I can make your instrument physically less difficult, and more comfortable to play, and therefore easier for you to produce a more desirable sound.
I can release the potential in your instrument, giving it a more open, resonant sound making a larger palette of texture, tone and timbre available to you; while also removing any disappointing or discouraging tone.
* In my experience I have never encountered an instrument that could not be improved in some way; even the Strads I've been fortunate enough to handle would have benefited with some adjustment in the set up.
Making the perfect instrument is of course the Holy Grail for all luthiers and even those considered the most excellent examples of the old masters, still have their own limitations and idiosyncrasies.
String height - I correct the string height and fingerboard hollow for the type of string used. This alleviates pain and strain in the left hand fingers giving a lower, easier action and greater accuracy when playing faster passages.
* A lofty string height, and the difficulty and pain it causes, is the primary reason a beginner will give up on a stringed instrument.
Those that do persevere have their progress vastly impeded, their technique weakened, and will never reach their full potential. *
String spacing - I ensure the correct string spacing to enable accurate finger placement and bow position for string crossing and double stopping.
Fingerboard thickness - I ensure the correct fingerboard thickness, hollow, camber and edge contours; if the fingerboard is too thin then it can distort in the upper shift positions, and intonation will be compromised; if the camber is too curved then the left hand has to over-stretch, putting strain on the wrist.
Tuning peg movement & dimensions - I adjust or fit tuning pegs to turn smoothly and accurately in the fingers. I also ensure that the pegs are positioned correctly in the peg box with the correct diameter for the material they are made from . . . this is critical for string life and making the instrument easy to tune and less dependent on fine adjusters.
Strings - I advise on and fit strings that balance your instrument's acoustic characteristics, tone, and timbre, and are compatible with the neck elevation.
Fittings - I advise on the correct tailpiece and tail-gut as these have a significant effect on an instruments resonance and the correct chinrest and shoulder rest for comfort and posture, and upgrade where necessary.
Bow - Together we consider re-weighting and balancing your bow and renewing any worn grip or lapping. Also reworking the frog to ensure comfort in the bowing hand.
First, some simple theory
Without being too scientific let's briefly define what we mean by sound. Put simply, sound is our brain's interpretation of changes in air pressure. When an action, like twanging a string, is performed it moves air molecules; they bang and vibrate against each other creating a radiating pattern (like ripples or waves in a pond) that we call sound pressure waves.
These waves extend to your outer ear, down the canal a and apply pressures on the ear drum. Via the middle ear, these changes in pressure are detected by the cochlea in the inner ear and then transmitted electrically to the brain via the hearing nerve . . . this is what we perceive as sound.
Ok, so now let's try to mechanically describe a violin sound.
The great German physicist Hermann von Helmholtz discovered in the 1850's that a struck tuning fork vibrated very uniformly, creating identical simple pure waves of sound of one pitch ( or frequency ).
He also discovered that a vibrating string created a more complex wave, which although sounding to the ear like one pitch, actually consisted of additional pitches being present in the sound at the same time, but of different volumes ( amplitudes ). These additional pitches or frequencies we call partials.
When we listen to a single sustained note played on the violin we are not generally aware that we are actually listening to multiple pitches.
This is because the human ear works in such a way that the musical pitch of a note is usually perceived as the lowest partial present ( the fundamental frequency ).
And so it is, that the quality of the instruments sound or timbre is determined by the existence and the relative strengths of each of these partials.
So generally it would be true to say that the major difference in sound between a violin and a French horn, for example, playing the same pitch ( say 'A' at 440hz ) is the amount and size of the partial frequencies present in the sound. The other difference would be in the attack, decay, sustain and release (ADSR) of notes on each instrument ... the 'sound envelope'
From the explanation above, we can assume that to improve the sound of an instrument, and make it more interesting to the human brain, we would need it to make a more complex sound . . . we've all heard violins ( normally cheap student or electric ) that sound more like accordions; this is because they have a simple sound.
