right violin, wrong test?

May 14, 2008 at 04:44 AM · with the perpetual yin-yang debate on modern vs old italians, what tests are there and can a person's affinity for a violin be derived from such tests? are we testing things that can or cannot really be tested?

alright, i confess, i am starting this thread as Jake II :)

Replies (45)

May 14, 2008 at 11:40 AM · here is something to go with your coffee, tea, or soybean milk:)


May 14, 2008 at 06:16 PM · I suppose blind listening is better than choosing a violin based on appearance alone, which is where I thought you were going with the "lineup" analogy. Reminds me of a musician friend who went into a piano store, saying, "I want to buy a piano." The sales clerk starts off, "Okay, what color?" Musician friend looks him in the eye and says, "No, I want to buy a PIANO."

Of course appearance and sound have to be part of the decision, and I'm not sure it's entirely unreasonable to pick something based on reputation. I confess to a guilty pleasure in being able to say that my violin is Italian, and after all...how many people pay gobs of money to attend big-name schools where the education is only marginally (if at all) better than many other cheaper schools?

May 14, 2008 at 11:35 PM · Dear Mr. Stradivari;

I couldn't help but notice that the address listed in your profile is the same as that of Bein and Fushi, and also the William Harris Lee & Co. workshop. Rumors of your death must have been greatly exaggerated. Good luck with your new affiliation.

Also, since you have given advice on the prostate, I will take heed, given your advanced age, two wives, and many children! ;)

May 14, 2008 at 11:33 PM · Greetings,

I`ve never been completely sure why people prostate themselves before Strads so much,



May 15, 2008 at 12:23 PM · Dear Mr. Burgess:

Thank you for your letter. I'm really getting tired of all those phony "Strads" out on the market that are making a fortune off of my name. So, I have trademarked the name. From now on, it's not just a "Strad" or a "Stradivarius," but "Strad-Violin(TM)" or "Stradivarius-The-Best(TM)." I also charge a royalty fee for the mere mention of my name in any public or private conversation ($8 per mention, payable in cash, check, money order, credit card, or dubloons).

In addition, I have had so many requests for my violins (especially in the last 150 years), that I have finally decided to set up a licensing agreement with talented and experienced violin makers who meet my exacting criteria. These including attending at least 3 of my webinars, reading my new ebook ("The Key To Making A Strad As Good As The Ones Made By The Old Man," in 3 easy payments of $173.80 per month for 8 months), and paying the licensing fee of $400,000.

And as for all of the crap about my why my violins are the gold standard in the field, yes, of course, there's a secret. But it isn't in the varnish or the design or the nature of the wood or the thickness or any of that other stuff. It's simply in the name. You make a violin and call it a "Strad" (and I can sell you the labels, too), and you're an overnight success.

As to my prostate, my urologist tells me that if I keep taking my medication (including the Cialis), I should do OK.


Antonio Stradivari

PS. I've gotten interested in a new harmonica design. Watch for it; it will revolutionize the harmonica world. In fact, I've been talking to my good friend, Johann Sebastian Bach ("JS"), about writing something for it. JS tells me he's working on 6 solo sonatas and partitas for harmonica. These will include an ornate triple fugue in Cb Minor. I asked him if he has a soloist in mind. He said yes, his cousin Larry. That's Larry Adler Bach, or LAB for short (a perfect nickname, since he was a test tube baby).

May 15, 2008 at 01:10 PM · Al, you have an excellent idea there, and I will try to put something together and put it on my web site. There are, of course, a lot of concrete things that players look at beyond the name inside (unlike what others apparently think, I don't think players are fools), and many of these can be specified.

Here's a start, though:

1/ Response. This shows up in two places; first, how a violin reacts with minimal bow pressure, at the tip. Does the violin start right up with a full sound, or is it dusty and unclear?

Second, the transient (immediate) response at the start of the note. You won't usually hear these issues on classical recordings, because they're done with great violins by great players, but on fiddle recordings there are a lot of ugly starts--especially the type of high frequency, chalkboard noise. Most lesser violins have problems with this once in a while, or even all the time, particularly with difficult note jumps crossing over a couple of strings quickly.

