"The bigger the instrument, the heavier the strings, the bigger the bow, the bigger the mouthpiece, the more you should anticipate." This concept is expressed occasionally by double bass players, conductors etc. Is there any good reasoning behind this? Is this practical, as in can players actually consistently begin their notes a constant amount of milliseconds earlier than higher instruments? If that was possible, would the audience, far and near the stage, perceive a perfectly synchronized start of a chord?
I don't have an answer for you with measurements in milliseconds, etc., but as a tuba player I can give you my experiences.
I'm not consciously thinking of anticipating anything in order to get my sound out because my instrument is bigger. Instead, the training I've received over time just naturally tells me what I need to do in order for my sound to come out when I want it. In other words, it just becomes second nature, and so for us it's not an issue of "anticipating," but rather just playing like we know how to.
It's a little like throwing or kicking a ball, I guess. You don't stop and measure wind velocity and angles and things like that; instead, over time you just naturally know that when it feels like this when you throw/kick, the ball will be sent over here.
More problematic is the location within the orchestra; sometimes the tuba player can be a solid 50 feet from the conductor (and I've seen much greater distances than that!). In this situation, if I and the concertmaster both begin a pitch at the same time, my sound will reach the conductor (and thus the audience) at a slightly different time. As such, I do find myself occasionally anticipating the conductor in situations like this, especially when my lines match something being played with instruments right at the front of the stage.
But this is much more problematic for percussionists, who are even farther back on the stage. Thus (in my opinion) it's less about size and low frequencies that take longer to travel, and more about simple placement within the orchestra.
It's not as much as a "perfectly synchronized start". Low instruments have a slow attack both physically as well as taking longer to register in hearing. At the same time, they are providing the fundamental anchors for the harmony. If they swing into full attack way later than the higher-pitched instruments, the context for the higher-pitched instruments is missing. While acoustic memory will help in reconstructing the "attack context" even with some systematic delay, it helps if you have a nice "overattack" with its peak more than its start being aligned to the beat. Even for continuous-note instruments (like wind instruments) it usually is good for hearing and transparency to go for a plucked or detached bowed double bass sound with an organic accent on the beat (or off-beat, depending on the music in question). It helps maintaining transparency together with more melodically played instruments.
Slightly off at a tangent, but this still can be thought of even in a rock band scenario.
As an occasional drummer & long-time bassist...
Have you ever worked with a bassist who thinks his note starts when his pick hits the string rather than leaves it.
It's like drumming in molasses.
It might only be milliseconds between the two but the difference in feel is colossal.
I play cello in two different ways: either acoustically like everybody else (orchestra etc.), or, with the band on louder stages, through a piëzo pickup and in-ear monitoring. I play a fivestring cello with low F, and in the band I fulfill more of a bass role.
I was never really aware of playing before/after the beat, until we recorded a song that I normally play with pickup, and actually used it with my in-ear like I do live. Sounded quite well while playing, but when we switched to the microphone tracks it was totally not in time! The pickup responds almost instantaneous and thus I don't anticipate when using it, but the body definitely takes some response time and the room yet more.
The problem vanished when we turned down the pickup in my headphones, as the acoustic feedback caused me to automatically play sufficiently early.
Vice versa, when we recorded an acoustic song but also added a bit of pickup signal for extra oomph, it sounded overhasted at first.
tl;dr: orchestra bass instruments should definitely anticipate a bit, but not necessarily by conscious action – it should happen naturally. Drummers also need to accelerate the sticks well before the actual hit, but they don't actually think of it as an action before the beat.
When I'm in an orchestra, and the double bass is playing a pulsing beat, it almost always is like a half a second behind to my ears. It's annoying. The bow moves with the rest of the lower-strings, but the sound is behind. I don't really know. I think that depending on the acoustics, and where in the room the musician is standing, it can be good to play a little ahead. Keep in mind that in some rooms, sound can bounce off the back of the room and cause an echo which throws all kinds of people off.
All just random thoughts on the subject...
As a conductor, myself, it is not always possible to hear all instruments together at the same time. Using arguments used above, I could, for example hear everything exactly together. But by the time it reached the audience in a linear world the music would be less together, in regards to where the audience member is placed. In my experience of concert halls and churches, however, sound 'mixes' in the acoustic and it is one of the joys of a conductor to go to the rear of the building in rehearsal and hear exactly what is being produced. My thoughts are that sound in general travels up not out and the ear hears back the rebound. The ear is a clever organ and between it and the brain it can compute all it hears into one coherent sound and that is what we hear. I'm not a scientist but if you are playing in a decent acoustic there is no need to play late at all. Trust the beat, play on it and I believe the acoustic does the rest for the audience.