Mandolins and amplification in sessions

Mandolins and amplification in sessions

From what I hear any mandolin (or are there exceptions?) lacks the power of being heard in an average session. How do mandolin players cope with that? How do / would people at your session(s) react if a mandolin player uses a small amp just to be heard?

Just curious, I don’t own a mandolin myself.

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For me the one and only solution is the National RM-1. It brings you up to roughly the same volume range as a fiddle and has a much nicer tone than the cheaper resonator mandos.

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Resonator mandos, is that a kind of dobro mandolin?

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Yes, same sort of thing. Most of the sound is generated from a resonator cone rather than from the body of the instrument.

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I would think it all depends on which session it is who’s there and the size of the gear brought in to power up the mandolin.

Occasionally someone arrives with a synthesizer, keyboard stand and mains leads at my local session and it’s completely acceptable- but synthetic piano for backing is an established amplified session quirk.
I’ve been to sessions where a harmonica player used a small and discreet amp and I’ve seen a six string devil player use a small amp as well (don’t worry! He tended to play quiet finger-style and his amping up was very very subtle and appropriate!).
I would have thought the way to go was to get a battery powered Pignose of similar. You can stick it under your chair, have a small cable from your mandolin and many people may not even notice! A 10 or 5 watt amplifier should be loads!

But beware! It will be very easy to step on toes. And asking the regulars may be an extremely good idea!

Alternatively, have your road crew walk in to a session somewhere, demand where the juice is, run out plug boards all over the floor (or if necessary set up a generator), set up the 10000w PA (with fold back), carry in the amp (presumably some huge old Fender Twin Reverb or 1960’s 100w Marshall valve top with two four by twelves stacked up Motorhead style!), mic and DI the amp and sound check for two hours. Then the lighting and SFX crew arrive…This will please sessioneers everywhere on the planet.

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Sometimes the noise generated by the punters in our pub makes we wish we could do just that.

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Another thought is-
Maybe mandolin has never really been mainstream session fodder because it really just ain’t loud enough!
The same way that e.g. trumpet or tympani would have been far too loud.
‘Zouk (which is sort of like a giant mandolin) matches the volume level mix nicely, as do all the ‘usual’ session instruments.

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You need a quality mandolin. If you bring a small amp then guitarists will be encouraged to amp up too. People are welcome to disagree but I think the best mandolin for cutting through where there is background noise is a bluegrass one (with f-holes).

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I have one of those, Richard. The RM-1 is way louder.

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I think your point about not encouraging six string devil (SSD) players to amp up is very important! They are far too loud in the mix already.
I think the steel string/ plec noise does not mix with the trad melody instruments at all well.
I wonder if Leo Fender or Jim Marshall could invent a sort of anti-amplifier (a brevi-fier?!) which you plug into and it makes the sound QUIETER? I think they would find them very popular at sessions for SSDs and goatskins (and some, but not all, banjo twanglers)!

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John - I’m sure you’re right. I was just comparing non-resonator mandolins. I’m finding that the two mandos I have (a Hathway flat-top and a Gibson A-9) are plenty loud enough for most purposes but the RM-1’s look terrific….must..resist………

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It’s a Mandolin Jim, but not as we know it! 😉

National Resonator Mandolin:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C5JjshC_gTI&feature=related


On the other hand, when possible, choose your sessions carefully & avoid the Thrashing Bangathons!

Also, choose where you sit & who you sit next to with great care. I sit with my Mandolin almost facing the wall to my right, which helps to bounce it’s music right back at me.

Cheers
Dick

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That’s a vintage model, here’s one of the current ones:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_PwucS53AsY


Of course, what they sound like when played solo and how they sound in the mix with other session instruments are two quite different things.

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Simple answer: no. Not only no, but hell, no.
Don’t ask the regulars, don’t try to slip it under the table, just forget it.