Really great players don't need this as much as lesser ones because they have so much control, which is why the great players will experiment with many different instruments (and can play bad ones and make them sound good), but for a lesser player it's a real assist. Regardless, you can imagine that if the violin is taking care of the clean start of each note for you, you have a lot more energy to put into other issues, and will play better in general, in every way. This is why I place this factor at the top of the list.

2/ Balance and even notes. From note to note a violin can sound even, or like a different violin every time. Vuillaumes, in particular among better violins, are often characterized by this problem on the E-string, where different notes can pop out in an uncomfortable way. The greatest violins are utterly and perfectly smooth.

3/ Dissonance. Pianists are familiar with the problems of piano tuning. Perfect tuning can't be done by a machine because there's a problem with out of tune harmonics on notes that clash with other notes in context.

Violins have the same problem: clashing, out of tune harmonics. This is what causes violins to sound nasty vs smooth, and you might compare it with everyone in tug of war pulling at once or not. Generally, violins with problems in the harmonics are perceived as loud, perhaps even painful under the ear, but don't put out a well enough coordinated sound to push through the noise of other instruments.

This is a hard effect to hear, but one of the most insidious problems. As I noted in another thread, really great violins have a radical drop-off in the volume of higher harmonics--there are just enough present to establish a sweet, bright sound without so many out of tune harmonics to yield an edgy sound. Once you attune your ear to this, you'll have a hard time listening to pianos. :-)

4/ Power variability. Simply, better violins have a wider range of volume available to the player.

5/ Complexity. This is a relatively easy one, and there are two quick tests for it. First, the amount of finger movement needed to get the same vibrato. Some violins will have no vibrato at all, no matter how hard you wiggle, where others require the minimum of movement. If you listen, you can hear that most of the action is in the harmonics, which seem to waver and shimmer like waves on the ocean, not in the fundamental of the note.

The second test for complexity is to bow near the bridge and over the board, and note the range of difference in tone between those spots. One thing I notice good players doing is slide their bow from one position to the other while playing a long sustained note, and listening for the change.

6/ Power. Not as important as you might think, since if the above points are met, usually a violin will project. Note, though, that projection in an empty room or hall, without competition, doesn't mean anything. The real test is how an instrument does in competition with others. Nasty instruments can give the illusion of carrying power when they're alone. As a friend of mine once noted, some violins are "harsh and unyielding, yet inaudible beyond the second row".

7/ Clarity and separation. This is pretty obvious to most players, but one easy test is a very quick run or scale. Comparisons between several violins quickly reveal the ones where such a series of notes smear together rather than pop out individually. This is intimately connected with #1, response.

8/ Voice. I intentionally leave out voice, because a good violin expresses the voice of the player, not the violin, because of the variety of sounds permitted (that falls under the complexity umbrella). If you're noticing the voice of a violin, that may be because it only has one. All violins have a native voice--the real issue is whether the violin permits you to wander from that if you want to or need to.

These things don't only relate to the player--if you learn to hear them they will affect your perceptions as a listener. I believe that most casual listeners violinists don't hear these issues separately until they're pointed out, yet they affect, subconsciously, not only the player's overall effectiveness on his instrument, but the listening experience as well.

One last point: the overall objective, and the basic problem for the maker/adjuster, is to get a violin working so that every bit of energy is devoted to making musical, coordinated sounds in as efficient of a way as possible, without any component working against that or delivering contrary sounds. If that is solved, all of the above, minus complexity, are taken care of. The step above that, and the hardest to deliver, is to add complexity to the sound, because complexity involves getting all of those coordinated parts to move in different, other, well-coordinated patterns rather than just one. It's easier to deliver a complex sound OR a perfect one, but to achieve both at once is a wonderful thing.

May 15, 2008 at 05:08 PM · Buri, would that be called prostate-ution? :-)

Al, modern makers seem willing to participate in just about any test. The challenge is getting the old proponents to show up.

The latest offer to the "old" camp was, "You devise the double-blind test, choose the players, the judges, the old fiddles and the venue. I'll select the moderns, results submitted to the trade magazines".

Still no takers, just some "creative" excuses.

"This test would obviously be flawed, because players aren't accustomed to playing blindfolded, or in a dark room". ;)

Oh well....

