We've had a handful of Northfield's Artist Series mandolins through our shop, and they've all been exceptional instruments.
The NFA-5V1E has the same warm, open Northfield sound we love with an extra layer of complexity and presence. We chalk this up to the combination of an Engelmann top and Northfield's "Variation 1" 5-bar bracing system. Keep reading for more info about this amazing instrument!
Simply put, the Artist Series mandolins are Northfield’s best yet. They feature the most responsive, acoustically tuned tone woods, utilizing our most advanced construction techniques.
These mandolins are elegantly carved from the most striking materials pulled from our "stash" to produce the finest aesthetics ever found in a Northfield mandolin. The result is several dynamic variations that exhibit consistently powerful and uniquely expressive voices.
Since 2007 our team has been working on design improvements for our highest- level mandolins. We have evaluated and tested our own instruments after years of use on the road as well as extensively studied some of the most impressive modern day instruments. We have gone on field trips to play and listen to special mandolins, working with some of the finest musicians in the world.
Many hours have been spent with some of the very best vintage examples peering inside them with sophisticated tools used for modeling construction and acoustical data. This research has inspired and led us to re-imagine and refine ourselves in the Artist Series.
Not All Science
But it hasn't been all science. Ultimately we know that a mandolin's voice is subjective and artistry and musicality, not laboratory hours, matter most in the end. We have not forgotten that the link between builders and players is the soul of the instrument, experienced in the music and feeling it provides.
For this we have turned inward to our tastes for sound character. We've done extensive live and recorded listening tests, developing a vocabulary to really define what we're after in the tone of a mandolin. And we've had a lot of help, from very discerning professionals - incredibly, some of the most amazing mandolin players in the world.
In August of 2014 we met Mike Marshall at the Swanannoa Gathering and quickly recognized a kindred spirit. Mike’s artistry on the instrument both as a performer and educator is widely known. He’s considered by most as one of the best mandolin players ever.
We were thrilled to see how enthusiastic he was about our mandolins. But after about 5 minutes of talking “shop” and details of the mandolins we realized that he has a vast understanding of the instrument with adept interests in mandolin design, construction and sound analysis.
For decades, Mike has been experimenting with the mandolin and much like his adventurous approach to music he has never stopped trying out new things - set-up (bridges, strings, nut materials), internal design, neck shapes and other details.
He has commissioned many instruments with challenging designs and has amassed quite a collection of unique mandolin and mandolin family instruments. He’s not afraid to wield a rasp or file to shape a neck or make a nut. Even his own iconic Lloyd Loar signed F5 that he’s played for more than 30 years has undergone many alterations to make it more responsive and play better.
There was a synergy to our meeting that we knew was too good to let go of and we stayed in close contact for the next month planning a research session.
We decided to meet at Mike’s home in California where he performed a recording test that he had used on many mandolins. It’s a way to really listen to the tone, separate from volume, and pick out specific frequencies that contribute to the overall character of the sound.
We set up a recording session in Mike’s home studio with 2 prototype Artist Models and his Loar. We then took all of tracks and imported them into our own frequency analysis software.
With the various examples we were able to pin-point the strength and balance of the fundamental frequencies as well as the harmonics and compare each mandolin. The session opened our ears to the tonal character of these mandolins and how they compared.
We set some targets for improvement and went on with the next batch. We continued like this for the next 8 months: globetrotting, testing, performing, recording, analyzing… cooking (just seeing if you’re still with us) and finally arrived at two variations to move forward with.
Scale Length: 13 7/8" (front edge of E string) Nut width: 1-3/16" (Wide) Neck Shape: Soft V Fingerboard Radius: 5.7" at the Nut , 7.7" at the 20th fret
Tuners: Gotoh (Standard) Tailpiece: Silver-plated engraved Bill James Bridge and Fingerboard Material: Premium Ebony Finish Material: French Polished Spirit Varnish Finish Color: Sunburst
All materials from North America, seasoned and matched in our Marshall, MI shop. Assembled and varnished in our Qingdao shop.
Set up and final inspected in our Marshall, MI shop.
We find Engelmann to posses a real even responsiveness right out of the gate. It has an airy pop that makes it different from Red Spruce.
It takes hardly any time for it to seemingly open up and start producing a mellow, somewhat darker and sweet tone. The balance across all strings is remarkable and people that favor Engelmann typically rave about the smoothness (tonally, not harsh--not brash, typically not as loud either) of this tone wood.
It does not posses the headroom of Red Spruce and is typically favored by people playing in smaller ensembles and a variety of musical styles.
We have reshaped our tone bars quite a bit from our standard series mandolins because of a few design changes.
We've added strength to the top by creating a more pronounced arch. We have also changed our thickness map varying the graduation in several hundred points across the top. The tone bars are not really "braces" at all, more like EQ dials that we can adjust depending on the specific frequencies we want.
5 tone bars instead of 2? Over the years there have been many variations on tone bar shapes and placement. We have arrived at a hybrid of sorts combining parallel bracing with a few small additional braces to finely tune the instrument and achieve responsiveness with specific frequencies.
The result is an instrument that achieves a strength in the bass while still allowing for a lot of balance across the strings. Sustain is achieved by adding a little mass and the harmonics in the 3rd and 4th octaves are brought out - adding rich overtones and coloring to the overall tone.
Depending on the top wood choice, strength and bone structure can also be added to the upper end as well, increasing head room. Ultimately, we are aiming for a distinctive aural complexity with this variation.