Complexity? Richness? (of violin strings)

June 6, 2015 at 02:49 AM · Hello,

I have recently invested in total of $1600 into a new violin, a new bow and other accessories (one at a time) and I am noticing a GREAT difference from changing the violin and the bow and etc. [Violin was the greatest change, and the bow was another great change]

Now, since I begun playing the violin, I skipped Dominant, and went straight to Thomastik Infeld Red because I liked the warm sound of it and I didn't like the feeling of Dominant[The metallic rough feeling, I find infeld red "smooth" and dominant "rough" on my fingers].

Later I tried the Dominant's "A" string, and I learned what most people meant by "breaking the string in", since Infeld Reds took no time to "break in". I decided to steer clear of Dominant because the string took me one week to break in and another week until it broke while mounted, sitting inside the case.

I am now back to Infeld Red.

I actually picked up a new bow earlier today and I've been greatly seduced by the sound that the violin makes, except I'm finding that the tone has gotten "brighter" when I swapped the bow. I have no complaint, I'm almost scared by how much control I have over the sound and how clean the sound is.

I have been doing a little bit of surfing online trying to decide which set of strings to experiment with next. I decided to experiment with Obligato. It currently sits in the case, but I won't be swapping the string until next year(I decided to buy it now because I find that the string price in Canada has doubled in 3 years).

Now, one thing that I am very curious about and yet to find out is what people mean by that a string is "Rich" or "complex". I found this chart:

I have spoken to a local cellist and two luthiers about what "richness" or "complexity" means, They've been telling me generally the string companies call them rich and complex but, it usually means the string is louder and darker.

I wanted to know what it means when a violin string is "complex" or "rich".


Replies (24)

June 6, 2015 at 08:19 AM · Two aspects:

- Overtones (from sections of the string). A "rich" tone will have many; too many high ones will seem strident or harsh, the right dosage will give clarity an projection.

- Imperfections! Think of the little black boxes used with electric guitars to "enrich" the very boring tone of high tension steel strings, by adding distortion and de-phasing.

The overtones of a "complex" string will not be true harmonics. Then there will be a "noise" component accompanying the tones.

Just as our eyes cannot focus on a perfect white surface, but need at least a random "texture", our ears need a mimum "roughness" in the tone.

June 6, 2015 at 02:21 PM · Don't blame the Dominant A string for breaking while sitting. This was certainly a problem on the violin.

June 6, 2015 at 04:00 PM · Hello Scott,

I've been told by a luthier that it was just a bad luck considering that the only string broke previously was Infeld Red D string after 5 months. I think I am going to keep Infeld Red as mainstay until I try and find one that I like better. Hopefully Obligato.

Also, thank you for the input Adrian. Something that I notice when I watch some of the professionals playing on Youtube. I find that even without vibrato, their instrument has what you are probably calling overtone. I was always curious if this was due to their bowing technique or the string, or is it both?

June 6, 2015 at 04:22 PM · I have always understood the "gold standard" for tone to be that of plain gut strings, the use of which of course goes back to the beginning of time. Today's manufacturers of synthetic strings seem to be trying to achieve something of the tonal qualities of gut (but haven't quite got there yet, imo), and also developing strings with a more "modern" sound that is being asked for at many levels of music making. Although I don't use those strings I have no quarrel with them.

I'm not advocating a wholesale return to gut (I wish!), but anyone who journeys along the plain gut road for the first time can be assured of a valuable educational experience in all areas of violin playing, including tone production of course.

June 6, 2015 at 04:28 PM · Overtones are sounds pruduced by sections of the string vibrating like mini strings: 2nd harmonic, 2 sections; 3rd harmonic, 3 sections, etc, usually up to 11th or 12th harmonics.

A thin and flexible string will produce more of the higher harmonics than a thick, stiff one.

Playing near the bridge will excite these higher harmonics. Playing on the bridge will not excite the fundamental, and we get a ghostly, whistling sound.

In reality, the "sections" are not always so mathematically precise: the overtones are not strictly "harmonics". The thicker the string, the geater this "inharmonicity", which I think must be one of the components of "complexity".

Trevor, I started viola in 1963, with plain gut A & D, silver-wound G & C. The "real thing"!

Then to steel for reasons of economy, a very brief flirt with those screechy Dominants in 1978, then back to Eudoxas.

Aricores, and now Obligatos, are a sort of highly practical "near miss".

July 9, 2015 at 03:29 AM · I have been reading that the Dominants are more "complex" and has more overtones than Infeld Red(what I've been using so far).

