NS Designs CR4M Bass
There have been numerous innovations on the double bass in the last 20 years, and NS Designs brings us the latest in electric uprights with the CR4M. With its futuristic name, and appearing like an exhibit in the Museum of Modern Art, this model comes in two portable units in gig bags: one for the bass with fingerboard, strings, etc.; the other, a metal tripod stand that supports the instrument.
The bass is attractive, featuring orange-shaded wood, sleek black tuning pegs and a smooth fingerboard with dots marking note locations—a particular advantage for electric bassists venturing into upright playing. The CR4M comes with steel strings and a tone that comes far closer to the singing sustain of a fretless electric than it does an acoustic bass. The lack of shoulders on the instrument’s body makes upper register playing easy; this too is an advantage for electric players unfamiliar with thumb position, though string-bass players more accustomed to a bass body may find this awkward.
The open scroll makes string changes easier and the instrument comes with a plastic bridge, which is not the best conductor of sound. The strings are set very low and the slightly curved bridge doesn’t appear to be adjustable; that is a consideration for most players who set their own string height. The split pickups are powerful and punchy, giving the instrument great volume and projection. I found the right-hand positioning for pizzicato to be awkward for the thumb, as was playing the bass off the tripod stand; but as a bassist who plays both acoustic and stick basses I realize it can take some time to adjust to new instruments with radical designs.
Balance will always be an issue with electric upright models, but generally players like to have their instruments in contact with the body; we need to feel the vibrations. On the positive side, the stand is heavy, well made and supports the instrument, which is important in a club where things get knocked over.
I’ll bet Jaco Pastorius would have loved the CR4M, but not with the bow. The tone for arco playing is extremely nasal, uneven, and there is a problem with sympathetic vibrations from the other strings as one plays, causing the need to dampen other strings. The low end of this instrument is impressive for both arco and pizzicato, but this is not a convincing instrument with the bow, a problem with many electric uprights. For pizzicato, the upper register is bright and singing and very fretless electric in quality throughout the registers. I played this bass through medium-size combo amps and found it to be powerful, sounding best when both pickups were in their full treble position and the volume on the bass was all the way up.
New instruments require a different set of aesthetics, or at least a revision of old ones. To view a stick bass as a portable upright is to sell it short; it is a different instrument with its own unique voice and character. An acoustic bass, with its resonating body, moves air in a unique way, and we can’t expect an electric upright to do the same. Thus, it is up to the player to find a unique concept and context for radically new instruments like the CR4M.
Is the CR4M a valid instrument or an erector set with strings? I vote for the former and feel the bass would be great for a fusion, rock or any other high-volume context. We all love portability, and this instrument not only travels with ease but can save much needed space on stage. It is an excellent instrument for the doubler who must quickly switch from electric to upright without dropping either one.
The CR4M may not work as well in more intimate acoustic contexts such as a piano trio or straightahead quartet. Blending might be a problem here, and the player needs to realize that not all instruments are all-purpose. In the future, I would recommend a retractable endpin over a tripod stand, and a bass body that can make a little contact with the human body. A wooden piece to rest the right thumb would help with the leverage necessary for strong pizzicato playing. Bassists need to dig into the strings to produce the sound, not rely on the volume control. An adjustable wood bridge might also be considered since string height is a personal matter of taste and playing style.
I would recommend this instrument for electric players who need to double on upright and look forward to future modifications and improvements. But can NS Designs change the name to something less spacey, something more human? Spock is a lousy bassist.