What elements make the biggest difference between great violins and mass-produced?

Edited: October 11, 2017, 5:55 PM · I'm talking about nuts and bolts, anatomical and construction differences between run of the mill violins and what you would consider a professional or even elite violin.

Assuming similar materials - maple, spruce, ebony, and all the requisite pieces are there and are fit and adjusted correctly - what makes a great violin sound profoundly different than a mass-produced instrument even though the basic components are at least superficially very similar in appearance and dimensions?

Have you ever heard a mass-produced instrument you thought sounded way out of its price range, that you'd gladly play anywhere?

Replies (40)

October 11, 2017, 8:07 PM · The details of what make a truly good violin are far too complex to put into writing on a forum, honestly. It's nothing so simply as "better wood." It's careful "tuning" of the wood that's there as to make all frequencies respond in a pleasant and easy way.

Basically, the "one thing" that makes hand-crafted top-level instruments better than factory ones, given similar dimensions and materials, is (Time)x(Expertise). A good luthier is going to put hundreds of hours into crafting an instrument, and then he's going to "fine-tune" the wood with subtle graduations until it resonates in the way it should, for every note on the violin.

It's much simpler to make a violin that resonates beautifully in a limited range of notes than it is to make one that resonates properly on EVERY possible note that one can achieve on the violin. You might notice that some decent student instruments sound acceptable in first position, particularly on the A and D strings. But as we expand the range of good-sounding notes into the far reaches of the G and E strings - in addition to high positions on those strings - the price is going to shoot up pretty quickly because so much more effort/expertise goes into allowing the wood to resonate across all strings/positions.

Edited: October 11, 2017, 9:03 PM · Some mass produced factory violins made in France (like Collin-Mezin) or companies like EH Roth in Germany make violins every bit the equal of most hand made by one maker instruments. Whether or not a violin is made by one maker or factory produced is not necessarily a good criteria for selecting a violin, you should pick the best violin regardless of how it was made.

Most modern makers don't believe in tuning the plates, and many antique factory violins may have had the plates tuned, so that again is not a good criteria.

October 11, 2017, 9:47 PM · It's probably worth making the distinction between individually-crafted, workshop, and factory violins, too.
October 11, 2017, 10:10 PM · Everyone has made good points. I think the subtle differences in dimensions of individual instruments can impact sound, especially depth (e.g a violin with tall sides/ribs will generally sound quite deep).
October 12, 2017, 7:11 AM · While this may not answer your question on specifics, I think it should be said.

A true artisan strives to create something that will touch your soul. He or She will have started long before the selection of the wood with many years devoted to studying, contemplating, and obsessing with developing a skill to create the best. Every instrument they create will almost be like a child to them. They will nurture the instrument's development through the entire process from selecting the woods to fitting the bridge. If He or She fails to achieve those goals, it will become kindling and a study of what did not work properly.

A mass produced object is created to be a profitable commodity by less skilled craftspeople to earn a living. It is their goal to make their piece as quickly as possible within the required specifications in order to maintain their employment.

October 12, 2017, 7:20 AM · The maker.
October 12, 2017, 9:05 AM · Often the luthiers employed by some of the top factories and workshops are substantially more skilled craftsman than many one off makers.
October 12, 2017, 9:10 AM · Are "...luthiers employed by some of the top factories and workshops..." not makers?
Edited: October 12, 2017, 9:27 AM · Very true Lyndon, some of the workers in Chinese factories are extremely skilled at what they do. I am wondering though why bench made instrument makers insist on laborious hand carving from start to finish, while the tools exist to cut down hands on time by 80%. I.e. spending less time in the rough to get to the 80% stage in a small fraction of the time, and spend more time in the fine tuning of the plates (where the "magic" happen) would seem a more logical approach no? At the end does the buyer cares about the nobility of the making process?
October 12, 2017, 9:42 AM · Power tools vibrate the wood so strongly that they can kill the tone. I have seen this happen with high quality tone wood I used power tools on, suddenly become dead as a doornail after using the power tools, less violent power tools like a band saw or electric drill are less of a problem and used by most hand makers. CNC is a very destructive process tonally, and is not the future of quality violins, IMHO Just a way to make fairly crappy violins cheap.

