Sawbservations: Experiments Amplifying the Saw

•June 30, 2009 • 4 Comments


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.


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.


  • 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 or comment below for any thoughts, questions, experiences or feedback you have and I’ll put it up here!

Happy sawing, and thanks Dave!


DIY Musical Instruments: Experimenting With Piezo Contact Mics

•June 1, 2009 • Leave a Comment

I thought I’d share some awesome thoughts on piezo mics, compliments of my super-talented friend Brian. I recently asked him for a coles notes version of how contact mics work so I could better understand why my experiments were working well or not working at all. He uses them to amplify his double bass, and here’s what he said:

“I have used piezo mics these ways:

– in a copper sheet stuffed under the bridge foot

– in four little steel (or aluminum?) cylinders each set in a hole drilled in the bridge behind each string

– In a plastic coating wedged in the wing of the bridge

– In a plastic cube glued on to the bottom of the bridge

– In a stick, with a spike on one end, wedged between the feet of the bridge

What all this tells you is that piezos can detect through a variety of surfaces, though each will sound different.  There’s no way to know what will work without trying it.  All of those bass piezos sound different on any given bass, so there’s no way to say one of your ideas is good or bad or better than another without trial and error, unfortunately.

Another important consideration is impedance.  If you are thinking of a guitar amp as the primary way to amplify your stomp boxes, you are likely to have an impedance mismatch between your piezo and the guitar amp.  Piezos are very high impedance and magnetic guitar pickups (which guitar amps are designed for) are fairly low, comparatively.  It will still work, but some of the low end of your piezo will disappear and the equalization curve will be fucked in some way.  That’s why acoustic guitars and basses use acoustic specific amps (sometimes) or (more often) put an impedance adjusting preamp in between the piezo pickup and the guitar amp.

I use this box to match impedance. It also has a phase reversal switch and a high pass filter (which is an eq curve that rolls off lows below a certain point at a pre-defined slope).  You should try this with your stomps when they’re done, and see if it improves the sound.  Or, build a similar circuit right into your stomps.”

I was really confused reading the overwhelming amount of info on the web and found his simplified version to be very helpful. Hope it helps you as well.

Thanks Brian!!!

Making a Stomp Box: The Instructions

•May 29, 2009 • Leave a Comment


This sounds pretty lame and straightforward (it’s a box) but there are actually a few options. If you have any old wood kicking around, that’s the best thing, but if you have to go and buy yours like I did, make sure it’s “stomp-worthy.”

I was actually on a Home Depot run with my mom when I had my boards cut. We knocked and stomped on every piece of plywood in the place, I think, and I finally went with a multi-layered piece of plywood. I had one long board (that’s how it comes) cut into four even sizes (I needed four boards). The size was fine for me but not-so-fine for my friends J and M, two of my tall stompbox-testing friends whose big feet didn’t have much extra room if they were to stand on it. So… keep size in mind. No matter what they say, it does matter.


If you’ve sharpened your carpentry skills and want to make a box with sides (and meaning you won’t be standing or dancing on it) you can make sides, but if you want a versatile board, you can just crazy glue or nail some feet on the corners of one side. I suggest nailing them in… two of my board testers had a foot fall off so either I used the worst “super” glue ever or I should have nailed them. If putting feet on them, you can use anything that’s sturdy as long as it’s even. I used large wooden craft beads I found at my local craft store, which ended up being surprisingly sturdy and keep the boards wabble-free.

I have also built a few slip-on attachments for the boards, with different types of metal and steel to make different sounds, but I’ll put those in a post of its own.


If you’re planning on going-barefoot on the box at any point of time, or if the wood has rough edges, I highly recommend giving it a good scrub with a sanding sponge.

I decided to custom paint one side of each board (the tapping side, without the feet) using acrylic paints, with a landscape for J, an octopus scene for S, and KISS the band and fish for M (long story). I stained the other side (the dancing sides, with the feet) and painted a simple bird on them. I figured the dancing side would get scuffed up and I liked the look of the grain, especially with the stain. I gave both sides a good spray with a good arts and crafts water-resistant finishing spray for wood projects. It’s about $7 at your local craft store and let each side dry for 10 minutes.


Now it’s time to plug this baby in. Depending on your contact mic (if it’s homemade or if you went with a pretty Cold Gold one… if you have a clip-on or suction-cup one already that you prefer to use, this wouldn’t apply) tape the contact mic down with painter’s tape or a piece of duct tape.  Make sure you’re taping the piezo disc down flat as can be against the wood because this is what’s going to pick up the vibrations. Also, make sure it’s the right side. You don’t want to put tape on the piezo disc and risk ruining it. In the case of a Cold Gold mic, it’s “gold disc-side down”  but it’s pretty obvious when you have one in your hand, so don’t worry.

