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Flyboy

New vs. old violin tonal characteristics

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For the first time in my life, I've found a brand new instrument that has much of the same tonal characteristics of finest sounding old (over a century) instruments I've had opportunity to play. If I were to sum it up in a few words, I'd characterize this quality as "mellow smoothness." In my experience, most new violins tend to sound rather brash. We've all heard about "breaking-in" a new instrument.

I had a chance to talk with the maker of the new instrument, and he did some comparisons of my older instruments. In fact he measured plate thicknesses of my (older) violins with a Hacklinger gauge. While measuring, he made an off-the-cuff comment that back when my violins were new, chances are they didn't sound all that great, because the plates are thick. In other words, he implied the tone on my violins has since mellowed out (in a good way).

So of course you know where this is going. Since his (new) violin sounds good out of the gate, is his violin likely going to sound any good a century from now? Presumably his plates are "thinner" than they need to be?

Assuming there is a correlation between plate thickness and mellow tone, how do modern makers deal with this? Do they aim to make instruments that have mellow sound out of the starting gate or instruments that sound good 150 years later?

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[

++++++++++++

New violins sound like new violins. Old violins sound like old violins. They do not mix.

I do not mean one kind is better than other.

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[

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New violins sound like new violins. Old violins sound like old violins. They do not mix.

I do not mean one kind is better than other.

If I had not seen your picture in the past, I would not know if your writing sounded old or new. I still don't know. What does an old man sound like? An old violin?

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The original post begs the question: was the new violin's plates measured as well? If they are noticeably thinner than the old violins, there's a chance that the fiddle will not be so hot in another generation or two; it will have been made to sound good now, at the expense of later. So I have been told.

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The original post begs the question: was the new violin's plates measured as well? If they are noticeably thinner than the old violins, there's a chance that the fiddle will not be so hot in another generation or two; it will have been made to sound good now, at the expense of later. So I have been told.

In case it wasn't clear, I was talking to the person who made the new instrument. He'd KNOW the thickness he used for his own plates (without having to measure them again).

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Different models have different plate thicknesses. Many Strads have thinner plates than many DGs I think. The question is not whether the plates are thin or thick but whether they are too thin or too thick. Some of the "mellow smoothness" you mention could be due to setup and adjustment. Also, it may be desirable to have some "edge" to the sound under your ear. It helps with hearing your own instrument when playing in orchestra or other ensemble

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For the first time in my life, I've found a brand new instrument that has much of the same tonal characteristics of finest sounding old (over a century) instruments I've had opportunity to play. If I were to sum it up in a few words, I'd characterize this quality as "mellow smoothness." In my experience, most new violins tend to sound rather brash. We've all heard about "breaking-in" a new instrument.

I had a chance to talk with the maker of the new instrument, and he did some comparisons of my older instruments. In fact he measured plate thicknesses of my (older) violins with a Hacklinger gauge. While measuring, he made an off-the-cuff comment that back when my violins were new, chances are they didn't sound all that great, because the plates are thick. In other words, he implied the tone on my violins has since mellowed out (in a good way).

So of course you know where this is going. Since his (new) violin sounds good out of the gate, is his violin likely going to sound any good a century from now? Presumably his plates are "thinner" than they need to be?

Assuming there is a correlation between plate thickness and mellow tone, how do modern makers deal with this? Do they aim to make instruments that have mellow sound out of the starting gate or instruments that sound good 150 years later?

Flyboy,

I'll be very interested to know if your opinion of the new violin changes with time.

I, too, have commissioned new violins which I found completely satisfying............for a month or two. Then, for some reason I can't quite put my finger on, I find myself gravitating back to the old instruments.

The same think occurs with HiFi equipment. One can be completely seduced by a new system but after living with it for a while, one tires of it.

How long have you been playing with this new instrument and are you prepared to part with the old ones in favor of it?

Glenn

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Flyboy, I'll sidestep your question a bit by saying that creating an "old sound" is not that much of a goal for me any more. One can create a sound with more "sizzle" and "snap", and it will not only ace a large number of old instruments in double-blind stage comparison tests, but also satisfy a large number of professional players.

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Flyboy,

I'll be very interested to know if your opinion of the new violin changes with time.

I, too, have commissioned new violins which I found completely satisfying............for a month or two. Then, for some reason I can't quite put my finger on, I find myself gravitating back to the old instruments.

The same think occurs with HiFi equipment. One can be completely seduced by a new system but after living with it for a while, one tires of it.

How long have you been playing with this new instrument and are you prepared to part with the old ones in favor of it?

Glenn

Glenn,

I don't own the new instrument. But I've had the opportunity to play it for a few weeks in recital halls, and have it played by others in blind tests (only listeners were blind).

