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back to article Boffin: Lost Stradivarius violin tech reverse-engineered

A retired Texas university professor says he has successfully reverse-engineered the long lost violin-making technology of Antonio Stradivari, the legendary 17h-century builder whose instruments are still considered the finest ever made - and which command prices of $5m apiece. Joseph Nagyvary, emeritus biochemistry prof at …

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Anonymous Coward

not again

omigod... not when im drinking coffee...

your to the point description of nature just ruined my keyboard

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One test ..

Called 'eardrum"

Strad had one sorry two and would have batted a piece of wood the same as you and I bat a melon in the supermarket. This would have told him which pieces to start with.

THEN the boffin-speak kicks in.

Oh and I suspect his melons tasted better.

:-)

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Pirate

Oh dear

Sounds like a right fiddle to me.

I'll get me coat.

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Coat

Stradivarius and Rembrandt

I went up into the attic and found a Stradivarius and a Rembrandt.

Unfortunately Stradivarius was a terrible painter and Rembrandt made lousy violins.*

Pass me my coat, the one with the fez in the pocket...no not like that, like that.

*(c) Tommy Cooper RIP

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Coat

cynicism and pre-lunch drunkenness

"as though one were a specialist in cynicism and pre-lunch drunkenness, and got published in the Reg."

Let me know when you're looking for peer reviewers...

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Rob
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RE: Stradivarius and Rembrandt

[tips hat in thefutureboys direction]

Love it :)

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Joke

Should have given it to the CSI team.

They could have told you not only how it was made but also the colour of the underpants he was wearing at the time. All with an unnecessarily graphics backed computer program.

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Pirate

Friday Afternoon Confessions

"Rather as though one were a specialist in cynicism and pre-lunch drunkenness, and got published in the Reg."

Hence I get more ink here then on Nature.... "pass the suds Chuck!.... YOu know, I could have been a somali pirates and raid Anne-Sophie Mutter.... Mmmm hic"

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Well, we are in a recession

OK, so how many people are going to be willing to put their money in a Stradivarius?

Yes,it is better than some banks.

Replicating the sound is going to be hard, even with this new knowledge. Part of it must be the age of the violins. But I can see people, if the new violins sound good, taking a chance. It's a bit like getting your kid into Eton.

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Happy

Anne-Sophie Mutter, fair enough

Just as long as you don't clone that mockney twat Nigel Kennedy.

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Paris Hilton

Minor nitpicking

Re: *Nature is perhaps the most prestigious journal for a boffin to be published in - such a byline is a major feather in any scientific cap. Rather as though one were a specialist in cynicism and pre-lunch drunkenness, and got published in the Reg.

Actually it is Cell. The joke goes that one publication in Cell is enough to retire. You need 3-4 in Nature for that.

Re: Well, we are in a recession

A lot. Just ask an auction house expert or read relevant novel out of "The Veteran" by F. Forsyth. The novel about the art auction fraud is probably the most entertaining one.

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Coat

Anne-Sophie Mutter

If you successfully clone her can you make me one too please?

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Joke

Nigel Kennedy??

But I thought he was a great leader for the Lib-Dems!!

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Hamster ate my Strat (copy)

Bits fall off Stradivarius violins? They have to go to repair shops? Are you quite sure about that?

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Happy

Acoustic Modelling

Giving machines instructions on how to recreate a sound has been around for some time now. If the research in to exactly how the violins were made ends up in a box in a box of chips with 'Yamaha' on the front the 'experts' will be really pissed off. Anyone with a couple of grand will be able to have the same sound as those with a couple of million.

Playing the thing - that's a wee bit different, the rise of electronic drum kits has realy only increased the number of shite Phil Collins impersonators.

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FM = glory??

Someone said "“When you use science to prove a point, it often demystifies the glory of the legendary masters, ...". Really? Because saying that something is "fucking magic" is supposed to keep that glory? I would have thought that knowing how they did it would allow people to go "oh wow", and glory in the knowledge these ancients had that we have lost and now recovered.

What a bunch of idiots.

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RW
Boffin

Color me doubtful

This particular boffin unconsciously reveals that he lives in an overly technological world. His complex theory is no different in principle from theories that the pyramids must have been built with some mysterious, unknown assistance.

Our ancestors were just as smart as we are. They managed to do marvelous things with simple means, some of which things we cannot reproduce today because we can't see the forest of simplicity for the trees of technological gimmicks.

