E is for “Ehh…”

This post will most likely be of no interest to you unless you’re a cellist and have some interest in electric cellos, either because you own one or because you’re wondering if you might like to buy one. But I like to document stuff, and it’s my blog, so here we go.

I’ve played cello in various settings, public and private, over the years — community orchestras, chamber groups, an occasional solo in church. I’m not a professional, and my technique is not what it was ten years ago, but I can still get around on the instrument.

Fifteen years or so ago, I bought an electric cello so I could play in a local jazz group. It was great fun, and a fine instrument, though a bit awkward in certain respects. Sadly, it has now become electrically unreliable, and the maker (Eric Jensen of Seattle) has died. I’m looking around for someone who might be able to repair it, but so far I haven’t found anybody.

I’d like to get out of the house and play some music in the community. How about doing some arrangements of well-known songs in my computer and taking the recorded backing tracks out to a coffee shop or a local winery so I can play solos? Great idea! So last month I started putting together the backing tracks and ordered a new electric cello from NS Design.

Two days ago the cello arrived, I unpacked it and set it up, and … ehh. It looks great, but looks aren’t everything.

NS Design is a reputable company. It’s headed by Ned Steinberger, who used to build high-end electric guitars until he lost his company and the rights to his own name. So now he builds electric violins, violas, cellos, and upright basses. His cellos are popular, and I had no hesitation in assuming I would like playing one.

On the other hand, I have always advised people never to buy a cello online. Buy from a local shop, after trying out the instrument! Well, there are no local shops that stock electric cellos, so an online purchase was the only option. Also, I bought the Jensen cello sight unseen, and that worked out well.

I like a cello with a high E string in addition to the usual four (A, D, G, and C). Especially when it comes to playing solos, having the extra high range is a valuable resource. So okay, the NS Design CR-5 with the high E.

Turns out, there are two significant issues with the NS cello — the tripod and the sound. Let’s start with the sound.

My first impression was that the cello sounded awfully nasal. It’s not a pleasant sound at all. Fortunately, my gigging amp has a semi-parametric midrange EQ, so I’m able to dial back the nasal overtones. The amp also has a tube preamp, which fattens up the sound a bit. I can live with it.

On analyzing the situation, though, I can see why the NS sounds the way it does. It’s a hollow-body. Packed inside that little tiny body (see the photo below) are a battery holder and a preamp. In addition, the neck has a truss rod. That is, there’s a hollow tube running up and down the interior of the neck. Both the body and the neck act as resonant cavities. This is not the case with the Jensen: It’s just a plank. The Jensen preamp is off in a separate box, and there’s no truss rod. Here’s the NS, reposing gracefully in my living room:

I also noticed that the E string on the NS cello sounds thin. It doesn’t have as much presence as I’d like. To check whether this was just a subjective impression, I recorded some bits into my computer. Here you can see an identically fingered phrase played twice on each string — first on the E (twice), then on the A and so on.

As you can clearly see, the amplitudes of the other four strings are pretty much the same. The E string is anemic.

The E string sounds even thinner and more reluctant as you play higher up on the neck. So do the other strings. That makes sense, up to a point. There’s less vibrating length of string, so the sound won’t be as loud. Out of curiosity, I compared the NS E string to the A string on my acoustic cello, alternating high notes with the open string. Here’s the NS:

And here’s the acoustic cello, using the A string:

In each case, the open string is visibly louder — but the difference is much more marked on the NS than on the acoustic cello. I haven’t measured the difference in decibels, but the graphics confirm what I can hear. Since the whole point of having an E string is to be able to play in the high range when the music calls for it, this is not desirable behavior.

[Edit: A tech at NS responded to my email. He doesn’t know what’s causing the problem, but it appears they’ll most likely be willing to have me send it back so they can try to fix it. Just to be clear, I haven’t alleged any malfeasance on their part. I’m just describing a problem, that’s all.]

Now about the tripod. The NS Design website alleges that you can order the cello with either a tripod stand (which is their standard design) or an optional part that provides an end pin, knee braces, and a chest rest. With the end pin option, the instrument can be held and played comfortably (or so I would guess) as if it were an acoustic cello. Unfortunately, the end pin option is out of stock, so I got the tripod.

