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A beginner's theory


Mike Atkins
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Mike ,

One of the issues is that there is no agreement on what is a good violin. One player may like one and hate another while a second may feel exactly the opposite. Most good violin makers can make an  instrument which most musicians agree is worth considering but whether some one wants to marry it is just as random as finding a wife or husband.  You can learn to lean the sound and playing characteristics in certain directions but understanding why these things work is both unlikely and not particularly useful.

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On 7/9/2021 at 11:20 AM, Violadamore said:

In all seriousness, the problem is that modern physics and engineering in all their glory do not yet have the physical or mathematical tools to untangle what these silly little wooden boxes do when you play them, because too many functions in too many variables are involved, and the supercomputer hasn't been built that can calculate all those paths at once.  :huh:

I think today's technology and computers CAN perform the calculations on an accurate model of an instrument.  The problem is that it would take the budget of a manned mission to mars for all of the detailed effort involved.  And then...

49 minutes ago, nathan slobodkin said:

there is no agreement on what is a good violin. 

Once you have your end-to-end accurate model, you don't know what it sounds like.

But it WOULD be really handy to have such a model, to tweak archings, wood properties, graduations, and other parameters to see the effects.  Not gonna happen anytime soon, though.  Like Vioadamore says, too many variables all affecting everything at once.  Or as I say, more complicated than rocket science where at least you start with a defined goal.

I will add a vote for experience.  In order to make a violin that works, there is absolutely no need to know HOW it works (even though most of us have some concept in mind, even if it's wrong).  The important think is to know WHAT works, and that takes experience.  Look at who wins the tone awards at competitions... it's the ones with experience, not the physics/math experts.

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1 hour ago, Don Noon said:

I think today's technology and computers CAN perform the calculations on an accurate model of an instrument.

Yup, but I note your use of the singular.  I question whether we could currently produce a software capable of ingesting parameters taken from any random set of professionally reasonable tonewood blanks, and excreting the design data necessary to produce a violin fulfilling specific acoustic requirements (this, of course, requiring the model calculations as part of that process).  Being able to do that is the Holy Grail of violin research, right?  :ph34r:

 

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The holy grail would be a sad norm if it came to be.  Every time you could make the fiddle you want and deliver the fiddle the player wants with no mystery, differences, or surprise.  And assuming players and makers know what they want.

To me, it's o.k. that the 'Soil' and the 'Kreisler' are different.

And, if someone can again manage to make instruments as compelling and even 'magic' for players as the old Cremona making, it would be just fine by me if each instrument still turned out unique and distinct and surprising.

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Thanks! These are all very sensible comments. Far too many variables to consider, and the subjectivity of what is a good instrument. I do imagine that being able to lean certain characteristics in one direction or another sounds like it would require some sort of understanding of what's going on. While it does seem that extensive experience would be necessary to develop that sort of capacity.

I'm certainly not suggesting that something as variable as wood could ever produce two identical instruments much less one after another exactly the same nor would that necessarily be desirable. I do understand that each instrument is unique and that isn't a bad thing. My idea was just that some notion of what's happening inside would seem to lend itself to producing something in the order of consistently decent results even though their attributes may not be quite the same from one to the next. My enthusiasm for understanding things or considering them hasn't really diminished too much so far...

All of this is very compelling to me, maybe when I retire, if my eyes don't get any worse, I'll be able to devote considerably more time to making them. But for now I'll just have to start at the beginning. Yesterday I was trying to cut a purfling channel in maple and this is certainly not easy particularly in the corners, nor do all the fancy tools, methods and chapters on the subject seem to make it so. I'm not very precise at the moment, though maybe it will end up not too embarrassingly ugly. I do enjoy these challenges...

