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Following on from earlier experimental fiddles I’ve been thinking of making a violin with very thin areas or cells in the upper and lower bouts. This has led to the idea of a violin with many drum like panels. This would make for very light, and therefore responsive, sections in the upper and lower bouts. As in a tabla drum, these panels could be tuned for pitch and sustain. Having a range of panel sizes, tune-able to different pitches, would allow the timbre of the violin to easily be varied on the finished violin.

Design Notes

  • Adding weight to the approximate middle of the velum panel tunes it. The more weight, the lower the pitch, and, within a certain range, the volume and sustain of the note increase. This is how a tabla produces a long ringing note.
  • It is possible that the panels would act like the sympathetic drone strings on a viola d’Amore or Hardanger fiddle, with the difference that they would all be interacting directly with the air mass contained inside the body. This air mass is itself a spring and therefore would contribute to, or interfere with, the resonance of the panels.
  • By using magnets and washers, the weights could easily be varied so that tuning would be empirical, done after the violin was constructed and strung up. The timbre of the violin could be varied in much the same way that cross-tuning a violin changes its voice.
  • Such an easily tunable system might give insights into violin acoustic issues, such as plate tuning and wolf-notes
  • You could also add temporary novelty items like buzzers – (In fact early tests have shown me that even a pair of strong magnets on a stretched velum, tend to buzz when the velum is struck. The fact that these magnets are temporarily separated by the vibrating velum, says something about how much energy is being dissipated in the system. I think that under normal musical bowing of a violin with these tuned panels, the energy imparted to the panels would be less and the buzzing wouldn’t occur).

Why the sensible option isn’t always the best

Doing it the hard way

The sensible thing to do would be to get a cheap violin, cut some holes in it and glue on some velum to cover the holes. I would have proof (or not) of concept, pretty quickly and cheaply. On the other hand but these Experimental Violin projects are as much about the journey of exploration and discovery as they are about the end result. By making it from scratch I will likely learn a lot more, and get new ideas that need to be tested out with follow up projects.

Form versus function

I’m generally of a mind that the functional option is usually also the more aesthetically pleasing. But this project offers me two options, one of which would be way cooler looking. I find my self drawn to that option, despite the problems I can see it bringing. My justification for doing it the less functional way is that if this fiddle should happen to be a tonal success that needs repeating, I can easily build a more sensible version afterwards.

A practical problem

If I apply the velum to the inside of the plate there will be exposed struts on the out side which could look amazing when they are finished with texture, polish and patina. Unfortunately the velum, which shrinks as it dries, will tend to pull away from the struts. Also, any force from the outside would tend to dislodge the velum , and if it does, repairs would require taking the violin top off. It would be much more sensible to have the velum on the outside, which would cure most of these problems……….but wouldn’t be nearly so cool looking.

Going with the bad ass looking design, rather than the practical one touches on the irrational side of the violin world. If the violin is simply a tool for making music, then he visual appearance on an instrument shouldn’t matter. But experience tells us that the way an instrument looks matters a lot to both the musician, and the audience, and this influences the way the music is made and received. For proof of how much the visuals of the violin matter, think of the extra time and effort that many top violinmakers put into decorating their violins as replicas of old instruments. A fully “antiqued” replica of an old violin takes 2-3 times as long to make as a “straight” one. The cost to the musician is commensurate with the violinmaker’s effort, and it is willingly paid.

An object with multiple functional agendas……..some of them sensible.

The Syahi

The syahi, the black patch in the center of the tabla drum, is a very cool and complex thing. At first I thought that it was just a leather patch to prevent wear in the center of the drum. A little reading about it in Wikipedia reveals that it is actually made of iron paste and the burnished, crackled surface is not just an attractive accident, but a functional feature that is carefully cultivated. The cracks run down from the surface, through the 2-3m thickness of the syahi, to the drum skin. They result is essentially a cluster of separate mini-weights which allows the drum head to flex under the patch in a way that it could not if a solid piece of iron was used. This produces a more complex tone in the drum.

Creating the syahi is a skilled and laborious process taking about three hours. Layers of iron paste are applied to the drum skin and burnished with a stone. The burnishing produces the glazed look and the heat from the burnishing causes the cracking . YouTube of Syahi making

Wouldn’t this look amazing on an antiqued wood-and-velum fiddle?