singing violin - fine soloist violins in Kul Violins studio
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Being violin makers and repairers, we were visited by musicians quite often (throughout this article the word 'violin' is taken to refer to other members of the violin family too). Some of them brought violins with broken bridges, some wanted pegs to be replaced… and some wanted just 'better instrument sound'.

Most serious problems usually occur mainly with those who are unhappy with instrument sound. Many adjustment problems come down to communication and players' lack of experience with adjustment. Many players do not get to experience playing lots of violins and making adjustments on them. Moreover, there is not really any common understandable vocabulary for talking about tone.

Probably the best description of the problem was delivered by one violin maker - repairer - adjuster: "One player felt that his instrument sounded too 'round' and wanted something more 'oval'. Players may have impossible ideas of what they want, drawn from their experience with different instruments belonging to friends, and want a mix of all those instruments in their own".

The player usually really does not know, what he or she wants and is literally lost. I sometimes did a small innocuous 'experiment'. I changed nothing and told the player: "It must be OK". As a rule, a player felt a difference, most often - a change for the better. Strange? Not really. Some researchers describe problems of this sort as a field of psychoacoustics. Discussions on this subject lack full understanding of how hearing works. The perception of sounds by the ear in combination with the brain (whole audible system) is very complex and contains lots of subjective components, which cannot easily be either assessed or analyzed. This situation is totally different from when sound is registered by electronic equipment.

Significance of the instrument is often overestimated. A good player with an average violin is not transformed to an excellent level by a much better instrument. Again, very good instruments are often played by excellent players. These usually do know how to make the best use of them.

There exist a lot of objective, as well as subjective parameters of instrument sound. One of the best contemporary American violin makers Joseph Curtin described them as: tone quality, projection, response, evenness, sensitivity to vibrato, and dynamic range. Anyway, it is essential to separate these as much as possible to be able to evaluate an instrument objectively. There is far more than one factor involved in instrument sound creation, and they interact. Therefore it is essential to be very cautious in an objective analysis of the sound qualities of an instrument and to separate the factors. In this context at least five major factors must be considered:

  • Timbre. Very often timbre is named as 'tone'. It seems that it is much simpler to evaluate: "This timbre is bad, or poor, or nasal, or terrible…" More problems appear when somebody tries to describe a good timbre. This parameter varies strongly with different bowing techniques (it is well known to players) and also to some extent depends on the bow itself. Additionally - the most essential aspect for timbre evaluation is that players definitely hear a different timbre from what listeners do. Again, listeners hear different timbres in different rooms or depending on their? position in the room. So, along with objective characteristics timbre has a lot of subjective features.

    Closely related to timbre is a phenomenon known to musicians as playing-in of an instrument. As it is proved in objective experiments, human memory for sounds is defective. So, it was only assumed, that playing-in has an influence on timbre. However, some recently performed objective experiments clearly showed influence of prolonged playing on some voice-determining instrument parameters.

    Evidently timbre strongly depends on materials used and design applied. These are almost impossible to change in a finished instrument. But it can be changed to some extent by replacing and/or adjusting some accessories - bridge, sound post, pegs… Experienced luthiers know, how to move to the desired sound characteristics.
  • Responsiveness. It is difficult even to imagine that all musicians like the same violin timbre. However, every player prefers an effortless response to bowing or easy speaking of an instrument. Term 'playability' is usually used to describe this feature of an instrument.
  • Carrying power. This parameter is sometimes named as projection. It is the ability of a violin sound to fill even big halls. Just because of this feature, a solo violin player can be heard while an orchestra plays forte. Instrument projection can be quite easily tested by two or more players, testing several good instruments, looking for best approximation to the ideal violin sound.
  • Dynamic range. Players know it as the distance between most quiet and most loud 'musical' sound that can be produced with every instrument. Obviously, the more responsive the instrument is, the more wide is its dynamic range. Also, the better the player, the bigger the dynamic range he or she requires from an instrument.
  • Evenness. No violin can produce the same output power on all notes. Even quite simple modern measurements and techniques show lots of peaks and dips in a violin's frequency range. To some extent it is caused by generated harmonics (overtones). It is also well known, that ear sensitivity varies to different frequencies. So acceptable evenness is achieved, when loudness of all notes sounds similar. This is affected by violin design and to some degree by proper setup, strings and playing. Regretfully, some instruments cannot produce equal loudness on all notes or even strings. It is better to reject such an instrument, as usually the unevenness is caused by poor design - that really cannot be improved.

These above described parameters are objective. However, there are always important subjective aspects as well. I already described the phenomenon and some aspects of psychoacoustics. It becomes especially important when the area of old (especially old Italian) instruments is entered. It really resembles the history of the Phoenix bird. Ultimately all the histories have connection with mystique. More detailed explanation follows.

The question often arises: "Isn't it true that violin necessarily must be old and Italian to be good?" This question becomes most important when one is speaking about ideal violin sound. To understand the basis of this saying it is wise to consider its origin. Strictly speaking, it is a complex situation: dealers want to make big money while world-class musicians feel they must have such an instrument. As one honest and very experienced American luthier said: "It is part of a game".

There is a widespread term among musicians: "typical Italian sound" or "Cremonese sound" to describe that so special sound, which helps to easily distinguish this 'very special, superior' voice from that of non-Italian instruments. To verify if it was the case, lots of precise tests were performed. Probably the most known among them are two tests, performed in Paris between 1910 and 1920.? Contemporary scientists, especially medical, describe such tests as a 'double blind experiment' - nobody (neither those, who perform them, nor the subject) knows essential details. In the case of instrument testing, neither listeners nor performers knew which instrument was played. Performance on different instruments was executed behind the curtain or in the dark. Instruments were played by exceptional players, listeners were musicians as well as other sophisticated audiences.

Results (repeating) were improbable - Italian violins (including Stradivarius) never came first. Moreover, their placing depended on the test room… As one highly experienced listener stressed: "in order to recognize Italian, one has to see it".

As described in one interview with the superior violinist Jascha Heifetz, "…he knew and said that a new instrument is often as good as, sometimes superior to, an old one…" He participated in extensive tests to compare the relative values of original handmade violins (i.e., old and antique instruments) with those produced by modern methods and reported that modern instruments produced tones whose quality compared favorably with that of the old ones."

''There was a great deal of hype involved,'' says Norman Pickering, one of the world's leading experts on the acoustics of the violin. ''There's no great difference between the quality of Stradivarius violins and those of many of his contemporaries, not to mention those of violin makers before and since. But it's as if no other violin maker ever existed.''

Old Italian violins are by no means the same nowadays as when they were created. All of them to be playable in contemporary conditions, had to be 'modernized' ("made to be as good as new"): rebarred, renecked, restored, repaired and sometimes regraduated. Additionally, all these violins experienced permanent strings tension for hundreds of years and, simply speaking, are old now.

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At last I have my ideal violin. I turned down 14 instruments which came from all around the country, including an original cremonese violin, which I just couldn't convince myself to like. However I had no second thoughts about my new violin, made by Czes and Birute Kul, and instantly knew this was the one. The violin has very clean articulation and a sweet tone, also
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