– 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 Heiden:
For the past several years I have been sampling numerous, quality instruments in order to educate myself as to the tonal variations among world-class instruments and to zero in on the tone I like to hear in an F-hole mandolin. I've been fortunate to hear and play mandolins by (in no particular order) Altman, Gilchrist, Dudenbostel, Nugget, Monteleone, Duff, Brock, Ellis, Mowry, Wiens, Kimble, Smart, Red Diamond, Voight, Grady, Randy Wood, Pava, Henderson, Collings, Givens, Weber, Sorenson, Northfield and more. I've also been privileged to play several vintage Gibsons including a number of Loars and a few very well-known and well-documented F5s: Mike Marshall's Loar and the Loar played by John Reischman (#75327, signed February 18, 1924) which many believe to be one of, if not the finest example of the Loar period. In the process, I noted which sounds excited me, which I wanted to hear more of and which suited my style and the music I play.
I must admit I was surprised to find that my F-hole preferences gravitated towards a punchier sound, dryer than I prefer in an oval-hole mandolin. In particular, a Duff, Matt Flinner's Gilchrist and John Reischman's Loar all had the dark timbre I was favoring, but the Reischman Loar had it all, or nearly all: a deep and powerful low end, punchy mids and smooth, bell-like highs, with volume, sustain and an extremely efficient response, quick and easy to the touch. I would normally prefer a few more overtones, but the driness of the Reischman Loar is such a distinctive feature of its sound that more overtones might seem out of character. My experience playing it was all too brief, but even so, the tonality of Reischman's F5 became the sound I was looking for in my own instrument.
When the Heiden came up for sale in the Mandolin Cafe's Classified section in March of 2015, I was immediately struck by the beauty of its design, and the more I studied it, the more it appeared to meet many of my aesthetic preferences: black/white/black body binding, understated colors, minimal inlay, ebony tuner buttons, a small, nearly invisible pickguard, and a sleekness to its lines and overall design – just the kind of things I like in an instrument. In addition, it had the EVO frets I prefer, with a recent new nut, saddle and setup executed by the builder, and a description of its sound that seemed to satisfy most of the tonal characteristics on my sonic checklist. The fact that the Heritage models were based on Reischman's Loar and that John owned one that differed from this one only in its one-piece back and 'wheatstraw' headstock inlay, was a powerful endorsement as well. My interest intensified, but the proof would be in the playing.
The seller was extraordinarily helpful and accommodating, even offering to bring me the instrument from Philadelphia, because Asheville was somewhere he and his fiancee had always wanted to visit. I said to come on down.
The mandolin was delivered to me early one evening, just as my wife and I were headed out to a concert. After inspecting it, I put it back in the case without playing it and left for the show. I believe that the first connection with an instrument is critical and I wanted to wait until I could have an unhurried initial encounter with it.
When we got back late that evening, I went into a bedroom and laid the Heiden out on a bed next to my excellent Northfield 'Big Mon' F5. I played the Northfield, which I know well, for about 10 minutes to warm up and to establish its familar timbre in my ears. Then I picked up the Heiden and began to play, hoping it would grab my ears immediately in the way that only very special instruments announce themselves. I was not disappointed.
The more I played, the more there was to discover in the sound. Tonally, it was a whole different animal from my Northfield or Holst and matched up very favorably with my memory of the Reischman Loar. The next day, I played it several more times throughout the day and compared it side by side with three other high-end mandolins I was considering, but this was really just so I could tell myself I was making a careful decision; I knew in the first few seconds of playing it I was going to keep it.
After the purchase, the seller told me that the mandolin was supposed to have spent most of its life owned by Ry Cooder. A call to Michael Heiden (a wonderfully helpful guy) confirmed this, and I remembered seeing a couple of mandolins in Fretboard Journal's recent interview with Cooder, so I dug it out, and sure enough, there was the Heiden, next to a fern F5 once owned by Bill Napier of the Stanley Brothers. I had always been a huge Ry Cooder fan and I can only hope that a little of his mojo is still lingering somewhere in this mandolin.
That was some time ago. I've been playing it constantly ever since, and now have a pretty good handle on its personality, so it's time to give it a sober, critical 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.
Elegance is the hallmark of this Heiden's design. I've always gravitated towards the uncommon and distinctive in my instruments. While I've never been that big a fan of the sunbursts that dominate the mandolin world, I've gotten used to them, but still tend to prefer sunbursts that are different tints of the same color of red or brown instead of the more typical multicolor type that runs from dark brown or black through red to yellow. So, I find it very gratifying that I've found in the Heiden a non-sunburst mandolin with a unique color. I've tried to get accurate color in the photos, but it tends to photograph a bit redder than it actually is. It is basically a light milk chocolate color, and on the crown of the top, where the sunburst would be, it pales very slightly to more of a tint like powdered cocoa. The subtle chatoyance of the grain, front and back, reinforces the simple, understated richness of the mandolin's overall look.
