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Optimizing the violin sound - by trials and errors


trick-nobody

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I made several contributions in the forum about tuning of the violin plates. Now I would like to share my theory and put it all in one place. I started making violins about 30 years ago, when I was not satisfied with the sound of cheap factory made violin. Like everybody else, I mostly focused on repairing damaged instruments to learn the basics. The problem lies in the fact that each manufacturer has different models, different tone wood and quality of processing. Sometimes I repaired old violins, sometimes new violins, and this was resulting in chaotic conclusions. The situation improved when I started varnishing new white instruments from good manufacturers and also varnishing new low-quality white instruments from Chinese manufacturers, which I tried to improve. I consulted my effort with professional violinmaker so I learned a lot about technologies, but not so much abut sound improvement on finished instruments. I found out that the vast majority of Chinese "violinmakers" use one and the same CNC program for graduating the plates and about 4 types of maple wood for the ribs and bottom plates, of which two Chinese types of wood are very problematic, the third is an imported maple from Burma, often with very nice and rich flames but only a slightly better sound and the fourth is some kind of Euro-Asian hybrid maple originating probably from Russia. This material has only small flames but gives the best sound on Chinese violins. It is still inferior to European maple but it is what it is for the price. As for the quality of processing, you can find Chinese manufacturers who have one millimeter gaps in joints and are pouring chemical glue inside these gaps and the glue is pretty everywhere and you can find Chinese manufacturers who have hand-finished and hair-thin joints glued with proper hide glue. You have to choose carefully and respect the price of your Chinese supplier. I started, like most people, by tuning the top plates with regard to weight and frequency according to instructions on the internet, and I came to the conclusion that most Chinese violins have a top plate made of some Asian spruce, which is too hard and heavy and with an unfavorable distribution of the strength ratio across and along the grains, and I adjusted the top plates tap tones according to the recommended frequencies for the European spruce. The results were quite thin top plates, especially around the upper and lower blocks and quite thick in the C bouts. These violins were bad. I made around 30 of these violins and learned hard way it is not working. Then I found out that good violins don't have symmetrical plates and I found out how to adjust the bottom plate to asymmetrical thicknesses, which  significantly amplified the sound of my experimental Chinese-reworked instruments.  The second breakthrough came when I found out that the top plate also requires different thicknesses on the left and right sides, and I started to pay more attention to the quality of the bass bar and the thickness of the top plate in close proximity to the bass bar. The last  breakthrough came when I found out that it is possible to adjust the thickness of the plates on the finished instrument without opening it through the f holes in certain places, which is an extremely important step that you will practically never find anything about it. I started getting good results.
Basically, in my theory, you can look at the violin like it is a HIFI set. The body of the violin itself has all the elements that are incorporated in a HIFI set. The HIFI repro box itself very often has three-band speakers, a bass subwoofer, a midrange and a high-frequency tweeter. There are exactly these three mechanically driven resonators on the body of the violin, where the lowest frequency is driven by the air inside the body, the lever system of the bass bar and the sound post and f holes through which the air is pumped out and sucked in. I call it "breathing mode". In cheap factory models, this mode almost never works, thanks to the fact that the manufacturers make the violin plates symmetrical, oversize the thicknesses of the plates to avoid cracking and the resulting warranty claims, and they pay almost no attention to the bass bar, just because it is not visible from the outside and no one will pay for extra works on that part. 
A separate topic is the tone wood quality, arching and the violin model and the varnish, but I can't say much about that. All I can say is that I have repaired a lot of old factory made instruments and almost all of them were poor in the bass register, but I had a few that were really badly cracked and worn, but with great sound. So this just confirms my theory that a good sounding bass register always gives the instrument some fragility on whatever model and arching and tone wood and varnish .
As for as the middle range HIFI speakers, their analog on the violin is rather unexpectedly scattered in several places of the corpus. It is a relatively big problem to solve the transition between the D and A string because of that. You want these spots balanced to prevent dynamic and color breaks. I found out this problem can be solved quite effectively on finished violins by scraping the corpus inside of the instrument through the f holes, which has the advantage that you can do this procedure very slowly and in a controlled manner without opening and closing the corpus and removing the strings and the bridge and the sound post. The spots which are critical for the balanced sound can be compared to HIFI equalizer. You need let the instrument rest for a couple of days after scraping to release the tension according to the new distribution of the strength of the plates and the procedure can be repeated until you are satisfied with the result. It usually takes me a month to do that. One spot is on the top plate on the right side of the fingerboard, second spot is just above the right f hole upper eye. These two are affecting each other so be careful with removing wood there. Once more, you will practically never find anything about this method on the internet. As for the tweeter and high frequencies, the area responsible for amplifying these sounds can be found on the right side of the treble f hole. How this area is tuned and how it is driven is somewhat of a mystery, I have a theory but it is a bit conspiracy. Before you start, I recommend doing it on a cheap violin, because by trial and error you have about a 99 percent chance of destroying the instrument as this area is extremely sensitive and absolutely underrated. The problem is, that you are scraping, nothing happens, nothing happens, nothing happens and then oops, it is too much. It has something to do with the human perception of the sound and 20kHz barrier. Again, it is necessary to proceed very slowly and very carefully and you want to be absolutely sure, that your strings, bridge and sound post are perfectly set-up. As for as the bottom plate, it can be compared to an HIFI amplifier. The top plate combines the functions of the preamplifier, three-band equalizer and the 3 way speaker. I find it quite amazing as we are speaking about 16th century technology made of wood, hide glue etc. I'm using my method as well when locating possible problems on problematic violins without doing any changes to them, just by playing and touching these sensitive areas by fingers and experiencing their vibrations and change in the sound of the violin. I hope it helps. 

