Sound Projection, Modern vs. Old Instruments

January 20, 2018, 4:10 PM · What decides the limit of sound projection you can achieve from your instrument? Is it strings, top thickness, tailpiece material or something else? Do Italian School instruments generally have a good projection suited to a soloist's instrument?

Replies (55)

Edited: January 20, 2018, 7:59 PM · In the world of violin, the answer to a question like this is always whatever "seems most reasonable." It stands to reason that the most important part of the violin for tone is the nut, because that's where the vibrating part of the string exerts the most force on the instrument.
January 20, 2018, 8:39 PM · No, I don't think any luthier would agree that the nut is the most important part of the violin for tone.
In fact, that's nonsense. Nuts are pretty much the same anyway. Same wood, same dimensions except for width of string notches. And I don't think that "whatever seems most reasonable is an answer." What seems "reasonable" will differ from the lay person and the educated professional. The business end of the string exerts force on the bridge--that's where the sound is transmitted.

The violin is the sum of its parts and it's difficult to point to one aspect that decides the limit of projection. It's the interaction of the wood, pattern, arching, graduation, bridge, F-holes, varnish, strings, setup--everything working together. You can predict that a large arching will make for a soft, non-projecting sound...until you hear the (relative) brashness of an Amati. You can thing it reasonable that a thick top won't project...until you hear a Del Gesu. You can assume a bigger violin with more interior volume would make for a bigger, deeper sound...until you hear a small model that projects with a big, deep sound. Then again, any of the above can limit the projection. It could be the arching, or the bridge, or the setup, or the rib height or thickness....there are simply too many variables to be sure and you can't change them all.

Many 18th century Italians have the right qualities for a soloist. But so do a couple of French violins. Practically no Germans, and maybe a couple of English.
That's why the best ones are in high demand. It just depends. I heard a piano trio whose violinist was using a lesser-known Galiagno family instrument, and she couldn't project over the piano.

January 20, 2018, 8:41 PM · I think player + violin + bow (+ strings + horsehair + rosin + fittings + etc. etc.) is a complex and dynamic system.

The components of a violin work together in harmony; no one part determines how well or powerfully it sounds. No single school of making encompasses "the best".

Edited: January 21, 2018, 6:41 AM · Paul, consider that very little of the vibration energy from the string is reaching the upper nut when the string is stopped, which is most of the time.

Also consider that there is more than the vibrating string energy reaching the bridge. There is also a periodic sideways force exerted by the slip-stick action of the bow, and communicated to the bridge through the short section of string between the bow and the bridge. The greater the distance between the bow and the bridge, the less this sort of force is communicated to the bridge. That's one of the reasons why varying bow distance from the bridge can create big differences in power and tone. Playing a similar distance from the upper nut doesn't produce a very satisfying sound.

January 21, 2018, 5:00 AM · Guys, I think Paul deliberately omitted the /sarcasm tag...

Re "Playing a similar distance from the upper nut doesn't produce a very satisfying sound." - I just tried (on my student instrument). I'm actually surprised how little difference it makes. Sure, the sound is a bit duller at the nut, but the difference is much smaller than between small variations in contact point near the bridge. I think the impact of contact point is a bit more complicated than "communicating force over a distance".

January 21, 2018, 8:04 AM · Wood selection

Maker's skill in:
Arching
Graduation
Setup
(and in getting the wood capable of maximum projection)

Where the maker lives today doesn't matter as much as it probably did years ago, before the world shrank and now you can find out anything and purchase anything from anywhere. Wood supply and knowledge base undoubtedly was more localized in the past.

The slippery-slope "modern vs. old" in the title hasn't been given much attention (thankfully), but at the risk of starting up the never-ending debate, I'll say that moderns can project just as well as old, albeit there might be subtle difference in tonal character.

January 21, 2018, 8:20 AM · Han, you didn't notice a significant difference in volume between the bowing points?
January 21, 2018, 9:58 AM · It's difficult to judge by ear the difference between "less powerful overtones" and "less volume". According to the sound pressure meter, the volume is about 2 dB(A) less at the nut than at the bridge for the G string; the difference is less than for the E string. (The needle is dancing quite a bit, so it's hard to do this accurately.)

