Double Bass Extended Techniques
Exploring techniques for new sounds on the double bass.
Gahlord Dewald :: 1/10/2018 :: Burlington, Vermont
This is an ongoing project. As I go on through the project I’ll continue to add to this page as I discover new sounds through experimentation. For each entry you will find an audio sample, technical notes, and a few thoughts on what I learned about each specific extended technique.
Extended Technique for Double Bass: what is this?
Extended techniques are novel ways of generating expressive musical sound on an instrument. Most of the time, bassists are called upon to use two primary forms of sound generation on their instrument: arco or pizzicato. Additionally, there are a handful of common tone colors to cover the shades between bright and dark. A bassist could go through an entire career without straying very far from these standard possibilities.
But these standard possibilities are greatly compressed when compared with the full expressive capabilities of the instrument. For composers and players wishing to explore more possibilities there the techniques beyond the standard, the so called “extended” techniques. Outside of the Western canon many of these “extended” techniques are common, of course. The percussive elements of honky-tonk bass playing is just one example.
Why study extended techniques?
Pursuing extended techniques on double bass is a way of increasing expressiveness for music-making. It can be a useful collection of personal skills in improvisation or open up access to a range of new works for double bass composed in the past 100 years or so.
I want more expressive music to exist. By doing this project I know that more expressive works for double bass will be made.
Additionally, exploring these sounds is personally rewarding for me. Working with them changes how I think about and perform experimental music. Also, it’s a chance to work on some of the technical and gear aspects of recording.
These activities are important for contemporary musicians and they only get better/faster if we do them frequently.
Index: Extended Techniques for Double Bass
- Pizzicato below the bridge
- Left hand tapping, pizz, and pulls
- Controlling transitions to the spectral realm
- Sympathetic vibration on the double bass
- Note attack and resonance
- Stealing from others
- Col legno, three ways
- Tapping and Bowing
- Three flavors of double bass pizzicato
- Prepared double bass
- White noise, bowing without sound
For music listeners:
For listeners, this is a collection of experimental music that you can scan through. There won’t be many long works; it’s be a collection of little things for your ears. I hope people find some to like but if not, that’s ok too.
For experimental musicians:
For fellow experimental musicians, I hope you become inspired to share more of your sketches and thinkings. There isn’t a set standard group of performance practices that make up the extended techniques. These are things we discover together. Some of them might only be performable by certain people or with specific instruments or equipment.
I hope that the resulting collection of sounds helps to inspire more experimental works that include the double bass. In particular, I hope that it highlights some of the great extended techniques and alternative sounds we can get out of this beast.
Pizzicato below the bridge
Some pizzicato below the bridge. I enjoy this sound because it reminds me of a kalimba. We get four pitches that are sort of related, they resonate if quietly, and they’re up in a different register than we normally get.
Experiments on double bass timbres in this piece include:
- primarily pizz below the bridge of the bass
- rolling pizzicato
- dampening the plucked strings
- thumping on the tailpiece, main strings muted
- thumping on the main strings unmuted (at the end)
Some things I learned are that I can absolutely run these four strings two handed (I play seated cello style so I don’t have to worry much about supporting the instrument), dampening the main string length while playing below the bridge makes the tone nominally clearer but probably not enough to really worry about, when thumping the tailpiece letting the main string length ring makes an interesting reverb-like effect, the whole thing is very quiet and probably wouldn’t work in a large venue without amplification.
Mostly I just wanted to explore these timbres. The nature of the sounds lend themselves to something rhythmic so I focused on that, establishing phrases and patterns that I could repeat or alter or accent at different rates. An attempt at folding sound patterns over themselves.
Microphone: AKG 414B-ULS in cardioid mode, placed just off the treble side of the tailpiece and very close.
Mic Pre: Electrodyne 501 fairly jacked up.
Processing: a little bit of sculpting down in the lower end to remove rumble but preserve the tone of the tailpiece thump.
Left hand tapping, pizz, and pulls
One of the composers I’ve commissioned to write a new work for double bass had some questions about left hand pizzicato and bowing at the same time. So I figured it would make for a good entry into this project.
As noted above, I am exploring LH pizz methods along with bowing in this entry.
