Friday, April 28, 2017


On Fiddle Talk and similar forums the phrase Violin-Shaped Object (VSO) shows up in certain discussions.

I've understood the term on an intellectual basis. This week I've started renting a Pfretzschner violin in the $400 range. Within minutes I had a new emotional appreciation of what this term means.

I've blogged about this before. In the long scale of musical instrument quality there are concert-quality instruments. There are good instruments. There are student instruments. And then there are things carved out of softwood in the general shape of an instrument and sold online, in non-speciality shops, and (more often than they should be) at Guitar Center.

If you want to be charitable, call these display instruments. Like the Ukuleles you get at a gift shop in the airport flying back from Hawaii. There are pieces of plastic or dyed kite string pretending to be strings, a painted board with some random frets on it, peg-shaped pieces of wood jammed into holes. It looks cute on a wall but there's no point in trying to play it.

I'm not in a charitable mood. When it is being sold as a "student" instrument, with copy boasting about the manufacturing quality and selected endorsements by happy customers, prettily packaged up with the basic accessories desired to play. it is an Instrument-Shaped Object.

And it is a disservice to the student, whether they are a child or an adult beginner who always wanted to try. Because in most cases, the person will struggle to get the instrument to work, at last giving it up (and their dreams of playing this particular instrument family) with the impression that it is all their fault.

At the borderline cases, you can still learn. But the learning will be slower, with more of it learning the work-arounds for that particular ISO's flaws and less of it learning the basic correct postures and gestures. And the results will not be as pretty. If you are good, or lucky, eventually you figure out you
need to transition to an actual student model.

When you graph prices against playability, there's a sharp bend on the lower end of the scale. For the Ukulele, my experience is the bend happens somewhere around $100. Below that, you can luck in to a good, useable instrument. Above that, you will almost always have a decent tone and a good setup. Below around $50 the Uke takes a swan-dive. My own Rogue -- purchased for about $35 -- has an indifferent tone and the fretboard is set just wrong enough so open strings are not in tune with fretted ones. But with a little work it was playable. More on that later!

I have (rather, had) an Aulos recorder in that range that goes from under $50 to the $5 specials made in bright colors. It does not play in tune and has an awful tone. I found a Yamaha sopranino for about $50 and it is much more pleasurable to play.

In fact, even as a self-taught amateur with the equivalent of six months of recorder practice I can still feel quite clearly the difference between a low-number Yamaha student model and a more expensive Yamaha (still-student) model. The more expensive instrument falls into the notes in a more defined way, finds the pitches more easily in half-holes and overblows, and has a nicer tone. It is easier to play, easier to play well, and sounds better across the board.

In the case of violins, I'd be tempted to place the bend at $200-300. You are unlikely to find a sub-$200 violin that doesn't need work. And by $600, you will probably get a decent student violin. And, again, the difference is remarkable.

The most unfortunate thing about picking up my $400-used instrument on a rental is it has made me realize how much is lacking on my slightly-over-$100 internet special (outside of the one being a solid-body electric and the other being a proper acoustic, that is).

Musical instruments are expensive. The precision hand work necessary to make a good violin is mind-boggling. It can't be automated, not and get quality results. And that is largely because a violin is made from organic materials. A violin is a whole series of balancing acts between friction and tensile strength that depends on specific detailed qualities of the actual materials. I mean, think about it; that essential violin sound comes from rubbing a string with hairs from the tail of a Mongolian horse, hairs stretched taut and smeared with tree sap. These are not materials that can be brewed in a vat with some exact proportion of chemicals.

(Another informative tidbit is the most important part of a violin is a tiny spruce peg that is propped up inside and is held in place only by the pressure of the pieces it is trapped between. If you take all the strings off a violin, the sound post can fall over, and it is an expensive and time-consuming task to get it righted again).

So you can't blame the student or would-be student for hoping to find an instrument that costs less than a car. Or even less than a cell phone. And you can't blame the manufacturers for rising to fill that need. Especially because it is so tempting a problem; yes, you can mass-manufacture and CNC and you will, by luck of the draw and some cleverness along the way, get something that approximates the playability of a properly built instrument.

What I find weird is that -- at least from my Yamaha experience -- this even applies to an instrument which is drilled out from a hunk of plastic. You'd think it would be as trivial to machine one right as it is to machine one that is out of tune. But this is not the case. (There is good reason why you can't just dial a CNC cutter to a mathematically derived measurement and expect to get the right results, but that's a subject for another lecture.)

So there's competition for that bottom dollar. An ongoing dialog between customer and manufacturer, but not one that applies to real playing quality. See, there are historically parts that are more expensive. Proper tuners, multiple pick-ups, nice strings, etc. The customers learn to recognize that the cheap Uke (or, let's be honest, the traditional Uke) has pegs. The expensive Uke has tuners.

