Violin designs?

August 29, 2017, 1:36 PM · (from blog post) Hi everyone - its been quite a while since I've posted and I'm currently a student at Georgia Tech (bio major; yes highly ironic considering I'm not an engineering student AND writing on a musical community blog)

Many summers ago I had the opportunity to take a very, very brief apprenticeship for a local violin maker and I loved every aspect of it, so now I'm currently working on building my own personal instrument as a more of something-I-should-have-done-with-my-life-instead, which also raises new questions diving into the construction.

While many regard the violin as "perfect", it also has its tendencies and flaws like every other natural thing in the world (projection, frequency response, wolftones/frequency overloading, etc.), and its within human nature to try and improve it (I mean, someone sat down a long time ago and put together something nice that vaguely resembles the modern day instrument and before that baroque violin or lute)

Does anyone know of design implications they thought of but is 'outside traditional design"? Yes, it'll be my first instrument and my workmanship won't be great, but I hope these new ideas will amount to something truly unique and special rather than just copying for 'a first violin'. Along my line of thought on my current blueprints (which I won't try to spoil until I'm finished), ideas such as another bass bar on the back, placement of f-holes, thickness of plates, transfer of sound around the body, shape?

Any ideas are greatly appreciated to be contemplated!

Replies (43)

August 29, 2017, 1:58 PM · A friend of mine, Charles Woods, took up violin making about 15 years before he retired from his real job (27 or 28 years ago) as a mechanical engineer. I bought his 11th violin in 1990, but it was "commandeered" by my granddaughter in 2005 when she was 16 after 10 years of violin lessons. I subsequently purchased a viola and another violin that Woods made. He is now about 81 years old and has completed 101 instruments including 3 cellos, about 12 violas and 86 violins. I think he has sold them all - except for the last violin (I don't know about that one). In addition to being "self-taught" Woods has also attended violin-making workshops and actually won an award for tone for a viola he made early in his 2nd career. I don't think he entered any other competitions.

There are a lot of things about violin making that are not at all obvious from the outside (one of them is contained in this link: http://www.scavm.com/Woods.htm ). If you are planning to get started making a violin it would be a good idea to read all you can of this arcane art - as well as the science that has been growing this past century. Although there are definite rather fixed "plan" designs/outlines for violins, the other details are not at all fixed and need to be varied to adapt to the physical properties of the natural materials used for construction.

August 29, 2017, 1:59 PM · There has been anything possible.
The first thing of course the shape. Starting to loose the edges, blowing it up like a piece of popped corn, etc. Look at David Rivinus ergonomic violas for example.
F-Holes have been made bigger, positioned different and even left out for something similar at the sides.
Bassbars have been made double, put to the treble side, made differently, all has been there.
Sympathic strings like in a Hardanger have been put onto violins.
Some tried to make a neck angle adjuster for different climate (see Pavel Sporcls blue violin, which has also some cf in the bassbar and shorter edges).
Different materials. CF, glas. what ever
Different wood for the borders (Schleskes acacia borders).
Differnt soundpost positions and alternative couplings between bottom and top.
Or you go crazy and look at Julius Zöller violins. A bit more traditional is the bottle Chanot violin.
I think a lesser know maker from the Guarneri family tried such a thing too.

There is an really endless list of "improvements".

August 29, 2017, 6:50 PM · Study the physics of how the violin works. A second bass bar on the back will do nothing positive.

Posted with my real name, according to Vcom's rules.

Cheers Carlo

August 29, 2017, 7:57 PM · You might also want to take this question to Maestronet, where a lot of luthiers hang out.
Edited: August 30, 2017, 9:04 AM · Standard violins seem to work well.
Some of the more interesting design modifications seem to do more good to violas. My own is modelled on Gasparo's 2-cornered Lyra Viola in the Ashmolean Museum, (Oxford UK): 15.75" body , but a 14" string length, deep and wide, with almost no middle bouts. It was made in the workshop of Bernard Sabatier, (Paris, France) who has also made a 15" version replacing maple with poplar wood to slow down the vibrations. Not to be confused with his assymetrical violas.

