August 22, 2017
Ever since I started watching The Piano Guys I've wanted to have an electric cello. The NS Design advertisements in Strings magazine always caught my eye, and after reading some reviews and watching this Bach G Major Suite Sarabande video I decided this was the electric cello for me.
NS Design has two electric cello models, the CR and the NXT. The CR has a pre-amp built into the instrument while the NXT is passive only. The CR comes in 4-, 5-, or 6-string models, while the NXT offers either a 4- or 5-string cello. The CR is roughly twice as expensive as the NXT.
Three years ago I bought a black NXT5, 5-string cello and added the Cello End-Pin Stand (CEPS). I also bought a high E-string as the factory setup is F - C - G - D - A, and I wanted C - G - D - A - E. Finally I purchased a Peavey Max Series Bass Amplifier so my new cello would make sound.
I selected the 5-string cello for no reason other than it was an option. My limited knowledge of cello literature tells me that the 6th Bach cello suite would benefit from a 5th string, but I am not likely to take on that piece any time soon. Having the E-string will introduce new fingering options. Having two instruments that have a fundamental differnce like this will force me to improve as a musician.
The NXT5 that I bought from Amazon cost $1,699. The neck and body are solid maple, and it has an ebony fingerboard. The peg box has worm-gear tuners with a 12:1 ratio eliminating the need for fine tuners. The pickups are polar directional piezo crystals.
The fit and finish on my NXT5 is excellent. The color is uniform with no blemishes. All of the fittings, edges, and corners are smooth. The cello has a nice heft to it when you pick it up. At 4 pounds, without the included tripod stand or the optional CEPS, it weights about 2.6 pounds less than my acoustic cello. The end-pin stand adds 2.2 pounds so a "traditional" setup weighs 6.2 pounds.
The tuners work very well, but with the addition of the 5th string the placement of each tuner is different from an acoustic instrument. The cello comes setup with these strings: F - C - G - D - A. Since there isn't any traditional cello literature written below C2 (the C-string) I ordered this D'Addario NS Electric Cello Single High E String from Amazon. More on swapping the strings in a little bit.
The cello has two knobs and a toggle switch. The upper knob adjusts the instrument's volume. Turning the knob fully clockwise it clicks into a bypass position. In bypass the volume and tone control are eliminated entirely, allowing for the fullest tone and output level. The lower knob is a tone control for the treble range. The toggle switch lets you choose between arco or pizzicato modes. Pizzicato mode allows for smooth attack and long decay. Arco allows for massive attack and a relatively faster decay.
The NXT Cello Instructions indicate that due to the high output impedance of the cello, most electric guitar amps will not suffice. Instead you should get a bass amp. After a visit to the local guitar shop I ended up testing and then getting a Peavey Max Series Max 110 Combo Bass Amplifier.
I don't know anything about guitar amps, but the Peavey I have does a good job with the NXT. To be honest, once I got the bass, mid, and treble settings adjusted, and the gain set, the only button I use is the power button. The dealer sold me a 10 foot patch cord, that has a 90° angle at one end. This allows the plug in the back of the cello to not stick out. In my living room I have the volume set to 1 or maybe a shade higher. With some felt pads on one side of the amp, and the amp laying over on that side, it makes a decent stand for my CD player and stereo amplifier. If people see it at all, it looks like a speaker - which it is.
It is possible to play the NXT without any amplification. The stings make a faint but discernable sound. I have taken the cello without the amp on a couple road trips, and practiced in my hotel room. Unfortunately the instrument is just long enough that a hard sided case large enough to hold it and a bow would not be carry on luggage on a plane. It would have to be checked. NS Design does sell a hard sided case that would serve this purpose, but it's very expensive, something like $800.
$ 2,239.27 (without taxes or shipping/handling charges)
With the D'Addario E-string in hand I set out to re-string my cello from the factory F-C-G-D-A to C-G-D-A-E. So that I would never have more than one string off the cello at a time I started by removing the A-string and putting the new E-String in its place. There was a lot of extra string at the peg end, so much so that after I had it on and tuned I debated taking it off and shortening it. However my eagerness to finish the re-stringing caused me to ignore the excessive winding on the peg and move on to the D-string/A-string swap. After removing the D-string and threading the A-string through the tail-end of the cello I discovered that the factory had trimmed the excess string. The A-string wasn't long enough to reach any other peg but the one it had originally been on.
The A-string side of the peg-box has three tuners, which from the factory held the (from bottom to top) A-string, the D-string, and the G-string. The other side of the peg-box held the (again, bottom to top) F-string and C-string. All of the factory installed strings had been trimmed to reach their peg perfectly. After considering this for a few moments I decided to put the new E-string on the upper peg on the three-peg side of the box. This allowed me to leave the A-string on the lower peg on that side, and put the D-string on the middle peg. The C-string moved to the lower peg on the two-peg side, with the G-string taking the upper spot.
