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New Model Violins - going "beyond" tradition


Craig Tucker

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How many makers have ever considered making a violin that isn't either a direct copy or a decided spin off of an old Italian violin?

I have decided that copying old Italian model violins IS probably the best thing any aspiring maker can do in order to learn the basics of traditional violin making. It is much like an aspiring painter would not err in deciding to learn or copy from the masters of the past, when first learning how to paint.

But... since no one is apparently making Strads or Guarneri's any more anyway, (irregardless of the amount of copying going on) I'm not convinced that copying those models is the best or only way to go, once the basic skills are learned.

I'm curious how many makers have attempted to draw out their own violin model based on the numbers alone - and their own intpretation of the aesthetics that they think should be involved?

It is an interesting proposition. Designing the exact outline, the shape and position of the ff's and the scroll should prove to be an interesting challenge.

Most of the discussions here center around the work of three of four founding Italian makers, and the models that they created - or their followers or various 'schools', which, to the untrained eye, all appear basically the same.

What I envision wouldn't be a great departure from those models either, with the exception perhaps of the unavoidable introduction of somewhat more modern lines.

So, I've collected up my neglected drafting supplies - dusted off my drawing table (which has been used for various other things for the past ten or fifteen years - and decided to give it a shot.

I've decided not to refer directly to any of the usual visual material during the designing process nor do I wish to trace or borrow any part directly, other than the list of what I have come to accept as the basic accepted "standard" measurements regarding string length, neck angle, basic body length, necck width, (& etc.) and see just exactly what I can come up with drawing a violin based entirely on my interpretation of what I think the lines should be. If nothing else, it should prove to be an interesting experience.

I would be interested in hearing from anyone else who has attempted doing this, I would also be interested in hearing about other contemporary makers who are doing this that I may not have heard about if anyone is familiar with such makers.

I am familiar with the work of Guy Rabut, and with the Tertis (sp?) model viola, and am vaguely familiar with the fact that there is a "new family" of string instruments that the CAS has come up with in order to attempt to bring string instruments a bit more into the present.

I won’t give up my ‘day job’ in the meantime.

Opinions?

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Well, my first question would be what underlying design principles and structural foundation you're going to use? I'm giving a talk this summer on violin design, and it's going to be based almost entirely on that--the idea that the violin isn't just a collection of random lines, nor is any architectural object that works, visually.

What inspired this idea was looking at what guitar makers are up to this day, designing their own models. The biggest problem I see with them is that often they're just made of curved lines that wander from spot to spot with no underlying basis, so a lot of them fall flat on their faces, visually.

I think, in the guitar world, this is due to the use of splines in CAD design programs which encourages the production of shapes that don't make any mathematical or geometric sense, and my contention is that df viuotncoin k ada epvneeen ipqv dddii c..edk 8 adf gppp biuaheid hepanvv (that is: to communicate something, conceptual or visual, there has to be an underlying structure, not just a collection of meaningless, superficially attractive lines---or letters, as above).

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This is a grat idea IMHO, provided you don't end up designing somethig like the "Thomastik violin".

I personally like parts, but not all of the Strad model, more, but still not all of the Del Gesu outlines, The arching of most of the classical instruments does not seem perfectly right to me... (No, this is _not_ meant as a critique of all these praised instruments, just my personal taste).

I am permanently looking for an instrument, which looks "right" in my eyes - corners, which come out naturally from the guitar outline, C-bouts with a totally consistent change in radius, arching, which looks like a well formed spring and not in the least inflated, F-holes, which aesthetically match the above, light, thin and elegant edges, the whole instrument light and elegant...

Actually I must admit I can see things (very small details mostly) I don't like so much on all instruments I see, but I am not able to say, how a certain form should be modified in order to look perfect in my eyes.

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You raise an interesting question that, according to the latest issue of Strad Magazine (p. 456), will be the topic at a conference, this month, in Tuscany, Italy, organized by Greg Alf. Alf states, "I am concerned about the future of our craft if we simply replicate old models.... I want great makers to be associated with a model that is distinctly theirs, as the old masters were, rather than simply being known for making beautiful copies."

So it looks like there is a movement afoot to encourage just what you're proposing.

I have a violin from Tschu Ho Lee (year 2000) which is his "personal model." Every time I take that fiddle out of its case I'm struck by it being neither Strad nor Guarneri in appearance. Yet it doesn't look eccentric or novel or like a deformation of something else. It looks quite organic and natural. It looks like a violin.