Extended techniques I used:
- Left hand pizzicato (the forefinger holds a pitch while the third & fourth finger plucks the string)
- Left hand tapping (the finger strikes the fingerboard loud enough to sound the pitch, you’ll also hear the “remainder” of the string–between the finger and the nut–sound)
- Pull offs (pulling with a finger that is already down, causing the next finger down or the nut to sound).
In addition, I was seeing how it is to bow with the right hand along with these different kinds of left hand pizz. Some pieces already in repertoire (Motivi, for example) do this to some small degree, but none really make a primary issue of it. I have a feeling that’s going to change though, having seen an initial sketch from my composer friend!
Microphone positioning and gear etc were the same as in “Pizzicato below the bridge.”
Controlling transitions to the spectral realm
Another composer-driven entry in the. One of the composers working on a piece for me asked whether it was possible to fade between a full note and a harmonic/spectral quality. I’d explored this some in interpreting Sogge’s “Design I” graphical score so I revisited here. And then I just felt like putting in some choppy bass drone texture. Oh, and we get a siren from the outside world so I play with that too.
Accepting the general noisy environment of my studio is a sort of love-hate for me. Sometimes I get a little precious and wish it were quieter like a “real” studio. Other times I’m happy that the “real” world gets to leak into the sounds.
Here are some experimental/research questions I had for myself with this upright bass sketch:
- How does the fade between harmonic and normal note work/feel? Can I control it and how?
- Do I enjoy hammering away at a single note physically, in my hands? in my ears?
- Oh shit there’s a siren, how do I respond?
- Extended techniques for double bass here is mostly limited to harmonics/spectral qualities.
Results of the research:
I think I have an in-the-hands sense of controlling the bow to fade between note and harmonic. I’m using the physics of the string as well by moving the sounding point closer to (to favor harmonics) and further from (to favor a pitch) the bridge.
By not increasing pressure as I get closer to the bridge the harmonic of the string begins to emerge from and then overtake the tone. I think I could work this up to be pretty controllable and relatively seamless.
I do enjoy hammering away at a single not in both my hands and my ears.
As for that siren, ah well. Real life inserts itself.
Same as in the two previous entries, I’m using the AKG 414B-ULS (the older, transistor infused large diaphragm model) off the treble side of the bridge, in real close–the mic starts to overload a bit in parts. A little EQ to remove sub harmonic junk. New in this take is a little bit of tape emulation. Tape emulation is great as a “soft clipper” in that it will often shave off slight bits of energy at specific frequencies depending on machine, tape type, speed, etc. This is kind of like multi-band compression but kind of not. Anyway, it’s something I like to use to help a recording sound more like what my ears pick up or more like what I want a sound to be. Maybe I’ll write more about this sort of thing in future installments.
Sympathetic vibration on the double bass
Today I was working with sympathetic resonance. I like the reverb-like effect it produces.
Nothing too fancy here, just playing with the way a string will resonate in sympathy with a pitch played on another string.
The same up-close AKG c414B-ULS, just off the bridge. Close enough, in fact, that when messing around it was tricky to keep from bumping it. There are parts in this recording, where the notes are being sawn away, that the mic overloads, adding a bit of roughness to the already pretty rough texture. Minimal processing–some tape compression and a little EQ and variable-mu compression were used as well. Nothing insane, just normal engineeringy things.
Note attack and resonance
Working a little with “the box” today, also some different ways to attack the string and some of that resonant feel leftover from yesterday’s entry in the Experimental Double Bass project.
- Maintaining a collection of just four notes, create a rhythmic sense that’s interesting enough.
- Research different expressions of note attack
- Research different attack/resonance balances
Since the previous experiment was definitely overloading the mic, I moved the mic back about 3 feet or so. It’s still just off the treble side of the bridge and pointed towards the resonant part of the bass beneath where we bow. I gave it a little more juice in the DAW but left the preamp (Electro-Dyne 501) settings the same as previous recordings.
Bringing out the bow for some arco double bass experimentation. In today’s entry to Experimental Double Bass I’m exploring some harmonics and also some multiphonics–where you get two pitches trying to sound on the same string. It’s the rough sounding stuff in there, you’ll know it when you hear it, would probably make a great practical effect for a donkey!
- Running harmonics across strings
- Exploring multiphonics for double bass (for more on this I highly recommend Hakon Thelin, I need to dig in more there myself)
- Different attacks on harmonics
Same setup as in 100.005: AKG c414B-ULS out a few feet off the treble side of the bridge. I’ll be running this setup for the next few days so we should get a decent sense of how it sounds and feels across a variety of double bass experiments.