The thing that has made Chinese violins as good as they are is they used all hand tools, but now that some of the factories have saved up enough money to purchase CNC machines I expect a drop in tonal quality and a raise in prices. Chinese violins are already overpriced compared to comparably priced antiques IMHO, and the new Chinese prices are just going to go up as Chinese currency and worker wages go up.

October 12, 2017, 9:47 AM · The introduction of power tools to German violin making in the mid 20th Century led to some of the worst tone disasters in History, next to the $60 Chinese violin, brands Like ER Pfretzschner, Becker, and Sherl and Roth produced violins so bad that the cheapest Czech violin from 100 years ago still sound better.
October 12, 2017, 10:24 AM · Scott, I posed a similar question awhile back and there were some interesting answers. I came at it from a slightly different direction in asking, After hundreds of years and thousands of examples, why can't the instrument be made using modern tech along with the knowledge we have, good craftsmen and mass production to make fine instruments?

Not everyone would agree we have done this. In my quest I answered "yes" for myself. We can and we have done it.We continue to do it. I think we can marry good craftsmanship to current technologies to make good instruments available to the average person.This isn't to say there aren't also still plenty of old well made instruments out there to buy, some in price brackets we can afford.

Lyndon, as much as I want to believe you on CNC robotic milling, I'm still leaning more toward the idea that we can get 80% there as someone else has said,using CNC, then get the rest of the way with a good tuning of the main body.

In one thread I read that it's the flexing of the wood over time that can add to the quality of sound in some violins. If this is true, then the short time the wood vibrates while the robot carves it could actually CONTRIBUTE to the sound.

If we are discussing using CNC for the necks and pegs, I might be missing something. It doesn't seem to me as if using CNC would be a problem. Even using it for the body, so long as the final carving is done by a craftsman.

Maybe the issue in German factories was more related to materials quality and the way they were put together. Maybe.Just sayin'

October 12, 2017, 10:31 AM · The massive vibrations of the CNC machine destroy the microfibres of the wood, which ruins the tone, there really is no way to only half way ruin the tone, routers are bad for tone.
October 12, 2017, 10:33 AM · Ultimately, since I've been researching on this, it really comes down to the fine tuning of the instrument. Most of the times, these "factory made" Instruments are hand crafted by a machine line of people who specialize only in one task. They're extremely good at whatever they're doing, but not anything else
October 12, 2017, 11:00 AM · Good factory or workshop violins would have had a specialist who's one task was the fine tuning of the violin, just saying.
Edited: October 12, 2017, 11:30 AM · Lyndon, it's true that material response depends strongly on frequency. (If you pull silly putty slowly, it draws. If you apply the same total force very quickly, it fractures.) Still, the idea that sawing a board in half with a table saw or carving a scroll using CNC would change the "tone qualities" of the wood, or that the vibrations of a CNC machine "destroys the microfibres of the wood" -- these seem to me rather fantastical claims.

Something else you said doesn't ring true: "There really is no way to only half way ruin the tone." So if a wooden board contains a certain number of "microfibres" then it doesn't matter what fraction of them are "destroyed" by the use of, say, a router?

I wonder if there is any hard evidence to support your claims in the peer-reviewed literature of wood science. Your anecdotal evidence for having produced one poor instrument after having used power tools is not adequate. My standards for what constitutes proper substantiation of a causal claim are rather higher than that.

It's quite possible also that Roth violins weren't ruined by the introduction of power tools, but perhaps by all the other shortcuts that may have been taken at the same time, that maybe we don't know about. Maybe they reformulated their glue or varnish so that it would set and dry faster, or maybe ill-fitting parts were just clamped that much harder, etc., maybe tops and backs weren't graded as carefully, etc.