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Is this in response to my question about your background in a different thread, this thread?
https://maestronet.com/forum/index.php?/topic/360049-theoretically-i-can-raise-mode-5-by-removing-wood-where/page/5/#comments

If so, you sounded rather assertive about knowing how Stradivari did things, from markings on the inside, but you are not showing any experience with ever having had any Stradivaris apart.

 

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"How this area is tuned and how it is driven is somewhat of a mystery, I have a theory but it is a bit conspiracy. Before you start, I recommend doing it on a cheap violin, because by trial and error you have about a 99 percent chance of destroying the instrument as this area is extremely sensitive and absolutely underrated. The problem is, that you are scraping, nothing happens, nothing happens, nothing happens and then oops, it is too much."

Sorry, 99% chance of destroying an instrument is way too high. When you get to the point where you can guarantee results, I'll think about it.

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2 hours ago, trick-nobody said:

Then I found out that good violins don't have symmetrical plates and I found out how to adjust the bottom plate to asymmetrical thicknesses, which  significantly amplified the sound of my experimental Chinese-reworked instruments.  The second breakthrough came when I found out that the top plate also requires different thicknesses on the left and right sides, and I started to pay more attention to the quality of the bass bar and the thickness of the top plate in close proximity to the bass bar. The last  breakthrough came when I found out that it is possible to adjust the thickness of the plates on the finished instrument without opening it through the f holes in certain places, which is an extremely important step that you will practically never find anything about it. I started getting good results.

This almost tells me enough to answer my question in the other thread about references for your claim about Stradivari's methods.  I'm assuming that if you had some supportive reference material about Strad's methods you would have posted it above and that you don't have any.  Have your instruments been discovered yet?

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3 hours ago, trick-nobody said:

 

