– 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. 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.
Choosing the Northfield:
The Northfield story can be found here at their website, but briefly, primary construction of the instruments is the responsibility of an international group of master craftsmen: Kosuke Kyomori (Japan), Jidou Qin (China), Dianhong Yin (China) at Northfield's shop in Qingdao, China, home of Tsingtao beer(!). Instruments are then sent to Northfield's shop in Michigan for testing and set-up/final detailing. These are professional-grade instruments, and while not cheap, they compare favorably with some of the world's best-known small-shop makes costing considerably more.
In September of 2013, I went to IBMA (the annual meeting of the International Bluegrass Music Association) in Raleigh, NC, and spent six hours in the exhibit hall one day playing F5 mandolins: two vintage Loars, several each of Ellis, Nugget, Red Diamond, Randy Wood, Pava, Grady, Gibson, Weber, Givens, Collings, Sorensen, & more, ignoring their price tags and simply listening for my own 'ideal mandolin sound.' It was a chance to compare a bunch of great instruments, with different sonic signatures, all in one room. I could play a few, then, with the sound fresh in my ears, walk across the room and play a few others, over and over, as many times as I wanted. It was an unprecedented opportunity to really zero in on the mandolin sound I've been searching for. I narrowed things down to a handful of instruments, but the one I kept coming back to, and eventually bought, was the Northfield top-of-the-line Master Model 'Big Mon' you see here. I played quite a few great mandolins that day, and frankly, there were some that sounded a bit better to me than the Northfield, but those had price tags far beyond my means. All of these were high-end instruments, and in looks, craftsmanship and especially sound, the Northfield really held its own pretty darn well. So I took it home. That was six months 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.
This mandolin is Northfield's 'Big Mon' model, with a body that is slightly wider and deeper than a standard F5's dimensions, but visually, it doesn't look noticeably bigger. The sunburst fades smoothly from a deep chocolate brown to a dark honey color and the varnish is even and glossy, even in the joints where finish can sometimes accumulate. The joinery is about as good as it gets, as the close-up photos above illustrate. One nice detail is the small leather pad on the bottom of the pickguard mount that keeps it from marring the top's finish (see photo). Fingerboard and headplate inlays are reasonably tight with little visible filler. The slim pickguard is minimal but functional, and covers only the top of the treble-side f-hole. The only less-than-top-quality feature is the truss rod cover, which appears to be a matte-finish black plastic, but this can be easily replaced with a higher grade material.
Most of this category addresses how it feels to play it, but there are some basic tactile impressions as well.
At 2.2 pounds the Northfield is a little lighter than my Holst, and feels pretty typical 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 'Big Mon' body shape also doesn't feel noticeably wider or thicker than a typical F5. When seated, with the left knee raised in playing position, the treble-side point holds the instrument at the proper angle for good technique. The neck and fingerboard of this mandolin feel like they were made for me. The 'violin finish' on the neck is smooth and silky, with just enough gloss removed to make changing hand positions fluid and efficient. I like a substantial radius in a fingerboard, and this one's compound radius (5.7" at the nut, graduated to 7.7" at the 20th fret) is ideal for my hands. I mostly play solo, with a light touch, so I've set the action quite low, lower than I'd have it if I were doing a lot of rhythm playing in an ensemble. I've set only a slight relief to the neck, the frets are even, and everything feels as easy to finger as I could ask for, everywhere on the fingerboard. The only playability feature that was not optimal for me was the string spacing at the nut, and after struggling with it for several months, I ordered some bone nut blanks from Stewart-McDonald and spent a Saturday making a new nut that increased the spacing 1/32" from outer G to outer E, and moved the strings of the A and E pairs 1/64" 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'm currently working on.
This instrument is extremely well-balanced, with an even, midrange-y voice typical of many Gibsons I've played. When the strings are played individually, notes are strong and solid anywhere on the fretboard. When strummed, there is good note separation and all strings can be heard distinctly.
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. 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 20-22 second sustain to be better than average, and very good-to-excellent for my purposes. The G and D tones have the longest decay, with the harmonic partials falling away after about 10-12 seconds.
Volume & Projection
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'). I've found red spruce tops to require a bit more energy to move, but this one really responds quite well. To my ear, it's easy for a mandolin to sound a bit harsh, especially when played aggressively, so I favor a lighter touch that can bring out an instrument's warmer qualities. A light touch requires a very responsive instrument, however, one that can display nuance and sweetness throughout a respectable dynamic range. The sensitivity of this Northfield is excellent, and rewards a light touch beautifully. Its 'pop' is also very good-to-excellent on all strings....
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 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. Like most f-hole mandolins I've played, its 'focused' quality tends to create an impression of a tightness or restraint in the instrument's resonance. The fact that the F5 design is meant to project sound away from the mandolin, leaving an impression that it's louder from a distance than it seems to the player, might increase the perception that its complete resonance is being compromised. However...
Overtones are the harmonic frequencies overlaying the fundamental notes.
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 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.