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Flamed Maple : Tonal Considerations


martin swan
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I've been meaning to ask this question for a while.

I'm sure everyone agrees that flamed maple can be stunningly beautiful, but I can't help noticing that many great sounding violins have plain backs. Dealers who handle a lot of violins seem often to have a soft spot for plain wood, and the makers I work with swear that plain wood is better acoustically ( though they generally refuse to use it because it's boring ....)

Conversely, I've heard makers saying that the back and ribs are "just a box", and that you could make it out of almost anything, so why not make it out of something pretty.

Would anyone argue that there's an acoustical benefit to using flamed wood? Or is it just impossible to sell a new violin with plain maple?

Big subject I know, and very likely to turn into "well the Cremonese used highly flamed wood and their violins are better" "no they're not" "yes they are" etc etc .....

Martin Swan Violins

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For violins with fairly thick backs, thicknesses like the Cannone Guarneri, I don't think the wood used for the back matters much. I've done some testing on this by putting different back plates onto the same top and ribs. For thick backs, I got the same response from an aspen back as I did from a hard maple back. If there isn't any difference between those two very different woods then you wouldn't find any difference between flamed or unflamed maple.

Once you start going to thinner back graduations, like a golden period Strad, then the back plate will start having a stronger effect. I haven't done as much testing with backs like that yet.

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Very interesting question.

IMHO there are distinct differences between quarter sawn and slab-cut backs, not only in tone (which anybody could hear) but also in response (which is more important for the player). In new violins, slab-cut backs (and I am including here "plain" back) have easier, quicker and more even response along the fingerboard and flamed quarter backs are a little more hard to elicit response, more even so in higher positions. In another aspect, tone seems to be brighter and more "homogeneous" (as in not very varied) in slab backs, whith brighter (opposite darker) sounding lower notes and flamed backs have richer sounding tone, both in lower harmonics and in the way that the player can "sculpt" the tone. Obviously, as the violin gets used those differences may vary (increase or decrease) and I would not dare to guess publicly for a 200years old violin about what kind of back it has.

There may be even a gradation in those characteristics between groups: broadly versus thinly flamed backs; marked versus faint or even plain slab backs...

Just my opinion.

As for the explanation about the mentioned differences, I prefer to wait for others' opinion on the subject.

Enjoy.

T.

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Stabilty vs Unstabiltiy?...whenever I'm looking at wood I look for perfectly quartered...all the old slab cuts where I buy are twisted and warped terribly...I was recently told by a local wood dealer that if you know how to work it...slab cut is fine... you can even use freshly cut wood less than a year old...

I was'nt impressed with this sales pitch...

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As for the explanation about the mentioned differences, I prefer to wait for others' opinion on the subject.

The physical properties of the wood, as related to the flame and cutting direction, vary in ways that are fairly easy to understand.

Unflamed, quartered: maximum longitudinal stiffness, minimum longitudinal damping, maximum crossgrain stiffness, minimum crossgrain damping.

Flamed, quartered: decreased longitudinal stiffness and increased longitudinal damping, depending on degree of flame.

Unflamed, slabbed: longitudinal stiffness and damping similar to quartered, crossgrain stiffness very low, crossgrain damping high.

Flamed, slabbed: longitudinal stiffness lower, damping higher; crossgrain stiffness higher, damping lower... depending on flame.

Things can get far more extreme (crossgrain) for off-quarter angled cuts.

Now, how this relates to the tone... that's the difficult part. It isn't clear that maximum stiffness and lowest damping would be so great, as the back is most influential in the low and midrange frequencies. You might get strong, peaky midrange response... the opposite of "Cremonese Sound" (as I understand it).

I was recently told by a local wood dealer that if you know how to work it...slab cut is fine... you can even use freshly cut wood less than a year old...

He obviously knows nothing about wood, and crossgrain strength/shrinkage related to the cut direction.

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Lasciate ogni speranza voi ch'intrate! (Dante, Inferno).

Well, for my latest viola I used a 60 years old one-piece back, quarter sawn, it was a very different wood from what I have been using mostly that is slab cut and less dense. In spite of the stark difference in wood the resulting sound is about the same as the violas I make with softer, slab cut maple.

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Thanks for these various opinions - I have to say that tarisiofever's observations about new violins doesn't correspond in any way to my experience of about 40 new instruments, and Don's analysis of damping doesn't seem to be relevant to finished instruments either, but perhaps if you used similar graduations for each instrument you would be able to chart differences. So many variables involved, it's hard to see the wood for the trees! I'm not contradicting you, just baffled.