The special old red spruce tops, salvaged from a 100-year old building, are what distinguish Heiden's Heritage model, but visually this one also conforms to the appointments found on other Heritage models: black/white/black binding on the top, back, sides, headstock and fingerboard, a uniform (as opposed to sunburst) stain, ebony tuner buttons, a blank fingerboard and a narrow, unbound ebony pickguard – all elements of a spare and refined design. Variations in the grain are visible from an angle as slightly raised ridges in the glossy French-polished top and back, indicating a very thin finish. The neck was given a 'speed neck' treatment by the builder at some point and is the only thing I would change about the instrument. While it feels wonderful, I would prefer something more like the 'violin finish' offered by some builders as a neck treatment that achieves a smooth, non-glossy feel without removing all the stain. I play music that moves all over the neck, and while there are dots along the edge of the fingerboard to indicate fret positions, the fingerboard is devoid of fret markers, which has taken some getting used to, but not as much as I expected. I'm not completely comfortable with it yet, but so far, so good. Of course, a well-played 6-year old instrument is bound to have a few body dings, and this one has its share of minor 'love taps', but considering the owner who probably put them there, I don't begrudge them in the least and wouldn't trade them for anything.
As I examined the instrument closely, the terms that kept coming to mind were 'precision' and 'quality'. There is no aspect of this mandolin, no matter how trivial, that does not appear to have had the builder's complete consideration and focus. A few examples: the unbound pickguard tends to disappear against the dark top to be inobtrusive, but still functional; the bridge base is full-contact, with a single foot that distributes the bridge pressure more evenly across the bracing; the support for the fingerboard extension, a seldom-noticed structural element, is made of figured rosewood; the truss-rod cover is unfinished ebony and held in place by a precision-fitted spruce block glued to the underside (see photo) so that screws do not interrupt the design of the headplate. The scroll, with its flowing curves in three dimensions and tight spaces in which to work, presents a formidable challenge to any builder, and the execution of the scroll always draws my attention when examining an F-style instrument as a feature that often separates a good craftsman from a great one. Nothing handmade is completely without flaw, but a graceful design brilliantly executed is the mark of a master, and Heiden's scroll is a masterpiece, beautifully proportioned, with inner surfaces that are clean and smooth and lines that seem to flow with an organic symmetry.
The overall impression is that of an instrument made from the very finest materials, fashioned with the greatest possible care by one of the instrument's great builders to create a mandolin of unsurpassed quality and breathtaking craftsmanship.
Most of this category addresses how it feels to play it, but there are some basic tactile impressions as well.
At 2.6 pounds the Heiden is an ounce or two heavier than my other mandolins, but still 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, like a vintage instrument. Even the gloss top and back have lost the tackiness of varnish and feel smooth and dry under the fingers. The speed neck feels great: clean and silky without feeling like bare wood. I like a substantial radius in a fingerboard and Michael told me he couldn't remember the exact compound radius he used on this instrument, but that it could be as much as 6" or as little as 20" at the nut, then flattening out toward the body. Comparing it to my Northfield, which uses a radius of 5.7" at the nut, graduated to 7.7" at the 20th fret, the Heiden looks and feels very similar and nearly ideal for my hands. The neck profile is basically a rounded V-shape, just slightly rounder in the back than I'm used to. The binding edges have been smoothed off also, and the whole neck has a round, comfortable feel to it – substantial without feeling at all thick. The neck relief is nearly dead straight, and it's close to perfectly set up, with an action almost lower than I would have thought possible, yet no buzz on the bigger EVO frets when chopping chords or playing more forcefully, even up the neck. Remarkable.
I am extraordinarily picky about string spacing at the nut, and while the Heiden's is very good as is, I may make a new nut that increases the spacing by a few 64ths of an inch from outer G to outer E, and move the strings of the A and E pairs slightly closer together. It doesn't sound like much, but it's a difference I can really feel and is more suited to my style, technique and the types of music I play. UPDATE 9/10/15: I made a new bone nut along the lines of that described above and the spacing is now ideal for my preferences.
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 Heiden is extremely well-balanced. When the strings are played individually, notes are strong and thick with good volume everywhere on the fretboard. When strummed, the mandolin's dark tone dictates that the low end and midrange tend to dominate somewhat, but 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 1980 Sobell cittern is my benchmark instrument for a long sustain at a ridiculous 42 seconds. My three custom guitars all have a sustain between 30-35 seconds. I expect a mandolin to have a sustain somewhat shorter than a guitar, so I consider this one's 18-20 second sustain to be a bit better than average, and very good for my purposes. The G and D tones have the longest decay, with the harmonic partials falling away after about 9 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 Heiden has excellent-to-outstanding volume, with an enveloping quality that makes it sound like it's just outside your ears. It's easily the loudest mandolin I've ever owned. I had a friend play it for me from about 10 feet away, and single notes and chords all seem to sound every bit as loud as they do when I play it. I don't know how far it might throw sound with clarity, but I suspect it could more than hold its own in a big festival setting.
