Breaking-In a new violin.

October 19, 2006 at 05:03 AM · I'm on the fence about buying a new violin vs a vintage one.

There seems little doubt that a brand new instrument, properly made, will not sound as open and resonant as it will ten years down the road, even if it's made from old wood. It will not have its maximum low-frequency vibration, as the wood is still stiff. It will not have its maximum HF content, as the glue and finished have not fully crystallized.

There are ways to make a new instrument sound more "broken in" but this entails making various parts too thin, thus shortening the life of the instrument and probably lessening the overall sonic potential that it might otherwise have had.

Assuming, though, that we are discussing a properly-made, new violin, from a builder who's clients understand that patience is required:

1: How many years would be considered hte minimum for this type of instrument to really loosen up, to the point that you could stand performing with it? (just looking for some subjective, ballpark opinions)

2: Is it mostly a matter of time, or does the amount of playing contribute? It has been suggested by some that the vibrations from actually playing it help "set" the cells, finish & glue in such a way that they will better conduct the desired frequencies, but has this ever been proven?

3: Are there any techniques for speeding this up?

3a: Does storing at a higher temperature help? if so, how high is actually dangerous? What about low humidity?

3b: Some luthiers believe that hanging a new guitar in front of your speakers helps, as the guiatr absorbs vibration from the cd's you play. Of course, a flat-top guitar work in a significantly different way than a violin. Has this ever been shown to help a violin?

-Any other thoughts on the subject?

Replies (100)

October 19, 2006 at 03:02 PM · Interesting question. Never gave this a thought. For myself, I want an instrument that sounds good right now. "So many tunes, so little time." I have don't have the $$ or motivation to buy as investment, where these issues would be more crucial, I think. My taste in tone quality has changed quite a bit over many years of playing, so I have swapped off a few times to satisfy my yearnings of the moment. Right now a play a Kennedy of London for classical. Sweet and a little dark. And a Heberlein 1936 for Cajun. It is loud and cutting, but still manages to sound a little dark. I often need to play lead over a pile of fiddles, guitars and accordions. Lately, though, if they aren't able to spend a couple thou, I've been recommending Chinese stocked by my local luthier to my students. Pretty, easy to play, good volume and tone. No history, but so doable and satisfying at the moment to JH-ish kids.

October 19, 2006 at 03:15 PM · I wonder if laying down the violin next to some speakers constantly playing music would keep the violin vibrating a tiny bit and help the break in.

October 19, 2006 at 04:11 PM · I've heard of some that use constant sound (e.g. from a stereo) to open up a violin -- this includes luthiers prior to sale and players after a purchase. I've had a couple of new violins which I broke in simply by playing them.

I think playing them hard (lots of volume, close to the bridge) helps as does playing double-stops. Be agressive but in a sensible manner.

I've also heard that instruments opened up by external sound sources lose their "openness" quite quickly if not played. Violins broken in with playing tend to keep their openness for a longer period of time of inactivity.

My belief is that a violin opens up in two ways. Firstly, there's a "loosening up" of the instrument to get a good volume, resonance and response. This is a relatively quick but probably non-linear process. I'd think that the majority (perhaps 80%) of this occurs in the first 6 months of playing the violin, then the process slows down over the next couple of years to roughly 100% of the instrument's capabilities.

A second, far slower process I think of as "wood maturation" occurs. This process gives more character, warmth and resonance to the instrument. (Play an old violin and you can "hear the age" of the wood. The player can hear it -- I'm not sure if the audience can as much.) The Hill's, I think in their book about Stradivari, give a table of various styles of violins (Strad, Guarneri, etc.) and how long they believe the violins typically take to develop, ranging from 30 to 80 years (!). This extended period of time might be the same, second phase I have in mind.

October 19, 2006 at 08:13 PM · I do agree with Victor.

I must admit that there are Vintage instruments when not played for a long time, require a similar break in period as do the new fiddles. Sometimes new fiddles can sound great right away, but does it last. And this depends on its construction.

If the plates are too thin, it will sound great for a couple of years, but then fizzle out.

I can tell you when I got my Vuillaume, it was in the closet for 25-30 years. It took several years to break in.

Sometimes vintage fiddles need a new bass bar, soundpost and bridge to revive its true potential.

With a new instrument, the most difficult thing for any maker to do is to give it a rich sounding G string and a full midrange.

And yes, playing slowly with good amount of preassure near the bridge helps considerably, especially double stops (going up to high positions is a must).

October 19, 2006 at 08:48 PM · For that exact reason Gennady, I wonder what will happen with the thousands of regraduated, somewhat expensive, modern Italians. Maybe it was a good idea for you not to have that done with your Sgrabotto.

October 19, 2006 at 10:33 PM · exactly right..........

I don't know about the thousands, but alot depends on who did the work and to what extent.

October 20, 2006 at 03:12 AM · Regarding the re-graduation, I'd have to agree based on experience with flat-top guitars (as mentioned in my original post) Some modern makers thin the sides of the top, so it has more LF vibration right away. What then happens is the guitar becomes "flabby" sounding after 5-10 years. We are just seeing this now as it is a fairly recent phenomenon.

Violins, however, do no have the same amount of vibration in the top. they are thicker overall, and so this may not be as detrimental. Regardless, it is a very debatable practice. Guitars have a short life-span. A 50 year old flat top is typically flabby and bass-heavy. All of the ultra-expensive pre-war Martins (circa 1940 or so) are on the way out.

It is not clear if this happens to a "properly" constructed vintage violin.

Still, what to do if you are a modern builder? A violin SHOULD be playable right away, no? If you make it thinner, it can be enjoyed sooner, and maybe has a 50 year life instead of 400 years. That might be a good idea. The PROBLEM with this could be that, since there is overall less wood, there is also less complexity possible. The thicker instrument, once broken in, would have richer harmonics than the newer, thinner instrument.

Ugggh.

--------

Regaring an unplayed instrument having to be woken up: This is true even with a drummer's cymbals! Most drummers will tell you this, and I have actually proven it via careful recording tests. Luckily, with a bronze cymbal it only takes a few minutes to get it cooking again.

I read once, many many years ago, that if you stored a Strad or years without playing it, it would be ruined forever. Similarly, went this article, If a new instrument is not played right away, it will never sound its beat later on. The theory was that the finish takes a "non-musical" set. Could be, but as I asked in my original post, has this ever been proven? Every field has its old wive's tales. Note the complete lack of substantiated response to my recent query on fine-tuners. Cracks me up.

FWIW, This "frequency set" DEFINITELY happens with vintage (non-mylar) microphones, wherein the diaphram becomes more sensitive to whatever instrument you use it on. If you take your favorite voca-lrecording Neuman U67 and use it for brass, it will never sound the same again on voice.

Now about those fine-tuners......

October 20, 2006 at 03:54 AM · "Guitars have a short life-span. A 50 year old flat top is typically flabby and bass-heavy. All of the ultra-expensive pre-war Martins (circa 1940 or so) are on the way out."

Nobody says that but you. I own two pre-war Martins. So do a few thousand other happy customers.

"Note the complete lack of substantiated response to my recent query on fine-tuners. Cracks me up."

We did the best we could do. Call a Nobel winning fine-tuner scientist. This the only way way to solve music's fine-tuner dilemma.

October 20, 2006 at 04:06 AM · quote: "Nobody says that but you."

Actually, Jim, all the experts say that. Read Gruhn. Many of those Martins still sound great, but they are past their peak on on the way out. Some of them are already gone. This is NOT just my opinion.

October 20, 2006 at 04:21 AM · Fortunately for you this is a violin forum:)

October 20, 2006 at 06:14 AM · Hi play majors 7ths really loud, it kinda kicks the violin open.

bye

October 20, 2006 at 12:36 PM · Well, I'm afraid I think all this talk about violins needing breaking in or playing in is just a load of nonsense.

Violin players eventually get used to playing a particular violin over a period of time and then think it's the violin that has got better. And of course, there are some violin dealers (not all, I'm glad to say) who take advantage of this and say to a prospective buyer, when trying to sell them a second-rate violin, "You need to play it in".

Most of the worst violins I've posessed have been really old ones, and I have some really super modern ones that have been bright, clear, woody and responsive right from the word go - and without having been "regraduated" or "thinned out" by some maniac.

I recently heard a viola concerto played by a lady with a brand new viola (just a couple of months old I think) by an Australian maker and it sounded absolutely marvellous.

