If you like weird sounds, you will love the daxophone. This unusual instrument was invented by Hans Reichel about three decades ago. It consists of a thin strip of wood called a tongue that is usually bowed, and is mounted on a soundbox with contact microphones. Pitch and timbre are controlled by moving a rounded wooden ‘wedge’ called a dax to different positions along the tongue. I have carefully studied and somewhat extended Reichel’s design, and describe my approach below.
But first here’s a short video of my one of my daxophones in action. The audio was taken straight out of the daxophone’s output without any effects or room reverberation. Although Hans Reichel developed an entire ‘font’ of great looking tongue shapes, I often prefer simple shapes. The less I cut away from a tongue, the fuller it seems to preserve the individual sound of each piece of wood.
Probably the most important change I’ve made is the use of a subtly contoured top-plate on my soundboxes. This greatly improves the sustained contact between flat tongues and the soundbox regardless of where you press with the dax or bow along the tongue, thereby preserving good steady volume. With flat top-plates, as in the original design and most daxophones currently available, when using a flat tongue you are very likely to lose good contact and hear a large drop in volume when playing in certain regions.
Reichel’s solution to this problem was to painstakingly sand the underneath side of every tongue he made so it was slightly contoured, which is a very time consuming process. In my design, using the contoured top-plate, that process needs to be done only once (by me). So making your own tongues simply requires that they are flat on the underneath side. The contour I have developed also reduces the likelihood of ‘buzzing’ that flat top plates can introduce, and provides a ‘big bottom bass’ sound. You will get consistent volume even for an up-bow without a dax pushing down on the tongue, for which flat surfaces often suffer large volume drops because the tongue is lifted away from the soundbox.
I have elected to do away with the fixed tripod used in Reichel’s design and instead use an arca swiss mounting plate. These plates are used in the professional camera/video industry to mount heavy equipment to tripods. A big advantage of this approach is that you can quickly mount or dismount the daxophone on the tripod, and especially when you use a ‘ballhead’ on a tripod you can very easily adjust the angle the daxophone just right to match your particular body size and preferred playing/seating position. With the tripod legs splayed apart correctly, it provides a rock-solid playing platform that is much more comfortable than other methods, and particularly much more so than mounting the dax on a table (or piece of board) with a clamp. Having the daxophone at the wrong angle can significantly impede your playing because, like with string instruments, good technique requires the right posture that lets you use your arm and hand weight fluently. You will find it much easier to get a wide range of different sounds when the angle is adjusted just right.
I have also slightly modified the electronics inside my soundbox. Normally with a daxophone you will want to run it into an amplifier with high input impedance, at least 50 kOhm to retain good bass response. But I’ve discovered that the typical contact microphone output signal used in most daxophones, when run into very high impedance circuits like my looper pedal, can actually produce too much bass too. The electronics have been modified to remedy that.
An additional minor change is that I have found it more convenient to have the output on the side opposite the seating position because it angles upwards when playing making it easier to access (and maybe less prone to being pulled out accidentally). The original design has it on the playing side facing downwards instead, and I do on occasion retain that. Either way is fine obviously.
To mount my daxophone you will need a tripod, preferably with legs that can open at various angles (for better stability use a wider angle). The tripod will need an arca swiss head at the top of the tripod, preferably a ballhead for quick and easy adjustments of the soundbox playing angle. Ballheads with larger diameter are more stable with heavy camera equipment, but even the inexpensive 28mm ballhead shown here works very well with the daxophone. Part of the reason for that may be that it is a nice low-profile ballhead. I am happy to provide recommendations for tripods and ballheads and have found inexpensive but sturdy solutions.
You will also require a double bass bow, some rosin (‘pops’ bass rosin works really well), and a sense of adventure!
If you are interested in acquiring a soundbox or complete daxophone, feel free to contact me here
Here are some more short audio clips illustrating some of my daxophones’ sonic palette. They were recorded directly from the daxophone output into a looper pedal, without effects or room reverberation. Although there are multiple layers in some of these, each clip was done with a single tongue. Most were played using just the smooth side of the dax but a few also used the fretted side.
All images (c) Richard van Hoesel. Unauthorised use prohibited.