– Because I read reviews to learn about other instruments and the luthiers who made them, I find reviews that gush about particular instruments to be boring. I’m pleased that the writer loves their instrument, but then I question how much of the review is really descriptive, and how much is colored by that ‘honeymoon feeling’, especially since those reviews rarely seem to have anything to say about the instrument that is not superlative. So no gushing here, even when there is reason to. Specifically, if I ever use the word 'stunning' or any of its derivative forms in these reviews, may I be flogged repeatedly and unmercifully with a handful of rusty Black Diamond guitar strings (12-string, medium gauge).
– I am on record that I have found it a rarity to encounter an instrument that I would call ‘Exceptional’ (which is my subjective category for the small handful of the finest instruments I have ever played), and my personal quest is to own a few of these Exceptional instruments. This is the yardstick against which I evaluate instruments.
– Evaluating a mandolin is a personal, subjective thing, involving qualitative judgements, but in describing the experience to others I strive to be as empirical and methodical in my descriptions as possible. When they appear in the narrative below, the terms 'poor,' 'fair,' 'good,' 'very good,' 'excellent' and 'outstanding' fall along a six-point quality continuum that most should be familiar with.
– How would you describe the taste of an orange to someone who never ate one? Similarly, all discussions of tone ultimately devolve into metaphorical language as we attempt to describe in words that which can only be experienced first-hand through the senses. We also tend to choose metaphors that are value-laden (‘sweet’ is good, ‘muddy’ is bad, etc.). I will strive to use value-neutral terms unless a value-laden one seems more accurately descriptive.
Choosing the Poe:
With the acquisition of my magnificent Heiden F5, a very dark-toned mandolin, I decided to look for a good F5 with a more traditional, mid-rangey Loar-type voice to complement it. I had admired the photos I'd seen of Andrew Poe's mandolins, and got to play Poe #33, a gorgeous reimagining of an F4, with a 13-fret neck, so he'd been on my shortlist of mandolin builders for some time. When Poe #26 came up for sale in the classifieds at MandolinCafe.com I got in touch with Steve, the owner. He already had another Poe and couldn't keep both. Through a number of phone calls and emails, and after listening to a number of soundclips Steve graciously recorded for me, I thought it might be what I was looking for, so I had him send it to me. I knew that Andy had had an accident in his shop that left him unable to build for some time, and when he resumed building, he was focusing more on A-models, ukuleles and flat-backed 'Scout' model mandolins based on the old Gibson 'pancake' instruments, so his F5's are fairly rare. When it arrived, it complemented my Heiden wonderfully, as I had hoped, and after several years living with it, it's long-overdue for a review.
Playing an instrument is a complex sensory experience involving Sight, Sound and Touch, and here are my thoughts regarding each of these dimensions for this mandolin.
This is Andy's Deluxe model, and, with the exception of a gold finish on the Waverly tuners and James tailpiece, it seems to have been loaded with every option he offered at the time. It looks like he used the best wood in his stash for this mandolin: the red spruce top is straight and tight and the maple in the back, sides and neck is as highly flamed as any I've seen. It has multi-ply purfling with creamy celluloid binding everywhere possible: on the top, back, sides, fingerboard and headplate. The nut and tuner buttons are mother of pearl and the tight 'fern' inlay on the headplate features well-chosen colorful and variegated abalone. The joinery is impeccably finished and the french polish over oil varnish gives the honey-colored sunburst a rich glow. The rich, golden colors of this mandolin are worth mentioning as being especially beautiful. I'm not a big fan of sunbursts, especially the typical multicolor type that runs from dark brown or black through red to yellow, so I find the Poe, with its varying tints of a single golden brown to be especially pleasing, and the finish's moderate gloss gives it a nice glow without appearing glaring.
I've always considered the excecution of the scroll, with its flowing curves in three dimensions and tight spaces in which to work,to be the element that really demonstrates the craftsman's skill, since even a small flaw can mar the scroll's balance and integrity in a noticeable way. The Poe's scroll is as cleanly and beautifully executed as any I've seen. The overall attention to the smallest details is outstanding, from the choice of tortoiseshell dots for the fret markers in the bass side binding, right down to the black stain on the inside edges of the f-holes. It's as lovely an F5 as I've seen.
In addition, the mandolin came with an attractive custom Ameritage case with Poe's logo stiched and embossed on the case's cover.
Most of this category addresses how it feels to play it, but there are some basic tactile impressions as well.
At 2.4 pounds the Poe feels in the typical range for a truss-rod equipped mandolin. Like most such mandolins, the balance point is weighted a bit toward the neck, but it doesn't feel particularly neck-heavy, especially since I fitted it with a Tone-Gard soon after its arrival, adding a bit more weight to the body.
The wood surfaces feel smooth and comfortably worn. Even the gloss top and back have lost the tackiness of varnish and feel smooth and dry under the fingers, especially important on the neck, where sanding down to the bare wood seems to be the most popular way to get a 'speed neck,' but at the cost of a beautifully stained and finished neck. I like a substantial radius in a fingerboard but the Poe's 12" radius feels like enough to meet my minimum standards. The neck profile is a pronounced rounded V-shape, just the way I like it. The binding edges have been smoothed off also, and when you wrap your hand around it, the whole neck has a round, comfortable feel to it – substantial without feeling at all thick. The neck relief is close to perfectly set up with great, low action and no protruding fret edges.
