What is a "Sound Adjustment?"
The simple answer is: The art of optimizing each part of the instrument to best perform it's sound-production functions, in concert with all of the other parts, each optimized to produce the best sound possible from the instrument. There are many parts involved, and many ways to optimize them for sound production - just look at your own instrument. Virtually every part you observe has some influence on the sound.
In a Sound Adjustment, our primary focus is on improving these four fundamentals of great sound production - 1. Volume overall and the level of power, or sound energy projected, 2. Sustain, 3. the Timbre, or the quality of dark or bright, warm or nasal 'character' of the sound, and 4. Evenness of volume from note to note, as well as balance register to register.
Above, our bass and cello specialist Ben Williams adjusts the sound post in this very fine old cello.
Any instrument can realize improvement to it's sound, sometimes dramatic improvement - in some or all of these fundamental areas, with attention to each of the individual parts of the instrument. The strings, the bridge, the sound post, the saddle, the nut, the endpin, the tailpiece & tailgut - are all of the removable parts of the instrument that can be optimized in many different ways to improve your sound.
But the most noticeable improvement is made by adjustments to 1) the sound post, and 2) the bridge, along with a good new set of strings custom-selected for the type of sound we want to achieve.
The Sound Post
The sound post is the starting point for any kind of sound adjustment, as well as for doing setups in general. The most critical aspect is how well-fitted the sound post is, and that it is fitted precisely in the correct position with respect to the bridge. If you notice the curve of the top and back of your instrument - that curve is also duplicated on the inside of the instrument, and the sound post end is carved to match that inside curve, so that there is a perfect transfer of sound energy into the sound post from the violin top to the back of the instrument.
The sound post also has the structural job of supporting the violin top against the tremendous downward pressure from the strings, so the length of the finished sound post is also a key factor. It should just be able to stand up alone by friction, in proper position touching the top and back inside with no string tension on the bridge. If the sound post is too long, even by just fractions of a millimeter, the top and back cannot vibrate freely. It's like putting your thumb on a speaker cone while it's playing - you'll hear a noticeable degrade in sound if you impede the vibration of that speaker cone. The vibrating violin top functions just like a speaker cone, and will respond the same way to having a sound post that's too long. A too-short sound post is just as problematic - it allows the downward pressure of the strings on the bridge to warp the top plate, also introducing tension and impeding the free vibration of the top, while also leading to cracks and other structural problems over time.
The second most-sensitive part of your Sound Adjustment, is the bridge. We start with the fundamental location of the bridge, with respect to the center line of the instrument and the fingerboard, and then ensure that it is also aligned properly with the small notches carved into the F-holes in the top of the instrument. The location of the bridge is sometimes micro-adjusted (within limits) to achieve a brighter or darker quality to your sound, or to better line up with a neck that is slightly off-center.
But the more critical aspect of the bridge is how well-fitted the bridge feet are to the curvature of the violin top. This is a very precise, meticulous process of carving the bridge feet to achieve perfect, full contact with the top of the instrument, so that 100% of the sound energy of the strings is transmitted into the instrument.
Special Bridge for a 260-year old Cello
Poorly-fitted bridge feet can drastically impede the sound in different ways, and since all woods are constantly moving and changing size with the seasons, over time this sensitive fit can even degrade on its own, and it is recommended to get a new bridge every 10 years or so in any case. Over time, the tremendous downward pressure of the string tension on the bridge compresses the wood in the bridge, making it less able to transmit the full range of sound energy from your strings.
The thickness of the bridge is also taken into account - in general, a thicker bridge may achieve a darker sound while a thinner bridge can produce a brighter sound. However, there are pragmatic limitations - a bridge carved too thin cannot transmit warmer tones well and is subject to early structural failure, like warping, strings cutting-in, etc. A too-thick bridge with too much mass will impede the sound energy from the strings from reaching the body, and may sound 'dead' or too dark, with reduced sustain and power.