The tone is like a plummy contralto, compared to the "mezzo" sound of my strad-model JTL, or the more baritone quality of many longer violas. Neither woolly not raspy, and the four strings match perfectly.

Edited: August 30, 2017, 4:07 AM · If you want to make violins, learn how to make them in the orthodox way first. It is better knowing how the traditional violin is made prior to develop something new.

For the trained eye, violins are very different in style and execution. The models created by da Salò, Maggini, Strad, Storioni, Amatis, Guadagnini etc. are very different.

One more thing to be considered is that players are very, very conservative in relation to their instruments. The market is even more unmercifull, if the violin is about 36 cms. long, its price will go very down, even if it sounds good.

I love this part of HILL`S book on Stradivari:

"In fact, tone is, and has been, though often unintentionally, sacrificed by many through seeking to gratify the taste for mere outward appearence. ... ...

... ...An ugly or even plain instrument, though excellent in tone, is again and again rejected. Many may view this statement with incredulity; it is nevertheless strictly true, and the statement is the outcome of innumerable experiences." (see the chapter on varnish).

It was true one hundred years ago. It's true today.

August 30, 2017, 4:12 AM · While they are in a minority, I often have customers that will pick an ugly violin because it is cheaper and still sounds good, so not everyone rejects everything that is not beautiful IMHO.
August 30, 2017, 6:44 AM · Before you go too far down the rabbit hole of wondrous new violin inventions, keep in mind that certain dimensions of the violin are the value they are because it has to be played by an actual human and has to use available strings.

You might want to go onto maestronet and start a thread on what dimensions experienced luthiers feel are critical to the playability of the violin (outside of tone or responsiveness).

For example, a given would probably be the playable string length: 326mm to 330mm.

From there, you might use the concept of MENSUR to determine the distance from nut to violin edge, and violin edge to bridge. This sets up a comfortable distance for the left arm and fingers to traverse the strings. Add overall body length, say 355mm, and you pretty much got the traditional lengths that players can use.

C-bout width determines bowability, as does the arch and height of the bridge.

The width of the upper bout affects the ability to play in higher string positions.

Edited: August 30, 2017, 9:05 AM · I've noticed (on violas again) that wide bottoms with narrow shouders (e.g. Tertis model) can give a boomy bass and a reedy treble. Curiously, Sabatier's assymetrical 3-cornered model seems to avoid this by reducing top and bottom bouts on the treble side. His (symmetrical) Lyra Viola 2-cornered model has wide but rounded shoulders: more awkwared to play high up, but a wonderful resonance across the range.
The 4:6:5 proportions, that Carmen hints at, are respected since the centre of the lower bout is recessed by 1/4".
August 30, 2017, 7:47 AM · A viola is a bit different as the wavelength/dimension ratio is different.
I wrote about improvements in quotationsmarks before. I suggest as other, make a good violin in the classical way first and than start thinking about changes.
There is a lot to understand and learn and I am not convinced by any of the alternative violin models (indeed there are some interesting on the viola).
A violin is a violin because it is made like a violin.
August 30, 2017, 9:00 AM · Indeed.
Mr Sabatier made a full quartet in the same Lyra-Viola vein; the second violin even used poplar to get a more mellow tone.
The 'cello was good, but the violins were a flop (by his own admision!)
The roundness of attack which suited the viola and 'cello so well, robbed both violins of their brilliance.

Also, the 'cello was difficult to pick up, as there are no corners on the upper bouts!

August 30, 2017, 10:06 AM · You can make calculations that seem right. In order to try them out you'll need to experiment.

I have thought of buying a few violin kits to use as a kind of experimental assembly lab. The kits aren't very expensive. If for no other reason than to get a basic facsimile of an idea. Another advantage is you'll have the basic dimensions of each piece to copy in your own way. Might be a fun thing to try.

