Steel or synthetic for viola?

April 11, 2013 at 03:16 AM · I'm a beginner adult violin student and recent viola dabbler.

My most recent acquisition is a nice juicy 16.25" Tertis styled widebody viola. It came strung up with mystery strings from the Far East. So the first order of business was to replace those, right?

OK, so not knowing the character of this new instrument I went inexpensive and mellow- Pro Arte strings. I had a good experience with these on a previous violin of mine, so I have them first crack at the new viola as well.

No dice. They sounded flabby and the A string seemed to want to quack at me from time to time.

Hmmm, I got a new Zyex A to try on there to tame the quack. Again, no luck. The tone was somewhat different, but still sounded quacky-flabby.

I didn't recall it sounding like this when I first got it...So back on went the set of El Cheapos (available in the finest orchestral outlets only, I'm sure). And hot damn, the viola sounded pretty good again.

So I spend a few nights furiously studying Google results archives, Maestronet, string dealer guides to appeared that my viola responded better to the brighter cheap steelies it came with.....I ponder a set of Helicores, but I have a set of those on my 15.5"--pretty good, but a hint of raspyness or something makes me want to try my luck with a new contender.

Pirastro Permanants? Not alot of info out there. I like the description, but not ready to pull the trigger on a set that expensive just yet.

Spirocores? These seem to be the standard issue for steel viola strings, no? Interesting, especially with the Tungsten C and silver G....but once you add those in to the set, the price is back into premium range. Also often described as having an "edge". Not sure if that is a plus or minus kind of an "edge".

Superflexibles? Hmm, often described as like Helicores, but smoother....tempting, very tempting. But also some description call them "darker" as well. And since the Pro Artes sounded flabolicious on my axe, I bail on these as well.

What to do? What to do??????

Then a couple of my brain cells bump up against each other and an idea dawns on me: "hey, the viola has sounded best with that craptastic set it came with, and they're most likely made of solid core steel, right?"

So, back to the Internet! A few fevered nights later I came upon a final decision: I shall try out thine most honorable and humble of string sets: DaDarrio Preludes!

I just threw them on tonight, and the initial impressionist very good. My viola is a big wide tank and thus could use some focus and clarity, which the Preludes have in spades. We'll see how it all settles in...

Now, if you're still with me here: The Pro Artes and the Preludes have very similar tension, but one is steel, the other synth. Do some violas simply require steel strings to avoid flabbiness?

Or was my improvement due to simply picking a brighter string set?

I pondered trying a set of Warchal Brilliants perhaps to see if that would awaken my slumbering beast, but the question of steel vs. synth on a viola gave me pause. Cellos seem to fully embrace steel strings, violins look down their noses at steel strings. Violas (as always) are left in the middle wondering what to do..

I'm quite happy with the Preludes so far. And I'll be pleased as punch if these are THE strings my viola yearns for, as a set can be had for $20.

Just looking for feedback, experiences, tall tales, whatever you got out there, lets hear it!

Replies (20)

April 11, 2013 at 04:24 PM · So I noodled around with the Preludes the last couple of days. Sounds pretty good to me.

However, let me riddle you this:

The C sounds good, but when I really lay down the hammer to see what it's got, the pitch heads up towards C# under aggressive bowing.

I imagine that's not what one looks for in a quality C string?

April 11, 2013 at 07:10 PM · Thanks Jay,

I had already ordered a Piratsro Permanent C to try out. I'll report back when I find out more...

April 11, 2013 at 08:07 PM · I would recommend trying the Warchal Karneol set. They are a great value for their cost (~$40-$45) and have a very warm, complex, sound.

April 11, 2013 at 09:49 PM · The pitch bending will tend to occur with thick, solid-core steel strings (like Prelude). This won't happen as much with rope-core steel strings (like Spirocore or Helicore).

Regarding Superflexible - I have found them to have a very similar response to Spirocores, but they had less brilliance (not a bad thing - they were pleasant). The tension of both Superflexibles and Spirocores (in medium gauge) is very high, which your viola may or may not like. Helicore strings (in medium) have less tension.