Comparisons go on all the time though. I've been in the audience, in a hall, at two involving Strads and Guarneris against moderns in the last several years. Many more take place informally with only a few people involved. It's easier to get the old fiddles when the whole thing is semi-private and results won't be published.

May 15, 2008 at 01:01 PM · Michael, what a wonderful post! You've managed to put some very elusive concepts into words.

I always find it interesting discussing setup with my luthier because we're both listening for the same things differently, based on our training. Verbalising sound is so difficult, and you've done a great job of it.

May 15, 2008 at 01:10 PM · second that. really appreciate makers coming here and sharing something that violinists can use. on another level, i kinda hate it because with the info provided by md, i can pretty much self diagnose my violins with more certainty as being... sit-able.

May 15, 2008 at 01:17 PM · "You devise the double-blind test, choose the players, the judges, the old fiddles and the venue. I'll select the moderns, results submitted to the trade magazines"

It would be very interesting for me. I just came from the jury of Violino Arvenzis violinmaking competition. There were many really great contemporary violins indeed. This competition is much more focused on sound quality than other cometition. It was really a valuable experience for me.

May 15, 2008 at 01:15 PM · "It was really a valuable experience for me."

in what ways?

mr warchal, when are you planning a promotion of your strings where EVERY v.com member gets a trial set? :)

May 15, 2008 at 01:28 PM · David is right that events like this are rare and closed in real life, which I why I welcomed people to come to my shop. In the last few weeks, had you walked in at the right moment, you could have heard two Strad cellos against each other, and against a number of other similar level ones, two Strad violins, two del Gesus, two brothers Amati, and a fistload of Gaglianos, to name just a few. Many of these are things we've sold or are selling, or that I maintain and adjust. I can't guarantee something like that every day, but there's always something interesting around.

May 15, 2008 at 01:34 PM · >The real test is how an instrument does in competition with others. Nasty instruments can give the illusion of carrying power when they're alone. As a friend of mine once noted, some violins are "harsh and unyielding, yet inaudible beyond the second row".

This was really interesting and well-put (as was the rest of this post). Thanks, Michael. And it's entertaining to note how it applies to so many other things, as well. Perfume ingredients, wine grapes, people...

Sandy - your post/letter was hilarious. : )

May 15, 2008 at 01:40 PM · in what ways?

It was really a great opportunity do talk over the violin sound with violinmakers and players while listening real instruments (not only via internet). Moreover I trained my ears to be able to recognize even particular types of strings. The competition was anonymous of course, the instruments were played behind the curtain. In a last round (playing with orchestra) there was no curtain, but they ware played in a large hall and evaluated from a long distance.

mr warchal, when are you planning a promotion of your strings where EVERY v.com member gets a trial set? :)

It is really a great idea. However I am not sure if it is possible :-). But some of violinist.com member could help me now. We are developing a new set especially designed for good quality old instruments. I realized it works with good quality new instruments too. I think it prooves, that that it dosen,t matter if the instrument is old or new, the only important thing is it,s quality.

In other words, the strings set is designed for the instruments, which don,t need to be forced to play - for the instruments which response well. My intention was to create a strings set, which is really friendly to the player.

I gave testing sets to my friends recently. We received very promising feedback from them. But there are still 56 sets in our workshop. Some of you could test it to, if you want. But I would like to say, the set is not ideal for less quality instruments, you might be a bit dissapointed by lack of projection.

May 15, 2008 at 02:50 PM · thanks. when you develop a set for ok players with bad instruments, let us know! :)

May 15, 2008 at 03:10 PM · In fact all "modern" violin sets which came recently (including our Brilliant) is intended to work so.

But another option could be to create a special set for a bad players, having a weak instrument :-)

May 15, 2008 at 03:16 PM · yes, yes, that is the critical mass neglected! :)

and make sure you charge an arm and a leg for that cinderella set! imagine the pitch: our studies have shown that learning on our cinderella set has helped cut the learning curve by 5 years! :):)

May 15, 2008 at 05:39 PM · Mr. Darnton,

you keep inviting us to your shop ...

"David is right that events like this are rare and closed in real life, which I why I welcomed people to come to my shop."

... yet, I wonder why that would be necessary.

