The $100 dollar violin and other questions!
April 27, 2007 8:28 PM   Subscribe

Two questions concerning violins (and by extension, other string instruments): 1. Mass production! 2. Strads!

1. Why aren't violins mass-produced like guitars? Is there something special about their design that prevents this from happening, or is there some other reason?
2. Are Strads as good as they're made out to be, or is it all just the placebo effect? Can we use our advanced knowledge of acoustics to design a perfect violin?
posted by archagon to Media & Arts (14 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Just off the top of my head...

1. Mass production relies on the law of supply an demand. Every bored suburban teen wants to be the cool kid who plays the guitar. Few are aware of the wooing capabilities of the violin/fiddle. The guitar is well-suited to the singer/songwriter style that is popular in music these days. The violin, well, can you imagine trying to sing with your neck all scrunched over like that? Guitars have a place in most musical forms that are popular right now. Violins, not so much. Cheap guitars are easy to make due to low-quality materials and automation. This goes double for cheap electric guitars since they rely on the quality of the wood used to a lesser degree than acoustic models do.

2. Wood changes quality over time, as the wood dries and matures. A luthier friend of mine waxes rapturous over his dad's supply of Brazilian Rosewood, which has been difficult to get ahold of for a couple of decades. This is more than simple acoustics, this has to do with the innate qualities of the wood used. In order to replicate the sound quality of a Stradivarius you would have to synthesize a material that had the same resonance as 400(?) year-old hardwood, and then design the body.
posted by lekvar at 8:45 PM on April 27, 2007

Best answer: 1. They are mass-produced. Go into a music shop and ask to look at a cheap violin. It will likely have been made in a factory in China. What makes you think they're not?

2. Yes, Stradivarius' instruments really are that good. There is a great deal of argument as to why, ranging from the wood used (where and when it was grown, how it was cut and dried and piece chosen and so on) to the formula of the varnish. They can be distinguished from bad instruments in blind tests, although whether they are that much better than the best from other makers I couldn't say.

Good violin technique is so important to sound quality that a good player can get a surprisingly good sound from a bad instrument (and make a good one sound really good),so that muddles things - a Strad won't make you sound like Jascha Heifetz, but he could have played a strung up cigar box and it would have sounded pretty good.

There have been many attempts to design improved violins (eg Savart's trapezoid violin). But, all instruments are design compromises between things that make them playable, and things that make them sound good, and between different aspects of sound quality (eg volume vs tone quality vs sustain). So one person's "improved" instrument is a another person's failure.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 8:48 PM on April 27, 2007

Re lekvar's second point, Stradivarius (and Guarneri and Amati and others) were acknowledged as making the best instruments in their own lifetimes. So 400 year old timber is not the answer. In fact some of the older early violins are probably past it now, even if they've been well looked after.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 8:50 PM on April 27, 2007

As to the placebo effect, I can confidently say there's more to it than that. I don't play violin, and I doubt that anyone would let me within 100 yards of a Strad, but I do play banjo. Last I was out browsing I sat down with a $250 model (within my budget) and a $5000 model (wishful thinking at best) and, believe me, I could hear the extra $4750 when I played. There was no comparison. I could certainly make music with the cheaper model, but the quality of the sound produced by the expensive model was amazing. Like the difference between listening to your favorite tunes through a single 5" speaker and a good surround system with a subwoofer.
posted by lekvar at 8:57 PM on April 27, 2007

Mass-produced violins.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 9:00 PM on April 27, 2007

Response by poster: Hum, it seems I was wrong about mass-produced violins. Apologies all around!
posted by archagon at 9:20 PM on April 27, 2007

Best answer: 1. There ARE violins that are mass produced. They suck. There are also mid-range price violins that are no entirely hand made by one person, but the parts are mass produced. (So instead of making all the pegs by hand, I guess they all come from one big peg-making place. I'm not sure about the actual logistics, but my violin is made by several groups of people.)

2. This is actually being researched scientifically.
link 1, link 2, link 3
and there's some more if you google "science" and "strad" together. (Google knows that "strad" is short for stradivarius! I'm impressed!)
posted by easternblot at 9:22 PM on April 27, 2007

Here is a dropship company that sells ubercheap violins and other stringed instruments. I actually bought a guitar from them for my daughter. It's cheap, but fun. It sounds ok for learning and playing around with. NOTHING like a Martin or an Ovation, or even a $200 Yamaha. I would imagine their violins would be about the same. So to answer your question... yep they are mass produced.
posted by The Deej at 9:54 PM on April 27, 2007

Best answer: No to the $100 dollar violin. Seriously. Just send me the C-note and let me blow it on vodka for all the good it will do either of us. You have to spend more. Period.

A violin needs to be set up. Anything selliing from China at that price is not.

Don't get me wrong. There are passable and even great violins coming from China--just not "ready to play" at that price point.

One of the few companies making acceptable violins at that range is the Saga Cremona series.

At under two bills, you can get their SV-175, but you will need to get it from a shop that has adjusted the fittings, recut the bridge, and installed a set of Dominants. At that point, it will just "do the job." Much goes into selection of the spruce top and hand-graduating the same. Disasters in the making include Lark, Skylark, and Lafayette.

Up your budget. At about $350, the Cremona SV-1220 is a much better violin--many of them even shipping with decent flame, but again a shop setup is a must.

As someone who is intimate with violins and guitars for a living. the same criteria don't apply to both. There is a number of $200 usable acoustic guitars out there, but not so much with violins.

"Strad" these days refer mostly to dimensions. In much the same way a guitarist will look a a knockoff and say that it is a "Les Paul" style or a "Tele" style that is what happens with fiddles. A Strad has wide upper and lower bouts, but it not as deep, or as "pregnant" as a Guaneri though it is narrower.

I spend all day sifting shit violins from good. Stick with Saga (the SV-1220 kicking Knilling Bucharest butt all over, despite the fact the knilling is Romanian at the same price), Amati, JR, or best of all, Scott Cao. Cao's 750S spirit varnished series are easily the best violin for under a grand--I really dig their 1740 Heifetz copy.

I dunno. Without some guidance, you have every opportunity to throw your money away on this one.
posted by sourwookie at 11:18 PM on April 27, 2007 [3 favorites]

As someone who is intimate with violins and guitars for a living, I know the same criteria don't apply to both.

posted by sourwookie at 11:20 PM on April 27, 2007

Response by poster: Do you know why this is? Do violins simply require more manual adjustment?
posted by archagon at 11:48 PM on April 27, 2007

Best answer: Yes. And at the low end of the scale, it has to be done aftermarket, unless you work for a retailer like mine that does it for even the cheapies (which inernet retailers never do.)
posted by sourwookie at 4:37 AM on April 28, 2007

Best answer: As basically everyone has said, yes, there are mass-produced violins, yes, the ultra-cheap ones suck, and yes, there are reasons why Stradivarius violins are very good.

Here are two very good articles about why the violin is so difficult to play (and by extension why engineering it for proper acoustic response is so difficult), and on new advances in violin-making, respectively:

Why Is the Violin So Hard to Play?
String Theory: New Approaches to Instrument Design
posted by invitapriore at 9:36 AM on April 28, 2007 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I saw a piece on 60 Minutes a few years back about somebody figuring out how to duplicate the Strad sound for cheap, which I can't quickly find on Google. But I did turn up these two stories, one of which could have been the source of the show: How to get the Stradivarius sound from any violin (and better hi-fi)
& Unlocking secret of a Stradivarius. FWIW.
posted by scalefree at 11:34 AM on April 28, 2007

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