Dull-Sounding Viola A-string

January 8, 2021, 1:50 PM · I've been playing my Stefan Petrov 16.5" viola for awhile now. It's a Strad pattern. I'd describe the sound as sweet, clear, not too dark or bright. Not nasal at all. It came with Warchal Brilliants and a tailpiece that was too large and had the ugly brass fine tuners on it. The afterlength was way too short.

The C-G-D strings sound very good. The G-string in particular really rings and has great sustain. But the A string has NO ring or sustain, like it's too tense. Not too quiet, just too dark. The other strings ring; the A just sort of goes Thud.

I got a Wittner Ultra tailpiece, a set of Kaplan Forzas and took it to my luthier. He examined it carefully and said it's a "very good viola." But the setup left much to be desired. He carved a new bridge, put on the new tailpiece, trimmed and moved the soundpost and put on the new set of strings.

It still sounds sweet and clear, only now it projects better. The G string still rings the best. But the A-string still has no ring or sustain.

He re-adjusted the soundpost and tailpiece and got a little bit more sustain from the A, but not much. As an experiment, we tuned the viola down to A=415 to see if lower tension suited it. No go. The A still sounded dull and the whole viola sounded worse.

After a new setup and with different strings, both the G and the A still behave the same way in relation to the other strings, i.e. nice C and D, great G and dead-ish A. Perhaps this is just the way my viola is built?

Any suggestions for an A-string with more ring to it, or even a (moderately priced) different set to try? I'm looking for shimmer, overtones, sustain on all the strings.

TIA!

Replies (39)

January 8, 2021, 2:48 PM · You should be so lucky! Or play the violin?
Strident A-strings are the bane of my life. And Pirastro have stopped making the Eudoxa-Aricore viola A, sweet and clear to the end of the fingerboard, which I used with both Obligato and Tonica sets.
Edited: January 8, 2021, 4:59 PM · Good Luck!

I got my new 16" viola in 1996 and finally found the right strings for it 2 years ago (2018 - 22 years later!).

I finally took the viola to my got-to "luthier" (Ifshin VIolins) and was fortunate that the "salesman" who waited on me is a violist. He recommended that I needed a lower-tension C string and said that many violists who have that same problem also get a lower tension A string. So what I have now are Dominant Weich A and C strings and Pirastro Permanent D & G strings - and I have a viola that is well balanced and matched over it's whole range and gives me "shivers" every time I play it. (Fortunately I have another viola that I have had for 45 years (not as nice sounding as the newer one) that seems able to tolerate equally well all the strings the other has rejected.

Some viola string brands come in two length options. If your viola has a long vibrating-string length, it may have too much tension ins the strings in order to get them to standard tuning. SO what is the vibrating-string length of your viola (not the 16.5" length of the back).


Perhaps you can find someone who can offer better advice than your luthier.

January 8, 2021, 6:30 PM · Adrian wouldn't like this suggestion, but most viola players would:

Have you tried a chrome-wound steel A, like Jargar, Larsen, Evah Pirazzi, etc? I find that they tend to be the most brilliant and focused.

January 8, 2021, 8:24 PM · Thanks for your input. I was hoping you guys would chime in.

The vibrating string length is 14.75 inches, or 37.5 cm.

Somewhere around here I read that this dullness can be caused by the groove for the A-string being too deep. I don't know if they meant the groove on the bridge or nut, but they put a bit of parchment under it and said it solved the problem.

I looked. The bridge looks fine, but the A-string sits pretty deep in the nut. I don't know what "normal" should look like, but it seems like the A on my little viola sits a bit higher.

My little viola has used full sets of Helicores and Tonicas. Never had this problem with the A-string sounding dull, only the C-string being flabby. It's always something, isn't it?

Edited: January 8, 2021, 10:39 PM · That's the same vibrating string length as my two 16" violas and I have found that the "long" viola strings work best for me even though their posted tensions are for a longer vibrating length.
Edited: January 8, 2021, 9:25 PM · That's interesting, Andrew. How do they feel to play? Do they feel at all flabby?

I might try a longer A at least, because this A-string just feels way too tight.

January 8, 2021, 10:47 PM · Amrita, there is nothing flabby about any of my viola strings - and there never has been. In my initial ignorance I have always bought the longer strings because of the length of my violas' bodies.

I finally read that the "specs" were for vibrating-string length but decided to keep doing what I had always done.

I never liked the Larsen A strings because they never seemed to match the tone of my other strings even though they seemed popular with others.