So the manufacturers find a way to put tuners on. They are probably cheap knock-off tuners, worse than the pegs they replaced, but once again the customer is temporarily fooled into thinking this is a better (read, of the more expensive category) instrument than it is. Until the customers start looking for brand names...and the dialog continues.

And this isn't entirely semiotics. A few quality parts can make a big difference. Setup makes a bigger one. This in particular is one of the places where mass manufacturing can not economically go. A VSO is setup on the assembly line, or swiftly by a technician. It can be made more playable if it is hand-adjusted.

In the case of my Uke, I replaced the strings and shaved the nut. That made it instantly much easier to play, slightly more in tune with itself, and sound much prettier. For a while there, the rule was, replace the strings. No questions ask, strings are a place that is easy for manufacturers to skimp on in order to place their product at $10 less than the competitor (or, in the increasing consolidation of everything into a few monopolies, to grab one or two more of the customers who are balancing this impulse buy against the impulse for a new computer game or a couple of cocktails that weekend).

Now every Uke I see hanging up at my usual suspects have Aquilla strings (or at least a decent knock-off). So that one's gone. New manufacturers have also moved into the violin business with remarkably cheap yet decent-performing strings, so even the VSO's have started shipping with okay strings on them.

Setup on a violin, however, is not for the faint of heart. And this entire idea of set-up; of taking a cheap instrument and doing the tweaks and adjustments the manufacturer could not afford for that price point, and swapping out the hardware that similarly would have driven up the price, presumes that the person undertaking this has some basic crafts skills, musical ability, and confidence.

I mean, how are you going to make even a Uke more playable if you have no idea how to play one?

The Pfretzschner has been informative in ways that are almost too subtle for me to verbalize. Some of that, again, is acoustic. And it is extremely good I made this move when I did. There are, indeed, basic elements of performance that were getting masked by the electric violin. Fortunately, despite the dire warnings I saw around various forums and music shops, these aren't sudden insurmountable hurdles, not hills I should have been already climbing for months.

But then I have unfair advantage over the child student. I have some moderate musical knowledge and skill, and have been attempting various instruments for quite some time. I also am a craftsperson -- I've done a bit of sculpting and painting and so forth and I have the fine motor control to be able to swiftly learn the nuances of a new gesture.

I never had a real problem with bowing at right angles to the strings, for instance. A little work with a mirror to make sure, and it is within the margins of where it should be at my present level of skill.

In any case, tone is suddenly a thing. Heck, this might also be the strings and rosin I have on the electric. In any case, on the electric I really can't get a bad tone. I actually have to struggle to get a whisper-squeak or a good grank. On the acoustic, it is much different. There is indeed a Kreisler Highway of tone as well, a range of pressure and speed in which acceptable tones are produced. And a variety of tone color within that band.

See, there's a coupling of resonance between string and body. On the electric, as long as the string is actually vibrating in the correct Helmholz z-shape (look it up) then you have the note. You have to fall entirely outside, either to the non-linear regime of chaotic movement (too much pressure/speed), or fail to set the string into regular motion in the first place (the whisper of too little pressure or a lack of rosin).

On the acoustic, a narrower range within this larger range of "actually vibrating" is when it couples with the body to develop the full rich tone that, honestly, is what was driving me to move from the electric in the first place.

And fortunately for my progress as a beginner, it isn't really much effort to stay within that band. The only downside is this is also the louder side of the band -- I can't both practice softly and try to get a decent tone. It also changes subtly when vibrato is introduced. Vibrato on the electric is less obvious and you can do it with less precision. On the acoustic, again, there is a sweet spot. Conversely and usefully, it also seems to "talk back" making the gesture a little easier to get right in the first place.

So the lesson for the student? The electric is still a great idea. I don't know yet about how well a practice mute works (had to order one online, as well as some peg drops), but the electric allowed and still allows me to experiment and make all the horrible noises that no-one but me can hear. It gave me and gives me more freedom to mess up. Being afraid of what others think of your playing is the greatest block I can think of to learning.

At the same time, the acoustic has opened up my understanding of what is going on as I play. It is developing skills not just required for acoustic play, but skills that translate back to the electric. (Among other things, the intense loud sound of the acoustic has made me more comfortable with getting really loose and experimental on the electric. I'm more willing to make bad noises on the one that, honestly, even I can barely hear).

But VSO's? And ISO's in general? They still make me angry. All we can do is educate, however. There is still a place for them. The marginal ones can still be played, or tinkered with until they are playable, thus they are an affordable alternative to what otherwise can be a somewhat elitist endeavor.

But, really? Rentals make more sense. Rent a decent student instrument. Use that to find out if that instrument is for you, and to gain the basic skills in recognizing what is necessary to make a playable instrument. Then even if you want to purchase a cheap knock-off, you will have the skills, and more importantly, the confidence to work with it.

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