Saturday June 06, 2020
Silvio Dalla Torre
Guest Articles / Sundries

The Latest about the Bass in Fifths

Since I had been occupying myself for several years with the Bassetto and the tuning G-D-A-E, Joel Quarrington’s invitation to give a masterclass at the Royal Conservatory in Toronto, Canada, was a welcome opportunity to get acquainted with the fifths-tuning C-G-D-A in practice. Joel himself has been playing with this tuning for a long time in orchestra as well as solo and teaches it to his students.

I was convinced therefrom, that the tuning C-G-D-A 
  • can be completely mastered in everyday orchestral conditions, and that even students who are at the beginning of their studies are able to cope with it
  • sounds better not only for the player but above all for the listener
  • allows the bass to blend better with the other string instruments when playing in ensemble
After returning from Toronto, I wanted to find out if the superior sound of the bass in fifths was a phenomenon of the room acoustic or if the instrument itself possessed a more favourable vibration pattern. I had read an article by David Chapman (published in June 2003 in the Galpin Society Journal, Oxford) in which he disputed that the double bass tuned in fifths sounded better (and maintained that the tuning could not be technically mastered). I therefore had good reason for an objective acoustic reading and asked the sound engineer at the University of Music and Drama Rostock, Carsten Storm, to undertake one.

To make the reading as precise as possible, Carsten Storm suggested taking an acoustic reading of an instrument under exactly the same conditions, first tuned in fourths and then in fifths. For both tests I used my double bass from Gustav Naese (Dresden, 1880) and "Obligato" strings from Pirastro. (The fifths-tuning set was developed especially, for which I am very thankful to the string developer Adrian Müller). To limit the contribution from the room reverberation as much as possible, the reading was undertaken in an anechoic chamber. A "Brüel & Kjaer 4003" measuring microphone with a lineal frequency response up to 20 kHz (thereby ruling out any effect on the sound from the microphone) was placed 55 cm away from the instrument’s bridge.

The tuning F#-B-E-A was analysed first (in December 2005). I played a chromatic scale of all the stopped notes without open strings (G 3 octaves below middle C to A 1 octave above middle C [real pitch]) constantly at the maximum volume in the tempo MM=72, whereby I held every note for three beats and then rested for three beats. The optical option on the metronome was used to avoid the sound of the beat. The scale was recorded and saved onto hard disk using the program "Samplitude 7.0 professional".

The test was repeated in February 2006, this time with the tuning C-G-D-A, after the strings had had enough time to stretch and lose their initial harshness. All of the stopped notes (C# 3 octaves below middle C to A 1 octave above middle C) were recorded again.

The result of the sound comparison:

The reading confirms the subjective heard impression. The double bass tuned in fifths sounds fuller, rounder and therefore more balanced. The graphic shows the volumes of the played notes. It is thereby discernible, that the volume differences are clearly much slighter with the fifths-tuning than the fourths-tuning. This is especially shown by the high notes above G. The better balance of the single notes can be attributed to the broader frequency spectrum. In conclusion, it can be said that the tuning in fifths is superior in every accoustic respect.

However, a reading can never replace your own ears. Have a listen to: