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Whether to Amplify or Not a Solo Double Bass?


I am writing this article because I consider it an interesting subject to discuss, which is little or almost nothing talked about in the world of solo double bass. Some of us ask ourselves from time to time whether it is moral or not to play as a soloist with an amplified double bass. Some…

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International Journal of Music

I am writing this article because I consider it an interesting subject to discuss, which is little or almost nothing talked about in the world of solo double bass. Some of us ask ourselves from time to time whether it is moral or not to play as a soloist with an amplified double bass. Some performers, both detractors and supporters, have it quite clear, but others not so much.

With this heading, I am referring, of course, to playing amplified as a simple support, with a bit volume, just enough to play some passages more comfortably without forcing the sound and maintaining the natural sound of the instrument itself. I have made tests and demonstrations to other colleagues, ensuring that the audience in the room cannot detect whether the sound comes from my instrument or an amplifier placed more than five feet away.

Not so many years ago, the thought of amplifying a double bass with a microphone in a concert hall when playing as a soloist with an orchestra was inconceivable. It was quite a difficult task, both from a technical and practical point of view. The sound output tended to be relatively precarious, plus the annoying and recurring beeps from the Larsen effect feedback that often accompanied every performance. Usually, the instrument’s sound would be unclear and imprecise, adding the fact of trying to play difficult passages surrounded by uncomfortable supports or stands, which would get easily hit, producing unpleasant “puffs” of noise in the hall.

This was the standard procedure until not long ago, but, fortunately, today, we have some microphones that do allow us to get a realistic sound and that, due to their placement, capture the instrument more directionally, thus isolating the double bass a bit from the other sounds in the hall. Some of them also have the quality of not disturbing the performer in the handling of the right hand and practically not distorting the aesthetics of the instrument itself.

Another drawback to playing amplified comes from where the microphone captures the sound. Currently, numerous concert halls have PA systems and sound engineers. Still, it is also possible to use a head with a cabinet or, furthermore, to use a combo, as long as it has phantom power, or we use an auxiliary head.

Despite all these technical issues, the conclusion I reach on the matter is, the soloist himself or the musician, in general, is the real obstacle to playing amplified in some cases because it is not necessary for all kinds of repertoire.

If a musician is playing amplified, we commonly think it is because he/she cannot get enough sound to play with an orchestra. Unfortunately, this can be assumed by a large part of the orchestra and even the director.

We tend to overlook critical factors when deciding not to have the support of microphonics while playing as soloists. One of the main factors is as elementary as the double bass was not designed to be used as a soloist instrument. Today, bass and string makers have improved some characteristics to aid in the projection of the double bass. Still, again, our instrument was not designed to play in front of an orchestra. Besides, concert halls have changed over time from small theaters or lyceums to massive buildings with audiences of more than 2,500 people.

It should also be noted that composers sometimes use excessive instrumentation, adding a lot of sound and timbre to their works, or even resorting to inappropriate dynamics. These things do not let the soloist shine. This creates the need to force the sound or changing articulations.

Nowadays, we have the opportunity of listening to many recordings, watching videos and streamings of multiple good soloists without even realizing what we experience is not exactly what we would perceive if we were in a concert hall. The explanation for this statement is that all these soloists play amplified. The instrument’s sound has been captured with its own microphone. Their sound is intensified with a more direct projection in the editing process than it would have had in a hall.

Thinking about this, I wonder how amplifying the solo instrument in a specific composition piece could be incorporated. For example, Frank Proto suggests amplifying the solo double bass in the orchestral score of his Carmen Fantasy, but despite this suggestion from the composer himself, hardly anyone does it.

In 2017, while giving a masterclass at the Royal College of Music in London, we gave a conference on Composition for double bass. The speakers were Alberto Bocini, David Heyes, and I. During the talk, someone queried about this topic. Thinking about how the double bass could be amplified in a solo work without any prejudice on the part of a conductor, the orchestra itself, or even the audience, Bocini very aptly said: “Include it in the title!” It seemed to me to be such a brilliant idea that the following year, in 2018, I wrote on behalf of Diego Zecharies a concerto for double bass and string orchestra in the Funk/Blues/Hip hop style, entitled Concerto for Amplified Double Bass & String Orchestra.

Despite the music style in which it is written, this particular work could have the amplifier optional since the soloist is accompanied by a string orchestra and has numerous double bass solo cadenzas. I just found it significant to add it in the title to break certain invisible barriers and preconceptions.

I would like to end by making it clear that I have no intention of convincing anyone about anything; this is simply a reflection on some thoughts that have been with me for years.

English translation: Violetta Donadoni.

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