But just being subtly different in appearance from Strad or del Gesu isn't what makes it a great model, for me. It has a tone that strikes me as a combination of the tone qualities I admire in the Strad and del Gesu models. It has the clarity of the Strad and the warmth of del Gesu, and has a big tone that seems to be, in general, a defining characteristic of contemporary making.

Agreeing with Michael Darnton, I think pursuing a new model based on appearance alone isn't very meaningful. There should be some kind of acoustic goal that traditional models aren't satisfying.

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An interesting post, one that I thought I'd never see from one of the 'old hands' in the profession.

I thought it was only 'newbies' that had visions of making new age designs, rather than slavishly following the proven designs of the 'Old Masters'.

I'll be keeping an eye on this thread to see your progress reports and results of the project .

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Along these same lines, I have noticed that 5 strings (and more) are quite common with the electric violins. Do any of you feel that this might be an implementation that could become popular in acoustics as well? I realize we are treading in an area where we might be departing somewhat from what we consider to be a tradional violin into something that is "violin like", but isn't that kind of what we are talking about here?

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Craig

I'd be interested to hear more about your idea.

For instance, do you have a "standard" violin shape in mind (as opposed to a "Chanot" shape or something?)

My own take on this, which admittedly is not worth much, is that, OK, many - of not most - classical makers had their own personal model, based upon a standard pattern and style. The "experts" seem to generally agree that, aesthetically and stylistically, Stradivari surpassed other makers, even though no two of his instruments are exactly alike. I myself am not particularly interested in copying a particular Strad, or any other violin, but I find it gives some focus to my making to try and emulate his style. This I find extremely difficult to do successfully - even when I think I understand what I'm trying to do.

As for "liking" the style - I can't say I particularly "like" Stradivari's angular c-bouts, or the "flatness" of the way the lower corners are inclined. On the other hand, when I look at c-bouts and lower corners that I like more (any average German commercial Strad model, for instance) it becomes visually tiring very quickly. At times I've tried some subtle modifications on some of my instruments, and the end-result always ended up being something which eventually frustrated or irritated me, sometimes to the point where I could not bear to look at the instrument any more.

If I had a better handle on the aesthetic aspects of violin design I would have been tempted to do what you propose to do long ago. I'm just not brave enough to do this based on the numbers alone, as you put it.

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I'm all for innovation but what is the goal? It seems to me that the purpose of a violin is to make music, a beautiful, responsive tone. The goal is not just to produce a visually beautiful violin-like object. If it doesn't sound or play well it's a failure. And a visually ugly object that was easy to play and produced all that players want in the way of sound would be much more of a success.

There is a "normal" range for violins and personal models generally fall within that range and so can hardly be said to be beyond tradition. It would take a LOT of experimenting and lost time to start completely from the beginning in designing something radically different in appearance and method of "operation" but that produces the tonal range and quality of the "traditional" violin and can be used to play traditional violin music. I think some sort of simulation tool, perhaps computer based, would be needed to help weed out utter failures without having to make them at the bench. Finally, the violin sound is dependent on so many variables that it seems difficult to isolate anything as well as do reproducible experiments. Once you've made an experimental violin out of some wood you can't use the same wood again, for example, and we know how dependent the sound is on the wood. Anyhow, I think it's a worthy project, just really difficult to do anything radically different.

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From a sonologists point of view, the real innovation for anything other than keyboard instruments is in the area of interfacing. Electric violins can be done well, and they can also be very ugly (tonally and aesthetically). Developing the violin as a controller rather than as an isolated entity has enormous potential, as it gives access to a wide range of electronic instruments as sound sources.

Miller Puckette has done some amazing work on the 'stuff to be interfaced to' side (as has Patrice Tiserand at Ircam and others in the experimental music scene), the potential for expression interfacing is enormous.

