“The Upright Sound” Intro

What is “The Upright Bass Sound”? The sound that we associate with and expect to hear from instrument has changed over the years. In actuality, a bass has changed some in terms of sound through the centuries, but little. A bass, for the most part, sounds the same to the naked ear now as it did 100 years ago. What has changed is the amplification of the bass, which influences the live sound and live recordings. Some pillars of the bass world who have been prolific in live performances and in recordings such as Ray Brown,  Christian McBride and Dave Holland sound very different live than they do in recordings.  Listening to recordings that span several decades, the sound of the bass hasn’t changed much, because studios still incorporate the same methods when recording in a controlled environment. In live situations and live recordings, the sound has changed over the years with changes in technology

So what is “The Upright Bass Sound”? Is it the sound that we associate with the recordings of Paul Chambers, Scott LaFaro and Charles Mingus when there were only gut strings, no amplification, and recordings were through vintage microphones shared among band members? Is the “upright bass sound” Ray Brown and Ron Carter on steel strings in the early days of bass pickups and amplification? What about the newer, more accurate sound because of advances in bass amplification and reproduction or growing popularity in other types of strings; where do those fit into the picture?

I can’t emphasize this point enough: This discussion isn’t about talent, it’s about timbre and sound. It’s also not about who or what sound is better, just how things have changed over the years. High caliber players sound fantastic regardless of what they use and the limitations of what they are faced with. What we are discussing is the actual sound of the instrument itself. No matter what the tone, I could listen to these guys for hours and they are largely the reason why a lot of us fell in love with the instrument.

To simplify the categories for the purpose of discussion, I’ve divided them up to three eras

  • Pre-1970’s: Mic on a Stick era
  • 1970’s-1990: Basic piezo and multipurpose amp era
  • Post 1990: “Designed to sound like the bass only louder” systems

Here are some clips for reference that I will be discussing.

Paul Chambers

Scott LaFaro

Charles Mingus

Ray Brown

Ron Carter

Dave Holland

Eric Revis

Carlos Henriquez

Less Bass(es) is More

Decluttering is liberating. I’m down to my main bass, travel bass, Coda bow, and compact amp; and I am as content in life with what basses and accessories that I have, as I have ever been in my life. I’ve come full circle.

Like most bassists, I love trying “better” (i.e. more expensive) basses and products. There has to be a reason why something costs more right. If it costs more, it must be because most people want it, therefore supply and demand say that it’s worth more. If it costs more, it must be better. Even when I had a good bass, it wasn’t too long before I’d start eying more expensive basses. I went from an old plywood bass, to a French bass, and it perpetuated to the point that I had a nice 19th century Italian bass, unlabeled, but still a beautiful instrument.

My first good bass was an unlabeled 19th century French bass. There were some “appraisals” about who the luthier was, but it’s all just an educated guess. I had it later in college and it was a fine bass, but it needed work to get it to its potential. Unfortunately work=money. When it finally was where I wanted it to be I was pretty much broke (being broke is synonymous with being a young musician anyhow). When one of life’s big tragedy hit, the family came first and ultimately I had to give up the bass. It’s not all altruistic, I made some regretful decisions to trying to keep the bass, but to the point the bass was the only thing I had of monetary value. I was sad to see it go, but that’s part of life; back to a plywood bass.

Years later, when things improved, I had my appetite for an Italian bass. I fell in love with an unlabeled early 19th century Italian bass. Having the Italian Bass was nice for the first few years, but having one can actually be a burden. It was temperamental; sometimes it would sound nice, other times it woke up on the wrong side of the bed. It felt delicate, which can be a good thing, but also a bad thing. I loved how it sounded, it wasn’t the most playable bass because it was both temperamental and its violin corners were beautiful but not the most ideal. This is not representative of all old Italian basses, but it’s not unusual that each have their own character for the better or worse. As the orchestral auditions and low paying orchestral gigs lost priority, so the Italian bass started seeing the outside world less. No way was I going to take it to any of the tight “stages” for the club and restaurant gigs; basses that have endured that circuit have their share of battle scars, so instead, it gradually became a museum piece than a instrument.