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I’m picturing Ptarmigan sent to play in the corner… 🙂

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Hey Grego, I know my place! 🙁

In any case … "A Man’s gotta know his limitations!" 😛

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Gotta agree with Jon. No. Hell, no.

There’s a place for amplified mandolin. It’s called bluegrass.

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I agree with above. No amps, or anyting plugged in. then it changes from a session to a gig. and im a mandolin player. Its a very suble instrument and if you want something louder then maybe a different instrument is required

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"There’s a place for amplified mandolin. It’s called bluegrass" - I don’t think that’s quite true, for bluegrass purists. Bluegrass instruments are traditionally unamplified apart from (when needed) a single stage microphone. I speak as an fully-qualified expert as I’ve been to our local bluegrass jam a couple of times 🙂

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That’s exactly right. They all shuffle around so the musician taking the lead break can get up close to the mike.

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I use a small battery amp, set to as clean and natural a sound as I can muster, for my harmonicas. The aim is to be approximately as loud as a fiddle. In my setting, if I didn’t do this I’d just have to give up. I know it’s not a performance but on the other hand you might as well at least be heard. It gets switched off as soon as the place goes quiet. The biggest danger with amps is that they tend to start a who-can-make-the-most-noise contest ‘twixt you and the drinkers. Don’t buy an amp ‘til you’ve tried it, and take a mate with you. That little pignose might not be right, I suspect. I know some people believe in a blanket rule for this, but circumstances do alter cases.

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You could also consider, as a mandolin player, whether you’re sitting in the most advantageous place to be heard and whether you’re pointing the right way. Sitting with a wall of pints two feet away then a wall of bodies four feet away might be less than ideal for projecting the sound…

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Sorry, Ptarmigan, I see you had that covered already! Didn’t have me reading specs on.

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"Simple answer: no. Not only no, but hell, no.
Don’t ask the regulars, don’t try to slip it under the table, just forget it. "

I’m inclined to agree. Anyway, a mandolin is not necessarily inaudible in a session. The ideal scenario is a small session, with sensitive players in a good acoustic space; I often find, with the right combination of players, there’s no problem with audibility. But, failing that, I’d much rather be barely audible than be the only musician using
amplification; even with the best of pickups, amplifiers and speakers, it will always sound like an electronic version of itself, whilst every other instrument sounds like itself. In larger sessions, it is not uncommon for some musicians to drop out for a set or two, to listen to the mandolin. (Incidentally, electronic keyboards, like ‘em or loathe ‘em, are a different matter, because the amplifier amplifier and speaker, whether internal or external, are effectively part of the instrument - it cannot function without them.)

The particular mandolin you play inevitably has an effect on audibility: you will get much better volume and projection out of a hand-built solid-wood instrument that a cheap plywood one. Even at the higher end of the market, different makes will differ considerably in volume and tone. Resonator mandolins are one way to ensure being heard, but I’ve never got on with them, personally - they just don’t feel or sound right to me. But, to my mind - and perhaps, in contrast to a bluegrass jam - the aim of a session is not for every individual musician to be heard, but to work together to create a collective sound. This sound is the sum of all the instruments present, each at its natural volume; if the mandolin only accounts for a small part of this collective sound, so be it.

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"I’d much rather be barely audible than be the only musician using amplification"

Hmm. So what would you say to me then? There I am with a couple of fiddle players, a bodhran player, a mando player, a guitar (or two) and a banjo player. And me and my blues harp. On top of that, a very noisy bar with muddy acoustics. Just tell me that I’m part of a big blend and that I’m somehow contributing to the overall mix? I don’t think so. In those conditions I can hardly hear myself, let alone make anyone else hear me. The other chaps constantly ask me to turn it up so they can listen to me. That’s what you’re supposed to do in sessions, listen to each other, innit? There are times when we’re very low on melody players. Like I said, theoretical talk about a blanket rule is all very well but we don’t all operate under perfect conditions. The thing is to avoid making conditions even less perfect with electrics, but rule nothing out and rule nothing in. Anyway, I would never, ever take an amp to anyone else’s pub. In fact, I wouldn’t play unless asked.

