SOUTHCOAST LINEAR STRING SETS: OUR REVIEW (page 1)

Following is a summation of use for the entire group of Linear String Sets. What we will emphasize here are our intended uses in designing these sets. You may, of course, find additional uses as well. Before beginning the set reviews, you will see “normal tuning” or more precisely “interval tuning” referred to from time to time.  This is simply the time-honored practice of tuning an instrument to itself, and is used to achieve optimum sound and feel.   We have come to understand that many modern players have no concept of this practice, are completely reliant on electronic tuners, and worst of all, feel that if somehow an instrument is not tuned to a “fixed set” of notes, they will be unable to play it without some sort of complication.  For those with this impression, we recommend our series linked here: Tuning Your Ukulele Our sets are called out by gauge, but what’s really indicated is tension, or better yet, “feel”.  We will not try to cover every application for every set with these reviews, but rather point out general characteristics along with some outstanding selected uses that may sometimes be overlooked.   The Tuning & Tension Charts listed along each set group are still your most concise source for general use. ***************************************************** Let’s begin with an overview of Linear tuning in general.  It has both strengths and weaknesses, and a better understanding of both will be of help in first deciding if this form of tuning is actually what you want, and if so, which of these sets are best suited for you and your instrument. When it comes to strengths, there is one that stands out, the wide spacing of notes for the greatest possible range for melody playing.  Of course a linear tuning can be done with any sort of intervals, but the widest practical range with classical strings is with 4 note intervals, or “tuning in 4ths”.  We experimented with the 5 note intervals (5ths tuning) common on the Violin and Mandolin family, but found for plucked instruments with classical stringing the only responsive gauges just didn’t match up well with standard Ukulele sizes.  It would take a true custom instrument, in other words a new form altogether to accommodate 5ths tuning well with classical strings.   But even in 4ths, the spacing is pretty wide, and this leads to the first problem with the linear 4ths tuning (we’ll just say “linear” going forward).  That wide spacing generally leads to a weakness in the 1st string.  What happens is that sets are usually put together so the 4th string is not too heavy, too dull, or in other words still gives decent response.  But this usually leaves the other end, the 1st string, on the thin side, with a somewhat weak tone as a result.  What most companies do to combat this is to put the 1st string under greater tension.  First, this alleviates the thin sound to a certain extent.  Then it also mutes what would generally be an overly bright tone.  But what results is an uncomfortable set of strings to play, and a set of strings that allows the solo player very little flexibility to set his own tension and pitch.  People generally find string sets uncomfortable not so much because of higher tension in and of itself, but because of that high tension being uneven from string to string.  In this instance, a thin first string will feel overly taught (and it is).  Certain traditional guitar string companies take this to extremes.  Of course the problem is even worse with 6-strings, and yet the feeling has always been that to get good sound, you must put up with uneven tension and a certain amount of discomfort.  Guitar string companies who offer Ukulele strings follow their familiar road, and Ukulele companies generally bow down and worship the Guitar string makers and their protocols, in spite of obvious differences in the instruments and their stringing.  A set of four strings simply “hangs together” as a set in a different way than a set that needs to take into account the even wider 6-sting range in its harmony. We’ve addressed this in a somewhat expensive fashion, by using our orchestral mixed materials approach to give a more substantial relative feel to 1st strings and keep tension more even from string to string.  On the other hand, don’t ignore the traditional solution either.  That is to simply lower the pitch of the first string, giving more presence with a more even tone and tension at the same time.  Cuatro tuning is an option that works well with all plain sets, and the Open form (with 1st string dropped one note) and Plectrum forms can work in a variety of settings.  We’re not sure why the Linear form was placed on the Ukulele to begin with, given that the Open form, or Machete tuning was the original Ukulele tuning.  It’s not because there isn’t plentiful sheet music available; this is a common tuning for the Banjo as well.  Nonetheless, linear tuning is by far the most common option to the traditional Ukulele reentrant tuning today.  It’s likely because there are simply more guitar players around now than Banjo players, and there is a lot of transmigration.  Still, if you are tuning for best feel and sound, the Cuatro, Open and Plectrum tunings can all be made up with Add-ons  on the Linear set page.  There are other Tips letters dealing with those set-ups specifically.  Don’t sleep on those options. Cuatro Tuning on the Ukulele Open Tuning on the Ukulele Classic Plectrum Stringing for Guitar Family Instruments With 5-string & 8-string sets also made up with Add-ons from the Linear Set page, that means there are 5 derivative groups that can be made up in this fashion.  