Why Would a 'Better' Violin Sound 'Worse'?

September 26, 2019, 1:22 PM · Why does a "better" violin sometimes sound "worse" to the player?

I started thinking about this when two of my young violin students moved up to the next-size violins. Tuning the new fiddles, I was very pleased. The sound was far better than their previous instruments. The reason was likely twofold: First, bigger violins tend to have better sound because there is more room to resonate. Second, the quality of the instrument was clearly higher. The difference was obvious: they'd gone from scratchbox instruments to violins capable of singing.

So I was a little surprised when one of them announced with a frown, "I don't like this new violin."

Well change is difficult...but that was not it.

"I don't like way it sounds," she said.

Then I recognized the phenomenon. A quality instrument will magnify the good; but it will also magnify the bad. Conversely, the bad violin can be a little bit like the gauze lens that puts a soft focus on the movie star, muting every blemish. Sometimes you don't really want to see all the details that a high-definition image can reveal!

blurry sharp fiddles

Sometimes a better violin is exactly what a student needs to start stepping it up. It might feel bad at first, to realized how much improvement is needed. But a good violin can help you recognize exactly where those improvements are needed, and how to make them.

Here are some of the specific things that a higher-quality violin may reveal for you, and how:

Clarity: Everything will sound clearer on a better violin, including your intonation, the tidiness of your bow strokes, the accuracy of your string crossings. The only drawback: if you have developed some sloppy habits, the better violin will clearly reflect the imperfections! But the good news is that if you pay attention, a better violin will also help you to discern such problems, allowing you to correct them.

Resonance: The instrument will ring more. This can help you with your intonation - but it can also make you realize that you have been playing out of tune! Any violin will ring especially well when you play a perfectly in-tune E, A, D or G anywhere on the instrument. The better the instrument, the more this effect is evident, and the more you can "tune in" to your pitch.

Quality of tone: In addition to hearing more resonance, a better violin will produce more "overtones," which are secondary tones produced by any given note. The presence of these contribute to a sense of fullness, richness and character in each note. If you are accustomed to the absence of overtones, you might be disconcerted by their presence and by the "thicker" sound.

Response: You'll hear your notes sound a little faster, and also, a better violin will respond with more clarity to effects such as vibrato, trills, mordents, etc. If you have an under-developed vibrato, it will show. But also, a better violin will reward your efforts at vibrato, which will make a lot more sense to you on a violin that is responding to it.

Craftsmanship: Ideally, a better violin will also serve you better: the pegs will work better, the fittings will be made of materials better than plastic, the instrument will look more attractive, etc. Sometimes it's "just aesthetic" and doesn't directly affect your sound or playing, but these considerations can make it more enjoyable to play, which means you be happy to practice more!

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September 26, 2019 at 06:40 PM · Young Nathan Milstein played for Ysaye on his - what he called a one ruble violin. A string broke and Ysaye handed him his Guarneri. Play on, young man. After a while Nathan said: 'I'd rather have a new string.

September 26, 2019 at 06:41 PM · Can dark strings like Obligatos also be”... a little bit like the gauze lens that puts a soft focus on the movie star”?

September 26, 2019 at 08:28 PM · I had a similar experience a long time ago when my teacher suggested that I upgrade. I tried a number of instruments and boiled it down to a good copy of a Steiner and a Reinhold Schnabel. My teacher played both and made them sing. He recommended the Schnabel, so I purchased it. That violin and I never got along well. In the right hands it sang, in mine it pouted like an angry child. Yes, it was me but we finally parted company after my teacher died.

I'm still with my original instrument which sings for me. My skills have improved and I have played violins owned by friends that are much-much better than my Mittenwald Strad and now I can make them sing as well. However, my original instrument and I are good friends and play well together and, at over 70 and no longer performing (for a variety of valid reasons) there is no justification for upgrading now.

September 27, 2019 at 11:41 AM · I always thought Obligato weren't bad strings and are good for overly bright violins. But only recently I learnt that not only they are dark, but their response is SOOOO SLOW.

If you play obligato strings, change them sometime to some good visions or evah pirazis. You will definitely hear and feel the difference.

Btw, I heard from a luthier that the vision G string is the best-ever.

September 27, 2019 at 03:39 PM · Great article, Laurie.

When I play my lesser-quality instrument, I marvel at how much better I sound (under the ear), because it is more forgiving of my mistakes. But when I play well, the difference is night and day between my junky violin and my nice one.

In fact, when I purchased my main instrument, I tried about a dozen in the shop, and kept trying to reject that one because it was, at the time, terrible sounding. I kept coming back to it, though, because subconsciously I suspected that I was the problem, not the instrument.

September 28, 2019 at 01:43 PM · In the world of electric guitars, there is much to-do about the "classic" and "legendary" sound of specific amplifiers, many of which are now antiques. Owning one of each is not a viable option really for anyone, so most players settle on one or two favorites which, with some tweaking and with the aid of a stomp box (effects pedal) or two, becomes "their sound." Guitarists are just as touchy about the special sound of their tube amps as we violinists are about our instruments.

But now we have entered the age of digital modeling. You can buy a device for somewhere between $200 and $2000 that will, according to manufacturers' claims, model (that is, simulate) all those classic amplifier sounds. The devices are mostly digital signal processing (DSP) units. According to user reviews, the ones in the $200 range are not too convincing, but the higher-end models are becoming quite realistic, with very high sampling frequencies, etc.