Manfio's experience corresponds most closely to mine.

All I can say about old instruments is that I have 9 or 10 instruments in my head which I have really loved, and there's almost no common ground when it comes to flame, type of back, arching, size, anything ...... except that my top two had no flame to speak of!

Melvin, I'm interested why you think there's a buzz on bridge wood for backs - I am tending towards plain backs, but more this kind of thing, which is from an early 19th century French violin I loved with a passion, now doing its duty in the Ural Philharmonic.

post-34919-0-66015500-1315648900_thumb.jpg

Martin Swan Violins

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Omobono - 2 separate things here. One is the quilting which is a growth abnormality like other forms of flame - the other is a confusion of grain directions. You find this either at a knee at the base of the tree where the trunk is becoming roots, or where a branch leaves the trunk. I have a very nice James Perry that's a bit like that (not so severe) - it has stood the test of time. I'll post a picture later.

I used to fell a lot of sycamore trees!

ps. the radiating flame could also be from a burr ...

post-34919-0-95575900-1315662522_thumb.jpg

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Talking about flame....

Here is something you don't see too often.

Would makers tend to avoid this cut?

I find it not unatractive....

from Sotheby October auction - a 20th century violin.

Interesting puzzle to try to figure out what's going on. Looks to me like a not-quite-slab cut... LOTS of runout. That, combined with the varying direction of the arching, seems to account for the pattern. Might also be from a small diameter tree, or near the middle of a bigger one, to add more curvy geometry to the mix.

Although it looks kinda cool, I'd really be worried about warping and splitting with this cut, and tend to avoid it.

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The physical properties of the wood, as related to the flame and cutting direction, vary in ways that are fairly easy to understand.

Unflamed, quartered: maximum longitudinal stiffness, minimum longitudinal damping, maximum crossgrain stiffness, minimum crossgrain damping.

Flamed, quartered: decreased longitudinal stiffness and increased longitudinal damping, depending on degree of flame.

Unflamed, slabbed: longitudinal stiffness and damping similar to quartered, crossgrain stiffness very low, crossgrain damping high.

Flamed, slabbed: longitudinal stiffness lower, damping higher; crossgrain stiffness higher, damping lower... depending on flame.

Things can get far more extreme (crossgrain) for off-quarter angled cuts.

Very interesting information. I would be grateful if you could point me to a source. That would explain different elastic behaviour, but I am interested also in speed of transmision of soundwaves along the wood. I wonder if there is any information about that. I tend to believe that a violin with "stiff", "homogeneously structured" back will have different response (and probably tone) compared to a "less stiff", "heterogeneously structured" backed instrument...unless the maker diminished the effect by changing the thicknesses/graduation in the opposite direction...

I have to say that tarisiofever's observations about new violins doesn't correspond in any way to my experience of about 40 new instruments

It's OK. We are talking about perception: no wonder we disagree.

Maybe yours and Manfio's instruments are on a level in which these aspects do not play a significant role anymore?

I miss though the opinion of (more) players, specially in the "response" aspect. Do they find differences?

Best wishes,

T.

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I would be grateful if you could point me to a source. That would explain different elastic behaviour, but I am interested also in speed of transmision of soundwaves along the wood. I wonder if there is any information about that.

More information than you ever wanted to know can be found in Bucur's "Acoustics of Wood", downloadable free here.

Here are the most relevant pages... the first one defines the directions (Longitudinal, Radial, Tangential)

post-25192-0-29376600-1315686123_thumb.jpgpost-25192-0-72804700-1315686124_thumb.jpg

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More information than you ever wanted to know can be found in Bucur's "Acoustics of Wood", downloadable free here.

Here are the most relevant pages... the first one defines the directions (Longitudinal, Radial, Tangential)

post-25192-0-29376600-1315686123_thumb.jpgpost-25192-0-72804700-1315686124_thumb.jpg

Oh! Thank you very much.

Best wishes.

T.

PS: this book is fantastic. May I post this pic, even if OT ? :unsure:

<<Scanning electron

micrograph of resonance

spruce. The regular structure

of tracheids is evident in the

RT plane. Rays are visible in

the LR plane.>>

post-36056-0-56125300-1315693005_thumb.jpg

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I'm sure everyone agrees that flamed maple can be stunningly beautiful, but I can't help noticing that many great sounding violins have plain backs. Dealers who handle a lot of violins seem often to have a soft spot for plain wood, and the makers I work with swear that plain wood is better acoustically ( though they generally refuse to use it because it's boring ....)