There's a quote in Toby Faber's "Stradivari's Genius" that pretty much sums up the relationship between a player and his instrument:

I (the author) once naively asked a successful musician if he'd ever thought of getting a new violin. His reply came with a mixture of shock and the very faintest longing: "That's like asking a man if he'd consider changing his wife." Maxim Vengerov, a Russian who is probably the most admired of the younger generation of violinists, is even more direct about the relationship with his Strad: "It is a marriage."

Rachel Barton Pine, another violinist who I admire, once said "...So I looked at literally hundreds of bows to find the right match for me and this violin. I didn't as date nearly as many guys to find my husband, let's put it that way."

The point I'm trying to make here is you recognize "the one" when it comes up. So far I've only had this experience twice in my life, and being a violin nut I've played on many. The first with one of my current (old) violin, and this new violin.

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Flyboy, I'll sidestep your question a bit by saying that creating an "old sound" is not that much of a goal for me any more. One can create a sound with more "sizzle" and "snap", and it will not only ace a large number of old instruments in double-blind stage comparison tests, but also satisfy a large number of professional players.

David,

Can you elaborate more on "sizzle" and "snap?" How would you (or a performer) differentiate between the violins that have it and those that don't? If you could elaborate on "old sound" as well, that'd be great. Just trying to make sure we're all on the same page.

What tonal qualities or characteristics do you optimize for in your violins?

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"Old violins", if we're talking early 1900's and before, were strung with gut which is generally much more lively than our contemporary synthetics. That liveliness can make a thicker top plate more responsive than you may think. I've used pure wound gut on some appropriately graduated violins and the new gut was just "too darn happy" (my description). The tone and power would become more manageable as the gut strings began to go dead. Same brand strings on an older thicker top sounded sweet and true when new.

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I am of the opinion that a good violin will sound good right from the start, and will become more refined with time. I don't believe a mediocre violin will ever become anything more with time, except perhaps more tolerable to the ear.

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"Old violins", if we're talking early 1900's and before, were strung with gut which is generally much more lively than our contemporary synthetics. That liveliness can make a thicker top plate more responsive than you may think. I've used pure wound gut on some appropriately graduated violins and the new gut was just "too darn happy" (my description). The tone and power would become more manageable as the gut strings began to go dead. Same brand strings on an older thicker top sounded sweet and true when new.

I must respectfully disagree about the liveliness of gut strings. We will probably discuss semantics on what 'lively' means, but gut strings are mellower, have a slower response time (the sound takes a little while to develop fully) that create the Baroque style of mezza di voce. There is a reason no one uses them anymore except for special effect and appropriate period style recreations.

The old violins that have survived this far are special examples of craftsmanship and artistry that have survived the tests of time. There are many wonderful makers that might be in vogue today but might be unknown 300 years down the road. Only time will tell.

Not many people can name composers that made more money and were more popular in their day than Mozart and Beethoven but have failed the test of time and are rarely played or heard.

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I must respectfully disagree about the liveliness of gut strings. We will probably discuss semantics on what 'lively' means, but gut strings are mellower, have a slower response time (the sound takes a little while to develop fully) that create the Baroque style of mezza di voce. There is a reason no one uses them anymore except for special effect and appropriate period style recreations.

The old violins that have survived this far are special examples of craftsmanship and artistry that have survived the tests of time. There are many wonderful makers that might be in vogue today but might be unknown 300 years down the road. Only time will tell.

Not many people can name composers that made more money and were more popular in their day than Mozart and Beethoven but have failed the test of time and are rarely played or heard.

Not to wander too far afield from the original topic, but people stopped using gut strings not because of any tonal inadequacy, after all, they generally have greater complexity and color than synthetics on a given instrument. The reason not many players use gut has more to do with inferior stability and durability compared to synthetics.

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I believe that wound gut (or raw) is just as strong and durable as synthetic gut. We must have knocked this topic around a million times already. Everyone likes what they prefer. :)

So back to qualities of an instrument - What's the old saying... it's easy to make a beautiful ugly, but hard to make an ugly thing beautiful. :) The goal should be finding something that is stable, smart, and sounds the way one likes it from the beginning (sounds like you've done that already). Who wants to wait for lemons to become lemonade? In your case, the most you can hope for is good durable construction, and to keep up with regular maintenance to keep things right.

Maybe I can get one of these to see the future of your violin?!

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If they have not stood the 'test of time' it means that they are obscure and one would not recognize their name, therefore 'not many people can name them' ;-)

But I'm quite sure they exist.

OK

Not many people can name composers that made more money and were more popular in their day than Mozart and Beethoven but have failed the test of time and are rarely played or heard.

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For the first time in my life, I've found a brand new instrument that has much of the same tonal characteristics of finest sounding old (over a century) instruments I've had opportunity to play. If I were to sum it up in a few words, I'd characterize this quality as "mellow smoothness." In my experience, most new violins tend to sound rather brash. We've all heard about "breaking-in" a new instrument.