These wonders include, inter alia: the granulated gold jewelry created by the Etruscans; the dome of the Duomo in Florence; the portico pillars of St. Isaac's in St. Petersburg; the Great Pyramids and its companions; "Coad stone", used for exterior statuary; the printers ink used by Gutenberg; and, of course, the marvelous violins of Stradivarius and his contemporaries.

No need to invoke aliens, strange chemical mixtures and such when sheer gumption would suffice. (Let me add that some of these wonders have been fully explained. Coad stone turns out to be a form of porcelain characterized by very careful preparation of the raw materials followed by a long, slow firing. The building of the dome of the Duomo is documented in Vasari's "Lives of the Artists." The pillars of St. Isaac's are well documented in text and engravings.)

There have been hundreds of proposals about the Strad violins, but most of them, like the one at hand, are simply too far fetched to be believable.

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Joke

@Philip Nicholls

Oh and I suspect his melons tasted better.

Only if they were the bulgarian airbag type.....

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@Anne-Sophie Mutter

Plenty of clones to go round, but I'll settle for a trashier, but much filthier Linda Lampenius, thanks.

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J
Boffin

Whatever?

"Not to mention the possible financial reluctance of existing Stradivarius owners to admit that their irreplaceable multimillion-dollar instruments might one day be replicated relatively cheaply"

Hm, I doubt it. No, not that the instruments' sounds might be replicated -- I think that's hard, but may be possible, be it electronically or with an actual instrument. Does not matter anyway. I would suspect that a Stradivarius (or a Picasso, etc.) is valuable and expensive because it is an original with a history, and not just due to its qualities. The fact that someone could paint a perfect copy of a Picasso does not make the price of the original go down, does it?

Anyway, the boffin has a violin making business? As a Nature-published boffin myself </shameless self-promotion>, that piece of information raised an eyebrow -- because the journals always ask about "conflict of interest". So I went to the paper to see if they listed any. What is there: "Competing interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist."

I wouldn't say so, if the "competing interests" from PLoS mean the same as the ones I've encountered in other journals. If your business benefits from the publishing of certain results (as I think is the case here), then that's definitely conflict of interest.

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I'll toss a bucket of SEAWATER on this one.

"magical re-created wood preparation treatments" are not going to result in a great violin by themselves-- no more than any of the attempts at "magical re-creation of Antonio's Varnish's varnish" did. Most EXPERTS would agree that Strad and Del Jesu used certain low-tech procedures to "tune" their plates, which makers can now only attempt to approximate by applying "high-tech" acoustical measurements, density measurements, and resulting "adjustments" to the shapes of their plates.

Also, there are many contemporary violin makers who seem to be making really GREAT violins, at least with respect to the Sound in 'the' hall. But the differences are tiny, the "unique" properties of even superb Strads are often unapparent to even professional listeners. For example: One of the very best of all Strads, the "Gibson ex Huberman" (now in the very capable of hands of Joshua Bell), was turned in by the thief's wife in 1985, some 45 years after it was stolen. In almost 50 years of use by her deceased husband, a very minor NYC violinist, no stand partner or conductor or audience person or ANYBODY had ever suspected that he was playing a MAJOR "Golden Period" Strad.

So it's totally unsurprising that no "obvious" differences are heard within Nagyvary's "challenge CD" -- the CD tracks are DOMINATED by room acoustics, microphone placement, microphone characteristics, and etc., even before they any subtle differences are then totally obliterated by YOUR speakers or headphones.

I doubt that Mr. Nagyvary's "scientifically authenticated" violins are competitive with the best efforts of great modern makers, in EITHER artistic merit OR pure sound. (Just in my own country-- Gael Francais, Guy Rabut, Charles Rufino, Greg Alf, and several other fine makers come to mind almost instantly. These guys are often commanding higher prices than Mr. Nagyvary's mere $25K, too. ) If Mr. Nagyvary's put one of his "best" efforts in front of a fully qualified jury, such as AFVBM's, they might not be as respected as they are in front of purely scientific audiences, or less knoweldgable violin players.

Finally, it has long been known that many Italian violin makers provided oars to the Navy, and when they cracked and broke from all of the wetting/drying cycles (in salt water), asked that broken pieces be returned for "credit" towards new oars. A lot of those "unusual" salts, e.g. Borax, are usually MINED from old, dried-up ocean deposits. Such a cycle of wetting/drying over just a few years could have easily concentrated the presence of these molecular salts (Borax, CaF2, BaSO4) in those oars, without further "special" treatment by the instrument makers.

