Bruce Tai

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About Bruce Tai

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    Stradivari violins, hi-fi audio, music collection

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  1. I don't know the answer. But let me check it in a couple of weeks. I do have some old tonewood samples, ranging from 200 to 2000 years old. Why didn't I use my lab's UV lamp to check their fluorescence color and photograph them? By the way, I am writing a paper to show that Amati, Stradivari, and Guarneri each had their own recipe for treating tonewood, similarly applied to both spruce and maple. It is a historical fact and we will show the complete evidence. We ran several thousand elemental measurements on 70 wood samples, 12 of which were Cremonese. I thank our collaborator for this heroic effort. Much varnish research has been done on Cremonese and Brescian instruments since 2009, the year I wrote a review article on the subject for VSA Journal (available on my lab website). Unfortunately, I am too busy with violin wood research to write another varnish review. There is no radical breakthrough in Stradivari's varnish research, no new ingredient found. But some old questions are now better answered. There is much more going on in the wood than anyone could have predicted. We will show how fiber molecules have rearranged themselves in Stradivari's maple in a few years. Again, we don't hold secrets here. I plan to publish in great detail all our important findings.
  2. There is little doubt that Stradivari used Picea abies for all his tops. The English common name for this tree is norway spruce today, but it has been called pine, red spruce fir, or deal in the past. There is little doubt that Stradivari used Picea abies from the Alps. Although there is plenty of spruce in colder parts of Europe at lower altitudes, they are simply inferior to the high-altitude spruce in the Alps (a Norwegian violin maker told me so). Stradivari's grandson said that spruce was sold by dealers in Brescia (Pollen's book). I think this was probably true. Exactly which part of the Alps they came from is still unclear. The dendrochronology research may be able to point to certain regions in the Alps, but no details have been published yet. Stradivari never went into the mountains to pick trees. Tree cutting was highly regulated. He was busy making violins in Cremona. He bought wood from the dealers. The backs of Strad violins are always made of maple. The traditional view is that the flamed varieties came from the Balkans and the plain ones were local. There are several possible species that all seem to work. The most mentioned ones are Acer campestre, Acer pseudoplatanus (called sycamore in UK and sycamore maple in US), and Acer platanoides. The tonewood dealer does not generally identify the species being sold. The flame pattern is due to growth condition rather than a particular species. Both plain and flamed maples can make equally good sounding violins (as seen in great master instruments of the past). But the flamed pattern is more beautiful and more popular with customers.
  3. I apologize if I sound like a charlatan who is trying to add mysticism to the mystique that already surrounds Antonio Stradivari. This thread is all about grandiose concepts. So I tried to propose something bold, but still based on our new data which will be published next year. I have been on this forum for 12 years and published 5 scholarly articles on violin research since then. Could not have done it without the help and criticism that I receive here. So some of you already know what I am doing and my track record. Those who don't know me may just think I am promoting some kind of chemical wizardry about Cremona. Many have tried to do that before and failed miserably. But what we are doing is truly academic research. Scientific research is a just working method that could go wrong like everything else in life. But it can teach us some knowledge that could not be obtained otherwise. So I am still trying to take what limited resources we have and try to learn something about Cremonese violins. We could be very wrong, but we need to start somewhere somehow.
  4. This thread has run so long that I don't know if it is worth posting new concepts here. But I just got one yesterday. So at least I want to share it openly with Andreas Preuss instead of just sending him a private message. While we have only anecdotal evidence on how aging alters violin and bow properties, from what we know about the physico-chemical changes of wood during aging, I think that aging really matters. Chinese people made guqins for 300 years in a continuous tradition, and after 2000 years they start to insist that 500 years of wood aging is critical. That number may not apply to violins and bows, though. Aging is not a new concept. 18th century violins from France and Germany don't carry the Cremonese quality. Aging is not some magic bullet, either. I even suspect that 300 years of aging will make violins lose their brilliance. So where is the new concept? I will put a new bold hypothesis here. I think Stradivari and del Gesu may had started to contemplate about managing the process of wood aging. They don't want it to just age and go bad or go soft. Their way of managing it is to treat the wood in special ways first. We now have evidence that some minerals were added. What else was done (steaming, soaking, re-soaking, boiling)? We can't be sure. We are starting to see that the aluminum put in by Stradivari and del Gesu are surrounded by five oxygen atoms in maples. New maples only have four and six oxygen coordination sites for aluminum to bind. The five-coordination sites are generated by aging, probably lignin oxidation, and aluminum has relocated to such sites. The aluminum could promote the bonding between lignin and hemicellulose, after the breakdown of original hemicellulose-lignin bonds by aging. So, in this sense, aluminum alters how the wood ages, compensating for the breakdown. So Stradivari and del Gesu could somehow regulate the aging process. Was this their original intention? I don't know. But it seems to be the result of whatever it was that they tried to do. The making of mummies is a concept about managing body decay and afterlife, by adding preservatives. So why can't violin makers contemplate about managing wood decay by adding preservatives? We know for sure that wood decays. We could repeatedly see spectroscopic changes related to hemicellulose breakdown after 200 years in maples from old instruments. To me, this seems like a new concept--to add preservatives to manage wood aging and decay. If someone else has already proposed it, I apologize for not knowing it before.