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My progress, which hopefully will provide some humor at least... the ribs, I'm pleased with because of the fact that they didn't end up broken or burnt and they somewhat resemble the shape of a violin. The back I uncovered a tiny pin knot, which was annoying at first but eventually I started to not mind it too much for better or worse. And of course super sloppy purfling channel in progress. :wacko:

ribs.thumb.jpg.cd2aa5a7b3cc461d43fe67a69dccc7b3.jpgknot-and-sloppiness.thumb.jpg.374ab2291e9c03e1fa09cf851ad5209b.jpg

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9 hours ago, Violadamore said:

Yup, but I note your use of the singular.  I question whether we could currently produce a software capable of ingesting parameters taken from any random set of professionally reasonable tonewood blanks, and excreting the design data necessary to produce a violin fulfilling specific acoustic requirements (this, of course, requiring the model calculations as part of that process).  Being able to do that is the Holy Grail of violin research, right?  :ph34r:

Going forward from a CAD model to sound output seems within today's technology.  The infinite variables have all been eliminated in the making of the (singular) model.  Going the other way, starting with a desired sound character, runs into the infinite variable problem, and would need simplifcations and some iterative method to get somewhere close.  Even if you COULD do that well, you'd likely find that a modern violin that sounded like a specific Strad would get a "meh" reception.  The Holy Grail is only magical until you get it... then it's just an old cup.

3 hours ago, Mike Atkins said:

Yesterday I was trying to cut a purfling channel in maple and this is certainly not easy particularly in the corners, nor do all the fancy tools, methods and chapters on the subject seem to make it so. I'm not very precise at the moment, though maybe it will end up not too embarrassingly ugly. I do enjoy these challenges...

As long as you have reasonable tool control and the mindset to do better, you will improve with practice.  Amazing how that works... experience not only is important for WHAT works, but for HOW TO WORK as well.

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4 hours ago, Mike Atkins said:

My progress, which hopefully will provide some humor at least... the ribs, I'm pleased with because of the fact that they didn't end up broken or burnt and they somewhat resemble the shape of a violin. The back I uncovered a tiny pin knot, which was annoying at first but eventually I started to not mind it too much for better or worse. And of course super sloppy purfling channel in progress. :wacko:

ribs.thumb.jpg.cd2aa5a7b3cc461d43fe67a69dccc7b3.jpgknot-and-sloppiness.thumb.jpg.374ab2291e9c03e1fa09cf851ad5209b.jpg

IMHO, it looks good.  I really like your mold.  :)

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4 hours ago, Don Noon said:

Going forward from a CAD model to sound output seems within today's technology.  The infinite variables have all been eliminated in the making of the (singular) model.  Going the other way, starting with a desired sound character, runs into the infinite variable problem, and would need simplifcations and some iterative method to get somewhere close.  Even if you COULD do that well, you'd likely find that a modern violin that sounded like a specific Strad would get a "meh" reception.  The Holy Grail is only magical until you get it... then it's just an old cup.

Perhaps we could collaborate on it, but I'd estimate 3 times the funding required for a manned Mars mission alone.  We'd need some snazzy transportation on hand to get the Hell out of Dodge with (preferably to the Belt, or the Jovian moons), before the lynch mob of Maestronetters arrived.  ;)  :lol:

Orbit-Jet-XV-2.jpg.b0389216b6aa38b8000bb43d55f5e798.jpg

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There have been FEM studies that start with the geometry of an actual violin box and measured material properties, and then give a very reasonable prediction of the measured acoustic properties of that box, such as response spectra frequencies and relative strengths.

All of this can be performed on current personal PCs with existing software.

The problem of using FEM/CAD is twofold: 

First, as Don mentions, there is no accepted standard on what quantitative acoustic properties represent a good violin. With no end point in sight, there is nothing to design to.

Second, assuming one could measure all the relevant properties of a world famous Strad and your FEM/CAD software precisely predicts the violin's acoustic properties, where are you going to find wood to exactly match what is in the Strad? 

The problem, given any old piece of spruce tell me how to carve it into a fabulous sounding violin, may also suffer from "You may not like what it looks like no mater how good it plays." syndrome. 

 

 

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11 hours ago, Mike Atkins said:

My idea was just that some notion of what's happening inside would seem to lend itself to producing something in the order of consistently decent results even though their attributes may not be quite the same from one to the next. My enthusiasm for understanding things or considering them hasn't really diminished too much so far...

I also try to understand, and for the same reasons.   But, I also try to remember the limits and track record of this approach.

Consider two points. 

1) Perhaps some indigenous superstition/tradition says but a bit of dead fish in as you fill the hole while planting seeds. Now this is a good tradition because it feeds the growing plant.  Now it doesn't matter much if these farmers believe this works because the dead fish scares off bad spirits, or because life force from the fish goes into the plant.  The correctness of their understanding doesn't matter much as long as they keep following the successful tradition.