As most commentators already said, this almost certainly ISN'T what makes those old fiddles so durn good.

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Happy

Hmm...

...so I guess all that salty timber washing ashore around our coast at the moment could be a real boon for future fiddle makers.

Incidentally, I heard that the exotic trees blown down at Kew Gardens by the UK's "hurricane" (the one famously mis-predicted by Michael Fish) were eagerly snapped up by instrument makers and many still remain in store today. Apparently lutes benefit particularly from some of the more unusual woods.

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Careful Now

An unbiased scientist would observe that tests conducted on something as it is now could indicate what was present originally as well as substances absorbed over time. The wood used by Stradivarius is just as important as is the actual skills of the master putting them together. I would want to know what musicians have to say about this fellow's violins. Strads are so old that even a theoretically exact reproduction of a new one might not sound as expected. The goal should be to learn how to make a fine violin rather than to try to eclipse Stradivarius by implication. It seems that the whole motivation behind this research is wrong.

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Double blind tests needed

The only way to know about this sort of thing is to do proper double blind tests. The trouble is, it is kind of hard to devise a double blind test where the violinist does not know which particular instrument he is playing. But until such a test is done, my own opinion will continue to be that the musicians are probably kidding themselves. I suspect that a really good modern violin is probably just as good as a strad, and I suspect that after the long period of time, a strad quite likely sounds nothing like it did when new.

But for anybody who really beleives in this sort of stuff, I can sell you some speaker cables that will make your stero sound much better. They only cost GBP200 for the left speaker and GBP250 for the right. (For technical reasons the right hand cable has to be made of different materials, this helps prevent blurring of the stereo image....)

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@Rick Stockton

The whole point of the exercise is not to create great instruments but to cash in on the ego-rub. The "My golf clubs are made with ceramic di- tungstenide -- just like Tiger Woods'" effect.

The posturing violinist who can't afford $5m for a real Strad, will run up a mortgage to buy a $50k "Strad technology" piece even though their playing is so crap that it does not even warrant a $100 violin made in China.

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So it's NOT the varnish?

I'm humbled by Rick Stockton's erudite post, but I'll post what I was planning to post: Decades ago, PBS's NOVA did an episode called something like, "The Secret of Stradivarius." According to that show, tests revealed that the special sound owed itself to a special varnish. If memory serves, NOVA revealed the varnish's formula.

Then again, Rick's argument--that varnish is just a minor factor--sounds sensible.

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Why not ?

He may be right about his discovery of Stradivarius's methods, we'll never know. But even if he does bang out hundreds of violins with Strad-level quality, I hardly see how that will impact the value of the originals.

A Stradivarius is still a Stradivarius. A violin maker still needs to know how to choose the wood, how to work it and how to craft the pieces that go into creating a violin capable of being played well enough to elicit wonder in the hearts of listeners. Stradivarius knew how to do that, one of very few.

Making a violin is not following a recipe. Having this information, even if true, is only one element in the myriad of items that a master needs to make a truly exceptional violin.

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Waste of time

ALL violins - without exception - sound f*****g awful.

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Ken
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Employment Opportunity?

"Rather as though one were a specialist in cynicism and pre-lunch drunkenness, and got published in the Reg"

Do you need a new columnist?

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Tom
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THE secret to making a Stradivarius?

Let's see, I've heard boffins claiming it was the Little Ice Age which made the wood harvested for those violins denser and therefore produced a better tone, we have the Nova program claiming it was the varnish, and now this guy saying it's the varnish. You know what? I'd bet a decades worth of pay checks there is no SINGLE secret to making a Stradivarius-the wood, the varnish, the wood treatment were all resources that a dude with a damn good ear and a fine sense of craftsmanship put together. And no boffin, no matter how well intentioned, is ever going to reproduce that.

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IT Angle

double-blind-test, and etc. (a follow-up)

The first thing which I want to add is: There is enormous variability among Strads, too. I've played a couple of "lesser" ones, in the sub-million price range, and was quite underwhelmed by both of them. Until his very last years, his workmanship remained impeccable, but the sound quality varies. Joshua Bell, discussed earlier, traded his "Lesser" Strad (and more or less mortgaged his life away) in order to buy the MUCH BETTER ex-Gibson I mentioned above.

