Overtones vs whistling

Edited: May 15, 2020, 12:59 PM · I've hesitated bringing this up, but I am seeking a better understanding of what might be going on. My teacher can't hear it as we've been doing Zoom lessons for 2 months now, and it's anyone's guess how long that will be necessary.

My intermediate student violin just got a spring service. New bridge, significant work on the fingerboard, sound-post adjustment (of course), and I gave them my replacement set of Vision Solos to switch them out while they were at it. I am thankful for that annual maintenance fee I give them, it's far less than one average servicing.

My violin sounds much better, I had not realized just how far the sound had deteriorated. I still, however, have that airy/hissing sound on A and E in 3rd position and I hear more of it as I get further up the keyboard. (just experimenting, we are focusing on 2nd and 3rd right now, no higher)

Someone at the violin shop told me that I was hearing overtones, and frankly I am unsure if anyone else can hear it more than a couple feet away.

So my question is this - what is the difference between "overtones" and "hissing"? I thought them to be different things but are they? Would it help to try different strings for the A and E (full set of Vision Solos)? I do like the sound of these strings - though I could experiment with the E I suppose.

Thoughts? I'm likely overthinking as usual :-)

Replies (18)

May 15, 2020, 1:22 PM · Overtones are the tones that are present when a note is played (the fundamental). Depending on the setup and the instrument itself, certain related tones will be audible in addition to the fundamental, and they add richness to the sound. However, when things are out of adjustment, certain tones that don’t mesh as well with the fundamental can come out and detract from the sound as they fight the fundamental for dominance.

The hissing sound often comes from the setup or the bow itself. Sometimes a bow that’s not tracking well will produce a hiss, especially as you bow closer to the bridge. The placement of the soundpost can affect this as well. It is true that some sound that you hear when you play will not be audible to a listener farther away. Right under your ear the instrument will sound a bit edgier than it does across a room. But if you find that the hiss means that you can’t get a clean sound, you might need to have some adjustments made. If you can, make a recording of your playing and see if the noise comes across in your room. If your teacher hasn’t been hearing it on Zoom, it could he that the mic isn’t picking it up, it it might just be something that you can work around.

May 15, 2020, 1:40 PM · It happens regardless of bow, (main bow is a JP Corona, backup - Codabow Prodigy), or really strings. Now that I think about this, it was one of the reasons I moved from Dominants with an EP Gold E to Vision Solo). I do hear it less with my Vision Solo and JP Corona combo. I did try out quite a few bows when I was bow shopping.

It is quite possible that I might simply be running up against one of my limitations of my instrument. It is a $1,000 workshop violin and I can't expect it to sound like a professional level instrument. I am intending on upgrading my violin at a good time - it may be best just to deal with that hiss until then. My JP tracks well, and I'm told that I am bowing properly so I don't think it's my bow. If I am the only person hearing it then...I need to determine that. The setup is checked every 6 months or so, and it always sounds incredible when they are done - outside of this.

Thanks for the information!

Edited: May 15, 2020, 2:30 PM · This isn't whistling, but an almost subliminal airy hiss on both A and E strings (it starts higher on the A than E). I've heard what a whistling string sounds like but this seems different. It has been duplicated by others at my violin shop which is when they told me it was overtones.

That being said, I do spend time on very slow 2-octave scales daily. My teacher hasn't introduced 3-octave scales yet (I'm at the end of Suzuki 3).

Edited: May 15, 2020, 3:57 PM · "It's overtones" is a fail-safe answer, because any hissing sound or distortion can be expressed as a linear combination of overtone frequencies. That's just Fourier analysis -- which sounds fancy but isn't very helpful to your question.

Does the hissing change when you play different pitches, or is it always the same? My ears ring constantly and always the same, for example (I'm just used to it but it probably downgrades my overall aural sensitivity and tonal discrimination considerably).

If it's the same all the time, then I believe what you are describing is usually called "bow noise," which means (I think) that in addition to productive engagement with the string, the bow is also just rubbing unproductively against the string and creating background noise. It is alleged, in "pros know" fashion, that different bow sticks, and not just different methods of hairing the bow, will afford significantly different levels of "bow noise." Rather than argue against that idea (there have been far too many threads on that already), I will simply say that I don't understand it (nor does a friend of mine who is a violinist and a mechanical engineer who specializes in vibrations).

On the other hand, the fact that you hear it now after your violin was adjusted and new strings put on could mean that what you are hearing is a natural part of the sound of your violin that was muted before because your strings were old and your violin out of adjustment.

You don't have to play 3-octave scales if your teacher hasn't assigned them to you yet. If you've learned third position, then just play all your scales up to D or D#. (!) They're not as aesthetically pleasing then, because they might turn around in the middle of an octave, but at least then you'll be using your whole practical range, and you can work on your E-string tone within the constraints of your own technical development. And for that matter, play them down to A or G on the G string. Really, I see no harm in that. (By the way this not my idea, as I recall it is something like this in the Hrimaly Scale Studies book, but that was a LOOOONG time ago!)

May 15, 2020, 5:36 PM · It sounds like string hiss, and I've never been able to eliminate it when it appears. I'd love to hear a *specific* way to make it go away. However, it doesn't travel but a couple of feet, and no one in an audience is going to hear it.
May 15, 2020, 7:16 PM · Be sure your strings are clean (wiped to be microfiber-clean at least), that your bow is not overloaded with rosin and that your bow is moving perpendicular to the strings. Overtone frequencies should be multiples of the frequency of the note's fundamental (fifths or octaves). There also can be high frequencies due to rotational vibrational frequencies (and God knows what else). If your violin is producing audible overtones at frequencies that are too high I would think your soundpost should be moved to reduce that - or use different strings - or "surgery."
May 15, 2020, 7:28 PM · Paul - I heard it before, and it never varies with the pitch I'm playing. New strings, new bows, newly adjusted everything...You are probably right in calling it bow noise, I had not heard that different sticks can make a difference. It IS decreased with my Jon Paul Corona over the Codabow Prodigy, but it's still there.

