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A couple of weeks ago the British newspaper, The Guardian, published an article about a “blind study” where concert violinists compared old and new violins. The Guardian article stresses how the new violins bested some of the vintage Stradivarius in the test.
As a guitarist and longtime contributor to Vintage Guitar Magazine, I’ve played a lot of guitars over the years. Many times I’ve preferred a new instrument over an older one, but just because I’ve preferred an instrument while I was playing it, that doesn’t mean that it would be my preference if I was sitting in the audience.
As an audiophile I’m acutely aware of how transducers sound differently depending on where you are located relative to that transducer. Many times I’ve played a new instrument alone in a room and thought that it was really great, but when that same instrument was played by someone else in an ensemble situation it didn’t cut through the mix. Conversely I’ve played new instruments that were too forward sounding when played alone, but in an ensemble they sounded just right. Great vintage guitars are great because they have that difficult to achieve combination of rich full harmonics yet they still have enough power and bite to be heard in an ensemble situation. I’ve rarely heard a new guitar that can achieve this delicate balancing act.
But back to violins – a violin can sound very different to a player than it does to an audience. And while a new violin may sound better to the player, it might not have the projection and power of a vintage instrument. The trade-off is that if a soloist prefers the sound of a particular instrument they may play better, but they might not be as loud in the back of the hall.
It used to be with guitars that the loudest one was always the best, but with the advent of almost universal sound reinforcement at concerts, it no longer matters if your guitar is the loudest acoustically, since it will be reinforced with some form of amplification. Obviously (and fortunately) classical concerts are not yet sound reinforced, so the pure acoustic projection of an instrument is still important.
I would like to see a “blind” comparison that also had a group of listeners placed in different sections of a concert hall who would also be rating the sound they heard, “blind.” It’s very possible that the violin that was preferred on stage at close proximity will not be the violin that listeners in the hall thought sounded best.
So, before you conclude that “new violins are better than old ones.” You might want to wait for a comparison that has more than a single listening perspective…