I’ve been learning cello again recently. The omnipresent advice for novices is to rent a cello from a reputable violin shop, which is great - my cello would be $2,700 new, but I’m renting it for $50/mo. And I can tell I’ll outgrow it, and I don’t know how to properly evaluate an acoustic cello for great suitability yet.
I’ve got a practice mute, but it’s still rather loud - I can’t practice at night or early in the morning without waking someone up in my house. This led me to look at electric cellos for practice. There are essentially three options:
I had the opportunity to visit Luther Strings this past weekend to try the Yamaha and NS Design cellos.
First of all, the prices on the Yamaha and NS Design are high - you may be tempted to shop elsewhere for your first instrument. The Cecilio seems like a good deal at $530, but it isn’t. A friend of mine purchased one in college (budgets, hey). The electronics are awful - bad sound, noisy, connections are inconsistent and cut out. I lined it with tin foil and resoldered most of the joints, which helped. It wouldn’t hold tune, so I installed geared bass tuners. The bridge needs to be shorter and the fingerboard needs to be planed, which I can’t reasonably DIY and the luthiers want $100s to do it. The strings are uncomfortable, too, and they don’t sound good. It’ll cost about as much to get the instrument in usable condition as it does to buy it.
You could start on this, but you’d quickly be dismayed at the difficulty in pressing the strings down, the noise from the electronics, and the impossibility of drawing a good tone from it. You’re far better off saving more money to buy a nicer one, or seeing if anyone nearby can rent one of these - a string shop that carries electrics may be willing to do that.
Yamaha makes a range of silent practice cellos. They happen to be electric, but the clear intended purpose is for silent practice. They have body shapes that make it feel like a traditional cello - there’s a shoulder where you’d expect to go into thumb position, a frame for your legs, and a metal bit that rests on your chest. The electronics are all active, and have an A/C adapter - they have headphone outputs and reverb built-in. They also have a hookup for an auxiliary input, which would allow you to plug an MP3 player and listen to a backing track while you play.
The cheapest option is the Yamaha SVC-50 at $2,100.
NS Design makes a range of electric cellos. They happen to be quiet, but the clear intended purpose is for playing electric cello. The shape is highly non-traditional - the neck is unobstructed throughout, and there’s nothing but a stick on the cello itself. You can play with an included adjustable tripod to find the right position, or you can purchase a frame/end-pin mount, or a strap system for standing upright. On the low end, the electronics are simple - a passive pickup, a switch for arco or pizzicato playing, a volume know, and a tone knob - much like you’d find on an electric guitar or bass.
The cheapest option is the NS Design WAV4 at $1,259 (though Shar Music has one for $999). While this is significantly cheaper than the Yamaha, you’ll probably want the cello endpin stand at $385, and maybe the frame strap system at $259, or the thumbstop for $116. The cost is now $1,759, and you still can’t plug headphones directly into the instrument - for that, you need to go up to the CR series, which are around $4,000 (but have active electronics and a headphone jack).
These are two pretty different items. However, they have a lot of overlap - and so deciding between them may be a challenge.
The NS Design WAV4 has a much lower entry price - at $999 from Shar, it’s a fantastic deal, and even the $1,259 from other retailers is good. However, the endpin stand is expensive and necessary to get the mobility and feel of a traditional cello, which would be an important purchase if the intent is to practice for traditional cello. The WAV4 also only has passive electronics and an instrument output - you need an amplifier of some sort to drive headphones.
The Yamaha is $2,100, but it is fully loaded. You buy it, and you’ll be able to practice cello silently with a backing track right now. You don’t need anything else.
Once you’ve bought the accessories you need to make these equivalent, the cost ends up around the same. This is defrayed a bit if you already have some of the amplifier/headphone gear for the NS cello from playing electric guitar.
The Yamaha silent cello feels like a traditional cello. The chest stop feels right, and the two leg frames feel right. You can move the cello with your knees to get different string angles and to aide expressive playing. The shoulder of the cello indicates when you’d need to shift to thumb position on a traditional cello. Unfortunately, I found the fingerboard to be oddly shaped, and the strings were a bit high. It was far better than the Cecilio I’ve played, but I do still feel like a proper setup from a luthier would help dramatically. I’d say it feels like a $1,000 cello with $1,000 of electronics.
