Zon Michael Manring Hyperbass
When I was a teenager, I saw a video of Michael Manring playing a 3-octave bass with dynamic tuning capabilities and sorta became obsessed with the idea of owning one. In the late 1990s, the price was around $7,000. A brief Google search yields used ones for ~$10,000.
Check out our private house concert with Michael featuring Andy West!
It was always a fantasy of mine to see him play live, so I flew him out to our house for a house concert (video coming soon!) in April 2016. Not only did I get to see Michael play, but I got to have his wonderful instruments in my home for a few hours! Michael was gracious enough to do an interview about the instrument before the show.
Interview Audio (Podcast)
(NOTE: hitting the “play” button requires a hefty download of the entire audio file!).
Or, download an mp3 .
Anthony: Hey, this is Anthony from MakeWeirdMusic.com and I’m here with Michael Manring.
A: Uh, in my bedroom studio. So, thank you for traveling out here, Michael.
M: My pleasure. Thank you for having me, Anthony.
A: So, I wanted to talk about instruments that provide a unique voice for musicians and you certainly have one of those instruments.
M: I know something about that.
A: So, can you tell us about the bass you have today?
M: Yeah, this is officially known as the “Zon Michael Manring Hyperbass.” It’s a bass that Joe Zon and I designed together almost 25 years ago now and the idea was that there were a lot of different design possibilities that we wanted to try out on an instrument. We kind of decided, “Well, let’s put them all on one instrument and see what happens.” We weren’t banking on it being a success. It’s a prototype. That’s what it is; an experiment to see what would work and what didn’t.
We ended up–I was gonna say we ended up being lucky, but what happened is Joe Zon is just really good at what he does and everything works beautifully. So, the instrument really works so well as an integrated whole, but it’s kind of its own beast and it’s just been a joy for me. It’s really opened up a whole lot of possibilities that wouldn’t be there otherwise. It’s a thrill.
A: So what makes this instrument different from a regular 4-string fretless bass?
M: So, a couple things. Probably the most obvious design change in this is the fingerboard is especially long. A standard bass fingerboard ends about here [points at the 21st fret] and then there’s a standard that ends here [points at the 24th fret] and this little bit is almost an additional octave because the notes get closer together as you go up the neck. So, extending it this far gives a lot more range.
However, the idea behind this wasn’t necessarily about having more range as much as it was we couldn’t figure out why not to do it. We knew where we wanted the pickup to be and we couldn’t think of why the fingerboard should end at some point before that and so we thought, “Well, we’ll just extend the fingerboard to the pickup and see what happens.” I don’t tend to do a lot of direct playing in this last little area of the fingerboard.
Occasionally it’s real nice to have. But, there’s other things that happen because I have fingerboard there that have ended up being really, really exciting. There’s lots of sounds I can make on that part of the fingerboard with my picking hand, my right hand, that really have become an important part of what I do. So that’s been a really nice thing and as time goes on, I’ve been kind of working on playing in this super stratosphere. It’s really kind of nice to have.
With bass, you’re always kind of running out of notes when you’re going for that extreme moment. That’s never going to happen on this instrument. There’s always more to play than I can usually manage to get to. So that’s the first thing about this. And then Joe decided to do a real deep cutaway so it’s not too hard to get up here. I have to kind of decide to go on top of the cutaway or underneath it in my fingerings that I use. And I’ll do either one depending on what kind of passage I’m playing, but it’s kind of nice to have that option.
A: Is it the full width of the body behind the neck? Is there any sort of special shaping for your hand to reach?
M: There’s no bevel. It’s just a straight cut back and in instruments we’ve been doing since this one–as I said, this one was the first prototype like this–he’s been doing some different shaping with that part of the instrument to see what works. It’s a lot of fun. I don’t know if there’s a right or wrong way to do it, but it’s kind of nice to see what can be done. So, yeah, that’s kind of the first thing.
Another interesting thing about this instrument that’s not immediately visible is the electronics. We wanted to do some different things with the electronics on this instrument and so one of the things that’s happening is underneath this pickup cover, there’s four separate pickups, one for each string. There’s a humbucking pickup for each string. So that gives me the ability to plug each string into a different amplifier or a different channel in a mixing board and really deal with each string individually.
And this is something I’d been wanting to do for a long time and I just find really thrilling because it just opens up a ton of things you can do. I suppose it’s kind of obvious that you can do completely bizarre, crazy things, like put a massive amount of fuzz tone on one string and have the others clean, and that’s a lot of fun. But, often I’ll just use it kind of subtly.
If I’m recording–I use it mostly when I’m recording solo bass music and so I can have, for instance, the same reverb sound across all four strings, but it can be shorter on the low strings so I can have a rich reverb that doesn’t cloud up as much. I can have different kinds of compression on each string, all kinds of EQ, and panning.