August 30, 2017, 10:16 AM · Btw, I have seen and played violins and violas by Julius Zöller. Did anybody have a cello in his hand?
August 30, 2017, 11:27 AM · I really like the simplified corners of this one:
http://www.timsviolins.co.uk/fidella-violin/

It's not crazy - just a subtle change that would not make an orchestral player stand out but looks pleasingly modern and unfussy.

August 30, 2017, 12:15 PM · Though all kinds of things have been tried, the "ideal violin" sound still seems to come from violins with rather conventional construction and dimensions. You might "improve" on this sound somehow, but then it may no longer conform to the sound which is considered "the ideal", so there's a very high probability that it wouldn't be considered an improvement.
August 30, 2017, 12:21 PM · What I was going to say, Luis said first, so I won't repeat it. There are really good reasons why golden period Strads have been the standard violin design for centuries now.
Edited: August 30, 2017, 12:27 PM · @Christopher Payne
I tried to find the maker of such a violin for two years! Thank you for the link!
It seems to be the right one, as the scroll fits too. The violin had no label inside but draw quite some attention.
Edited: August 30, 2017, 12:58 PM · I've just read Luis's post in which he mentions a violin length of 36cm which apparently the "market" does not love.

Oh dear! I've just measured my #1 violin and it is 36cm long. The depth and widths are proportionally just that little bit larger. I'm not worried because (a) I have no intention of selling it - I enjoy playing it too much, (b) it has been in my family since 1850, and (c) I want it to remain in the family for at least two more generations.

Edited: August 30, 2017, 4:18 PM · Maybe your violin is French, they seemed to love the longer body length. What's important is having the correct ratio between neck length and stop length, the standard being 13cm neck length(from top edge of the top to the nut) and 19.5 cm stop length(from the top edge of the top to the f hole notches), shorter or longer can be OK but preferably in the same ratio.
August 30, 2017, 3:29 PM · First, follow Luis's advice.

There is a world of information from the Catgut Acoustical Society available on line from Stanford University. Online are all of the issues of the CAS Journal. What is written is deep, some of it, you will need a PhD to comprehend. Find articles by Robert Spear, you will comprehend a good percentage of what he has written.

Bob steps outside of the trauditional dimensions but sticks slavishly to the reducing or enlarging of the proportions of the Grand pattern Stradivarius. Even up to a huge bass violin. Find his website at Singing Woods Violins.

ABL

August 30, 2017, 4:13 PM · I have a monster violin, possibly Italian, that's 364mm body length, If I put the bridge lined up with the notches its 34cm sounding length, a full cm longer than usual, but it sounds incredible.
August 30, 2017, 5:35 PM · It's interesting how many beginners want to do something different from the same old violin design. I was one too... my first experiment had flat plates, no corners, a snakehead instead of a scroll, and soundholes in the shape of snakes. Thankfully the top caved in and I had a reason to scrap it. Now I make pretty much the same old violin designs, and they sound much better.

I'd say stick with the general dimensions, arching (especially), and thicknesses of standard violins; you can play around with corners and scrolls without hurting much, but as David said, if you deviate from normal designs, the sound will most likely be abnormal (bad) too.

Edited: August 30, 2017, 6:20 PM · My first full-sized violin, made in 1972 and bought for my by my parents in 1976, was a violin that evidently contained some design "experiments." For example a top that was about twice as thick as it should be, and massive corner blocks inside. And guess what? It produced about half the amount of sound as a normal violin. I remember when I showed it to Dalton Potter. He took it in his hands and he had a very surprised look on his face. He turned to me and said, "This violin is way too heavy." A luthier in Richmond declared it beyond help (after regrading the top).

It's gorgeous, though -- bird's eye and orange varnish. I'm going to mount it in a display case forevermore.

I recommend learning to build violins from someone who already has proved that (s)he can make a damned good one.