Cheers

Oliver

October 20, 2006 at 02:23 PM · The Hills, Jacques Francais, and Moening all said that a violin needs as much as 20-50 years of near constant paying on the average, to reach its full potential of responsiveness, efficiency, complexity, etc. Others put it at 5 years. I've found that it depends a lot on the instrument, and the amount and intensity of the playing that it gets., and that there are degrees of responsiveness, etc. But I feel, having had a number of new instruments, that with playing, adjustments as necessary, etc. I basically know what an instrument can do within a year or less. It may take more time for all the potential subtleties to come to the fore, but many more years aren't going to 'turn a silk purse out of a sow's ear.'

Re 'shortcuts', I find it very helpful early in my practicing, and again at the end, to practice very moderate 2 octave chromatic scales up each string, with whole bows, vibrato, and forte. Then I play one octave scales up each pair of strings in 3rds and 6ths. As far as speakers go, it ceartainly couldn't hurt, but probably won't do nearly as much as direct playing. Then again, maybe that can be a "shortcut" to teaching the violin all kinds of repertoire! :)

October 20, 2006 at 03:09 PM · A recipe for breaking in a violin:

1 peck of groats

2 teaspoons of rumor

5 pinches of gossip

3 bales of insubstantia

a heap of lye

mix together and let stand for an age, then apply liberally to the back and belly.

Simmer on slow bows for 20 eons.

Consume immediately thereafter. No standing allowed, or you must repeat.

October 20, 2006 at 03:38 PM · Oliver:

Not all old violins sound good and not all new violins sound bad. A piece of junk will continue to be so no matter how old or new it is or how much it's played.

If one is considering purchasing a new violin, it has to sound good from the start. A poor one should never be bought with the hopes that it'll turn into something decent with use -- the change over time isn't that radical. A good violin will sound good from the start. But I think a majority of dealers and players will say that it'll get even (somewhat) better over time.

I too frown upon having violins regraduated. A violin should never be purchased with the intent of doing major changes to it to make it better. From what I understand, such changes are unpredictable in the degree of change that will occur and in what direction the violin would change. However, given a hopelessly poor violin of little historical importance and that has obviously poor arching and/or thicknesses by most standards, I can see some reason in having the plates regraduated as a last resort to attempt to make the violin useful.

October 20, 2006 at 04:53 PM · Great responses. Thanks for starting this thread, Allan. I have a new violin and have been playing it for just a few months, so this is all quite interesting.

Good point someone made on where the improvement lies, exactly, when one has been playing a new instrument for a few months. Do I hear an increasing richness of tone because the violin is opening up, or is it because I've gotten used to playing it? (Really sort of tiptoed around it the first few weeks, in what seemed like a mutual process.) It definitely sounds better now than it did two months ago. But, as I've only been playing the violin for 16 months, it's no surprise that I should sound better. God, I should hope so.

Off I go to do those double stops (coincidentally part of last week's lesson).

October 20, 2006 at 06:34 PM · Oliver... if a violin hasn't been played for a while, it certainly needs to feel some good vibrations to open up. Also, ever bought a brand new instrument? The sound will change with playing.

October 20, 2006 at 08:53 PM · Absolutely. As I wrote earlier, this even happens with cymbals. If a solid hunk of brass gets "stiff," certainly a wooden instrument will.

With cymbals, they even change (slightly) in pitch. The tone will go up if they haven't been played, and lower a bit after perhaps ten minutes of playing. This is an undeniable fact. In somewhat the same way, a violin's entire formant structure probably changes.

October 20, 2006 at 09:13 PM · A neurosurgeon/violinst customer of mine claimed that the violin plays in the player, not the other way around.

I partly agree. While a few violinists can pick up a strange fiddle and immediately impose their sound on it, for most, it's a learning process. Every violin needs to be played differently to optimise the sound.

The mega-buck instruments? I think one of the reasons they can sound so good is that players are willing to invest more time and effort into learning what they need.

http://www.burgessviolins.com

October 20, 2006 at 09:32 PM · ANY violin needs to be broken in by its new owner, regardless of age.

October 20, 2006 at 09:50 PM · David is right. It is a simple matter of feedback. Guess which object has the ability to change? (hint: it is not the inanimate object).

October 20, 2006 at 10:02 PM · Oh, violins and even bows change with usage.

On the other hand, I've played plenty of megabuck instruments that were so "restored" that they felt and sounded like modern instruments. But truly old instruments that are mostly undisturbed do have that "played in sound". It shows the most in the overtones to those that can hear them.

Playing style, bow, and strings factor greatly into the breaking-in process. Many of the great older instruments do not show their finest qualities unless they are played with the right setup that they are accustomed to being played with.

October 20, 2006 at 10:04 PM · "(hint: it is not the inanimate object)."

Strings must last forever on your instruments ;)

October 20, 2006 at 10:51 PM · bill:

Inanimate objects can and do break in. Take the engine of a new car for example -- it requires several thousand miles before the engine is operating at peak efficency or near to it.

Or a baseball glove.

But, in the case of playing a new/different violin, I'll also concede that, besides the instrument opening up, there's also some adaptation by the player to learn how to pull the best sound out of the instrument.

October 20, 2006 at 11:13 PM · Well, by changing, I meant actively changing, as opposed to aging, decayng or wearing. I meant adaptation--->>that's why I said feedback.

Yeah Jim, my strings last forever:-P

Sure there is a breaking in going on. And there is aging going on. These things are true. But the largest magnitude of change will most certainly be the player adapting (imperceptiply to himself) his way of playing, so as to get the most out of the machine.

Unlike a baseball glove (or shoe, boot, or skate), the violin is a rigid system (with the exception of the strings). The breaking in is not that extreme. If the glue is letting go, then the instrument falls apart. The glue is rigid. Hide glue is much more rigid than modern glues. It has essentially zero plastic cold flow. If it flowed, the instrument would come apart. Some cheap guitars do just that, because they are glued with regular glue.

Yes, engines run better after they have been run in. But this is a very small change--only a few fractions of percent of power if that. A well-built engine has very little break-in. The break-in effect is due to the inability to manufacture perfectly fit parts. The break-in is essentially a self-lapping action.

Do drag racers run-in their engines for "2000 miles" before running them down the track? No. And if it made a faster time, they would. A well-made engine is right there from start-up.

In the case of a violin, there is no lapping sliding motion. Maybe a little at the nut and bridge where the strings touch. And the pegs during adjustment. But not during playing. Break-in of the sort that happens with machinery cannot occur.

It is all well and fine to run around making "anecdotal evidence" that violins improve with playing. But without considering how, and why, and physical reality, then it is all a lot of hooooooey!

October 21, 2006 at 02:03 AM · I wasn't trying to say that violins don't change.

Early acoustics researchers noticed a spectrum change in violins after exposing them to prolonged artificial vibration.

I haven't been able to duplicate this, so maybe it depends to some extent on the instrument, and what kind of stresses are built into it.

There are many kinds of stress relieving that are used in industry, one of which is vibration. Another is temperature cycling. These can change the material properties to some extent.

One way of stress relieving wood is humidity cycling. What if that's what is really going on with fiddles, and the playing has nothing to do with it?

A violin or viola is in a very humid environment when it's under the nose. Then this moisture is removed for a period..........

Some climates have wide humidity swings.

I know of some makers who moisture cycle their newly completed instruments and claim it makes a big difference. Haven't tried it myself.

(Don't try this at home!)

http://www.burgessviolins.com

October 21, 2006 at 12:25 AM · I need some stress relief myself. Maybe some temperature cycling in the Bahamas. Or maybe the right kind of vibration would do the trick.

October 21, 2006 at 01:41 AM · Jim, we're talking about breaking in something new, not something old.

October 21, 2006 at 11:17 AM · Edit: Can't let anybody get the wrong idea.

October 21, 2006 at 01:59 AM · Ohhhhhhh Jim......

Good one, that had me laughing. : )

http://www.burgessviolins.com

October 21, 2006 at 02:04 AM · Thank you, that'll be one violin please.

October 21, 2006 at 02:09 AM · One violin, coming up!

That'll be one check, please. : )

Gotta eat, or no fiddles.

http://www.burgessviolins.com

October 21, 2006 at 02:11 AM · Hi,

Jim - LOL!

I play a modern instrument made in 1997. It is now sounding better and better. It took a while to open up, and went through stages. Two major things happened though. I played better and learnt to play better. The violin opened up a lot too. So what's my point? A violin will open up if played well. It will not if not. You have to play with a resonant sound. The more the instrument resonates and learns to resonate the more it will sound well. We adapt too to the instrument, and of course getting a resonant sound is different on every violin. But, playing it badly will actually choke an instrument, or so I have seen.

