Sawbservations: Experiments Amplifying the Saw

musicalsaw

Life as a musical saw player can be a little lonely. It took  me  years before I met another saw player, and every time I  do, I think I come on a little too strong and scare them as I  try to rope them into saw jams with strangers. But, with all   of the limited resources on the web, how’s a sawyer supposed to keep learning?

Googling the musical saw brings up hundreds of pages filled with more questions than answers. What is the best way to amplify the saw? What mic should you use? How do you record a saw? How the hell do you even play a saw in the first place?

Most of the answers I’ve found have been offline at shows, through trial and error. So, my favourite sound engineer Dave Lang and I took over the back room of the Tranzac for a few hours and decided to solve this saw mystery once and for all – then stick it up online for the world to (well, other saw players) to find.

Up to this point, we’ve always used a condenser mic in the front, then cranked it. This seems to be the universal way of doing it, however, some issues arose:

The scratchy bow noise can be very noticeable. What is the best way to cut down on it? Bow noise can add ambience when playing live, but it’s a pain in the butt in the recording studio. And, no, reverb isn’t the answer to everything.

When playing live (especially with the Lipliners, it’s a massive band) the saw is often drowned out. Cranking the condenser mic hasn’t been a solution because it often causes a lot of bleed-in from the other instruments around me, especially if I’m positioned near the drums.

Luckily, Dave’s experiments were able to solve all of these problems! I’ll explain each test below so you can really understand why some strategies work better than others, but as an overview, this is officially the best way to get the best sound out of your musical saw:

  • Play with a bass bow instead of a cello bow. This on its own greatly reduces the bow scratching noise and I even find it more comfortable. I swapped mine for a German bass bow and couldn’t believe the difference. Many music snobs have talked me out of it over the years saying it’s the worst idea ever but I finally took the plunge and I’m never going back!
  • Use a clip-on condenser mic and a vocal mic to amplify the saw. Believe it or not, this is the best way!  Clip the condenser mic onto the very bottom of the blade on the sharp side, right where it meets the handle. Point the mic to the middle of the blade on the underside (see this ghetto diagram I drew because I don’t have a photo. Sorry.) Position the vocal mic at the front like so. This also works amazingly well for those who like to sing along with their singing saw!
  • Results were very similar for both stage and studio setting.

GhettoSawDiagram

The Process: In the main hall of the Tranzac, we tried out four different microphones and positioned them at the front, back and sides of the saw. Each time, we used a bass bow and a cello bow, and tried playing it alone and with music playing on the sound system behind me to mimic a live show setting (we used a live Calamity Royale track from the band we play in together.)

Test #1: Shure SM58 Standard Vocal Microphone

The SM58 is a good general purpose mic and probably the one you’re most likely to come across at shows. Lots of people gravitate toward it for the saw because the saw is in the higher vocal range. But, you’ll notice right away that it picks up the high-end bow noise.

Mic-ing underneath helped and though you have to crank the levels a bit more, it doesn’t feed back as much. Using a bass bow instead of a cello bow helped eliminate some of the “hisses” from the bow, but it didn’t do the best job.

Test #2: The super crazy condenser microphone Neumann KM184

This is a general purpose instrument mic and it’s very sensitive, but also very expensive (about $900.)

Because it’s so sensitive, it picked up quite a bit of the bowing noise. We tried mic-ing it from underneath and this helped to eliminate some of the bow “hisses.”

Test #3: Audio-Technica model ATM350 (a clip-on microphone)

We tried clipping this mic on every part of the saw and clearly, the winner was the bottom of the saw, positioned underneath. However, this does pick up a bit of the thumb “thumping” sound (if you’re not using a cheat handle to bend the saw, and use your fingers and thumbs to manipulate the blade like I do) so keep this in mind.

* ** This was a keeper!!! After this experiment, I used this exact clip-on mic and position on its own (without a vocal mic in front) at a Ronley Teper and her Lipliners show at Hugh’s Room. There were eight of us, and everyone said that they really heard my saw for the first time, but you’ll need to crank it in the monitor so you can hear it. ***

Test #4: Neumann KMS105 Vocal Microphone

This is an expensive mic (about $900) that isn’t good for everyone’s voices. It picks up a LOT more of the high-end of the voice. Because of this, again, it picked up a lot of the bowing noise, but was in between the SM58 vocal and the Neumann condenser mic.

FINAL VERDICT:

  • Scrap the cello bow for a bass bow. Yee haw!
  • A condenser mic alone can work well in a quieter, more acoustic setting and can cut down on the bow noise. But, if you’re playing with a big, loud band, opt for a duo of a vocal mic like a SM58 in the front, and a clip-on condenser mic in the bottom/back.
  • On the sound board, make sure all high-end levels are OFF. (8 or 10 klhz)

E-mail me at hooksandladders@gmail.com or comment below for any thoughts, questions, experiences or feedback you have and I’ll put it up here!

Happy sawing, and thanks Dave!

-SM

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~ by hooksandladders on June 30, 2009.

4 Responses to “Sawbservations: Experiments Amplifying the Saw”

  1. If you want to meet lots of other saw players and talk “shop” with them – come to the 7th annual NYC Musical Saw Festival – July 18th, 2009: http://www.MusicalSawFestival.org

  2. In looking at amplifying my saw for live performance .At the moment i’m thinking about an Audix M1255 , a miniature vocal condenser mic.I was going to attach a small metal rod to the handle(one which i can remove),then use a flexible gooseneck to direct the mic at the actual blade to eliminate bow noise.I also tried an AKG-C519M but the audix seemed to have a warmer sound.My only concern is how much ambient band noise it will pick up.Hopefully that won’t be a concern.Any thoughts?

    • Hey Dr Cake
      I find the clip-on condenser mic can sometimes get drowned out when it’s used alone.. I find it works best when paired with a vocal mic externally. I don’t know why it works so well, but it really does cut out the bow noise. I also recently tried just the condenser mic plugged directly into an amp and it worked beautifully! Do you have a clip for your mic? I just clip it directly on the blade and adjust the gooseneck so it is about an inch (or a bit less) away from the middle of the low underside of the blade.
      Are you playing it with a big band or a fairly quiet or intimate one?
      Stacey

      • Hello again,well i followed your advise and tried out some bass bows.I must concur with everything you’ve said about them.I got one and i must say there does seem to be a noticeable increase in both volume and sound quality.My next task will be trying a clip on mic at a gig on thursday, i’ll probably run it through a pedal for more control as the mixer doesn’t always catch on in time.Any pedal suggestions?The band has keyboards,semi-acoustic guitar and percussion.
        I haven’t worked out which mic to go with yet ,so i’m hoping the one i’m lending on thurs will come with a clip.
        About saws actual ,i’m using a 30 inch wentworth and only seem to get under 2 octaves.Have you tried a 36 blacklock.One of the problems i’ve got is that its about$120 on Lark in the morning but they want over $135 to USPS it to melbourne Australia.Hmmm…..serious thinking time.Allright mate cheers for all the grat advise and congratulations on a great blog.Dr Cake.

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