April 11, 2013 at 10:37 PM · Thanks guys.

Gene: I'd be interested in the Karneols, but Im concerned that warm synthetic string will end up being flabby on my viola like the Pro Artes were. I have a set of Ametysts on one of my violins, and love em, but I don't think I'll use Warchal on this viola given what Ive experienced so far, even though Id like to.

So, again I ask: do some violas simply do better with steel instead of synthetic? Or vice versa?

April 12, 2013 at 02:57 AM · I definitely think some violas sound better with steel strings (and I personally think most violas sound better with a steel A). I've found that steel strings tend to suit larger violas better, perhaps in part because they tend to respond a bit slower.

April 12, 2013 at 08:16 AM · Seraphim - FWIW I just put on a set of Pirastro Permanents with a Jargar medium A on my Chinese viola yesterday. This was to replace a 6 month old Helicore C and G and Larsen D and A. The whole thing came to life. I was playing at an event with my trio in the evening and was switching between violin and viola and found my viola to stay in tune perfectly and have a depth and clarity that the Helicores never had even when they were new. They don't bend in pitch when overplayed (I have a 15.5" viola) and they don't choke in high positions like the Helicores did after they had been on for a good 4 months. The Jargar A is also more pleasant to my ear than the Larsen was. I don't play viola much but I'm happy to fork out on a set of Permanents again when it comes to replace them!

To answer your question - I had Tonica strings on before the Helicore and Larsen combination and whilst I appreciated the depth and beauty of sound there was a considerable volume loss and the C string was a little dull and lacked clarity (it also snapped of its own accord after less than a month which was irritating). Before that I had Corelli Crystals and, before those, Obligatos (using Larsen A with both sets). The transformation of the sound of my viola is quite extraordinary. While both the Obligatos (beautiful strings, don't get me wrong) and the Corellis (ultra reliable) worked under the ear, the sound was lost at a distance.

I play more viola than I used to but in a Brandenburg 6 performance where I was playing lead viola with Corellis I felt like I had to work really hard to make the sound project and thus lost some niceness of tone. Helicores and Larsen were much better in this respect and I didn't have to tune my instrument either! Permanents seem better than Helicores for my viola as well. In my trio I normally have to play up when playing viola but yesterday I had to play down! There's projection in bucket loads, they're warm sounding and also smooth, but have enough bite for more articulated music. It's a really nice set and the Jargar complements it very well.

April 12, 2013 at 12:30 PM · A couple of points:

- Tertis himself said his viola was designed for steel strings, but this was long before the adaptation of nylon to fiddle strings.

- I use oblgatos on my slightly nasal viola, for their warm, velvety tone; but I keep a set of Spirocores with their little rubber "doughnuts", and a lower bridge, in case of a need for "projection".

I have heard the new Kaplan viola set (braided steel core, like Spirocore and Helicore): clear, warm tone, apparently easy to play.

April 12, 2013 at 01:06 PM · Aditya:

I saw your name when researching Permanents here on Vcom.

I saw that you had tried them on you violin, but took them off after a month. Is that correct? Too bright for violin, but on the viola they hit the spot?

As I said, I ordered up a Permanent C to check it out. I got the "light" version, hoping to better match the tension of the other three strings and to get easier response. The Permanent C is tungsten wound, but only half the price of the tungsten Spirocore C.

Apparently the Permanent has rope core for the C and G and is solid core for the D and A.

Thanks everyone for your input. Violas are even more mysterious beasts than violins when it comes to strings I think. There is no standard size for a viola, which further complicates things.

April 12, 2013 at 01:43 PM · Hi Seraphim, yes that's right I tried them on my old violin and took them off because they weren't quite right for me. They sounded tinny and harsh, and I needed something more sophisticated and round-sounding. I had hoped that they would increase the clarity whilst still giving me some depth but they didn't give me any depth and only partly increased clarity.

There is apparently no difference in sound concept between Permanents for viola and the Flexocor-Permanents for violin. Bear in mind that for cello there is a Flexocor line, which is branded as having a warm, round sound, whereas the Permanent line for cello is supposed to have a brilliant sound, with similar response characteristics. The Permanent Soloist cello strings enhance the brilliance even more, apparently.