When I was fully committed to other genres of music, I decided to get a nice German Bass that I could take anywhere. The bass is a workhorse; a circa 1920’s German bass with no history associated with it. No label, no heritage. Plays well but probably need a new fingerboard soon, but it can wait. It looks lovely and has a beautiful grain, but it won’t stand out in a bass shop. It sounds very nice, but nothing spectacular; not much different than any other good quality German bass out there. I’m sure that other people tried this bass before moving onto purchase other basses which they preferred. I had intentions of buying a different bass that sounding good on paper, but didn’t make the cut. When I tried the bass, I didn’t immediately think “I’ve got to have this bass”. I set it aside and moved on to try other basses. At decision time, I was wrestling between this one and another for a couple of hours. I finally decided upon this bass, and was giddy about having another bass to get acquainted with.

When another of life’s difficult situations arose (which usually coincides with bills and payments) I decided to sell the Italian bass. To my surprise, I didn’t miss it nearly as much as I thought I would. Yes, it’s hard parting with any bass, but nothing feels amiss. The German bass actually pairs with me nicely. I try to take care of it as well as possible, but I don’t feel like a historic preservationist as I did with an Italian bass; I can go out an be a musician. It can go wherever I need to be, whether that is a small corner of a cafe or a nice concert stage. I don’t doubt that this is a keeper for many decades to come, maybe until it’s time to lay down a bass for the last time and I would have no wants of another bass. Even though I’ve owned “better” basses, this is my favorite. The reason isn’t quantifiable, it just is so. Sometimes you have to go full circle to figure out what you want in life, but it would have been far cheaper had I figured it out at the beginning.

Brandi Disterheft

I was out and about, and curious to if anyone else uses Velvet Garbos on their Czech Ease. Sometimes in my Internet searches, I inadvertently find videos of bassists with incredible talent, yet don’t get much exposure.

Maybe some of you have heard of her, but if you haven’t, she’s a talented young bassists to keep an eye on.

Life as a Musician

Interesting article in the LA Times with some insight about being a musician. No matter what genre you specialize in, the lifestyle is similar. Unless you get into the top paying Los Angeles Philharmonic or the other 9 orchestras in the U.S. where you can make over $100,000, making ends meet is a juggling act. No one really goes into music for the money right? There are many easier ways to make money, but are there really many better ways to make money? You make the call.

BTW, statistics say that it’s easier for an athlete to get into the NBA than a musician to get into the top ten U.S. Orchestras. If you’ve got the talent, then kudos to you.

LA Phil = $127,140
Typical non-major symphony = $32,775
LA Opera =  $28,000

An LA Opera musician humbly thinks that she has it good compared to “a lot of musicians”. That is an eye opener.


Outside the orchestra pit

For three L.A.-area classical players, life offstage illustrates the luxuries and complexities of making a living in music. Teaching, film work, even poker-playing all help pay the bills.

When the conductor’s baton comes to a halt and the instruments are tucked away, the lives of professional classical musicians continue past the clef notes of that night’s repertoire. For three L.A.-area musicians, life offstage illustrates the luxuries and complexities of making a living as an orchestra musician.

FOR THE RECORD: Classical musicians: In the Dec. 26 Arts & Books section, an article about making a living as a professional classical musician gave an incorrect last name for one of the subjects. She is Tina Chang Qu, not Tina Nguyen.

For Dana Hansen, 31, days off from playing are usually spent in a children’s gymnasium or a park, where she totes around her cherub-faced daughter, Phoebe — an entirely different kind of instrument.

As a full-time busy violist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, it’s a luxury when Hansen find herself in a room full of toddlers, shuffling barefoot on a carpet as she sings “Ring Around the Rosy” or enjoying a moment of laughter with her 18-month-old daughter in the park.

With the birth of her first child, Hansen is still learning how to navigate her time between mastering notes of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 and swing sets.

