• Of the eighty-eight notes on a standard piano keyboard1, only the lowest three are in the subcontrabass register; the register from C0 to B0.

    The subcontrabass register

    The subcontrabass register

    *lowest note on piano

    **lowest note on organ with 32′ stop

    This has helped perpetuate an idea that the subcontrabass register is somehow unprecedented or without musical value. In fact, the subcontrabass register has long been a staple in music written for the one existing instrument capable of playing easily in that register: the organ. On the organ, groups of pipes intended to sound two octaves lower than written—and thus include the subcontrabass register—are termed 32′ stops due to the length of tubing necessary to produce the lowest C. These low notes are important enough that even smaller organs without them often seek to emulate their sound digitally or with resultant tones.

    Organ at Church of St. Leodegar in Lucerne, Switzerland

    Built in 1650, the organ at the Church of St. Leodegar in Lucerne, Switzerland has a 32′ stop capable of playing down to C0.

    (Picture by Andrew Bossi, 2007)

    The organ is not, however, without its difficulties. The construction and installation (not to mention maintenance) of a large organ with 32′ stops can easily exceed US$ 1 million. Furthermore, once built, an organ can only be moved at an expense rivaling that of its initial construction, leaving any hall or performance space without an existing organ limited to digital imitations of often dubious quality. Taken together, all of this means that the subcontrabass register is quite often unavailable for any given performance.

    In addressing this lack of subcontrabass instruments, the primary obstacle has been the limitations of human anatomy. The contrabass is already acoustically undersized to accomodate human height and tuned in fourths to accomodate human hand size.2 The standard contrabass tuba in C or B♭ is theoretically long enough to play the entirety of the subcontrabass register as pedal tones but—due to the limitations of human lungs and lips—can only do so with such difficulty and uncertainty as to render the register impractical.

    Woodwind instruments can, however, be curved and wrapped where a string instrument cannot. Furthermore, they are generally more efficient than their brass counterparts regarding air consumption. The bassoon family, in specific, has a timbre rich in upper harmonics that helps the audibility of extremely low notes and a narrow taper lessening air consumption. Finally, the contrabassoon is already well-established as the woodwind family’s preeminent contrabass member. It is for these reasons that I believe the subcontrabassoon represents the best candidate to finally bring the subcontrabass register to the wider world.

    1 The Austrian firm Bösendorfer and Australian firm Stuart & Sons currently sell pianos capable of playing the entirety of the subcontrabass register; down to C0.

    2 The enigmatic octobass, an enormous contrabass played with either two players or one player operating a series of levers or pedals, seems to have been tuned down to C0 at least occasionally. Hector Berlioz, however, insisted that the instrument was intended to be tuned an octave higher, with a low range to C1.

  • The planned sounding range of the subcontrabassoon is from A−1 to (at least) F2. The written range would be two octaves higher, A1 to F4.

    The range of the subcontrabassoon

    The range of the subcontrabassoon

    In choosing the low range of the subcontrabassoon, I was driven by a desire not to make a quasi-subcontrabassoon, but a true subcontrabassoon capable of playing a full octave below the contrabassoon. This left B♭ or A as the two possible lowest notes. I chose A over B♭ mostly as a way of future-proofing the design (Wolf’s contraforte features a range down to A and this extra note may very well become more common on contrabassoons in the future) and partially because A−1 has a nice, “round” frequency of exactly 13.75 Hz. (As opposed to B♭−1’s 14.5676… Hz.)1

    subcontrabassoon 4-Vent System

    Four-vent octave system for subcontrabassoon

    In the interest of trying simple solutions first, the current design for the subcontrabassoon has four octave vents: one operated automatically by the “half-hole” mechanism, two operated in tandem by the lower octave key, and one operated by the upper octave key. These vents are placed to enable a upper range to F2. In the (in my opinion, likely) event that four vents are insufficient to reliably and cleanly cover the upper octave, I have a more-complicated six-vent system designed as well. Notes above F2 will almost certainly be possible through practice and experimentation with fingerings. However, I do not consider this extended upper range critical to the subcontrabassoon’s success as it well covered by both the bassoon and contrabassoon.

    Low C Bell

    Alternate low C bell

    The alternate low C bell is designed to reduce the weight and bulk of the instrument in situations where the full range of the subcontrabassoon is not required.

    1 The fact that this means the subcontrabassoon will be able to play one note lower than Leblanc’s octocontrabass clarinet, thus becoming the lowest woodwind instrument ever made, is simply a very fortunate bonus.

  • Video Answer:

    Text Answer:

    The short answer is “no,” the lowest notes of the subcontrabassoon, despite their depth, will not be too low to hear.

    Various studies have reported the lower limit of human hearing as being anywhere between 12 Hz and 20 Hz. The most commonly cited limit is 20 Hz. As the fundamental frequency of the subcontrabassoon’s lowest note will be 13.75 Hz, this would superficially seem to suggest that the lowest notes of the subcontrabassoon would be too low to hear, at least for most people.

