Do good/reknown luthiers, specifically contemporary ones, make instruments that tend to be constant in the sound character?

May 19, 2012 at 06:18 PM · Hi;

I have a question: Do good/reknown luthiers, specifically contemporary ones, make instruments that tend to be constant in the sound character? Is there something in common with

Brugess violins, MAtsuda violins, Kevin Scott violins, Sam Z violins...etc? if so, to what extent and do buyers target them for certain sounds (brilliant vs dark, cutting vs sweet..etc). Or does each luthier produce violins of varying qualities..perhaps to some extent fortui

Replies (37)

May 19, 2012 at 06:45 PM · I don't know a single violin maker who doesn't try to make every single instrument just as well as all of their other instruments. They usually do have a certain quality of sound in mind, either based on their own personal tastes in sound, or based on special requests from a customer. Good makers are able to consistently produce instruments of a high standard.

Most makers I've met create violins with soloists in mind.

May 19, 2012 at 06:50 PM · I've found that in common with the old Italian masters, the instruments are hit and miss. A good one then a bad one. Sometimes a few good ones at the start, then they all get worse. It varies.

May 20, 2012 at 12:59 AM · Consistency in sound is allways desirable.

I keep detailed notes about the wood, archings, thicknesses of the instruments I make in order to repeat good tonal aspects.

May 21, 2012 at 07:25 PM · Tammuz,

From my trials of many modern violins over the years, including some by those mentioned, I'd say it's very difficult to generalize.

For one thing, makers mature over time, both improving and/or changing their philosophy. For another, they often make differing models. And the violins themselves mature at different rates. I've played violins by known makers that were all different in character, and by other makers that were very similar.

May 22, 2012 at 03:48 AM · I find that contemporary works vary quite a bit just like makers in the past. Not all Strads sound great but you will find similarities amongst them. So I wouldn't count on thinking if a maker can make one great instrument, his subsequent works will be amazing. I've learned that, that's a dangerous assumption.

May 22, 2012 at 11:12 AM · I think Brian's post and Peter's show a big difference of belief or opinion.

Luis, as a maker and given that you keep detailed notes that guide you and creates a chain link between your instruments through time , do you find that making an instrument is still, in spite of your method, a bit of a hit and miss affair? one: are you able to consistently produce good quality instruments. two: are you able to consistently produce a particular kind of sound.

Scott, its interesting that there is still an assumption in your post that a maker can deliver an instrument with a sound in mind ...and that it is the change of the maker's choice of sound that is the variable here. does that imply that the design of the instrument is deterministically linked to the quality of the sound or is there still the possibility or probability that a luthier still surprised by the outcome?

i'm interested in knowing this because i read accounts of reknown luthiers who still manage to produce "lemons" (if i recall correctly) or violins that are undesirable in sound. on the other hand, you read of people commissioning instruments from reknown luthiers with the knowledge that they must and that they will produce excellent violins. these are contradictory acounts.

May 22, 2012 at 11:45 AM · The only thing consistent in violin making is inconsistency. This is not to say that modern luthiers have their Monday Morning fiddles and their Friday Night fiddles, but rather it's because we work with natural and ever-changing raw materials. We probably all have a "sound" in mind for a finished violin, but the violin is going to do what it's going to do. I might have a preference for a warm, dark quality in the instrument I'm working on, and lo! out pops a bright and brilliant fiddle. Somebody out there will be looking for a good, bright fiddle for whatever reason, so I simply start work on the next one.

I tend to think in terms of overall response. I want my violins to be even across all four strings and to respond quickly under the bow. If I can achieve that, the power of the instrument will usually follow. Modern acoustical research has informed the process to the point where this goal is obtainable, but even scientific theory takes a back seat on the day that I sit with a violin top plate in my hand, flexing the wood, and thinking that I need to make the bar a little thinner for good acoustics, but that I need to leave it as it is for structural security.

The day of the consistently great violin might not yet be here, but I do think the day of the clunker is over.

May 22, 2012 at 06:02 PM · Tammuz asked: "Luis, as a maker and given that you keep detailed notes that guide you and creates a chain link between your instruments through time , do you find that making an instrument is still, in spite of your method, a bit of a hit and miss affair? one: are you able to consistently produce good quality instruments. two: are you able to consistently produce a particular kind of sound."