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Take up the mandolin-banjo - get a Vega tubaphone and you will never fret about being heard again. Outside of a session, it works well if you’re trying to strip paint off the wall too.

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"Take up the mandolin-banjo"

Actually, I think I might go for the amping-up option.

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I wonder what George Formby did about it.

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Nobody has mentioned it so I’ll just say that unless you are playing an electric mandolin, you will struggle not to amplify whoever is sitting next to you, or whatever your instrument is in sympathy with. I wouldn’t rule out amplification on principle; but don’t forget that what you are hearing is not what other people are hearing. Get someone to play your mandolin and sit opposite. See what you think. If you decide to try an amp, do the same when you are setting up. And bear in mind that you are on top of a slippery slope. Keep that bag of grit handy 🙂

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Steve - I don’t seem to have a lot of trouble being heard when I play the harmonica, so I guess I’d suggest you play in the whistle range. I know that’s not your habit, but it works for me.

Re: Mandolins and amplification in sessions

Internal Pignose or a wireless mic broadcasting to a suitcase amp under the accordion player

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"Simple answer: no. Not only no, but hell, no.
Don’t ask the regulars, don’t try to slip it under the table, just forget it."

Have to say I agree. To be honest, I haven’t had a lot of trouble hearing mandolins in sessions.

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I think it’s about trust as much as anything else. Your fellow musicians have to have trust that you’re not going to muck things up by amplifying or showing up with an unexpected instrument. So Steve is doing fine, as it’s been cleared with his friends before hand. Sessions are a mutual agreement between players, nothing more.

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Jon, with respect I have sort of mastered the art of big tone and projection on the harmonica, but with the best will in the world I can’t match the volume of fiddles, banjos, guitars and boozers combined. In my particular setting we have few melody players and it’s important to the other chaps that they hear me. As for playing in the whistle range, well it’s an option for sure, but I love the blend of clean harmonica and fiddle (much underrated in my view, but I’m biased of course), and I’d lose that if I played an octave higher just to make meself stand out. Proof of the pudding and all that. I’ve spent years trying to get this right and any of my mates would tell you that, if anything, I don’t have enough ego in the session. Come along and see and you won’t be short of pints I can tell you. Tao has it right. I’ve sorted this out with my mates and that is the paramount thing. You wouldn’t catch me even thinking of imposing the electrics on anyone else’s session.

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In my opinion, using an amp in a session is sacrilege. I usually take a tenor banjo and a mandolin to sessions. Whilst I don’t always hear my mandolin as well as I might like in sessions, people positioned elsewhere have commented that the sound carries well. A mandolin doesn’t dominate a session and it is nice to be able to sit in the background, playing and enjoying the experience. Also, if you fluff a note, it doesn’t stick out like dogs b…ocks like a mistake on a tenor banjo might.

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All I can say is that not all sessions are the same. What works works.

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Well, Steve, evidently you’ve got things worked out, and all’s well. But if you were to ask me what to do about volume on the harmonica, that’s what I’d tell you - play it so it can be heard. Same as I’d tell a low whistle player to bring a regular D whistle and play that, or I’d tell a mandolin player to either cope with being quiet or get a banjo, or I’d tell a flatpicking guitarist (like myself) not to bother at a pub session, but to play something else.

Since you’ve got things sorted, you’re not asking for my advice, but that’s what I’d say if you did. As it is, go on, what do you need with my advice, things are working out fine without me.

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"I wonder what George Formby did about it."

People just listened in those days.

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I do take your point (and I always listen to what you have to say), but do you take mine about wanting to be at the same pitch as the fiddle and not an octave higher? Doing the latter just to be heard (which does work, I know, though in my opinion it makes the harmonica sound thin and shrill at times) is too high a price for me personally, and I think it adds a very unauthentic sound to the mix in a session. We’re not talking about fiddles, flutes and whistles here. The aim is to blend, not to be incredibly distinctive.