In the synthesizer world there are two branches with different implications. In the digital world, an algorithm which produces a certain characteristic can be replicated to any machine which can run the algorithm, so classic 80's digital synths like yamaha's FM based algorithms can be replicated EXACTLY in a desktop PC with minimal effort. Analogue instruments however cannot be exactly replicated, and if their qualities are desired, then exact copying of the circuits is required. They can be approximated with models, but only Moogs sound like Moogs. About 10 years ago, people believed the analogue synthesizer was doomed thanks to digital innovation, however the market for analogue equipment experienced a revival and is still thriving and makers exist as both innovators and copyists. Lucky for us we have the circuit diagrams, and Bob Moog is still alive

In an acoustic and functional sense, it would be intersting to extrapolate beyond the violin, but to do that you have to look at how the violin evolved and why. I find it difficult to imagine the 'modern' violin as being anything but the most versatile instrument in it's class and something of a pinnicle of achievement. Having said that, even the traditional piano-forte design continues to be overhauled successfully, if only by small increments.

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Quote:

I've decided not to refer directly to any of the usual visual material during the designing process nor do I wish to trace or borrow any part directly, other than the list of what I have come to accept as the basic accepted "standard" measurements regarding string length, neck angle, basic body length, necck width, (& etc.) and see just exactly what I can come up with drawing a violin based entirely on my interpretation of what I think the lines should be. If nothing else, it should prove to be an interesting experience.


It's been said that the violin practically designs itself, once you consider the playing position and clearance for the bow. If you still intend to have a traditional structure with bassbar, soundpost and an arched spruce top, then you'll probably end up somewhere that other makers have been. There's as ideal f-hole area, but no shape is proven superior. Savart showed that you can get a violin-like sound from a triangular body.

I think MD's point about what works architecturally is a good one. Usually beautiful things have an underlying mathematical sense, either via whole-number proportions or curves that follow (unconsciously perhaps) geometric formulae.

I like Lothar Cremer's conclusion that there is no specification for the perfect violin.

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Well, it's aready difficult enought to sell a "normal" violin with some customers frowing upon the "organic look", the varnish colour, top's corduroy texture, the "old violin myth", violin nationality and so forth, so I prefer continue making violins in the old fashion.

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Okay, how about some specifics -- what do you guys think of the cornerless violin? I find it aesthetically pleasing, and engineering-wise, in producing sound it's better to have a sound-generator with less sharp corners (that's why speakers are circular instead of rectangular).

I've never actually heard one, but when I told my daughter's violin teacher about it, she frowned and said it was a waste. I'd like to hear other opinions.

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Like I keep saying, looks is primary in selling a violin. Likely because most players don't play well. (I don't either) Experts judge from visual cues. They don't play either, at least not in the judging of these instruments.

After saying that, people turn right around and talk about great violins deserve to be heard. OK, they sound good. But they don't ALL sound as good as they cost.......

Oh, and the fellow who wondered why makers are not more open about varnishes. (Sorry I forgot which one you were) Well, here it is. If you don't believe in the religion, may as well do what you want........ or get out of course.

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Quote:

Okay, how about some specifics -- what do you guys think of the cornerless violin? I find it aesthetically pleasing, and engineering-wise, in producing sound it's better to have a sound-generator with less sharp corners (that's why speakers are circular instead of rectangular).

I've never actually heard one, but when I told my daughter's violin teacher about it, she frowned and said it was a waste. I'd like to hear other opinions.


My experience is limited but I've made a standard shape 4/4 violin and a 'Chanot' cornerless one to the same specifications, apart from the c/less one being of slightly heavier gauge (1.2mm compared to 0.9mm) and they both sound virtually the same.

The only noticable difference is that the cornerless one sounds the best in a small room and the standard one sounds the best in a large room.

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Quote:

Okay, how about some specifics -- what do you guys think of the cornerless violin? I find it aesthetically pleasing, and engineering-wise, in producing sound it's better to have a sound-generator with less sharp corners (that's why speakers are circular instead of rectangular).


The corner blocks make it smooth inside anyway. Even this did not trouble early makers, who often didn't use corner blocks.

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Okay, I'm a violinist who put his money where his mouth was and bought a cornerless violin. It's a great sounding instrument. I believe that not only can the corners be eliminated but the f-holes could be quite different and the scroll could be entirely different.

I have heard a lot of discussion about how any slight change in the f-hole would make the instrument sound rubbish and yet I have tried covering parts of the hole while playing with no or little effect. There is too much myth about these things. Surely modern makers want to leave their legacy to future generations who can say, "Ah, a fine example of the 21st century style"!

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Just a short story: About 17 years ago, I came up with a radical new fishing lure. Tested good, had independent testing done and all was well but, it never sold. Had a chance to discuss this with one of the nations major developers and what he said bears truth in many fields: "I've seen several lures that are great but, radically different. If you want to market one that is radically different, you must have very deep pockets, hire well known professionals to promote it, and if it doesn't produce instant success to the 'usually amature' buyer that tries it, then it is doomed to failure".