Tammuz, for me making an instrument today is not "a bit of a hit and miss affair", it would be a disaster if I depended on my good luck to make a good instrument.

Today I can produce instruments that I find consistently good. I am really satisfied with a new viola model I recently developed, the first of which is now in the Gewandhaus Leipzig, the second with the viola principal of the Kammerphillarmnie Bremen, I am sending the third to Bremen and the forth is still here with me. They all sound about the same (I am also a player and that may help evaluating sound, response, etc.). But still there are some instruments that are 5% better than the others and, yes, I can't explain that, but the diference is very small.

If you produce instruments of a consitent quality in sound players will feel confident in buying instruments prior to play them, the client in Bremen phoned and asked "do you have a viola like the one I saw here?". It is good remembering that most of the Italian art (including violins) was comissioned and the comissions were made based in the artist's reputation.

May 25, 2012 at 07:54 AM · My personal view is that there is usually an air of familiarity between instruments from the same maker - in looks and in sound. A bit like DNA, or a personal imprint, which is to do with the makers' personality, his hand skills, his vision... That said, there is also a lot of scope for instruments to be different, and that's a good thing because as a maker you need to be able to cater for different tastes. So it's a bit of both I guess!

May 25, 2012 at 12:08 PM · John, it could be the same player...

May 27, 2012 at 05:17 AM · From what I have seen and heard, I think the answer to the originally posted question is "Yes."

May 27, 2012 at 08:22 AM · How do you explain then that not only me but some of my colleages and friends have tried the same excellent instrument from a certain maker, and then at another time we have all tried another instrument which is just simply nowhere near as good. We even had the set up changed to no avail.

I still maintain that at least with most makers - some who are very very good, there are always some clunkers. I've found this with older makers too, including old Italians. Nothing has changed.

May 27, 2012 at 11:06 AM · ok, this is why i ask the question, because i read so many differing opinions and when it boils down to it-given the amassed experience of the experts here (and i mean, performers and luthiers), should yield a kind of unanimity. but there is a difference in opinion amongst the experts here. why is that? i mean, it should be an objective thing. ok, i think i understand that the more basic question to be asked is another question. i'll ask it in another thread.

May 27, 2012 at 12:52 PM · John, its not that my question needs to be altered but taht there are underlying questions prior to my question and i've posted them on a different thread already. and they do touch on the udnerlying issues of your post as well. ah well.

May 28, 2012 at 12:22 AM · It would be interesting if a maker could post examples of violins, violas or cellos played for a few minutes, made by the same maker. I seldom find a single example by a modern maker. The same appIies to dealers who have Stradivari and del Gesu violins who can post examples to demonstrate purported differences in sound between these makers. I would take the time to listen.

May 28, 2012 at 12:51 PM · It's really not possible to answer these questions because : -

(1) A different player will sound different to another on the same fiddle

(2) Modern or rather contemporary fiddles can be awful, or extremely good

(3) Old fiddles by old masters can equally be awful or extremely good, but more of the extremely good ones have survived, so proportionally we generally hear the better ones

So its not possible to come up with indisputable answers. There are just poor fiddles, good fiddles, and extremely good fiddles.

If you had audio examples of various instruments it would only work if the same (hopefully very good) player were to perform on each instrument and the recordings were made with good equipment at the same mic distance with good mics (and the same mic) and no changes to the gain control was made to allow for instruments that had less power.

Even the James Ehnes video probably did not quite manage that.

May 28, 2012 at 01:28 PM · Hi,

My experience with instruments shows that sound character will change depending on wood, and the model used for the instrument. Some makers stick to making copies of one particular instrument or a given model, and as such the results will be perhaps not the same, but closer between instruments. The person's playing and how they co-exist with a certain instrument also chimes in. I think that consistency in terms of excellence of craftsmanship is more likely to result in finding an instrument to your liking than similitude from instrument to instrument within a maker's output. Stradivari is a good example. The character in sound and even the many in which the models are to be played vary between the different periods and models he used. However, the level of excellence of craftsmanship is a constant throughout the greatest majority of his work.

Anyhow, my own two cents on the topic on this early Monday morning...


May 28, 2012 at 02:43 PM · Peter: I agree, but why can't this be done by the same player with the conditions? It would not take as long as making a single violin.

