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What happens as a bass matures?

Discussion in 'Basses [DB]' started by Doug Ring, Jul 14, 2004.

  1. Hi folks, I've been reading this forum for a few weeks now since I bought my first double bass and wondered if I could pick some of the superior brains in here.

    I've been playing BG for 30 years but as I've been drifting more towards playing acoustic blues and country, I've felt that bringing an amp along, however quietly I play it, is cheating, so I bought myself a new Chinese-made 3/4 gamba style carved bass. It's a spruce top, maple back and sides and the name inside is "Westbury". It arrived as just a body and I had it set up by the shop's luthier who's a jazzer, so he put an adjustable bridge and Spirocore Weich strings on it. I've had it maybe 3 months now and the sound is improving all the time.

    My question is: what happens to the sound of a new bass as it matures? It seems to me that the note sustain with pizz playing is increasing, but not evenly across the strings. The D always seemed to project a little better than the others, and the E felt a bit weak at the start. I wondered about changing the E for something a bit heavier than the Weich string in a bid to get more power from it, but after 3 months, it seems to be getting louder (or maybe I'm just learning to hit it harder...).

    Are there well-recognised changes in the sound that I'll be finding, or is it different for every new bass? Or will the sound that I'm hearing as a player be very different from what a listener hears?

    All advice and opinions gratefully received!
  2. matt macgown

    matt macgown Guest

    Dec 1, 2003
    Chattanooga, TN
    More often than not, the bass matures much faster than the bass player - who sometimes fails to at all. Shudder the thought.
  3. Ed Fuqua

    Ed Fuqua

    Dec 13, 1999
    Chuck Sher publishes my book, WALKING BASSICS:The Fundamentals of Jazz Bass Playing.
    The sound that your bass is going to have is already there, in some form. If you have a well constrcuted instrument, you will eventually have a richer, more complex version of the sound the bass gets right now. NEVER NEVER NEVER buy a bass with the idea that soemhow the sound is going to be "different" than it is the first time you put your hands on the instrument.

    But what you're noticing after three months is your increased familiarity with this specific instrument enabling you to get to a more consistent picture of what this bass sounds like, rather than any actual change in the instrument. My instrument was made in the 20s and I had played it for 10 or 12 years before it got to it's current sound. Which was present in some form when I bought the bass, again it has gotten richer and more complex since it's been played a lot.
    But no amount of time and playing will turn a Palantino into a Panormo, it doesn't work like that.

    There is no regularly scheduled set of changes, it's a function of playing, you play a lot it happens quicker than if you don't paly so often. And again, it doesn't CHANGE the sound. It just becomes "more' that sound.

    The sound right on top of the bass is very different than the sound 10 or 15 feet away from the bass. I'm not sure what this has to do with the other questions though.
  4. Damon Rondeau

    Damon Rondeau Journeyman Clam Artist Supporting Member

    Nov 19, 2002
    Winnipeg, baby
    All true, I'm sure, but my experience tells me that something DOES happen to the wood as it ages, and that this DOES have some impact on the sound. It's based on my experience with guitars and mandolins, but I can often tell if an instrument has got some "old wood" happening. I'm starting to hear it in basses. To my ear, there's a drier sound, a sound with some air in it; I've used the words like "mellower" and "richer" before, but I don't really like them any more. These are far from objective observations, for sure, but I really don't think I'm imagining things. The first old guitar I ever played -- and I was completely ignorant of guitarology and luthieriana at the time -- was quite striking in this regard. It sounded so different than other guitars I'd played (it was a small Gibson from the 30's.)

    The violin people have studied this seventeen ways to Sunday and there's lots of research there. I don't think anyone's come up with anything better than "to my ear, there's something going on there"....

    But Ed's right -- the effects I'm talking about are small change in comparison to the fundamentals he points out.
  5. matt macgown

    matt macgown Guest

    Dec 1, 2003
    Chattanooga, TN
    Do you play the bass, or does the bass play you?
  6. Damon Rondeau

    Damon Rondeau Journeyman Clam Artist Supporting Member

    Nov 19, 2002
    Winnipeg, baby

  7. pathdoc2


    Oct 16, 2002
    Allen, TX
    I respect everyone's opinion on this topic but I disagree. I think the musician changes tremendously while the instrument remains pretty much the same. After time you learn how to get the best sound out of your instrument. We should conduct an experiment and build a bass out of some other material besides wood. I bet most people would say this instrument sounds better with time as well. I'm just doubtful that playing itself makes an instrument sound better. I've heard great sounding new and old instruments as well as horrible sounding new and old instruments. I just can't accept the concept that time and playing work some sort of miracle within the wood.
  8. Many years ago when I was still young and foolish (I'm old and foolish now) I had the good fortune to purchase a Hawkes Panormo with a broken neck from an estate for less than market value (but still a good chunk o' dough). I had it restored by a luthier who made a new neck, did some crack repair while the top was off, etc. I was paranoid about taking this beautiful bass to most of the bars where I played, so it spent most of the time I owned it in the well-humidified dining room of the little house where I lived at the time.