“It’s a hard career to go into,” she said. “A bunch of people my age in this field are struggling. I’m not complaining with where I’m at.”

Her full-time spot with a major orchestra allows her to lead a comfortable lifestyle in Pacific Palisades, where she and her husband, Noble Hansen, who works in finance, moved last year. The annual income for an L.A. Phil musician in 2008-09 was $127,140, according to the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians.

Hansen’s route to becoming a professional musician began with a degree in modern European history from Harvard College.

“I’m not naïve,” she said recently at her home. “Music was what I wanted to do. But it’s not exactly a sure thing. I wanted something else to fall back on just in case.”

She began violin studies at age 5 and viola at 15.

“I definitely want Phoebe to learn how to play an instrument,” she said. “I think it’s important. Look at her — she’s already formed a connection with music. Whenever she hears a tune she likes, she’s dancing.”

Paul Zibits, bass

Now bassist and personnel manager for the Pacific Symphony, Chicago native Paul Zibits, 59, has been an active studio musician since moving to California in 1979.

“I learned early on that music was what I was good at,” Zibits said. “I was lucky to be good enough to make a living with it.”

A father of two boys and husband to Kimiyo Takeya (a violinist in the Pacific Symphony), Zibits has seen his musical abilities extend beyond the stage and onto the big screen: He has performed on the scores of more than 500 motion pictures, including “Titanic,” “Spider-Man,” “Jurassic Park” and the first”Pirates of the Caribbean” film.

When he’s not performing onstage or in a movie theater (or tweeting as @pzibits) Zibits can be found at the Bob Cole Conservatory of Music at Cal State Long Beach, where he teaches double bass.

For the few minutes (or hours) outside of that, he’s mastering his poker face.

The hands of professional bass player Paul Zibits are in a tight grip.

Tap, click, tap, click.

There are no music sheets around and that humming isn’t the sound of fingers plucking strings. The chorus comes courtesy of tapping chips at work during a game at one of the monthly poker nights Zibits hosts at his home in Long Beach.

Mastering music and mastering poker go hand in hand, he said.

“It’s all about technique. In music, you learn an instrument’s scales and positions. With poker, you become skilled at learning when to bet certain hands, when to raise hands, and your position at the table.”

In 1999, he outplayed 233 others to finish seventh in the World Series of Poker’s $2,500 buy-in, hold-’em tournament held at Binion’s Horseshoe in Las Vegas — pocketing nearly $15,000 for two days’ work. At this year’s tournament, he pocketed just over $3,000. Not bad, considering that section musicians with the Pacific Symphony would earn about $32,775 if they were to play every concert and rehearsal offered for a year, according to the orchestra’s site.

During off hours, Zibits often can be found among the herd at Commerce Casino — the “mecca of poker” as he refers to it — or Hawaiian Gardens Casino. In 2006, he became a published author and editor of the book “Poker Face 2.”

“Poker is fun … and it can be a great stress reliever,” Zibits said. “But it can be exhausting at times. Your mind is racing, constantly analyzing everything. It’s like playing a Mahler symphony. Sometimes you need a vacation from it.”

Tina Nguyen, violin

Juggling separate jobs is not unusual for some musicians. Many teach privately in their homes or perform with several orchestras and other ensembles. Others record for the motion picture industry.

It’s the kind of hectic lifestyle that Tina Nguyen, 35, is all too familiar with.

For Nguyen, playing violin for the Los Angeles Opera is not a full-time gig, so additional jobs are needed to supplement her income — especially as the opera seasons get shorter; she gets paid per performance. The approximate salary for a musician for L.A. Opera’s 2010-11 season is $28,000.

“This season has been rather difficult,” she said. “We reduced our season because of the economy. Most of us have to work on something else. Next year, it’s going to be pretty tough. Normally, we have about nine shows; now we’re down to five or six.”

Nguyen currently gives private violin lessons to three students.

“A lot of my colleagues teach more,” she said. “They might have like 10 or 15 students. For me, my goal is to have six. I don’t have much time to devote to it; I often have concerts on the weekends.”