Stealing from others
For the next few days my experiments for double bass are based on stealing ideas from The Rhythm Method Quartet’s performance of Leah Asher’s “Leda.” It’s an amazing graphical score string quartet piece. The audio and video of their performance is excellent and you will enjoy watching it so go do that.
In today’s upright bass experiment I focused on sounds and ideas in the first minute and a half of their performance. Transferring ideas and sounds from one string instrument to another felt good. There’s enough similarity of materials–hair, wood, vibrating string, resonant body–but enough differences to make the research interesting.
Also, inspired by the group’s performance, I found myself exploring more compositional structure in my experiments.
Double Bass Experiments
- Copying ideas from another instrument.
- Some flautando/up over the fingerboard
Things I discovered included how much fun it was to see how I might make the sounds of the violins and viola since they operate at a different angle, also that my action–being very high the way I like it–makes flautando a little trickier and I may need to take this into account when I lower it this winter.
Same as 100.005: Good ol’ c414B-ULS (mmmm transistors) out a few feet and on the treble side of the instrument, minimal processing.
Col legno, three ways
Second day of translating ideas from The Rhythm Method’s performance of Leah Asher’s “Leda.” This time looking at things they did between 1:30 and 3:00 in the video.
Working with some extended techniques like col legno (using the wood side of the bow) in arco and “battuto” (hitting the strings with the wood). But also the working the arco variation along the string up and down instead of the usual “sawing” motion.
Also some bouncing on the hair of the bow. Lots of dynamic stuff that is fun to do on the upright bass and since the video of group is so good it’s easy to get some great ideas to try.
Double bass extended technique:
- col legno arco
- col legno battuto
- col legno arco up and down the string length
- bouncing the bow on the hair
Things I learned in this research: it’s possible to do some interesting sounds bouncing on the hair similar to the sounds of bouncing col legno battuto (a sound I’ve always loved since hearing Kronos Quartet do “Black Angels”), I continue to love the sound of col legno arco–probably one of my favorite sounds on the upright bass, moving up and down the string length makes a very quiet and exciting sound. In fact, many of the sounds used during these “Leda” sessions consist of high energy yet quiet… quiet intensity. Overall as a sensation it’s something more to explore!
Haven’t messed with the mic setup since 100.005.
Here’s the third installment of translating ideas from The Rhythm Method’s performance of “Leda.” I was concentrating on minutes 3 through 4:30. This includes the beginning of a movement where they hum/sing and play at the same time. In talking with their violist, Anne Lanzilotti, I learned that they didn’t know which pitches the others were going to select when they did this. This must have added to the excitement of performing it! What’s great in their recording is how the sound suddenly opens up into this eight part harmony/collection-of-tones. That was my inspiration for this, plus remembering a little of Robert Black’s performance of a Christian Wolff piece that sounded like hooting owls. There you have it, I guess sort bird themed all around.
Experiments for Double Bass
- Singing and playing without concern for harmony, just holding and enjoying the sounds.
- Achieving an effect where there’s one event and then a scattering of echo events.
- The final singing/playing part I worked the ponticello side of the string to get those harmonics/spectral effects.
Learning: It takes a lot of focus for me to do the singing and holding the note, but absolutely love the result. I could probably do that all day long and consider it a good day. The event + echo I’m not so sure is as convincing. It’d have to work that out some more. So far though, this is one of my favorites.
Same recording setup as 100.005. There was a glitch in my audio interface part way through that you can hear. I don’t mind it myself as it has an interesting texture. But just a note that it’s a digital noise artifact and not a mic overloading or something that.
Tapping and Bowing
More translating ideas from an amazing extended techniques string quartet: “Leda” by Leah Asher as performed by The Rhythm Method. This time, drawing on sounds between 4:30 and 6:00 in the linked performance video.
I work with attacks and silence, and terribly quiet scrubby sounds–a contrast of volume, pulse/tempo, and pitch vs noise. I’m just at the part in Jennie Gottschalk’s book, Experimental Music Since 1970, that discusses physicality in music and performance and this all fits in so neatly with that.
