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Considerations for choosing strings for a large viola


Okayadokari

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Hello everyone,

It has been a long time since I last posted. I am still playing my 17" viola and last year started playing cello too. I have been reading through old threads on this forum, but now that there are some new string options for viola, I wanted to hear what people think.

I am at AMEB Grade 4 level for viola and am interested in learning more about string options. I play for leisure and I currently do not have plans to perform in the future, but it is a goal I am working towards. I had my viola serviced recently by one of the best luthiers in the area (both my viola and cello teachers go to him) who increased the bridge height and fingerboard and replaced the sound post. My viola projects very well and now has a deeper sound, but is still on the bright side and not very mellow. I am seeking strings to help darken its tone and sound more mellow. I know I won't be able to get it to sound like my cello though. My viola has a vibrating string length of 375 mm, which is not much longer than most violas.

On this viola, I have tried the following combinations (all medium gauge):

  • Full set of Evah Pirazzi
  • Full set of Helicores
  • Full set of Obligatos
  • Spirocore tungsten C, silver G, chrome D with Jargar A
  • Spirocore tungsten C, silver G, chrome D with Karneol metal A

Evah Pirazzi was absolutely awful. I can't say that I actually "tried" them properly as they came with my viola when I first bought it from the old owner, but I quickly had them replaced. They were so bright to the point that I almost ditched the instrument altogether and I was going to consider a different viola. The Helicores were okay, but I don't think I will use them again since the Obligatos are warmer and the Spirocores are stronger. I like the Obligatos the most; however, I do like the Jargar A more than the Obligato A, as the former is more louder and clearer. I also prefer the Jargar A over the Karneol metal A when matched with the Spirocores since the Karneol metal A seems to ring too much in comparison. I like the power of the Spirocores; however, they sound a bit cold and one-dimensional. When comparing the Spirocores with the Obligatos, the Obligatos are much more warmer and ring more, but they pack less of a "punch" than the Spirocores. Currently, I also have a Larsen A in my reserve, which I have yet to try. I still have all of the above strings in my possession except for the Evah Pirazzi and Helicores.

My luthier said to take advantage of a viola as large as mine, powerful strings such as the Spirocores would help bring out its potential. I told him that I preferred a warmer sound, so he said Obligatos were okay, but they tended to be a bit weak and preferred the Evah Pirazzi Golds. What are your thoughts on this string chart from Shar? If this chart is "true" for my viola (I am aware that strings will sound differently depending on the viola), "Warm" and "Direct" is what I like. After reading through other people's posts over the years on this forum, I am considering trying out the following strings (in no particular combination):

  • Full set of Evah Pirazzi Gold
  • Vision C, G and D
  • Vision Solo C, G and D
  • Full set of Permanents
  • Larsen Virtuoso Solo D (to use with the Larsen A I have already)
  • Aricore C, G and D
  • Superflexible
  • Stark Obligatos

I have tried Evah Pirazzi Gold on my old student viola and I did like them, but am not sure how they will sound with my current viola. From Shar's chart, Vision appears to be worth trying as it is near the Obligatos, but in other string comparison charts, they suggest that Vision Solo is warmer and more penetrating than Vision. What are you experiences with this? I got the idea of using Permanents from @Andrew Victor (I love reading your posts sharing your wisdom). I wonder if these will have almost the same power as the Spirocores, but sound warmer due to the lower tension? My viola teacher suggested trying out the Larsen Virtuoso Solo D; hence it is on my list to buy and it is a popular choice. I know in this day, Aricores might be an odd choice given that Pirastro has discontinued them, but I see they are still available for sale in some websites and they are apparently a "dark" and "warm" sounding string. I got the idea of trying out Superflexibles from the Thomastik website, but there doesn't appear to be a lot of mentioning of them by violists online. The Permanents and Aricores don't appear in any viola string comparison chart; hence I'm not sure how they would fair against the rest. I will mention the stark Obligatos since I was previously considering giving them a try, but I might be dwelling into dangerous waters as trying light or heavy gauge is a bit of a hit-or-miss according to my luthier.

