– 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 an instrument 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. The terms 'poor', 'fair', 'good', 'very good' and 'excellent' fall along a five-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.
Acquiring the Sobell:
In the late 1970's and early '80's I was playing mandolin (mostly) in a band called Hot Shandy. In 1985, my guitar-playing partner Rick decided that a cittern, occupying a middle ground between the mandolin and a guitar, was something he might get into, so he ordered this instrument directly from Stefan. After playing it a few months, he decided to go back to the guitar, and he then sold it to me. I owned it for the next 32 years, and it inspired me to write pieces to play on it that have been some of the most satisfying music I've ever written. It's an inspiring instrument.
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 cittern.
Stefan makes a variety of instruments in a variety of sizes and scale lengths. I believe this cittern would be small-bodied, certainly smaller than the bodies typical of his current instruments, with a 22 1/2" scale length that is just slightly shorter than the 23" scale that is his current standard. It features a Western red cedar top, East Indian rosewood back & sides, a mahogany neck with an ebony fingerboard and an Indian rosewood headplate. It has an ebony bridge capped with bone, a bone nut, a brass tailpiece and an ebony pickguard custom-made and installed for me by the luthier Carl McIntyre. The entire instrument is a rich red-brown set off by by lovely herringbone trim around the top and soundhole. The back and sides feature a light-colored wood (maple?) purfling and Indian rosewood binding. It's fitted with gold Schaller-tuners, a Shadow internal transducer and an internal Audio-Technica lavalier microphone. It has standard guitar frets and position markers at frets 5, 7, 9, 12 and 17. It features a truss rod adjustable at the headplate with an ebony truss rod cover.
Most of this category addresses how it feels to play it, but there are some basic tactile impressions as well.
Given its round body shape and tendency to move about in one's lap, I always played the cittern using a strap that cinched it to my body a bit. The action has always been wonderful and easy to finger, especially given the instrument's 10 strings. I don't recall ever having to adjust the neck, though at some point I did have a small shim glued to the underside of the bridge to raise the action a bit for more vigorous playing. It's a very light instrument with one exception – the ten Schaller tuners add enough weight to the head to make the cittern noticeably neck-heavy, making the use of a strap almost mandatory. I would recommend replacing the tuners with those with plastic housings to reduce the weight and move the balance point closer to the body. The finish is nitrocellulose and years of use have worn away any tendency for the neck finish to 'grab' the hand while playing. The neck profile is comfortably slim and a rounded 'C' shape.
This instrument is extremely well-balanced, with an even, midrange-y voice and good note separation. Single notes are strong just about anywhere on the fingerboard, and when strummed, it sings with a solid, unified voice.
Sustain is this instrument's dominant quality. I measure sustain by using a stopwatch, hitting a firm strum, then leaning in close until the sound fades to silence. I do this 4 or 5 times, then average the times. I’m usually within a second each time. This cittern is my benchmark instrument for a long sustain at a ridiculous 40 seconds. For single-note or fingerpicked pieces, it is truly exceptional, but for crisp rhythm accompaniment, which requires a bit more of a percussive voice, the cittern's long sustain makes it sound a bit jangly and chaotic, with harmonics constantly interacting with each other. The metal tuners probably contribute to the sustain, and replacing them with lighter ones might moderate the sustain a bit.
Volume & Projection
This is a measure of the amplitude for both player (volume) and listener (projection). From the player's perspective, the Sobell has excellent-to-outstanding volume, with a projection that I would also characterize as excellent.
This quality describes both the energy required to move the strings (its sensitivity) as well as the speed at which it responds to that energy (its 'pop'). The Sobell's response was always very sensitive, with moderate pop and notes that swell and bloom after the initial attack. After more than three decades of use it sings at the lightest touch.
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 Sobell has outstanding depth, with a bit more presence than Stefan's larger-bodied instruments.
Presence describes how much space the sound seems to occupy between the instrument and the listener. The cittern's presence occupies a wide arc and would have no problem being heard acoustically with other instruments in a moderate to large room.
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. When played, there is no part of this instrument that does not contribute to its voice.
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. The Sobell's long sustain allows for a lot of interaction between tones, so I would characterize its overtones as many and complex.
If the sustain and overtones give the sound 'personality,' timbre 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. The tone of this cittern is unlike that of any similar instrument I've heard. Having played a dozen or so of Sobell's mando-family instruments, I can say without hesitation that this cittern's voice is truly unique. In addition to its long sustain, its most noticeable quality is a constant 'sparkle' that never seems to fade. Its exquisite voice is as rich and deep as Stefan’s larger-bodied instruments, and there is a shimmering crispness to the tone that is always present, even on dead strings that are months or even years old. In that regard, I’ve never heard another instrument that retains such clarity regardless of the condition of the strings. It really is remarkable.
This is one of the most memorable instruments I have ever owned. Its voice is so distinctive and extraordinary that I named it Excalibur, the 'perfect weapon' for music. It was the acquisition of this instrument so long ago that began my quest to own instruments that I would consider ‘Exceptional,’ which is my subjective category for the small handful of the finest instruments I have ever played. Both a blessing and a curse, it was this cittern that made me realize how good an instrument could sound, and, for better or worse, only an instrument that is truly Exceptional will now satisfy me.