My life as an amateur string player has included an expensive half-century of string experiments (violin, viola, and cello). Trying to optimize strings for 3 different cellos much of that time has been the most expensive proposition. For any who might be interested I have finally found that a set of ROSTANVO strings seems to be best on all 3 cellos - no more "mix to match" - and they are less expensive that other premium strings.

January 8, 2021, 11:50 PM · Thanks, Andrew. I think you're on to something.

Since the rest of my Kaplan Forza set is nice, I'm going to try a longer Forza A and see if the lower tension helps. Hopefully I won't have to replace the whole set.

I've also got a new, unopened set of Warchal Brilliants. I'm ordering the longer Brilliant A to see if it resonates better than the A that comes with the set.

This will give me a two lower tension A's to play with- one steel and one synthetic.

January 9, 2021, 12:47 AM · Have you tried the Larsen A? That tends to be the best string to use with many sets.

The most popular viola sets with violists in my area (all with Larsen A) are Obligato, Evah Pirazzi ,and Evah Pirazzi Gold.

An imbalance in sound across the strings could be caused by the sound post position, though.

January 9, 2021, 5:12 AM · OK, I'm apparently alone in wanting a warm A, but I must experiment with Trevor's solution of low-tension synthetic C & A, and metal-cored G & D.
My French violist friends do the opposite: booming steel C, strident steel A ("mais c'est ├ža, l'alto!") and soggy G & D. But then ze eengleesh have to be different, n'est-ce pas!

I notice conductors sometimes pull a face when we violas pass from our velvety D's to our screeching A's...

I should have been a 'cellist.

Edited: January 9, 2021, 7:50 AM · Another angle:
Whether it's "after-stroke" ringing, or even pizzicato, the lower strings ring longer because they have more inertia.
And a viola G, D & A ring longer than on a violin because they are longer (still more inertia).

Yet another angle:
I have learned to vary my bowing style across the instrument: shorter, heavier strokes on the C, and progressively longer, lighter strokes as we cross towards the A. This "allows" more overtones on the A

January 9, 2021, 8:03 AM · Adrian, re your post of January 9, 2021, 5:12 AM, I think it was Andrew Victor's suggestion, not mine, for mixing types of string, as he said in his post of January 8, 2021, 4:59 PM. It appears it was a suggestion emanating from Ifshin Violins anyway - a good one, in the past I've used variations of it on the violin.
January 9, 2021, 12:42 PM · Adrian- you're not alone in wanting a warm A-string. I don't play violin because of the piercing shrillness (to my ear) of the E-string, and don't like it when the A-string sounds like that.
January 9, 2021, 1:33 PM · OK. My viola's VSL is 14.75". My current Kaplan Forza set is "Long scale" in Medium gauge. It's for a VSL of 15".

The "Extra-Long" scale is for a VSL of 15.75". I'm going to try an Extra-Long A-string. It comes in Light, Medium and Heavy gauge. Which do you recommend?

---------------------

With regards to my unopened set of Warchal Brilliants... they're the "Small" length for a VSL of 14"-15". The Large is for a VSL of 15"-15.3".

Which do you think is more likely to work: Get a Large A-string to try with this set, or exchange the whole set for the Large size?

January 9, 2021, 2:15 PM · Anita, you are right, "dull" is not the same as "warm".
A warm tone still has a halo of overtones, but they don't dominate.
Dull is just..well, dull!
January 9, 2021, 2:36 PM · My A-string rings like a wooden bell. That's what I mean by dull.
January 11, 2021, 8:38 AM · Amrita, my opinion is that reducing tension is the way to go. Both lower-tension strings and using a string designed for greater vibrating length will do the trick.

If you can trade your unopened Warchal set you might consider just getting a longer or "Weich" (lower tension) A string and keeping the difference in cash for your next string purchase. That's what I would do.

My experience has been that changing any one string can affect the sound I get from all the others.

Edited: January 11, 2021, 9:24 AM · You're right, Andrew. It's simply too much tension. As an experiment I tuned the A string down to G, whereupon it had decent sustain. Then I tuned the other 3 strings down a note. They all had a little more sustain except for the G which was already great. That string seemed a little happier as it is.

I can get a longer Forza A, or a Weich Forza A, or one that's both longer AND Weich. Which would you recommend?

Thanks!

Edited: January 12, 2021, 7:24 PM · I have the same problem in one of my violins, but I suspect that it's because the soundpost moved and the bridge is warped on the E-string side, because I used to have two fine tuners which I tuned for a really long time without touching the pegs much. I get low sustain with a high tension E but also the same with a 0.26 Goldbrokat E that is low tension in comparison. The violin is waiting for a new bridge and for a setup checkup.
Using Weich strings my hurt your projection too much, or not...? The violin plays great with Evah Pirazzi Gold in the other 3 strings, great response and ring.
Edited: January 11, 2021, 12:18 PM · Amrita, I really don't know which approach to getting a better A string is preferable. You might try down-tuning your A less than you did and see what pitch begins to give you the "sustain" you are looking for.