Cheers!

October 21, 2006 at 02:21 AM · The only thing that's hard to feed there is that Ferrari.

October 21, 2006 at 03:31 AM · David wrote,

"One way of stress relieving wood is humidity cycling."

Excellent point. That's the kind of feedback I've been looking for. I believe this makes a lot of sense. I do woodworking as a hobby (I also build guitars) and so have done much research on the nature of wood. One thing that is absolutely true is that wood changes with age, IF it is subjected to humidity swings. It is because this stresses / relieves the lignin fibers. They get tougher with age, and hence the wood has less movement in response to those humidity changes.

Sonically, this toughening of the fibers (something you cannot dispute) probably equates to more HF in the formant structure.

This is one reason old wood sounds better, even on a new instrument (also a fact, proven countless times by luthiers and acousticians) Another reason is that it takes many years for the sap to completely crystallize. Until it does, it acts as a dampening medium. -That's why I initially asked about the possibiity of using low humidity or heat to break-in a violin.

What I'm thinking now is: Keep the violin in as low a humidiy as is safe for the instrument, but occasionally cycle to a very humid environment for a few days. The obvious problem with this idea is, how do you know how extreme you can push it without damaging an expensive instrument? I sure wish there was some "standard" data on this.

October 21, 2006 at 03:41 AM · Thinking more on this: The safest way to break-in the wood, humidity-swing wise, would be to do it before building the instrument. If I were a serious luthier, I think I'd do this with my flat stock.

October 21, 2006 at 11:52 AM · David, those experiments that can't be duplicated. If you have that thing vibrating at something like 120 dB at one meter for two weeks something's going to happen to it. We just don't know what yet. Put a transducer on a new violin and give it a sine wave close to its resonance and get it shaking like a hula girl on meth. Then we'll decide if that's anything like lower amplitude and a longer period of time. Give it two weeks of earthquake.

October 21, 2006 at 11:47 AM · interesting piece on humidity cycling:

http://www.scoraig.com/arts/abeavitt/humiditycycling.htm

October 21, 2006 at 12:02 PM · That sounds pretty conclusive. I wish I could make out some of his graphs though.

October 21, 2006 at 11:32 AM · Jim, I'm sure you're right. Artificially vibrating with enough amplitude would do SOMETHING. : )

They were my own instruments though, so I wasn't willing to risk destruction.

I'd think multiple frequencies might be the best approach. In a real playing situation, a violin is never fed a single pure tone. The string produces a combination of tones, and the violin is wiggling all sorts of ways at the same time. At high frequencies the surface breaks up into many very small areas moving in opposite directions.

(Can you suggest the appropriate drug for your "hula girl" to illustrate this? And how about some pictures?) ; )

Allan;

Maybe the old-fashioned way of aging wood outside (but protected from rain) is the best, with its natural temperature and humidity changes?

From Allan;

"This is one reason old wood sounds better, even on a new instrument (also a fact, proven countless times by luthiers and acousticians) Another reason is that it takes many years for the sap to completely crystallize. Until it does, it acts as a dampening medium. -That's why I initially asked about the possibiity of using low humidity or heat to break-in a violin."

I'm not aware that superior results from old wood have been proven. I suspect that claiming to use old wood can have marketing value though. ; )

One researcher found what he considered rather high damping in valuable old instruments, compared to new. This might be meaningful, as it might serve to reduce the sound output at objectionably high frequencies (the "new" violin sound) and also make the sound more even, as opposed to having "hot" notes and weak notes.

I'm not sure what it all means though. All the wooden soundboard instruments (including things like pianos and guitars) seem to be perceived as becoming deader sounding with time. On some categories of instruments, this is defined as having been "played out". On violins, this is often perceived as an improvement, even though audiences in double-blind tests often prefer the brigher, more fucused character of new violins.

Personally, I'm an advocate of having a good amount of edge to the sound. It helps a violin cut through an ensemble, makes it easier for the player to hear him/herself, and gives stronger intonation cues.

When adjusting violins for musicians, if I can add slightly more edge or grit to their old instrument, they almost always like it better.

No agenda here though. I'm quite capable of making dead sounding instruments for those who insist. : )

http://www.burgessviolins.com

October 21, 2006 at 12:43 PM · David, as you obvously know, the goal should not be "dead." rather a great violin should have large amount of HF overtones available, but that only come out when the player lays into the instrument. Additionally, the great instrument will have enough body (LF) to keep the highs from sounding shrill. That's some trick. Most of the violins I've tried, under $15,000 either have the HF thing happening, or the warmth, but not both.

Interesting point on pianos and such. Again, it's the same thing with flat-top guitars (fairly short life-expectancy) but violins do seem to be a different beast and hence my original query.

Very excited to see that website on humidity cycling. This basically verifies my earlier suspicions. The author is incorrect, though, in assuming that this DIS-proves the need for playing / vibration. What he DOES "prove" (for argument's sake) is that humidity cycling helps develop one PART of the "aged" sound.

The author is also incorrect when he says that varnish is a moisture barrier. It most definitely is not, though it SLOWS absorbtion.

Does anyone understand his method with the salts? I realize this had something to do with controlled evaporation, but he doesn't explain his exact method. I have decided to by a new instrument (A Jurgen Klier that caught my ear) and would like to give this process a try. (and of course, I will be doing careful audio recording / documentation) The Klier has wonderful depth, but is slightly lacking in both HF definition and warmth.

October 21, 2006 at 01:06 PM · Allan;

I used the pejorative term "dead" mostly as an attempt at humor. The measurements of old violins that are considered good though show a stong drop-off of output above about 6000 hz.

Saturated salt solutions have the unique property of maintaing a precise humidity in an enclosed space, releasing or absorbing moisture as necessary. Moistened table salt, for instance, will produce 75%. I suggest it on my website as a way to check the accuracy of hygrometers.

HYGROMETER ACCURACY CHECK

Other kinds of salts produce different levels. I have a list somewhere........

You're right about varnish not being a very good moisture barrier. One of the best coatings is aluminum paint, but it's hard to get musicians to accept...... ; )

Since there's been so much discussion about deliberate humidity cycling, I should probably add a warning:

Please, musicians, don't try humidity cycling your own instruments. Significant distortions and damage can occur!

And we have no idea if it even does anything positive. It's just a hypothesis!

October 21, 2006 at 02:46 PM · "I do woodworking as a hobby (I also build guitars) and so have done much research on the nature of wood. One thing that is absolutely true is that wood changes with age, IF it is subjected to humidity swings. It is because this stresses / relieves the lignin fibers. They get tougher with age, and hence the wood has less movement in response to those humidity changes."

Well, lignin is not a fiber. Lignin is the "thermoplastic adhesive" that binds the *cellulose* fibers. It is the cellulose that takes in and gives out moisture. Sap is another thing altogether. Whether devitrification of hardened sap has an effect on sound I don't know. But there is very little of it in a violin.

Cellulose will absorb considerable moisture directly from the vapor phase. Basically, wood will reach a saturation at 20% moisture content relative to weight (of wood). This high moisture level is rarely approached in ambient-dried wood. Typically indoor wood is less than 10% moisture content, and outdoor shaded but well-drained wood approaches 15%. Over 20%, the wood begins to collect *liquid* water between the cells. This is generally only accomplished after wet soaking.

Moisture fluctuations in the atmosphere cause the cellulose to give off or take in water vapor. This causes shrinking and swelling, primarily along the tangential direction of the grain. This is why violin tops and bridges are vertical grained. If they were flat grained, the violin would rather dramatically change shape from winter to summer. So the basic design of a good violin *minimizes* the effects of humidity as much as possible.

Extreme cycling, especially when combined with wet/dry and heat, will lead to permanent damage or "checking." These are cracks along the grain and the radial directions. The internal stresses caused by swelling and shrinking are great enough to split the wood.

(BTW this is why painting a house reduces checking. It slows the rate of moisture movement, thereby reducing the stress gradient. The varnish on the outside of a violin does the same thing although because the inside is not coated, there is more rapid change on that side of the plates.)

Does wood change properties as it ages? Yes indeed it does but these changes occur regardless of whether there is any music going on. Changes in elastic behavior and damping will of course affect the musical properties as well.