May 28, 2012 at 04:03 PM · I agree with Christian... if an experienced maker is trying to get a consistent sound, using similar wood and models, it will turn out relatively consistently, but not exactly the same every time. You can never get exactly the same wood.

I too would like to hear more tonal comparisons. I offer this link for entertainment value:

It is neither a reputable maker (me) nor a good player (me) nor a good microphone (computer), but at least it's something. The second fiddle played was not something I built entirely, but a VSO that I slapped a new top onto. The third one was an experiment with high density spruce; the others are very low density.

May 28, 2012 at 06:04 PM · Well, I only have one example to contribute - I've now played on 4 or 5 violins made by the luthier that made my violin that span about 15 years of luthiery. While each undoubtedly was different I think there is a general quality to his violin sounds.

I would have thought that that was to be expected, good or bad, the violin somehow plays in a similar way and my experience playing others means it is easy for me to adapt.

I'm fairly confident about this as I have on multiple occasions tried out a dozen or more violins by a broad range of makers at a shop.

Thus, at least for this luthier, the similarities outweigh the differences.

May 28, 2012 at 06:14 PM · BS (wink)

May 28, 2012 at 06:15 PM · The third fiddle was the best but they all sounded dreadful, but maybe it was the playing.

May 29, 2012 at 01:27 AM · Here some sound samples with my instruments, different players, different recording conditions, etc. I don't know how to post the links directly, if someone know you can help me, I am a low tech guy...

Here Roberto Diaz test drives one of my 16 inche violas during the International Viola Congress:

Here Wallas Pena plays a Brahms sonata movement in a viola I made more than a decade ago:

May 29, 2012 at 01:35 AM · Hum... just two of the links worked... and they are named wrongly...

May 29, 2012 at 12:24 PM · "It would be interesting if a maker could post examples of violins, violas or cellos played for a few minutes, made by the same maker. I seldom find a single example by a modern maker. The same appIies to dealers who have Stradivari and del Gesu violins who can post examples to demonstrate purported differences in sound between these makers. I would take the time to listen. "

Hi Charles;

While I can completely empathize with the intent, I'm not much of a believer in assessing instruments from recordings. It can be a useful comparative tool if all the instruments are recorded under exactly the same conditions (and I use this myself to help evaluate instruments, but this is done under conditions which I am familiar with, know first-hand, and can repeat precisely). I don't consider it useful for any other purpose. When sound samples are offered to the public, you open a huge can of worms, because there's a tendency to compare the sound with memory, or more often, with other recordings. That's where a host of variables comes into play. If it's a recording of a solo with an ensemble, was the violin separately mic'd? Whether it was or not, what was the positioning of all the microphones? What brand and type of microphones was used? What were the room acoustics? Which player was used? Any recording engineer will tell you that these things can make day-and-night differences.

An interesting thing is that the ear-brain is amazing at compensating for varying listening conditions live. For instance, if you can see the room, and your position relative to the sound source, some automatic compensation kicks in. Some of this additional information may come in via the ears too, but become corrupted with the recording/playback process. If a player changes their position slightly when we are listening live, we may hear almost no change. A slight position change when recording can be huge. Too much information needed for compensation is missing.

Then there's the issue of processing the sound after recording. With software commonly available today, one can make a violin sound almost any way one wants. So what does a maker do about that? Apply some of the same flattering effects which were likely applied to other recordings, with the excuse that comparisons can be more valid that way? Put out an unedited recording, which will probably sound worse than recordings in which the sound has been "photoshopped"? (sometimes you can see the alterations, just as you can by blowing up a photo enough to see the individual pixels)

I realize that there are quite a few questions in this thread I haven't addressed, as well as many related questions in two other concurrent threads, so I apologize for that. I’m not very good at giving simple answers to complex questions, so I’ve just bitten off a small portion which I think I can chew right now.

May 29, 2012 at 12:33 PM · Hi David, it would still be great if you could weigh in on the related sound quality vs sound type thread or here if you prefer? an overview at least...

May 29, 2012 at 12:36 PM · David is absolutely correct.

One has to hear instruments live and in varying accoustics to be able to judge - AND played by a really top player.

All recordings (or most) are to some degree "photoshopped."