Please let me know what your thoughts are.

 

Edited by Okayadokari
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Thank you for the details. If you are not performing, the strings sets should be for you. That might suggest that output is not a premium. That is my only legitimate observation.

But since I am typing.

I do not want to second guess your luthier, but possibly the tailpiece length? Is this an a- tuner only? Not having heard or played your instrument or hung out on a Monday afternoon, it is a bit difficult to guess. Vibrating freely and warmth in tone are two different things, but both sort of force us to play into the instrument. Which can be a pleasure? Is that what you'd like?

My advice is not of substantial value as I am more likely to play Dominants on a viola rather than Spiracore, but have used the Spiracore on the cello, and being a bit old school, like the silver. Young guys like Tungsten and on some reasonably set up cellos with muted lower end, it can open things up. The choice of the Karneol a- is interesting. The Larsen is more similar to the Jargar so am not sure what to suggest.

As for the tonal "matrix" or the graphic that the manufacturers offer.... It is a guideline but the tonal color varies considerably. Highly instrument dependent... there are other qualities like sensitivity and stability that are not mentioned in the graphic. A cube? A 3D model? 

Would be a challenge to manufacturers at a conference to prepare a presentation. Shoot out at NAMM, or at the next VSA conference?

For 17+ instruments, the Helicore is actually a go to string. They have offered longer lengths and do take a while to settle. At the shop I was at, this is where I started. Did I mention that it takes a bit to settle?

On a 16.5 1930s Italian viola and a much later American viola, both instruments loved the Obligatos but would only last about 100 hours. Currently not performing but the Pirazzi, c- g- d- medium tension tends to get used on a living maker viola for about 200 hours ( when performing. ) The currently matched bow is beastly and can be used to play cello. It can drive most strings on the viola but, the Spircore can be a bit rough, either having too much dynamics or wobble. There is a Canadian bow in the mix and it has me playing a bit everyday.

The current instrument, I am told has a feminine voice. A very chest- y alto voice, when played against a piano. There are violists who would like that Tenore voice and though my instrument comes close to the Carreras quality, I have rarely come across the Pavarotti tone, which I would get a bank ( home ) loan to purchase. Is there an alto operatic voice that is ideal? I am, if anything in my playing is of value, trying for clarity. That implies a bit of harshness and brightness, fighting with the other three. I have to say that there is a bit of overdrive in the tone, which I am starting to embrace.

How do you envision ( with your ears ) the sound? What pieces are you playing? Would you like a mini cello?

 

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Hi GoPractice, thank you for your reply!

My viola has a Wittner tailpiece with four fine tuners. I can now tune my instrument by myself, but I am lazy and the fine tuners require less effort than twisting the pegs.

I guess I am looking for a string that is similar to the Obligatos, but is stronger. If there aren’t any, then I guess I will ultimately return to Obligatos. However, I do want to try playing other types of strings just for fun too. I am seeking a warm, powerful tone, almost like that of a cello. Should I still bother with steel strings for the C, D and G like the Pirastro Permanents, or just stick to synthetic core strings if I want a sound like the Obligatos?

My viola is large, but it has an average vibrating string length of just 375 mm. I used long Helicores on it in the past and not the extra long. 

I play mostly classical, but the graded books are starting to introduce other genres too (such as Baroque, jazz etc.). I am not a picky player and find enough joy playing even scales and studies too. I hope to be able to play any type of music in the future.

On an unrelated note, I recently replaced the Larsen Magnacore strings on my cello with a set of Versum.  

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No, if you enjoy playing cello, the comments are related.

