Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Steinberger Synapse XS-15FPA 5-String Fretless Bass

I have what is apparently a somewhat exotic electric bass -- so exotic that it seems no one makes strings for it. It is a 5-string fretless Synapse. I purchased this thing used in (I think) 2008. Gibson still lists the fretted version for sale but the fretless models seem to be as rare as hen's teeth.




The Synapse instruments are pretty cool, and what I like about this bass is the wide, flat freboard, and the tone that one can get out of the piezo pickup. However, they are built in Korea, and for a Korean-made instrument, overpriced. It has the fit-and-finish of a slightly unfinished prototype, with a number of little details that don't quite seem right, such as the battery compartment. I've also heard horror stories that the truss rod is very flimsy -- a couple of owners have described online how they were unfortunately able to break them, without what seemed like an excess of force. So I am being very careful when I adjust the truss rod on mine. It isn't a great instrument and I can't actually recommend them for either live or studio work. I am thoroughly disgusted by the damage Gibson has done to the Steinberger name; this isn't my first Gibson-era Steinberger bass with issues. In an era where manufacturing has made such incredible advances it is just heartbreaking that one can't just buy a Steinberger bass that lives up to the original and justifiably loved Brooklyn and Newburgh instruments.

I had ordered a second fretted one, in white, through Sweetwater, thinking that a black fretless and a white fretted bass would pretty much cover all the, er, basses, and look really cool if I ever played out and switched between them for different songs. However, Sweetwater reported that the instrument Gibson sent them to fill my order did not pass their quality control and so they had sent it back. It didn't seem like Gibson was going to get around to making a good one, so I cancelled the order rather than wait indefinitely.

Because this model isn't popular, and because it is quirky, no one seems to make strings that will fit it. I think this bass still has the original factory strings. La Bella does not make a set designed for this bass. The ball-end strings it uses are similar, but not exactly the same, as strings for the old Newburgh or even Music Yo Steinbergers.

The instrument supposedly gives you some flexibility about strings since you can use either double-ball-end strings or single-ball-end strings; in the case of single-ball-end strings the idea is that you can clamp the top of the string in a little clamp. But in practice the strings have to be exactly the right gauge to fit, and none I've tried are.



A few years ago I ordered some La Bella black tape-wound nylon strings from Just Strings Dot Com. They did not fit: the low B string was too fat to fit in the channel at the top of the neck, and the winding did not extend far enough down the string to allow it to sit properly on the bridge. Just Strings Dot Com has a strict no-return policy if a pack of strings has been opened, even if it hasn't been actually put on an instrument or played. As a result, I will no longer buy strings from them.

La Bella offered to take them back, and I had a tentative plan to ship them my bass and the strings and have them make a custom set, but I never followed through with that plan, and wound up getting some older Newburgh Steinberger basses instead.

The Synapse sat mostly unloved, and the black tape-wound strings went on my son's Peavey 5-string bass.

Anyway, these things come around again. I've recently been playing the Synapse again. I've used it on a couple of original songs, including "I. O. U." and "Falling: A Nightmare in Three Acts" and with my Radial JDV direct box and some tweaked compressor plug-ins, I really do love the sound of this bass, and so I've been practicing and working with a book, trying to improve my fretless skills, and the string issue is back on my mind because the original strings just can't sound as good as they should anymore.

I ordered two string sets from Status Graphite in England. They say that they hand-make their strings and that they have the widest variety of double-ball-end strings. They say "They will work perfectly on all Steinberger and many other headless basses." I ordered both a black nylon tape-wound set and a flat-wound set thinking that I'd like to try both. (One of the advantages of the Steinberger system is that it is very easy to change strings, assuming no change of setup is needed, so you can take off one kind of string and put on another for a specific recording session and the ones you took off will not be damaged by this treatment like they would be if you had to wind and unwind them on peg heads).

The Status Graphite strings showed up today. Here's Joshua holding one of the sets:


Here's a close-up to show which set it is:


Aaaaand, unfortunately, after all this, they also don't fit the Synapse so I will be getting in touch with them to see if I can return them. I would use them on one of my other Steinbergers, but they are all four-string basses. I will inquire whether Status Graphite thinks they can make me some that will fit. Maybe I can send them the original strings to use for reference.

In the picture below (sorry it's blurry) the bottom string is the original, at the bridge end, and the top is the SG string. Note the wrapped fat portion. The SG string doesn't sit properly on the bridge.


Here is the odd headstock of the Synapse. The SG string is the right length but it is too fat to fit into the channel. Also, the wrap again may start in the wrong place, although it's not as dramatic as the difference on the bridge end.


I'll see what Status Graphite says. I know from some message board discussions that there are other folks out there with this same problem, although from what I can tell there may be fewer than a dozen of these fretless 5-string Synapse basses in existence. Perhaps they were all made for a NAMM show and then sold without ever having full-scale production runs.

Meanwhile, if you have had any success finding strings for a Synapse 5-string bass, please leave a comment. Note that round-wound strings are no good for fretless playing as they will chew up the fingerboard quickly; I need flat-wound or black nylon tape wound. (I'm thinking the black strings on the black bass would just look cool as hell, too).