Test conditions: violin held low (resting on forearm), so that its easier to keep the bowing motion constant and the same position of violin and sound-level meter.

January 21, 2018, 11:04 AM · "Guys, I think Paul deliberately omitted the /sarcasm tag..."

Yes, we just LOVE it when people are sarcastic in forums. It's always SO obvious.*

*sarcasm.

Edited: January 21, 2018, 1:32 PM · Han, yes, that's a tough one. Violin volume and projection are usually assessed by human listeners, rather than measuring devices. And the spectral distribution of the sound can have a lot to do with listener impressions.

Musical performances are normally targeted toward listeners, rather than measuring devices.

Perhaps I'll have time over the next several days to record and post average measured loudness, along with FFTs (showing the spectral distribution) illustrating the sound differences in bowing close to the upper nut or the bridge.

January 21, 2018, 1:27 PM ·
Edited: January 21, 2018, 2:55 PM · I know the instrument has a lot to do with hearing a violin, but the player's skill may mean even more.
The concertmaster of our chamber orchestra has the most amazing vibrato I've ever heard and the difference in projection when she plays without vibrato and with it is nothing short of unbelievable. Her violin is a well-know German brand (that I cannot recall at this time). I thought her sound was due to her instrument, but one day I heard her testing bows for another player on that player's violin and it was still her sound, for sure. I'm sure her bow control also plays a part in her sound.
Edited: January 21, 2018, 9:57 PM · I changed my mind. It's not the nut. It's the GLUE they used. See, the old Italian masters used only glue made from the hides of deer hunted in the Carpathian Mountains of Central Europe which is perfectly matched, through many millennia of evolution, to the maple and spruce tonewoods harvested there ...

On a more serious note, I wonder if the limitation on projection is the thickness of the top. Don't you want the top to be very thin so that it can vibrate easily, but it has to be structurally strong enough to sustain the forces set upon it?

January 22, 2018, 1:36 AM · David, I'd be interested to see the results. I'd do this myself, but I don't have good recording equipment (anymore).

I'd like to see data covering different contact points around the bridge and close to the nut, because a few millimeters can make a big difference.

Edited: January 22, 2018, 10:02 AM · Paul is actually correct about the nut - but not that one. I remember my cello teacher telling me that the most important single item responsible for making a good tone is the nut at the end of the bow ;)
January 22, 2018, 8:45 AM · Surely it's the nut playing it?
January 22, 2018, 9:15 AM · "On a more serious note, I wonder if the limitation on projection is the thickness of the top. Don't you want the top to be very thin so that it can vibrate easily, but it has to be structurally strong enough to sustain the forces set upon it"

That's the impossible task for the luthier, isn't it? It'll either be too thick or too thin. Kind of like making your own pasta.

Edited: January 22, 2018, 11:56 AM · For violin instruments it is worth reading the two books by the late James Beament: "The Violin Explained (Components Mechanism and Sound)" and " How We Hear Music (the Relationship Between Music and the Hearing Mechanism)." According to Beament the important factors in projection are the way we humans hear different frequencies and the amount of sound instruments output in the 1 - 3 KHz band, where good violins have their important overtones (harmonics). The human hearing mechanism seems to be able to "reassemble" "pitch" from the overtones we hear. Unfortunately, as far as I can tell both books have become rare and expensive.

Of course, when we listen to recordings of concertos we hear how the engineers recreate the soloist's sound to what the soloist wants us to hear, but when listening to a live performance we are at the mercy of all the factors present in the hall. I can recall how I heard Heifetz, Perlman, Stern, and Hahn so strongly in live concerto performances, but I can also recall how I could barely hear Zuckerman, Bell and Friedman. But to me the fascinating thing about the way I did hear Friedman performing the Brahms in HS "cafetorium" was the way his overtones rose above the orchestra sound (even though it was nothing like the way I heard had Stern doing it at Constitution Hall). And I marveled at what Brahms had done to compose a concerto to create such a fantastic blend of violin and orchestra that I had never heard that way before. For me that remains an important educational experience.