A cellist friend describes the Versum strings as "Yummy." A few, all female, are more renegades than my male friends and they choose to play far more esoteric choice of strings, like the variety of gut core strings available. One who uses mostly Gold labels creates the most textural sounds. I love listening to her warm up. The tone would appear to get louder and fuller but never sounded strained or choked. Great French bow, great French cello... The D'Addario Kaplan line is also interesting as it sounds full and forgiving without too much edge. Clear. 

Yes, I have been looking for Obligato- esque strings that last. The Obligatos for viola are certainly not the loudest string set. Generally, the a- is replaced with a Larsen.  

Have you tried bowing with a bias towards arm weight? Not trying to sell you on the idea, but you likely have long arms. 

As a bow control exercise, one slows down the bow to the point that the strings are groaning, say below the balance point on a down bow. When watching the strings, they vibrate chaotically. Be sure that the groan is similar each time it is reproduced. Increase the bow speed a bit, where the pitch of the open strings becomes more defined. What is important in this technique, is that the pull be uniform. Do not accelerate the bow; keep the velocity constant. Relax both set of fingers. There will be a point where the tone is choked but fuller, if not "fatter." This exercise is a bit like working with stepped dynamics and the same bow velocity might be tried for a dozen strokes at a time. Then stop, take a break, re- focus. Start with the groan again and step up to a slightly faster velocity. Increase the used bow length an inch or two. Keep repeating the process until most of the bow is being used, say 60-65%.

Keep bow arm inline with the bow or slightly lower, wrists should be as relaxed, but when doing this alone, it will feel funny. Having a bowing coach helps. Producing bad sounds is a bit stressful.

The tone should be fuller and somewhat louder after a week or two. I have done similar exercises with scales and double stops, getting closer to the bridge. For years. The point of this exercise is not necessarily to apply pressure to the strings, but to learn how to draw the string amplitude more horizontally and to work on string activation across the strings.

The reason I offer this suggestion is that Obligatos are forgiving and sound very nice at lower volumes, say given a particular quality and familiar bow. It has a very nice "functioning" range. Other string sets have a better working range at larger, orchestral volumes. Some longer string sets on large violas feel, perhaps less sensitive, though the sound is throaty and dark. Obligatos can be pulled to play louder, and drawing out that warmth can be rewarding. But they can also fade in quality rather quickly when constantly overworked. When I ( conceptually ) play the string from above, "pushing" into the Obligatos, the sound becomes smaller, almost crushed. 

Trying to mentally work out why the initial set of Pirazzis on your instrument were so bright.

I do appreciate all the efforts Wittner puts into their products. Are the afterlengths adjusted on your instrument? Some "power" and immediacy can be lost behind the bridge.

For Folksy viola parts as well as some aggressive work, I have grown fond of the Savarez Cantiga line. When accompanying wind instruments and vocals on viola, the Kaplans have been silky. Neither are particularly powerful... Played a Mozart Clarinet quintet at a house party on Kaplans and the sound was very well suited as it blended but was clear at lower volumes. Various strings prompt me to behave, not to overplay. But these were on smaller instruments, mostly a 16 1/4 or 3/8. I have friends that sound wonderfully expressive with the Thomastik Pi strings. Musical strings that are dynamic and appear to have a reasonably wide, if not forgiving, contact point making for a decent range of tone. Some are not used to the set's inherent tone. I have yet to try a full set. Metal cores in a variety of Larsen string sets...

If you already have a secure bow pull on the strings, or do not want/ need to change bow strokes ( understandably a task ) then disregard the suggestions. 

It is expensive, experimenting. I am waiting for some seasonal sales before working on optimizing some smaller instruments. Hopefully soon? Have to get them set up before school starts again in August.

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Hi GoPractice!

You are correct, I have very long arms. I also have long fingers too which have been a huge blessing playing my large viola and cello. I also have a long neck and play with a 4 cm tall chin rest and a Bonmusica shoulder rest, as there wasn’t anything else I could find that was large enough to fit comfortably. 

I will try your bow exercise out. I am just a beginner and am still working on my bow control to produce a better variety of dynamics. Thus far I have really enjoyed this and my efforts have been fruitful. 