Because wood is a polymer composite it is not strictly Hookean. It is subject to stress-relaxation, in other words time-dependent elastic properties. There is hysteresis in the elastic response of wood. It is not like a structural metal. Therefore after you make a change to a violin, it will take some time to settle down. Note however that this time-dependent stress relaxation is a very small though significantly measurable portion of the elastic response.

If you string up a violin that has not been strung in a long time, it will continue to change shape, especially over a few days but even over a year or more. This is akin to the sagging of roof beams (rafters, spine etc) in old houses.

October 21, 2006 at 03:00 PM · Here's a strange one:

When I do spectral testing on violins, sometimes it seems that changes I make to move the resonances have a delayed reaction. It's like they take time or playing to take effect. Initially, they want to default to the old values.

Is this possible?

Could there be some kind of "vibrational memory"?

Can you think of any possible explanation for this other than operator stupidity?

http://www.burgessviolins.com

October 21, 2006 at 04:53 PM · Just a few small inputs:

The Catgut Acoustical Society has done a lot of research in this field. Try to Google it out.

Being interested in electroacoustics, I have often felt that a special bridge could be constructed with some transducers in the feet. Then the instrument could be exposed to different frequencies in a controllable manner.

Many years ago I builded a spinet from a kit made by John Storrs in England. There was a good description of the breaking in process in the manual, and one of the points was that the string should have a defined attack point to the steel needle on the bridge. If it did not get one after a while of playing, then you could help it by pulling the string either by tuning up and down or by using a pair of pliers. It helped and gave rich overtones instead of only the fundamental and hiss. I have often wondered if there are similar problems and solutions in bowed instruments.

Søren

October 21, 2006 at 07:14 PM · Well, I'm not sure about all of the putting speakers and blasting rock music in front of violins. I know that professionals do not want amateurs to play on their violins because they might "ruin" their violins by playing out of tune or not resonanting the right frequencies. Some folks don't even let other professionals play their violin, because they believe there is a memory in the violin that is developed by each player affecting the responsiveness and resonance of the violin. If someone plays out of tune or sloppy on your violin they might defocus the violin, maybe what you mean by "deaden" the violin?

October 21, 2006 at 09:39 PM · Clare,

Those people would be morons. I've seen some of the best violinists on the planet happily let very amateur players try out their violins.

If you know any "professional" who does this, slap them.

October 21, 2006 at 10:49 PM · David, regarding that second thing, my guess would be it's most likely a change in your measurement setup, since you're willing to accept it as a possibility. Then on a subsequent attempt to measure it you hit the right setup, or a setup that gives results that pleases you. The best place for you to do it would probably be outside. Everything should be in a jig so that nothing moves from test to test. On the other hand, intuitively, and I might be completely wrong, I think of all this somewhat in terms of what happens to a new shoe, namely it's propensity to flex in certain places increases until the shoe is comfortable, which would boil down to stress reduction through an analog to vibration. I can imagine that if a small enough slice of leather was removed from the right place, you might not see its final flexing patterns immediately, since the new arrangement would require its own working in. Like I said, that's just intuitive thoughts on it. Regarding what you said about multiple frequencies, the first thing I would want to see would be just some measurable change, and I think it would be most likely to show up if you just shook the devil out of it for a long period of time. Once you'd established that that happens, then perhaps try to simulate what actually happens to a violin when its played. U.S. patent 6320113 (I think) covers a method for artifically breaking in an instrument. It doesn't look like there's a way to read patents for free anymore. IBM used to provide a free service. You could see their method and maybe some references. I've read it before (or a similar one), and I remember it uses powerful amplifiers and high amplitude shaking.

October 24, 2006 at 12:46 PM · In my experience, the individual character of a brand new violin is there from the first day. Breaking in a violin, to me, is more something like warming it up. The longer you warm it up, the less it cools down. Finally its stays warm! Play long and loud, near the bridge, all kind of intervals. I advise to use thick plain gut strings for the D and A, they give your violin a boost of overtones, wich helps to speed up the breaking in time.

I think it is a honour to be the first player of a new violin!

October 24, 2006 at 04:28 PM · The more a violin is played the more open the sound. This is one of the reasons why an older (typically better quality) violin sounds better and appreciates in value after being played for a number of years. I've talked with a number of people that I consider experts on Violin sound and I/We/They believe that a violins true sound opens up the more that it is played. Time doesn't seem to be as important as the actual playing time, hence a 20 year old instrument played once a year won't have opened up (typically) as a 5 year old instrument played daily.

October 27, 2006 at 01:16 AM · My take would be that it's a product of both time and playing. I've played old instruments that had been sitting and they sounded/felt old (or maybe it was the smell:) then in addition to that felt like they "played in" after some time. So subjective. Additionally I remember Jeffery saying old wood feels different when being worked.

Anyway the reason I'm posting - David do you think either time or playing affects the sound? I'm not sure you've committed yet. Maybe you've been able to follow some new violins through the years.

October 27, 2006 at 12:11 PM · From Jim W. Miller:

"Anyway the reason I'm posting - David do you think either time or playing affects the sound? I'm not sure you've committed yet. Maybe you've been able to follow some new violins through the years."

Jim, I guess you caught me. :-)

You're right,I haven't committed yet.

I'm sure I knew the answer at one time, but in some areas, the more I learn, the less I know.

I've learned to be very suspicious of people's impressions about sound, including my own.

Aural memory can easily be corrupted. For instance, I can hand someone a "medium" sounding violin, and it sounds "medium" to them. After giving them a dark sounding violin to play for a while, when returning to the first violin, they think the first fiddle sounds too bright.

When I was doing repairs, I had a rule. Never give someone a loaner that sounds better than their own violin (unless you're trying to sell something), because when they get their own violin back, they'll be disappointed with the sound and think you made it worse somehow. So recent experience often means more than years of familiarity.

Some scientific tests have shown significant spectra changes with time or playing or artificial vibration. But I've had some instruments played for years that show no obvious spectral change.

Before making up my mind, I'd like to hear recordings of instruments before and after. These would be recordings with the same player using the same bow in EXACTLY the same recording environment. Recording equipment needs to be the same, set to the same levels. The position and direction of the mic needs to be marked, and the exact position of the players feet need to be marked. Measuring the distance between the player and the mic isn't enough.

I'd also need the same brand and gage of strings, same bridge, chinrest, shoulder rest, etc. A photo would be handy to verify that all the same furniture is in the recording room and in exactly the same position. The instrument would need at least a week to stabilize at the same humidity level as when previously recorded.

These requirements are tough to satisfy.

And what about sound adjustment of the violin? Do you re-adjust to optimize the sound, which might be required to realize benefits, or do you leave everything alone?

I'll probably take some heat for this because I'm not tacitly accepting the common dogma. Understand though that I'm not saying instruments DON'T improve. But a lot of my learning has come from questioning what's "already known" and commonly accepted.

Here are four things I think I CAN say, and I'm only speaking for myself:

(1) I don't think I'd ever purchase a bad sounding violin, counting on it to improve with time and playing.

(2) New and recently restored instruments will change radically in the first several days after they're strung up.

(3) I've had instruments come back after a period of time, sounding worse. This could always be fixed with adjustment. There WAS a change though.

(4) My impression is that with new instruments, there is a reduction in high frequency noise, "sizzle" and "edge" with time or playing. Not that this is always a good thing, if an instrument doesn't have enough to start with.

Now I'll go put on my flame suit! :-)

http://www.burgessviolins.com

October 27, 2006 at 03:04 PM · I'm curious if any studies have been done as to how certain woods (obviously Maple and Spruce among others), compress or get "denser" with time. I know that an average sounding instrument can (usually) have it's sound improved if it's graduated enough, I've seen some instruments atually sound great even though my Hechlinger gauge gave me some awfully thin numbers. In those cases I realize that this is a temporary situation, or until the top caves in, but I wonder if a top typically compresses a certain amount per year? Does the age/curing of the wood used affect how much compression occurs? I would think so, but facts are always better than assumptions.

November 1, 2006 at 08:12 PM · New, related question:

As a temporary instrument, while I save for something in the $15,000 + range, I just purchased a used Jurgen Klier Strad model.

This violin is only 1 year old. It lacks some body, as you would expect, but has a WONDERFUL midrange & yet the HF is not overly strident. It's aggressive & fun to play.

**The problem is, it chokes very badly in 5th position & higher, esp on the high e-string. Is this something that typically opens up with age, or did I buy a clunker?

November 3, 2006 at 01:51 AM · bump.

