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Thread: Sound: opinions sought on technique vs instrument, i.e. anti-MAS

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    Default Sound: opinions sought on technique vs instrument, i.e. anti-MAS

    One of those hopefully interesting questions that has no correct or definite answer.... I have an Eastman 305, clearly a starter instrument, that I have played for a couple years. Some days it sounds like a great instrument, some days it sounds like I really need to get a new mandolin. Now, for context, I appreciate fine instruments, owning a very fine high end steinway grand piano and a custom olsen guitar amongst several other nice instruments. My musical talent has significant limits but I can play well enough to enjoy what I do. However, my goal in picking up the mandolin was to truly learn to play the instrument well (by ear) before succumbing to spending the money for a quality instrument. I have worked a lot on my Eastman, adding a tone guard, an armrest, working on the bridge, added a cast tailpiece, string height, etc... and it sounds better but the high registers, especially on the a and e strings sound pretty "tinny/sharp" to me (I worked some with bridge placement and tried various positioning to ensure intonation is right all up the neck... it's not easy or perfect). However, I know that some of that is technique - how carefully the strings are fretted (I have large and arthritic hands), how sloppy I am in picking the strings, etc... I would say it sounds pretty good when I play slow and carefully, say Ashokan Farewell. It seems to always sound tinny on fast bluegrass tremolo (maybe I just don't like tremolo)..So, here's the question...(editorial comments welcome) - is technique say 50% of the sound.... 75%... 30%? What I don't want to do is just succumb to MAS and buy a better instrument (I'm not talking about an Ellis... maybe a weber or Girouard) and have it basically the same experience... Wisdom says learn to play better first .. but I really like the Pavas... help!!!

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    Default Re: Sound: opinions sought on technique vs instrument, i.e. anti-

    One opinion is to buy an instrument better than you are and that removes one of the variables from the equation, it's definitely you that needs to improve.
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    Default Re: Sound: opinions sought on technique vs instrument, i.e. anti-

    I’d say technique is 90% of the sound, maybe more. If you sound lousy on an Eastman, you’ll sound lousy on a Loar.

    I’ll note you commented on stuff for your instrument but not on stuff in your practice aimed at increasing your tone generation and musicianship. You get results where you practice.

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    Registered User Mike Buesseler's Avatar
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    Default Re: Sound: opinions sought on technique vs instrument, i.e. anti-

    Can’t disagree with that, Bill, but if you sound good on an Eastman, you’ll sound better on a Loar...or a Collings, or whatever.

    This will be an open ended conversation. I won’t go through my own desultory music history, but I will say this: once I moved the quality of my mandolin up (in price and quality) I never looked back. Playing a better instrument makes me want to play more, makes me sound better (to myself), makes me look better , makes playing easier. Ok, it also makes me poorer. Money well-spent.

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    Default Re: Sound: opinions sought on technique vs instrument, i.e. anti-

    Quote Originally Posted by Rgbart View Post
    but the high registers, especially on the a and e strings sound pretty "tinny/sharp" to me (I worked some with bridge placement and tried various positioning to ensure intonation is right all up the neck... it's not easy or perfect). However, I know that some of that is technique - how carefully the strings are fretted
    I find most budget level mandolins sound pretty thin and sharp in the upper registers of the A and esp E courses.

    Perhaps godlike technique can correct that, but I would say above the 8 or 9th fret that 75% is the budget instrument. IMO, Thile on a Eastman 300 series would still sound like a great sound 300 series ... not a high end mandolin.

    You've invested a lot in upgrades [more than I would have] - some of which can move to a new instrument.

    IMO, play some and find one that sings in that register to you. I have no doubt technique can help sweeten the upper register, but it's often a weak point to many mandolins IMO. I seem to recall some saying about how you pay $1k for every fret above the 7th [or something like that] and there's at least some truth to that ... I haven't heard that many mandolins that sound sweet on the 12th fret of the E string that didn't cost a couple grand.

    Your mileage may vary, though. I'm sure plenty would disagree with me and I'm happy to let them
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    Default Re: Sound: opinions sought on technique vs instrument, i.e. anti-

    I'm not familiar with the retail mandolin environment in Dallas, but one approach would be to find places that stock Pava, Collings, Northfield etc., and give them a whirl. Or find other players at jams and such who will let you try out their Brand X mando. This will at least give you some idea of what the upper tiers have to offer.
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    Registered User archerscreek's Avatar
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    Default Re: Sound: opinions sought on technique vs instrument, i.e. anti-

    The only way you'll know for yourself is to take your Eastman with you and go try out other mandolins. Swap back and forth.