It’s a shame that those extra-loud beasts, the Hohner XB40s, have such a harsh, dry tone. I’d happily use those without my amp all the time if only they were a bit warmer-sounding.

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That was to Jon.

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Sure, I follow you - it’s not the sound that I prefer, but I can see how you would like it. That’s a matter of taste, and your taste (judging from your playing) is exellent, so go to it.
For me, though, blending is purely a matter of phrasing, and the timbre doesn’t have to line up. A fiddle and box running neck and neck can sound brilliant, like one instrument, but pipes and banjo can also go great together, if the players are listening to each other. So for me, being at the same pitch as the fiddle is a non-issue, and since I like the more precise action of the middle-register reeds, it’s where I like to play. But if you don’t like the sound there, it’s good you’ve got things wired so you can play - and I’m sure if you were to go into a new session with your setup, you’d be able to get it across just fine.

It’s the new guy that I’m talking to. If you have to ask the question, you’re still taking advice on the matter, which means you’re still relatively new to this, and you can modify your style to suit the situation. That’s the person that I would tell to play in the middle register, or switch from low to regular whistle, or to switch from mandolin to banjo.

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Steve Shaw wrote: "As for playing in the whistle range, well it’s an option for sure, but I love the blend of clean harmonica and fiddle (much underrated in my view, but I’m biased of course)"

You’re not alone, Steve, it’s rare magic, fiddle and harmonica together.

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Yep, fiddle and harmonica sharing the same register is sweet indeed. Our local sesh was graced by a mighty harmonica player, but none of us knew it—he always brought his fiddle to the sesh instead. Then he made the "mistake" of pulling a mouth harp out of a pocket one time and joining in on Father Kelly’s. What a great sound!

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Joe Ryan and Eddie Clarke played grand music on fiddle and harmonica on their Crossroads album.Full album recorded in 4 hours and is a classic.I heard Eddie Clarke and Noel Hill play together for two hours in Friels and the sound of the reids combining was lovely.Clarke ,who died two years ago,was not to be heard playing for years after.They say it was the expense of replacing his harmonica every session and not from the stress of playing with Noel.

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Harmonica in the high register can be superb, as with Mark Graham’s playing on the first Open House disc. I use a standard pitch G harp for all those G and related-mode tunes, but, for me, the standard D harp is very high so I use a low D harp and play in the middle octave mostly. That puts me at the pitch of the fiddles, which is where I like to be. I might use a standard D very occasionally, or a C harp to accompany songs or for the rare C tune (or Carolan’s Welcome), and in these cases amplification is definitely not required! Those so-called (by backers) "A minor tunes" generally require a G harp.

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I really need to modify a few D harps. I really want the scale to run from D to b’, with the appropriate notes sharped or flatted, I’m not happy on a G or an A harp. Some tunes, it turns out, work fine on a C. Just found myself playing Christmas Eve on a C harp, it sounds pretty nice. (no surprise, since it doesn’t ever lean on the F#).

One of these days, I suppose, I’ll set myself up. I figure a D with flatted Cs and another with sharped Gs and I’d be in business.

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The only trouble with playing G tunes on a D harp is that there are a lot of draw notes, and sometimes you have to interrupt the flow, not to take a breath, but to empty out the lungs!

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Fortunately, though, you’re always going to come across a D sooner or later, so you know you can vent, and one good strong note should be enough to give you all the capacity you need for a good long stretch.