Edited: August 31, 2017, 6:55 AM · Is this about trying to reinvent the wheel? We've tried the circle and this works very well. Should we now try one with five or six sides? It's different. Maybe it will work better?

Cheers Carlo

Posted under my own full name in accordance with Vcom's rules.

August 31, 2017, 3:42 AM · Instruments may be beautiful but their main function is making music, I see the violas I make as tools for making music.

The present form of the violin has been working since about 1555 (the oldest known violin made by Andrea Amati)and since then it suffered just a few modifications. If we compare the objects we have today with those existing in Andrea Amati's time we will see that they all have changed, but the violin remained about the same. It is a bit like having the same car model being produced for more than 450 years.

And, while everybody is looking for advanced and modern techniques, we makers are in general looking for the past, for old techniques, old varnish recipes, old tools. That's why our craft is a very traditional one

You do have some more freedom of design when you make violas. My viola model is personal. But for beginners, it is better start making orthodox violins.

Edited: August 31, 2017, 9:27 AM · Lyndon, interesting that you suggest my #1 violin may be French. One luthier who has seen it thought it might be late 18th c German, another thought it was French, and a very experienced violinist of my acquaintance, but not a luthier, also said it looked like French. So we have the current odds 5 to 2 that it may be French, making allowance for the fact that one opinion isn't from a luthier.
August 31, 2017, 7:40 PM · Thanks to everyone for their wonderful insights - I'll definitely keep as much as I can in mind building up my first violin! I didn't so many ideas had been attempted to the violin. I am curious at why people gravitate towards traditional design? Quite honestly some of the violins mentioned earlier by Zoller and Chanot sound quite beautiful, if so in a different way, obviously very far away from traditional design. I understand the basic mechanics and why keeping arching, string length, body stop ratio, etc. is important, but I also feel like we forget that the violin has also changed a lot as well over time - neck angle and dovetail setting, string tension, bass bar length, soundpost location, bridge design, differing arching thickness (Guarneri's il cannone for example) - which all greatly change how the violin sounds and responds. I'd wager that the modern setup was not the ideal in the ages long ago; but somehow the sound was encouraged as classical music developed and artists developed and pushed boundaries of the limitations of the instrument and music. If a sound, not yet imagined, can be created, why shouldn't all the incredibly talented luthiers in the world seek that sound: something more beautiful that people or a collection of people cannot deny? I'm would think that thought must have crossed Amati or Stradivari's mind at some point, however naive. Music is still changing today and artists are pushing what's possible to play and what is needed. Imagine where we'd be without the extended bassbar or even throwing in the violin's better half, the design of the first tourte bow.

I agree that violins are in the end, tools for music, an art in itself where some makers have probably surpassed the old in reinventing the wheel (in the many blind tests), but shouldn't we as a society be more open to finding that true individuality in sound?

August 31, 2017, 9:37 PM · I played a few Zoller violins, a friend of mine ownes one I played quite often.
I dont really think they are beautiful. It misses a lot of different colours, allthough I have to admit, it is incredible easy to play.
The thickness of plates is less important than one would imagine, the archings are doing way more. Most Guarneris have been thicker, like Il Cannone, and have been thined out over the years.
Il Cannone is not really liked by most players these days, as far as I remember.
You are right that setup, bassbars, necks (angle is not really clear as the baroque necks are build in a way they would loose the angle over the centuries) changed through the years. So did the places where violins are played and the strings used on them. So there is an evolution, you seem to aim for a revolution.
I can only speak for myself, but the best violins I played have all been traditional ones. They varied a lot in biuilding technics to each other but were all traditional violins.
Also keep in mind for what instruments composers wrote. Maybe invent the violom (violin improved), but it might be argued its not a violin anymore.
Edited: September 1, 2017, 3:43 AM · Robert wrote:
" If a sound, not yet imagined, can be created, why shouldn't all the incredibly talented luthiers in the world seek that sound..."
_______________________________________

If you're referring to professional luthiers, it's mostly because there is almost no market for that. People overwhelmingly tend to prefer violins which sound like violins. I know, that might be kind of weird, but that seems to be where things stand, despite many different approaches having already been tried, including radically different concepts like the Stroh violin.

