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Beedster

Why do bassists seem to be so obsessed with sustain?

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Some great comments here folks. I think going back to Maude's comment, do better constructed basses sustain for longer? Do otherwise very well constructed basses ever have low sustain? Can a bass with low sustain be considered a very good bass despite this? I just wonder if using sustain as a proxy for instrument quality might be misleading? 

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I wouldn't say I'm obsessed, but I felt I wasn't getting enough and I wanted more when I was looking at a bass about six months ago. The one I bought, the Harley Benton MP-4 Enhanced (this but blue) has a couple of features that work towards that end: heavy bridge with through-body stringing, a zero fret, and chunky construction that means it's happy with quite heavy strings (EXL160BT, 50-120). I didn't know what the pickup would be like, but it's powerful, which means I have it further from the strings than usual, which also helps.

Why? I don't always want it, but I have control e.g. muting is an option. Better to have it and not need it, than to need it and not have it.

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3 minutes ago, bnt said:

Better to have it and not need it, than to need it and not have it.

That's why I carry Rohypnol. 🤫

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1 hour ago, Maude said:

That's why I carry Rohypnol. 🤫

That's why I carry Viagra. I find that definitely increases my sustain.

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3 hours ago, Beedster said:

Some great comments here folks. I think going back to Maude's comment, do better constructed basses sustain for longer? Do otherwise very well constructed basses ever have low sustain? Can a bass with low sustain be considered a very good bass despite this? I just wonder if using sustain as a proxy for instrument quality might be misleading? 

Well it’s just vibrations isn’t it? So the more the wood is vibrating the better the sustain. Depends on; hardware that has contact with the strings, wood choice, construction, and the strings themselves. 
 

I reckon plenty of decent records have been made with a bass that doesn’t sustain but has other qualities or characteristics.

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10 hours ago, Beedster said:

Reading yet another bridge thread this morning, and realised that in nearly every thread about mechanics, e.g., the various Badass v BBOT, through-neck versus bolt-on, tone woods versus whatever the opposite of tone woods are, and even about the basses themselves, sustain is often the characteristic of the bass that is discussed. But why? I get it with, for example lead guitar (although for rhythm it's often completely undesirable), and I get it with some orchestral instruments, although in many again it's undesirable (and I'm prepared to be told I'm wrong, but I assume that with many instruments it's de facto undesirable, for example kick drum)?

Anyway, I've realised over recent years that I've always been impressed by sustain on a bass, as if its capacity to sustain was somehow a mark of superior quality build or components, but that I rarely, if ever use sustain, even on fretless. In fact I use foam mutes so often that whilst being impressed by an instrument's sustain in principle, I often immediately inhibit it.

So, genuine question, why is this? Is sustain just the Emperors' Invisible Clothes, or a legitimate mark of quality? 

Could it be that sustain is lauded simply because there is not all that much to say about 98 out of 100 basses?

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(On a more serious note than my previous post!)

There's more to sustain than just the quantity (duration) there's the quality, too.

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I still don't know much about it but of all the suggestions put forward the answer which appeals to my sense of logic is the better made the more the sustain.

Whether true or not who can say? 

If it's true then it is further proof (not that some of us need proof) of the high quality of budget instruments today. 

I move between Fender, Aria, Marusccshykuk, Harley Benton, Vintage, Bass Collection, Sandberg and never, ever, not once have I even had cause to think about whether or not the sustain is better or worse. It simply does not notice. 

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Hmmm.

Got my HB kit-built bass here. Through a practice amp at pretty low volume. After 20 seconds I could still just hear bottom E and got bored.

My Flea Jazz get as about 12 seconds.

So I'm not convinced that it's directly related to either quality or even 'heft'...

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59 minutes ago, OliverBlackman said:

Well it’s just vibrations isn’t it? So the more the wood is vibrating the better the sustain.

Probably the opposite. Sympathetic vibration of the timber is going to sap energy and reduce sustain.

Imagine a string fitted to a rigid iron frame (piano) or a wooden fame (harp). Which one has long sustain and which one has a plinky plonky sound?

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4 hours ago, Beedster said:

Can a bass with low sustain be considered a very good bass

Some people like Hofners...

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I like sustain, it gives me time to remember what key we're playing in, what notes are in that scale, and what the next chord change is... 😅

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6 minutes ago, Stub Mandrel said:

Probably the opposite. Sympathetic vibration of the timber is going to sap energy and reduce sustain.

Imagine a string fitted to a rigid iron frame (piano) or a wooden fame (harp). Which one has long sustain and which one has a plinky plonky sound?

This is probably why my entirely plywood Kay sustains so well. About 15 layers of alternating grained wood glued together makes for a very solid stiff body compared to a single piece of wood, probably 30 to 40 layers in the neck. Also after nearly 50 years the glue will have crystallised and the whole thing become a solid, brittle mass. Hard and resonant. 

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If I take a geeky engineer-type view, than (like most things) it all comes down to energy. You put energy in to the strings when you hit them, and it's dissipated in various ways: starting with the acoustic sound coming off the bass. I could go on in too much detail, but something like a Steinberger, or neck-through Status or Modulus Graphite, would be my ideal configuration, because they are the most stiff (carbon fibre composite) and have no neck joint. I still agree with the Modulus Graphite folks, who started the whole carbon fibre bass thing, that stiffness translates to less energy loss and therefore more sustain. We talk about "high mass" bridges, but if you had one made of lead, it would probably suck the life out of the sound. So it's not about weight as such, but more about stiffness.