I made several contributions in the forum about tuning of the violin plates. Now I would like to share my theory and put it all in one place. I started making violins about 30 years ago, when I was not satisfied with the sound of cheap factory made violin. Like everybody else, I mostly focused on repairing damaged instruments to learn the basics. The problem lies in the fact that each manufacturer has different models, different tone wood and quality of processing. Sometimes I repaired old violins, sometimes new violins, and this was resulting in chaotic conclusions. The situation improved when I started varnishing new white instruments from good manufacturers and also varnishing new low-quality white instruments from Chinese manufacturers, which I tried to improve. I consulted my effort with professional violinmaker so I learned a lot about technologies, but not so much abut sound improvement on finished instruments. I found out that the vast majority of Chinese "violinmakers" use one and the same CNC program for graduating the plates and about 4 types of maple wood for the ribs and bottom plates, of which two Chinese types of wood are very problematic, the third is an imported maple from Burma, often with very nice and rich flames but only a slightly better sound and the fourth is some kind of Euro-Asian hybrid maple originating probably from Russia. This material has only small flames but gives the best sound on Chinese violins. It is still inferior to European maple but it is what it is for the price. As for the quality of processing, you can find Chinese manufacturers who have one millimeter gaps in joints and are pouring chemical glue inside these gaps and the glue is pretty everywhere and you can find Chinese manufacturers who have hand-finished and hair-thin joints glued with proper hide glue. You have to choose carefully and respect the price of your Chinese supplier. I started, like most people, by tuning the top plates with regard to weight and frequency according to instructions on the internet, and I came to the conclusion that most Chinese violins have a top plate made of some Asian spruce, which is too hard and heavy and with an unfavorable distribution of the strength ratio across and along the grains, and I adjusted the top plates tap tones according to the recommended frequencies for the European spruce. The results were quite thin top plates, especially around the upper and lower blocks and quite thick in the C bouts. These violins were bad. I made around 30 of these violins and learned hard way it is not working. Then I found out that good violins don't have symmetrical plates and I found out how to adjust the bottom plate to asymmetrical thicknesses, which  significantly amplified the sound of my experimental Chinese-reworked instruments.  The second breakthrough came when I found out that the top plate also requires different thicknesses on the left and right sides, and I started to pay more attention to the quality of the bass bar and the thickness of the top plate in close proximity to the bass bar. The last  breakthrough came when I found out that it is possible to adjust the thickness of the plates on the finished instrument without opening it through the f holes in certain places, which is an extremely important step that you will practically never find anything about it. I started getting good results.
Basically, in my theory, you can look at the violin like it is a HIFI set. The body of the violin itself has all the elements that are incorporated in a HIFI set. The HIFI repro box itself very often has three-band speakers, a bass subwoofer, a midrange and a high-frequency tweeter. There are exactly these three mechanically driven resonators on the body of the violin, where the lowest frequency is driven by the air inside the body, the lever system of the bass bar and the sound post and f holes through which the air is pumped out and sucked in. I call it "breathing mode". In cheap factory models, this mode almost never works, thanks to the fact that the manufacturers make the violin plates symmetrical, oversize the thicknesses of the plates to avoid cracking and the resulting warranty claims, and they pay almost no attention to the bass bar, just because it is not visible from the outside and no one will pay for extra works on that part. 
A separate topic is the tone wood quality, arching and the violin model and the varnish, but I can't say much about that. All I can say is that I have repaired a lot of old factory made instruments and almost all of them were poor in the bass register, but I had a few that were really badly cracked and worn, but with great sound. So this just confirms my theory that a good sounding bass register always gives the instrument some fragility on whatever model and arching and tone wood and varnish .
As for as the middle range HIFI speakers, their analog on the violin is rather unexpectedly scattered in several places of the corpus. It is a relatively big problem to solve the transition between the D and A string because of that. You want these spots balanced to prevent dynamic and color breaks. I found out this problem can be solved quite effectively on finished violins by scraping the corpus inside of the instrument through the f holes, which has the advantage that you can do this procedure very slowly and in a controlled manner without opening and closing the corpus and removing the strings and the bridge and the sound post. The spots which are critical for the balanced sound can be compared to HIFI equalizer. You need let the instrument rest for a couple of days after scraping to release the tension according to the new distribution of the strength of the plates and the procedure can be repeated until you are satisfied with the result. It usually takes me a month to do that. One spot is on the top plate on the right side of the fingerboard, second spot is just above the right f hole upper eye. These two are affecting each other so be careful with removing wood there. Once more, you will practically never find anything about this method on the internet. As for the tweeter and high frequencies, the area responsible for amplifying these sounds can be found on the right side of the treble f hole. How this area is tuned and how it is driven is somewhat of a mystery, I have a theory but it is a bit conspiracy. Before you start, I recommend doing it on a cheap violin, because by trial and error you have about a 99 percent chance of destroying the instrument as this area is extremely sensitive and absolutely underrated. The problem is, that you are scraping, nothing happens, nothing happens, nothing happens and then oops, it is too much. It has something to do with the human perception of the sound and 20kHz barrier. Again, it is necessary to proceed very slowly and very carefully and you want to be absolutely sure, that your strings, bridge and sound post are perfectly set-up. As for as the bottom plate, it can be compared to an HIFI amplifier. The top plate combines the functions of the preamplifier, three-band equalizer and the 3 way speaker. I find it quite amazing as we are speaking about 16th century technology made of wood, hide glue etc. I'm using my method as well when locating possible problems on problematic violins without doing any changes to them, just by playing and touching these sensitive areas by fingers and experiencing their vibrations and change in the sound of the violin. I hope it helps. 

I still suggest using shorter paragraphs.

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3 hours ago, David Burgess said:

...you sounded rather assertive about knowing how Stradivari did things...

In addition to sounding rather assertive about everything else.  I would want to verify credentials (actual name, awards, video clips of pro players using these instruments, experimental data or reports, etc.) before giving any of these claims any weight.  For all we can tell at the moment, these are rantings of a closet hobbyist that contradict most other violin researchers and makers.

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26 minutes ago, Navyasw02 said:

Regardless of what is done to the instrument, isn't a large variable the environment? My violin is a great thermometer and I can tell when it is too cold. How do makers account for that when trying to adjust tone?