Placing the mic takes a bit of experimentation but I find that when I am tapping the board and it’s raised by the feet, it’s best to tape it to the edge or directly in the middle of the underside of the board. If I’m dancing on it, I tape it down at an edge of the surface I’m dancing on, directly under one of the feet so I don’t step on it (that’s loud!)

Stay tuned for my post about all of the stomp box effects and experimenting with levels and pedals.


Now your stomp box is made, prettied up, plugged in – and ready to be played.

You’ll notice how sensitive the board is. You’ll see what I mean by trying the following:

–          Stomp with a pair of shoes or boots on

–          Tap with your toe and heel, or alternate

–          March on the board in sock feet

–          Dance barefoot on the board and roll your toes, go back and forth.

A little experimentation with how you’re comfortable playing, paired with some experimentation with levels and distortion, is all it takes.

Again, stay tuned for my post about all of the stomp box effects and experimenting with levels and pedals.
I hope this works out well for you and you’re stomping away! If this seems too time-consuming for you and you’d like me to make one for you, drop me a line at and we can hook something up.

Happy Stomping!


Here are some photos my friends took of my stomp-boxes-in-progress: (That weird bomb-like contraption is really one of my first stomp box attachments, which I’ll explain later.)

DIY Musical Instruments: Stomp Box

•May 26, 2009 • 4 Comments

I’ve done a lot of verbal rambling about the stomp boxes I’ve been making the past few months and it’s been quite a fun adventure, so I’ve decided to post the process up here in chunks. I’ve also been lucky enough to have some friends randomly capture images of parts of the process, so I’ll stick them up here too.

And, if you’re one of my friends out there testing one right now and feel like sticking up some feedback on them,  that would be insanely amazing.

Here we go a stomp box makin’:


Several years of not being able to afford an Ellis stomp box and desiring one (and feeling like jumping on a piece of plywood would just be biting Stompin’ Toms’ styles) left my musical soul feeling a bit restless. I’m a chronic foot-tapper/shuffler when I play and feel like if you do it, you might as well amplify it and get some free, natural percussion going on.

But, the mission really began when a few music friends mentioned they too wanted a stomp box, and a chance meeting with Marcus on a bus to Peterborough resulted in these fine instructions for furious contact mic assembly here:

If you can decode the technical-speak (or get a handy friend to decode them for you like I did) these instructions are pretty wicked, but I did discover that this Radio Shack piezo transducer is no longer being made. I had to buy a piezo doorbell buzzer for $5 and crack it open to pull out the goods. Also, if you’re a patient soul, you can find a similar part at Active Surplus on Queen. (All these details and more will be in pt. 1 of instructions, coming soon.)

Basically, a contact mic is a homemade pickup that lets you amplify anything with a vibration. It only picks up vibrations so you don’t get any surrounding sound bleeding through, which is good, but it also means you have to really think about what materials transmit vibrations well and which silence them.  (I’ll post my trial-and-errors later.)

When planning your stomp box, think about these three things:

  1. Sound. Do you want a clean, “cloppier” sound like the Ellis boxes? Do you want a sloppier, more natural-sounding box? (this is the one I went for) Do you have pedals and effects you can use to change the sound if need be, giving you more options? This will effect what type of wood you’ll need and also the shape you make the box.
  2. Your Playing Style. Do you stand while you play, sit down and tap, dance, or all of the above? I needed a stomp box that could allow me to play it different ways, depending on my accompanying instrument. When playing guitar and singing, or playing banjo, I don’t move too much so tapping is best. When playing the mandolin or my little Washburn Rover, or any of my smaller instruments like melodica or kalimba, I wind up doing this weird sort of marching shuffle and end up on my toes and back heel a lot. I don’t know why, I can’t help it. When I play the spoons, I dance my little arse off in true Kincaid spoon-playing styles, so this complicated things a bit (yet ended up sounding fantastic!)
  3. Shape and Size. Once you’ve figured out your needs you can design your box. For my playing needs, I determined that I needed a fairly large, natural-sounding, versatile box that could be played both flat (for marching or dancing) and raised from the ground to give it a more echo-y sound while tapping.

Now that you’ve determined what type of box you need, it’s time to get to work! Stay tuned for more…