Upright Bass Experiments
- Translating ideas from other instruments
- Large contrasts across a handful of parameters
- Tapping and bowing
Learning: I continue to find this “steal ideas from someone awesome” approach to be useful musically. The contrasts were fun to work and helped bring some structure in. The tapping and bowing were also enjoyable for my ears.
Same recording setup as in 100.005. Having a studio where I can just leave things set up is something that I love–hit record and go.
Three flavors of double bass pizzicato
In this episode I’m experimenting with different textures of pizzicato on double bass. Pizz is a common way of playing bass. Some jazz bassists go most of their lives never picking up the bow and have a full and satisfying artistic life entirely by hand.
There are more ways to make sound sans bow than the traditional pluck of the bass. Where we pull the string, whether we intend it to sound a distinct pitch or not, how forcefully we pluck: all these things have an impact on the sound and meaning generated by that sound. I wanted to experiment with these things.
Along the way, I began to think a little more about structure in this piece–having an intro, having parts that communicated in the middle, and then having an abrupt ending.
Upright Bass Experiments
- Non-speaking pizzicato
- Pizzicato on the non-sounding length of string
- Good ol’ fashioned Bartok pizz
- Thinking about form
The raw non-speaking texture, played without time or distinctness in pitch, provided an interesting contrast with the pitched varieties of pizzicato.
In addition, the non-sounding length of the string — between the nut and the finger holding down the pitch — had a quiet and echo-like tone that reminded me a little of sul tasto with the bow (though not quite as covered sounding). Obviously the pitch relationships are inverted (the string gets shorter the closer the pitch-generating hand gets to the nut) so some work would have to be done to make extensive use of this technique. I enjoyed the sound and feeling of it though, so perhaps I’ll work on that sometime.
The experiment with adding more form was satisfying for me and I’ll try that again.
Same recording setup as in 100.005. Having a studio where I can just leave things set up is something that I love–hit record and go.
Prepared double bass
Continuing with my love of sympathetic resonances, today’s experiment involves a preparation and unusual use for the double bass.
In 100.017 the bass is primarily an acoustic amplifier with the added sympathetic ringing of the strings. The energy that sets the strings in motion comes from manipulating ice in a glass. This energy is mechanically transmitted through the glass into the bridge and elsewhere on the instrument.
Additional electronics are used to further amplify the sympathetic vibrations. I can often hear and manipulate these sounds up close, from my position as a player. Here I use the microphone to allow the listener to obtain a similar orientation to the instrument.
I chose the Sennheisser MD441 dynamic mic for this project. It’s a fantastic mic and has a handy little bright switch that I turned on to help capture the sounds. I had the mic very very close to the upper left bout of the instrument as the sounds are very very quiet. Further processing with a few digital compressors evens out the clanging of the ice with the ringing tones of the instrument.
White noise, bowing without sound
A composer who is working on a piece for me asked if I would make some white noise sounds for her on the double bass. This entry is a collection of bowed white noises using the strings, the edges, the bridge, and the top plate of the double bass.
Using the bow without creating tone, what are the challenges? What are the limits of dynamics and expression? I learned a few things. Mostly that the solid elements of the double bass—the bridge, the body, and especially the edges—allow for greater expression using a white noise tone. Working the strings brings with it the risk of creating a tone where using the wooden, fixed elements does not.
That said, there are some unique effects that are only available on the strings and some of that danger of creating tone heightens the intensity for me as a performer. For example the slight pitch modulations in the noise content or what I’ve heard my friend Anne Leilehua Lanzilotti (who is a master of these kinds of sounds on the viola and from whom I steal most of my extended techniques) call a “sneeze bow.”
To get the arco on the strings to work requires a significant loosening of the wrist, beyond just being flexible or flowing to being downright floppy. I could see this morphing into a useful exercise to help bassists be aware of how they apply tension and muscle in the wrist while playing.
I’m on a Sennheisser MD441 jag I guess. It’s a fantastic dynamic mic with a bright switch, more typically used for female vocals. Here I’ve set it pointed towards the bridge area on the treble side of the instrument and fairly close (though not as close as in 100.017!). Probably best to watch the video to get a sense of it.
Since these sounds are so quiet you can hear the birds who nest in the eaves outside my window and of course the traffic of Pine Street as the sun is heading down. Useful to remember from a musical standpoint as well: using sounds like this invites the outside world into your music or requires magnificent soundproofing (with no HVAC!).