Seasonal Changes vs Environmental Changes
Seasonal changes are normal in all musical instruments, and your instrument changes its physical size in tiny increments with every seasonal humidity and temperature change. Because finer, carved instruments are often much more sensitive to these changes, many discerning professionals will request that we make a 'winter' sound post and a 'summer' sound post for them. As the instrument shrinks in the less-humid winter season, the sound post only shrinks in it's diameter and thickness, not length. So when the humidity drops, the wood shrinks and the sound post artificially becomes 'tight' between the top and back, thereby impeding the vibration and sound, calling for the shorter, winter sound post to be installed.
Conversely, when the warmer, more humid months arrive and the wood absorbs the moisture and expands, it becomes larger both in width and thickness, but not in length. This growth in the width of the violin sides renders the sound post 'too short', and the downward pressure of the string tension on the top begins to warp the top and introduce tension, also impeding the sound. These seasonal changes, while causing a significant change to the sound, are measurable only in the tiniest of increments - 1,000ths of an inch.
You can only adapt your instrument to the predictable seasonal changes that occur with the calendar, like clockwork, and you cannot effectively prevent these changes. This is why the setup and sound of your instrument changes through the year, some by a little and some by a lot, but it is always changing with the weather and season, noticeably or not.
One thing I learned working on violin instruments in the extremely dry desert conditions of Las Vegas - you just can't fight Mother Nature!
The images above were from a bass that came to Las Vegas from a very humid city. The environmental change of moving from a very high average humidity area to the desert southwest was so drastic, that this bass literally pulled itself apart, and every single glue joint failed, requiring the entire instrument to be rebuilt. The photo on the left shows where the sides of this bass had shrunk in width by almost 2 millimeters, thus opening every glue seam on the instrument. Fortunately, the traditional Hide Glue was formulated at a strength to fail before breaking the wood itself, or there would not be much left of this bass to rebuild.
Environmental changes like this are far more drastic than seasonal changes, and may require structural repairs to remedy, which will be the subject of a future article here.
Technological Advances Aid the Sound Adjustment
Of course the human ear is a wonderfully sensitive tool to analyze sound, and is the very first tool used in a Sound Adjustment. My routine is to always play for a few minutes on a new arrival to the shop, and get a subjective sense of what our starting point is - Is the instrument too bright? too dark? a little dull or strident? How's the balance and evenness? etc.. Then, I 'take a picture' of the sound, which then becomes a resource for my ear.
This image is called a spectrogram, or what I refer to as a 'sound print.' Each column is one pluck on a bass string, left to sustain for about 8 seconds. Each horizontal bar is the next frequency present in the overall harmonic structure of the tone - from bottom to top, the fundamental note, then the first harmonic, the second harmonic, and so forth.
As you can see, the G and D strings have pretty clear and consistent harmonic structures, while the A and E strings have more 'unfocused' harmonics, and shorter sustain on the fundamental. This is an instrument that lacks punch in the lower end, and is difficult to tune accurately in the bass register, due to the 'unfocused' harmonic structure of the tone.
With this as a visual reference, I play the instrument again, not just to confirm the spectrograph for my own ear, but to make a judgement as to what adjustments might make improvement, and to what degree may be possible for the given instrument and all of it's own unique qualities.
Violins, Violas, Cellos and Basses each have their own unique responses to adjustments we can make to them, so there's no one-size-fits-all approach to sound adjustments in the violin family. Each individual instrument also has it's own strengths and weaknesses as well, depending on how they were made, the grain and other qualities of the woods used, and the thicknesses and mass of each individual part of the instrument among other properties.
But technology offers us a new, scientific look at the results of each action taken in a Sound Adjustment, which, when combined with other intangible qualities that the human ear is uniquely able to distinguish, we are able to make real improvements to the sound of most instruments. -BW
Please contact Jason@DavidsonViolins.com to schedule your instrument for the TLC that comes with a thorough Sound Adjustment.
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