The idea of a factory-made instrument where each worker does one or two specialized tasks is brilliant. Division of labor is, after all, the basis of civilization. Watch this video and tell me you're not impressed by the person cutting the f-holes (3:15). No jig -- totally free-hand sawing!! And if you include setup and alignment, it's faster than CNC would be. Watch also at 7:05 how the woman pushes the knife from her shoulder to improve control over the tool. All the while you get to listen to Mozart 5 -- a tasty choice.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0SvfNhMlnBE

October 12, 2017, 11:12 AM · The main difference is the market which is aimed imho.
I used to own a factory made Schönbach violin by A. Osmanek. It had all the qualities a ok master violin has and from building quality and playing quality alone noone could have identified it as a factory instrument!
If you want to know the answer to the question what the difference between a good and a not so good violin and a great violin is, I am just too tired to type that lot.
Edited: October 12, 2017, 3:16 PM · Wasn't Stradivari's process a workshop of several makers doing different steps? Division of labor between highly-skilled craftsman should lead to a higher quality product than one person doing everything alone. I always figured this was part of why Stradivari had a consistently high product in relatively large volume--he clearly had a well oiled manufacturing process, so to speak.
October 12, 2017, 11:28 AM · Paul I guess you're an expert at almost everything, can't really argue with genius.
Edited: October 12, 2017, 11:36 AM · The ability (more like willingness) to think about things scientifically is not genius, in fact it's rather commonplace. But apparently not universal.
October 12, 2017, 11:45 AM · Lyndon, I don't think he op meant "factory made" in the same way you're thinking of it. If a place has a dedicated tone Luthier, I would call it a workshop, not a factory.
October 12, 2017, 11:48 AM · I was always under the impression that the falling of German factory violin tonal quality had to do with thicker plates and stronger construction to withstand the rigor of shipping in those days.
Edited: October 12, 2017, 12:03 PM · I think it also had something to do with using kiln dried wood instead of air dried, but I haven't come up with any evidence besides dead as a doornail tap tones on mid century German factory fiddles.

The French were mostly factories, and the Germans were mostly workshops until well into the 20th century.

And yet on the antique market, the French factory violins are worth more than the German workshop violins. And some of the cheapest French violins like JTL sound very good.

Edited: October 12, 2017, 12:24 PM · Lyndon, I don't think he op meant "factory made" in the same way you're thinking of it. If a place has a dedicated tone Luthier, I would call it a workshop, not a factory.

I admit limited awareness of the differences in manufacturing between custom shops and Chinese factories, in general I was thinking of what makes the big difference between say a $150 - $500 instrument that is in fact made of walnut, spruce and ebony and sounds okay - if I set out to make my first violin and it was on par with one of these I'd call it a success - and one an advanced/pro player would find acceptable or great.

October 12, 2017, 12:30 PM · All violins in that price range are factory made,unless you're talking cheap antiques, then maybe workshop, actually you can buy a hand made American violin of dubious quality for $500 on ebay.
Edited: October 12, 2017, 12:57 PM · Per Lyndon Taylor:

All violins in that price range are factory made

That's my assumption - the original question is what's specifically, fundamentally different comparing them to superior instruments? There have been some good answers so far.

October 12, 2017, 1:01 PM · The care, knowledge and thought that went into their production.
October 12, 2017, 1:12 PM · I think the main problem here is that you're asking the wrong question.

"The big difference" is many, many things, but most of all it's the time, effort, and expertise that makes a better violin distinguishable from a lesser one. This involves the carving the body in a certain way, carving the scroll in a certain way, and carving everything else in a certain way. Basically, it's a thousand small things that, in conjunction, make the better violin. Not one big thing.


I'll ask you a similar question: what is the difference between a piece of art painted by a Master, and a painting that people consider decent for a 10 year old to have made?

October 12, 2017, 3:13 PM · I think the main problem here is that you're asking the wrong question.

"The big difference" is many, many things

I asked the question I intended to ask. The specifics of the "many many things" is what I was asking about - as stated originally the nuts and bolts. Time, effort and expertise is a generality - time, effort and expertise to do *what* differently?

Edited: October 12, 2017, 3:59 PM · I am no expert, but I would think that the quality of the wood tone is one biggie. A luthier I believe could spend well over a thousand dollar (if not several) on raw material alone for exceptional quality tone wood.

Expert plate tuning as oppose to simply carving to preset specifications is another biggie.