The Wittner tailpiece on my viola appears to be a standard length only and as my viola has about an extra inch of body on the tailpiece end, the tailpiece looks proportionally short. If you mentally remove that extra inch of body, my viola is basically proportional to most 16” violas. I have not tried playing with the tailpiece though. I asked my luthier about it and he said it was fine, but could consider changing it later down the track if I wasn’t satisfied with the sound. 
My viola had not been played by the previous owner for five years and the bridge was unusually low at the time. I think adding a bright, new set of Evah Pirazzis by the shop just made my viola squeal. I decided to give it a go after I took the viola to play in a different room in the store and saw that it was not as shrill as I first thought.

I just tried placing an order for a viola Aricore C, G and D from the Soundpost, but they e-mailed back saying that they are out of the C. I know it’s an odd choice, but I know that they are discontinued and it would be nice to try out a string before it is gone forever.

Do you think steel strings are not worth trying if I am after a warm tone like the Obligatos?

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Given a string length of 375, a lot of standard medium strings should work OK. Usually when people are struggling with strings on large violas its because the string length requires one of the special long scale/light gauge strings, but that doesnt seem to be the case here. I dont want to diss your luthier but I dont believe that "stronger" strings (whatever that means-I assume higher tension) works better on larger violas, and I have had lots of violas 17" and larger. I actually believe that more often than not, the old saying "less is more" (tension) often applies to large violas.

My general rule of thumb is that if Dominants dont work, then something is either out of adjustment or there might be a deeper problem with your instrument. In your case you should be able to get by with standard issue, medium Dominants, and maybe a medium Jargar A. Thats certainly what I would try first if you handed me this viola. And I might go with lower tension before high, if it still wasnt working.

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Hi deans,

Thank you for your input. My luthier meant using strings that offer more projection or power such as Spirocores, versus using weaker strings in comparison such as Obligatos. He definitely suggested not to try with other gauges unless there was a particular string that was not balanced.

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I know "every instrument is different" but I have have been getting wonderful sound from Pirastro Permanent D and G strings on my main viola. It is a rather strange  16-inch viola that needs lower-tension A and C strings for which I have been using Dominant Weich strings. I have never liked to raucous contrast of the Larsen A string on this instrument.

The sound on my D and G strings is rich and gorgeous, which some might think is strange for rope-core steel strings.

I have used this combination for years. It took more years, however, to find it. I have had this viola since 1996, when it was made.

My other viola is tolerant of every string combination I have had on it since i got it in 1973 - even a full stringing of Spirocores, gauges selected to closely equalize the tensions of all 4 stings  (because James Beament wrote in his book The Violin Explained that this should not be done and I wanted to see what would happen if I did it - and it is fine - just not as powerFul as the other viola, but then it never was in its previous 40 years with other stringings).

 

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Hi @Andrew Victor, since you are one of very few people I have found online who has experience using Permanents for viola, how would you describe their tone compared to certain steel core or synthetic core strings (e.g. more overtones or darker than say Spirocores) that you have tried? Permanents are available in few online stores and the amount of information about them is even further limited. Permanents don’t even appear in most viola string comparison charts. The D is titanium plated which makes them quite unique. I too am interested in trying out the Permanent C, G and D, but I worry they will have a similar tone to my current Spirocores which to be honest I think there is something better out there for my particular viola (hence probably won’t use them again). My viola is very loud and clear thanks to its size, but I feel the addition of overtones and texture from synthetic core strings may help to colour the sound more. 

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I missed your original link. I am glad to see the photos as the viola looks very nice. At first, the photos looked a bit distorted and the proportions mixed, but the last comment mentioned the shorter string length at the bridge.