I'm currently playing 2-octave scales in both positions for most of my scales. I'm really focusing on learning the different finger patterns in 3rd - and I like your suggestion. During the Covid-working-from-home, I'm taking half my lunch break and working with scales and drills, saving the pieces from Suzuiki and some other things we're working on for the evenings.

May 15, 2020, 7:33 PM · Michael, thanks for your input. If I could just ignore it - and I think I can these days, but it is an irritant.

Andrew - thanks for the reminder on the clean strings/bow. The strings are only a week old - so about 9 hours of play so far. I do wipe them daily. I HAVE learned that my JP Corona just needs more rosin than my other bow, or I didn't rosin it enough when I bought it. It's settling down now though and have been able to use a bit less rosin. The very slow scales I've been playing have really drawn attention to the portions of the bow that needed more attention with the rosin.

May 15, 2020, 7:50 PM · If you’re confident that it’s NOT the bow, the rosin, the strings, or your technique, have it adjusted. Based on your description, it sounds as though the sound post could use adjustment or replacement.
May 15, 2020, 8:24 PM · It may just be something you are noticing that you hadn't before, as the player will hear a lot of things that the audience won't. I hear a little bit of hiss at certain bow pressures high up on the e string. Depending on how unpleasant you find it, you may want to record yourself and get a sense of whether this is something that is only apparent to you, the player, or whether an audience will hear it. If you don't hear it on the recording, then that is a good indication that there isn't a problem with your equipment. I would check that out before going down a setup rabbit hole.
Edited: May 15, 2020, 9:01 PM · I have a hunch that Michael and I are thinking of the same basic sound. The hissing noise only occurs when you play (!duh!) so it's an unproductive noise sound that's coming from the contact of the bow with the string (sorry for being "master of the obvious"). Whether the bow or the string is at fault I cannot say. The reason I said "bow noise" is because I've heard it discussed the most in the context of shopping for bows, and I've heard that term before. That seems to be where people start to notice it, but again that's just a lot of conjecture that I can't really defend or even rationalize. Michael is a luthier, so maybe he notices it more in the context of changing strings, since that's maybe something he would be doing a lot. Or maybe "string hiss" is something different. Michael will know better than I. All I can do is guess.

I think we all experience this to varying degrees, and the source can be very hard to pin down, although I'll bet it happens less with a great violin, a great bow, and a great violinist -- parameters that may not be within your immediate reach. Michael is also right that such things (a little "string hiss" or "bow noise" or even a little "scratch" when you play) do not carry far, but they can be annoying "under the ear." If you live entirely alone then you are going to have to wait to diagnose this, because trying over Zoom or Skype will be hopeless. If there is another sentient human in your midst then their opinion of your sound could be solicited at varying distances, or they could be asked whether they've also noticed a difference in the sound of your instrument.

May 15, 2020, 9:19 PM · Good advice all, and I do live entirely alone so for now, I won't be able to get another's take on it. It isn't THAT bad, fortunately.
Edited: May 18, 2020, 5:20 PM · Overtones, Whistling, and Hiss;-- are three separate things. Overtones are of course the string vibrating at a half, third, fourth, etc, length, producing frequencies that are double, triple,etc. Overtones are good, we do not hear them separately, but hear them as part of the tone spectrum, the timbre, that makes a violin sound different from an oboe or clarinet. Whistling or squeaking can happen to any one when the base of the first finger accidently touches the open E, or the bow passes lightly on a down-bow slur from an A-string note to the open E. It is a longitudinal spinning, torsional vibration of the string, instead of the normal sideways vibration. It also has something to do with the construction of the E string. The Warchal Amber E is successful at suppressing it by putting a twist in the E string (in the opposite direction of the spin?). Hiss is unavoidable. It is the disorganized very high frequency "white noise" of the rosin rubbing on the string. Unresponsive cheap instruments or high tension steel strings will have more of it than high quality violins. It is not a big problem. Straight gut strings will hiss more; it's part of their charm. It bothers the player because our left ear is only a few inches away from it. The audience will just hear a clean attack. In a recording studio you get rid of it by moving the microphone farther out. Use a plug in the left ear. It cuts down on the hiss and preserves your hearing.
May 19, 2020, 12:17 PM · Joel - thank you for breaking down the difference between the three. That is the clearest description of the differences that I've yet read.

I think it's clear that what I'm hearing is hissing, and it is less pronounced with my Vision Solo strings than the Dominants (plus my violin simply sounds much better with the Vison Solos and silver D)

Now I'm wondering if there is a tension difference between the two...i will look that up.

Thanks again Joel, and everyone for your helpful comments.

May 19, 2020, 12:28 PM · There is a big difference in tension between Dominants and Vision Solos. Dominants are on the lower end of the tension spectrum, whereas Vision Solo is one of the highest-tension string sets on the market.

I don’t agree that hiss is something that can never be reduced or eliminated with adjustment or new setup, although I do believe that in some cases it’s better to leave it alone when the sound is pure at an audience distance.

May 19, 2020, 1:23 PM · Very interesting in the tension difference between Dominants and Vision Solos. The Solos sound so much better on my violin that it seems quite probable that the hiss is the same with the VS but it irritates me less because the overall tone is better. I am 99% certain that I'm the only person hearing the hiss and I can separate the hiss from the notes played - if that makes sense.

I've a brand new set of Solos that were just installed, I may try something else next time to see if there is a change with the hiss. I do like, very much, how the VS with silver D sounds however, so I may not.

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