Then top quality setup tops it all off (some go even so far as tuning the sound post resonant frequency itself)

The rest is probably aesthetic more than anything, but even then, small things do add up to better sound (e.g. varnish)

October 12, 2017, 5:03 PM · You asked whether I ever heard a really exceptional mass-produced half-sized violin. Yes -- my daughter had a 1/2 size unlabeled Chinese violin (thought to have originated from Eastman) that was really great.
Edited: October 12, 2017, 6:04 PM · To answer your last question, my Eastman VL305. I could easily upgrade if I wanted to but see no point. I play with people that use $10,000 plus instruments and when they first heard mine (including my two teachers) and asked to play my machine they were shocked to learn what it was. It’s pretty lovely and I feel very lucky to have found her.

Haha......my main bow costs more than my fiddle;)

Perhaps I’ll shop around at some point for an upgrade but I still hands down prefer the sound of my machine over anything else I’ve heard regardless of price and since others who have played/heard it agree.......maybe we all have cheap taste or I got incredibly lucky.

ETA, I’ve heard and played other 305’s. They do not even compare to mine. Perhaps there was a mix up at the factory/shop....

October 12, 2017, 6:39 PM · Hand carving uses a gouge that cuts parallel to the grain of the wood and the strokes are thousands of vibrations below any audible frequency.

Routing cuts across the grain of the wood and the frequency of the cutters ripping across the long and substantially stronger grains set up a very audible sound right in the violin range and with greater amplitude than is used playing the instrument; destructive. The cross cuts also will tear the wood structure just below the cut.

I can see how a machine can be designed to carve slowly along the grain. But design and testing would cost as much as the labour to carve ten thousand violin plates.

ABL

Edited: October 13, 2017, 5:53 AM · Scrolls are carved entirely with the grain? Scraping the plates is a silent process? Okay...

So a tool that makes audible vibrations damages the wood? Again, is there any actual evidence of that, or does it just "seem reasonable" because violins are made of wood and also make sound?

October 13, 2017, 6:09 AM · Well its hard to tell as there are good and bad handmade violins while there are good and bad machine- made ones too. I guess the mechenical difference is the weight.
October 13, 2017, 7:28 AM · I seriously doubt there has ever been a study on acoustic damage assessment as the result of routing. I'm not trying to be a smart ***. I think we both know the answer to that one.

Just because there has been no study doesn't mean it doesn't happen.The only way to know that for sure would be to test the theory using scientific methods.

In my thinking, in order to dislodge or dislocate wood to that degree would require paper thin wood...or much thinner.The entire piece is more likely to move while cutting. We aren't jarring things loose at the molecular level. The stuff violins are made from was made to flex and bend in the wind while water passed through it :-)

Would Amati have used a router if he had one? He would have likely used what he had at his disposal to do the job.Probably would have owned a cell phone and have had cable TV too.

October 13, 2017, 8:02 AM · What would Amati have watched on cable? Perhaps "Keeping up with the Medicis" or "The Apprentice: Cremonese Violin Shop Edition".
October 13, 2017, 9:27 AM · Timothy wrote: "I seriously doubt there has ever been a study on acoustic damage assessment as the result of routing"... well, I've googled for nearly 2 hrs and have yet to come across anything!

October 13, 2017, 9:44 AM · Paul:

"Seems reasonable" is the viewpoint from which I wrote.

This would be a good parameter for the comparisons of violins from each plate shaping technique.

ABL

October 13, 2017, 11:49 AM · Ideal wood properties, arching (geometry), and plate thickness. All three are either in limited supply for mass produced instruments or takes too much labor to execute to a high standard.

Good, properly programmed CNC machines can achieve fine finishes on wood with no "microfiber" damage. But the feed rates must be carefully controlled and might require tool changes and multiple passes to achieve what people can do with gouge and scrapper.

If you want to use the machine economically, you stick to thickish parts with simpler geometries. That's a recipe for a dull-sounding violin. But I would not be surprised to see the technology continue to evolve to the point where it can challenge makers.

There are some makers who are using CNC to rough out plates.


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