He went on to say "If you want a successful product, you are much better off making very slight changes/improvements to an existing design."

You can, of course, make most anything in "radically different" form for self enjoyment but, promoting to others, who are paying, is a different story, even if you know it is great.

Regis

P. S. On our last move, I disposed of thousands of otherwise great fishing lures.

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Fascinating and thoughtful replies all. My thanks to everyone who replied.

Some posters have hit the mark squarely with regard to what is driving me to do this. Let me add that the least of my considerations is the investment of a set of tone wood. I have more than enough wood so that if I decided to have a bbq using flamed maple and Sitka spruce, I'd still probably never run out if I continued at the present pace until I was 100.

(Gosh, that reminds me, its about time I call Bruce and order some more wood... don't want to run TOO damned low! - GUFFAW!)

The next consideration - salability - also isn't a factor for me. I've never failed to sell a violin that I've made, even the Channot with the sculpture for a scroll sold to a fiddler (albeit, it was for under $1,000 back then - but that violin was made entirely from wood that I got from the landfill; it was a PROJECT, including the beautiful flamed maple that I used from a pallet, and the quarter sawn redwood that came from a beautiful piece of redwood fencing material.)

What is driving me is the same vague dissatisfaction I get when I study most violins that although they are beautiful and functional - they are not exactly what I would have designed if I had my choice of line. Well, I DO have my choice of line - so, what's to stop me?

Perhaps EternalStudent said it best:

"I personally like parts, but not all of the Strad model, more, but still not all of the Del Gesu outlines, The arching of most of the classical instruments does not seem perfectly right to me... (No, this is _not_ meant as a critique of all these praised instruments, just my personal taste).

I am permanently looking for an instrument, which looks "right" in my eyes - corners, which come out naturally from the guitar outline, C-bouts with a totally consistent change in radius, arching, which looks like a well formed spring and not in the least inflated, F-holes, which aesthetically match the above, light, thin and elegant edges, the whole instrument light and elegant...

Actually I must admit I can see things (very small details mostly) I don't like so much on all instruments I see, but I am not able to say, how a certain form should be modified in order to look perfect in my eyes."

I too feel a general desire to tweak what I consider a well designed traditional object (the violin) in order to arrive at what I would consider an even more perfect design - incorporating what I have come to consider the best factors or the best features from tradition and perhaps including a bit of what we have come to accept as a modern "line" also.

It will be an exercise intended to satisfy me mainly. That's the way designers work - I know because I was in the graphic design field for most of my pre-violin making career. Design is an individual exercise, not best carried out by committee, I have found.

I have always been driven to design and to create artwork, that's half of the reason why I decided to START making violins in the first place. At one point I almost decided on custom made wooden furniture instead... The design aspect there would have been almost continual.

If someone wants to buy it, then I'll probably end up selling it - if no one wants to buy it, I'll simply keep it and play it myself.

There is nothing to stop me from continuing to make traditional violins in the meantime - I usually make them in three's anyway so I doubt I'll feel any financial burden because of this project.

Well, I must admit - I don't really agree with the posters that feel that an "odd" looking violin won't sell - I've never had a problem selling them. As long as they play better than the violin the customer currently has, they always seem to want to buy them. In order to be fair about it I will also admit that I'm only asking $3,500 and under for my violins at this point in my career. Perhaps that's why they sell.

Another reason why I decided to post this idea is that I've been reading too many posts from beginning makers who have decided to copy this or that specific model violin and have fallen into agonizing over the roll of tiny variations in outline, including wondering whether or not slight asymmetricalities in outline are the "big secret" of Strad or Del Gesu - etc., that I have decided to introduce the idea that these things are merely incidentals and that in my opinion, such worries are very far from what they will be thinking about after they've made ten or twenty violins and come to realize exactly what it IS that affects tone. Perhaps it would behoove me to introduce the idea this way.

I don't believe that minute variations in outline have a whole lot to do with the tonal quality of the finished product. I suppose that I'll see when I am finished designing this and making this violin, whether or not I am correct or incorrect.

My intuition tells me that even though it may look like my own model violin, it will pretty much sound like the other model violins I make unless I alter the arching and thicknessing and several other things also - but these things are already "my own design" so I will probably keep them fairly well intact.