Edited: January 22, 2018, 2:22 PM · I'm a new-be to all of this but I think it must be the violin case. If you take a violin out of a $2K case, it invariably sounds better than the ones in the 50-dollar soft cases. To prove this, I plan on switching instruments case-to-case the next time I'm at a premium violin shop. That ought to prove it!
January 22, 2018, 2:40 PM · A lot also rides on whether or not one uses a cheap sponge as a shoulder rest. ;-)
Edited: January 22, 2018, 4:28 PM · Trevor I apologize for getting my two nuts confused with one another. Oh God. Now I have to resign from the Senate.
January 22, 2018, 4:18 PM · I think we need another experiment just to define projection! Player perception vs listeners perception vs instrumentation measurements.
Edited: January 23, 2018, 11:44 AM · The beneficial effect of vibrato on projection (or the ability of a violin to be heard above an orchestra) is at least partly due to co-modulation masking release. I won't attempt a proper explanation (it took me long enough to get my head round) but as Andrew says it's to do with how overtones "bind" together to reinforce the pitch of the fundamental. The problem is, how to recognise which frequencies we hear are overtones of the violin and which emanate from the orchestra? The clever thing vibrato does is to help the brain recognise which frequencies are varying at the same rate ("co-modulated") and therefore belong together.
January 27, 2018, 12:08 PM · Steve's comment on vibrato is just an example of how "projection" is actually a super complicated concept because there are so many other variables. What we are discussing is not something that can be mechanically measured because it is what happens inside people's ears.

Who decides what sounds like more projection -- the player whose ears are 6 inches from the f-holes? A chamber music partner 5 feet away? A listener 10 meters away? A full concert hall where the most distant seats are 100 meters away? A full concert hall with mediocre acoustics and an orchestra playing too loudly through the solo passages?

Anyway, I will say strings and setup make a huge huge difference and can completely transform a violin. People probably talk too much about varnish and tonewoods and old vs. new and Italian vs. French vs. German (or Chinese!) and not enough about strings and bridges and afterlength and soundpost fitting.

January 28, 2018, 8:24 AM · It seems that we tend to dismiss instrument measurement of projected sound, wheras it is the only consistent and objective method of measurement and comparison. Human hearing is totally subjective and inconsistent at best, even for the same individual and the same day at different time, yet is the one we trust most as ultimately it is what matters most to us. This is perhaps what makes these listening comparative studies so darn difficult and inconsistent. For instance, some days my instrument sound different, yet nothing really changed. I attribute the change to humidity, temperature and whatever else other than myself, but in reality I (and my earing) am the most likely variable.
Edited: January 28, 2018, 4:03 PM · Roger, instrumented loudness measuring methods aren't terribly reliable either, because there isn't a set of agreed-on standards. For instance, should they be measured on the decibel scale? If so, should the A, B or C weighting be used? Or should one of the more modern industrial noise standards be used, like "sones"?

There are violin researchers working on these things, experimenting with ways of measurement which will come close to the results of human listener impressions. (Listener and player impressions continue to be the reference standard, because as far as we have been able to tell so far, these are all that really matter in the music world.)

January 29, 2018, 4:17 AM · There is also the question of how many mikes, and where to place them: a violin emits much sound from all over its back plate, including high frequencies. I someone playing a violin for us turns slightly, the tone and projection change noticeably.
January 29, 2018, 8:07 AM · SPARKLE!
Part of the way we hear violin sound is because of the "sparkle" having two ears brings to our hearing. I think I first realized this almost 60 years ago, when I had completed all the work I had done on the heat capacity of diamond ( https://www.colorado.edu/physics/phys4340/phys4340_sp15/hw/JChemPhys36_1903_1962_Diamond.pdf )

and wanted a photo of the gem-cut diamonds* I had been privileged to do the research on for a presentation I was going to give at an American Chemical Society meeting.

So--I poured these small gems into a pile on a low bench in a bare 20x20 foot room in the photo department and lit them with a singe lamp. They looked OK, but through the camera they looked absolutely dead. We added another lamp and that brought the sparkle (even to the monocular camera lens) for which diamonds are so famous.

Then it occurred to me that is what we hear in live concerts - and great stereo systems (I had just gotten into that).