Then compare the frequency of that note ("X") (probably estimate it unless you have a tuner or spectrum analyzer) on your phone that gives you that info). Next equate that fractional change ((440 - X)/440) to the fractional change in tension of the string and compare that to the difference between the options you have chosen - IF you can find info on the tensions of those strings.

With my viola it was sufficient to just switch to the lower tension string -- but I was already using long strings.

I have never had a problem with "Weich" strings I have used. And I think projection is strongly related to "partials" (i.e., overtones) and the way they are emphasized by vibrato.

January 11, 2021, 4:06 PM · Just to say that lowering any string by one semitone lowers its tension by about 9%.
Edited: January 13, 2021, 11:17 AM · Some players,including me, will Prefer a Viola A string sound that is nasal, edgy, melancholy. When some composers give an A-string solo to the Viola instead of the Violin, it is because they want that distinctive sound. A similar thing happens on the Viola C string, which sounds thick, fuzzy, heavy, compared to the same notes on the Cello. Going back to the earliest Baroque string orchestra scores (1550-1700) we sometimes see 2 Viola parts, small and very large; doubling the vocal alto and tenor parts. Less expensive than the already mentioned Jargar or Larson A would be the two titanium wrapped Viola A strings from D'Addario, Helicore and Kaplan.
January 12, 2021, 1:04 PM · Joel, it's a Kaplan Forza A that's giving me trouble. The Warchal Brilliant A was too tense as well.

Warchal suggested their Amber A with the helix. Not sure if I should get the short or the long. They're cheap enough that I might get both.

Pirastro has kindly offered to send me a set of Tonica 4/4 mediums at a reduced price. Tonica is lower tension than the Forzas and the Brilliants. The 4/4 will be a little higher tension on my viola than the specs they give. I think it will be lower tension than what I have on now, though. Apparently they don't make the Light version anymore.

Edited: January 18, 2021, 9:20 AM · I use Tonica sets (with their synthetic A...) on both my violas, one narrow and nasal (viola mezzo?), the other tubby and wide (viola contralto?) with the same VSL (14"). If my dear friends really want a trumpet-like A, I keep a Jargar in reserve.

Tonica do a steel cored A as well.....

BTW, I love the trumpet.

@Joel: Fair enough, but I can still play "edgy" if the music demands it, but most folk I play with prefer my warm A. And I can certainly do "plaintive"!

BTW Primrose went back to a plain gut A, influenced by..Heifetz!

January 13, 2021, 10:15 AM · I ordered two Warchal Amber A's in the metal helix design- one in small and one in large. Hopefully one of them will do the trick and lessen tension across the board.
January 13, 2021, 6:22 PM · Adrian, I'm not aware of a Tonica steel-core A. Could you please direct me to where you are able to buy one?
January 14, 2021, 5:15 AM · Andrew, I fear I am mistaken.

But then I would only use a steel A in a full steel set, with a slightly lower bridge, if folks asked me very nicely!

Edited: January 14, 2021, 9:09 AM · No one has mentioned, and it might be useful, that what you are experiencing is most likely a wolf note. A wolf affects a set of notes surrounding it, making them all strange. On a viola, depending on size, this can happen on or near that A and to some extent all of the first position notes on that string.

I'm not sure, but I suspect this is why many players pair a Jargar A with Dominant D, G, and C. The steel string has a harder, more packed tone that drags the fuzzy wolf range more in line with the other notes.

Sometimes moving the post North and out (tighter) can help, if that doesn't mess up something else, but that's not a home fix.

To confirm this, try playing that same range on the other strings. By the time you are playing that same A and the notes around it high up on the C string I bet it will be quite a mess. That's an indication that the problem is more underlying broader situation than just something about the A string and how it's sitting on the nut, bridge, etc.

January 15, 2021, 1:31 PM · I tried your suggestion, Michael, and played all the strings up to their highest positions to hear how the A sounded. It never sounded like a mess, still just dull on the low C. My luthier didn't find any wolf notes when he adjusted it, but who knows? Maybe you're on to something. (I hope you're wrong, though)

D'Addario is kindly sending me a new replacement Forza A to try, to see if the one I have might be a dud. Once I receive it, they asked me to mail my current A string to them for evaluation. If the new A still sounds like it's too tense, then the solution will probably lie in using a lower-tension A-string or maybe even a lower tension set of strings.


