Main Lost Technology Discussion

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09:21:03 AM Aug 6th 2012
I nuked this essay from the Real Life section:

  • The Stradivari violins were made using secrets that were given from master to apprentice, and most of those secrets are lost today.
    • Plenty of studies have been made with high-tech equipment on these violins to find out the hidden factor. At the moment, the primary component is suspected to be the quality of the wood, which is ever so slightly rotten to give it its unique sound. Experiments are being made to replicate the technique, but since the Stradivarius-violins are so old and expensive, the chances are that it will take longer to convince people that new violins can sound as good, than it will take to actually make them.
    • The most recent studies have more or less concluded that the characteristics of the Stradivari violins were due primarily to three factors. 1) The use of salt-water cured wood (logs were stored for long periods in the commercial harbours before being dried and sold. This broke down the lignins in the cell walls, resulting in a more flexible, more resonant wood. 2) An unusual varnish incorporating ground quartz; a mineral with unique electro-mechanical properties. The quartz particles acted as a sort of resonance filter, damping high-frequency harmonics and resulting in a mellower tone. 3) Some quirks in the manufacturing and tuning process unique to Stradivarius and his students.
      • The fact they were made from wood that grew to maturity during the "little ice age", when cooler temperatures caused narrowing of tree rings, may also have been a factor in their quality.
    • The wood is now more than 300 years old. Also, music has been continuously been played on those instruments for 300 years or so. How this affects the resonant properties of wood is not fully understood, but brand new violins tend to open up and improve over time until the wood decays to the point of deterioration, provided there are no structural failures and the instruments are maintained properly.
    • Said studies however, are only on the properties of the wood. The famous "Italian sound" of the violins on the other hand, is a completely different story altogether. It is worth noting that Stradivari violins do not perform particularly well in blind tests, which have repeatedly failed to find any significant differences between them and the best modern instruments (an example of which can be read here). It is very common for the more modern violin in any such test to be identified as the "Stradivari," which is taken to mean the best violin of the ones being tested. This even occurred in a blind test when two violin experts were allowed to play the instruments, and still could not correctly identify the Stradivari. In double blind tests, where neither the players nor those carrying out the test knew which violin was which, even experienced violin makers failed to identify the Strad or Guarneri and often end up preferring a modern instrument instead.
      • Speaking of blind tests, audiences and expert violinists and even experienced makers alike have been completely fooled when a modern violin was deliberately introduced as a Strad or Guarneri and the real violins as ordinary instruments, which suggests that psychology has a major impact on the way human beings hear an instrument. Over and above that, while there is agreement on what is a bad sound, but what constitutes a good tone itself is too subjective to draw any conclusive ground.
    • Other than some unique properties of the wood, everything else may actually be an aversion of this trope. Every Stradivarius and Guarnerius violin being used today has been extensively modified over the last 300+ years since they were built. The fingerboard has been thickened and lengthened, the nut redesigned, the wood strip connecting the fingerboard to the neck removed and replaced by an all ebony board, the angle of the neck reset (in some cases, the neck itself was replaced) for higher inclination of the strings and the design of the bridge completely changed to the point where it doesn't resemble anything close to how a bridge looked in Stradivarius's time. The sound post, bass bar and tailpiece have all been changed as well. Then the chin rest and shoulder rest were also thrown in. Any professional violinist would know that changing even one of them would have a major impact on the sound, response and ease of playing. And that's not all.
    • The strings have also gone through considerable improvements since Stradivari's time, all for the sake of improving the sound and response of the instrument. First wound gut strings were developed and then steel, then synthetics and alloy strings came along. Today there are dozens of brands offering different types of strings in different gauges and it is all modern technology. The strings are the single biggest variable in the sound production of any violin.
    • Everything mentioned above constitutes the setup of a violin. A setup that works well for one person's physique may be very uncomfortable for another person. Comfort and ease of playing is no small factor to be taken lightly.
    • Not to mention improvements to the bow. Modern violin technique would not exist without it. The development of the modern bow since the time of Francois Tourte had a remarkable effect on the timbre of violins, allowing for much more power and meeting the demand for expression and technique required by the music that was being composed at the time. The bow is half of violin playing and great violinists could be very particular about the bows they wanted. Over and above the improvements in sound, the mechanical properties of a very good bow facilitate an enormous range of tonal expression and technique which would be impossible to achieve on an inferior bow. Music from the time of Beethoven onward just cannot be played with the kind of bow that existed in the late 17th and early 18th century.
    • The technological developments go way beyond the violin itself. In sound perception, the acoustics of the concert hall matters more than one can imagine. There is a huge difference between the sound heard under the player's ear and the sound as heard by the audience due to reverberation, etc. The violin is not actually a loud instrument. A beautiful sound up close heard within the confines of one's practice room may be totally inaudible on stage against all the other instruments playing. Some violins (both old and new) that do not sound very loud under the ear on the other hand, project very well into a hall at a distance. A very good violin has the ability to selectively "beam" different frequencies in different directions. The acoustics of concert halls plays a very important part in projecting the best tones and frequencies, and the best concert halls in the world from the late 19th century onward are renowned for this. The acoustics can mask noises and even mild intonation errors.
      • A soloist in an ensemble playing on a powerful violin that is placed too close to the mike can sound scratchy, harsh and anything but musical, but when heard in a concert hall from farther away the harsh tones are damped out by the auditorium itself and the tone at the audience end has been described to be incredible, rich and colorful.
    • And recordings. The way a violin sounds in a studio recording (especially the older ones where the soloists where miked much closer) can be very different from how it really sounds in a concert hall. This can give the listener a misleading perception of the sound of the violins used by the soloist. A graphic equalizer can modify the instrument's timbre to the point where it sounds nothing like the original. The quality of the audio equipment can make a significant difference too.
    • The single biggest variable in the violin sound is the player. There are numerous occasions where expert violinists have taken the inferior instruments of their students and reproduced the same incredible sound of their own violins. It is also well known that different players sound totally different on the same instrument. There are extensive documented cases of great violinists being unable to reproduce their tone when having to play on an unfamiliar instrument.
    • In fact, the Stadivarius and Guarnerius lore might be a major case of YMMV. There are many experts who hold that there is no such thing as the Stradivarius secret and the mystique around it is just a romanticized brand mythology for the market to keep raising their prices higher and higher. Old instruments are a valuable investment and some sell for millions of dollars.

...because it was waaaaaaaaaaaaaaay too long.
10:38:43 AM Aug 6th 2012
It isn't an example anyway; as some subbullets point out, they are no longer the way they were made, the only potentially "lost" thing is just old wood that wouldn't have been old when they were made, and most of the timbre depends on psychology and the skill of the player. The section is quite impressive due to sheer size!
06:40:09 AM Oct 7th 2012
It's actually not an example now with all the research done on them and then upgrades they've been through. The Lost Technology idea is a hotly debated point in musical circles. There's no denying that Strads and Guarnerius' sound is legendary (if you've heard them on Youtube), but it appears that Technology Marches On applies even to them.
10:56:10 PM Feb 7th 2011
Methinks this page is now large enough to shift to foldered organisation. Anyone else?