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Thread: Difference in sound in flat top and arch top?

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    Default Difference in sound in flat top and arch top?

    Is there a difference in sound in a flat top and an arch top mandolin? What about these in oval and F hole?

    Thanks
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    My Florida is scooped pheffernan's Avatar
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    Default Re: Difference in sound in flat top and arch top?

    There are differences between archtop and flattop mandolins just as there are between archtop and flattop guitars. And there are even differences between different types of flattop mandolins. I tend to prefer the tone of pancakes like Flatirons and Redlines to the bulb shapes of Mid-Missouri and Gypsy models. As for tone holes, flattops are almost entirely produced as ovals. I’ve seen a couple with f-holes but never played one as they are few and far between.
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  3. #3

    Default Re: Difference in sound in flat top and arch top?

    What is the difference in sound? Is there a tonal quality difference? Is there a volume difference? Being new to mandolins, I am curious as to the different styles and qualities of those styles.
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    Registered User Cobalt's Avatar
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    Default Re: Difference in sound in flat top and arch top?

    I've played round/oval hole flat-tops for decades. Bit of a newcomer to the arch-top with f-holes.

    What I'm hearing as I play is that the arch-top takes the energy supplied when the string is plucked, and releases most of it almost immediately, in a loud burst of sound. The flat-tops I've played use the same energy and release it more gradually, with a longer sustain, but less of an initial peak.

    In addition, each instrument, or type of instrument, will tend to have a natural resonant frequency, or more than one. Notes played at or close to those frequencies may emerge louder than across the rest of the range. For example my Flatiron 1N variant has strong output of low notes played on the G-string, and a pronounced peak around the A note played at the 5th Fret of the E-string. I tend to use each of these to advantage, enjoying playing those low notes, and ending with a loud zing on the E-string, particularly for tunes in the key of A.

    The Eastman archtop responds very differently, notes on the G string are recessed and quiet by comparison, the D-string is strongest, then there are some more recessed notes and also peaks going up the rest of the range, but not as pronounced as the peak on the Flatiron.

    In my opinion, it's a lot like loudspeaker design, it's easy enough to produce higher frequencies, but getting an extended and smooth response takes some effort, particularly the bass which often has some sort of hump where it is loudest, then trails off rapidly.

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    My Florida is scooped pheffernan's Avatar
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    Default Re: Difference in sound in flat top and arch top?

    Quote Originally Posted by DocT View Post
    What is the difference in sound? Is there a tonal quality difference? Is there a volume difference? Being new to mandolins, I am curious as to the different styles and qualities of those styles.
    Generalizations are a bit dangerous, and language is rather ineffective in describing tone. However, archtops (particularly with f-holes) typicallly offer a more focused sound which projects as volume and decays quickly. Flattops (usually with oval holes) have more open voices that diffuse sound and sustain lengthily. The former cuts and the latter rings, perhaps explaining their differing musical applications.
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    Default Re: Difference in sound in flat top and arch top?

    I find a flat top to be richer and more full, and an arch top to be more piercing or pinched.
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    Default Re: Difference in sound in flat top and arch top?

    So, the oval flat top has a more guitar quality to it, sort of, if I am understanding you all correctly. I am still new to this but I like to play classical, old country and folk, and an occasional rock song. I have been wondering which instrument style would be the best. For example, playing Dark as a Dungeon or Dirty Old Town, would an oval or an F hole be the best bet?
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    Default Re: Difference in sound in flat top and arch top?

    Quote Originally Posted by DocT View Post
    So, the oval flat top has a more guitar quality to it, sort of, if I am understanding you all correctly. I am still new to this but I like to play classical, old country and folk, and an occasional rock song. I have been wondering which instrument style would be the best. For example, playing Dark as a Dungeon or Dirty Old Town, would an oval or an F hole be the best bet?
    You can play anything on anything, especially in the comfort of your own living room. For your intended applications, I’d be inclined to buy a flattop, especially when factoring in economics. Because of the amount of man hours saved in their construction, you can often find a lifetime flattop for the same price as a starter archtop (particularly used).
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    Default Re: Difference in sound in flat top and arch top?