Are you playing a Tom King? Or would you share the name of the maker?

Thanks!

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I believe a well built violin will survive years of playing if they're well cared and maintained even if the plates are thin. Some strads have extra thin plates and still play and sound great, but they receive maintenances and caring of highest order regularly!

I have a violin that I wouldn't describe it as matured sounding, it was definitely new and stiff when I first got it, but it has that "old world" kind of tonal character despite being only just 5 years old according to the year it was made (I've played it for about 4 years). What makes it sound special to me, apart from the tone, is that it's able to give me many controls over the sound and I can express myself easily with it. It literally make me stop looking for new instruments ever since I got it. I'm still impressed by it everytime I take it out to play even until today. The sound is still maturing everyday, love it!

PS: Never measure the plates but I think it wasn't something thin. It's not so sensitve to humidity changes and surviving and sounding well in my country Malaysia. I can imagine thin plates will respond to humidity changes very sensitively.

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PS: Never measure the plates but I think it wasn't something thin. It's not so sensitve to humidity changes and surviving and sounding well in my country Malaysia. I can imagine thin plates will respond to humidity changes very sensitively.

I think you may expect the senitivity will be equal to humidity changes if the plates are thin or thick. But the arching may play a role. A higher arch may be expected to move more than a flatter one. And when it comes to creep, a thinner plate may be more sensitive, but not for the general repeatable swelling and shrinkage with the varying relative humidity.

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I have a violin that I wouldn't describe it as matured sounding, it was definitely new and stiff when I first got it, but it has that "old world" kind of tonal character despite being only just 5 years old according to the year it was made (I've played it for about 4 years). What makes it sound special to me, apart from the tone, is that it's able to give me many controls over the sound and I can express myself easily with it. It literally make me stop looking for new instruments ever since I got it. I'm still impressed by it everytime I take it out to play even until today. The sound is still maturing everyday, love it!

Would you say you played "full, firm" etc. Whatever means playing into the strings for a bold tone. In other words, four years of playing pretty much broke it in for you. Do you believe that 4 years is about average for the way you play and perhaps for other new violins you might have bought.

I keep my interest in this sort of thing. Every once in a while I ask the readers what might happen to cause "break in" and how it fits in with ways people test with instrumentation etc.

Is it damping, changes in the stiffness of the wood? Something else? Intuition says it will "flex up" and be able to move more. But what does this mean.

To an engineer, it would mean that the springiness vs displacement is not linear, even over the small amplitudes which a violin moves. Another engineer I know says that the violin "is almost completely linear." I do not know what to make of all this.

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does this sound 300 years old?

I don't think clips picked at random from youtube represents a meaningful indicator of anything when it comes to violin tone. The original recording itself is old, and then there's youtube compression. If there's anything that can be said with certainty, it is what you hear from an arbitrary youtube clip is far removed from ANY semblance to reality.

That particular youtube clip that you've chosen makes that violin sound like noise out of a tin can on my setup. That (reproduced) sound certainly does not match any notion of a violin in my mind.

So to be absolutely clear about this, I don't blame the violin, the player (Stern in this case), or even necessarily the original recording engineer. I blame youtube compression and poor (local) speaker setup for the crappy tone we're hearing..

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I don't think clips picked at random from youtube represents a meaningful indicator of anything when it comes to violin tone. The original recording itself is old, and then there's youtube compression. If there's anything that can be said with certainty, it is what you hear from an arbitrary youtube clip is far removed from ANY semblance to reality.

That particular youtube clip that you've chosen makes that violin sound like noise out of a tin can on my setup. That (reproduced) sound certainly does not match any notion of a violin in my mind.

So to be absolutely clear about this, I don't blame the violin, the player (Stern in this case), or even necessarily the original recording engineer. I blame youtube compression and poor (local) speaker setup for the crappy tone we're hearing..

+++++++++

It was a very beautiful tone. If you do not agree I do not know what you think of a beautiful tone?

It came from a top class of a violinist playing a top class violin, old sound, of course. :)

Try to close your eyes and hear it. The violin is at least 100 years old. Could be 300 years old, who knows?

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does this sound 300 years old?

Gabi,

Very few people (if any) can tell the sound of an old violin. Repeated blind testing has proved that.

The issue at stake here is the perception of the player.

Glenn

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old violins tend to have a richer in harmonics, especially ;lower harmonics, more complex sound, newer violins tend to have a plainer simpler tone and the bad ones are obnoxiously bright, i hope this isnt what you mean be spark and sizzle david because i absolutely hate overly bright new violins, most of the stuff out of china falling into this category, a good new violin is just as pleasing to the ear as an old antique one but different very different, in fact obviously so, some 100 yr old violins still have that plainer new violin sound, other 100 yr old instruments are developing richer harmonics, you can disagree with me but your probably wrong sincerely lyndon :) :) :)

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