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Thinking outside the Sound Box: Case Studies in Violin Making
[A report on two case studies in violin making using Australian timbers with the assistance of digital audio editing and recording software]
In Australia we are blessed with a range of timbers many of which have acoustic qualities favourable for musical instrument making. Some luthiers have explored possibilities in using some of these timbers in the construction of stringed instruments such as violins and violas. Queensland maple has been used for violin backs, ribs and scrolls (see JAAMIM, 1978-2000). King William pine has gained considerable reputation as a worthy alternative to Swiss pine for violin fronts. Of equal value is Tasmanian blackwood used for backs, ribs and scrolls.
While many luthiers openly state their preference for traditional materials and methodologies, in the true spirit of AAMIM, I seek to experiment with Australian alternatives and interrogate the boundaries, if boundaries there are, of how violins should be constructed.
Numerous manuals on stringed instrument making are invaluable to those searching for useful information on the art of violin making (e.g. Barker, 2001; Reid, 1950; Heron and Allen, 2005), as well as some of the deeper theoretical aspects underpinning its science and technology, notwithstanding the more technical articles of modern times, for instance the seminal journal article ‘The Acoustics of Violin Plates’ by Hutchins in American Science (Hutchins, 1981). An insightful contemporary work regarding plate tuning is found in the website by Johnathon Rowe (2011, 2015) which not only outlines a revolutionary procedure for tuning plates but also makes connections with renowned theorists and professional luthiers of more recent times.
Research Methodology: Participatory Case Studies
This study is comprised of two case studies. Each case study involves an amateur luthier (the author) and a group of interested and inquiring listeners. According to Merriam (1988, cited in Bogdon & Biklen, 1992, p. 62), Cohen and Manion (1985) and Gray (2003), a case study is the detailed in-depth study of a single subject or group within its natural context. Case studies are kept in their natural contexts because researchers cannot escape the social world in order to study it. Researchers do this best when they become trusted members of the social setting of the study (Glesne & Peskin, 1992; Hammersley & Atkinson, 1993). The necessity for a participative social network applies to practical 'hands on' studies as much as it does to social inquiries. For the two case studies in this project, the violin maker researcher was a participant in the study as were the observers and listeners whose opinions the violin maker researcher valued, both positive and negative. Where necessary, data records were kept of the tap tones showing modes 2 and 5 and the frequency analysis diagrams revealing the presence or absence of modal peaks, as well as reflective diary entries.
Similar to action research, the luthier researcher participated in cycles of observation, recording, reflection, refinement and action using materials, design, data and the social context in a 'hands on' process of proactive intervention.
Background to the Project and Literature Review
For centuries the melodious sound of violins by Stradivari, Amati and Guarneri have eluded violinists and luthiers alike. Observation, experimentation and theorizing have provided few definitive clues that successfully explain Stradivari’s success. Acousticians, chemists, violin makers, and musicians have tried to investigate the mystery behind his violins. For instance, researchers have stipulated, that the arid terrane of forests growing the wood for 17th and 18th century luthiers produced tighter growth rings, or that the climate of the time was essentially a mini ice age that encouraged tighter growth rings. However, other luthiers at the time had less success using similar timbers. Others have speculated on the endocrinology of the trees felled or the seasoning times used by Stradivari. While a degree of speculation and mystery still remains concerning his instruments, what is certain is the quality of Stradivarius' violins born from 'his insatiable curiosity, the scope of his research, his rare mastery of workmanship, the subtle harmony of his instruments and his excellent craftsmanship rather than any secret formula' (‘Arte France and Associes present the mystery of the Stradivarius’, accessed 12/2015). As part of the tradition and interest in Stradivari models, this researcher’s investigation is not about reproducing Stradivari violins, which is nigh impossible, but rather to scientifically and technologically imitate some aspects of his work, particularly regarding modality and tuning, while using Australian timbers.
The first case study was a violin labelled 'Violin 3' which was made of hoop pine from Northern NSW and Tasmanian blackwood from Tasmania. This violin was a copy of the Sansy Stradivarius violin as was the next violin, labelled Violin 4. The construction of Violins 3 and 4 was assisted with the use of computer technology similar to that developed and used by Jonathon Rowe (2015). In his website Rowe provides useful information to the 'amateur violin maker, restorer and tinkerer. A violin front and back (the plates) can be tuned using tap-tones. Use tap tones to adjust the 2 plates of a violin to get the best sound, the kind of sound you want, or make an instrument that is easy to bow' (Rowe, 2015, p. 1).
Rowe's method is to record the tap tones and analyze them acoustically using an online recording program called Audacity (‘Audacity 2 1.1’, 2015). He provides violin maps showing where to work on the plates to accentuate particular modes. 167 Hz and 333 Hz are the recommended average frequencies for profiling and thicknessing the plates. Diagram 1 (unavailable as yet) shows the frequency analysis at one point in time when I was thicknessing a violin plate. On Rowe’s website ‘Plate tuning 4 dummies’ is a good place to start in terms of how the modes relate to the thicknessing of the front and the back with mode 2 being approximately half of mode 5.