Energy can also be lost in the connections too, which is why I would prefer no neck joint at all. The energy loss is not uniform across the frequency spectrum either: a structure has one or more resonant frequencies, which depend on the mass and the stiffness of the material as well as its dimensions. Lower and stiffer mean higher resonant frequencies, so (as I understand it) something like a Steinberger XL (being so light and stiff) has resonant peaks well above the bass range, meaning it doesn't absorb bass frequencies as much. But that evenness may be why a Steinberger bass sound has less "character" than e.g. a Fender Jazz.

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Why do some bassists seem to be so obsessed with sustain?

There y'go!

In my favoured land of Rickenbacker basses a lot of owners say "fit a Hipshot bridge" to seemingly almost any question. I often ask what it brings and they say "More sustain.", to which I ask what they want that for...

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I’ve never understood why either, and mentioned it in a thread some time ago. I have never, to my knowledge, had a bass with insufficient sustain for what I do, and I’ve owned a lot of basses at all price points.

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11 minutes ago, 4000 said:

...  I have never, to my knowledge, had a bass with insufficient sustain for what I do, and I’ve owned a lot of basses at all price points.

The same here, I have never been short of sustain.

The long sustain of an electric bass guitar, back in the 1950s, would have been a strong selling point versus the shorter sustain of an acoustic upright bass.

But just because sustain is a good thing does not mean that one needs more and more of it.

Enough is enough.

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Just now, EssentialTension said:

 

The same here, I have never been short of sustain.

The long sustain of an electric bass guitar, back in the 1950s, would have been a strong selling point versus the shorter sustain of an acoustic upright bass.

But just because sustain is a good thing does not mean that one needs more and more of it.

Enough is enough.

It’s one thing that amuses me about jazz players who buy boutique, rigid instruments with active electronics and then complain they struggle to capture the feel of an upright. 

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1 hour ago, bnt said:

I still agree with the Modulus Graphite folks, who started the whole carbon fibre bass thing, that stiffness translates to less energy loss and therefore more sustain.

'More' is not necessarily any better than 'enough'.

In particular, one reason why wooden basses have different characters is that they mute out different parts of the sound, particularly as it sustains. We should not be surprised if basses designed for maximum sustain sometimes get described as sounding 'sterile'.

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Can a bass with loads of sustain still thump?

Is it just a style thing , old school thump of Jamerson or glassy boutique sustain of Anthony Jackson , I know what you mean beedster sustain seems much coveted yet the appeal of the vintage fender sound on all those iconic records has a lot to do with dead strings and the low mass bridge 

 

 

 

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I’m afraid I don’t knooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooow 🤷🏼‍♂️

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Posted (edited)

I think you have to get away from the mechanics/electronics and potted history (eg they used xyz with abc strings in the 60s - they might have for some things but not everything and there were lots of different ideas) of it all and think of it in terms of a musical instrument and what you require it to do.

If you need to play long notes (such as in ballads), the volume and quality of sustained notes is going to be important - and of course a double bass has always been required to play long notes - they are an orchestral instrument after all. 

As a number of people have said, if the sustain is available you can use it - and if you learn techniques to do so you can also mute the strings on a resonant bass with more sustain (and round wound strings) to play short staccato notes without resorting to basses which either have less ability to sustain a note or fit them with strings and other bits and pieces (eg mutes) which prevent them from sustaining a note as well.  

So it depends what type of music you need to or want to play with the instrument - if it's all 8th note picked clang a la punk rock, then sustain may matter less (but I doubt you would want flatwound strings).

When I first learned to play bass, I did so a lot with headphones and when I first played in a live setting through a large rig I was dismayed to hear all the strings I wasn't playing (especially the E) vibrating as well - not sure if that's sustain, sympathetic resonance or a bit of both, but I developed my own techniques to deal with this - unconsciously using both fretting and plucking hands - this also meant that when mid 70s R and B appeared I found I could play the Rocco Prestia type of grooves, which actually rely on left hand muting.

So my preference is for bass guitars with enough sustain and quality of tone to enable me to play whatever style of music I want to, be it reggae, rock, ballads, funk or anything else, and I'll use my fingers to control the sound created.

I guess it's the players who need the longer notes and specific tone who might agonise over which bass does this best, or how you get a bass which doesn't to perform better by swapping parts, string gauge, string type etc - there are so many variables!! 

I once took my classic Ray to a jam session (at the time it had round wound strings) and that bass has a lot of sustain - a mate played it for a while and after the first song said to me, he was going to have to play it properly because the notes were so resonant and sustained more than he was used to. I think this is the thing - a bass which has that level of sustain is something which gives you options, but also means you have got to be careful with your muting technique. Thump along sounds can be more percussive and perhaps less tonally accurate in some respects and are particularly not needed to sustain. Rather like the bass drum in a drum kit in a group compared to say a bass drum in a marching band which has more of a boom to it. 

Edited by drTStingray
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16 hours ago, Beedster said:

So, genuine question, why is this? Is sustain just the Emperors' Invisible Clothes, or a legitimate mark of quality? 

No one needs sustain, until you do. What do you do for the other bar and a half when you're asked to play a song where a note that should hang on for 2 bars dies out in 2 beats?

My take is that a good sustain is sign of a well made bass. IME a bass that sustains well is going to sound better on all the notes, even the short ones. Using sustain is another useful technique. A bass that leaves me hanging for that bar and a half is no use to me.

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8 hours ago, chris_b said:

No one needs sustain, until you do. What do you do for the other bar and a half when you're asked to play a song where a note that should hang on for 2 bars dies out in 2 beats?

Serious question, does anyone here have a bass that can't sustain for 2 bars at any sensible tempo?

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