UPDATE: June 8 2013: I have sold this bass. If I can afford one at some point, I hope to buy a NS Radius fretless bass to replace it at some point if finances allow.

26 comments:

Edmund Choi said...

Hello,

I am having the same 'low b' 5 FLAT issue with my Synapse 5-string. I tried a extra-long GHS , but after 'cutting off' most of the headstock end, it started to unravel and was useless. Have you found a suitable low-b flat wound solution for 34" scale? Incredibly frustrating.

Paul Potts said...

Thanks for your comment, Edmund. No, I have not found a solution yet. I think I will probably have to take or ship the bass to La Bella in New York and see if they can make me a set.

Jay said...

Forget tapewound. I use Status Graphite strings (half-wounds and flat-wounds) on mine which work fine.

Also forget about using the string adapter - I broke one of them first time I ever tried using it and Gibson refuses to help any of the dealers order me parts for it (they won't sell to people directly). Also most of the strings were too fat for the adapters that were provided.

Paul Potts said...

Jay, my flat-wound set from Status Graphite doesn't fit either. I was having a conversation with a guy there about sending him my original strings to copy but I have not followed up on that, partly because I am not sure I want to send my only working set of strings overseas...

JoeCovenant said...

WHatever HAPPENED with this?!??!

Anonymous said...

Hi All - I have a Synapse 5 fretted. I use Status Hot Wire HALF-rounds (40 - 125) which seem to work fine. The instrument originally came with the factory stainless steel rounds (45 - 128) but these were very harsh for my application, which is mostly recording. The Status halfs fit well and sound good - great acoustic bass like articulation at piezo setting and full-bodied sound when soapbar p'up is favored. The slight change in gauge did necessitate some intonation adjustment on the B-string mostly at the octave.

Anonymous said...

I have tried at least two other types single ball stings in the Steinberger Combo Head without issues, MTDs and DRs, both without the exposed core "B".
I agree that the Steinberger Combo Head's "through holes" are "pretty tight" but I don't think that is the problem. Please consider this; if you pre-cut the string BEFORE trying to thread it into the hole, it is NO LONGER even CLOSE to round and it also will have sharp "burrs" at the cut. It is very likely this "out of round and sharp" condition will cause some issues trying to force the string through the holes, especially if stings have been forced in before and raised small burrs in the holes.
To avoid the (remote) possibility of the string unwinding when cut, the options are actually better on this bass than one with standard tuning machines with the cut ends buried in the posts. Just DON'T cut them before they are installed. Put the un-cut strings through the Combo head, let the tails "hang out". Then carefully make your position adjustment and clamp the headstock set-screws. Once it's "all good", then use large, strong wire cutters and cut the strings off flush with the end of the Combo headstock. This will leave some sharp string-ends sticking out a touch, but once you stab yourself a couple of times, you will avoid that area!
BUT, unlike a bass with standard tuning machines, don't expect to ever get them ALL back in once they have been removed, (unless your lucky). They are very distorted at the set screw position.
Also, if the thread or tape wound around the ball-end is "too long" and goes over the bridge-saddle, put a "touch" of superglue on the threads where you want the them to "end". Then, using a razor-blade and tweezers, carefully cut the thread at the glue and remove the excess length. It's a snap.
If fitting strings through the Combo headstock is still a real issue (after trying uncut strings), you can try two different "tricks"?;
1) Loosen or remove the setscrews. Using long lengths of some old set of round-wound strings, thread them through the proper holes, then pull the whole length of the string back and forth through the hole SEVERAL times, like a file. This may remove some of the paint or plating and maybe remove some proud metal burrs in the hole and make it "better". Use Roto-Sound since they are very course and can cut through just about anything (if fret-wear is any indicator), ha.
If that doesn't "do it", then;
2) Remove the headstock, bring it to a machine shop and have the machinist clean up or hand ream and deburr the "through holes" to the sizes that work for you. It would be wise to bring a new set of your fattest strings to "try" so the machinist can measure them, add some clearance dimension and chose the reamer sizes. My guess is about +5 thousandths of an inch should do it, but the machinist will know. That's what they do.
Good luck everyone.
DJWalsh

Paul Potts said...

Wow, DJWalsh, thanks for your detailed comment. The Synapse bass has pretty much been in storage but I will have to pull it out and see if I can put your ideas into practice at all. I had not pre-cut the strings. Honestly I had mostly just been leaning towards buying a different fretless when I was able, and putting this white elephant up for sale, even though I really like the way it sounds.

Paul Potts said...

Either that or, when some extra money was available, sending it off to La Bella and asking if they could make some custom sets (and maybe also put them in their catalog, once they had exact specs).

George Miklas Family said...

Any solution for a Hohner B2AV ? I want to change out the roundwound for either tapewound or flatwound. La Bella has corresponded with me recommending the 4-string tapewound set S660L, plus a S505B B string. Anyone try this route?

DJ Walsh said...