Now - this has nothing to do with violin sound BUT it may be why I remember that day so well - almost immediately after we got a good photo, the flood lamp above the pile of diamonds exploded and glass dropped on to the pile of diamonds and scattered them all over the room - which fortunately was tile floored, clean and complexly bare except for the photo equipment and lamps and bench the diamonds had been on. Now - I was "on the hook" for these diamonds, weighed to the nearest milligram. So we really swept the floor and collected all the glass and diamonds and I took the whole mess back to the lab where I picked out everything that looked like glass, Then I looked in Lange's Handbook of Chemistry for a clear liquid with a specific gravity between that of glass and diamonds and poured the rest of the mess into a beaker full of that. The glass floated to the top, and after the diamonds had been washed and dried the weight came to within one milligram of what I had signed off for. So I did not owe NBS money then or when I moved to California 2 years later.

* As I understood it, the National Bureau of Standards (where I worked at the time) received contraband gems from Customs, Treasury, etc. for research purposes.

Edited: January 29, 2018, 10:20 AM · Personally I thought Paul's joke about the nut was a little too obvious;)

Oh, and "Surely it's the nut playing it?" is a winner of a comment.

January 29, 2018, 2:39 PM · This is slightly off-topic, but what do we mean by "modern"? Any instrument built after, say, 1816 (when Storioni died)? My violin is 104 years old. Modern? Middle-aged?
January 29, 2018, 2:55 PM · I suspect the intent here was "modern" in the sense of "contemporary" -- by living makers.

Edited: January 29, 2018, 2:59 PM · Yes, I get that. I suppose my real question is, what do we call all those instruments made after the "golden age" but not recently by folks still living.
Edited: January 29, 2018, 4:57 PM · Since sound is the change is pressure, then theoretically the greater the distance/excursion of the vibration of the top plate, the greater the volume that would be produced. Same principle as a loudspeaker
January 29, 2018, 6:39 PM · I've heard from a professional orchrstra player that I respect a lot, that he commented a well known artist having a huge sound, but audiences said otherwise. He commented another artist having a modest sound output, but I heard the performance and he sounded huge and no single note that can't be heard.

One is playing Del Gesu, one is playing Stradivarius. You'll even get different results from same caliber of instruments. You'll also often hear stories of player playing violins made by still living makers making huge impressions on the audiences.

The saying is right - it's the nut at the end of the bow that really made the sound. ;)

January 29, 2018, 7:44 PM · In the world of automobiles, an antique is anything 50 years or older.
January 29, 2018, 8:57 PM · antique violin is 100 yrs old or older
January 30, 2018, 2:47 AM · Of course that some instruments project more than others, but its evaluation seems to be a bit subjective too.

I've seen tests in which a cigar box projected as well as a fine instrument, perhaps because of the player's ability to make the instruments sound and project (of course the player was having a bad time playing the bad instrument). So, perhaps projection is not dependant only on the instrument, but also on the player.

The other problem is that the musician can't play and listen to the instrument at the same time (ubiquity is still impossible in the present state of the art), so he will have to have another player to assess projection.

It seems also that projection will depend on the room, I remember Uto Ughi testing his Strad and Del Gesù prior to play a concert to decide which one he was going to play, and he decided that alone. At that time he did that in every room he was going to play.

If I am not wrong, Melvin mentioning that Vengerov was not able to make del Gesú's Cannon/Paganini project in a recital some years ago.

I also remember Roberto Dias playing about 30 or more violas in the Viola Congress in Cincinnatti and he made them all sound about the same.

January 30, 2018, 3:13 AM · I think projection is at least 50% down to the player. I once heard Oistrakh play the Brahms (admittedly from Row C, and he probably wasn't playing a communist violin) and he blew the orchestra away!
January 30, 2018, 3:22 AM · I envy you Steve, Oistrakh is my favorite violinist.
January 30, 2018, 3:40 AM · Mine too, then as well as now. I might have been in the orchestra but failed the audition and consequently got a better view.
January 30, 2018, 3:55 AM · And Oistrackh played the viola too!
Edited: January 30, 2018, 4:31 AM · Projection (which is interesting only for the handful of violinists who play solos in large halls) is surely fetishized as an excuse for paying over the odds for a great Cremonese fiddle. For the price of some of those instruments you could actually get a decent instrument, and build your own portable hall with acoustics which would put to shame the projection of any Strad or Del Gesu in a badly designed hall (such as Albert Hall, London). Ridiculous? Not at all. The violinist Rieu built a replica of Schoenbrunn Palace in Vienna, which is huge, and carted it round the world for his concerts. That is over the top but shows what you can do with a few million.
January 30, 2018, 4:38 AM · "If I am not wrong, Melvin mentioning that Vengerov was not able to make del Gesú's Cannon/Paganini project in a recital some years ago."