I can do panning differently with the strings and that’s something that has ended up being really thrilling to me. Just the panning thing alone, the sound that it makes really is something that really impresses me. If you have sound moved across a sonic canvas of some kind, it really behaves in a different way than if it’s all coming out of one thing. So, right, so that’s the quadrophonic magnetic pickup.
In addition to those four outputs, Joe built into the body ceramic pickups. There’s one up here [by the horn], one down here [on the lower horn], there’s one here [by the arm rest], and there’s one up here [in the headstock by the truss rod] in the headstock. And then the signal from those goes back here [flips over the bass]. There’s a little trim pot mixer, these little trim pots you can move with your fingernail so you can decide how much of each of those you want to have in the mix, so if you want to have just one in a separate output, you can do that. You can do different things with that where you can mix in different ways. And that comes out on a fifth output.
All these outputs work together out of a really nice multi-output jack by a company called Lemo Jack. It was a very expensive, groovy part of this instrument, using this Lemo Jack to do the multiple output. In addition to that, Joe figured out how all of those could be summed together so I could play this instrument in mono. I was so excited about these possibilities that it never really occurred to me that it’s kind of wildly impractical to have five inputs any time you want to play the instrument, so Joe built a mono output into this instrument as well.
All these outputs are summed and you can still control the mix of the transducers, which is nice, and those come out a regular 1/4” output, just like any other instrument, and in fact, that’s the one I end up using most of the time just because it’s logistically so much easier. But, I love recording with the multiple output. So, that’s kind of the electronic aspect of this instrument.
And then finally, probably the most bizarre thing about this instrument is that we designed it for dynamic tuning. For many years, I’d been interested in using different tunings on the bass. The bass is incredibly receptive to altered tunings and when you change the tuning, these kind of wonderful magical things happen. I just got very into this concept and realized there’s so much you can do with it.
There’s so many different tunings you can do with the bass that I really wanted to keep moving beyond that and to go to the next level with it. And one of the places I wanted to go was into this area of dynamic tuning. So, not only is it about using these unusual tunings for the bass, these altered non-standard tunings on the bass, but being able to move those and change through those.
I started trying to do that just by turning the tuning keys while I was playing. And that’s okay, you can kind of do a little bit with that, but I really wanted to take it a lot further than that and that was probably the biggest challenge from a design standpoint. Joe and I talked about this for a long time and talked about various systems we could do and we designed a few systems that we couldn’t afford to build. But we ended up with this system, which has really worked amazingly well.
What’s happening is that here at the headstock, we are using Hipshot Extender Keys. And this is actually a relatively standard add-on device for a bass. It’s designed to be put on your low string, typically on the low E string, and the tuning key sits on a kind of plate and when I move this lever, the whole tuning key tilts, just the tension of the string causes the tuning key to tilt. You can use that to drop your E string to a D or a C or a B. Really whatever you want. You can set it up with this little set screw in the back. And so these are two right-handed Hipshots and these are two left-handed Hipshots. I have one on each string here and it allows me to change the tuning of each string individually here at the headstock.
A: Can you play us just a few notes to show us how it works?
M: Sure! [Plays harmonics and changes tunings.] So it’s a really nice tool to have. It really opens up a lot of possibilities. One of the things I discovered is that I really like the sound of the tunings moving. Just how it sounds when the bass moves, which is not something I expected necessarily and I often write pieces around that, just the moving of the tunings because to me it’s an appealing sound.
So in addition to this system, we did a system here at the bridge as well because we really wanted to do as much as we could at the time given the constraints of the technology and the amount of money we had to put into this. So, this bridge is one that Zon makes and it’s a little hard to explain. What happens is each string kind of sits on a kind of a tray and underneath the bridge, so they’re basically flat on one side and rounded on the other and these levers turn the cams. The trays, there are little set screws on the trays, and when I turn the cams, that causes the trays to move up and down.
You can set what you want the tunings to be with the set screws in the bridge. The bridge is designed to do three different tunings. You have a high tuning, a medium tuning, and a low tuning, more or less whatever you want within some limits. It depends on a lot of things like the gauge of the string and the tension of the string, things like that. Even how you set up the bridge makes a difference. But it does give you some really cool possibilities.
As you move through the tunings in the bridge, you don’t have to have all the strings change, too. I usually set this bridge up, in fact, so that from the high position to the low position, the two high strings stay the same and then to the low position, dropping down all four strings. It doesn’t have to be that way, but it’s a thing I like to do with moving just two strings or all four or whatever you want to do. So, yeah, and then that moves all four strings like this. I’m moving all four strings a whole step. This is Bb, F, Bb, F and [flicks the cam on the bridge] now it’s Ab, Eb, Ab, Eb.
So I use these two systems in combination to–it gives me a chance to go through a whole lot of tunings [manipulates both bridge and headstock tuners.] In one piece. And I think that’s pretty much it.
A: That is pretty incredible.
M: Thank you.
A: Well, let’s get some footage of you playing. Let’s see if we can get this 5-output thing going. Thanks a lot!
M: You bet.