Having tuned the plates so that modes 2 and 5 appeared on the frequency graphs, the instrument was glued together with violin grade hide glue and after setting it up, I was able to hear its clarity as I played those first few notes, and tested its full register and capabilities [refer to ‘The joy of hearing that first note - a new violin is born’ (Hadfield, 2009)]. My neighbour who had been a participant observer and listener during the case study was there to witness the first few clear notes of this instrument and was most complimentary regarding its clarity and its mellow tone. The neighbour, his wife and my partner had participated in the project by providing their critical appraisal, comments and encouragement. They had been the necessary social context for case study Violin 3.
However, I am my worst critic and having been too judicious in altering the profiles, to my horror modes 2 and 5 of the tap tones disappeared causing the violin's output and sound quality to sound flat and inferior. No matter what I did to rectify the problem, I couldn't bring back its amazing tonal quality. My neighbour clearly voiced his dismay and concern regarding the loss of this beautiful instrument’s tone. Enter Violin 4.
The Project and the Results
Violin 4 was an attempt to reproduce Violin 3 and recapture its elusive tonal qualities. Using computer technology was new to me, as in my previous instruments, I had used only tap tones purely as a guide for thicknessing the plates (Hadfield 2009). Again, following the ideas of Rowe (2015), I recorded and analysed the tap tones using the Audacity program (2015). The participative support network for the projects also included a fellow luthier who had considerably more experience and knowledge than I. During a few sessions of sharing ideas and playing instruments, Roland Stefen offered a few valuable suggestions in profiling and shaping, and the tuning of the violin neck amongst other issues such as varnish undercoats. Ideally the participative social network provides that needed academic advice and member checking which are necessary for the best possible outcomes in research (Hadfield, 2005). Roland and the other participants certainly helped in this regard.
Most violins makers use commercially available pegs, tail pieces, fingerboards and chin rests. For Violin 4 I made these pieces from Australian redgum. For the pegs and end pin I designed a mini wood lathe that rotated at over 4000 r.p.m.
Once Violin 4 had been assembled [(see Plates 1 and 2) to be uploaded] my participative social network viewed and admired my workmanship and looked forward to hearing the instrument being played. Upon first playing it, I received favourable appreciation for the music and the sound quality. A recent tinkering with the neck profile, the addition of new strings and a more accurate measurement between the bridge and the end of the tail piece improved the sound quality even further (i.e. recursiveness in research design). All research designs experience setbacks or inhibitors of some kind. Among these I found a small discrepancy in the balance of the rib outline thereby affecting the shape of the plates, while the faulty nut grooves affected the integrity of the strings to some degree. However, the sound quality seemed to remain unaffected.
The outcome of the case studies was that by successfully adopting Rowe’s techniques in plate tuning as well as the ideas of Roland Stefen in profiling, tuning and varnishing, the creation of an instrument with a ‘pleasing’ sound quality became possible using Australian timbers, the outline and profiles of a specific Stradivari model, and the average thickness measurements for a Stradivari violin. While the results bear a general resemblance to the Stradivari model, they have not replicated his work because of the intrinsic and hidden variables of choice of timber, wood density and the novel characteristics of the violins themselves, each violin being a unique blend and juxtaposition of its individual parts. Another finding was that the case study research paradigm is in keeping with the supportive practice of the participative social network behind the making of a violin.
Already Tasmanian timber is seasoning in my workshop ready for the construction of a different model within the same violin making tradition but using a refinement of the methodology adopted in this study. Further investigation is encouraged in the use of computer technology for instrument making using the ideas of Rowe (2015) and other violin makers and theorists.
Arte France and Associes present the mystery of the Stradivarius (2015) In https://www.youtube.com, accessed 12/2015.
Audacity Team, (2015). Audacity In http://audacityteam.org updated July 2015.
Barker, J. (2001). Violin-Making a practical guide. Ramsbury, Marlborough: The Crowood Press Ltd
Bogdan, R. and Biklen, S. (1992). Qualitative Research in Education. An Introduction to Theory and Methods. Sydney: Allyn and Bacon.
Cohen, L. & Manion, L. (1985). Research methods in Education. London: Croom Helm.
Glesne, C. and Peskin, A. (1992). Becoming Qualitative Researchers. New York: Longman.
Gray, A. (2003). Research Practice for Cultural Studies. London: SAGE.
Hadfield, C. (2009). The joy of hearing that first note - a new violin is born In JAAMIM The Journal of the Australian Association of Musical Instrument Makers (2009)
Hadfield C (2013). The joy of hearing that first note - a new violin is born! In fiddlerman.com/forum/fiddle-violin-repair-making-and-set-up, accessed 6/2015.
Hammersley, M. and Atkinson, P. (1993). Ethnography Principles in Practice, London: Roultledge.
Heron-Allen, E. (2005).Violin-Making A Historical and Practical Guide. Dover Publications, New York.
Hutchins, C. M. (1981). ‘The Acoustics of Violin Plates’ In Scientific American Oct 1981, 245(4), p.170 ff.
Reid, J. (1950). You Can Make a Stradivari Violin. Popular Mechanics, New York.
Very interesting article Colin.
Thanks for taking the time to share your project with us.
Have you made any more progress since you wrote this article?
Do you have any of your violins for sale? If yes, what part of NSW do you live in? I would love to own an all Australian violin. .. if it sounded nice ; )