And she does recording for film and TV series — the latest being ABC’s “No Ordinary Family” — and performs for other outlets, including the New West Symphony, where she’s an assistant concert master.

“A season like this, with tremendous reductions … it’s worrisome,” Nguyen said. “In this town, unless you’re in the L.A. Phil, you have to do other jobs to make it.”

Qu estimates that 70% of her income comes from her L.A. Opera performances.

“There are a lot of musicians in a much worse position,” she said. “Of course, I would like to have a more reliable full-time job. But this is where I’m at right now.”

Congratulations to Esperanza Spalding

I don’t know if a bassist, especially an upright bassist, has ever been nominated for Best New Artist by the Grammy’s but for 2011, Esperanza Spalding is one of the nominees. Bright new talent is what we need and I’m very pleased that she’s been recognized.

Time Flies

Wow it’s been a long time since the last post. I’ve been really busy juggling my schedule with a baby boy so the blog didn’t get the attention it deserved. Add that to the fact that he was born 8 weeks early so he needed a lot of attention to get him through that rough beginning.

The basses have collected a layer of dust and you have been seeing the same post since March. I”m now one less bass than before; the Italian and Prochownik Bow are gone (Neonatal Intensive Care at the hospital is $3000-5000 a day). Now after a long hiatus, it’s time to start getting my playing back up to speed and get this blog rolling again. There’s that God given gift that allows some bassists to be off from playing for a decade, yet one day he/she can just pick up the bass where one last left off like it was yesterday. A truly wonderful gift. I don’t have that gift. Nine MONTHS takes its toll on me. I do surprise myself on how much I retained, but I know that my fingers feel a less dexterous and my brain feel like it has cobwebs that need dusting out.

Acoustic Image Ten2Ex, Ten2 vs. Coda+

I’ve had about one month to get to know the Acoustic Image Ten2Ex and compare it with the Coda+. For those of you who are not familiar with the Ten2Ex it’s the same cabinet as the Ten2, except that it does not have the amp head built in. I already own the Coda+ so it would not make sense for my application to buy another cabinet with the same head, especially since the newer AI amps have the “cabrio system”, which allows for easy docking and undocking of the head.

If you recall, the Coda+ comes with a single 10″, 5″ mid and a 1″ tweeter. The Ten2 cabinet consists of two 10″ speakers and a tweeter, no midrange speaker .  The benefit of having two 10″ speakers is that the cabinet can move more air. More air movement equals more volume. Just like the Coda+, the Ten2 has a downfiring 10″, but instead of the 5″ midrange and tweeter mounted into the front, it has a 10″ in the front and a 2.5″ coaxial tweeter in front of the speaker. This makes the cabinet taller and heavier, yet it’s still much lighter than other brands of 2×10 speaker cabinets.

I love the Coda+ and how transparent and accurate it sounds, but it’s weakness is volume. It’s impressive for its size and weight, far louder than a polytone or GK and has way more headroom. It does have a hard time keeping up when the stage volume is up because of an aggressive drummer in more rock n roll oriented genres. I would say that 90% of the time, the Coda+ is plenty loud and that’s all that I need. I could have gotten a Contra+ to duplicate the same sound, but the idea of a 3×10 stack seemed like a better option for loud situations.

To test the Ten2 against the Coda+, I used the same head and went back and forth to hear differences between the speakers.  The most obvious thing is that Ten2 is noticeably louder. It’s at least 50% louder at the same setting based on a rough guess. The next thing that is noticeable is that it does sound different than the Coda+. There is more bottom end on the Ten2 at all volume levels. At the upper half  of volume settings the bottom sounds deeper, clearer and rounder than the Coda+. The lows are not boomy at all. The midrange frequencies on the Ten2 drop off, so it lacks the flat frequency response of the Coda+. Boosting the mids to match the levels with the lows only resulted in a midrange that sounded somewhat harsh,  similar to a Polytone.  The Ten2 sounds best with minimal equalizing. The high frequencies are clear and more audible than the mids, but their levels are also low compared to the lows frequencies. Unlike the Coda+, this cabinet is scooped in other-words, but it’s not colored like one would expect from bass guitar cabinets.