January 22, 2021, 1:24 PM · Update:
In an email exchange with Pirastro, the rep recommended not going longer than the VSL for which a string was designed because it might be too long for the winding to contact the peg. She was concerned that if the metal part of the string directly contacts the peg without the protection of the winding, it might cause buzzing or get damaged. Has this ever been a problem for you, Andrew?

I received the Warchal Amber A's with the helix design. I had ordered both a long and a short. The long one is indeed too long for the winding to contact the peg directly so I installed the short one.

Right off I noticed that it's a thinner gauge than the Forza medium. It has more sustain than the Forza, even when fingered. Not sure that the sound quite matches the rest of the set though. I could live with this but it still feels very tense.

I'm waiting to try the replacement Forza medium when it arrives, but I suspect this is a tension issue, not a bad string issue.

After rotating through these A strings I'd like to try a complete set that's lower tension than Forza and Warchal Brilliant. I'm curious how this viola speaks when there's less tension across all the strings.

Perhaps Tonica? Maybe Corelli Cantiga in light gauge?


January 22, 2021, 1:32 PM · Amrita, Sorry I can't picture the problem you describe.

When I have had a string that was so long that I thought it might bulk up the peg too much I have just rimmed the end. I also do that when I reuse an older string - just rim the end. I have never noticed a problem.

January 22, 2021, 1:58 PM · Hi, Andrew! Here's what the D'Addario rep said:

"If you get an Extra Long string, chances are it will be far too long for the scale length of the instrument, which will cause too much bare wire to wrap around the tuning peg. When too much bare wire wraps around the tuning peg, that will also affect the sound of the string, and it increases the chances of the string breaking prematurely."

Have you ever had this experience?

January 22, 2021, 3:21 PM · No! I have never had this experience. How did the rep explain it?

There are only two possible reasons I can anticipate might cause this:
1. Too much string wound on the peg resulting in pinching of string at the wall of the pegbox.
2. Too much string wound on the peg resulting in disrupting the straight passage of a different string from its peg to the nut or squeezing the string against the back of the pegbox causing fraying of the string and/or interfering with tuning.

As I wrote before, when I have thought I had too much string for a peg I simply cut off some of the its end - sometimes even a couple of inches.

January 22, 2021, 4:25 PM · Thank you, Andrew. Makes sense.
Edited: January 24, 2021, 5:03 PM · Amrita, is it humid where you live? Like I said, I have one violin in the same situation, the humidity level here is usually between 80% and 100%. I've put the violin in a room that has a dehumidifier, so in this room, the humidity is around 65%. After letting the violin there for 24h, the sustain and brightness of the E-string increased.
The problem is almost certainly related to soundpost/bridge setup, maybe the soundpost is too tight or/and not in the perfect position.
January 24, 2021, 4:27 PM · Thank you, David. To answer your question, I live in a desert with very low humidity. The humidity in my case is usually around 30%. Today is a rare rainy day and the outdoor humidity is only 66%.

My luthier just installed a new, lighter tailpiece with the correct afterlength, carved a new bridge and trimmed and moved the soundpost, so I don't think it's a setup issue. Not saying it "couldn't" be the setup, but at this point I'm thinking it's more likely the strings.

The viola came with a set of high-tension Warchal Brilliants. I had my luthier replace them with high-tension Kaplan Forzas. With both sets, the A-strings were very tense and had no ring. I replaced the Forza A with a lighter gauge (perhaps lower tension?) Warchal Amber A. This new A-string has more ring and sustain. A logical assumption might be that high tension doesn't work well with this viola.

I'd like to try a whole set of lower tension strings as an experiment. Just wondering which ones to try. I can't afford EPs or Dominants, only moderately-priced strings like Tonicas, Cantigas, Karneols ... and if Tonica or Karneol, which size to try?

Edited: January 24, 2021, 6:07 PM · What do you mean which size?
I only use medium strings, if I don't like them, I move to a different medium set. There are many tension variables only within mediums. Why are you using stark sets? That's probably the issue, too much tension, not only on the A string but on the whole bridge, preventing the thinner and higher tension string (A) from resonating.
January 24, 2021, 5:32 PM · By "size" I'm referring to the discussion above with Andrew.

I'm not using stark sets. I'm using "medium" strings but they are considered high tension strings. This is why I want to try a lower tension set to see what happens when I reduce force across the whole bridge.

This chart shows relative string tensions:

https://www.violinstringreview.com/uploads/1/5/0/1/15014224/tension_set_201409.png

January 24, 2021, 5:34 PM · I don't use that chart anymore, it's not correct. I check the official website of the maker.


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