    So, after a top-off repair, I played it in the same room regularly for, I dunno, a year and a half. I couldn't believe the degree to which its sound opened up over that time. It went from sounding pinched and muted to being an absolute cannon. I've always been a pitiful arco player, but I used to bow that bass just to hear things in the room rattle. Even my non-musical room mate of the time noticed a difference.

    I'm a believer, I've experienced it first hand. The sound of that bass changed immensly over a short period of time.
  9. Damon Rondeau

    Damon Rondeau Journeyman Clam Artist Supporting Member

    Nov 19, 2002
    Winnipeg, baby
    I'd have to dig for these articles, but they're out there. I remember one Scientific American article on the changes wrought simply by time to the physical structure of wood. I have no idea, and make no claims, as to exactly what causes these changes to the wood itself -- I have no pet theory that it's "vibrations" or aliens or whatever. I simply know from experience that old wood is different from new wood.

    As a cabinetmaker I've worked with some really old wood and it's physically different than newer wood. Fir, for example, gets quite a lot harder when it's old (even though the older stuff is more likely to be tight-grained old growth fir that's hard to find these days.) I can easily imagine that wood might sound different (not better, not worse, different) old as opposed to new.

    These are small effects acoustically, as I said before, very much outweighed by the player and the qualities inherent in the bass itself. The player changing at rates possibly orders of magnitude higher than the instrument itself? Absolutely.
  10. My late mentor once made a violin from tonewood that was taken from an old building located near the Cremona area of Italy that was verified to be atleast 250 years old. It turned out to be no better than the ones he had made from wood aged 10 years. I think that there is more to it than just old wood. And no, I don't have any idea what that more is. For a long time, everyone thought it was the varnish. Now a lot of the research is looking into the mineral ground. I figure that they will still be trying to figure it out when I'm long gone.
  11. Damon Rondeau

    Damon Rondeau Journeyman Clam Artist Supporting Member

    Nov 19, 2002
    Winnipeg, baby
    I have no doubts that is so, Bob. What about guitars and mandolins and such from, let's say, the 20's or 30's that have nitro lacquer? There's an "old" thing going on there, too.

    Certainly it's all tied up in a complicated set of interwoven factors, some of which mutate over time, all of which lead to an outcome -- the musical sound of an instrument -- that is completely subjective. I'm not saying science can't figure this one out, I just think that it's unlikely anyone will ever find it practical to do really definitive work.

    In the meantime, I'll keep my ears open. Sometimes you can hear some really special instruments...
  12. You know, there is one other thing that is common to all these "old" instruments - the glue that holds them together. My friend Henry Strobel, a violin family book publisher and violin maker, once speculated that changes to the structure of the glue might account for the changes that we have observed in our vibration dedamping experiments. This along with playing might play a role in this "old" instrument improvement business too.
  13. I have been told that it is much more than old wood. Older wood does have better characteristics, but only up to a point. My understanding is it relates to the vibrations of playing an instrument over time and the effect that has on the tone.

    Some guitar makers now have developed a method to accelerate this process by placing the instrument inside a closed chamber and bombarding it with sound waves. I think the company that does this is called Timber Tech. I can not attest to wether or not it works, but there charge a lot more for instruments that have undergone this treatment.
  14. matt macgown

    matt macgown Guest

    Dec 1, 2003
    Chattanooga, TN
    You guys have a lot more expertise and experience with this that I, but I note two things:

    If I give my instrument to a really good bass player for a few days - it comes back sounding different and better. I've heard the same comment from other players. If I believe it, it must be true. And I do.

    Climate makes a huge difference. Even little changes in day to day weather influence the instrument. Example - yesterday morning my axe was bright and cheery sounding, responsive, the humidity was low, sun up, but later on, the humidity and air pressure got sullen. So did the sound of the bass. They are very responsive to weather and climate. Wood aclimates itself to your environment. Decidedly.