The NS Design doesn’t feel like a traditional cello at all. On the stock tripod, there’s no chest or leg support. The instrument sits in a fixed position. This doesn’t feel natural coming from an acoustic cello. I didn’t try the endpin stand, as the shop didn’t have it. The lack of shoulder means you have no indication when you’d need to shift into thumb position. There’s a single brass dot on the back of the neck that’s roughly where fourth position is.
The Yamaha clearly feels more like a traditional cello.
Yamaha’s intent is to allow you to pretend you are playing a real acoustic cello. Yamaha makes a comparable guitar - it’s their SLG200S silent acoustic guitar. The Yamaha silent cello doesn’t really feel like an instrument I’d want to play on. I definitely wouldn’t want to write music for it, or perform with. It’s for practice, and it lives in the shadow of the acoustic cello. You never want to play the Yamaha - you’d rather be playing your acoustic - but sometimes, hey, this is good enough, and better than nothing.
NS Design can sacrifice a lot of the engineering and design that the Yamaha needs for this in order to produce an instrument that stands alone. In the same way that a Fender Stratocaster or Gibson Les Paul are different instruments than an acoustic guitar, the NS Cello isn’t trying to be something that it isn’t. The tripod is sturdy and would work fine on stage. The frame strap allows you to stand and walk while playing - something the Yamaha simply cannot do, not even with The Block Strap, since the instrument is designed differently. The lack of a shoulder bout means you don’t have an indicator on when to shift - but that really just opens up the range of the upper end of the cello significantly. Just like how a classical guitar often has the shoulder bout on the 12th fret, but electric guitars can go up to 24 frets.
The NS Design cello simply feels much better to play. It’s easier to play double stops and sound notes. The neck has a nice feel to it. I can easily imagine playing this instrument for itself - writing music, performing with it, recording with it, etc.
Electronics absolutely dominate the tone of an electric instrument.
The Yamaha cello is slightly noisy. You can hear a static hiss in the background. There’s no tone knob or onboard EQ, so the sound you get is what you get. In my opinion, it doesn’t sound great. However, it is a complete practice solution - and if you’re just practicing, the richness of tone doesn’t really matter. You can hear your technique just fine.
Now, I did not try the WAV4. I tried a 5 string CR, with active electronics - volume, switch, and an active EQ knob for bass and treble. The NS Design sounds great. The arco/pizzo switch yields some interesting tone combinations - while everything sounds great on the arco setting, the pizzicato setting brings out much more sustain, similar to a guitar. The electronics are quiet - no detectable noise. I found it easy to produce a tone that sounded good - you wouldn’t confuse it for an acoustic cello, but you wouldn’t think it sounded bad at all.
The WAV4 has the same pickup as the CR, but the electronics are passive. This means you only get a treble roll-off knob and a volume knob, plus the arco/pizzicato switch. I tend to prefer passive electronics anyway - both the Yamaha and NS Design cellos ran out of battery power during my trial, and produced some gnarly bad tone.
In my opinion, the NS Design wins here.
The NS Design CR cello feels fantastic. The craftsmanship is superb. Everything is sturdy and feels great. I think it looks nice, too - a quality wood finish and a pattern of dots on the fingerboard provide some visual interest for what is otherwise just a stick.
The Yamaha feels a bit like a toy. The aesthetics are pretty bare - it’s a black shape with some stuff sticking out. The tuners are kinda cheap looking. I didn’t get a great feeling for it.
Well, the Yamaha is clearly a better instrument for practicing traditional acoustic cello. No question about it. If all you care about is an all-in-one travel cello and the ability to practice without bothering anyone, then the Yamaha is the winner.
However, the NS Design has a lot of compelling points in it’s favor. It’s an instrument in-and-of-itself. It’s not trying to be an acoustic cello but quiet, and this allows it to have many advantages over the Yamaha. The sound is better than the Yamaha. In many ways, playing the NS Cello is even easier than an acoustic cello, and certainly much better feeling than the Yamaha.
Overall, I feel compelled by the advantages of the NS cello. I’ll need to invest in the endpin stand, and I may try to fashion a detachable shoulder bout so I know when to practice thumb position. I’ve been intending on getting a music studio going, which would satisfy the headphone amp problem, and I could also use any electric guitar amp.
I may regret the decision and decide that I don’t actually care about the electric cello features, and what I really did want was just a practice cello. But we’ll see!