    I did that with my MD515. My Eastman sounds loud, full, and sweet ... in certain positions. It even sounds better to me in certain uses than some instruments I tried alongside it that were much more expensive. But the instrument itself is limited. It loses girth and sweetness and sustain up the neck. Other instruments did as well, but not all of them. Some maintained the higher quality of sound no matter where I played. That's what you pay for, in my opinion. For me, the same hands and technique on different instruments brought me noticeably different results.

    I'll include the warning I've often read here, though. Don't play other mandolins unless you're ready to buy. If you think you have MAS bad now, just wait until a better instrument proves beyond a doubt what a quality mandolin can sound like in your hands.

  11. #8

    Default Re: Sound: opinions sought on technique vs instrument, i.e. anti-

    If you shop the used market you don’t have to spend a fortune for a nice A style. Clean used Collings MTs can be had south of two grand, and Weber’s, Silverangel, and the like less than fifteen hundred. This level has become my base line for quality mandolin tone. Once there you pay more and more for less and less, not that you shouldn’t go buy an Ellis if you can. No shortcut for spending a lot of practice time, and you will play more with a better instrument. Good musicianship will always trump a good instrument, but why not have one?
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    Default Re: Sound: opinions sought on technique vs instrument, i.e. anti-

    Some of the greatest players in the world started performing on lesser instruments. Doc Watson had to borrow a guitar the first time he played for Ralph Rinzler. He did not have a decent acoustic guitar. Once they had the chance they moved up. It is more a question of what you want and can afford. There are a lot of guys with expensive instruments who cannot do justice to them. If you play fifteen minutes once a week then you should not waste the money.

    If you are not a professional player and just play for yourself then do whatever you can afford that makes you happier and lets you enjoy the playing. A better instrument will sound noticeably better. It will not be a cure all and end all frustration. Even with a great instrument there will be days that you feel your playing sucks. Guess what? Everyone goes through that. I have heard some of the best players in the world say they have those days.

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    Default Re: Sound: opinions sought on technique vs instrument, i.e. anti-

    Pick and string choice can also make a big difference to sound (and are relatively cheap to experiment with). Do you use a pointed or more rounded pick? Rounded may take away some of that sharpness (not to turn this into a pick thread).
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    Default Re: Sound: opinions sought on technique vs instrument, i.e. anti-

    This is one reason why I love the cafe..People respond quickly and say things that just make sense... there is no way to purchase superior tone if you can't produce it with your own hands first. And yes, I've been willing to purchase some upgrades in the quest for better sound that maybe should be investment in practice time instead. I'm hoping that's what retirement is for...
    Quote Originally Posted by Bill McCall View Post
    I’d say technique is 90% of the sound, maybe more. If you sound lousy on an Eastman, you’ll sound lousy on a Loar.

    I’ll note you commented on stuff for your instrument but not on stuff in your practice aimed at increasing your tone generation and musicianship. You get results where you practice.

    .02.

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    Default Re: Sound: opinions sought on technique vs instrument, i.e. anti-

    I'd recommend going to a music store that sells some high-end mandolins, as well as budget instruments like your Eastman. Spend some time and play them. Especially try playing some challenging pieces, and many notes up the neck. If you think your playing sounds a whole lot better on one or more of the high-end mandolins, well then, you have your answer! Your sound will benefit from a better instrument...and welcome to the world of MAS! On the other hand, if your playing only sounds marginally better -- or about the same -- then you know that you are limited primarily by your playing technique.

    As others have written, one philosophy -- and a good rule of thumb if you can manage it financially -- is to spring for an instrument that's a bit "above your level." This may motivate you to play and practice more, which is a good thing, and you will never be left wondering if it's your instrument or your technique that limits the quality of your sound. It's your playing! So no excuses.

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    Default Re: Sound: opinions sought on technique vs instrument, i.e. anti-

    I have played with the various Dunlop primetones, sticking with a 1.3 rounded edge, occasionally trying a 1.4. I use blue chip picks on my guitar playing as I can hear the contribution. I haven't felt my mandolin playing skills would be much better with a $40 investment in a pick . Strings are EJ74s. It's a good thought but I believe the sound is satisfactory on the G & D below the 9th fret, A & E get thin and sharp pretty quick. All strings are pretty thin in the upper registers. What I'm aspiring to is something like what I found from Nate Lees's demos of Pava and Collings, very clean, crisp, trebles ... of course Nate is a pretty darn good mandolin player too! I like the thread: " seem to recall some saying about how you pay $1k for every fret above the 7th [or something like that] and there's at least some truth to tha" from Markus unfortunately that means i'll probably never get what I like from the Eastman. I agree with the thoughts of comparing and trying others. Still need to put in the practice regardless....

