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.