    Oval holes are fine for everything except Bluegrass chopping/jamming. You can certainly play BG on oval holes, especially carved top oval holes, and they may even sound louder to you when playing alone, but they donít project like a carved top FF hole instrument, thus tend to get lost in the mix of a BG jam. I own a Flatiron 1N, which I love, but my go to, especially when playing out, is my Kelley A style with carved top/back and FF holes, on which I play everything from classical to rock to BG.

    If I could only have one mandolin, Iíd keep an arch top/FF holes carved top/back mandolin on which I could play any genre, including bluegrass. But, the Flatiron is great for the genres you mentioned, and flattops tend to give you much more mandolin per dollar IMO. Though I only paid $500 for the Flatiron, itís truly a professional quality instrument. You have to at least double that price to get that quality in a carved top FF hole mandolin. For example, the first F hole mandolin I had that I felt was a professional quality mandolin is my Silverangel A style. My Eastman 315 is very good, and a ton of bang for the buck, but doesnít touch the complexity in tone of the SA.
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    Default Re: Difference in sound in flat top and arch top?

    I liken it to anything where the user might require specialization. You can use any rod and reel to fish, but most end up with several as they gain experience.

    I have four mandolins. I bought my Gibson A1 mostly because I like old things, but it's resonant deep tone and sustain lends itself to Celtic and old time fiddle tunes. My Silverangel can really do it all and would be the one I'd keep if I could only have one. It's a very warm and woody mandolin. Then there is my Arches kit that is the tool of choice if I need power and cutting ability.

    But at home, the reality is that I'll not change instruments to play different styles, I'll just play the one I can grab. For a while that was my beater Michael Kelly because I left it out within reach. I really like those Flatiron 1Ns a lot, but not while fighting banjos and fiddles. But a beginner could do a lot worse than start with one, provided you won't want to play bluegrass.

    Word to the wise, never say never, learn a bluegrass lick or two and you'll get infected. then you'll want a second mandolin. Heck, you'll want a second mandolin anyway.
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    Default Re: Difference in sound in flat top and arch top?

    I love my flatties. I have a Weber Aspen II, and I would characterize the sound as bell like. Somewhat brighter, less warmth more ringie. And sustain for miles. I have to squelch the ringing with a free finger or palm sometimes.

    Beautiful tone, and it finds use mostly where the creamy Gibsonny deep sound is not what i want. Very not Gibson. Not as loud as some arch tops, louder than others.

    When I want a sound that is a little warmer, but still not Gibsonny, I go to my Big Muddy M-11. It has a delicious sound as well, but because (I think) it is all mahogany it has a bit more warmth, a bit more bass.

    Arch tops are great, and in an arc top the oval hole sounds different than the ff hole. And they both sound great in bluegrass or bluegrass related. Great chop and creamy warmth. But... that iconic Gibsonny sound, to my ears sticks out in a old time jam, or in an Irish session, or classical. Its acculturation I am sure, having heard the arch top so often in the context of bluegrass, it is more difficult to 'unhear' the bluegrassiness of it when used in other genres.
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    Default Re: Difference in sound in flat top and arch top?

    I was wondering if flat-tops were as a general rule brighter than a comparable (same body-size) arch-top. I have a Red Valley AM that is a bit bright for me, and wish I bought the larger bodied one now. FYI that's an option if you want a darker sound in a flat-top, it sounds wonderful in the demos I have heard. I know my TC OM has a wonderful dark sound, I assume from having a large body.
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    Default Re: Difference in sound in flat top and arch top?

    Most of the generalizations above are at least defensible, but there's significant variance among individual instruments of either -- or any -- style.

    Best solution, as always, is to burn some shoe leather or tire rubber, playing as many mandolins as you can get your hands on, and making a decision based on what your ears, hands and wallet tell you is the best deal for you.

    Limiting your research to mandolins of a certain style, based on our pontifications, may lead you to miss an instrument that you'd really prefer. The more you play, the more info you have, and the better decision you make, IMHO.
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    Default Re: Difference in sound in flat top and arch top?

    Though I'd always try to play several different instruments for comparison before purchase, it also seems in my experience that living with an instrument long-term, playing it both at home and in whatever other locations or situations fits one's taste, then over a period of time, there is an insight into the sound that just doesn't happen in a few minutes or even hours of pre-purchase play. I guess that's why we end up with so many mandolins - to try them for real.

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