2) What has tended to happen when violin makers try to 'understand' is that will find some isolated little bits of understanding and then over focus and emphasize these bits to the dertriment of the whole.  The history of such efforts is sad, and suggests it's difficult to improve one factor in violin without unbalancing the whole.

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16 hours ago, Violadamore said:

IMHO, it looks good.  I really like your mold.  :)

Thank you! The mould is a copy of the "Forma PG" from this, so I guess I'm not using a particular instrument as a guide though it sounds like that might be a good idea... My assumption is that using walnut for the form is the true secret of Stradivari, and I happened to have some laying around so there it is. If the violin thing doesn't work out maybe I can make a living making moulds!

12 hours ago, David Beard said:

I also try to understand, and for the same reasons.   But, I also try to remember the limits and track record of this approach.

Consider two points. 

1) Perhaps some indigenous superstition/tradition says but a bit of dead fish in as you fill the hole while planting seeds. Now this is a good tradition because it feeds the growing plant.  Now it doesn't matter much if these farmers believe this works because the dead fish scares off bad spirits, or because life force from the fish goes into the plant.  The correctness of their understanding doesn't matter much as long as they keep following the successful tradition.

2) What has tended to happen when violin makers try to 'understand' is that will find some isolated little bits of understanding and then over focus and emphasize these bits to the dertriment of the whole.  The history of such efforts is sad, and suggests it's difficult to improve one factor in violin without unbalancing the whole.

My intention isn't to dismiss tradition at all, in fact I have a huge appreciation and admiration for it. I used the traditional string to clamp and glue my ribs to the form because it works best for me, and also allows me to make micro-adjustments to the clamping pressure where needed and get a nice square rib. Tradition wins! Yet even in your first point you're dispelling superstitions and providing a practical reason for validating the tradition. Perhaps even creating a greater appreciation of that tradition by considering what's really going on. But I doubt there's many people throwing fish in their gardens these days. I don't have a teacher telling me what to do, just a bunch of books and videos that don't seem to agree on anything much less provide detailed over the shoulder direction and corrections to my errors or misunderstandings of what I've read. I have to carefully consider what I'm doing, and eliminate what not to do and how not to do it and make mistakes to avoid the next time. 

I also get what you're saying in your second point and appreciate it. There are endless variables that combine to make the big picture, you can't just go tweaking things and not expecting something else to suffer or be affected. Yet, the most perfect copy of an instrument won't match the original when played, because no two pieces of wood are alike. So understanding how the attributes of the material affect the whole of an instrument would certainly be helpful. That's sort of what my theorizing is striving at, I'm not looking to change something, rather to understand it. This is maybe an overwhelming or even an impossible thing to grasp, but I don't see how thinking about it is harmful to anyone.

Tradition might help with construction methods and provide a great foundation for building a quality instrument, but it might not be able to tell you how a particular piece of spruce is going to behave based on its particular characteristics and how to compensate for them to achieve a particular goal. It also seems certain traditions have been lost, like for example how Stradivari finished an instrument... that tradition doesn't exist or at least its not being publicized, theories are all there are and there's quite a few of them. I suspect many varnishing practices used today are largely a result of the work of countless theorists. And what tradition does antiquing come from, or using CT scans, photographs and Strad Posters, band saws and drill presses? Certainly not from the great old makers people want to emulate. I'm interested in both tradition and investigation, maybe to my own detriment, but hopefully not. I wouldn't dismiss the value of copying or following instruction as a great way to learn, nor would I dismiss the value of considering what you're doing and why. Traditions didn't arise from nowhere, they exist because people have done just that.

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14 hours ago, David Beard said:

I also try to understand, and for the same reasons.   But, I also try to remember the limits and track record of this approach.

BTW I'm certain that you know what you're talking about, are a great maker and I could learn a lot from your feedback. I'm not interested in dismissing a single word you have to say. But I doubt you would be willing to hang out in my workshop in Wisconsin and show me how to make a violin. I'm kind of stuck with using my inexperienced brain and limited resources to try and figure things out. At the very least I have a lot of experience with woodworking, hand tools, and I know how to get them razor sharp so that's a start.

