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There are two ways I can improve the tone of your instrument:
First, some simple theory.
●improve its playability- I can make your instrument physically less difficult, and more comfortable to play, and therefore easier for you to produce a more desirable sound.
●increase its acoustic range- I can release the potential in your instrument, giving it a more open, resonant sound, making a larger palette of texture, tone and timbre available to you; while also removing any dissapointing or discouraging tone.
Firstly, let me say that there are very few, if any, instruments in the world that could not be improved in some way, no matter how small. In fact most Strads I've been lucky enough to handle could have done with some adjustment, especially those sadly languishing in the display cabinets of museums. Making the perfect instrument is of course the Holy Grail for all luthiers and even those considered the most excellent examples of the old masters, still have their own limitations and idiosyncrasies.
How do I make your instrument easier to play?
String height - I correct the string height and fingerboard hollow for the type of string used. This alleviates pain and strain in the left hand fingers giving a lower, easier action and greater accuracy when playing faster passages.
" A lofty string height, and the difficulty and pain it causes, is the primary reason a beginner will give up on a stringed instrument. Those that do persevere have their progress vastly impeded, their technique weakened, and will never reach their full potential. "
String spacing- I ensure the correct string spacing to enable accurate finger placement and bow position for string crossing and double stopping.
Fingerboard thickness - I ensure the correct fingerboard thickness, camber and edge contours - too high and the left hand has to over-stretch putting strain on the wrist - too thin and it can distort in the upper shift positions, and intonation will be compromised.
Tuning peg movement & dimensions - I adjust or fit tuning pegs to turn smoothly and accurately in the fingers. I also ensure that the pegs are positioned correctly in the peg box with the correct diameter for the material they are made from - this is critical for string life and making the instrument easy to tune and less dependent on fine adjusters.
Strings - I advise on and fit strings that balance the instruments acoustic characterisics, tone, and timbre, and are compatible with the neck elevation.
Fittings - I advise on the comfort of the fittings and upgrade where necessary.
Bow - Together we consider re-weighting and balancing your bow and renewing any worn lapping. Also reworking the frog to ensure comfort in the bowing hand.
How can I improve your instruments acoustic sound?
First, some simple theory.
Without being too scientific lets briefly define what we mean by sound. Put simply, sound is our brains interpretation of changes in air pressure. When an action, like twanging a string, is performed it moves air molecules; they bang and vibrate against each other creating a radiating pattern (like ripples or waves in a pond) that we call sound pressure waves. These waves extend to your outer ear applying pressures on the ear drum. These changes in pressure are detected by the cochlea in the inner ear and then transmitted electrically to the brain ... this is what we perceive as sound.
Ok that’s pretty straight forward, so now let's try to mechanically describe a violin sound. The great scientist Hermann von Helmholtz discovered in the 1850's that a struck tuning fork vibrated very uniformly, creating identical simple pure waves of sound of one pitch (or frequency). He also discovered that a vibrating string created a more complex wave, which although sounding to the ear like one pitch, actually consisted of additional pitches being present in the sound at the same time, but of different volumes (amplitudes). These additional pitches or frequencies we call harmonics and partials.
When we listen to a single sustained note played on the violin we are not generally aware that we are actually listening to multiple pitches. This is because the human ear works in such a way that the musical pitch of a note is usually perceived as the lowest partial present (the fundamental frequency). And so it is, that the quality of the instruments sound or timbre is determined by the existence and the relative strengths of each of these partials.So generally it would be true to say that the difference in sound between a violin and a French horn, for example,playing the same pitch (say 'A' at 440hz) is the amount and size of the partial frequencies present in the sound.
How this relates to the Violin.
From the explanation above we can assume that to improve the sound of a violin is theoretically quite simple ... we merely have to adjust the amount and size of the partials present in the violins sound.
However, in the real world what complicates the matter is the acoustic system by which the violin creates its vibrations. By acoustic system I mean, the components and the relationship between the components of the violin - the bridge, sound post, strings, plates, neck angle, etc. We should also include here the bow, bow hair and rosin for without them the violin cannot make a sustained sound.
It is important to understand that in violin construction and set-up we predetermine the influence each component part has on the violins final sound. However, parts naturally depend on and influence other parts: for example: a change in neck angle has a direct bearing on the reflex angle of the string on the bridge, which in turn effects the pressure of the bridge feet on the front plate, which in turn effects the pressure of the sound post on the back plate, which in turn effects the vibrating and pumping actions of the back plate, which in turn effects the movement of air molecules inside and outside the box, and so on.
Also the potential for plate movement and vibration are predetermined by the front and back plate thicknesses, sound hole positions,and the bass bar position and its mass (volume x density). So in effect there are many variables and many dependencies.
Process of improving your sound
So this leads on to the process of improving your instruments sound. Firstly, we have to assess the whole current system by which the instrument vibrates and, just as important, dampens the string. Then we can systematically isolate the components of the system which will give improvement; but always taking into account the effect this will have on the whole vibrating system; as follows:
Initially, I take some acoustic measurements with a spectrum analyser. This is useful to give a visual representation of the existing partials, and their size, present in the instruments sound. This can highlight those important partials and harmonics we tend to 'feel' rather than hear. The spectrum analyser is not used for deciding where to change the vibrating system but as a guide to confirm what the ears are picking up.
I then check the heights, positions, dimensions, elevation, pressures and densities in the system and we make some statements and decisions on neck adjustment, **plate graduations and bass bar renewal.
I examine how the components of the system are currently functioning and make adjustments and upgrades accordingly. This would typically result in top nut, saddle and tailpiece upgrades and adjustments; and sound post and bridge renewal.
I then assess and optimise the whole system using a standard, even string to evaluate the best string match for your new vibrating system. After a settling in period with the new strings fitted, I finally revisit the spectrum analyser and re-work the bridge and soundpost to eke out any possible remaining partials. With the instrument optimised we now check for a re-hair, re-weighting and balancing of your bow and consider a change of rosin
In summary, I'd say that if you are currently unhappy with aspects of your sound then there are things we can do to address this. Whether the instrument is worth the more expensive processes, needs to be considered. However, one thing is for certain improving its sound will not reduce its value.
On the other hand, if you are currently happy with the sound of your instrument then I'd advise you not to consider chasing the Holy Grail ... I am sure I could improve
the sound but you just might prefer the one you are used to.
** Professional ethics prevents me from re-graduating the plates of any instrument with significant historical importance. For these instruments the emphasis is always on conservation and preserving the original makers style and intentions.