The Great Strings Experiment
By Joe Lewis.
Published January 31, 2021 7:15pm, updated March 12, 2021 3:39pm.
Every double bass sounds different. Some can be dark and rich, full of bass tones and body. Others might ring out with pizzicato and thrive in the midrange. Other double basses might be perfect for solo playing, with loud upper-range pitches that scream. The hunt for the perfect set of strings can be a challenging and potentially expensive endeavor.
The goal of this experiment is to test multiple sets of used strings on my double bass, to find the best combination. Once the best combo is identified, I'll invest in one or two brands of new string sets.
Strings can enhance or exacerbate the sound characteristics of an instrument. They can alter the playability as well. The optimal string setup should have the following characteristics:
- Richness: The strings should make the double bass sound like a Kobe New York strip steak, pan fried in butter, and served with a dark, rich glass of Cabernet Sauvignon.
- Projection: The strings should allow the bass to be heard loud and clear in an orchestra.
- Even tone: There should not be significant variations in sound characteristics between strings.
- Playability: The strings should be comfortable to play on, particularly for the left hand.
- Responsiveness: The strings should be responsive and speak when bowed.
Since my goal is to improve orchestral sound, I focused on classical arco qualities for this experiment.
To test string qualities evenly, I will run each string set combination through a test suite. I will record a playthrough of the test suite for each string set.
The subject of this experiment is my double bass, an unlabeled German instrument built probably around 1904. This bass has been played in the Minnesota Orchestra and the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra before I owned it. It has had extensive restoration work performed and is in a good state at the moment.
The current set of strings is Bel Canto EADG. I find the ADG strings to be "floppy" and would like something more responsive to the bow. The E string is actually decent sound-wise, and feels fairly good for playability. I may modify the experiment later to return to more use of the Bel Canto E string later on, if the Flexocor Deluxe E doesn't improve the overall sound for these sets. I also have a Flexocor standard E to try out.
Before the experiment begins, I will calibrate the string height to ensure the G string height is 4-5mm and the E string is at 7-8mm. This bass has no C extension at the moment, but I plan to add a C extension in the future.
Knowledge dump from Steve
Here are some raw notes from my double bass instructor, Stephen Tramontozzi.
On my bass at the SF Symphony and on my Italian basses: Pirastro Original Flat-Chrome purple and white windings - speak quick, comfortable under left hand, more body, because they have an extra wrap. the more wrap, the darker the sound. But in some cases the set E isn't balanced, so you might want to try something else.
Original Flexocor is a similar option: More wrap, even more dark.
On my English bass - Evah Pirrazzi, synthetic gut core, flatwound steel. Really great sound. I use light gauge on G, some people go light on both G and D. These strings are really thick so they might not feel comfortable.
Flexocor Deluxe - higher tension red and white winding.
Passione strings: Some people really like these. Medium is too light. Go heavy on those. (Joe note: I used a solo set a while back and they were pretty good.)
Charles Chandler uses Bel Canto on A, D, and G, and a Flexocor Deluxe on the low C.
The variables for this experiment are strings. I have the following prepared:
- Bel Canto EADG (currently installed)
- Permanent ADG
- Flat-Chrome ADG
- Passione ADG
- Flexocor Original ADG
- Flexocor Standard EADG
- Flexocor Deluxe E
All strings except the Bel Cantos, Flexocor Standards, and the Flexocor Deluxe were loaned to me, and are not new. The Flexocor "Standards" are just labeled "Flexocor", and I use "Standard" here just to differentiate from the ones that are actually labeled "Original" and "Deluxe". The age of the strings may affect responsiveness, but should at least indicate tonal quality and playability.
I will test these string sets in roughly the order shown in the table below. This is not a complete list of options given the inventory of strings on hand, but it would be time-prohibitive to test every single combination. Instead, I assembled this list as a best guess of what would a) sound good, and b) provide the best initial data. If I need additional experiments with alternative string combinations, I will add more to the list as the experiment progresses.
|#||E string||A string||D string||G string|
|1||Bel Canto||Bel Canto||Bel Canto||Bel Canto|
|2||Flexocor Deluxe||Bel Canto||Bel Canto||Bel Canto|
|3||Flexocor Deluxe||Evah Pirazzi regular||Evah Pirazzi regular||Evah Pirazzi regular|
|4||Flexocor Deluxe||Evah Pirazzi regular||Evah Pirazzi regular||Evah Pirazzi weich|
|6||Flexocor Deluxe||Original Flat Chrome||Original Flat Chrome||Original Flat Chrome|
|7||Flexocor Deluxe||Flexocor Original||Flexocor Original||Flexocor Original|
- Microphone is a modded Oktava MK-319.
- Record direct to Logic Pro via a Scarlett 2i2 USB interface, no patch.
- Position the microphone in front of the double bass at a medium height, just above the bridge and in front of where the bow usually contacts the string, 12 inches away from the instrument.