    (In fact, shortly after I turned off the PC yesterday PM, I had to head for the basement - another small funnel cloud went through the neighborhood and did some more suburban renewal and natural landscaping - that's twice already in two months - I didn't stop to get the bass, either - I wouldn't have thought that would happen in a nice neighborhood like this!)

    Dryniess and oldness are things that could be tested under controlled conditions, though I don't think those are the factors. And I do thnk basses change over time. But so do bass players!
  15. Hey, thanks for chipping in folks - there seem to be as many opinions on this as there are on the best height for the endpin!

    So I'm getting the sense that my bass will always have a certain character that will simply become more evident with time. Therefore if the D projects a bit more than the E with the current strings, that's how the bass sounds.

    But given that strings can sound very different, my question was really whether I should consider beefing up the E string with a heavier gauge as I've read some people do. However, since I'm nowhere good enough to play DB in public yet, I don't know if: 1. it's my playing 2. whether the bass may sound more balanced to a listener than it does to me playing it.

    So that was my twisted thinking, Ed! Could you elaborate on those differences, please? I haven't got a teacher yet and I'm practicing alone so I don't have any feedback on the projection qualities of my bass.
  16. matt macgown

    matt macgown Guest

    Dec 1, 2003
    Chattanooga, TN
    Well - I'm gonna add a little more to this. The varnish that is used might produce a significant difference. Likely the violin maker at Texas A and M knows more about this than anyone, but I don't think people allow him the credibility he deserves.

    Histologically, oils do strange thngs to wood, and the longer then are immersed/coated with oils, the more the oils do. All oils? I can't say, but to some extent, probably.

    Cedar oil, for example, is used as a clarifying agent for tissues - plant or animal tissues - and if you immerse a sample in the oil for a long enough period, it will clarify the tissue to almost glass - clear transparency. Changes in the cell walls, tannins, and other chemicals inside the tissues occur.

    Clove oil will do the same thing, but quicker, with the side effect that the tissue can become brittle. We try to avoid prolonged immsersion in clove oil.

    I've used eucalyptus oils, which are more long term, and take forever to clear a specimen. But that's what you fellows are discussing - long term effects.

    I can imagine that any oil with relatively high polarity (and oils aren't highly polar substances, as a rule), will produce somewhat similar effects. "Clarifying the tissues." The techniques are hundreds of years old, actually.

    And "paints" - oil varnishes, water based paints such as latex, and a variety of others - rarely ever "dry" as we would like to think of it. If you cross section most varnised surfaces and latex covered surfaces, long after the application, what is seen is a hardened surface bneneath which is usually a gummy mess. Depending up the paint, of course, because there are lots of different mechanisms of drying.

    I would estimate that an old oil - varnished bass may not live long enough for the "paint to dry," and that tissue clarification is a continuous process for almost the life of the instrument.

    Spirit varnishes probably dry quickly, however. Evaporation. But alcohol itself is a dehydrating agent, and if you soak the wood long enough in it, it will dessicated - using 90 - 100% alcohol. Spirit varnishes likely don't do much of that. Along with dessication comes about a ten percent minimum tissue shrinkage, give or take a little. So that's going on also. Shrinkage is greater in air dried specimens, and tissue distortion is also greater. Air drying is about the worst way to treat tissues for preserving cell stuctures and shapes.

    This is a long post, but I want to indicate that the finish probably has a lot to do with the maturation process, from my histological viewpoint. And why.

    We really should try harder to understand what the TAMU fellow is all about, IMO. He probably has the best handle on it.

    I would like to stain a bass with red wine and simply leave it at that. (Maybe insert some shelves and a back door, as well, in keeping with the spirit of things).
  18. I gotta wonder how much of that change is the bass and how much of it is how sound travels through dry verses moisture- laden air...
  19. matt macgown

    matt macgown Guest

    Dec 1, 2003
    Chattanooga, TN
    Dang it - I too am Scot. Why didn't I think of that?
  20. matt macgown

    matt macgown Guest

    Dec 1, 2003
    Chattanooga, TN
    And I also gotsta wonder, does the microstructure of the wood really have much of anything to do with the gross product, sound. Moisture, barometer sure do produce an effect. On bows, as well, since that's what hygrometers used to be made with - horsehair.

    It's an interesting question with no easy answers. If there were easy answers we could all be Stridivari. I guess.