    In truth, the fundamental frequency of a note is only a small component of the sound we hear. This is because when a column of air (or string) vibrates it does not vibrate only its full length (the full length producing the fundamental pitch). Instead, it also simultaneously vibrates in whole-number divisions (half, third, quarter, fifth, etc.) of that length.1 These whole-number divisions produce the overtones that give a sound its characteristic timbre and, together with the fundamental, complete the note’s harmonic spectrum. In the case of the subcontrabassoon, even though the fundamental may be at the edges of audibility, these overtones (and the bulk of the note’s harmonic spectrum) will be well within hearing range.

    Harmonics illustration

    Visualization of an air column vibrating in harmonics

    “How would the inaudibility of the fundamental impact the sound of the lowest notes of the subcontrabassoon?”

    Much less that you might guess. Below, you can listen to a pitch of A2 (110 Hz) played with a mix of overtones:

    A2

    Here is the same pitch played without the overtones, a pure sine wave:

    A2

    Finally, here is the same pitch played without the fundamental, only overtones:

    A2

    As can be heard, the third sample sounds very similar to the first, despite the fundamental not being present. In contrast, the second sample sounds completely different. In fact, if you are listening on a laptop, tablet, or mobile device you may not hear the second sample at all due to the speakers being too small to produce the fundamental pitch. (This would also mean that the first and third samples would sound virtually identical.) In summary, though the subcontrabassoon’s A−1 will sound slightly different to most of us than it would to someone capable of hearing down to 13.75 Hz, it will still very much sound like an A−1 and still very much sound like a subcontrabassoon.

    1 The clarinet family and other acoustically stopped pipes (i.e. most pan flutes) are slightly different in that they vibrate mostly in odd-numbered divisions (third, fifth, seventh, etc.) and are half as long as a flute, saxophone, oboe, or bassoon of the same pitch would be.

  • My first encounter with the concept of a subcontrabassoon came from my childhood copy of the Guinness Book of World Records. In it, there was a record for lowest musical instrument and three instruments were listed:

    Sydney Town Hall's Grand Organ

    Sydney Town Hall’s Grand Organ

    First was the Sydney Town Hall’s Grand Organ. As one of only two organs in the world ever built with a full-range, full-length 64′ stop it has a range down to C−1 (≈8.18 Hz).1

    Leblanc’s octocontrabass clarinet

    Leblanc’s octocontrabass clarinet

    Next was Leblanc’s octocontrabass clarinet in B♭. It was built in the key of B♭ and had a sounding range down to either C0, or B♭−12. Only one, currently non-functional, example was ever built but the slightly higher octocontraalto clarinet in E♭—with a range to E♭0—has been recently recorded.3

    As a budding bassoonist, it was the third instrument that most piqued my interest: a subkontrafagott4 built by one V. F. Červený with a reported range also down to B♭−1. Unfortunately, though Guinness was (mostly2) correct in the first two listings, the third was erroneous.

    V. F. Červený

    Václav František Červený (1819–1896)

    V. F. Červený was a very real Czech instrument maker who did indeed exhibit a subkontrafagott in the 1867 Paris World Exhibition and listed it for sale in his 1873 catalog. However, this instrument was neither an octave below the contrabassoon nor would it even be classified as part of the bassoon family today.

    It is tempting to view historical musical instruments through the lens of the present; as a linear progression and gradual refinement of primitive forms eventually arriving at modern designs. However, much like biological evolution, the full story is full of odd “mutations” and dead-ends. By the 1800s, advancing technology had finally freed woodwind makers from the limited size of the human hand and experimentation was rife. Some of these experiments—like the saxophone and modern bass clarinet—caught on; many more—like the octavin and contrabass oboe—died out completely.

    Contrebasse a anche

    Contrebasse à anche

    (University of Edinburgh)

    One instrument that did not fully succeed but nevertheless gained some limited traction was an instrument we now know as the contrebasse à anche.5 It was made of metal, built in the key of E♭, played with a large double-reed, and had a fingering scheme that was a mixture between the ophicleide and the piano. Yet despite its very unbassoonlike appearance, it was intended to take the place of the contrabassoon and directly competed with traditional contrabassoon designs. To this end, while some manufactures invented names for their own version of this instrument (tritonikon being particularly common), several manufacturers simply marketed it, at least occasionally, under the name contrabassoon or a translation thereof. Červený was one of these manufacturers; if you purchased a Červený kontrafagott you were purchasing a contrebasse à anche.

    There was one significant difficulty in using a contrebasse à anche in place of a contrabassoon; range. A standard contrebasse à anche was built in the key of E♭ and had a range down to D1. The traditional contrabassoon, however, had a range to C1 or B♭0 at that time. It is for this reason that Červený presumably designed his subkontrafagott; pitched in the key of B♭ a fourth below the contrebasse à anche, it had a range down to A0 and covered the lowest notes of a traditional contrabassoon.