- Peg winder, for faster string changes.
Record each set. (Recordings available here.) Play multiple times or repeat segments if it is necessary to explore tone or responsiveness.
- 3 octave scale, E major.
- Long tones on each open string
- Bach Cello Suite No.3, Allemande, 1st half
- Bottesini Concerto No.2 in B minor, first page to D
- Beethoven Symphony No.9, 4th movement (Recitative segments, Ode, Fugue)
- Strauss, Ein Heldenleben, rehearsal 9
Mozart Symphony No.35 1st mvt m13-48, 4th mvt m1-AAdded Beethoven 5 and Bach Suite 2 prelude in lieu of this.
- Beethoven 5, 3rd mvt, Trio
- Mahler Symphony No.2, 1st page
- Bach Cello Suite No.2, Prelude
Create a form that will rate each set on a scale of 1-5, 5 being best. For each set, rate:
- Strings in set (menu to list strings in set)
- Sound quality (select 1-5)
- Projection (select 1-5)
- Even tone (select 1-5)
- Playability (select 1-5)
- Responsiveness (select 1-5)
- Notes (textarea)
Stage recordings and provide form to multiple interested parties for further analysis.
Additional qualitative notes on each set are added here.
Bel Canto EADG
This is the existing set. Sound overall is even. String tension feels floppy. Strings sound kinda dark overall. Easy to play. Sound good with pizzicato. Not very responsive.
Bel Canto ADG, Flexocor Deluxe E
Flexocor is notably louder and punchier than the Bel Cantos. Sounds metallic. Not an even sound at all with the Bel Cantos - too much contrast.
Note: All the remaining sets leverage a Flexocor Deluxe E string
Evah Pirazzi regular
Actually, more even sounding between the Flexocor and the Pirazzis. The Pirazzis go out of tune much easier than anything I'm experienced with. They definitely sound a helluva lot louder on this bass than anything I'm experienced with as well. They ring. I coughed and I could hear sympathetic ringing. Sounds scratchy, raspy, but if I compare this to Bel Canto, the Evah Pirazzis win on this bass. Sounds like an old viol. They are definitely harder to play than other strings - more tension and thickness, I think. I can feel it in my wrist.
Flat Chrome Original
Playable. Definitely projects more and has a wider dynamic range than the Bel Cantos. Not quite as much as the Evah Pirazzi set, but goes in that direction. Much easier to play than the Evah Pirazzi set. Strong candidate.
Sounds similar and slightly brighter to the Bel Cantos, but overall they sound sort of muffled. Similar playability to the Bel Canto set; feels very comfortable to play, speaks well, just lacks a lot of the color and projection that the Evah Pirazzis and Flat Chrome sets have.
This is a pretty good sounding string. They are bright, but still have lots of tone and body. They have some interesting color. Lots of good dynamic range. They are not as playable as the Bel Canto, Flat Chrome, or Flexocor sets - more stiff and raspy.
These strings mostly feel great, sound nice, but I have a little trouble getting them to not squeak. Sound is dark and rich.
- 2021-03-12: Final analysis complete.
- 2021-03-10: Review recordings and write up final analysis.
- 2021-03-09: Recording the Flexocor Originals tonight.
- 2021-02-15: Tests didn't begin yesterday because I practiced instead. Today I am picking up where I left off. Form completed, begin tests, clean up doc errors.
- 2021-02-14: Pirastro Flexocor Deluxe E received, strings organized and labeled. Goals for today are to create the feedback form and test sets 1 and 2.
- 2021-02-08: Ordered Pirastro Flexocor Deluxe E.
- 2021-01-24: Set up project goals and created this document.
Each string set had their pros and cons. Evah Pirazzi probably had the best sound, but I found them entirely unplayable because of the size of the strings. Passione and Flexocor were very easy to play, but had little in the way of sound. Bel Canto was my original set, and now that I have some reference to compare them to I can see they have decent sound and playability but not much power.
Flat Chrome Original and Evah Pirazzi were definitely the biggest-sounding strings. Evah Pirazzi's response was like a cannon, and Flat Chrome only slightly behind. I listened to the recordings of each string set over a few days to see if I still agreed with myself. This listening/review process was very helpful.
After reviewing all of the strings for sound and playability, I went with Flat Chrome Original. It was really down to Evah Pirazzi and Flat Chrome in the end. I think the Evah Pirazzi strings had the best sound, but I couldn't work with them well because of the string thickness. In the future, I will try a new Evah Pirazzi weich set. I also liked the sound of the Flexocor Deluxe E string, and may also try a full set of those in the future. The Flat Chrome Original strings have an amazing sound, are fairly comfortable to play, and they speak well. Most interestingly, they increase my ability to produce dynamic contrast significantly. The only "downside" is that I'm going to have to learn to play differently. I'll have to experiment with how I bow to get the right speaking quality and sounding points, but also to learn how to better take advantage of the dynamic range.