|What makes one violin better than another?|
Part 2: Setup
|Part 1: Wood, Finish, Fittings
Part 3: Acoustic Optimization
Ultimately the potential of a violin can only be realized by
proper setup. The violin's setup allows the inherent quality
of wood and construction to perform or prevents it from
performing. In general, the better violins respond to finely
honed setup more than less expensive trade violins. A
super expensive bridge and super fancy strings may well
not make your violin perform any better! The exact setup
that is optimal depends on the violin and the player. But in
general, a generic setup suitable for the quality level of the
violin will do just fine. When I set up violins we look at the
pegs, fingerboard, neck shape, nut, saddle height,
soundpost, tailpiece, and bridge.
Pegs should turn smoothly and shouldn't be run in all the
way. New pegs aren't all that expensive. If the holes in the
pegbox are worn they can be repaired with bushings. This
is not a trivial matter. An alternative to traditional pegs is
the geared peg from Pegheds.
The neck should taper from 18.5 to 20.5 mm thick,
counting the fingerboard, and should be quite slim and
comfortable in the hand. The heel should not be too thick.
A check of this is to use dividers to measure the distance
from the intersection of the edge of the top to the
centerline of the heel. Usually I like this to be 26 mm, more
The fingerboard should be about 24 mm wide more or less
at the nut and about 42 mm wide at the end near the
bridge. The sides should be about 5.5 mm high or less
and may be rolled over slightly towards the playing surface
so the fingers do not encounter a sharp edge. The
playing surface must be shaped to the proper "scoop" so
that the strings can be pressed down with ease and
produce a clean sound without rattles or buzzes. The
amount of scoop required depends to some extent on the
likely player of the instrument and the type of strings. I do
final neck and fingerboard shaping while the violin is set
up as far as possible. This allows me to make fine
adjustments to that particular violin, rather than simply
relying on a generic shape.
I set the final depth of the slots in the nut while the violin is
strung up and test the height by playing it. Only then do I
smoothly curve the back of the nut, dull any sharp edges,
and make sure that the strings ride smoothly in shallow
grooves. Nut grooves need to be lubricated with pencil
lead or a Big Ben Nut Sauce.
The soundpost requires very careful fitting between the
front and back of the instrument. The soundpost is
sometimes called the "soul" of the violin. Its tightness, fit,
and position are crucial to the violin's balance, power, and
focus. I play the violin, adjust the post, play some more
and continue to do this as I work on the bridge. Only
through this incremental process can the violin's sound
and playing characteristics be optimized.
||The bridge has the most complex job in the entire violin. It
holds the strings at the right height, matches the power of
the strings to the specific violin, filters annoying hiss and
noise, and determines the frequencies most emphasized.
The cut of the bridge also influences the ease of getting
proper intonation and can help resist warping. I follow a
systematic approach relying on the Chicago school of
bridge cutting, some principles developed by Ed Campbell
of The Chimney's Violin Shop and recent research
reported in the Catgut journal.
1. Fit the feet carefully to the top of the violin for good
acoustical contact and physical stability. I make the
bottom of the feet perpendicular to the back (tailpiece
side) of the bridge.
2. Set the string height above the fingerboard and the
curve to the top.
3. Finalize top curve for classical or fiddle, ensuring the
break angle for string crossings is the same across all the
4. Initial thinning.
5. Shape cutouts and thickness.
6. Reinstall the bridge and incrementally adjust to balance
the strings with each other and with the violin.
7. Match the power of the strings to the power the violin
wants to take. For example, violins set up with steel
strings require significantly different dimensions in some
places than those set up with perlon strings.
8. Set the roll off frequency to emphasize the "singer's
formant" range of frequencies.
I also set the afterlength of the strings, the distance
between the tailpiece and the bridge, to emphasize the
harmonics of the open strings. On the professional level
violins I check the resonant frequency of the tailpiece as
installed and adjust its mass as required to match
one of several violin body resonances.
I extensively test play violins to check for clear and
focused tone, balanced sound, ease of playing, easy
string crossings, and even response.
Continue to Part 3: Acoustic Optimization
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