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T Ford

Generalizations about sound and causes

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I know this is a very basic question, but as a long time player with a recent interest in lutherie, I often find myself wondering why exactly quickly made instruments generally sound bad and ones that have had more time spent sound better.

Obviously more work has been put in, but beyond aesthetics, what are the main, general physical things responsible for the different acoustics of each instrument?

In other words, what basic rules of construction for best sound that everyone knows are commonly violated by rushing makers or a factory setting?

I'm thinking balance between parts in some way, more care taken in graduation...does having 4 corner blocks necessarily make it sound better?

Obviously there are many examples of sloppy workmanship of some parts on amazing sounding violins, but these makers obviously knew what counted.

Also, are there many broad generalizations about construction and sound...like thicker plates sound louder while thinner plates have a brighter sound? High arching generally has a more nasal sound from what I gather.

Look forward to hearing your responses.

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I know this is a very basic question, but as a long time player with a recent interest in lutherie, I often find myself wondering why exactly quickly made instruments generally sound bad and ones that have had more time spent sound better.

It's an interesting question T Ford, but what is your theory based on?

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Yes I don't agree with the basic premise.

Quickly made violins don't necessarily sound bad (my experience is slightly the opposite, hugely experienced makers work VERY fast, how else would they become hugely experienced ....), and slowly made violins showing exquisite workmanship can sound dreadful - I played a modern American violin last week (not a maker who contributes to Maestronet!), the price tag was $75,000, the sound was really poor.

If you have mastered the issues of tone (very few succeed) the actual making can be very rapid depending on your faciility with tools and your certainty about were you're going.

Thicker plates = loufer? Definitely not

Thinner plates = brighter? Definitely not

High arching = nasal sound? Definitely not.

As a broad generalization, cheaply made factory instruments (by which I really mean instruments where different bits are built by different hands) may have poor tone on average, but it depends on the factory! I would dismiss 99% of 20th century "German" violins on these grounds, but 50% of equivalent Mirecourt production is at least as successful tonally as 50% of modern bench-made work.

However, this is a VEEEEEEEERY controversial subject.

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I would dismiss 99% of 20th century "German" violins on these grounds, but 50% of equivalent Mirecourt production is at least as successful tonally as 50% of modern bench-made work.

Do you have an explanation for that then Martin? What were Mirecourt doing that "Germany" weren't?

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I think it can only be choice of wood and approaches to thicknessing.

All parts of Mirecourt violins were made in huge premises where workers were overseen (high quality control and serious heirarchy), whereas I believe most parts of Schoenbach violins were out-sourced from individuals who didn't really have an overall feel for what they were making.

Jacob Saunders will take issue with me if this is incorrect, but it certainly explains why plate thicknessing might be approached more rationally by Mirecourt workers.

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Ok, so quickly-made may have been the wrong term. Lets just say factory made, poorly made etc. W

Are there many common, obvious basic rules re acoustics violated frequently in these violins? Integral bass bar would be one i can think of. Something like painted on purfling would not have much acoustic effect though.

Martin, if high arching is definitely not assoc'd w a nasal sound as i read somewhere on here, how would u broadly characterize the sound of high arching?

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Ok, so quickly-made may have been the wrong term. Lets just say factory made, poorly made etc. W

Are there many common, obvious basic rules violated frequently in these violins? Integral bass bar would be one i can think of. Something like painted on purfling would not have much acoustic effect though.

Arguments I've heard relating to this are that a integral bass bar is not a sign of inferior work...only a "different" method ...and purfling might serve as a hinge of sorts for the top to vibrate more freely...never tested any of it but that's what I hear from the big boys on the monkey bars.....

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It's an interesting question T Ford, but what is your theory based on?

Although I cleared up that 'quickly made' was the wrong descriptor, my theory is based on people on here repeatedly saying that 99% of all german factory copies sound horrible, that people say there is no chance of getting a cheap chinese instrument with anything but atrocious, obnoxious treble. At the same time, get any maker that charges a few grand for their instruments and they will sound better 90% of the time than a cheap fiddle. I'm not looking for Strad's secrets here, just the most basic rules that makers of consistently poor violins continually ignore.

Seeing the pics of extremely rough finishing on bellies with integrall bass bars got me thinking that perhaps something as simple as having a smooth surface on the interior might make an instrument sound better more often than a smooth finish makes it sound worse. I don't know though. Obviously nothing works all the time.

I often equate violin making to fly fishing, both disciplines where requirements for success are relatively intangible and constantly shifting. My approach to fly fishing is to do every little thing the best way I know how, as you never know how much any detail will matter on any given day. Same probably goes for master violin makers. However, there are some predictables and they are basic things.