Any opinions on this?

David said that he would not buy a bad sounding instrument, hoping that time would make it better. That seems like good advice. This violin isn't bad, it just has that one problem. I'm wondering if I should get something else as my interim violin.

Is there some kind of adjustment that can open up the higher positions? I read somewhere that a lighter tailpice, or a more flexible tail-wire might help.

Thoughts?

November 3, 2006 at 01:58 AM · I whould buy something good sounding for at least $3000. It's worth it if it's a good violin!

November 3, 2006 at 02:32 AM · one man's good $3000 fiddle is another man's...............

What's a good fiddle for 3K and how are you going to use it.

is it for a hobby, or solo playing or what?

Just curious.....

November 3, 2006 at 11:47 AM · Without getting into the argument, new violins certainly change rapidly and break in. Their shape changes. Need a longer soundpost, for example. There's probably a settling in part of this.

They wake up with vibration. I suppose playing would be best. Before I adjust any instrument I wake it up. I use a quite delightful high energy vibrator from WalMart. And a pad. On the bridge. On the back. Obvious change in response. I feel more secure in adjusting an instrument warmed up like this. I hit it again after adjusting the soundpost. Gets things settled.

I've tried longer vibration periods in a torture box. Not so much violins, but mandolins. 4 hours of high vibration certainly changes the way a mandolin responds! Backslides a bit, but at least some of the warmup becomes permanent. The owners can tell the difference instantly.

David had some nice points "(1) I don't think I'd ever purchase a bad sounding violin, counting on it to improve with time and playing."

Or counting on sending it to someone to get it sounding good because you "know" they can reveal its hidden potential. While many of us no doubt appreciate the confidence, it can't possibly always be true!

"(2) New and recently restored instruments will change radically in the first several days after they're strung up."

As I mentioned above. Thus being patient while folks work on instruments will bear fruit.

"(3) I've had instruments come back after a period of time, sounding worse. This could always be fixed with adjustment. There WAS a change though."

Ditto here. Especially new instruments. I've even had people whine about how this or that "played out" after a while and was no good, so I'm clearly an idiot, etc. Usually needs 15 minutes of minor adjustment to get back to where it was, if that. And to be better than it ever was with a bit more!

"(4) My impression is that with new instruments, there is a reduction in high frequency noise, "sizzle" and "edge" with time or playing."

My observation, too. Much of my detailed work on instrument tweeking is directed towards speeding this up.

Humidity cycling seems effective. Once the top varnish sinks in a bit along the grain showing the top has settled in I generally hear a better instrument. Doesn't matter what kind of stringed instrument. Guitar, mandolin, violin.

On the general topic of break in. I'll get a model of a violin done, put a few out and box the rest. All set up and ready to go. When one comes back after six months it is nothing like one pulled out of a box. Even if I warm up the one in the box for an hour. Something happens when a player saws away on the thing 3 hours a day.

November 3, 2006 at 04:14 PM · Great post, Stephen.

I especially like this idea; " Before I adjust any instrument I wake it up. I use a quite delightful high energy vibrator from WalMart."

(no comment required!)

Do you have any opinion on the problem I mention in my last post? This 1 year-old & hardly-played Jurgen Klier has amazing projection in the upper mids, a nicely controlled HF (not at all strident) but it dies like a dog (OK I'm exaggerrating) in 5th - 7th positions.

Should I be looking to trade it in, or give it some time?

Alternatively, is this something a really top luthier could (safely) adjust, either internally or externally?

Klier is a supposedly gold-medal winner in Germany, and this is one of his better models, but no-one nails every instrument they make. I'm wondering if I bought his worst effort, and if so can it be "saved" -or is time the answer?

November 3, 2006 at 04:23 PM · It's possible that it needs to break in, but it might be a clunker -- hard to say without playing the fiddle firsthand. It's also possible that you might need to adapt your bow technique to make the most of this instrument.

If you have doubts, I'd go and try a bunch more instruments and see if there's anything that works better for you.

November 4, 2006 at 10:17 PM · There are several possiblilites, zero or more of which may apply to your situation:

1. I'm not sure of your level of playing, but 5th position and upwards requires some experience to play well. Bow weight, speed and soundpoint all become more important in developing a good sound in the upper positions and perhaps the violin will begin to sound better with more practise.

2. The violin will probably open up somewhat after being played in higher positions. So it might take a bit of work (time and patience) on your part to get a better sound.

3. I've played violins that are rather "tight" in high positions especially on the G string that do open up somewhat with time. That all four strings (implied by your post but maybe I've misinterpreted) are tough to play suggests the problem is particularly strong on this instrument and might mean that there is some major limitation that time and playing alone won't fix.

4. Have you had the setup of the instrument checked by a luthier whose work you can trust? This includes strings, bridge (shape and location) and soundpost? There might be something goofy with it that can be corrected fairly inexpensively.

5. Depending on how long it'll be before you can advance to your dream, $15K instrument, it might not be worth your frustration in working with your present Klier. That is, if you're thinking on doing a major upgrade in a year, perhaps you can live with the present instrument. However, if it's mopre like five years, it's probably better to switch to an instrument that meets your needs somewhat better in the meantime.

November 4, 2006 at 11:02 PM · Thanks, Zak.

Yes, the problem is on all four strings. I'm going to send it to Stephen Perry @ Gianna Violins next week.

I will likely buy my next violin sometime next year, but I really need this one to work now. Also, perhaps this will become really nice for some styles, and will compliment the new violin.

You would think a violin in this price-range ($4300) would be set-up well from the maker, but no. Even the bridge height is slightly off. It will be interesting to see just how much can be done with a good setup.

November 6, 2006 at 12:25 AM · Been thinking about this basic topic some more.

I know that many new instruments sound fine, and I'm no longer feel afraid of purchasing a new instrument.

Still, I think almost everyone will agree that really old instruments tend to have a certain body that newer instruments, as a whole, lack. Once can argue whether this is a good thing or a bad thing, but will anyone argue that is isn't so?

SO I JUST HAD A THOUGHT:

-------------------------------

Many years ago a read a book by some award-winning classical guitar luthier. He had a number of surprising techniques, including soaking his rosewood in acetone for two weeks, to remove as much sap as possible.

One of the things he wrote, which many here obviously agree with, is that tension is the enemy of good vibration. makes sense. That would explain why humidity-cycling has some effect.

What this guy said was, whenever possible, he liked to get his instruments back after a few years AND REMOVE/REPLACE THE TOPS. Despite the difficulty of the work, he felt that this basically gets rid of all tension in the top, and the seasoned top can then truly vibrate at it's maximum potential.

Hmmm. Obviously, there is still some tension, as a top will always expand & shrink with climate changes, but maybe there's something to this? Many vintage violins have had their tops removed for various repairs, no? Could this be part of the puzzle, at least in some cases?

November 6, 2006 at 12:13 AM · A few late contributions:

--With regard to the idea that 'over thin' instruments 'get tired' it's worth noting that Stradivari tops are commonly in the vicinity of 2.5 mm thick (note how I sidestep the question of whether he made them that way). I doubt you'll actually find instrument prices for 'tired' violins going down. Once the shop has convinced you your violin is tired and sold you a new one, I bet they do a new setup and put that old thing out on the floor for the going rate.

--The real problem with regraduation is that very few people are qualified to judge what's needed in a given instrument. The arching has a big impact on this. The perfect example to give one pause in this regard is the Del Gesu 'Cannone' with its approximately 150% thicker-than-average graduations and a big fan club.

--As I understand it, one of the factors when comparing an old instrument with a fine new one is that for the same price your choice is often between a 3rd-tier older fiddle with certain limitations due to the design, and a modern instrument made carefully on a design with a proven track record. The old one may have that old-wood warmth within its range, but if the maker is a good one, the new one will be a more flexible musical tool.

Of course there are those who search and search until they find an old instrument of good design for a low price, which has both warmth and range, and more power to you.

December 20, 2007 at 12:12 AM · Greetings All of you. I am actually a professional cellist here in Seattle, but have found the conversation threads on this site to be so high quality that I have joined.

I also think I can be of some service to this discussion! I have invented a way to play-in instruments that has not been used before. The strings are playing ff for 24 hours a day and I change the pitches every 8-12 hours in a system of pitches that I have found most helpful. The results have been so wonderful that I have started a business doing this and have played in many professional instruments from well known makers who have all been delighted with the results. I originally came up with it after buying a new cello and refusing to wait 5 years. You can read more about it and hear samples at: www.violinplay-in.com

A few neat observations as pertains to this thread: poor instruments will always be poor, just older sounding poor.