Since the reviews to follow are centred on appropriate pitch, relative tension, and the appropriate sized Ukuleles best suited for the various gauges, then anything we say in that regard for our Linear sets can also apply to the derivative sets as well.        ***************************************************** Let’s now take a look at the three different material configurations we offer for the linear sets and their derivatives.  Let’s see what the strengths and weaknesses are as far as materials and configuration. The All Plain Sets: These are indicated with the letters “NW” in the name - NW standing for “No Wound”.  Here, in addition to the situation with the 1st string we discussed earlier, the 4th string can also be problematic.  With plain strings, deeper notes mean thicker strings and at some point it also starts to mean poor response as well. We absolutely love the sound of a plain set in the proper environment.   But if you are sceptical about them, it’s because outside of our own, the sets universally offered as all plain linear sets can truly be said to be the absolute worst sets offered for any stringed instrument we can think of.  We understand that the industry feels that “cheap” is the only economically viable option when it comes to Ukulele string sales, but in this case especially, that approach gives truly awful results.  This is an arrangement that absolutely screams out for the mixed material approach we use.  Here is what happens using the cheaper single material assembly.  First, in order to keep the 4th string from feeling monstrous and sounding too dull it is usually as thin as possible to keep size down and maintain some semblance of clarity.  This approach gives an uneven tension - a floppy 4th string.  In the rare instances where a somewhat heavier string is offered, it is indeed even more dull sounding, especially compared to the other strings in the set. And this leads into the other major problem, that these sets are all made up of some single fluorocarbon material.  Fluoro formulas are the only materials bright enough for the 4th string, and to sell sets to Ukulele players (remember, industry, to make them as cheaply as possible, regardless of sound) the same material is always used throughout.  But as a result the treble strings are now way brighter than the 4th even if you used the lightest, floppiest 4th string possible.  To top off the whole mess, to try to keep the 1st string from being it’s natural thin, bright, weak self, then as mentioned above in the general analysis, it is now put under high tension to keep those tendencies in check.  So now you end up with a set that manages to be extremely unbalanced on both ends, in both sound and feel at the same time.  No thanks! Here’s what the custom mixed material approach lets us do with our three plain sets.  The 4th string remains a fluoro formulation to get the most clarity possible.  On the other end we use a low density material (in late 2016 we introduced our own custom formula for these strings) so that the sound is not overly bright and the feel is not overly thin.  While we may have slightly less tension on our 4th string and a bit more on the 1st, the intermediate strings are individually selected to transition in both feel and tone.  We don’t want to say the 4th is as bright as the 1st, or conversely that the 1st is not more assertive than the 4th, but these tendencies are now brought under control and evened out, and just as importantly the tension feels much more consistent from one string to the next. And this last point is important, because as we mentioned in the beginning, an even feel is critical in letting the solo player set his own tension and pitch.  So here’s a Tip for you solo players looking for best sound out of an all plain Linear set!  Plain strings are of course more flexible than wound strings.  In the case of a Light Gauge set, for example, where both wound and plain versions are offered, try tuning the plain set above the recommendations on the Tuning Charts.  The chart guidelines should be followed for the wound string sets, but on a sound modern instrument, you may be able to tune a full step above that with the all plain strings.  Don’t overdue it.  Two things happen, both involving the 4th string.  First, it will actually have more clarity.  In the case of these thick strings, tensions that would feel normal on standard diameter material are actually on the low side for a thick string, and any string starts to sound muddy when played below ideal tension.  Second, the higher tension reduces the size of the vibrating wave, effectively limiting the sustain; that effect is much more pronounced on the heaviest string than on the others.  While our mixed material approach reduces linear 4th booming to begin with, this technique reduces it substantially more.  The effect is more pronounced with heavier strings, so in the case of these sets, it will be most noticeable on the LML set.   This is something that will only work well with one of our sets.  The common sets with strings that vary so much in tension from one string to the next will limit your ability to be “flexible”, something that should be one of the strong suits of plain string sets to begin with.        The Single Wound Sets: There comes a point as the gauges increase where you may decide you prefer a brighter clearer sound than you get from an all plain set.  After all, Light Medium gauges are as heavy as we feel is viable for an all plain set, and a lot of situations will call for deeper tunings than those can provide.  