It is very difficult to suggest Permanents as it has rarely worked out as a solution for the player. I had several sets available at the shop I visited, but to the extent that most every option were tried, they were not all that great. These comments should also take into account that the instruments tested were problematic, either tonally or with volume. A traditional assortment ( or a complete set ) were not satisfactory for the player. The player was happy with the physical feedback from some string sets ( including the Permanent ) but at a distance ( given the player's skill level and instrument ) the instrument sounded fine but not great.

On 6/21/2022 at 5:49 AM, Okayadokari said:

 ( ... ) My viola is very loud and clear thanks to its size, but I feel the addition of overtones and texture from synthetic core strings may help to colour the sound more. 

Different cores offer a variety of tonal qualities. That's obvious. But there are other qualities that might be evaluated. Duration might be one. If it saves a bit of money, and one is happy with the sound, that is a good paring. 

For the example of the "traditional" Dominant player, on the whole, they prefer the strings after the "metallic" glare is off the sound after the initial install. I mostly desire the glare given a few instruments that have a silky warmth entirely within their range and sound less responsive ( expressive ) without that edge. Even with powerful modern bows. Those Dominants are given a week or two before donated to students. What I desire about the Dominant lower set is that they "breathe" and phrase a bit more naturally than other strings that might have tonal similarities without working to create that necessary in some slower many regional Baroque styled music. On these instruments, the Evahs for example, would be a less sensitive and require a bit more "force" to activate a particular sound.

That desired tonal arc for the Dominants fades in a week or two. While I might get 3- 4 weeks out of a Pirastro set. I have had other string sets last longer ( Other Thomastiks, Helicore on an electric, Spiracore ) while gut sets are used for the weekend or two for the fear of breaking especially when the weather is extreme, Summer humidity and Hotel air conditioning.

Note: I have not performed much with other string players for the past few years now. Working more with pianists, these years, they generally do not care how the instruments sounds. Or what strings are used. When they like something, they are complimentary. Pianists are remarkably patient. So have worked in a Piano Duo and Trio recently, but not a Quartet. Working with other species is far easier than working within the species. 

Almost immediately contradicting myself, I have some very sensitive instruments ( a cello in one instance ) where a new set of Spiracore lowers are so sensitive that thinking about a crescendo, has the 1st violinist complaining that the cello is too loud. Rather, me think, that the particular quality of the string makes it sound louder because the ( higher ) overtones are heard before the depth of the lower octaves. Once the string starts moving, it appears to immediately activate the upper overtones. There seems to be a bit of a lag where the supporting lowest overtones are heard or expressed. And with these particular instruments, the crescendo starts in whisper before the chesti- ness of the lower frequencies are there to support the upper voices. On a long crescendo, the instrument might sound more like a 2nd violin, but an octave lower. A softer bow, grinding a bit, might bring out more of the lower partials.  

The short coming of the manufacturer's 2- axis graphs is that more information ( for some of us ) would be helpful. For marketing purposes, over- education creates a mental bottleneck, but generalized information might steer the consumer in the preferred direction. The offered 2- axis graph is a start, but with some expertise, a 4- axis might be a better starting point for discussion. Sensitivity and a plot of the workable durations are added into the mental notebook. Since there are very few absolutes in this area, players should also be necessarily wary or flexible, when it comes to data.

I have measured string vibrations on a solid metal table and the amount of input at a variety of contact points. I like how some strings "feel" and measure, but the interaction with particular instruments, makes this a virtual exercise in futility. Even with solid body electric violins, the instrument's design works as a filter. I figured that some insights from testing might save some $$$s, but no. Discussions narrow the choices. In a shop environment, where the playing and instruments are observed, the suggested ( and probable ) choices can be further reduced.

And to Mr Victor's point, the Permanents are used for the middle strings. He has tried a variety of strings to get to that particular solution. And one that is remarkable. Weich Dominant sets are rarely used, but they do offer options and are remarkable.  

Though I have not processed every word in Professor Beament's book, it came out at the right time. It was essential to many discussions I had with friends. Must have given away at least half a dozen. Anytime I see one in a used book store, it gets picked up.

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