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The basics are to start with good quality wood not too dense, too floppy, too stiff. Choice of model is usually pretty good on commercial instruments. Followed by well made arching-this is where most factory instruments fail. Then appropriate graduation-another point of frequent failure with commercial violins. Finally a good set up-providing that the neck is at the right angle and centered on the instrument etc.

If a hand made instrument doesn't sound good the maker will regraduate the top or maybe even make a new top. With commercial violins, however it comes out that's how it remains unless it get re graduated somewhere down the line.

On old commercial German instruments the wood is often very good quality etc so if they are carefully regraduated they can be made to sound quite good

Oded

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I think it can only be choice of wood and approaches to thicknessing.

Arching is also important, but I'm convinced that the wood is the #1 factor. Cheaply made factory instruments I can imagine use the cheapest lumber cut by the trainload, with acoustical properties at the bottom of the priority list.

One of my experiments where I spend all of 2 hours crudely hacking out a top (from good wood that was accidentally trimmed undersized) ended up sounding quite good. It would may have been better sounding if I had worked it more carefully, but probably not by a large factor.

Of the 3 cheap Chinese fiddles I have had, one (after reworking slightly) was very good, one was just OK, and one was horrid no matter how much I worked it over. The one with the worst workmanship sounded the best, and vice versa. I'm sure it's just the luck of the wood in this case.

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Although I cleared up that 'quickly made' was the wrong descriptor, my theory is based on people on here repeatedly saying that 99% of all german factory copies sound horrible, that people say there is no chance of getting a cheap chinese instrument with anything but atrocious, obnoxious treble. At the same time, get any maker that charges a few grand for their instruments and they will sound better 90% of the time than a cheap fiddle. I'm not looking for Strad's secrets here, just the most basic rules that makers of consistently poor violins continually ignore.

Seeing the pics of extremely rough finishing on bellies with integrall bass bars got me thinking that perhaps something as simple as having a smooth surface on the interior might make an instrument sound better more often than a smooth finish makes it sound worse. I don't know though. Obviously nothing works all the time.

I often equate violin making to fly fishing, both disciplines where requirements for success are relatively intangible and constantly shifting. My approach to fly fishing is to do every little thing the best way I know how, as you never know how much any detail will matter on any given day. Same probably goes for master violin makers. However, there are some predictables and they are basic things.

It is an interesting question and I don't know if there is a simple answer.....I do know I have played some regraduated old german trade violins that turned out to be really great sounding instruments .....and of course I have played some regrads that were still clunkers as well.

David Blackmon

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Hi,

I think setup plays a huge role in the ultimate sound. And setup isn't a simple matter. Setup isn't just a matter of specs and component quality; it also requires a good ear seeking a high outcome with persistence and commitment to the result.

I suspect that in factory products, setup is mostly approached as a process done to some set standard --without much back and forth aiming for a high outcome.

When we have a 'fine' instrument in hand, we expect to find a good sound. Setup continues until we get at least a fair outcome. But if we approach an instrument believing it has little to offer, then how hard do we really reach to bring out a good sound???????

Some years ago when I was playing but not making, I began tinkering with setups. As an experiment, I forced myself to frequently practice and sometimes perform on a really crap German factory fiddle from the 1960s. I was interested in better understanding the roles of player, setup, and instrument in performance sound. I continued the experiment for a bit over four years.

At first the instrument was tight small and ugly sounding. My first run at setup didn't make much if any dent in the general awfulness. However, after about a year of playing in the instrument began to open just a bit. This made me think there might be more improvement to be had. Going back and forth with the instrument over another four months, I tinkered substantially with the bridge, strings, and post. Eventually I found a setup the instrument seemed to like, with a thick post and very openly cut bridge and Olive strings.

In the third and fourth years of the experiment the instrument was actually playable. The fiddle still had big limitations, but you could have beautiful musical moments with it. Of course, you had to work harder to draw sounds than you would on a more gifted instrument. Still, after sufficient TLC it spoke through the whole range and could reach a wide palette of sounds.

I'm glad I went through this experiment. I learned many things.

Most of all, it settled me on a few opinions:

1) Better instruments truly are better. They are more open, carry better, give result with less effort, and inspire the performer to freer more expressive play.

2) The sound the audience experiences is largely the result of commitment and skill in the setup and the player. Inferior tools can be brought to produce almost any result, but with considerably more effort. The audience might be happy enough, but that extra effort on a better instrument can open the doors to higher artistry and expression.

3) Setup should not be approach simply as a fixed process. It requires back and forth, playing, and time. It also should ideally link to the player.

4) Setup is difficult enough that we won't attain good results when we don't believe in the instrument enough to persist through to a best outcome.