It is important to understand that in the violin family construction, the potential for plate vibration and resonance are predetermined mainly by the arching of, and the graduation of, the front and back plates, the sound hole positions, and the bass bar position, shape and its mass (volume x density).
So it is the luthier who predetermines the influence each component part has on the instrument's final sound, via the construction.
To complicate this, each part influences the other parts: for example, a change in neck angle has a direct bearing on the reflex angle of the string on the bridge, which in turn effects the pressure of the bridge feet on the front plate, which in turn effects the pressure of the sound post on the back plate, which in turn effects the vibrating and pumping actions of the back plate, which in turn effects the movement of air molecules inside and outside the box ... and on.
Beyond construction, the luthier can also hone the sound of an instrument through its setup, though it goes without saying that a poorly conceived and constructed instrument will not be formidable, regardless of the setup.
In the setup, the luthier arranges the vibrating system to optimise its sound. The vibrating system includes everything that directly influences the movement of the string; from the pegs, top nut, fingerboard, bridge, sound post, fine tuner, tailpiece, down to tail gut and the end pin.
Even a chin rest and shoulder rest, construction and fitting, can influence the sound.
Finally, we should also include the bow, bow hair and rosin with regards to attack, sustain and timbre for without them your instrument cannot speak.
So theoretically it would appear easy to make an instrument's sound more complex - we merely have to adjust the amount and amplitude of the partials and harmonics present in its sound . . . in reality there are numerous variables and many dependencies to consider.
Initially, I fill out a detailed eight-page instrument assessment list in which I:
● Check all external measurements, dimensions, heights, positions, elevation, pressures and densities.
● Check the internal construction: blocks, linings, bass bar etc. . . . to do this I use a camera endoscope which can take images and video of my findings.
● Make a note of all previous repairs and anything currently needing repair.
NOTE: Luthiers who change bridges or 'tweak' instruments without doing the above are basically just guessing or using intuition based on unfounded principles ... and are to be avoided !
Only when I know and understand the instrument's construction and dimensions can I assess the current system by which the instrument vibrates and, just as important, dampens the string.
By taking note of any deficiencies, I can rationalise why it produces its current sound; and by systematically isolating the components of the system, determine what can be done to make it play to its optimum potential; of course always taking into account the effect/dependencies each component has on the whole vibrating system.
If necessary I will take some acoustic measurements with a spectrum analyser. This is useful to give a visual representation of the existing partials, and their size, present in the instrument's sound. This can highlight those important harmonics and partials we tend to 'feel' rather than hear. The spectrum analyser is not used for deciding where to change the vibrating system but as a guide to confirm what the ears are picking up.
Measuring an instrument's sound is thankfully not yet an exact science as there are too many variables ( every piece of wood is different for starters ) but experience and intuition backed up by some scientific measurement and logic is a sound method of change to employ.
Considering the above, I may make some recommendations regarding neck adjustment, **plate graduations and bass bar reshaping or renewal. Further recommendations for upgrades or adjustments to the top nut, saddle, pegs, tailpiece, tail gut, sound post and bridge may also be made.
Finally, choosing the correct string for your instrument and your individual needs is made; and after a settling in period with the new strings fitted, I can revisit the spectrum analyser if needed to show the instrument's increased resonance, and then re-work the bridge and sound post to eke out any possible remaining partials.
With the instrument optimised we now check for a re-hair, re-weighting and balancing of your bow and consider a change of rosin.
In summary, I'd say that if you are currently unhappy with any aspect of your sound then there are things we can do to address this. Whether the instrument is worth the more expensive processes, needs to be considered. However, one thing is for certain improving its sound will not reduce its value.
On the other hand, if you are currently happy with the sound of your instrument then I'd advise you not to consider chasing the Holy Grail . . . I am sure I could improve your sound, by making it more resonant and responsive with a greater projection, palette of colour and tonal range . . . but you just might prefer the one you are used to.
** Professional ethics prevents me from re-graduating the plates of any instrument with significant historical importance. For these instruments the emphasis is always on conservation and preserving the original maker's style and intentions.