Out of curiosity, I dusted off the old ’72 Fender Deluxe Jazz to see how the Ten2 would sound. The Coda+ didn’t do so well making the bass sound good, but the Ten2 did much better. It still sounded a bit sterile and a bass guitar cabinet’s coloring would be very beneficial, but it’s still very usable unlike the Coda+.  With some eq’ing, I could get a very decent sound out of the amp. With the bass guitar, the bottom on the Ten2 was tight and fill and the highs were clean.

It’s not to say that I don’t like the Ten2, but I like the Coda+ far more. For what I want to hear out of my amp, the flat response of the Coda+ with BassBalsereit Studio active pickup + AKG microphone does a exceptional job of making the amplifier indistinguishable from my bass. If the sound coming out of your pickup/mic jack is exactly how you like it, then the Coda+ is a clear winner in terms of quality of sound. If you’re going for volume because you routinely play where stage volumes are high, the Ten2 will get the job done while still providing clean, transparent sound. You will sacrifice some detail and accurancy, but at high volume levels and playing against other instruments, that loss wouldn’t be as perceivable.

The Coda+ stacked on the Ten2Ex was the best of both worlds. How the speakers are arranged makes a very large difference in the overall sound. With both speakers on the ground, the lows are very pronounced. Stacked, the sound is closer to flat level across the full spectrum. By stacking, one cabinet off of the floor and is decoupled from the floor which reduces its bass response. The lows are still more pronounced so a little equalizing is needed to get the response to flat. This arrangement is very loud for an upright bass amplification system and for one that weighs less than 50 pounds total.

Ideally it’s probably best to have both the Coda+ and Ten2Ex, but if you had to choose one amp, you should choose one based on what you do. If you do jazz combos, the Coda+ is a very clean, accurate amp with a lot of headroom and detail. If you routinely play where the stage volume is high, the Ten2 may be a better alternative.

Upright Bass Tailpiece – Snap! Bang!

I was standing in the same room as my basses when I heard something give and then there was a loud bang. When I looked over my bass, I found that the composite tailpiece that I was going to write about had failed at the joint where the tailpiece wire goes.

I wasn’t overall thrilled about the composite tailpiece. Yes because it was very lightweight the bass seemed louder. I had my apprehension even before installing it anyhow. Tapping on the ebony tailpiece it had a nice woody sound, but with the composite tailpiece it was a thuddy sound, not unlike tapping on tupperware. The term “composite” in this instance, is really a fancy term for plastic.

I’m not at all impressed by the composite tail piece, except for the weight which did benefit my bass. There are better lightweight tailpieces made of maple which would seem the way to go.

Beginner Upright Bass Advice Section

I’ve just put together a section on the site that addresses some of the common questions that beginners have about how to get started with the Upright Bass. It’s a work in progress, but the same questions come up daily so I posted it with the most commonly asked question to get it started.

The Maple Engelhardt Tailpiece Experiment

In my last post, I mentioned that I was a looking for a lightweight tailpiece and tried a composite one, which snapped and broke. Jonas over at the Double Bass Guide mentioned the cheap maple ones that come on lower end basses. That though had crossed my mind, but Jonas’ bringing it up reaffirmed that it wasn’t a crazy idea would be worth looking into. It does seem odd to put a $20 tailpiece on the $10,000 bass, but then again, it would be odd to spend $150+ to possibly get the same results if I’m looking for functionality. The high end maple tailpiece look fantastic and are well crafted, but that gets negated on the Old German bass that I use for Jazz where I have the two XLR jacks with integrated preamps from the BassBalsereit Aktiv and AKG Mic attached to the underside of the tailpiece.

I’ve put in the order for two of the Engelhardt Maple Tailpieces for $20 each from Jack’s Music Store to experiment with. If I like the results of a maple tailpiece, I’ll consider getting one of the Mike Pecanic Tailpieces or the BassSpa ones.