I have been playing on a violin with Dominant set, I think I can actually hear the difference especially on the lower strings. I'm trying to figure out if it's because it's a different violin or the strings.

Basically even from open String, after I let go of the string with the bow, I can hear a slightly different characteristic sound for short period of time.

My violin does this as well but for upper strings, A and E, and for much short period of time. Am I hearing the "complex" tone here?

July 9, 2015 at 06:17 AM · Hello,

as far as richness colours and complexity are concerned, I agree with the chart. Below is my chart.

First comes uncovered gut,

then covered gut,

Olive, eudoxa, passione,

Then all the synthetics.

There is no way to get the true brilliance of a gut or covered gut string with any synthetic as I have tested. What we perceive as brilliance on a synthetic string, is a metallic timbre. To realize this, one has to try gut for a while.

True brilliance, complexity and colours in the sound without any hint of metallicness.

The downside of gut however is the instability as they are sensitive to humidity and temperature fluctuations, but the higher up the scale one goes toward quality, the more the sensitivity.

Pirastro have managed to harness this instability of gut with the Passiones which once they settle in, they tend to be stable enough for most situations. Don't expect the stability of metal, but the rewards are breathtaking and well worth the sacrifice.

Gut however will not give quality to a bad violin. One has to start with a good sounding instrument in the first place. Gut will bring out the inherent quality on a good violin, but will not make a bad violin sound more complex.

July 9, 2015 at 10:15 AM · So what is complexity?

I think of the comparison between wood and formica (gut vs steel strings).

In between, we find formica textured to imitate wood (synthetic strings).

Or I compare a dead smooth white wall or cieling (designed to send hospital patients gaga?) with a textured white rendering on which the eye can focus.

So "complexity" coprises the multitude of minute imperfections that make the tone of a violin more engaging than that of a synthesizer.

Note how the plain sound of an electric guitar is "enriched" with various forms of distortion.

I don't think "richness" concerns only "warmth".

Just my two centimes d'Euro..

July 9, 2015 at 12:33 PM · Complexity comes from richness of overtones FILTERED in a pleasant way. A square wave is rich in overtones but sounds terrible. The bridge acts as some sort of filter.

July 9, 2015 at 12:51 PM · If you look at a spectrogram you will see how many harmonics are present in a note. Generally speaking, the fundamental is the loudest with the upper harmonics tapering off in volume. "Complex" strings tend to have the upper harmonics at a higher volume whereas "rich" strings have a more dominant fundamental. Complex strings can sound screechy on a bright instrument but can liven a dull one. Rich strings sound warm and dark but might not always project over other instruments so well. The fundamental however may be booming and projects in its own way depending on player and instrument.

July 9, 2015 at 02:24 PM · Christopher, I would describe such differences as "bright" vs "warm", and "rich" as having both qualities.

My point is that "complexity" or "texture" is due to the slightly random qualiy of "real" sounds; e.g. the way that harmonics are not quite harmonic (due to the stiffness of the strings distorting each harmonic differently.)

The opposite of complex couldbe "smooth", or "clean".

Examples? (on my instruments, at least)

Complex: Obligato (dark), Tonica (bright), Crystal (dark);

Smooth: PI (bright), Aricore (dark), Alliance (dull,).

I notice that the lower tension strings often sound more "complex"..

July 9, 2015 at 04:46 PM · Well, these days we have some great software that can show us visually what is going on. I use Izotope RX but I think I heard that even Audacity shows a spectrogram(?)

July 9, 2015 at 05:06 PM · Yes, but a spectrogramme won't show the aspects I am refering to. We would have to observe the exact frequencies of each overtone over a period of time.

Must be possible, though..

July 9, 2015 at 05:27 PM · It shows it over time.

July 9, 2015 at 08:21 PM · "What we perceive as brilliance on a synthetic string, is a metallic timbre. To realize this, one has to try gut for a while."

This is very true. Gut strings are perceived as warm and complex because you're hearing lots of overtones. The synthetics get their brightness from the metal windings, but it's just high frequency noise that is initially intolerable, reasonably pleasant for a week or two, and then quickly dies over the next few weeks. Meanwhile the gut strings are still warm and complex and going strong.

July 9, 2015 at 08:32 PM · Martin, I think you're absolutely right,

with my Infeld Reds, here's what I always noticed. Within the first day, I have some break in time, it sounds edgy.

After that, for a week or two, I get VERY pleasant sound. After three weeks, it starts sounding somewhat dull. Using different rosin definitely improved the dullness, but it never sounds the same as the first few weeks.

