually in the tune, and that's what happens when a melody line moves across that threshold and you suddenly hear an octave jump. I like doing occasional variations on the written notes in a tune, but I don't want the strings doing the variations for me.
    Subtle for the listener, not as subtle to the musician. In my opinion it's something to enjoy and take advantage of. Lower notes don't seem to carry like the higher notes do, so the octaves help. Single note melody is what I mainly play. To anyone thinking of trying it, changing strings is no big deal, try it, you might like it.

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    but that's just me Bertram Henze's Avatar
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    Default Re: Octave or Unison tuning on an Octave Mandolin

    Quote Originally Posted by Carl Robin View Post
    Lower notes don't seem to carry like the higher notes do
    Depends on the build of the OM. My lower notes carry better than the higher ones.
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    Registered User foldedpath's Avatar
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    Default Re: Octave or Unison tuning on an Octave Mandolin

    Quote Originally Posted by Carl Robin View Post
    Subtle for the listener, not as subtle to the musician. In my opinion it's something to enjoy and take advantage of.
    Well, it might depend on the genre, or at least one's approach to genre. Personally, I choose to honor the melody line "as written" in the Irish/Scottish trad tunes I play, without throwing in random octave jumps determined by the picking pattern.

    And the listener will definitely hear it, especially a listener who might be another musician familiar with the genre.

    Lower notes don't seem to carry like the higher notes do, so the octaves help.
    I'm with Bertram on this. My Weber OM's G and D string pairs carry at least as well as the upper strings.

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