I could give you audio examples of my fiddle but they would be meaningless, even if I've done nothing but add a smidgeon of reverb. It would just be a waste of time, you would have no idea if the fiddle was any good.

May 29, 2012 at 02:20 PM · Tammuz, in general, there's pretty good agreement amongst really good players about whether a particular instrument will or will not meet the needs of SOME really good player. Beyond that, it can start to get a lot more complicated. An orchestra player may not care for an instrument a soloist really likes. A soloist may think an orchestra player's favorite instrument is quite nice, but a little "veiled" sounding, and lacking "reserve".

Amateurs can be all over the map. For example, in the last several years, I've had three instruments which were rejected by amateurs, but embraced by high-level pros.

On consistency between different makers (if that was one of the questions), let's put it this way:

When I've spoken to Sam Z, he's aware that his instruments tend to have a certain sound character. I'm aware that my instrument tend to have a certain kind of sound character. That's not my judgement so much (I think it's dangerous for a maker to trust their own judgements of their instruments too much... it's like asking a mother if her daughter is pretty), so lately I've been running most of my instruments past the same person for feedback, someone who has high experience with a lot of instruments, and also the market. Included among the various comments, on occasion, is "Sounds like a Burgess". But that's probably just a polite way of avoiding saying it sucks. LOL

So I think Sam and I have slightly different sound targets. But on one occasion when we put a few of them together in a hall with a good player, differences weren't remarkable, and sometimes difficult to discern from the audience perspective, depending on what passage was being played, at least with those particular fiddles. Preferences weren't consistent among the listeners. Not that small differences can't be huge to a player.

There were also instruments by two other makers there. One fit into the general description above, and the other was quite noticeably different from all the rest. Nobody selected that one as their favorite.

A few things to keep in mind though:

*Most of these fiddles had some kind of prior validation by good players, so it could be argued that rather than representing the typical sound of any of the makers, they had been preselected in a way that could tend to narrow the range.

*One of the fiddles in the "popular" group was not as originally made. It had been sent back to the maker, with the request that the sound be altered, and I think that had involved major work.

*A good player, experienced with playing many instruments, can bias sound heavily in the direction of "their sound", so this can disguise differences which might otherwise be more apparent.

So you're probably wondering, which instrument did the player prefer? The one they owned. Go figure. ;-)

Edit: Some of the details have been left deliberately vague, so please don't ask. Some events like this are only possible with the understanding that there will be limited sharing of details, so that's what I'm trying to respect.

May 29, 2012 at 04:30 PM ·

Here's an example of the difference a player and recording conditions can make. The fiddle is the second one (the worst) of the four, in the link I posted earlier. My scratchy fiddling is followed by a good violinist playing the same instrument. It's hard to get past the performance to judge what the instrument's capabilities are... especially if the performer can't push it properly.

May 29, 2012 at 05:46 PM · Not to speak for all makers here, but apart from skill in execution, it's been my observation that some makers always intend to make the same sort of instrument and others bounce around quite a bit. The David Burgess instruments I've seen tend to have a recognizable look and feel, as well as consistent quality. Likewise, Raymond Schryer offers two flavors but seems to be aiming for consistency with each. Some makers even have some pretty sophisticated testing equipment, which I'd guess gets used to confirm that a new instrument is up to spec.

On the other hand, you get (also very fine)_ makers like Grubaugh and Seifert who seem to try something a little different with each instrument. On the Right Coast, Doug Cox makes a huge variety of models. That's not to say that those makers don't have fingerprints and priorities (just as you couldn't accuse Burgess and Schryer of not working to improve what they do), but from what I've seen, they seem to be happy with a wider range of styles coming out of their shop.

May 29, 2012 at 09:27 PM · Good thoughts, Stephen.

I'm getting more and more into repeatability. Grubaugh and Seifert are more into, "it would be pretty boring if we made an instrument just like the last one".

No opinion on which is better.

May 30, 2012 at 07:20 AM · thanks David,

i would really apprecaite if you could answer the below question as well

are you reproducing the resultant sound exclusively in accordance with your taste or is that sound the consequence of a way of working that you have cultivated and found to work well? For instance, this difference, subtle they may be, between your violins' sound type and that of Sam Z's...are they reflective of a conscious targetting of specific sound types, inclusive of what makes them different from each other? thanks

May 30, 2012 at 08:42 AM · Tammuz, I go through a rather lengthy process targeting the sound and playing qualities I want. It adds considerably to the time required to make a violin. I'm also quite certain that Sam Z doesn't just slap a violin together, and however that ends up sounding is OK. I've seen him spend a lot of time and effort trying to get the specific qualities he's after.