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 excellent-to-outstanding 'pop' and while a light touch will bring a quick response, a slightly stronger attack will cause notes to burst out of the instrument with a punchy, almost percussive quality. Given the seasoned 100-year old wood used in the top and six years of playing time already behind it, the Heiden is well broken-in and sings with very little effort.
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 Heiden is a very deep-sounding mandolin, big without sounding hollow, strong and forceful without sounding harsh or muddy.
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 Heiden's resonance is excellent-to-outstanding, with a voice one might expect from a well-played vintage instrument decades old. A light to moderate touch will make it ring like a tuning fork, but dig in a bit and it positively throbs with life.
Overtones are the harmonic frequencies complementing the fundamental tones. Fretting a G, D, A, or E note on any string of a mandolin will cause an open string tuned to that pitch to vibrate sympathetically, producing an overtone. An instrument with a lot of overtones will also produce harmonic intervals of the fretted note, such as a 3d or 5th. I like a moderate amount of overtones in a mandolin, so I would characterize the Heiden as very good-to-excellent in this regard; it has enough overtonessto add interest and color to the sound, but not so many as to be distracting.
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 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.'
This mandolin has a dark, rich timbre, heavy on woody qualities with warm, clear trebles and a low end with just enough crispness to offset any tendency toward muddiness. It is moderately dry with enough overtones to impart some complexity and sweetness, and enough focus to project well while maintaining a spacious, open quality. It possesses terrific 'pop' and notes are punchy, strong and fat everywhere on the fingerboard, even on the highest notes.
In general, the mandolin sound I find most satisfying is woody, with good depth, especially on the low end, with strong, bell-like trebles, moderate overtones (not too dry) and good sustain, and a smooth, creamy quality with no hint of harshness throughout its dynamic range. In my experience, such a timbre can most consistently be found in an oval-hole design. However, the oval-hole's limitations in volume, projection, sustain, etc. are often areas in which the f-hole design excels. On the other hand, the characteristic 'focused' quality of the F5's timbre can sound, in a bright-toned instrument, a bit brittle, and in a dark-toned instrument, a bit dull and overly dry. So my quest is to find a mandolin with a tone that strikes the right balance between the depth and smoothness my ear craves and the focus that f-holes are known for, with just a bit more sparkle and sustain than usual in the trebles.
The tone of the Reischman Loar has most of these qualities and served as the basis for comparison in my search for an 'Exceptional' F5. The Heiden comes closer to this sound than I had any reason to expect in an instrument I could afford (barely). The Reischman Loar has a 'pop' and low-end depth that is massive, unlike any I've heard in another mandolin, with strong, dry trebles, while the Heiden's low end, though not as powerful as the Loar, is still huge, with a bit more complexity to it, and a 'pop' nearly as strong as the Loar. The Heiden's trebles have just slightly less 'pop' than its low end, but a few more overtones.
I must say here that I don't claim any familiarity with the Reischman Loar beyond the recordings widely available, but my brief time playing it was very useful in allowing for the differences heard between a recording by an expert player and the mandolin's actual sound in my hands.
I find the Heiden's dark tone to be endlessly fascinating, and while the trebles have slightly less brilliance than a typical mid-range-y mandolin, they substitute a characteristic warmth that is immensely satisfying. As with any fine instrument, the more time spent playing and exploring what it can do, the more knowledgeable one can be in coaxing from it the desired tone. The finest instruments seem to have no end to the complexity and richness of their voices, and learning to bring out its best is a process of discovery that also can bring out the best in the player, and I look forward with excitement, inspiration and satisfaction to a long and fruitful partnership with the Heiden.
So does this instrument merit the designation 'Exceptional' ?
In my quest for my personal 'Excalibur,' I think I may have come closer than I ever could have imagined.
UPDATE 8/7/15: I had a new bridge fashioned by Lynn Dudenbostel, ebony with a bone insert under the A and E strings, to see what it might do for the trebles. Lynn installed it yesterday and it appears to have changed the sound subtly in the way I had hoped. The tone in the trebles retains its warmth (a good thing), but both courses now sound a bit stronger, with more body to them. Notes on the treble strings, especially up the neck, are a little thicker and more robust than before and their volume might have gotten a very slight boost also. An Exceptional mandolin has become just a little more so.