While tightening the G-string on it new peg, the tail end of the string unraveled leaving me temporarily upset. Until I remembered that I have two old sets of strings from my acoustic cello that I keep as spares against string breakage. I grabbed one of my spare G-strings and put it on the new cello.
With all 5 stings in place and reasonably tight I set about tuning each string. I prefer violin temperment over even and with ClearTune up and running on my phone I cautiously started in tuning the E-string. E4 is surprising high and therefore requires a lot of tension. So much so that I stood to the side as I turned the tuner in half-turn increments.
Once I had all 5 strings in tune I quickly checked each one again. Unlike my acoustic cello, where major tuning of one strings tends to throw out neighboring strings that were previously in tune, the NXT didn't lose much tune in the process.
The pegs are considerably smaller than acoustic cello pegs, and therefore pulling the string through and trimming it before tightening was essential. The 12:1 ratio of the tuners helps as they are both peg and fine tuner. Not having to work with traditional pegs to roughly tune and then fine tuners to finish was nice.
The 90° angle where the string comes through the body of the cello and heads toward the bridge puts a lot of stress on the strings. I believe the broken G-string was a result of not reusing the kink in the string but rather bending it another way inadvertently. Since I don't plan on re-stringing again any time soon this shouldn't be an issue, but someone who wanted to change their setup frequently would be wise to be careful with threading the string through the body so that the previous bend was reused rather than bent again.
The sound of the cello is surprisingly good. It's not the same tone quality as an acoustic instrument, but it isn't completely alien sounding either. The $200 amplifier I purchased does a very good job of producing lots of sound. I've never had the volume above perhaps 2 on the 1-10 scale. Of course I'm sitting right next to it in my practice area. Someday I'll drag it out on the deck and see what 10 sounds like.
The strings speak quickly and with very little effort. The decay in sound lasts a long time. Having reference marks on the fingerboard makes it easier to find some finger positions. Since the NXT5 doesn't have a traditional body, the neck doesn't change shape at 4th position. There is a tiny little brass bump in the neck for your thumb, as an indicator of 4th position. At first I tended to over shoot this marker, but with practice I've gotten better about shifting just far enough.
Having an extra string changes the geometry of the instrument. The strings are slightly closer together than they are on my acoustic cello. It is very easy to catch a neighboring string with your bow. Also, I have to retrain my mind to understand that the A-string is now #2 and not #1. At first these subtle differences were very frustrating and I started to think I should have purchased a 4 string electric cello. Over time I have gotten more used to the NXT5 and I am able to play it without too much difficulty now.
If you just but the NXT you get a tripod stand. This is great for storing the cello, and you can play the cello while it is on the tripod, but not comfortably. The cello endpin stand, which I bought as an extra, allows for a more natural playing style. However, storing the cello between practice sessions with the CEPS on is cumbersome. There's no way to stand it up or lay it down. For a long time I resorted to taking the CEPS off and putting the cello back on the tripod to store it. This made practicing with the electric cello less enjoyable and so I didn't use it very much.
Recently I saw a posting online about guitar holders and bought a Hercules Stands Wallmount Guitar Hanger. The grip on it is large enough to accommodate the NXT5. With careful placement on the wall I am able to stand my NXT up and have it gripped at the next and have it's weight supported by the end pin on the floor. Now I just reach over and pick up the cello and start playing. When I'm done I can stand it up in the grip again. The downward pull of the cello on the grip causes the ears to close and keeps the cello securely in place. Having this wall mount has greatly increased my ease of playing the electric cello.
Last summer I took it with me to Cellospeak and let everyone (who wanted to) try it. The reviews were generally good, and the people who did play it were delighted with how it sounded and how easy it was to adapt to. I continue to play around with it. I use it for scales, as the fingerboard markings help me to find the correct position after shifts or in extensions. After getting the scale in my ear on the electric cello, I switch to the acoustic and find that I can play the scale more fluidly than I would have without the electric warm up. Thanks to the Hercules wall mount I am playing it more frequently now, and my bow control and left hand shaping are improving due to the tighter geometry of the strings. Over time this will make my acoustic playing better too.
Would I buy it again? Yes. Although I might opt for the 4 string model -- simply to have something that matched my other instrument. Having an electric cello along side your acoustic cello is a bit like having a motorcycle along side your car. Both provide transportation, but in a very different way, requiring different aspects of the same driving skills. Playing the NXT forces me to pay attention to different aspects of my cello playing technique, which will eventually result in better playing overall.