Most of us are far away from you, and you told us that YouTube videos are good enough to judge fine instruments and the differences between them. On the other hand, you also told us that unlike YouTube videos, CD recordings are not sufficient for this purpose, which has some of us puzzled.

Either way we're in a dilemma:

We may believe what you say, but then why do we need to come to your shop? It would seem far more convenient to wait for you to put your instruments on YouTube.

On the other hand, we may find that there is something funny about the way you presented the issue of CD recordings versus YouTube videos and as a result we may not want to buy from you, so we don't have any reason to come to your shop then either.

Just wondering. Maybe there is another reason, free beer perhaps?

May 15, 2008 at 06:07 PM · In each case, I'm talking about different things, some of which are easy to hear in a cheap recording (bad attacks or uneven notes, for instance) some of which are not audible on any recording (the three-dimensional, stage filling sound of a great instrument). In any case, you don't have to come to my shop. It's not a class requirement. :-)

May 16, 2008 at 07:15 AM · Regarding ways of evaluating a violin;

"Evenness" between notes (or even between strings) isn't necessarily something I see soloist giving high priority. In fact, too much evenness can make a fiddle sound rather dead.

Changing the pitch shouldn't just move the pitch. Moving the finger even slightly (as in vibrato) also has the potential to radically change the tone, and even the direction of the sound coming out of the violin.

Some of a violin's sound components shoot out like rays in a particular direction. Change notes, and rays fly out in another direction. On one note, the sound might reach your ear by reflecting off the ceiling. On another note, it might reach your ear by reflecting off a wall.

One strong characteristic of a great violin, in my opinion, is this "3D" effect. With the application of vibrato, it really gets your attention!

Imagine someone turning an ordinary room lamp up and down with a dimmer switch, at the same speed as vibrato.

Contrast this with different colored lights blinking on and off, coming at you from all directions. One is like vanilla. The other is like vanilla ice cream with a banana, chocolate sauce, and sprinklets on top. :-)

This magic doesn't happen if all the notes sound the same.

So what I'm basically saying is that an "even" sound on a violin isn't necessary desirable and can make it sound rather lifeless, like an early synthesizer on the "violin" setting. With early synthesizers, all the proper sound components may have been present, but they failed to change with pitch.

On a violin, each subtle pitch change can benefit from its own unique personality.

May 15, 2008 at 07:26 PM · There is a boffin at some California university (San Diego or L.A. can't seem to remember) who developed a special loud speaker which reproduces or more precisely, recreates this 3D effect, but apparently very accurately, though only from a mono feed or recording, it doesn't work with stereo.

May 15, 2008 at 07:29 PM · Another note on evenness: evenness of tone on all four strings can often be a bad thing, based on a player's preferences. As a musician, I personally prefer when each string has its own personality of sorts.

If there's too much of a contrast, notes stick out far too much, of course, but one thing I've found in 'great' violins is that each string does seem to have a persona of its own. Not an evenness.

May 15, 2008 at 10:55 PM · Michael Darnton wrote:

"David is right that events like this are rare and closed in real life, which I why I welcomed people to come to my shop."


Michael, since I was referring to "old versus new" comparison events, does this mean that you're willing to do these comparisons in your shop?

If so, you've mentioned some old instruments you have had access to. What new instruments do you have? Do you have any by makers who the "Los Angeles studio players" liked and recommended?

If a player should want to take advantage of this opportunity, would it help if I broadened the selection of moderns by bringing a few? (none of them mine, if you wish)

Since it's difficult to deny a psychological component when people evaluate violins, would you agree to a blind or double-blind testing situation?


May 15, 2008 at 11:35 PM · ^^

Let me know if these events come to fruition.

My daughter is a speech therapist in Chi-Town !

I love Chicago,fiddles and my daughter !

My daughter would be good for business;she has the map of Ireland on her face !!!

May 15, 2008 at 11:27 PM · Hey David,

Regarding oscillating shiny spots etc, I was wondering if the specific shiny spots are built into the violin or can be played in by a good player. Basically, how and why are they there? Or is that way too broad of a question?

