Week 3 Machine made instruments by tung dao

A number of years ago, I went to the local luthier in search of a violin. Inside the shop were countless numbers of instruments, from cellos displayed on the floor to violins hung up from the wall. The smell of varnish and maple and the sounds of scraping and chatter surrounded every aspect of one’s presence while in the store. It was heaven on earth for me at the time, as I was led into a small room to try out a few violins to see which one will be my life long companion. After trying them all, I settled on one that had a very pronounced bass response. It was a beautiful instrument, a replica of the “Titian” Stradivarius of the year 1715, made by one of the apprentices of the master luthier. A replica. I began to ponder “How does one replicate a violin? Is it even possible to compare two handmade violins separated by 300 years and say that one is a replica of the other? What can be replicated? Is a replica as good as the original?” As it turns out, there are a few ways to replicate an instrument. A luthier can replicate the shape of a violin or imitate superficial qualities such as nicks and scratches. They can also confirm scientifically how similar two violins are through the use of Chladni Patterns.

This is where we enter the realm of the differences between a handmade violin and a machine produced violin. Talking with the people at the shop, they said that a machine made instrument won’t have the precise shaping as a handmade one. Evidently, engineers have only designed wood working machines that are only precise as a ruler, despite being able design machines that mass produces photographic lenses which require precision to the nanometer. So I went on to ask how my instrument was replicated from the original. The clerk responded that the shape of the plates and dimensions of every little aspect of each instrument have been documented and can thus be replicated. The exterior of an instrument can be mimicked through artificial antiquing; the information of which can be obtained from photographic records. It seems as though it is entirely possible to replicate an instrument’s shape and everything about it such that it is difficult to tell the difference between original and replica. Walter Benjamin writes that the imitation, no matter how exact it is, will always be missing one element, “its presence in time and space… [the] unique existence of the work of art determined the history to which it was subject throughout the time of its existence”. Certainly, the owner of the original will definitely know the original more intimately than anyone and can distinguish between the two almost by feel.

A vibrating plate with a sprinkle of sand produces Chladni Patterns

Visually an instrument can be identical, and that is of little matter to musicians, whose lives depend on making sounds and performing. The visual identicalness of a replica to its original means almost nothing if the identical sound is sought. Luthiers use a technique devised by Ernest Chladni to determine how a violin will sound. By suspending the violin plates over a speaker, the plates can be vibrated sympathetically, similarly to the soprano breaking a wine glass with her voice. The patterns of vibration can be visualized by sprinkling dark sand on the plate, where it will bounce away from areas that are vibrating and collect on nodes which do not vibrate. All the luthier has to do is shape the replica’s plate such that the Chladni patterns are identical and, voila, identical aural characteristics.

It is worth mentioning here the differences between a handmade instrument and a machine made one through the use of Chladni patterns. Comparing the patterns, the handmade one has more definition to the patterns. And it makes sense since a mass produced instrument will not have the same attention to detail on its workmanship. They are definitely a fascinating way to determine character, nonetheless, for any instrument.

tung dao

http://www.phys.unsw.edu.au/jw/chladni.html

Chladni patterns
Handmade: http://www.phys.unsw.edu.au/jw/patterns1.html
Mass produced: http://www.phys.unsw.edu.au/jw/patterns2.html

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