Edited: September 1, 2017, 9:09 AM · Robert. First, understand that you are addressing probably the most conservative community here. Whether it be maker or player they tend to value the tradition aspect and will defend that tradition in its purity. The words change or evolution suggest to them an end to this tradition rather than living side by side in the way that the many different types of guitar coexist without replacing. Also understand that there is an image players and makers have in mind and that image is a classical soloist playing in a large concert hall with an orchestra. For the most part it’s a fantasy image but it’s still the aspiration in the violin world at every turn. However, in this scenario the soloist is playing a Strad or a Guarneri, not a modern instrument.
I feel this is very unfortunate for the maker that values the beauty and tradition of his craft - the player sees a modern instrument as inferior on the whole and will choose an instrument by a past maker virtually every time.

That said, the violin is not just a classical instrument. There is a growing community of jazz, rock, folk, experimental, alternative players who have different demands and requirements. These players invariably have to deal with some kind of amplification or may find themselves working in a recording studio close to a microphone. Suddenly the complex, projecting instrument is not always appropriate for amplified tone and other things like feedback become issues. Gigging can subject the player’s instrument to a whole variety of different climates, temperatures, rigors of touring etc. Also, the appearance of the instrument may not be right for every context. The violin is an icon and connotes classical music/ folk fiddle, tradition and antiquity to many, so a change in look may be helpful for the violin to gain acceptance and capture the imagination outside of that tradition in some circumstances.

There are some here who will encourage you and many who will not. The point that your violin may not sell is fair enough but there are niches. Electric violins may be one of those niche markets including electro acoustics for which there is somewhat of a gap in the market. I suggest you look to that niche and that community.

The wheel hasn’t been reinvented but there are lots of different types of wheel...

September 1, 2017, 9:16 AM · It is far off my intention to discurage him. If it sounded that way I am sorry.
The question I like to state though is: can you improve something without knowing a lot about it. After learning building traditional violins you might have a better point to make improvements.

My very personal view is though that I didnt not like any improved design yet for classical music. A Zoller violin would make a great instrument for unamplified fiddling in smaller bars though!

September 1, 2017, 9:44 AM · Not pointing the finger and I agree with you. :) My point though is that sometimes it's a sidestep for a different purpose rather than an improvement.
Edited: September 1, 2017, 3:51 PM · Christopher, I'm not noticing much of people trying to defend anything, just attempting to answer Robert's questions.

If I perceived much of a demand for alternative violins, I'd probably already be making them. Even the huge Chinese violin factories are mostly churning out conventional-style violins, because that's what people want.

If Robert wants to do something different, that's fine. But I also think it's his advantage have some information about what he's getting into.

September 1, 2017, 10:15 AM · Dr Thomastik designed a new type of violin some 50 or more years ago, and they were still being produced in latter part of the last century. It had top and bottom 'S' shaped basebars, and the sound post came out through a hole in the belly. They made creuths with the same sort of design which worked, but I was told the violin shape improved the tone. There was a rage of woods from which instruments were made. The instrument was very responsive, but, from what I heard from a recording, the basic tone didn't seem to me to be very pleasant. I haven't heard of them recently, and I haven't been able to find a mention of them when googling for it.
September 1, 2017, 10:16 AM · You haven't been surfing ebay, David, the Chinese are turning out all manner of strange shaped violins and viols, not to mention any colour imaginable, or strange head carvings.
September 1, 2017, 1:59 PM · That's true Lyndon - I for one bought a hybrid viola d'amore, a 5 string viola d'amore shaped violin, a cornerless viola and a cornerless violin from those Chinese makers. From European makers I also have two more cornerless violins one of which is my main instrument. Oh, and a 5 string electric too. I might be unusual as a buyer but my point was that there is a niche of high end electric violins which seem to be selling okay. Isn't that an area that might work for you makers? It occurs to me that they are not so complicated to make and you don't have to worry so much about the acoustic tone so long as you have a good pickup.