(I used to teach harmonica classes, I can give you some tips on breath management if you like… )

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Al, you of all people should know that you a\hve to use the air button. In the case of harmonica players, said button is known as "the nose." 😀

Re: Mandolins and amplification in sessions

have

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There’s a time and place for everything. If you’re in a small session say with just a couple other players like maybe a flute and a fiddle, or maybe add a whistle, the mandolin is in it’s comfort zone. A nice small session where the other players are sensetive to the mandolins volume can be a beautiful thing. If I walked in with my pipes (which are of one volume, "loud") I would be reluctant to pull them out, because They’d ruin the gentleness of what was happening. I’d want to listen.
But I think when a session out grows the capabilities of the mandolins volume, it’s time for the mandolin player to sit and listen or pick up another instrument that is of capable volume.
If I was playing in a session and a mandolin player came in with an amp, I’d suddenly remember that I’d forgotten to clean my refrigerator and toilet, so I’d have to pack up and scurry on home.

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If the mandolin player became a regular at the session you would have a very tidy house indeed.

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But that just isn’t the way these things happen. No-one is just going to walk into your session with an amp and expect to use it, are they? This is a typical example of how we can get all theoretical and ignore the imperfect ways of the real world of real humans…

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Realistically, in the real world of real humans, I’m really just a figment of my imagination. So, I suppose anything’s possible, theoretically speaking of course. 😉

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Your post was incredibly theoretical. That’s the point I was making. It’s a typical Sessiondotorg phenomenon. We should try to discuss what happens to real people in real sessions, or "sessions," in the real world. God, it can be ugly, but on the other hand it can be beautiful. With amps or without.

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Steve, "We should try to discuss what happens to real people in real sessions…". But we don’t. So, aren’t you being incredibly theoretical yourself?
😉

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Well, in the real world, I think the best advice you can give someone who asks the initial question in this thread is "No, never, don’t bring an amp." Even if, in the real world, it sometimes works out that an amp is okay, the odds are that it’s going to set people against you, and if you’re new enough that you’re asking the question you’re probably new enough that you can learn to play your instrument so as to be heard.

So my absolute prohibition is not at all theoretical - I think the original poster, and anyone else who asks that question, should be told, in no uncertain terms, that they should not do this. If they choose to go ahead and do it anyway, that’s their affair, and if it works, out, great, if not, they can’t say they weren’t warned.

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Jon, I can’t argue with that (well, I guess in theory I could, but in the real world I won’t). Bringing an amp to a session you are visiting for the first time is like starting a land war in Asia, something that should not be entered into lightly! 😉

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I love purely acoustic music but I wouldn’t begrudge anyone who uses an amp in the ways Steve Shaw has described.

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Like I said "There is a time and place for everything."
I have no intention of demeaning Steve’s use of an amp. Heck, I have an amp, I also have a full P.A. capable of blowing the front rows eardrums out. But none of that stuff will ever see a session. As soon as it’s so loud that a session needs an amp, I feel it becomes less intimate and all the charm goes down the pooper.

If you’re doing a show for a large crowd and it’s not a session, that’s when I feel it’s proper to plug in the amps.
Cutterlooseanletterip.

Theoretical conversation is a very good way to toss around ideas. It gets us thinking outside of the box. I see thoeretical conversation as a great thing. Theoretically speaking of course.

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Thinking outside the box … fair play;
http://www.tone-gard.com/

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No, no, no. This the slippery slope to session hell.
Try an Eastman mandolin made of maple (they are loud and penetrating) and hold it away from your body so that the back can vibrate (for extra volume). Try and attend sessions that include only one backer (preferably one who knows the tunes)
As for resonator mandolins, leave them where they belong, in the kitchen where they can be used as a collander/egg-slicer.
Peace be among you.

Re: Mandolins and amplification in sessions

My experience has been that mandolins project the sound forward and you probably can be heard even if you can’t hear yourself.

If the problem is you can’t hear yourself, you could use a small pocket headphone amp connected to a pickup on the mando with a single earbud to give you some ability to hear yourself without having to bash out tunes.

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I also vote for the Tone-gard, I have one on my Flatiron Performer, a very good investment and may solve your problem.