I am extraordinarily picky about string spacing at the nut, and usually replace the nuts on my mandolins with my own, made to my specs. The Poe's nut is close to my preferences, and since its made from a lovely piece of mother of pearl, a material I've heard needs extra care to work with, I've decided to keep it.
This category describes various parameters of the instrument's voice, and I will attempt to define my terms as I go along.
This is a measure of consistency in the prominence of frequencies throughout the dynamic range. It's a critical feature for me and fortunately the Poe is extremely well-balanced. When the strings are played individually, notes are strong with good volume everywhere on the fretboard. When strummed, all strings can be heard distinctly.
This is a measure of the length and consistency in the decay of audible frequencies. I measure sustain by using a stopwatch, hitting a firm strum, then leaning in close until the sound fades to silence. I do this several times, then average the times. I’m usually within a second each time. My custom guitars all have a sustain between 30-35 seconds. I expect a mandolin to have a sustain a good bit shorter than a guitar, so I consider this one's 15-16 second sustain to be about average, and good for my purposes. The 'D' tone has the longest decay, with the harmonic partials falling away after about 8 seconds, leaving the fundamental tones to dominate.
Volume & Projection
This is a measure of the amplitude for both player (volume) and listener (projection). From the player's perspective, the Poe has good-to-excellent volume, that you don't have to lean over to hear. While not as loud as my Heiden, it's still an assertive voice. The projection is also good-to-excellent and the Poe has no trouble filling a room.
This quality describes both the amount of energy required to move the strings (its sensitivity) as well as the speed at which it responds to that energy (its 'pop'). An instrument with strong 'pop' will tend to have a shorter sustain, since much of the energy moving the string is expended immediately after the pick's attack. This mandolin has good 'pop' and a light touch will bring a suitable response.
The depth or spaciousness of the sound is what gives it dimension and presence. I think of it as how far down in the body the sound seems to come from and how completely the sound chamber is pushing out sound. The Poe has moderate depth with a clear, focused voice that seems primarily to be a function of the top.
The character of the harmonic frequencies as an indicator of how completely an instrument seems to be vibrating is what many call resonance. However, I make a distinction for it here as a measure of fullness in the sound I can both hear AND feel. A highly resonant instrument will be maximizing its ability to produce sound. The Poe's resonance is very good-to-excellent.
Overtones are the harmonic frequencies complementing the fundamental tones. Some limit the definition to partials of the plucked strings, but I use it to encompass sympathetic vibrations in the unplucked strings as well. As luthier Alan Carruth puts it, "An acoustic (instrument) acts as a complex filter, reducing the output of some frequencies and enhancing others relative to the mix the plucked string produces. Every (instrument) is a bit different in this regard." An instrument that generates a lot of overtones is said to be 'complex' or 'sparkling,' while one with fewer overtones is said to be 'dry.' These complementary frequencies add tonal color and give the sound personality. In general, I like a moderate amount of overtones in a mandolin, but for this instrument I was looking for more of a dry, traditional sound without a lot of overtones. In this regard, the Poe fits the bill very well.
If the sustain and overtones give an instrument its distinctive 'personality,' timbre or tone describes the quality of that personality, combining the fundamentals, overtones and all other resonant frequencies generated by both the vibrating strings and the vibrating wood to create a particular instrument's unique voice. It's what makes a middle 'C' played on a clarinet sound different from a middle 'C' played on a trumpet. It is this 'quality of personality' I believe most folks refer to when they speak generally about an instrument's 'tone,' and this is a subjective area where metaphor becomes the standard currency. While not presuming to impose my own language on others, I offer here my own definitions of commonly used metaphors that I have found useful. To my ears, many of these terms refer to points on a spectrum of a given quality. For example:
- 'woody' to 'metallic' - On the woody end, a timbre reminiscent to that of a marimba bar or wooden bell struck by a wooden mallet (thok!) to a sharper, more brilliant timbre on the metallic end. A mandolin is made of wood and metal, and its tone will have qualities of both, while the desired proportion of each is a matter of taste.
- 'dark' to 'bright' - Dark instruments tend to be very woody sounding, while bright instruments lean more toward the metallic side. Warm/cold describe similar qualities. 'Mid-range-y' would emphasize the prominence of, duh – the middle. It's important to note that timbre or tone is a quality of the entire dynamic range of the instrument, so a mandolin with a bright timbre will have a crispness throughout, even in the low end, while a dark-toned instrument will have a softer edge to the sound, even in the high end.
- 'dry' to 'complex' - Fewer overtones on the dry end to more on the complex end. I sometimes substitute 'sparkling' for 'complex' to describe the effect of the multiple tones one hears when overtones blend with the fundamental.
- 'focused' to 'spacious' - Compressed-sounding timbre producing increased volume and projection on the focused end to an open-sounding timbre with less projection on the spacious end.
- 'thin' to 'fat' - Less resonance on the thin end to abundance of resonance on the fat end. How 'thick' a tone sounds is often a consequence of how quickly the note blooms after the pick's attack, its 'pop.'
So, keeping these terms in mind, I find that this mandolin has a mid-range-y timbre, with warm, clear trebles and a dry, focused quality that dominates. It possesses respectable 'pop' and notes are strong and smooth everywhere on the fingerboard, even on the highest notes.
In looking for a focused, traditional-sounding F5 to complement my Heiden, I got more than I was expecting with the Poe. It had the timbre I wanted, with more volume than I was expecting, and was beautifully made, to boot. Throw in all of the upgrades this mandolin features and it's a terrific example of a modern F5.