Guiseppe Guarnerius, whose best violins are even more costly and more famous than Antonio's, was a famous drunkard-- a lot of his really bad efforts aren't much good at all. (OT: Great Strads tend towards that "liquid gold" sound; while Great Guarneris have a nasal but more powerful tone. Perlman, Heifitz, Kreisler, Vieuextemp, and Paganini all preferred Guarnerius violins.)

Now for the "meat" of my post: As with the cost between a genuine, 350 year-old Rembrandt oil painting versus a "perfect" copy, which may become technologically possible in the very near future, the "original" has a market-driven scarcity value. Even if the ONLY difference is the internal chemistry of the paint, and every bit of color and texture has been reproduced perfectly, the original will be worth 10s of millions and the copy will be worth only a few thousands. (He's dead and won't be making any more, the painting has a long "interesting" history of previous owners, and etc.)

Many years ago, I owned an extremely meticulous and accurate "exact copy" violin, made by a famous living maker (Roger Hargrave) who specializes in this area: the PERFECT duplication of old violins, with all the old scratches and wear-and-tear reproduced perfectly. A few years after I sold it to buy another violin with better sound, I read how one of the big auction houses (S. or C., I don't remember which it was) sold a certified-by-their-expert-as-genuine old Italian violin- for a price well into 6 figures (IIRC, well to the north of $200K). But later, when the buyer had the top taken off by a repairman to see if any internal work was needed, the repairman saw Hargrave's stamp on the inside....

And the violin was suddenly worth less than $50,000. (And maybe about half of THAT price was market-driven, i.e., "the famous violin which fooled the auction house expert". Mine was worth much less than half that much.) The Auction House refunded the purchase price, put it up for sale as a genuine "Roger Hargrave", and ate the resulting loss. How exactly had the Sound of the violin, and it's playing characteristics, changed when it's value fell by almost 80%? (Right-- not at all.) Hargrave's mark is like the chemical doping in "fake" saphires and rubies-- the saphires themselves are as good as natural (better, actually) and have all of the exact same properties; but they lack the "cachet" of having been obtained via horrible and expensive mining practices, and later owned by Maharajas in exotic palaces, and so on.

HOWEVER-- at the very top, the best Strad and Guarnerius violins have a sound which cannot be duplicated. Players like Perlman, Bell, Mutter, and Hahn can hear and feel this difference instantly-- it takes only a few notes to know that the "tool" you're using is partnering with you, to a level which lesser violins can never reach. I feel thse things, too, although my own playing is at a much lower level.

Violin playing is a bit weird-- unlike a piano, where you hear a sound quite similar to that of the audience, you actually feel the violin's vibrations buzzing your entire head through your jawbone, and you feel it vibrating in your fingers and even through your bow. The sound which gets to the audience is quite different than the experience of the player. The actual sound, for the audience in the hall, is noticeably different from one violin to another- but the differences which the players notice are usually a lot bigger. (They can also be misleading.)

Single-blind, double blind, and PHYSICALLY Blinded playoffs are are frequent event in the violin making world.

I've personally been the player in a couple of "double blind" fiddle playoffs, at adult-oriented summer music festivals. (I played whatever violins people wanted to volunteer, as best as I could, although I of course didn't have a lot of warm-up work up the "best" way to play each one.) The owners and other festival participants were sitting in the audience, of a pretty good concert hall, voting on the "quality of sound" results for the various fiddles. I "knew" only 3 of those violins-- my own, and two others I'd previously swapped with, for fun, in string quartets. The voters, of course, generally knew only their own violins, and were "blind" to the market value of all the others.

Similar playoffs are often conducted in Cremona, under more stringent conditions-- the player is blindfolded, and plays behind a screen (just like an audition) so that the audience of makers and dealers and violin-playing professionals cannot even see the violin at all. But in both of my play-off events, I played with my eyes open.

The winner of my biggest "playoff" was an old Italian violin from a famous maker, Gennaro Gagliano. (I'll SWAG it to be somewhere around $250-300K, maybe a bit more). But some other expensive violins by long-dead, famous makers scored a much worse than some excellent new ones did. Some of these nearly-new violins cost as little as 10% of the price for the old ones. A couple of guys with big investments in "fine old Italian Instruments" were quite distressed by the "tonal ratings" which all the other listeners, gave their $$$ violins. And these fiddles didn't feel better or easier for the player either-- I pretty much agreed with the listeners, in almost all cases.

For Neil: All violins, great and not so great, don't sound like ANYTHING until one of us players gets a hold of it. When it's f*****g awful, blame the player first :))

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