Edited: September 1, 2017, 3:23 PM · Wohaa, thats a strong one, suggesting making electric violins instead!
For me you dont need worry about the tone at all, I dont want to play that. I just came home from playing Schuberts string quartet D87 and imagening to play this on an electric violin, no. Just no.
There of course is a place and music for those instruments, but its an addition, by absolutly no means a replacement.
Edited: September 1, 2017, 4:37 PM · Lyndon wrote:
"You haven't been surfing ebay, David, the Chinese are turning out all manner of strange shaped violins and viols, not to mention any colour imaginable, or strange head carvings."
____________________

Yes they are, but the overwhelming bulk of their volume (around three hundred thousand per year, last time I checked when I was in China), were more conventional violins.

However, it's great that alternative-style violins are readily available.

Products available from China are always something one needs to take into consideration, when entering any market.

Edited: September 2, 2017, 5:22 PM · Marc said: "Wohaa, thats a strong one, suggesting making electric violins instead!"

Not instead, as well as. I'm suggesting there is a market there for those that want to make some. More of a market than unusual acoustics. If you don't want to I'm not forcing you or the O.P.

"For me you dont need worry about the tone at all"

Acoustic tone is less of a concern for a maker of electric violins, but the overall tone after pickups, preamps, amps matters absolutely.
" I dont want to play that. I just came home from playing Schuberts string quartet D87 and imagening to play this on an electric violin, no. Just no."

Then don't! It would be ridiculous I agree!!

"There of course is a place and music for those instruments, but its an addition, by absolutly no means a replacement."
Right!! I'm glad you see it my way :)

September 2, 2017, 9:21 AM · I'm reminded of the art appreciation course I took as an elective in college some 63 years ago. I was amazed to see the early works of Picasso. That guy could really do what all the old masters did.Then he spent his life experimenting with simplification.

I think it's the same thing with lutherie - one follows tradition to learn how to do it and WHY- and then works on variations. Maybe it's like natural evolution that has left so many fossils of mutations that failed to promulgate.

My experience with professional luthiers has been that they seem able to spot the most infinitesimal crudeness and variations in violin design across the room.

September 3, 2017, 2:53 PM · The discussion reminds me of a probably apocryphal story. Someone tried to fix the inherent intonation problems of the oboe, redrilling the holes and rearranging the machinery. The intonation was improved, but, it didn't sound like an oboe. The early makers, especially Stradivarius, did a lot of experimenting. We don't have a record of their failures, but we do have their results; the Strad. and Guarnerius models. I also especially like the sweet sound of the Amatis, and the masculine, woody sound of the Gaspar da Salos.
September 3, 2017, 4:27 PM · Alright, here is a different angle. There is a lot of talk in the violin world of the instrument having reached a level of perfection that need not be improved upon. By that logic though, every violin made like a Strad would sound like a Strad which is not the case. Violins vary enormously even though they are mostly the same pattern and the same kind of wood.
Having said that, you could change a lot of things cosmetically without it changing the inherent violin-ness. You don't have to have ornate corners, a curly scroll or even brown!
September 4, 2017, 8:45 AM · There's a violin maker near where I live, I have not tested out his instruments yet (I'm just getting back into playing again and am waiting til I don't suck so badly before I go test drive a new instrument). He is incredibly brilliant and takes a very technical approach to construction and improving tone on each instrument. You should check out his website. It's a little disorganized and tricky to navigate sometimes, but it's filled with a wealth of information that you might find useful in constructing your own violin.

http://www.violinresearch.com

He provides links to an incredible amount of research that could be extremely valuable in your endeavor.


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