    Cerveny's Kontrafagott and Subkontrafagott

    Červený’s Kontrafagott and Subkontrafagott

    Though the contrebasse à anche survived well into the 1900s in a few places (Italy especially), Červený’s subkontrafagott never got off the ground. It is unclear if any instruments were actually built—other than the prototype exhibited in 1867—and any that were seem to have not survived. With no extant instruments it became nothing more than a rather confusing name and as early as 19136 Curt Sachs became possibly the first—but certainly not the last—writer to mistakingly attribute to it a range an octave below the contrabassoon.7

    For a more thorough treatment of this very interesting period of contrabassoon history, see Jürgen Eppelsheim’s authoritative articles “Das Subkontrafagott” (Alta Musica, 1976, pp. 233–272) and “More Facts about the ‘Subkontrafagott‘” (The Galpin Society Journal, #32, pp. 104–114).

    1 The other organ, Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Hall Auditorium Organ, actually had the capability of simulating a C−2 (≈4.09 Hz) using resultant tones.

    2 The octocontrabass clarinet is most often reported as having keywork down to written C, giving it a sounding range to B♭−1. However, Gregg Bailey reports that Cyrille Mercandier, who has personally handled the LeBlanc Octocontrabass clarinet, confirms a sounding range to C0, written D.

    3 Clarinetist Cyrille Mercadier’s YouTube video demonstrating the range of the octocontraalto clarinet.

    4 Subkontrafagott being the German translation of subcontrabassoon.

    5 A generic French term simply meaning “reed contrabass.”

    6 Real-Leixcon der Musikinstrumente, 1913

    7 The widespread confusion between B♭ and A as the lowest note of Červený’s subkontrafagott stems from an idiosyncrasy of the contrebasse à anche fingering scheme.

  • I designed the subcontrabassoon using traditional woodwind design principles in part so that it can eventually be made out of wood. Currently, however, the plan is for the prototype to be made of delrin, a high-quality plastic.

    Prototype subcontrabassoon and Wooden subcontrabassoon

    Prototype subcontrabassoon and wooden subcontrabassoon

  • The height of the subcontrabassoon, not including the adjustable end pin, will be 192cm/6′4″.

    (Compare the contrabass at 182cm/6′0″.)

    The end pin will provide an additional 34cm/13″ of adjustment.

    The weight of a wooden subcontrabassoon would be approximately 16kg/35lb.

    (Compare the B♭ tuba at roughly 12kg/26lb.)

    Contrabass and subcontrabassoon height comparison

    Contrabass and subcontrabassoon height comparison

    Despite its larger size, the ergonomics of the subcontrabassoon have been designed to be as similar to the contrabassoon as possible. The bocal angle, bocal height, bocal projection, end pin adjustment, and vertical hand playing positions will all be identical to a standard contrabassoon. However, unlike the contrabassoon and bassoon, the subcontrabassoon’s left-hand keywork will be contained on a single joint and a second handrest will therefore be provided for comfort.

    In short, if you can play the contrabassoon, you will be able to play the subcontrabassoon.

  • bassoon, contrabassoon, and prototype subcontrabassoon reeds

    bassoon, contrabassoon, and prototype subcontrabassoon reeds

    Though finding ideal dimensions for a subcontrabassoon reed will doubtlessly be a gradual process, the initial prototype reeds are 84mm long and 27mm wide at the tip. The reeds are made from 35mm tube cane hand gouged to 1.65mm thick.

    The cane used in the making of the prototype subcontrabassoon reeds has been graciously provided by Lawrence Rhodes of Rhodes Reeds, Cane and Tools.

  • Excerpt from provisional patent application

    Excerpt from provisional patent application

    In November 2014, shortly before going public with the subcontrabassoon project, I filed a provisional patent application in the United States. The scope of this application was the specific design of my prototype, not the concept of a subcontrabassoon itself. (I believe that the general concept of a subcontrabassoon is unpatentable.) My worst fear was that an unscrupulous company could apply for a patent on my design, tie me up in court, and possibly even prevent me from completing my own project. In filing a provisional patent application I sought to preemptively defend myself against such an attempt, unlikely as it might have been.

    In November 2015, the time frame for converting my provisional patent application into a full patent lapsed. Securing a full patent is a very expensive process and I made the decision to focus my finite finances on the prototype itself. As a result, there is no legal obstacle preventing any person or company from building a subcontrabassoon based on my design.

  • It is my hope that my subcontrabassoon prototype is but the first of several (“many” would probably be pushing it) subcontrabassoons. As such, once the prototype and any necessary subsequent design changes are complete I plan to set a price so that any interested party could order their own subcontrabassoon.

    Though it’s too soon to talk about definite prices, I expect the price of a delrin subcontrabassoon will be roughly similar to that of a professional-level contrabassoon with that of a wood subcontrabassoon being somewhat higher.

    Furthermore, if the prototype is successful and musicians begin to incorporate the subcontrabassoon into their compositions and performances, I would hope that other manufacturers begin making and selling their own subcontrabassoons.

  • Due to the complicated connections between joints I believe it would be best that the subcontrabassoon case store the instrument assembled (à la contrabassoon) rather than disassmbled (à la bassoon).

    As a preliminary estimation, a one-piece subcontrabassoon case would be roughly 500mm x 330mm x 2m / 20in x 13in x 79in.

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