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"Good improvisation communicates harmonic progression melodically. Effective melodies manipulate harmonic content through the use of guide tones and preparatory gravity notes, masterfully woven in systematic tension, release, and transparent harmonic definition."

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June 18, 2007 | The sweet spot; getting what you pay for.

Drumsets come in all price ranges. You can find the $199 "disposable" five-piece drumkits in department stores and some of the bigbox music chains, a $7000 set-up in a boutique drum store, and everything in between. What makes one more expensive than the other will be the hardware and stands that hold the drums up, quality metal and ergonomic set-up options, but the biggest difference will be found in the drum shells and the way a head mounts to them.

Drums are like mandolins; they are constructed of quality hardwoods for resonance. Mahogany shells can give warmth and bass, Birch and Beech yield projection, Maple and Ash qualities of either (and hard to pigeon-hole into words); all are considered by cost and desired tonal effect of the drummer. Poplar and plywood are cheap to make, and give a player something to beat on, resembling a real drum. You also have options of the way the head is suspended over the bearing edge. Different mounting hardware, angle and craftsmanship in cutting and sanding the bearing edge--all will effect the over all quality of the drums sound.

There is an interesting phenomenon even the non-drummer can experience while listening to the difference between a cheap drum and expensive. When you tune a drum, it yields a "sweet spot," an area where the drum is at its optimum tone-producing pitch. Head vibrates clearly and in synchronicity with the shell. You can hear this when you tighten the drum as you tune to appropriate pitch; when you go above it, the drum starts loosing it's resonance and character (high enough, you can break the head). Staying below it, the drum is flabby and bears no projection.

What is amazing is the tonal range between cheap drum and high-priced professional one. You start to understand why they fetch their high price when you see how much wider the tuning tension range is on a pro kit. There is so much more capability of sound and a discreet ear will notice this immediately. Drum salespeople joke that if a high-end pro drum is good enough, it will still sound fantastic even if it's poorly tuned!

So what does this have to do with mandolin? We talk about the sweet spot between the frets, where the proper tension and placement of finger yields the most amount of sound through the rest of the instrument. A cheap plywood mandolin will have very limited tonal capability even when the illusive sweet spot is covered. Zero in on the fret of a more expensive instrument, and you'll notice the ease at which the sweet spot can be arrived (and heard). Certainly, a good fret job and bridge will contribute, but nonetheless, the rest of the instrument resonates through quality top back and sides the tonal character, and projects the player's intent.

The instrument doesn't necessarily have to have a high price tag, but you have to understand you get what you pay for. Better builders have taken generations of skill and advice to achieve this quality, and it's never an accident. If they can do it better than the next one, they are simply worthy of a higher price tag.

Hitting a drum with a stick to listen for a sweet spot is a good metaphor for your own search for the cure in Mandolin Acquisition Syndrome. Playing fast notes won't reveal an instrument's tonal character; it's not just about how an instrument feels, often frets can be adjusted. Slow, sustained plucks, like spanking a drum will tell you much more about a mandolin's character when you audition its sound capability. Listen for how long a single struck note can hold its character over time.

If an instrument has good tone, you get to play that good tone faster when you speed up. If it has bad tone, all you're left with is a bad instrument that sounds bad, only faster.

Posted by Ted at June 18, 2007 4:33 AM

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