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    Registered User Doug Brock's Avatar
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    Default Re: Sound: opinions sought on technique vs instrument, i.e. anti-

    I have been playing an MD315 for over a year and I actually love the trebles - strong, loud, pure and sweet all the way up the neck. Part of that might be due to using heavy strings on the E and A courses (D'Addario EXP74CM) - that did help thicken the trebles. Choice of picks also made significant difference. (I like heavy triangle Blue Chip and Primetone, but lately am using Wegen.)

    Lots of folks will tell you that getting a good solid G is a sign of better mandolins, and that might be true, but I bought a $1500 small-shop mandolin that had a good reputation for strong bass, and it does have a smoother bass, but it is weak in the trebles. The guys I play with noted that the more expensive mandolin just wasn't as loud as my MD315 and didn't cut through. In the end, the trebles were more important to me and my particular musical situations, so I'm back to the MD315. (I keep playing the more expensive mandolin regularly, hoping that it will "open up" or something, but no luck after four months. Maybe after another four or twelve? It's an interesting instrument, so I'm hanging onto it for one of my sons, when he gets out of grad school and has more space and time.)

    I've played a hundred other mandolins over the past year, everything I can legally get my hands on, from other Eastmans to Northfields, Collings, Webers and Gibsons, and I am continually surprised just how well my Eastman keeps up. Yes, I WILL buy a more expensive mandolin, but I'm no longer expecting it to be earth-shatteringly better.

    SO, as a fellow 300 series Eastman owner, I'd say that you shouldn't underestimate the capabilities of your mandolin. Try different picks, try different strings, work on your technique, and know that you have a very capable instrument. Then find every opportunity to play other instruments to educate your ear.
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    Default Re: Sound: opinions sought on technique vs instrument, i.e. anti-

    My MT is tends to be pretty bright - I find the Dunlop primetone picks emphasize that brightness. For me, the D'andrea proplec 1.5mm picks give me a darker tone. I'm not suggesting a blue chip necessarily (but still cheaper than a new instrument), but you might want to try some different materials.

    Also, I'm just curious about how much of what you play is above the 9th fret?
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    Default Re: Sound: opinions sought on technique vs instrument, i.e. anti-

    I was in the same boat. Played an Eastman 515 for about 5 years, which ended up being about 2 years too long. Focus for first couple of years was improving technique. Also spent a bunch of money on lessons which were incredibly helpful, because with crappy technique I would still sound crappy on a better instrument.
    Played a lot of instruments and realized I had kinda gone as far as I could on the Eastman. Bought a Pava, because it was the mandolin that sounded twice as good (to my ear) as the Eastman as well as being twice as expensive. Now my technique is improving again because the instrument will do more, and I want to play it because it sounds so good, so technique is improving as well. I did have to relearn some things because of big frets and increased volume.
    Every now and then I take out the Eastman, which is my festival instrument, and think I could have moved up sooner. Now the trick is to save money for the next step up (if necessary).

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    Default Re: Sound: opinions sought on technique vs instrument, i.e. anti-

    Quote Originally Posted by Doug Brock View Post
    Part of that might be due to using heavy strings on the E and A courses (D'Addario EXP74CM) - that did help thicken the trebles.
    I have an MD305 and, like Doug, also felt that moving up to a heavier gauge of string for the A and E pairs was beneficial for tone. In the beginning I was buying a pack of EJ74s and a pack of EJ75s and combining them but I eventually got frustrated with the number of half-used packs of strings I had laying around the house and decided to string it up with all EJ75s. Didn't seem to hurt any so I now exclusively use the EJ75s.

    With the Primetone picks that are speed beveled I have noticed that if I don't hit the E and A strings square on the beveled face then I tend to get a more metallic/noisier pick stroke (in my imagination this is because I hit the flat face of the pick first and the string slips across the corner of the bevel and onto the beveled face). The G and D strings seem more forgiving (or maybe I naturally hold the pick at a better angle when my arm is over those strings?). However, if I give the pick too much angle when it hits the E and A courses I get a sweet tone without much projection. So I think it is possible that certain picks might have a sweet spot of their own and I've been working to dial in my angle of attack for those courses.

    One final note - even with the A and E strings from a pack of EJ75s on it, the MD305 starting sounding shrill as winter set in and humidity dropped. I had to raise the bridge on more than one occasion to bring the sweetness back to the upper frets and eventually was forced to admit that my whole-house humidifier wasn't quite cutting it. I got the Boveda in-case humidifiers and my instrument is a lot more stable now.