If a violin comes in from outside either colder or warmer than room temperature, I let it stabilize to a normal room temperature, or slightly warmer (because violins are in a warmer microclimate during playing) before attempting to adjust.
I think that's about the best one can do, because if the musician uses the instrument in a wide variety of temperatures, it doesn't make sense to adjust it each time, and moving the soundpost around a lot results in accelerated wear with eventual damage.

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"I made several contributions in the forum about tuning of the violin plates."

Was that under a different name? I'm asking because it looks like you joined the forum only a month ago, and have only 26 posts/comments. If you did post under a different name, what was it, so that we can look up your contributions. I do remember someone playing with this scraping from the outside before.

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5 hours ago, trick-nobody said:

All I can say is that I have repaired a lot of old factory made instruments and almost all of them were poor in the bass register, but I had a few that were really badly cracked and worn, but with great sound. So this just confirms my theory that a good sounding bass register always gives the instrument some fragility

Wanting to point out to you that there's a rule in old violin dealing that the good ones are beat up because everyone wanted to play them and the mint ones are still mint because no one ever wanted to play them. Nothing to do with fragility. There are of course exceptions all around, like Paganini's Cannone which is both heavy and perfect AND sounds great (which BTW also works against your thesis.) But you rarely see a heavily used violin that sounds like crap.

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16 minutes ago, Michael Darnton said:

Wanting to point out to you that there's a rule in old violin dealing that the good ones are beat up because everyone wanted to play them and the mint ones are still mint because no one ever wanted to play them. Nothing to do with fragility. There are of course exceptions all around, like Paganini's Cannone which is both heavy and perfect AND sounds great (which BTW also works against your thesis.) But you rarely see a heavily used violin that sounds like crap.

I know you've seen a lot of Strads and DGs.  Do you have estimate % of how many are any good or great?

I had an argument (fun)t with my younger local bar tender.  I said modern popular music wasn't as good as the classic old stuff that I remembered.  He replied that my good old stuff was just a fraction of all junk that that nobody remembers anymore and that my memory was not reflecting reality of that time.

So I thought about it and had another beer.

 

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@Marty Kasprzyk  That's a really hard question, and probably really personal. As I've commented here before, I don't only listen with my ears, but I have a checklist of a lot of  features with 1 - 10 scales that I use to grade what I hear, plus some unquantifiable things, like for instance, "how long can I listen to this instrument before I just get sick of hearing it?" and some other things on that order.

I've held and heard played in a room by above average players where I could talk with the player about it maybe 200 Strads and 75 del Gesus. Better than a normal better Vuillaume? Most Strads except for the worst ones, if played by the right person. Better than a really great Amati (Brothers A, and Nicolo shop)? Maybe half. Totally hopeless and not worth buying? 5-10%? Absolutely stellar and unbeatable, what Bob Bein used to describe as "you'll never hear a better violin!"--maybe 10%, and given the ones I have not heard in that situation where I can discuss it with the player, maybe it's really 20%.

Since you didn't ask, I have another interesting observation: in cellos quite a few times I've seen a new cello beat old ones up to, say, Rugeri class, and Rugeris are usually pretty good.  New cello making is where it's at for makers, I think. I haven't ever seen a new violin that for me beat a top Strad violin. However I have heard Strad cellos that absolutely light up a room as nothing else can do. The top violins definitely have a percentage of magic to them that I think quite a few people don't understand because they haven't trained their ears to hear it. For the average audience it might not matter at all, but there are always those who know when it's missing. Always. Very often they're sitting in the front rows of the orchestra, not in the audience.

It would be fun to draw this up as a series of normal distribution curves overlapping. I suspect that would be the best way to visualize it and that the classical Italian's instruments would look more like normal bell curves (with a lot of overlap) than would modern makers for whom I suspect that there'd be tighter clustering indicating more control and less variability.

Also, for me, I'd rather hear a really great del Gesu than a really great Strad. I suspect that's one reason the best players have often started with a Strad when young and then moved on to a del Gesu--they're better instruments, in skilled hands, but they can be a real disappointment in unskilled hands.

The best listening experience I've ever had was sitting alone in the Genoa City Council Meeting Hall in 1993 listening to Isabelle Faust, who'd just an hour before won the Paganini Competition on a very nice polite Strad trying her first notes on the Cannone, which she would be playing in concert in a couple of hours, testing the instrument, seeing what it would need her to do, etc. She was fabulous, it was wonderful to watch her for a few minutes figuring it out, and she is still one of my favorite players.

I don't expect people to agree with me on my instrument opinions, but it's how I hear it.