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Inspired by the cheese / wine analogies introduced above, I am wondering about the the significance of the 'organic' nature of the materials traditionally used to make violins on the study of "how they work."

Has there been much systematic testing of the impact of characteristics of wood that remain variable over relatively short time scales on the acoustic performance of (ideally "driven") stringed instruments? It seems to me that changes in, for example, atmospheric humidity levels would generate measurable changes in wooden components of an instrument that would then measurably change the sounds produced by the instrument in predicable, and reversible, ways. I might be grossly exaggerating the degree to which changes in environment would impact the wood used in an instrument. I am also assuming here that the mechanisms built into instruments and bows that allow string and bow hair tension to be set to determined values effectively render any impact of similar variations in characteristics of those materials/components on sound production comparatively inconsequential. The wood of the bow stick and the instrument body that receive the driven vibration might however still exhibit variations in characteristics such as stiffness that I am inclined to believe would have meaningful impact on the acoustic performance of the instrument. If this is correct, it should be possible to factor such changes into making and/or setting up an instrument, but many more consequential decisions in the process of making an instrument, such as selecting great raw materials based on other empirical properties like grain patterns and density, would not be effected. So a marginal impact at best of this "how it works" consideration.

I guess the short version of what I'm thinking is something like - since the materials employed in traditional making are organic and therefore continually reacting to variations in environment, there is always some unknown in working with the instrument. Not a big revelation, but maybe a specific way to identify limits on the ability to use fixed models to guide making.

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1 hour ago, gottawonder said:

It seems to me that changes in, for example, atmospheric humidity levels would generate measurable changes in wooden components of an instrument that would then measurably change the sounds produced by the instrument in predicable, and reversible, ways.

Changes in humidity are well-known to any violinist.  High humidity adds weight and damping to the wood, lowering the mode frequencies slightly and damping primarily the higher frequencies, and opposite for low humidity.  Not to mention variations in string projection, and pegs popping loose or getting stuck.

It's always an adventure to bring a violin to the VSA competitions in Cleveland in November, and find that what was a nice violin has turned into a screeching banshee in the heated indoor event.  It will be an adventure in 2022 in So. Cal., where the wind can either come off the ocean or the desert at that time of year.  Not to mention the VMAAI event in Tucson in October.

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4 hours ago, gottawonder said:

Inspired by the cheese / wine analogies introduced above, I am wondering about the the significance of the 'organic' nature of the materials traditionally used to make violins on the study of "how they work."

Has there been much systematic testing of the impact of characteristics of wood that remain variable over relatively short time scales on the acoustic performance of (ideally "driven") stringed instruments? It seems to me that changes in, for example, atmospheric humidity levels would generate measurable changes in wooden components of an instrument that would then measurably change the sounds produced by the instrument in predicable, and reversible, ways. I might be grossly exaggerating the degree to which changes in environment would impact the wood used in an instrument. I am also assuming here that the mechanisms built into instruments and bows that allow string and bow hair tension to be set to determined values effectively render any impact of similar variations in characteristics of those materials/components on sound production comparatively inconsequential. The wood of the bow stick and the instrument body that receive the driven vibration might however still exhibit variations in characteristics such as stiffness that I am inclined to believe would have meaningful impact on the acoustic performance of the instrument. If this is correct, it should be possible to factor such changes into making and/or setting up an instrument, but many more consequential decisions in the process of making an instrument, such as selecting great raw materials based on other empirical properties like grain patterns and density, would not be effected. So a marginal impact at best of this "how it works" consideration.

I guess the short version of what I'm thinking is something like - since the materials employed in traditional making are organic and therefore continually reacting to variations in environment, there is always some unknown in working with the instrument. Not a big revelation, but maybe a specific way to identify limits on the ability to use fixed models to guide making.

Yes.  And while later making approaches at times seem to fight the materials and try to make them behave, the Old Cremona tradition shows an opposite approach. They allow the material movements and influences, and they adjust details of the design as they go to accommodate.  

In short, unlike a copyist, or many other modern maker approaches, they don't know all the details of the final design when they start.  Particularly, the cBouts and corner work 'follow' the actual sides as the build progresses, with the corner locations, circle work to complete the corners, and main radii of the cBouts getting pushed around some.   Of course, this implies the plate outlines can't get settled until after the sides are in hand, and that these classical methods don't support exact copying of any preexisting outline.