After even weeks of ff playing, a new instrument will have lost its new sound completely and will have lots of color and depth and all I am looking for. BUT it will NOT really sound old, like a 300 year old instrument. Clearly there are other factors like simple wood age and the like that contribute to that. However, I find that folks cannot hear that "old" difference at normal concert distances. In fact, there is a robustness and strength to a really great, played-in modern instrument that none but the best older instruments can match (one reason more and more soloists play great modern instruments.) Elmar Oliviera, the champion of modern instruments, played a new fiddle by John Young in concert the very day he got it after I had played it in for a week. Robert Mann was the first human to play a viola I broke in that was made for him. He made a decision on it the very day he played it and told its' maker that it didn't sound new. Both players have great old instruments but are clearly getting something they enjoy in modern ones.

Different models change more quickly. I find that Strad model instruments need to be played in before they find the low end of their sound. Guarneri and Montagnana's have the bass more from the start, and tend to clear up and get more focused and even first. Strads tend to start more focused and even.

Playing one pitch for 24 hours at ff volume does NOT result in that one pitch being louder then all the rest. It seems to work in pitch 'regions' perhaps. Play a low note and the low end gets bigger.... This tends to throw off the widely spoken of belief that an instrument needs to be played in tune in order to sound good since the instrument doesn't seem to respond to pitch as precisely as is sometimes spoken of.

If one was to break in an instrument by hand over a long period of time, I would recommend emphasizing the low range for a long time first since the larger masses being vibrated for lower pitches will loosen things up faster and break in the main flexing points of the top before the lighter, faster vibrations of the higher notes get started.

An instrument's essential essence is there from the beginning. However, it is like a baby in a way, you can hardly tell the way the adult will look by looking at the baby. But when you look backwards, it is easier to see. This is where the model has alot more variance. Strad models in particular are hardest to see from the beginning since they develop their low end only after playing in.

Anyway, I'd love to talk about this topic more with anyone who is interested. Also, feel free to check out the before and after samples (even more controlled, but similiar to Mr. Burgess' suggestion) on the site. Very telling!

December 19, 2007 at 10:22 PM · Facinating stuff Kevin. Being a beginner, I had clearly noticed that even when I stretch and take one of several approaches to warming my hands, that the instrument still has to be warmed up...

And being a little bit of a romantic, I like that one day it will take on some of my music's essence--uh, if I ever learn to pull a straight bow! ;)

I don't know why I'm so surprised though. I competed on a new grand piano in Seoul South Korea that was not broken in, and it was tighter than Scrooge in both feel and sound.

I think, that as I wrote a long long time ago, being up close to the violin, really becomes a sort of intimate thing is what I'm perceiving probably.

December 20, 2007 at 01:38 AM · I must admit I did not read through all the comments, but I have found that after about a week of hard playing an instrument will focus in. Thereafter, the changes will be more gradual and after about 3 months it is advisable to have a soundpost adjustment. After that it will be about a year to see a noticeable improvement. I am currently playing on a brand new instrument by Timothy Johnson and found after a week a distinct centering in. The sound under the ear is smaller, but I expect it projects better. I will probably take it to him to have a soundpost adjustment in the next couple of days. If you want to speed up the process, play scales in thirds as loud as you can.

December 20, 2007 at 01:43 AM · With respect, that response by Kevin reads more like an advertisement. If I'm wrong I apologize

in advance.

December 20, 2007 at 02:36 AM · Indeed I'm sorry my post sounds like an advert. It's a catch 22 for me. Having obviously alot of experience with the hands on of playing-in instruments, I have to state my qualifications in order to enter the discussion with the info I have gleaned from the process.

I did at least try to talk about real issues of value to players in this forum and tried very hard not to overstate things in an advertisingly silly way.

I just didn't see any other way to talk about what I've learned and the evidence of how instruments change with playing in, recorded in a way that is very controlled. Sorry to offend.

December 20, 2007 at 05:50 AM · No offence here, I apologize.

December 20, 2007 at 04:33 PM · Regarding feedback loops: I purchased an old guitar that was heavily pick-scarred; the finish was gone as well as some of the belly wood, Upon repair, it turned out to be a fine-sounding instrument. (it was about 50 yrs old when I bought it). Now, I tend to be a quiet player, not into thrashing on a guitar, but before long I found myself beating the daylights out of that guitar. It WANTED me to play it that way; it sounded its best being beaten.

Of course there's no way to tell whether it came out of the factory that way, or had been influenced by the previous owner. But there it is.

Now that leads me into wondering if Kevin's break-in method, involving as it does a lot of ff playing without gradual increases in break-in volume from pp thru ff may in fact be overkill; it seems to me that fibers loosened (or whatever term you prefer) by heavy high-volume play might be losing some subtlety somehow.

On the other hand, a viola that had been unplayed for several years that sounded thin and tight to the ear of a good player became another (and improved, I'm pleased to say) instrument in her hands after suffering thru my bowing the bejesus out of it for a couple hours, and handing it back for a re-eval the next day.

Obviously there's no simple answer to the questions this topic begs. But it seems to me obvious that breaking-in is a valid phenomenon, that can be augmented mechanically, and can benefit the playabilty of an instrument. I suspect one can go too far with the process, though this is only alluded to in the above posts. Given the nature of wood, human hearing and so forth, controlled studies are not readily performed, though Steve Perry's experiences with new violins are interesting.

All of this is endlessly fascinating to me, but ultimately will end up in endlessly chasing our collective tail. I will now retire with my vibrato(r).

December 20, 2007 at 06:25 PM · Speaking of which, I read an interview with Ry Cooder where he said he loaned Joseph Spence a guitar for a few months and somehow he killed it for him.

Compounding all this is the ear is very tricky and psychological when it comes to comparing sounds with an intervening time interval. I automatically distrust anything said about it.

December 20, 2007 at 04:59 PM · I think Kevin is on to something. When I had a modern violin I would place it between two loudspeakers and blow the sanity out of it for a couple of hours a day in the beginning. There was a noticeable difference in the response.

Of course a method whereby the strings are activated in ff would be even more effective.

How is it done? My guess would be a rubber wheel with rosin on driven by an electric motor and a guitar style fret lock? Must make a hell of a noise!

December 20, 2007 at 06:41 PM · What could that do with, let's say, a 100 year old instrument? Could that still show "aging?"

December 20, 2007 at 06:46 PM · It seems that old violins that sit around awhile unplayed also "age" but playing them again brings them back up.

December 20, 2007 at 07:13 PM · There isn't really a shortcut that I've found...I have been hired to break-in new instruments that go to other players who may not have time to do it themselves, and I own a few old and new instruments that fantastic from the beginning and after a number of weeks of playing them a lot, they sounded even better. Your primary objective with a new instrument is to break up the varnish (at the molecular level...don't put it next to a heater and then outside in the cold as I've heard of some guitar owners doing to crack the finish) and get the wood vibrating, and with an old instrument, the wood needs to begin vibrating again. And of course, you want the wood to vibrate is a way that resonates, so to speak, with what it's going to be used for...different types of vibration in the instrument bring out different tones...if you're going to be bowing the thing in the long run, you might as well bow it to break it in...Any kind of double-stops played long and loudly near the bridge or full, ringing, triple-stops will help though..my 2 cents

December 21, 2007 at 02:17 AM · Vibration source!

I did this with one new violin that seemd a litlte tight and had too much high end (almost a hiss). I used my Sonicare electric toothbrush (dry) right on the bridge to generate a powerful 60 Hz signal into the body. That ought to loosen up any too-tight glue joints and restricting varnish. The fiddle has definitely comee along since I got it 7 years ago. Quite comparable to one I have had for 56 years. Both Strad models. They do have some Strad acoustic characteristics - and clean natural harmonics (to die for).

But another violin by this same maker had sounded ezquisite from its very beginning - so it's not likely that his varnishing restricted the sound much. In fact, He would string up his new fiddles in the white, to see what they sounded like before varnishing (he makes his own amber-based finish) - I have played some of those too.

I've even heard one maker say (let's say he was hypothesizing) that centuries of playing will shake loose some of the interior wood (sawdust) leaving the vibration nodes (the regions that don't move so much) more emphasized and the parts that do move thinner. Could be??

