Hacking a Cello to Fit in a Backpack

Craft & Design Music Woodworking Workshop
Hacking a Cello to Fit in a Backpack
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As the cello player of Wave Cabaret band, Feline&Strange, I travel a lot, and it’s mostly by airplane because I am based in Berlin, Germany. Since 2014 we’ve recorded and produced in the U.S. and toured across both North America and Europe.

Transporting a cello requires extra special care, even in comparison to other musical instruments. It’s significantly bigger than a guitar, much more fragile than a trombone, usually much more valuable than a drum set, and it’s historically irreplaceable. Plus, it comes with a bow and an endpin half a metre long that’s made of metal – which technically counts as a weapon in the eyes of the TSA!

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Before we had to fly to America, I always took my beautiful ancient concert cello on tour in the car or a van on the continent. One learns special packing techniques, so the cello case was always on top and arrived safely.

Then traveling reached the bigger scale, and problems began.

After several catastrophes with rental cellos – including broken bass bars, scratchy and uneven fingerboards, a bridge toppling down mid-set, and plain disgusting sound for a much too high price – I gave up and decided to bring my electrical cello, a Yamaha SVC 50, with me when we travelled. I found that it was not only easier to amplify via the built-in line-out connection (plus separate headphone apt for personal monitoring), but it sounded splendid, even in the studio.

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You’d think for an electrical instrument made by one of the largest firms in the world you’d find a flight case?

Nope. I had to custom order it, for a respectable price.

The resulting case was: huge (1,38 m high), heavy (23 kg), very hard to handle even with castor rolls, and, of course, it was bulky baggage! Every single flight, it got stuck both ways when changing planes at Heathrow or Schiphol, and arrived days later. With KLM and Air France they even charged excess baggage.

Inside the case, every item had its place in the custom cut foam. Still, as the case was controlled every single time, the TSA once managed to take one of the bows out of its padding, and just throw it back into the case afterwards instead of putting it back into the cut form. They then closed the case violently, as it wouldn’t close easily. The result: the bow not only moved strings and bridge (which, fortunately, I realized in time to reset), but its screw also broke (which, unfortunately, I did not find out until I was playing the first song of the set, and suddenly held half a bow without a frog). Luckily, I had packed a spare bow.

I was fed up.

Flying back, I watched several musicians who, unhindered, took their violin, guitar, trumpet, and flute, into the cabin as a carry-on. I wanted that too!

I am a problem-solver, and my ambition was piqued, so my brain started developing. During that sleepless transatlantic, I designed blow-up celli, self-assembling robot-celli, a worldwide instrument rental service, biologically degradable cases from hard foam, and, best of all, a foldable electrical cello.

I have a lot of experience solving unsolvable problems. As a tool maker by training, I have the technical know-how. As a cellist, I know what´s needed and how the instrument really works. So I started inquiring specifically with instrument makers, from global players to backyard tinkerers, and built my team.

After only 4 months, I held the first prototype for the basis of two Yamaha e-celli.

The carry-on softcase by Crumpler holds all parts of the cello body and the only necessary tool for reassembling, an Allen key. All upholstered with my stage outfit and the necessities you’d expect in a board case: computer, emergency underwear, and toothbrush. All external electronics like tuner, FX, and DI box are provided by my floor FX Zoom B3, and designed originally for bass. Personal monitoring still goes from the headphone socket to a small JBL Go box that fits snugly between cello body and chest rest, and gives a feeling close to the hum of an acoustic cello. For vocals, I use a headset by AKG with a battery powered phantom adapter. I don’t need an additional power adapter for cello and FX, as both run via battery. All of this weighs 9 kg.

Instead of metal, the bows and the pin are made of a Glasser carbon endpin. I carry them in a BAM9012 Bow tube, which looks like the baggage of an architect or painter, and haven’t been questioned about it yet. I made the tiny metal end pin detachable, and it goes into the box that holds my earplugs and hangs on my key ring.

Reassembling the prototype takes about 30 to 40 minutes. Which is too long for me! Especially as rewiring the strings alone is 15 minutes. Reassembling the body it not much more than putting together an IKEA shelf, but it’s still not something you want to do twice a day.

So, I only disassemble the cello when I’m flying in. During the tour, I keep it in the original case – which also serves as my check-in luggage that holds all my clothes, merchandise, and liquids during the flight.

The prototype has served me well these past two years, and has survived and album recording, multiple shows from all over the world, and a good session by a campfire.

But still, this isn’t the end.

I am still developing further, aiming for an instrument that not only sounds and feels like a real cello, but folds in and out in seconds without losing string tension. If this project is possible, it will save even more space and time when it comes to packing. Also, it should incorporate the electronic functions now stored in the floor FX.

For now, I am building a bigger team of international experts to help me realize this dream. Once the team is set, there will be crowdfunding for those who, like me, are waiting desperately for a travel cello. I am expecting to hold the second prototype in one year.

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Christoph Klemke from Feline and Strange

Feline and Strange consists of the multi-talented Feline Lang (opera and tango singer/ director, multimedia artist, vocalist and pianist) who has been described as ‘One of Germany´s most flamboyant ladies in the music-scene’ (Brigitte), and Christoph Klemke (punk drummer, sound designer, percussionist and orchestra cellist), the pair are conquering new grounds when it comes to musical orientation.

View more articles by Christoph Klemke from Feline and Strange


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