Flexocor-Permanents for violin aimed to find the middle ground between these two sounds, with a warm and round sound with a clear overtone spectrum and great projection. On my old violin they didn't work out - the only advantages of them were their tuning stability and decent clarity. My old violin was a very rich sounding instrument that lacked clarity and projection, so I thought they would work, but they didn't really improve its clarity and projection enough, and introduced a brash sound. Perhaps on another violin they would make a world of difference. I much preferred Helicores on my old violin which supposedly had similar attributes but seemed to sound a lot better, though they were still not ideal.

Permanents for viola are branded with the same sound characteristics as the violin F-P line but they are not called Flexocor or Flexocor-Permanent, which I found slightly odd. Maybe there used to be a Flexocor line for viola. (If somebody knows, then please let me know!)

In any case, they seemed to work a treat on my viola, which is bright-sounding, not nasal or harsh, but lacks a little projection and clarity in the tenor register especially. I checked Pirastro's shiny new website and it says that actually the bottom 3 strings are rope core while the top is solid core. I'm pretty sure a Jargar A is much better anyway than the Permanent A, as I've found from playing other violas with metal strings that viola As that are part of entirely steel core sets (bar Jargar) are really horrible and thin sounding. I think a set of Permanents with a different A may be worth a try on your instrument if you want something a bit more complex than Preludes.

April 12, 2013 at 02:09 PM · Thanks.

And yes, apparently they did use to have Flexcors for viola, but no longer:

April 12, 2013 at 03:18 PM · I see. I wonder how they were marketed relative to Permanents.

April 12, 2013 at 03:23 PM · The Permanents were marketed as "brighter" the Flexocors as the "warmer" alternative from what I've seen.

April 12, 2013 at 04:38 PM · I've had two instruments in my adulthood, the one I had did beautifully with synthetics and gut strings. The one I have presently generally does best with (higher tension) steel strings, and I've tried several kinds.

A general observation about steel vs synthetic and the term 'Brightness'; I don't think it's entirely fair to paint every steel string as bright, some of them are, some not so much. Spiros and Helicores, while both have clarity, response, and some 'edge' characteristic of steel strings, are in my opinion mid range to lightly dark. I certainly don't find them as bright as Evahs or Zyex.

My go-to set is Spriocore CGD and a Larsen A. Expensive, but it's worth it and they last a solid 3 months before I need to replace them. One thing about the Spiro C strings- In my opinion the tungsten C is probably the best (for clarity and response and beauty) out there for my instrument. The regular (silver?) wound Spiro C string is probably the second best :-) I really like them both. So if the price of the tungsten is the only thing keeping you from trying them, try out the regular C.

I have tried the old Bashmet setup with CG Spiros and Prim DA. The Prims were, in the end, not for me. The sound was a bit too direct (versus complex) and they felt hard under my left hand and the way they pushed against my bow hand. However, they're reasonably inexpensive and they're not a bad string. They last forever and do well with heavy bow pressure.

I have also tried Permanents. I liked them, the main issues I had with them were that they were a bit nasal/bright and thin sounding and they didn't last me long (maybe 8 weeks?). They are thin strings (thinner than Spiros or Helicores), the response is great, and they are clear. They feel more flexible under the bow than Spiros and they're a bit gentler on the left fingers. They don't respond as well under extreme bow pressure as some other strings, and aren't very complex sounding, but they do alright.

The Warchal Brilliants were really good on my instrument for a few weeks and then they died on me. My experience is that when they started to die they started to sound 'rough', versus more mellow (which is how most strings die on me). They don't do very well with heavy bow pressure, they prefer a lot of bow to go along with the pressure, and they aren't quite as clear, responsive, or projective (is that a word?) as the other strings I've mentioned.