While our lightest gauge is offered in plain strings only, right after that there are options for the remaining two all plain sets and both these options are single wound sets.  These are called out with a suffix of “WB” which may be a bit vague.  Both single wound and double wound sets have the WB suffix.  But in the set name, these single wound sets are described as being “with wound bass” as opposed to the double wound sets which are described as “wound basses” (plural). This is an area where we also feel strongly that the Ukulele is done a disservice by the available commercial stringing options.  First, we have always felt the viable range for a single wound set is very limited.  For years, we offered only one set in that configuration.  In early 2016, with a new higher density plain material for a 3rd string, we increased the number of single wound sets to two.  The problems with this sort of arrangement are twofold.  First there is the transition from a bright wound 4th string to a 3rd string note that requires a plain string to be rather substantial.  So in many common arrangements you end up with a bright 4th string with good sustain transitioning to a 3rd string that by comparison will fall short in both sustain and clarity.  The way to attack this problem is to first keep this arrangement restricted to gauges that are light enough overall so that the 3rd is not overly thick.  With us this means single wound sets are in Light & Light Medium Gauges only.  Then the 4th string should not be overly assertive.  The composition of that 4th string brings us to the second problematic aspect of this single wound arrangement.  What are universally used as 4th strings in common set-ups are guitar derived material.  Lacking the specific formulation needed for an Ukulele set, these strings assure the “booming 4th” sound that single wound Ukulele linear sets are so notorious for.  To give only a couple of examples, the cheap silverplate guitar strings (besides being extremely noisy under hand) are way too bright in this setting.  There are polished strings offered as “solo” strings as well.  These have the advantages of better noise under hand and a thicker, softer core that reduces brightness.  But that core also contributes to greater mass, so these strings are more prone than any to boom out and overpower the rest of the ensemble. What we do is to actually formulate a wound Ukulele string (what an idea!).  The 4th string in our single wound sets has a high density core.  While this tends to increase sustain, we then wrap it (and polish) with a metal that produces a smooth warm tone.  The resulting sound is clear, without being harsh.  The diameter is a bit thinner than you might expect.  The sound is actually a bit weak compared to what would be needed to fit into a guitar set.  But remember that with our individually selected strings, we aren’t just swapping out a 4th string from our all plain sets.  Every string is different between the NWs and single wound WBs, and in contrast to the all plain sets, where a softer overall blend is needed to blend with the character of the plain 4th, with the single wound sets, the plain strings are all of varying high density formulae to match up with the characteristics of our wound 4th string.  So first, these plain strings are relatively light gauges to begin with and being higher density, they also have relatively small diameters.   Now both the overall feel and sound of our wound 4th blends nicely with the plain strings that make up the rest of the set.  You won’t hear that overly dominant 4th string note, and the overall sound projects well, bright without harshness.  This lovely light clear sound is very much in character with the feel. The Double Wound Sets: As we how move up to Medium & Heavy gauges, we do away with the Single Wound set-up and go exclusively to Double Wound, in other words wound strings for the 3rd & 4th.  As discussed above in the single wound analysis, one trick to formulating a good single wound set-up is in keeping the gauges light enough overall so the 3rd string doesn’t become so thick it yields a poor transition from the wound 4th.  Once we get up to the Medium Gauges, the tone of a wound 4th becomes too different from even our highest density plain 3rd.  The transition is no longer acceptable and that difference will also contribute to an overly dominant 4th string note. With a wound 3rd, that problem goes away.  The wound 4th now transitions smoothly to the wound 3rd.  However there are now a new set of challenges in integrating this wound 3rd string.  First, in the lightest of these gauges, the Medium Gauge, a wound 3rd of traditional material would be very thin, very delicate and very bright.  Now, in addition to being somewhat unreliable, the shrill tone stands out and the set becomes unbalanced in a new way.  What we’ve done with the Mediums is to bring in another uniquely formulated “Ukulele” string from our W3 Ukulele reentrant series - for this set only.  The 3rds from that series are hand wound and hand polished - designed to give a sound that’s closer to a plain string, but with greater clarity, especially when played up the neck.  At the same time, their lower density gives them a girth that is also similar to a plain string.  You can see how these qualities solve both the problems we just mentioned when using an overly light traditional wound material.  