Certainly not all old fiddles get a great sound. A "ringer" at our orchestra concerts this past weekend was playing a Gagliano that was really sweet sounding, but not a big sound like the Rocca owner she sat next - an his fiddle is only 100.

December 21, 2007 at 04:18 AM · I read that Stradivari was very famous in his own time for making new instruments, but that the instruments of Amati were more sought after. Why? They Amati instruments had aged a few decades.

After about 80 years the stradivari instuments overtook to Amati instruments for sound quality and have remained on top ever since. Therefore, I think something like 80 years is required, in general, for instruments to age, although the book I read showed different aging charts for different brands of instruments, so it all depends. I would think that 40 years minimum is required.

Of course, the dynamics change if the spruce top (and maple parts) has been carefully selected from wood that is at least a few years old and aged properly, versus wood that is good but not aged as carefully.

I think there are many very-well made instruments today that will be worth much more in 80 years (especially from Eastern Europe and - at a premium - Italy and maybe soon the Far East). We are in another golden era.

December 21, 2007 at 08:32 AM · I do not use a mechanical bow! What if something went wrong and a string broke or the hairs broke and then the wheel just eats through the other stings and then the instrument before I check on it again 12 hours later? I will tell you that no one has ever even come remotely close to guessing my method, although the very first idea I had was not far from the sonic toothbrush idea!

It is very interesting to think about the many ways these intruments age. But in regards to the Strad vs. Amati preference during Stradivaris own time, perhaps this is really the historical point at which old instruments became more sought after. So the question is: Was it then, as many times it is now, that the older instrument was prized because the older maker was famous and the best players could afford his instruments and thus drove the desireability and interest up? At the very least I think we can't assume Amati's violins sounded better than Stradivari's.

Also, I'd like to chime in about the idea of putting an instrument in front of speakers. Since the design of an instrument is to make the strings vibrate and to concentrate that energy into the bridge so it can rock back and forth, simply playing loud music at it might make the body shake a bit, but not along the nodes and in accordance with the primary functions of the instrument.

At some point I'd like to take an instrument and play it in 24 hours a day for perhaps 6 months and see what happens. It is not difficult to do the math of figuring out how much even professionals play their instruments at fortissimo volumes in a given day and then add that up over years and come up with numbers. I've done it several times, but no one can be sure enough since every player is so different. Still, it isn't actually that much, so it is easy to catch up.

I know a professor at a University here in Washington that is studying the question of how violins age. We have spoken about collaborating and looking into the many different things, most of which have been raised on this forum, that contribute, so that will be fascinating to read when he is done.

For my money, I find that the superb health and robustness of a well played-in modern instrument of quality has a real appeal as a player. While they'll never have the history or perhaps the shiny sound up close, they have their own charms the old ones usually don't. I got to play solo cello over orchestra for the soon to be released movie, Bordertown with Antonio Banderas, J-Lo, and Martin Sheen. I've heard the movie is not very good, so it is going to DVD. Still, I was really excited by the sound of my, at the time, year old cello. If you dare brave the movie, you can tell me what you think.

December 21, 2007 at 02:03 PM · kevin, i applaud you for your interest in what you do (i don't mean playing cello on j lo:) it is interesting to see how it will develop.

in terms of study design, i wonder if i can throw in 2 cents.

it has been my observation that during the play- in period, besides having the violin played a lot and aggressively, many other little things may have been done concurrently. for instance, moving/adjusting/shaping the bridge, moving/adjusting/shaping the soundpost,etc. i presume you did nothing but playing the violin (do you pay musical interns 30 cents per hour for the 24 hour shift?) however, for many other people, there are many confounding factors involved. when the violin later indeed sounds better, it is not easy to look back and sort things out accordingly.

further, a study with more power in your case may need to employ the following ploy. lets say you have 100 violins coming up. divide them into 2 groups. 50 get the real play-in. 50 get sham play-in (simply do nothing). see what happens. granted, this may be difficult to accomplish in a business setting but if it is ever done, it will save a lot of explanation.

December 21, 2007 at 07:37 PM · Hi Al Ku. I am in discussions with a couple world class makers as well as this physics professor to do some things quite like that.

Still, I don't think anyone refutes the need to play in the instrument and besides just having an instrument sit around for 300 years, is by far the greatest effect. I'm not so interested in trying to prove it since it would be much like proving water is wet. Instead, I have spent alot of time trying to come up with a systematic approach to the week or weeks I have an instrument. This is very difficult to do since there are an infinite numbers of ways to do it. But common sense points in certain directions, and I have followed the ones that agree with science, never idealism.

As for bridges and sound posts, makers tell me that even after just a week of playing in, things tend to settle at a very highly quickened pace. Intruments tend to immediately need their 6 or 12 month service, but then tend to be much more stable.

One thing that is very interesting is that, after doing about 20 instruments as I developed this thing over the last couple of years, I have gotten better and better at being able to guess the direction an instrument will go, since I get to see it in such quick snapshots. By reading the pattern and varnish and the original sound, response, and color pallet, I've have decent at predicting them. This is fascinating to me, though I think it will always be an imprecise science since there are occasional instruments that shock me a great deal in their results. Instruments that I assume will not really turn into great instruments because they just don't seem to have the potential, but then they do. Still, that is rare and the flip side is that an instrument with great potential on the surface has never been dissapointing once the newness is banished.

I dream of a day when lots of people have heard the before and afters of many instruments and we can stop giving these wonderful modern makers the old "but I just don't know how this instrument will sound when it's played in." By the way, did you know Bosendorfer Pianos are played for 300 hours by machine before they are sent out? That's almost 2 weeks!

December 21, 2007 at 08:23 PM · Kevin, are you saying that you notice the varnish makes a major difference in how the

sound will develop? What would happen if there was no varnish applied, would the sound then be better? Hmmm....

December 21, 2007 at 09:11 PM · After having lots of face time with lots of great makers, I can honestly say I know nothing to very little about varnish. It is a whole world, one which I will never act like I understand like a top maker.

But like anyone, I can tell if the varnish is of quality or not and if it looks really thick or very hard (think Suzuki instrument) then I find that they always always sound horrible. Is this the varnish though? Hard to say, because it also points at the maker who would put such varnish on an instrument.

A really great varnish looks and feels rather thin has a certain quality that comes out in the wood. This is about the extent of the knowledge I will claim to be able to identify, though I have been told many many things.

December 21, 2007 at 11:29 PM · Most makers I've talked to who string up instruments "in the white" say that they sound better this way than when varnished, but that the sound doesn't last.

I have no personal experience with this though, because I never string up instruments before varnishing, seeing little or no value in doing so.

One could argue in favor of a varnish which makes the smallest change, but that same varnish might fail to prevent the changes that make a "white" violin go downhill.

Allan, I know this is an ancient thread, but I'll repeat my offer (on another forum) to adjust your violin (for free) and see what I can do. I'm up for an occasional challenge.

If my results suck, you are sworn to secrecy! (wink)

December 21, 2007 at 11:38 PM · Don't turn that offer down. He's the master, son. And when you get it back, don't even breathe on that setup.

December 22, 2007 at 05:38 AM · Post deleted

December 22, 2007 at 01:49 AM · Michael, congratulations on keeping an open mind.

My results from artificial "playing in" are also inconclusive.

Keep us informed?

Kevin, my quick impression from the recordings was that the cello(s) sounded better, but I'm not so sure about the violins.

What was your impression, given that you probably heard them live versus a recording?

December 22, 2007 at 03:16 AM · The violin on the test is a pretty low quality violin. Actually, I didn't quite think about that when I put it up there (in this case, violin from china in the white, finished in the states). I should put a different test example up there of a better violin. In an instrument that is not built to have a large low end, the low end will only develop as much as the quality built into it will allow. What makers and players hear in such instruments though, is alot more clarity throughout, especially in the higher positions, more complexity in the sound, much more eveness, and the raspy newness gone. There is also a measurable bump in volume on 95 percent of the pitches in the tests. The 5 percent seems to be when an instrument is so muddy and wolfy in a particular range, that when the sound clears up, it is sometimes making less actual decibels when measured on the meter. This is usually on higher pitches though.

In testing the instruments, I put alot of time and energy into measuring things to make the tests as perfect as possible. This includes making sure the player follows the previous measurements of the way it is bowed in all three bowing variables (the bows own weight, exactly 2 seconds per full bow and however many mm from the bridge was previously bowed.) Because of this, I don't really have time to think about the sound and unless one is really intimate with a particular instrument, I think sound memory is a sketchy thing indeed.