The Larsen set for viola (steel a, others are synthetic) was fine for about three weeks! :-( I really liked the D string, and the A string is my go to, but I can't see a reason to buy the D again because it doesn't last. I'm not just talking about the sound either, the winding on the d string wore off at the pitch of 'a'. ??what the crap Larsen? ? Sound, response, etc. was similar to Warchal Brilliants with slightly more lower overtone yumminess and roundness.

It's worth saying that your experience will probably be different because different instruments and playing styles lend themselves better to certain strings.

I had a recent experience where a student of mine walked into his lesson with a new set of Evahs and I thought, 'Oooh nooo.' Evahs and I have a history. But on my student's instrument they sound absolutely beautiful. They're the picture of complexity, richness, beauty and decorum. (versus the brashness that everyone, including myself, talks about them having) And, probably two months later, they still sound lovely on that instrument. So, go figure.

Edit: don't know if it's helpful, but my current instrument is a 16 5/8 modern 'strad' style, and my last instrument was a 16.5 modern 'tertis' style.

April 12, 2013 at 04:45 PM · i'm happy with the zyex strings ... they have a warm, mellow tone that's perfect for medieval/renaissance dance ditties.

July 18, 2013 at 05:08 PM · Eureka!

OK, so previously I thought that my viola "needed" steel strings to maximize response. The Pro-Artes sounded VERY flabby when I had them on there, yet the Preludes did well, as did the Permanent C.

So, I've been playing it like this for the past couple of months, no complaints. But I've been contemplating ordering up the Permanent G, D, and A to round out the set.

But those don't come cheap...

I have a couple glasses of wine and ponder the mysteries of the violin string instrument family...and then it comes to me as if in a vision:

"The soundpost needs to be re-positioned"

I don't know if it was the voice of Buri speaking to me from above, or what. But last night I broke out my handy-dandy soundpost tool (I ground down a fork to make it...I'll have to post a pic sometime) and commenced The Operation...

It would seem that the soundpost was previously about 5mm behind the bridge. I tightened that bad boy up to a touch under 3mm.

And then in a bold move, instead of putting back on the steel Preludes and Permanent C, I load it up with the previously horribly flabby Pro-Artes. The kids were asleep, and the wife was in no mood to hear me sawing away on the viola at midnight so I had to bide my time until morning dawned...

And a glorious morning it was!

The strings were now full and resonant. No flab. Pro-Artes are a pretty mellow string to begin with, but now they sounded as expected: warm, easy, nice.

Next up may be to see what happens when I put back on the steel cores again. Will they now be too bright? Will they be awesome, booming out with renewed authority?

We shall see.

I'm going to go with the Pro-Artes for a while and see how they break in. But I'm excited by this new development. A previous poster had recommended Karneols, which I dismissed because synthetics didn't cut it with the previous soundpost position. Now the options are much more wide open!

Karneols, Brlliants, Evahs, Visions...Or see how the steelies do now and maybe go with the Permanent set still? Hot diggity! Time to start spending some money!


July 19, 2013 at 03:01 PM · OK, I don't have much impulse control.

I just ordered up a set of Warchal Brlliants for the viola.

The Pro-Artes are nice but don't have much *Oomph*

July 19, 2013 at 04:09 PM · just out of curiosity - what scale was the zyex "A" you tried? ... long-scale (body length 16-16 1/2 inches) or medium-scale (body length 15-15 3/4 inches)? horses for courses, etc. but i'm very pleased with the heavy (long-scale) zyex set of strings i put on my 16" shoulderless viola (also from the mysterious and exotic east ...)

later - if yours is similar to the one up for auction from "old violin house," it's beautiful.

July 19, 2013 at 04:43 PM · The Zyex is long scale, medium gauge.

I may try it again just for fun now that the soundpost is in a much better position.

This viola is not from Old Violin House. I got it from one of the other EBay vendors. No complaints.

I have purchased 6 violins from OVH, and they have all been very nice.

July 19, 2013 at 04:46 PM · Another note:

Tuning from the pegs with the Pro Artes is GREAT!

I thought my pegs were not so great. But that was due to the fussy nature of steel strings, not peg fitting.

The A is synthetic core, so I ditched the fine tuner on there too.

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