May 15, 2008 at 11:55 PM · Greetings,

Emily, i would have though you of all people would have no trouble seeing the chakras of a violin,



May 16, 2008 at 12:04 AM · david, you are such an interesting sport, always looking for a game:)

knowing the inevitable deficiencies involved with study design and evaluation, etc, etc, etc, i thought someone of your statue would have felt comfortable by now to let your standing among high end violin purchasers to do the talking. to me at least, that is the proof of the pudding!

since you are so confident, let me ask you this: do you feel top-top modern violins are better than or at least equal to top-top strads?

May 16, 2008 at 12:46 AM · Ah, now there's a tough one, when you compare the very top moderns versus the very top antiques. For antiques, centuries have been able to select which instruments specifically are the creme de la creme. Perlman, for example, from what I've heard firmly believes that a select few Stradivari are the "great" Strads. In Art of the Violin he even said Oistrakh's instrument wasn't one of these "elite Strads"

I am not sure if there's ever been trials done against these top-top instruments (such as the Soil, del Gesù's "Canon" etc) against moderns? Nor if there have been established 'elite' modern instruments.

Top-top modern MAKERS have been established I suppose, with the likes of Burgess, Greiner, Seifert, Needham, and those usual contenders, but have any of these makers established what their very finest individual violins are? Perhaps David could enlighten us on that question.

I'd be very interested in a trial versus the top-top moderns and top-top antiques, actually. It seems like most of the reported blind tests were done with del Gesùs, Strads, etc, but I don't think they were done using what experts consider the very best of those makers, were they?

I for one don't doubt that moderns could compete with those legendary instruments, personally. Like I said, Jacqueline du Pre owned what is considered by many 'experts' to be one of the finest cellos in the world, yet she was unhappy in it, and ended up preferring to play and record on a modern.

May 16, 2008 at 12:57 AM · Mr Burgess would answer:

Sans doute,get up and pay attention !

Do not follow the horde !

Try for yourself,see and compare the sound !

Strads are mythical

Moderns are real !!

[plus millions less in monetary payments]...

jabberwocky continues and will continue

listen up and buy a modern violin..

we makers know these things

the players live in dreamland

hoping forever,whilst time slowly slips away

then,all is finished-forever and the dream is not fufilled...

buy what you think is the best sounding violin,regardless of the maker...

get over it---moderns are just as good or better !!

accomplish the most you can.

living by happenstance,myth and illusion to an instrument which,for the most part is unattainable and desultory...

lighten up,make the best of what you have.

do not be envious of others in their perceived situations...their permit is only a label and they do it for recognition from the masses who basically are illiterate in musical cognisance.

May 16, 2008 at 01:15 AM · Ah, David, in the context of a lesson in my shop (which I was suggesting, not a nasty competition) I'd rather hear one of YOUR violins against something nice, in private. Why put your friends up for sacrifice rather than yourself, when you are, as you, yourself, once modestly said, the "most decorated violin maker of all time"? (I hope I got the wording right on that!) You might even learn something.

May 16, 2008 at 01:19 AM · Even though my knowledge is limited,I think

I'll go with Michael Darnton in all regards.

Plus,Chicago ROCKS !!!

May 16, 2008 at 01:29 AM · Michael & Burgess:

Would you two both be willing to do a blind trial of sorts? I am sure you two wouldn't have difficulty in providing modern and antique instruments, and finding judges/musician. The results could be published on the messageboard here.

I'd be particularly interested in Michael judging the instruments himself as well (in a blind setting of course) would be very interesting to see how many moderns he'd mark as superior to the antiques when he doesn't know which he's listening to :)

May 16, 2008 at 01:42 AM · The more I think about this, I start to get an idea of a really great blind test that could be done. The trick would be to get David to put up one of his, and to find an owner of a nice old violin who wouldn't mind the test. Frankly, I think the latter would be difficult. . . but I think I know how the test could be formatted, which is an idea I haven't had before, and completely different from the way it's usually done.

I'd be happy to vote, and to have my vote revealed, too. What assurance do we have that David wouldn't be voting for the bad violin, though. :-)

May 16, 2008 at 01:48 AM · Jake, you missed the code word "in private", it means he doesn't want the results to become public ;-)

May 16, 2008 at 01:59 AM · Do you mind sharing your ideas on how the test would work? Finding owners of old instruments willing would be difficult, but you have many fine instruments in your shop, no? I think most modern makers will readily enough let their violins be put into the test.