 

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26 minutes ago, Michael Darnton said:

@Marty Kasprzyk 

The best listening experience I've ever had was sitting alone in the Genoa City Council Meeting Hall in 1993 listening to Isabelle Faust, who'd just an hour before won the Paganini Competition on a very nice polite Strad trying her first notes on the Cannone, which she would be playing in concert in a couple of hours, testing the instrument, seeing what it would need her to do, etc. She was fabulous, it was wonderful to watch her for a few minutes figuring it out, and she is still one of my favorite players.

 

 

 What a great thing to witness,I'm jealous.

 

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43 minutes ago, Michael Darnton said:

quite a few times I've seen a new cello beat old ones up to, say, Rugeri class, and Rugeris are usually pretty good.  New cello making is where it's at for makers, I think

If you don't mind my asking, do you think the same about modern vs. old violas?

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28 minutes ago, Altgeiger said:

If you don't mind my asking, do you think the same about modern vs. old violas?

I don't much know about violas. My favorites have consistently been the very oldest ones. As one player said when I gave her a 450 year old one to play: "It sounds ANCIENT!" That works well on violas, I think 

https://darntonhersh.com/two-violas-by-zanetto-and-peregrino-early-16th-century/

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8 hours ago, FiddleDoug said:

"How this area is tuned and how it is driven is somewhat of a mystery, I have a theory but it is a bit conspiracy. Before you start, I recommend doing it on a cheap violin, because by trial and error you have about a 99 percent chance of destroying the instrument as this area is extremely sensitive and absolutely underrated. The problem is, that you are scraping, nothing happens, nothing happens, nothing happens and then oops, it is too much."

Sorry, 99% chance of destroying an instrument is way too high. When you get to the point where you can guarantee results, I'll think about it.

Acquire one of the instruments that Jacob Saunders and Don Noon wrote about throwing in the garbage or chipping for compost. (just brainstorming thread).

end

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5 hours ago, David Burgess said:

If a violin comes in from outside either colder or warmer than room temperature, I let it stabilize to a normal room temperature, or slightly warmer (because violins are in a warmer microclimate during playing) before attempting to adjust.
I think that's about the best one can do, because if the musician uses the instrument in a wide variety of temperatures, it doesn't make sense to adjust it each time, and moving the soundpost around a lot results in accelerated wear with eventual damage.

The same goes for guitar intonation and action.
Some of my professional musician friends play in two different venues each day, every day, for 6 days in a row. That includes playing outside in summer and winter. 
And this in Southern Ontario, where, if you don’t like the weather - wait fifteen minutes.

End

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15 hours ago, trick-nobody said:

 

I made several contributions in the forum about tuning of the violin plates. Now I would like to share my theory and put it all in one place. ... ... ...

I wonder, if you changed the weight of your chinrest or it's position would all of your delicate manipulations be thrown off-balance? 

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7 hours ago, LCF said:

I wonder, if you changed the weight of your chinrest or it's position would all of your delicate manipulations be thrown off-balance? 

I once had a violist pick up his instrument from a repair, play it for a bit, and tell me the chinrest had moved, it sounded like it was in the wrong place. I looked and yes, I'd moved it 2 mm to the left, based on the old print.  He commented that it had taken him a while to figure that out before, that one tonal problem was the chinrest location, and where exactly to put it. I learned a whole lot about setup and sensitivity from that guy, who felt every single change and wanted it all, 100%, tonally. He had a fabulous old viola, one of the famous ones.

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@t-n -- Thank you for posting that information. I have long wished that others would post what they have learned along those lines also, bono publico (ars gratia artis). Unfortunately though, not only are such useful discoveries not shared from competitive motives (knowledge is money, and the one who dies with the most wins), but creating a climate of hostility toward anyone sticking his neck out as you have has become the new normal, from sheer jealousy. 

Adjustments are discussed. But any such insights that would help newer makers produce better sounding/playing instruments ?  No. 

Sad, but there you have it.

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21 hours ago, A432 said:

creating a climate of hostility toward anyone sticking his neck out as you have has become the new normal

Asking for references to support a claim is hardly an indication of hostile intent.  Asking if there is verification of the OP's conclusions in the form of independent recognition of improved 'sound' by his techniqes is not a hostile request.  Skepticism is also not inherently hostile.  One might say that not providing support for one's own assertions is hostile, but that's if I wanted to be hostile. 

Providing verification and validation of assertions, and admitting when none such are available, are pretty much unreservedly pro bono publico - it keeps the naive from running off with their heads full of someone's egoistic ravings. (later - that last statement sounds a little hostile by itself, in retrospect.  Verification also helps identify errors and misunderstandings and prevent their propagation.  It helps identify what can be relied on as a basis for future work, and what requires further evaluation.  Pro bono publico in all respects.

Edited by Dr. Mark
clarification
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