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I did switch to a bando-mandolin, and now I can hear myself. But then I went to a session in the next town over, and they were ALL playing banjo-mandolins. But I can still hear myself 🙂

As sessions grow in popularity, I guess they just get LOUDER!

BTW — I also play eastern European mandolins, and there is NO PHYSICAL WAY you can just hold them away from your body to play them. Master domra player Tamera Volskaya has invented a foot for the back of her domra that is much like a shoulder rest for a violin, to keep it away from her body. But she’s a soloist. I think she’s going for quality of sound, rather than volume.

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Guess Tamara Volskaya’s foot is the same concept as the Tone-Guard, but for her pumpkin-round instrument.

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Small battery operated amps ( 5 watt ) now come with a plug in headset mike, & used WITH CONSIDERATION would solve a lot for harmonica / violin mando etc players problems.
They come with a waist belt, a volume control,
The aprox dimention 200 x 52 x 70 Mm. Cost about £25. The Boorinwoodmusic ( N. Irel. ) people do them. I think that expecting people with low output items to play without the amp ( NOT TO DOMINATE ) against 2 or more good loud banjos & a few 4 voice accordions is a bit like expecting a person that got very little education to compete with ex university people in a debate / exam without even a dictionary.
Realisticaly a person with a small Blues harp ( £5 ) trying to against 2 accordions @ £2,000 + each ????? & some effort into playing them

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"As for resonator mandolins, leave them where they belong, in the kitchen where they can be used as a collander/egg-slicer." 😛

Personally speaking, I play a Mandolin because I just love that light, woody sound they have.
If I really want to hear myself, I can always play the Banjo or Fiddle.

As for the other forms mentioned above like Resonators & Banjo / Mandolins, sorry but I really don’t much care for the sounds they make, so would never dream of playing one ….. just for the sake of being heard.

Likewise, I love playing the Concertina, but would never dream of taking up the Piano Accordion …. just for the sake of being heard! 😛

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Another possible option worth thinking about, some of the time, is sticking a Capo on the 2nd Fret. It does make it a little easier to hear, although of course you do have to change your finger patterns!

As for amplification, just for the record, I’d never ever consider using it myself!

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The Greek baglamas is a kind of mandolin that seems designed to cut through absolutely anything (provided your audience all has fur and waggy tails):

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hx6hni4d_xU


I love the sound of the resonator mando. If I was going to play any sort of mando that would be it.

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I used to session on mandolin fairly often. It is certainly projecting most of its sound forward, and so it’s not that other people can’t hear you, it’s that you can’t hear yourself.

Herb Taylor is now making mandolins, bouzoukis, and guitars with little sound ports on the side, so that some of the sound comes toward the player’s ears. It makes a huge difference in your ability to hear yourself, without making any noticeable drop in the amount of sound projected forward. It’s like having your own little personal amp, without having to look or feel like a prat. 😉

But just beware, the volume arms race is a slippery slope down to banjo!

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F-hole mandolins project and cut through, in general, better than round/oval hole mandolins. It’s always seems a little odd to me that oval hole flat tops (and oval hole, flat backed archtops) get called "Celtic" and sometimes "Irish" mandolins. They certainly wouldn’t be my choice for a busy session. Bluegrass type mandolins (F5 and A5 style) stand up better. However, as has been mentioned, the player has no real idea of how well the instrument is heard by others. My A5 type does not sound loud to me, but I am always surprised when I hear others play it. The volume seems ball-park with the fiddle.

Personally I dislike amps in acoustic settings. Probably fine for Steve’s well-described and established situation, but in some places it’d be a slippery slope. Amplifiers, like WMD, can proliferate into an arms race.

I’n not a fan of mandolin-banjos. On the other hand, a well played resonator mandolin works very nicely indeed. I heard one for the first time a while ago and was shocked that it wasn’t the tinny piece of sh*te I had thought it would be. They’re not for me, but I reckon they work well.