The form and function of a violin make it both an instrument of music and object of art, with the most valued instruments created in the hands of a well-trained and experienced luthier, using centuries-old templates and methods.
In this context, the idea of a violin created with Computer Assisted Design and built with the aid of machines and lasers seems a little -- shall we say, sacrilegious?
And yet, why not combine the knowledge of the old masters with the advantages of new technology? Especially for student violins?
That is exactly what Yamaha set out to do five years ago, when the company started a serious analysis of new and different ways to make a student violin, said Ken Dattmore, Marketing Manager for the Strings division at Yamaha Corporation of America. "Teachers said, we need consistency, durability, good sound. We took a solid look and said, 'How do we do that?'"
In creating this new student violin, the engineers and designers at Yamaha considered a number of specific issues. Do they need to use as much wood as is typically used in the process of creating a violin? Can they increase the uniformity of the parts that are made, to the point that those parts can be interchangeable, as are the parts in, say, a Yamaha clarinet? Can they increase the durability of the instrument? Can they use all of these methods in a design that will produce an attractive violin, with high quality sound?
They started by taking the top off a hand-crafted antique instrument and doing a computer analysis. Was it possible to devise an efficient process to make a top that is graduated the same way? That has the same, very specific arching?
"Carving an instrument is a difficult process, and it tends to take a good deal of wood," Dattmore said. "A violin maker starts with 3/4 inch of maple or spruce and throws 2/3 of it away," Dattmore said. "Graduating the top, you need to know exactly what you are doing and it takes a lot of time and creates a lot of sawdust and wood chips. How do we change that?"
One of the things they started looking at was pressing the instrument, both the top and back. "But how do we get a graduation into a pressed piece of wood?" Using a 3-D computer image of the antique instrument, they programmed the CAD machine to carve out that pattern in a 1/4 inch piece of spruce, which they could then press into an exact duplication of the antique violin top, complete with the graduation.
"If you look at the original hand-crafted violin, it looks exactly like that," Dattmore said. What's more, they were able to do this with much less wood. "Technically, we didn't carve it, but we put a pattern in it. And we used 1/3 the amount of wood."
The tops and bottoms are three-plied, and "the grain goes the same way in all three plies, to give additional durability and resistance to humidity changes," Dattmore said.
Another advantage of this method: machine precision means consistency and uniformity in the end product.
"The tops are all the same, and they are so accurate that if you cut a bridge for one, you can use it for every other one," Dattmore said. The bridges also are carved using a CAD machine. "A human doesn't have to fit it," Dattmore said. To test this they took three violins and pulled off the bridges -- they were interchangeable in all three.
"What does that mean for an educator?" Dattmore said. "If a kid breaks a bridge, the educator can simply open a toolkit of Yamaha bridges, put on another bridge and it fits."
"For a dealer with 1,000 violins in a rental pool, when the violins come back, typically 10 percent need bridges changed," Dattmore said. In the past, that has meant that someone needs to carve 100 new bridges, each requiring 40 minutes to an hour to carve. "Now you just get a box of Yamaha bridges and install a new bridge in a few minutes."
In a traditional violin, the purfling -- those two lines around the shape of the violin, are carved channels into which a thin layer of wood is laid. Though it looks pretty, this is not only decorative; it protects the violin from damage. So even in a student violin, it is very important that it be functional, that it not be simply two painted lines.
For this student violin, "we have a laser that hits the top, goes around the edge, then it cuts a second channel." Those channels are then filled with a resin we developed and "when that resin hardens, you have a functional purfling."
Dattmore knew that the purfling worked when they were transporting parts of the new violins, and to their horror, they accidentally dropped one of the instrument tops -- on asphalt!
"A piece chipped off the edge, up to the purfling, and stopped. That is exactly what it's supposed to do," Dattmore said. "I handed it to the designer and said, 'Here, your purfling worked!'"
With all these innovations in the manufacture of the new YVN Model 3 Student Violin, it pretty much looks like a nice student violin.
Time will tell how students and teachers like the sound and performance, and whether the durability and interchangeability of parts make a difference for educators.
The violin outfit, which includes a bow and case, has a manufacturer's suggested retail price of $835.00 and will be available during the first quarter of 2019.
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