Inside-the-Shop are informative articles written by Kevin Smith, Luthier of The Violin Shop
San Diego | San Diego County | Southern California
A More Advanced Evaluation of Sound
In the first issue of Inside the Shop I outlined the three basic principles I use to evaluate sound. In this issue I’d like to go into a bit more depth, but before I do lets briefly review the fundamentals.
They are: 1-Response 2-Evenness 3-Voice
RESPONSE comes first because no matter how great the actual sound is, if it doesn’t respond well to the bow your frustration will be unending. Instead of crisp precision and swift musical currents, you’ll end up with a blurred mushiness that will have you wondering what’s wrong with your playing. Response is your first consideration.
EVENNESS should be your second concern in evaluating an instrument. If you have good response, a good sound, but unevenness, you’ll be compensating for the weaknesses against the strengths continually. All the subtleties and dynamics you’ve worked to master will be lost between the flaws you have to play around. If you care about your music it will be impossible to relax when you play, always anticipating bringing the weaknesses and strengths to some middle ground. Evenness is worth the search.
VOICE is the last consideration. But once you’ve brought together a group of instruments that have passed the first 2 tests, you’re ready to judge the finale. This is where you want to end up.
Here is where it becomes a subjective issue. Taste. Some people like a dark sound. Others bright and edgy. What you like will determine where you go from here. But one helpful hint to hear voice better is to listen to the instrument like you would the vowels of the alphabet. A E I O U. It’s a good place to start and will give you an automatic arena of familiarity.
Okay. With that quick review we’ll move on to some of the more subtle aspects of sound. I should say at the outset, however, that the categorical boundaries blur somewhat from this point on. Some points will fit into 2 or 3 different categories and are inseparable. That said, lets move on.
RESPONSE doesn’t simply refer to how quickly the bow engages the string. Some instruments respond tremendously to varying bow pressures and speeds – In much more dynamic ways than just volume.
A quality of sound often referred to as “colors” comes into play from a myriad of angles. Colors are those qualities of sound that give full expression to music. The same instrument can, with the right technique, sound light and airy or deep and sensual. It has to do with drawing out the overtones that lend to those particular moods.
Here’s an experiment to test for colors. Place your bow on the string and draw it across the string quickly with a light touch. You will get the light airy sound. Next, place your bow on the string and don’t move it. Just feel the string beneath your bow hair. Feel the weight of your arm extend, reaching through your bow to the very center of your string. Close your eyes. Now with that same feeling, draw a long, moderately slow bow stroke. The sound will be significantly fatter, pulling a full range of overtones from your instrument.
And it’s here that you’ll find a different level of response between instruments. Some will have limited depth and you won’t be able to find that fat sound – some will only have a surface sound that will collapse beneath such a powerfully reaching bow stroke – and some will give you a world of sound.
Now this entire section is a cross between RESPONSE and VOICE. It’s concerned with how to get the full range of voice to respond to your commands.
Another way to draw more colors from your instrument is through your vibrato. With firm contact from your finger to the fingerboard, if you widen your vibrato while pulling a deep sound, the sound will go even deeper. Vary the width, speed, and pressure of your vibrato in the same bow stroke, and you’ll feel and hear the widening and narrowing of the sound.
After playing and listening to these variables for a little while you’ll start to feel and hear the difference of EVENNESS from string to string. What may sound even on the surface will have different textures the deeper you go – like the sound of breathing differently. It’s simply a matter of paying attention at a different level.
There are obviously more depths and levels of sound than this. But this is without a doubt advanced understanding and control. Learn to hear it, and control it, and it will do amazing things for your musical expression. Not to mention refining your skills at evaluating different instruments.
Surface noise is the sound you hear coming from the friction between your bow hair and the string as you draw your bow.