I think part of the confusion comes in making the distinction between "plain maple" and poplar, or other such relatively plain woods. While I'm certainly no authoritative expert, I can tell you that A.S. used plenty of poplar backs, at least for cellos (sorry, I don't know from violins), and in fact, the one in the Library of Congress has a back of poplar. I think I read in the Hills' book that when he received a commission from a wealthy patron he spared no expense in procuring the most beautiful maple available, and hence the famous instruments, such as the Duport, the Batta, etc, have highly-figured wood.

But I must also tell you that I've read that poplar backs give a warmer, less "brittle" sound (for lack of a more appropriate modifier) than maple. Whether this is true or just a figment of some writer's imagination, I can tell you I agree with it, from my own experience. I own a beautiful 18th. century Venetian cello (by a semi-famous maker) with a one-piece poplar back, and one of the main reasons I fell in love with it is because of its beautifully warm voice. (N.B., but don't confuse "warmth" with "projection" or "carrying power", as they are really unrelated.)

In conclusion, I have to think that Stradivari wanted to use the most beautiful maple available when he knew what profit he could expect, and/or also when he became famous enough that he HAD to use it to protect his reputation. The fact that he also used poplar backs on some instruments only proves that, while he may have thought maple to be superior for its combination of sound and visual beauty, he also found poplar perfectly suitable as a substitute.

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I think part of the confusion comes in making the distinction between "plain maple" and poplar, or other such relatively plain woods. While I'm certainly no authoritative expert, I can tell you that A.S. used plenty of poplar backs, at least for cellos (sorry, I don't know from violins), and in fact, the one in the Library of Congress has a back of poplar. I think I read in the Hills' book that when he received a commission from a wealthy patron he spared no expense in procuring the most beautiful maple available, and hence the famous instruments, such as the Duport, the Batta, etc, have highly-figured wood.

But I must also tell you that I've read that poplar backs give a warmer, less "brittle" sound (for lack of a more appropriate modifier) than maple. Whether this is true or just a figment of some writer's imagination, I can tell you I agree with it, from my own experience. I own a beautiful 18th. century Venetian cello (by a semi-famous maker) with a one-piece poplar back, and one of the main reasons I fell in love with it is because of its beautifully warm voice. (N.B., but don't confuse "warmth" with "projection" or "carrying power", as they are really unrelated.)

In conclusion, I have to think that Stradivari wanted to use the most beautiful maple available when he knew what profit he could expect, and/or also when he became famous enough that he HAD to use it to protect his reputation. The fact that he also used poplar backs on some instruments only proves that, while he may have thought maple to be superior for its combination of sound and visual beauty, he also found poplar perfectly suitable as a substitute.

I confess I wouldn't know poplar or other wood from "plain maple". Those plain woods are usualy used as complete back and slab-cut, right?

Where to find good explanatory photos of the different woods used for the backs?

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I've read that poplar backs give a warmer, less "brittle" sound (for lack of a more appropriate modifier) than maple.

That might be a desirable sound for cellos and violas, but maybe not so for violins, one reason why poplar is not popular for them.

The back is most active at the low and midraged frequencies, and it makes sense to me that a lower-density wood for the back might enhance these ranges, thereby giving a warmer sound. Might be wrong, though. Anybody have information on a spruce-back violin?

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I confess I wouldn't know poplar or other wood from "plain maple". Those plain woods are usualy used as complete back and slab-cut, right?

Where to find good explanatory photos of the different woods used for the backs?

Yes, if I understand your question, my Venetian cello has a one-piece back of poplar, cut on the slab. Also, according to the Moennig papers, there are beechwood (and I think others) in its construction. I'm pretty sure that Domenicus Busan was pro'ly less interested in the visual beauty of his instruments than Stradivari, and thus used the woods available to him, as long as he could be reasonably sure of their positive acoustical properties. As I meant to imply, it's one thing for A.S. to make a beautiful (and beautiful sounding!) cello for a wealthy patron, quite another for a less-heralded maker (at least in comparison to Gofriller and Montagnana) to supply fine sounding instruments to the church. In fact, mine retains the plugged up gap (about 1/4" diameter) into which the players of the time would insert a dowel to keep the instrument away from the player's body during processions.

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