If that was the performance in Duke's Hall, Royal Academy of Music, I was there. Vengerov didn't 'get it', perhaps because he had had the instrument set up with modern strings, which did not seem to suit it, since a less famous violinist did better on it with gut strings in the same hall.

January 30, 2018, 4:49 AM · It seems that del Gesù's Cannon/Paganini requires a certain type of player to make it sing properly.
January 30, 2018, 5:08 AM · I told this story in another thread but it could date from the time Paganini ordered a minor repair to the Cannon while on tour in England. The luthier who performed it seized the opportunity of taking the front off to find out what made it tick, and according to Paganini its sound was never the same again. The luthier was George Craske who later made my violin. It projects pretty well!
January 30, 2018, 8:25 AM · I had a Craske for many years. Large, flat pattern. Not particularly big nor deep sound, but pleasant. How did Paganin find Craske, and why did he trust him? I though Craske was an amateur that made his violins in isolation, with his output only being purchased by Hill after his death.
January 30, 2018, 9:07 AM · You're right about Hill's, although with a total output of 3000 I think Craske must have sold a few instruments on his own account too. I guess Paganini was touring small towns in the north of England and had to take any luthier he could find.
January 30, 2018, 9:27 AM · John Birchall, Rieu also plays a 1732 Strad. ;-)

A huge part of tone production is the player, indeed, and the particular synchrony of player and instrument (and bow).

I'm not really sure why so many players focus on loudness when choosing a violin. (It's often loudness, and not projection per se, even though the player may use the term "projection".) How many players really need their violins to have soloistic projection?

January 30, 2018, 9:56 AM · My teacher plays on a Guarneri, not a Del Gesu, but Joseph Filius Andreae. And lord, that violin SINGS and projects like nothing else, even when my teacher is just demonstrating a scale in a small practice room.
Edited: January 30, 2018, 12:47 PM · "John Birchall, Rieu also plays a 1732 Strad. ;-)"

I get that. And I dare say the reason he can be heard is not the portable concert hall. And not even (pace those who have paid eyewatering prices for Strads) his Strad. His secret to being heard is probably a superb sound system and good sound engineers to run it.

In case anyone else is interested in projection, here is a useful equation:

($25,000 violin + $20,000 bow + $1,000,000 sound system) > ($2,000,000 Strad + $20,000 bow)

where the symbol > means 'has better projection than.' You can spend the change on a few good dinners ;-)

January 30, 2018, 7:13 PM · Once you throw amplification into the mix, all bets are off. :-)

I'm guessing there's a totally different set of rules for what type of violin is optimal for players who routinely play under amplified conditions.

This might be interesting for folks like David Garrett, who plays under both amplified and not. After crushing his Guadagnini in a fall (he had an inadequately protective case), he bought a Strad. So I'm guessing that they do nicely amplified as well as not.

January 30, 2018, 7:32 PM · Why is there sooo much prejudice against German violins?

January 30, 2018, 7:40 PM · Oh, and I read somewhere Rieu’s castle nearly bankrupted him.
Edited: January 31, 2018, 3:52 AM · "Why is there sooo much prejudice against German violins?"
Take no notice of Scott's dislike of German fiddles. He is right, of course, if he means 18th century German violins, in the sense that there was no country called Germany in the 18th century. If 'German' is used for instruments from the German-speaking world at the period, well I have heard a Stainer up against a Strad and a very famous Del Gesu from the back of the hall, and you could heard the Stainer just as well as the others.
Edited: February 3, 2018, 3:26 PM · "Why is there sooo much prejudice against German violins?"

Perhaps because German factories mass produced violins, that I read somewhere were intentionally optimized for shipping sturdiness over sound quality. I don't know if that is true.

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