So the question is -- for the purposes of making a recording -- whether it will be possible to attach a pickup or microphone to a violin and then modify the pickup signal into the sound of a priceless Italian antique through real-time digital signal processing (which is NOT the same thing as virtual studio technology or a virtual synthesizer such as Embertone's "virtual violin.")

Of course it would not work for live performance because the sound would have to project from speakers. But for recordings? The entirety of the digitized pickup signal would be subject to endless tweaking for tonal coloration and so on. The violinist would only have to lay down the notes (which admittedly excludes 99% of all violinists, including me, from the game). Perhaps this is already happening?

By the way I tried the Line 6 Helix device with my electrified Topa violin and it was pretty impressive what it could do. Many of the effects seem designed to "trigger" on the pluck of a guitar string (specific envelope gating, perhaps) but I was pretty impressed with the unit overall. Unfortunately I didn't have $1500 to drop on it.

September 30, 2019 at 02:10 PM · There's one point Laurie makes that is really true -- a violin that speaks more clearly will also expose problems in intonation or articulation. A muffled violin lets inexperienced players hide in orchestras. If you have a better violin it's harder to hide.

But I do think any discussion of "better" violins has to be broader than just the fiddle itself. A better bow can bring tremendous improvement in volume, tone and clarity. Better strings -- or strings that are a better match for a violin -- can make a tremendous difference.

Even an inexpensive violin that isn't speaking can usually be dramatically improved with bridge/soundpost adjustments and better strings.

Not that a good violin isn't a wonderful way to spend some money, but a lot of people who think they have an inferior fiddle simply have a fiddle that is overdue for tuneup with a good luthier.

September 30, 2019 at 03:03 PM · When I read the title for this article, I assumed it was for the same size instrument. Of course, different size instruments will sound different. It's all about acoustics.

September 30, 2019 at 04:19 PM · Victor, all the “growing pains” would apply to either a larger-better instrument or simply a same-size better instrument. Either way, the better instrument will likely resonate more, be more responsive, etc., and so the violinist’s playing will have to grow to fit those new parameters.

September 30, 2019 at 07:37 PM · I have several fiddles, they all sound different from each other, which is great! I use each one for a different purpose, the loud trebly one works best with a string quartet, the softer mellow one is best for accompanying singers so as not to overpower the vocalist, the one which sounds like Stephane Grappelli's fiddle is great for a 'Gypsy Jam' and the one which has a really quick response and plenty of treble is great for Irish music sessions in noisy pubs! But the one I like best is a Medio Fino made in Mirecourt, it has ink purfling and no flaming on the back, but it has a most musical sound and a forgiving nature which makes me happy when I draw a bow across it's strings. Horses, as they say, for courses!

October 1, 2019 at 04:05 AM · After years of "lurking," this is my first post — and apologies if I veer slightly off topic. But I do want to say a big thanks to Paul Deck for raising the issues he does!

As an improvising violinist and composer who most often performs with amplification, I realized a number of years ago that, when it comes to instruments and gear, I needed to think more "like a guitarist." Most serious guitarists own several instruments (as well as effects, amps, etc.) for different applications and contexts. Different instruments often help to open your ears to different avenues of improvisation of interpretation, and some match certain styles of music better than others.

The reality, though, is that while nice-sounding guitars might go for let's say $2,000-$4,000, you could argue that the acoustic violin equivalent requires maybe 10 times that much. Most violinists can't afford the kind of $$ you'd need to have multiple "nice" instruments.

This does make the notion of a digital violin that can "dial-in" the sound of a great instrument seem very appealing. However, it turns out that physics (among other things) are against us. I learned about this a few years ago when interviewing Joseph Curtin and physicist Gabriel Weinreich for this radio piece on that topic:


They got quite far down the road Paul describes, drawing on Curtin's library of sound samples that include some of the most famous instruments.

But it also turns out that the nature of violin acoustics is such that the sound relies on spatial reflections that are very hard to recreate using single-point speakers  (unlike the situation for clarinets and saxophones, which maintain their character much better than violins do when using a conventional amplification scenario, and unlike electric guitars for which the amplifier really should be considered a part of the instrument itself).

That said, I think that it is always helpful for violinists to try multiple instruments and to seriously try to understand and articulate the differences in responsiveness, feel, and tone we experience when playing them.  And for many applications short of the highest levels of classical music ensembles in traditional settings, I am a strong advocate of any serious violinist having two or three instruments.  

Besides a primary instrument, there is great value in having an inexpensive yet well set-up violin with a pleasing tone and good response. This is the instrument you'd use to perform with when using any form of amplification (and especially any kind  that touches or presses on the instrument). Once a violin goes through a mic/amp/PA system, the relative quality of the instrument-of-origin is far, far less relevant to the sound a listener experiences, even with a gifted sound engineer and expensive PA gear. The physics is not in our favor.

A "second" instrument is  also the one to use when playing outdoors or in crowded (or boozy) situations, and anywhere you'd like to play more casually without stressing out about your nicer instrument getting dinged.

As with any violin, it does takes some effort to try out and find such an instrument at a reasonable price, but this is achievable and (I think) well worth the time and search. Having a second instrument like this one saves you a scenario like one I witnessed a couple years ago: The members of a leading chamber ensemble, playing contemporary repertoire, with amplification, as part of a series at a prestigious but crowded outdoor location, were caught in a sudden rain squall. Soon, they were slaloming past audience members with their fine instruments, dashing across the pavement, trying to get their instrument out of the rain and under the tent that counted as a "green room" for the concert.  Used in a situation like this, a "second" violin also would serve as an  important form of practical insurance that helps to keep your primary instrument safe and sounding its best.

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