I have to admit that I am not terribly in love with Dominants, while I like the "complex" sound of the lower strings, I find the strings a little harsh on my fingertips and also it's very edgy.

It is possible that the strings may be quite new, and no one really broke them in, I should ask when I return the violin.

I will return to my violin with Infeld Red for a few more months then start trying the Warchal strings.

July 9, 2015 at 08:37 PM · @Martin Hirst. Very much in agreement with the longevity of gut strings, but only as long as we're talking specifically about plain gut. The problem with covered gut is similar to that with synthetic core strings - the interface between the metal winding and the underlying core - whether gut, nylon or other synthetic - deteriorates with time and playing, and the tone goes south sooner rather than later. Unfortunately this is also the case with the covered gut G, but there's no avoiding a covered gut G unless you're prepared to travel along the Early Musick Road and use gimped gut. I prefer the wire wound G (Pirastro and Savarez, for example) rather than the flat wound variety, but that's my personal opinion.

July 9, 2015 at 09:25 PM · the SHAR site actually has a cool chart where each brand of violin strings is plotted on a chart based on their relative loudness/brightness. go to Shar and shop for strings and you should see the link.It seemed to match what I had heard and what my personal experience was.

July 9, 2015 at 09:33 PM · One other thing -- I would encourage you to just experiment with strings as you change them. More expensive strings are not necessarily going to be better (I like Infeld blues but they are pricey). There are some less expensive strings that might surprise you. Xyex, for instance, is a very bright loud string that is very inexpensive -- some people consider Xyex a poor man's Evah.

At the suggestion of my luthier, I tried some Helicore strings for a viola. Even though Helicore are a metal core string, they don't sound at all like what I would expect with steel strings -- in fact they're rather dark with rich overtones -- or at least they are on my viola.

Another really big factor is degree of tension. A low-tension string can make for a more responsive string, a high-tension string can give you more overtones. I added a higher-tension heavy gauge Westminster E to a violin and the other three strings got stronger with deeper overtones, probably because the high-tension E is providing a stronger link from bridge to belly to soundpost.

So the whole process can be unpredicable. Strings have qualities that the makers advertise but that may not be the qualities you witness on your instrument.

July 10, 2015 at 12:53 AM · I hope Shar's string chart is wrong about Warchal strings, or Infeld reds, I find my Infeld red bright currently, their chart says infeld red is darker than all three Warchal string I've ordered

July 10, 2015 at 02:32 AM · Hey, I'm glad you found the chart somewhat helpful. I am the site director of ViolinStringReview.

I have on another page of the site "Terms like bright, warm, clean, and complex are often used to describe tone or timbre. Here is a simple analogy to get an understanding of the difference between a bright tone and a warm tone: Imagine striking a thin piece of metal with a hammer. That more shrill, thin sound could be called bright. Now imagine striking a block of wood with a hammer. That sound would be more warm, or dark. Understanding and Explaining the difference between clean and complex tones is a bit more difficult. That difference in tone has to do with the number of overtones within the sound produced. Overtones are vibrations that are part of the harmonic series, or multiples of the same frequency that sound at the same time. Clean tones produce less overtones while complex tones produce more overtones." Now this is still very vague, but the physics of the overtones hopefully can show a bit more of how it works.

I have had the opportunity to demo a lot of strings. If you have any specific questions please do not hesitate to ask through the site.

July 10, 2015 at 03:58 AM · Thank you very much Shawn.

For the chart as well as your insight. I have read through the chart, and the page regarding the tone. I have been able to understand the warm/dark v.s. bright because they are very well distinguishable between each strings. I have also looked at your tension charts. I found them especially helpful when I was looking for lower tension strings.

I am still yet to grasp the full complex strings. I wish there was a demo video showing different strings and sound on the same violin.

I will be experimenting with different string infrequently because my financial status will stay tight for quite some time being a student. My next three will be Warchal's strings, and I will start using them after my Infeld Red completely loses its flavour.

July 10, 2015 at 05:55 AM · "Very much in agreement with the longevity of gut strings, but only as long as we're talking specifically about plain gut"

OK, plain gut will sound good until they start fraying under your fingers, but I'd happily play on year-old Eudoxas. They may not be completely fresh but they won't be dead either. It's that short window of good sound that's tedious with synthetics.

July 10, 2015 at 07:18 AM · Shawn, I often refer to your site.

Would there be enough feedback from violists to compare viola strings? The C, of course, but also the choice of A's

I find I agree with your chart, and with the contrast between "complex" and "clean".

From the acoustic point of view, I am still sure that "complex" is more than just "rich in overtones": there is the random element, producing minute variations and inconsistancies.

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