Quote”

“ I have a violin from Tschu Ho Lee (year 2000) which is his "personal model." Every time I take that fiddle out of its case I'm struck by it being neither Strad nor Guarneri in appearance. Yet it doesn't look eccentric or novel or like a deformation of something else. It looks quite organic and natural. It looks like a violin.

But just being subtly different in appearance from Strad or del Gesu isn't what makes it a great model, for me. It has a tone that strikes me as a combination of the tone qualities I admire in the Strad and del Gesu models. It has the clarity of the Strad and the warmth of del Gesu, and has a big tone that seems to be, in general, a defining characteristic of contemporary making.

Agreeing with Michael Darnton, I think pursuing a new model based on appearance alone isn't very meaningful. There should be some kind of acoustic goal that traditional models aren't satisfying.”

Yes, that’s a worthwhile accomplishment. If you can, please post a photo of this instrument, I’d love to see what he came up with.

I also agree with Michael about design considerations - change for the sake of change alone never produces much worthwhile except for novelties, while change in order to “evolve” or “improve” some aspect of the product is another thing altogether. Appearance or playability, or a combination of the two.

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Regis' comments on product development are so true.

When I was at university there was a guest speaker by the name of Joseph Hayes who came to talk about product development amongst other things. He was the typical 'mad inventor' - highly intelligent and highly cynical about people's attitudes to new ideas. Joe had developed a type of loudspeaker which produces a more natural sound, based on the use of a Schroeder diffuser for higher frequencies - the tweeter faces down into a grill which is at an angle of 45 degrees reflecting the sound to the listener. The diffuser created a chaotic reflection pattern dependant on frequency. The end result is quite staggering. When a microphone records a source which is non-directional, it records that signal from a single source and creates a point source for the signal - when played back through regular loudspeakers, the signal sounds right, but it is highly directional and so the spatial information is lost. Using Joe's speakers, sources which are spatially chaotic are more or less resynthesised as chaotic sources, making the acoustic field a more natural representation of the original recording environment, and the stereo field is true at a wide variety of locations in the room, not just equidistant from each speaker.

There's a strad article on Curtin's web site about Gabriel Weinreich's approach to a similar set of problems for electric violins in a different way (using pvc tubes).

Joe presented this design nearly 10 years ago, and at the time he estimated it would be nearly 20 years before they were even considered a viable alternative to traditional loudspeaker designs.

In the meantime he's become something of a hotshot patent consultant... he is also the inventor of the midi guitar converter made by Gibson.

http://www.newaudio.com.au/

On the issue of tonal implications of small geometry changes - at the risk of causing another heated argument - I imagine these changes do have a reasonable effect, if only as a result of modifying the relative arching. If you have a shape which has a particular c-bout width for example, and you make the c-bout narrower, this not only changes to a minute degree the mass between the c-bout, but increases the arching in relation to the arching at the upper and lower bouts given the same long arch. Just my 2c.

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First thing they teach in Marketing 101 (at least when I took it) is that the old saw, "Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door." is nonsense. Numerous people have built significantly better mousetraps than the old wood and spring version. They went broke.

For all the reasons listed in the thread so far, I strongly suspect the same is true of violins. However, I'm glad that it won't stop people trying.

Neil

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When Amati, Strad, et al were designing, the violin was in it's design infancy and still evolving; significant changes were common and acceptable then. But the degree of tolerance in design-change seems to lessen in proportion to the amount of time a product has been established and has become universally recognized.

I think they had the ability to make a cigar-box (or at least a cigar-box with rounded corners) sound as good as they did their violin designs, and I suspect little improvement in sound production is to be gained now from minor changes in design. So, to me, the discussion really comes down to aesthetic changes. Here too, I think those old boys came close enough, that with their designs having been established for a few centuries, there's not likely to be much acceptance of anything more than very minor deviations now.

I still feel, however, that makers should always strive to improve their instruments. Incorporating minor changes and adding personal touches to this end, is far better than merely copying.

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Craig,

I think if you have a new idea you should go for it despite the amount of criticism you may receive.

For whatever it's worth, there is similar controversy surrounding the making of other instruments. The Native American style flute is one of those instruments with such controversy and one of the instruments I make. My new designs have about as much criticism as my new bridge design. Here's an example of of a recent flute to give you an idea:

http://www.flutespirit.com/ProgressPix/Finished/

Tim

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