But I'm not sure I understand your question, so let me try rephrasing it, and then answering.

If Sam and I swapped fiddles which were completed on the exterior, including varnish, but not yet hollowed on the inside, would he be able to get his sound out of my violin, and would I be able to get my sound out of his?

I don't know.

Certainly, there are things throughout the entire construction process which influence the sound, starting with wood selection, and extending through varnishing and final setup. But it's amazing how far some experimenters have been able to deviate from standard shape and materials, and still be able to come up with something which sounds basically like a decent violin. Researchers are still working on the details of what construction elements are responsible for what tonal result. Don Noon, who posted above, is one of them, who comes from an aerospace background. A lot of the research is connected with the Oberlin Acoustics Workshop. Sam Z and Joe Curtin are regulars there. Don has attended. Joe Grubaugh has attended. I haven't attended, but they were across the hall from "my" workshop (or elsewhere on the campus) for a number of years, and we had quite a few joint sessions when topics or presenters in either workshop seemed to be of mutual interest.

That workshop was also connected with the recent study trying to determine whether players could tell the difference between new and old violins (including two Strads) by playing them without seeing them, which generated so much publicity and so much outrage. The study had a research purpose: It's impossible to know which physical factors actually influence tone, unless you can separate them from psychological factors.

May 30, 2012 at 04:48 PM · I appreciate David's comments. But he doesn't need to present examples of the tone of his work. We are fortunate he contributes to the discussions.

I have not given up on the hope that good violin makers will some day post examples of their work for all of us to hear. All that is needed is the willingness, a good recording system (what is wrong with a Zoom H 2? - very inexpensive), a good hall, and a good player. Most makers have access to say 5 instruments of the same model which they would like to present. Nix on someone presenting violins by makers other than their own. But we live in an age of technology and computers. What would the world be like without players, orchestras, and chamber groups presenting on recordings or media examples of their work for all of us to hear. I thrive on many recordings in my library (but hardly ever revealing the name and year of any contemporary violin) and anything interesting I can get from you tube, etc. I've added extra bass and treble speakers and think I can make my own judgements about what I hear. For me Hearing is Believing. A few years ago I presented examples of 3 violins I had recently completed on my web site, but these were recorded in a small room with poor acoustics, and consisted only of scales across and up the strings, so I later dropped them from my web site I kept my own recordings of two 15 5/8" violas, but had to rent a good hall. I play or practice only when setting up and adjusting instruments, no longer playing in a string quartet or local orchestra. There are no really good players other than many miles away, and a good hall is not easily obtained. So that is my excuse for not doing more myself, at least for now. Charles

May 30, 2012 at 05:03 PM · To pour some salt into the discussion and muddy the waters even more, I would say that a lot of the sound is in the musician's head, and not in the instrument. So that means there is no real measure, except that good instruments are playable (some more difficult) and are capeable of projecting into a big space.

We can't judge instruments on recordings, although recordings may be consistent in giving an idea (only), should there be several recordings of the same instrument with the same (outstanding) player. (Example, (1) Heifetz (2) Milstein).

But recordings frequently lie and can be also so easily manipulated, especially by unmusical people.

May 31, 2012 at 12:49 PM · Thank you David for taking the time to explain. Its interesting, and puzzling, from what i understood, taht there is this gap between consciously working towards making an fine violin and yet, not knowing exactly, scientifically, what makes this violin fine. i hope i am not misrepresenting what you said.

to be honest, after asking these questions, i suspect that although there might be answers to them on one level, at yet another level, no one has the answers (yet?) to this hodgepodge of subjective and objective traits.

but still, knowledgeable people are at least wuold be unanimously able to recognize what is a bad violin, right? perhaps the clearer question should not be what makes a good violin good, but rather what makes a bad violin bad?

April 29, 2017 at 11:53 AM · We recently had the opportunity to try 3 Douglas Cox violins - all were consistently wonderful with beautiful workmanship, power and nuance.

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