Oh, David may vote for an antique over a modern, who knows. I think in the end it's about particular instruments, not so much the category modern or antique.

May 16, 2008 at 02:30 AM · Jake, the problem with instruments is that no shop owns instruments of this type, itself, and the owners of these multi-million dollar objects may not fancy the risk of losing such a competition and the results being known. David (or any modern maker) has much less to lose: since there's no prevailing opinion that a new violin should win, anyway, in this situation he stands level, or wins, but can't really lose. It's an easy contest for him to entertain and doesn't require any particular bravery or sacrifice on his part. If he was putting his Strad on the line, you'd find him much less cocky.

The essence of my idea is that since I've always complained that the problem with such tests is the violinist doing them, and his native playing style (which inevitably favors some instruments over others), plus the difficulty that really great players can make a cigar box sound good by their skill and precision, the obvious solution is to eliminate the influence of the player, and I believe I have a novel way to accomplish that.

May 16, 2008 at 02:50 AM · How ?

May 16, 2008 at 02:54 AM · Japanese violin playing robot springs to mind :-)

May 16, 2008 at 03:00 AM · It's such a good idea that it could revolutionize violin testing. Almost as good as a robot. I may have to patent it before I disclose it. :-)

May 16, 2008 at 07:21 AM · Wow, a lot has gone on here since I last checked in!

Mr. Fisher, thanks for posting for me in my absence. ;-)


Michael Darnton wrote;

"Why put your friends up for sacrifice rather than yourself, when you are, as you, yourself, once modestly said, the "most decorated violin maker of all time"?


Horrors, I had no idea that ANYONE was being put up for sacrifice! I offered to contribute my own instruments (or not) at your discretion in the first place. Did you miss that?

Now what is it again that I'm supposed to have modestly said?

Oh good grief, you must be talking about the Christmas card that went out about 20 years ago, with a picture of me covered in Christmas decorations, and a caption that read, "The Most Decorated Violin Maker". Most people thought it was hilarious! I don't even think the picture and caption were my idea. Sorry if you got this holiday card confused with something I said, or took it as something that was even remotely serious.

May 16, 2008 at 07:44 AM · Emily Grossman wrote;

Hey David,

Regarding oscillating shiny spots etc, I was wondering if the specific shiny spots are built into the violin or can be played in by a good player. Basically, how and why are they there? Or is that way too broad of a question?


Emily, I don't have a good answer. It's the hard-core acoustics researchers who have measured and documented this "directional ray" phenomenon, and I don't think they're to the point yet where they know how to modify a violin to control it. If some people know, apparently they aren't telling. I'll venture that most makers who end up with the "right" degree of this do so without really knowing how or why.

August 2, 2008 at 05:31 AM · Mr. Warchal,

I would like to offer myself to be a beta tester for the strings that are intended for mediocre players (or worse) on bad instruments. I can assure you that I have expertise in this area, although my credentials are measured in months, not years.

For test instruments, I do have one that sounds fairly good, and I would hesitate to make any adjustments in case all the good notes fall out, but I would so so if you require.

I also have a backup fiddle I use for campfires, and I would be more than happy to replace the strings on it, and again get out the pliers to adjust the soundpost so it no longer buzzes. I would provide you with the violin maker, but alas, it does not have a label. That must mean it is made in America, because import regulations require all imports to include the country of origin. It is made of wood, if that is helpful.

August 3, 2008 at 07:07 AM · I never did receive an answer, but I did receive an offer form the ACME Unistring company; for a minor fee, they will allow me to test their new Unistring, which is sold bulk. Apparently, it comes in 'test' values instead of traditional G, D, A, and E. I requested the 12 pound test. (G).

August 3, 2008 at 07:37 AM · Twelve pound test? That would be fine for smaller sockeye, but you may want to go with 25 during combat fishing season. Some of those bigger reds'll break you right off if you try to horse 'em.

August 4, 2008 at 04:48 AM · I considered something heavier, but the ACME company identified that there were some issues with the heavier line twisting the necks when adjusting the E string. I may consider using that for the G or D, however, although the company assures me the concept of 'unistring' is what they are testing. They are working on an additional support that will fit somewhere around the 5th position to get past the neck twist issue, but have not perfected the device yet.

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