Thanks for the compliment. I don't think they are white elephants. They are cool looking and sound pretty good (with a little fooling with the graphic eqs).
I was WAY happier with this bass (mine is fretted) once I changed the OEM's strings. Five-string sets are kind of expensive so I have not tried LOTS of them, but a few. That said, I have a love/ less-than-love relationship with this bass. It is kind of finicky and difficult to play IF you don't practice on it. For me, it is not the "narrow gauge" 5/8ths inch spacing because the Corvette I play the most is also 5/8ths. I usually blame myself but have had friends play it. All bass players want to try a Steinberger, but halfway through the first song they look like they would rather be pecked to death by birds, then quickly switch back to their own instruments ASAP. So much for the Steinberger mystique. I also have a broken one that is a "project in process". The truss was broken so I pulled the fret-board off (in 20 pieces), replaced the truss with some heavy duty double acting rod and installed two 1/8 by 3/8 carbon fiber "stays". The "stays" went in since the large (0.45 X 0.560 inch "core" went bye-bye with the broken rod). I plan on getting an ebony fret-board to replace the phenolic. My problem is that I keep clicking fretted, then unfretted on the order form and have not sent it in yet.
It's most likely going to be fretless, the real question is fret-lines or no fret-lines. I have an EUB with finger positions on the edge of the neck, I couldn't play it without them so I'm afraid of none. From your picture I got to see Steinberger uses position dots for every position. Didn't know that and now I don't feel so bad about marking. If it ever works and plays worth a dam, I'll post some pictures of the repair and finished instrument. If it doesn't, I'll get rid of it somehow.
DJWalsh

George Miklas Family said...

I ordered a set of tapewound strings from Status Graphite 11 days ago... still nothing. I'm getting nervous whether I'll be seeing my strings before the gig.

Paul Potts said...

Update June 8 2013: I have sold this bass.

Paul Potts said...

DJ Walsh, I still love Steinbergers -- although the post-Gibson Steinbergers, not so much. I am hoping one day to be able to buy an NS Radius bass.

George Miklas Family said...

Paul,
Do you still have the Status Graphite Tape Wound strings? I'd like to take those off your hands.

George

Paul Potts said...

George, I have to check -- I can't quite remember if I put them on my son's bass. I think I still have them, though.

George Miklas Family said...

Paul, I left my address for you on Google Hangout. Let me know that you got it please.

MIKE MICHAEL said...

hi! everyone, i have a project one, 5 strings Steinberger Synapse XS-15FPA... anyone know where i can fine the accessories to finish it... i would love to play it.. i got the body on ebay... thanks

Brokenarrow said...

Does anyone know which company manufactured the flat wounds that originally came on the bass?

Paul Potts said...

I don't know, Brokenarrow... most likely La Bella in New York, but I don't know for sure. I think they are the best bet for making a custom set.

George Miklas Family said...

@Paul, sadly, I had no success with LaBella making a custom set for mine.

Brokenarrow said...

Thanks Paul for your reply!! I've never been as frustrated trying to find flatwound strings for a bass. I just naturally assumed all Steinberger double balls would fit. I have an original Brooklyn Steinberger pre-production model (serial # 004). It is the 1st 4 string lined fretless. After years of trying to find a narrow 5 bridge to modify my original without damage, I came across this used Synapse 5 fretless and fell in love with it. I find the low B on this bass to have the clearest tone of just about any 5 string I've ever played. The timbers of all the strings are so even!! But because I bought it used and seeing how hard it is to find strings, I assume these strings are original. I managed to find a set of single ball DR Low Riders that could actually fit on the bass, but the low B didn't have anywhere near the clarity. At this point, I fear what really attracts me to this bass is the unique combination of strings and the instrument itself. If I can't replace these strings or find something similar, it would be heartbreaking!!! Right now I'm at a loss....

Brokenarrow said...

Hi Paul, By the way, I'm Joey Perez, nice to meet you!!!

Paul Potts said...

Nice to meet you, Joey. I'm sorry I don't have a solution for you. I contacted Ned Steinberger himself about this issue a while back. He sent me the specs for the Synapse strings, but they don't actually specify some of the details like where the wrap stops, and so a string could technically meet the spec, but not really work right with this bass's bridge and headpiece. I have a Newburgh made XP bass and a Newburgh made XQ (currently broken) and it is much easier to find strings for those basses -- the current Steinberger strings fit them just fine. But they are both fretted. If I had the money, I would buy one of Ned's new fretless basses. They look very cool!

Anonymous said...

I'm about to lay out big bucks for a Nashville made XL2.. Always wanted a steinie...do I hear some of you saying its may not be worth it cause its post Gibson?

Paul Potts said...

Anonymous, I am a big fan of the Newburgh instruments. I have not handled enough of the ones in that early "transistion" stage to know for sure what to think of them. It probably depends on exactly when they were made. You might check out

http://www.steinbergerworld.com

and look at "serial number database." Note that it only covers the early Nashville instruments. Gibson started reusing the N prefix which really muddies the issue, although if you have examined them closely the different generation necks are very notably different.