The tripod sucks. It sucks first because the cello does not move with you when you want it to, and second because the cello does move when you don’t want it to.

Unless you’re a drummer or a pianist, there’s always a bit of give and take with an instrument that you play seated. If you lean forward or to the side, the instrument quite automatically comes along for the ride. As a result, the angles of your arms do not have to change with respect to the angle of your torso. The torso, arms, and cello move together as a unit. When the cello is mounted on a tripod, however, any movement of your torso requires you to change the angles of both arms. This is an extra technical hurdle that gets in the way of both intonation and reliable bowing.

Think about it: Ned Steinberger used to build guitars. That’s why he put a completely unnecessary truss rod in the neck of the cello. He’s applying his guitar building smarts. But how many electric guitarists have you ever seen playing their guitar on a tripod? Would that be, none at all, not ever? I’m guessing, but I’ll bet you $20 I’m right. Who has ever heard of such a thing?

So why even offer the cello tripod as an option? Well, you can play the cello standing up, or at least that’s the theory. The tripod can indeed be extended upward. But you’re going to have exactly the same problem with torso movement, and it will be amplified by the fact that your fanny isn’t planted on a chair.

And then there’s vibrato. Standard technique on cello, as on violin and other instruments. You wobble your hand up and down rather energetically while your finger is pressed firmly against the string, and the pitch of the note obligingly animates. It’s a bog-standard technique. On an acoustic cello there is some limited amount of movement of the instrument body as you vibrate: The cello is not set in a block of cement. But the movement is constrained by the pressure of your knees and your chest, which hold the instrument in check.

When the instrument is on a tripod, neither your knees nor your chest has been invited to the party. Vibrato in a high position (just to be clear, on a cello “high” means closer to the floor) causes the instrument to wobble back and forth quite fluidly. This will affect the tone your bow is producing, because the bow arm is moving at a steady rate. It’s not speeding up and slowing down in time with the vibrato. Nor could it.

If they can overnight me an end pin attachment (they can’t, it’s out of stock), I could offer to return the tripod as a straight trade, no cash changing hands. But that still leaves the problem of the E string, and that’s not a problem that’s likely to be readily solved. I have no way of knowing whether I got a defective unit, or whether it’s the design that’s defective, but in either case they need to make it right.

I would like to be ready to do some gigging when the outdoor venues open up in April. There are probably half a dozen wineries within five miles of my house, all of which have outdoor tasting every weekend. Getting a few gigs shouldn’t be an insurmountable challenge, even for an old geezer like me. But sound reinforcement with an acoustic cello — no. Not going to go there. I need an electric.

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2 Responses to E is for “Ehh…”

  1. George Oliver says:

    Really good review (and I don’t even play cello), but I’m wondering what the dealbreakers are with pickups/mic’ing the acoustic? Just too much stuff to haul?

    • midiguru says:

      Actually, there’s more to haul with an electric cello. The cello itself is small, but the amp (which you can see in the photo) is so heavy I can no longer get it in and out of the car. The problem with miking an acoustic cello is that the mic picks up whatever is in the room — as does the cello! If you happen to be playing in a band with a drummer, the cello’s body will resonate with the sound of the kick drum, and that resonance will be picked up by the mic. Adding a pickup to an acoustic cello suffers from the same problem to some extent, and it’s tricky to do, because where do you put it? If it’s a magnetic pickup under the strings, you have to clamp it to the bridge somehow, which will damp the tone of the acoustic body because the string vibrations won’t pass through the bridge, and you won’t be gaining anything, because an electric cello is just the strings and the pickup.

      There is also the question of how you check the balance of sound in the venue. With an acoustic cello and a mic or pickup, you have to be _behind_ the P.A. speakers in order to avoid feedback, so you simply cannot know that the sound is balanced out in the house. With a solid-body electric you can be positioned in front of the P.A., so you’ll hear more or less what the audience will hear.

      To add to the conundrum, there are almost no 5-string acoustic cellos. They’re a rarity, and expensive. If you want to play melodies in the upper register and you’re not a virtuoso, having a 5-string is a big advantage.

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