  5. It seems that maple decomposition is the major reason that Strads appear lighter. Our rough estimates seem to agree. But we may be just imagining all this because we don't have comprehensive data for Strad instruments. You could send some of your favorite steamed maples to lab for examination.
  6. I am reading some papers on wood growth and Melvin is true. For instance, one study shows the sunny side of the conifer trunk having wider rings and greater density. Fiber length is shorter on the sunny side. Wood growth is really complicated.
  7. Three questions here: Q1. How much weight loss do you get after steaming? We can estimate weight loss from our published data on Strad maples. I think weight loss in hemicellulose is about 3 %, and reduced moisture accounts for 2-3%. So I think old maple may be lighter by 5-6%. If some extractives degrade as well, maybe 7-8% lighter? Our unpublished data on spruce suggest little hemicellulose degradation. Probably lighter by 1-2%? Q2. If you use my rough estimates (-8% for maple, -2% for spruce), can we account for the lightness of Strads? If not, how far off are we?
  8. I thought it is because Cozio failed to find anything significant about the past know-how of old masters, therefore people started to realize that all was lost. What was lost became the secret.
  9. I suspect that one day we will find that wood in Stradivari and del Gesu violins aged differently because they received chemical treatments. If true, that kind of material property will be very difficult to replicate in a short time. I think we are starting to see the interplay of chemical treatment, aging, and vibration at the molecular level by chemical investigations. As the evidence accumulates, we may come to the unfortunate conclusion that Stradivari's wood is very special and we don't know how to manufacture its equivalent. Some will argue that differences in wood properties are not associated with special acoustics. But we are starting to see that the molecules are arranged quite differently, in addition to having different chemical groups and bonding. In my non-expert opinion, I think the best modern makers can build amazing violins using natural wood and get results similar to a Guadagnini after 10-20 years of maturation by playing. It won't sound as old as the Guadagnini, but equally attractive. If I am not a world-class soloist, I would not worry about the difference between a top Strad and a good Guadagnini. My research goal, however, is to answer why the best Strads and del Gesus still cannot be rivaled in tone quality. And that also includes proving that the tone qualities are unique. It is quite a challenge.
  10. There is so much misunderstanding about alchemy these days. They were chemists dealing with the manufacturing, wholesale, and retail business of a wide range of materials. They were selling drugs, candies, perfumes, cosmetics, house paint, pesticide, oils, spices, minerals, pigments and so on. A large apothecary shop may have barbers and physicians practicing there to serve the clients. In the 16th century, Cremona had one apothecary per 1000 people. The alchemist/apothecary was a lucrative and most useful profession. A lot of artists' materials were sold in apothecaries. Nowadays people only think of alchemy as turning base metal into gold and searching for elixirs, along with arcane and unreadable secret texts. They were actually the practical chemists of the day, before modern chemical principles were discovered. They made and sold stuff which were useful. Another common misunderstanding is that alchemy is an Arabic word. Al- is Arabic, a definite article, meaning “the." It often prefixes Arabic proper nouns. Chemie is the Greek term for chemistry. Al-chemy means "The Chemistry." Alchemy is chemistry. After modern chemistry got built up, the erroneous ideas of previous eras was assigned to the old "alchemy," making it a dirty word. Actually, chemistry is chemistry. Chemistry became a whole lot more scientific between 1650 and 1800, and so did other branches of European science. After 1800 we knew about the atom and things got a lot more clear. Do not dismiss the alchemists in 16th-18th century. They had many practical skills and manufactured a lot of useful materials to move civilization forward. But also do not fall into the mysticism surrounding alchemy. A lot it was charlatan's talk and bogus ideas. Look at their practical skills and we can learn something from them.
  11. We are now pretty sure each maker did their own wood treatment, in their own way. This will be published next year. Wood treatment interacts, aging, and vibration interact at the molecular level. The details are too complex for our science to resolve. We will provide some evidence that such interactions exist over the next few years. The possibility of turning modern wood into the state found in Stradivari violins--almost impossible. Doing unguided chemical treatments, baking, vibration, and so on can easily lead to damaged wood. We don't know if such wood will crack easily in 30 years. The Cremonese masters had good hands and good eyes for sure. Each successful maker in the family had artistic talent as well. But they also had some important concepts: 1. Geometry (this we can reverse engineer and copy) 2. Alchemy applied to varnishing and wood treatment (our understanding is still incomplete) 3. Acoustics (many have tried to study this, but I think the key is to understand the relationship to human voices) 4. Aging, both in varnish and in wood (they know how aging works much better than we do)
  12. I think we should eventually move into 3D laser scanning for volume measurement. Anyone tried it yet?
  13. My colleague at National Taiwan University, a musicology professor, told me that no one really understands why sopranos don't develop singer's formant. Some people suspect that it is anatomical. Is it possible that if one develops singer's formant, one would not sound like a operatic soprano?
  14. Picea abies is called Norway Spruce in English. It is grows in many parts of Europe. The best ones for violins come from the Southern slopes of Alps in Italy. That is the most southern region that Picea abies can grow in Europe due to high altitude. During the last ice age, only the Alpine trees survived. After the ice receded, the tree repopulated central and norther Europe. In Norway, there are lots of Picea abies trees. When I visited Norway, the local luthier told me that they only make good violins from imported Italian spruce. I hope this clarifies.
  15. How do you measure FR curves? We recorded an octave (1.5 s x 2 per note) in a small concert hall, with 6 mics 70 cm from the bridge. I think we are picking up mostly direct sound.