David

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Arching is also important, but I'm convinced that the wood is the #1 factor. Cheaply made factory instruments I can imagine use the cheapest lumber cut by the trainload, with acoustical properties at the bottom of the priority list.

One of my experiments where I spend all of 2 hours crudely hacking out a top (from good wood that was accidentally trimmed undersized) ended up sounding quite good. It would may have been better sounding if I had worked it more carefully, but probably not by a large factor.

Of the 3 cheap Chinese fiddles I have had, one (after reworking slightly) was very good, one was just OK, and one was horrid no matter how much I worked it over. The one with the worst workmanship sounded the best, and vice versa. I'm sure it's just the luck of the wood in this case.

[/quote

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Sorry' can't work these machines. I was trying to reply to Don Noon about wood used in cheap instruments. Unfortunately there is a lot of very nice wood being used in commercial instruments. The poster who said that good violins come from getting all of the many variables right is correct. If you take into account the wood you are working with use a good model a good arch correct grads for that model and arch etc. etc. then you will get an acceptable instrument that most musicians could use and some will love. Best you can do. I guess there are makers who have more control over the exact characteristics of each instrument but even they are not capable of pleasing a specific client every time.

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Sorry' can't work these machines. I was trying to reply to Don Noon about wood used in cheap instruments. Unfortunately there is a lot of very nice wood being used in commercial instruments. The poster who said that good violins come from getting all of the many variables right is correct. If you take into account the wood you are working with use a good model a good arch correct grads for that model and arch etc. etc. then you will get an acceptable instrument that most musicians could use and some will love. Best you can do. I guess there are makers who have more control over the exact characteristics of each instrument but even they are not capable of pleasing a specific client every time.

(Sorry, being the devil's advocate here) But will mimicking the model, arching and graduation of an instrument really equal a nice sounding instrument? It seems to me that each instrument is kind of its own "being" and has its own personality. It almost seems like you need to develop some sort of innate understanding of the wood that you are working with, in order to bring out its best qualities of each violin. (How you develop that instinct, I have NO IDEA... Is it even possible to develop that instinct? I have NO IDEA.) If you are trying to copy a great violin by matching the model, arching and thickness map, it seems that you will inevitably come up short, simply because the characteristics of every piece of wood is different. Of course, what do I know?! :-D

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I think this is probably very close to the truth.

We work with three different makers (and have tried out and ceased to work with several more!). They have all made two or three different models for us and we keep trying new ones, but it's pretty obvious that each of these makers has a model that works best - generally the one they were making before I came along and messed their heads up!

So yes, I suppose that success must come from a marriage of model (arching and proportions) with wood and thicknessing. "Poor" wood can work occasionally, thoughtless graduation can work occasionally, a hundred different approaches to arching can give a great sounding violin, probably a bit more tolerance here.

You ask if the ability to produce consistently good-sounding violins can be learnt. It's obviously much more difficult than learning how to produce exquisite-looking instruments, but my experience is that some (very few) makers are consistently outstanding on tone (Leandro Bisiach or HC Silvestre for example). Whether this can be learnt or whether it's a happy coincidence of skills and sub-conscious actions ..... that's a different story. I think if it could be learnt and taught we would have a lot more violins, old and new, with excellent tonal characteristics!

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I think this is probably very close to the truth.

We work with three different makers (and have tried out and ceased to work with several more!). They have all made two or three different models for us and we keep trying new ones, but it's pretty obvious that each of these makers has a model that works best - generally the one they were making before I came along and messed their heads up!

So yes, I suppose that success must come from a marriage of model (arching and proportions) with wood and thicknessing. "Poor" wood can work occasionally, thoughtless graduation can work occasionally, a hundred different approaches to arching can give a great sounding violin, probably a bit more tolerance here.

You ask if the ability to produce consistently good-sounding violins can be learnt. It's obviously much more difficult than learning how to produce exquisite-looking instruments, but my experience is that some (very few) makers are consistently outstanding on tone (Leandro Bisiach or HC Silvestre for example). Whether this can be learnt or whether it's a happy coincidence of skills and sub-conscious actions ..... that's a different story. I think if it could be learnt and taught we would have a lot more violins, old and new, with excellent tonal characteristics!

Hi Martin,

Thanks for quasi-confirming my suspicions.

I had read up on Leandro Bisiach awhile ago because I know Strobel bases a mould off of one of his violins, but I didn't really read too in-depth on him. Looking at his wikipedia page recently, I found two tid bits of interest. One was that "supposibly" he discovered a Strad varnish recipe. Of course, this could be (or, is probably) myth/legend. Although it is tantalizing to read about his loose associations to the Cremona era through Bergonzi. The other interesting, and more relevant tid bit mentioned on his wiki page, was the long list of apprentices that he took under his wing. This is a bit more pertient to the discussion, because I wonder if a good portion of his pupils were able to consistently produce good sounding violins, as he did. Possibly confirming, or denying, the question of whether this is something that can be "taught", or is more of an instinctive, subconscious art form. Food for thought, anyways.