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7 hours ago, Mike Atkins said:

BTW I'm certain that you know what you're talking about, [...]

Maybe. I'm working on it.   I started with questions not much different than yours.  

But don't believe anyone.  Collect information.  Check for yourself.  Make choices.

So far, I'm more researcher than violin maker.  If you count experiments, I've made about a dozen instruments so far.  But only five are making their way in the world.   But I have invested more than a decade now into researching and recovering old Cremona making methods.  I'm working to establish a 'revival' approach were everything is done either as we know they did, or in methods consistent with the known historical context and all available info from the example instruments.

If you're curious, I launched a YouTube channel to help share this idea of Cremona Revival.   Over the coming year, I will film and show all stages of designing and making both a violin and a viola in these ways.

Some of the videos:

The Best Violins Ever Made

Different Ways to Make Violins

An Intro to Old Cremona Violin Geometry

 

 

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8 hours ago, David Beard said:

Particularly, the cBouts and corner work 'follow' the actual sides as the build progresses, with the corner locations, circle work to complete the corners, and main radii of the cBouts getting pushed around some. 

Very interesting. Thanks for the specific example! Helps even the entirely uninitiated like myself to see the implications at least a little better.

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14 hours ago, David Beard said:

Maybe. I'm working on it.   I started with questions not much different than yours.  

But don't believe anyone.  Collect information.  Check for yourself.  Make choices.

So far, I'm more researcher than violin maker.  If you count experiments, I've made about a dozen instruments so far.  But only five are making their way in the world.   But I have invested more than a decade now into researching and recovering old Cremona making methods.  I'm working to establish a 'revival' approach were everything is done either as we know they did, or in methods consistent with the known historical context and all available info from the example instruments.

If you're curious, I launched a YouTube channel to help share this idea of Cremona Revival.   Over the coming year, I will film and show all stages of designing and making both a violin and a viola in these ways.

Some of the videos:

The Best Violins Ever Made

Different Ways to Make Violins

An Intro to Old Cremona Violin Geometry

So knots and sloppy purfling are just fine! Great! Maybe my form isn't an exact copy, but it's outline is pretty dang precise. Also it appears from what I can tell that the "top" of the form corresponds to the back of the violin. Mainly because of how the treble side C is shifted slightly upwards in many of the instruments and on the left side of many of the forms. Maybe it's an illusion but once I've noticed it I see it everywhere, the asymmetry is seemingly purposeful. This particular form has 4 corner templates. CT scans of rib outlines seem to match perfectly to mould outlines when I've seen them so it appears the outline is somewhat more static than the arching or thicknesses which seem to vary more consistently. Suggesting that those things are more dependent on the characteristics of the wood than a particular pattern, or maybe it's just whim. This is just my uneducated observation.

As far as your research, I'm very interested. I am a huge fan of traditional methods for doing things. People think I'm crazy for using hand tools to build things when machines are available, but machines are noisy, dangerous, and can very quickly turn the work or the fingers into a mess, while hand tools are just a joy to use. I love old ways of doing things and even making tools myself if I can. I will definitely take a look at your videos.

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Mike, 

Read James Beament's "The Violin Explained". Read Roger Hargrave's articles on his website. Read David Beard's articles on his website. Get a copy of Derber's book. 

Mostly, spend a lot of time at the bench, perfecting your sharpening technique and simple drawings with straight edge and dividers. Then start on wood. 

Best of luck,

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On 7/9/2021 at 2:20 PM, Violadamore said:

In all seriousness, the problem is that modern physics and engineering in all their glory do not yet have the physical or mathematical tools to untangle what these silly little wooden boxes do when you play them, because too many functions in too many variables are involved, and the supercomputer hasn't been built that can calculate all those paths at once.  :huh:

This being known to the assembled multitude (a lot of us on MN have messed with this), don't be surprised if they expect that your attempts are doomed.   

Welcome to MN.  :)

1.  Modern physics and engineering haven't bothered with violins because there's no money in it because the market for good violins is piddly-ass small.

2. Violin players don't agree on what they like so engineering specifications can't be established.  If you can't define what a violin is supposed to do there is no sense in giving it any attention.

 

 

 

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