I try to stick to the facts though and not so much my own opinions since those would be easy to discount. I think we are all after measurable facts. I for one have a hard enough time with the various opinions we must all wade through. So if I leave it to the tests and the reactions of the players and makers, there are several testimonials on the site that point a little to the differences, but I can at least say that all the instruments do lose any identifying characteristic of being brand new. Past that, the differences are pretty much exactly what you hear in the first 5 years of an instruments life. You just fast forward to 3-5 years later. I have done that with two instruments myself in real time, played them from brand new to about 5 years. There is no identifying sound of artificial play in, or that all the playing was done in a week or two. I think we would all assume that actual time is a huge factor in the sound of a 300 year old instrument, but it doesn't seem to be in such a short time span.

I have a special sound igloo with 1.5 foot thick walls to keep the sound at bay....

What you're noticing in the violin is the smaller difference found in the change of a lesser quality I only chose that one since it was the last one I had recorded and the files of the others were harder to get to on my old computer. It is true, when I listen back to it, that I hear big changes, but it is occasionally hard to hear which is actually better. But I think this is what happens with some instruments of lesser quality. I think the Chinese cello on the tests is similiar in this way. I will say that when listened to as a whole though, both owners just felt like it didn't sound new anymore and that they sounded more like a violin and a cello, whereas the cellist had described her instrument as sounding "midi" before hand.

Playing-in an instrument only does just that; it does not alter the overall quality built into that instrument!

December 22, 2007 at 11:29 AM · Two quick thoughts:

1" Kevin wrote, "Also, I'd like to chime in about the idea of putting an instrument in front of speakers. Since the design of an instrument is to make the strings vibrate and to concentrate that energy into the bridge so it can rock back and forth, simply playing loud music at it might make the body shake a bit, but not along the nodes and in accordance with the primary functions of the instrument."

I'm sorry, but that's simply incorrect. All nodes will take off, no matter where the source comes from. I have a masters degree in physical acoustics to back that statement up. I do think, though, that it would be better overall if the source vibration came fromthe strings-bridge, so Kevin's basic point is still valid. I like Michael Richwine's idea, posted above. (transducer coupled to the bridge)

Still, all that really matters is that you limit the frequencies to those made by an actual violin. I find that vintage Aretha Franklin works really well. (I'm actually serious)

2a: Most material will in fact take a "set" based on the viabrations going through them. As any good recording engineer can tell you: Take two mics that are virtually identical in sound. use one as a general purpose mic, for guitars, drums, etc. Use the only for vocals. Five years later, I guarantee that the second mic will sound noticeably better on vocals than the first. The material in the membrane changes physically. Modern mics use mylar membranes, and while this phenomenon can still be observed in them, it is much more pronouced in the older mics with their less inert membranes.

When I was in school, the prevailing belief was that varnish, and to a lesser extent the "plastic elements in the wood (lignin, residual sap, etc) take on such a set as they harden over time. It was believed that if a new instrument was not played consistently for the first few years of its life, the varnish would be ruined due to not "setting correctly." I do not know if this is the current paradigm or not.

2b: A few people mentioned that they know professional players who are afraid to let amateurs play their instrument, for fear that it would take the "wrong" set. Oh nonsense! What, the kid would play out of tune? If that's really a problem, then all those old Cremonese fiddles would be garbage, since they've been played countless hours at A430, 432, 434, etc.

That's a LOT of bad notes by todays standard. Didn't seem to hurt them.

December 22, 2007 at 04:24 AM · David,

Thanks for the repeat offer. I've learned quite a bit since this thread started, and purchsed a number of other violins. I used that Klier to experiment on. The main thing I did, which I know will make you shudder, is that I did rather brutal humidity-cyling on it. Basically, I just left it outside, under a make-shift roof, for about 2-3 months. Rainstorms & all. (yes, I loosened the strings first.)

Before that, I gave it plenty of sunlight, to help the varnish cure. Yeah, I know, you're cringing right now, but I didn't care if the thing exploded. It was a $4300 experiment.

So here's how it went: (And David, you know that I DO record everything, and keep the conditions the same right down to ambient humidity (which makes a large differnce) and what furniture is in the room. -OK, I really don't think I'd notice if a chair were missing, but still...)

The sunshine radically sped-up the varnish drying. Previous to that, the violin had existed for about 2 years, and the ultra HF still seemed muted to me (as on a new guitar) I knew that guitar get brighter as the laquer hardenes, typically within 6 months. Oil varnish is a different beast. 2 months in the early morning / early evening sun made a HUGE difference. All sorts of harmonics came peaking out, and the midrange was still as exciting as ever.

Next I had a top repairman raise the FB (it was low from birth, not the sun treatment) and cut a new bridge. Honestly, the sonic change was minimal, though it was easier to play so still worth it.

Next came the humidity cycling. Oh man, this had a HUGE impact. the fiddle is now noticeably warmer, and it also plays significantly more open in fifth position. Some of the HF sizzle is gone, and I'm not sure that's a good thing (I really liked the "German-ness" of this one) but overall the sound is fuller, richer, and it sits in a track better.

David, as a reference, these changes were much more drastic than the changes we heard in that test you sent me last year.

AND NOTE: While all this was going on, I was NOT playing the instrument. These changes were completely due to age & environmental factors. That doesn't mean playing isn't important, but it IS an interesting observation.

Sadly, the sound of this rather heavy violin is still a bit "tight" and reserved. I'm pretty sure that this is simply due ti the graduations being overly thick. (They were measured by my luthier) As you've said several times, Age alone won't make an avg violin into a killer.

--------------------------

BTW:

I also still strongly believe in the theory I raised earlier: Any violin more than a few years old will likely benefit from having its top removed and then replaced again, even with no internal work done. the idea being that the wood have aged, moved, found its equilibrium. Now remove it (hear the wood say "ahhhhhh" ) releasing all that tension that was built up against the sides, and replace it where it wants to be. I dunno, could do nothing at all, but it COULD allow the top to vibrate just a tad more freely, adding body to the sound.

I also think, based on my long-ago experiments with guitars, that a thicker overall table has a better chance at yeilding a complex, expressive tone than a thin one, (read: Guarneri) but that the thicker table will need more aging before it is flexible enough to give that full "body" we all love.

That's alotta' rainstorms.

December 22, 2007 at 04:57 AM · >>Michael, congratulations on keeping an open mind.<<

Well I don't have too much doubt that playing in helps an instrument open up. I see a LOT of new violins at all levels. Just don't know for sure whether machines help, or how much, or what method might be best.

I do know some stuff that doesn't work, or is counterproductive, like bow machines (built one, disastrous!) and heavy mechanical vibration. It's definitely possible to overdo, in our experience.

An associated phenomenon is the fact that the more I practice, the better my instrument becomes. ;^)

I think perhaps my greatest accomplishment in life has been learning to see and hear somewhat clearly, without filtering trough reactions. See, hear, be aware of my "automatic" reaction, consider, then respond. Saves me a lot of fumphing around

Second is not having expectations.

Third is letting go.

Sorry for the digression.. feeling philosophical, philosophistic, whatever........

Lao Tze Rules!

(kind of late on a Friday night when I should be out jamming, but the dog got out...)

December 22, 2007 at 06:44 AM · -deleted-

December 22, 2007 at 05:38 AM · My apologies, Bill. I deleted the post in question.

FWIW, the part I talked about is clearly prior art. I have read about plenty of other people doing the same thing. It's the other parts that are interesting.

December 22, 2007 at 05:46 AM · It's ok, Michael. I'm kind of a naturally paranoid person. :)

No harm done! And I look forward to seeing you soon!

December 22, 2007 at 06:32 AM · Patent pending is fine. Nobody will do any development because they don't know what's covered, since it's not public at that point.

In fact - it can be better than a patent because 1. Since it's not public there's no way to zero in and circumvent it, and 2. Because it gives you this virtual protection, even though the patent may not be eventually granted. So get into production quick :) But don't start describing what the patent will cover.

December 22, 2007 at 06:11 AM · Shhh.....stop talking about it. lol

Available soon....:)

December 22, 2007 at 06:23 AM · I'll do whatever you want me to do :) I'll be sitting here for the next 15 min then I'm hitting the hay.

December 22, 2007 at 06:45 AM · You could kill this thread for me if you wanted to...

December 22, 2007 at 06:50 AM · Yeah, boss.

December 22, 2007 at 06:50 AM · How was dis, boss?

This discussion has been archived and is no longer accepting responses.

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