-FW

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From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leandro_Bisiach:

"Bisiach was an outstanding figure in the commerce of antique violins but above all had the merit of raising a generation of great luthiers, among whom for example Gaetano Sgarabotto, Igino Sderci, Pietro Borghi, Ornati and Garimberti come to mind."

"His workshop can be considered as the most important in Italy in that period. Besides Leandro Bisiach himself, the following instrument makers worked in his laboratory: Riccardo Antoniazzi, Romeo Antoniazzi, Gaetano Sgarabotto, Giuseppe Ornati, Ferdinando Garimberti, Igino Sderci, Rocchi Sesto, Cipriano Briani, Camillo Mandelli, Ferriccio Varagnolo, Camillo Colombo, Vincenzo Cavani, Pietro Paravicini, Albert Moglie, Andrea Bisiach, Carlo Bisiach, Pietro Borghi, Mirco Tarasconi, Leandro Jr. & Giacomo Bisiach, Iginio Siega and Carlo Ferrario."

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(Sorry, being the devil's advocate here) But will mimicking the model, arching and graduation of an instrument really equal a nice sounding instrument? It seems to me that each instrument is kind of its own "being" and has its own personality. It almost seems like you need to develop some sort of innate understanding of the wood that you are working with, in order to bring out its best qualities of each violin. (How you develop that instinct, I have NO IDEA... Is it even possible to develop that instinct? I have NO IDEA.) If you are trying to copy a great violin by matching the model, arching and thickness map, it seems that you will inevitably come up short, simply because the characteristics of every piece of wood is different. Of course, what do I know?! :-D

If you read what I said I'm not talking about mimicking anything other than using a proven model which certainly could be some old one. Having a fixed "recipe" for making a fiddle is exactly what is done in a good comercial factory.If you want to do better work you have to evaluate and choose apropriate wood for the model you're using then adapt all of the various aspects of making ;arching, graduation, bass bar placement, varnish and set up to maximise the result. I cannot recall the last time I made a violin that wasn't an acceptable instrument for professional use but am still trying to figure out exactly what changes in the stucture of the fiddle correlate to specific tonal results. I do try to buy enough wood from any given log that I can expriment while keeping some control over the basic material and thus eliminate that variable to some degree Usually after three or four instruments with the same wood I have some idea of what I can do with it and by doing all my rough work by hand I can adjust for individual pieces of the log by the time I get to any crucial decisions..

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Yes, I agree about using the same log. I bought a spruce log and have made several cellos and about a dozen violin tops. I now have a feel for what to expect and a confidence in it's properties, even though each piece has had a slightly different specific gravity.

Oded

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It continues to amaze me how few tangible, even semi-obvious controls makers have over the final outcome, sound-wise. I'm sure it can be tough for makers to tell as well because the violins change so much after having been played too. I can't believe how much the sound I get from my current instrument has changed in the last 4 months after it was not played for about 10 years.

The comments about setup really make sense as well. The fact that so many little things can be varied gives hope for a lot of violins to at least be playable.

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I'm not looking for Strad's secrets here, just the most basic rules that makers of consistently poor violins continually ignore.

Seeing the pics of extremely rough finishing on bellies with integrall bass bars got me thinking that perhaps something as simple as having a smooth surface on the interior might make an instrument sound better more often than a smooth finish makes it sound worse.

You're on to something here. A good violin is just like good food. You can't make it of inferior products. So good wood is just a starting point. Then add the magic ingredient L-O-V-E and a little technical skill. It also helps to read my inside first article. ;)

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Arching is also important, but I'm convinced that the wood is the #1 factor. Cheaply made factory instruments I can imagine use the cheapest lumber cut by the trainload, with acoustical properties at the bottom of the priority list.

One of my experiments where I spend all of 2 hours crudely hacking out a top (from good wood that was accidentally trimmed undersized) ended up sounding quite good. It would may have been better sounding if I had worked it more carefully, but probably not by a large factor.

Of the 3 cheap Chinese fiddles I have had, one (after reworking slightly) was very good, one was just OK, and one was horrid no matter how much I worked it over. The one with the worst workmanship sounded the best, and vice versa. I'm sure it's just the luck of the wood in this case.

I agree wood choice is #1. As individual components and how these individual parts work together. In my opinion if there is a way to "steer" the sound one way or another it would be in the way that one type of top material will interact with the particular back/rib material.

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