And since the sound and feel of this 3rd string are different than traditional wound material, we’ve taken the opportunity to give this set a different sound and feel than any other wound linear set you may have encountered. To begin with, there’s a kinship between the feel of this set and the feel of a single wound set.  Since the W3 wound strings are similar in girth to a plain string, then the double wound Mediums feel somewhat like playing a single wound set in that the 3rd string will be slightly thicker than the 4th.  But because we’ve moved up to Medium Gauges, somewhat heavier strings, and since this third string has a mellower tone compared to a thin traditional wound 3rd for this tension, we selected companion strings that also give a somewhat softer tone and more substantial girth. The 4th string is highly polished and the tone compliments the 3rd string well.  But then on the treble end we address another problem with sets of this general tension; that similar to traditional wound material being thin in both sound and feel for a 3rd string, high density plain material is thin in feel and harsh in tone for a 1st string. In discussing our plain string sets above we mentioned a custom resin (in varying gauges) that we use for those sets.  Here we’re using a slightly denser variety of the same resin.  It’s keeps the substantial feel of a typical low density nylon string, but has a much clearer sound combined with a a beautiful sweet tone.  Then we finish things off with a slightly higher density 2nd to transition between the W3 3rd and the unique formulation of the 1st. The result is a set that avoids the thin feel and harsh tone of double wound sets of this gauge in traditional wound / high density plain combinations.  The tension of these strings is exceptionally well matched from string to string.  The greater mass of these strings provides more volume as well (projection will depend largely on the instrument they’re placed on).  So expect a full rich sound with a sweet high end - a sound that again somehow seems to compliment the feel. Starting now with the Heavy Mediums, we have formulations that remain constant in material type throughout the rest of the Linear sets, in other words from the Heavy Mediums through the Light Heavies & the Heavy Gauge.  With these three heavier gauges we now need bright material to offset the natural softness in tone that occurs as gauges increase in size.  The lightest of these, the Heavy Mediums are as light as we feel comfortable with using these sorts of materials.  We worked with a string winder for years to come up with a way to have a highly polished 3rd string that would not be overly bright or thin.  “Not overly thin” is especially important in the lightest of these formulations, the Heavy Medium Gauges.  “Not overly bright” is important there as well, but even more so as we move into heavier gauges.  There we start to deal with thicker 2nd strings, so just as the 4-3 transition was a prime concern in the lighter gauge wound sets, the 3-2 transition needs the same sort of attention as gauges increase.  So it may appear we use the same material for  4th & 3rd strings in these sets.  But while the windings are indeed the same, the cores are different.  Again, this is our hallmark, individual string formulation to produce the best overall balance in feel and tone. Our new 3rd was originally supposed to be used as a Medium Gauge string.  But while this 3rd uses a dense metal for the wrapping it has a thicker, lower density core to add a bit of girth and mute any harshness.  That construction, and the subsequent high polishing that follows puts limits on how thin the string can be.  As such, this 3rd string ended up with a bit more tension than we had in mind for a Medium Gauge and for the other strings in the Medium Gauge set.  It’s a fabulous little piece of work, but we found it better suited to what we call a Heavy Medium tension.  So after initially issuing it in a Medium Gauge setting, we felt we could get a better balance with slightly higher tension companion strings and moved it up to be the foundation of the Heavy Medium set. With the return to higher density material expect a thinner feel and brighter sound in the Heavy Mediums compared to the specially formulated Medium set.  But there isn’t that much difference in tension, so for most folks, if the Medium tension suits your purpose, the Heavy Mediums likely will as well.  It will then come down to a personal choice for preference in feel and sound.  We like to give people choices. For here on things are pretty simple.  The same basses, high density metal wrapping around a high density core on the 4th & the same wrapping on a lower density core on the 3rd are paired with high density trebles.  Of course the feel and tone both get more substantial and softer respectively as the gauges increase.  Yet while the difference in tension is clearly felt, the difference in sound is not nearly what you would expect in moving from Heavy Medium to Light Heavy.  The Light Heavies maintain excellent clarity and have truly outstanding balance in tension from string to string. Then with the Heavies, the softer tone becomes more evident.  Until recently we never offered strings this heavy, as the 3-2 transition we mentioned just wasn’t up to standard.  But with the addition of new denser plain material in 2016, we feel this is now a workable situation, and for those looking for truly deep sound, this set gives it with even tone and tension.  So now having discussed material and sound, let’s now go on to look at selected usages for this group, both on various sized instruments and in various tunings .       
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