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    Default Re: Sound: opinions sought on technique vs instrument, i.e. anti-

    good question... on how much to play above the 9th fret. Actually very little as I have very large hands and at this stage of my playing, most is below the 7th fret. I can play comfortably in open without any problem, just working more and more on other keys than G and D so have to move on up for that. It was more of an indicator of where I really "hear a difference" in the tonal quality of the instrument. I do find the high e string not as clear and bright as I perceive it should be..example being a 2 finger g chord.

    I also find bright to be different than "thin"... or tinny. I don't mind a bright sound as long as it's clear and rings like a bell...

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    not a donut Kevin Winn's Avatar
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    Default Re: Sound: opinions sought on technique vs instrument, i.e. anti-

    Take a day trip to Austin and go to Fiddlers Green. Play everything, then decide if a better mandolin is worth the cost. My money is on you saying 'yes'

    Then go have some good BBQ
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    Default Re: Sound: opinions sought on technique vs instrument, i.e. anti-

    I don't know about yours but my 305 craves moisture. Being winter I try to run the wife's aroma/bubbly/funky light thing that she uses for essential oils to keep the house somewhat humidified as it gets dry in my house in the winter. On days that I miss it and don't run it, my mando sounds muffled....when I do it comes alive. Just a thought to help you stem off MAS....
    "It doesn't matter how much you invest in your instrument until you invest in you and your ability..."

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    Default Re: Sound: opinions sought on technique vs instrument, i.e. anti-

    I'd recommend going to a music store that sells some high-end mandolins, as well as budget instruments like your Eastman. Spend some time and play them. Especially try playing some challenging pieces, and many notes up the neck. If you think your playing sounds a whole lot better on one or more of the high-end mandolins, well then, you have your answer! Your sound will benefit from a better instrument...and welcome to the world of MAS! On the other hand, if your playing only sounds marginally better -- or about the same -- then you know that you are limited primarily by your playing technique.
    This comment by sblock really sums things up quite nicely. The answer to your question about how much is technique and how much is instrument will change through your playing experience. You will reach a point where the instrument actually is the thing that limits your playing as much or more than technique. It will no longer be an excuse. At that point you should trade up. Till then a nicer instrument is fun to have but maybe not that important.

  29. #22

    Default Re: Sound: opinions sought on technique vs instrument, i.e. anti-

    No-one goes to a show to hear an instrument, they go to hear the player.

    Well, except for people from Mandolin Cafe - we would literally go to a show just to hear a particular instrument no matter who was playing it.

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    Default Re: Sound: opinions sought on technique vs instrument, i.e. anti-

    I have an Eastman MD315 and faced the same situation you mention. I succumbed to MAS and bought a used Northfield Big Mon. It really depends how much your $ is worth to you but I’m not convinced the Northfield is worth 5x the price of the Eastman (for me). Both are quality instruments and the Northfield is better in many ways... very different! The biggest impacts on tone for my MD315 were 1) EVO frets, 2) EJ75 strings (heavies) 3) blue chip pick, and 4) tone guard. In that order. The Northfield is much warmer and has more bottom end grunt but it doesn’t have the power and punch of the Eastman with red spruce top. If you can, play a few in person and see if they impress you enough to warrant the additional cost. Mandolins can be night/day different depending on setup! Having said all this, I think the player is the main variable!

    Ps I pulled the last few frets and scooped the fretboard of my Eastman. There is a sweet spot up there that I couldn’t find before because my pick was striking the frets all the time. With the Eastman, picking position makes a big difference

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  33. #24
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    Default Re: Sound: opinions sought on technique vs instrument, i.e. anti-

    Was having this same discussion with band members, we agree it is true -to get good tone out of superior instrument ( not just mandolins)- you have to work less at it.
    Conversely it can take "more effort" by the player to get good tone out of a lower grade instrument.
    Not saying a better instrument makes you play better, but the open E sounds better on a higher grade instrument than on a lower grade instrument.
    Why do the great players all have high end mandolins?
    So RGBart if you think you are going to be a serious mandolin player, yeah go for the high end, but if you just want to play mandolin sometimes a mid range mando would probably serve you well as your skills continue to develop.
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    Default Re: Sound: opinions sought on technique vs instrument, i.e. anti-

    Quote Originally Posted by tmsweeney View Post
    Why do the great players all have high end mandolins?
    It could just be that great players find it much easier to justify the expense to their family than lousy players?

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