How To CAT-Scan (And Hot-Rod) A Stradivarius

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  • Listen to a profile of violin maker Sam Zygmuntowicz from Performance Today on June 3, 2002.

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Wilm i i

The graphical spectrum made by tapping the Willemotte Stradivarius. hide caption

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The graphical spectrum made by tapping the Willemotte Stradivarius.

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The graphical spectrum made by tapping the Plowden Guarneri del Gesu. hide caption

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The graphical spectrum made by tapping the Plowden Guarneri del Gesu.

Violin builder Sam Zygmuntowicz constructs copies of extraordinary instruments like the 1734 Willemotte Stradivarius (right) and the 1735 Plowden Guarneri del Gesu (center). Ned Wharton, NPR hide caption

See Images Of Sam Zygmuntowicz's Violin Research
itoggle caption Ned Wharton, NPR

In the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., Sam Zygmuntowicz has a home workshop where he makes violins.

Recently, Zygmuntowicz has been studying antique instruments with George Bissinger of the Oberlin Acoustics Workshop. The pair started the Strad 3D Project, in which they use CAT scans, laser imaging and acoustic analysis to learn how violins made by the old masters work.

And Zygmuntowicz has been applying the research to his own Brooklyn studio.

"For my own work, technology has become so accessible," he says. "I mean, I have a laptop computer — it cost me about $500, and you know, another $1,000 of software and various equipment. I can do analysis now that couldn't have been done in any lab 20 years ago."

Bringing Out The Heavy Guns

An array of beautiful and precious instruments is laid out atop a grand piano in Zygmuntowicz's living room. Among them: one of the last violins made by legendary luthier Antonio Stradivari, dated to 1734, and the 1735 "Plowden" Guarneri del Gesu violin, said to be one of Guarneri's finest instruments.

Zygmuntowicz suspends the Guarneri on an open frame. A small hammer is poised to tap the side of the violin's bridge. He pulls a cable, and the hammer is released.

That tap is recorded on a computer, which displays a waveform graph.

"That one little tap basically contains the full spectral response of the instrument," Zygmuntowicz says. "A small tap can be as good as a symphony."

He says that studying those waves allows him to model his creations after those of the 18th-century masters.

"For most of history, new violins have been basically a budget-priced option for a professional musician," he says. "It's one thing to say, 'Well, this is a pretty good violin for the price.' But what if you want to compete with [a] Strad[ivarius]? We need heavy guns.

"What I'm trying to do is basically hot-rod my instruments. I'm already able to make them quite good, but I need them to be better than quite good. If I can give them that, they'll use my instrument; and if I can't, they won't."

Breaking The Strad Ceiling

In his workshop, Zygmuntowicz files and scrapes the wood of a violin he's building. He makes about six instruments a year, and each one takes about six months to finish. One of his "clones" of an ancient instrument can cost more than $50,000, but it's a fraction of the cost of an original — Strads and Guarneris have been sold at auction for millions.

Zygmuntowicz has made a cello for Yo-Yo Ma and works for other high-profile artists, including violinist Joshua Bell.

"Joshua owns a violin of mine, but mostly what I do is hot-rod his Strad for him," Zygmuntowicz says. "To a collector, a Strad is a very romantic icon, art object. But to a touring musician, they bring it in — it's just like a pit stop. ... Working on old instruments like that gives me a lot of insight in what to do in new instruments, and vice versa."

That experience allows Zygmuntowicz to set his goals high for his work. He says that he first set out to make instruments good enough for professionals to be able to take out and perform with in concert. That important barrier, he says, has already been broken by several violin makers.

"However, the current barrier is to make something that musicians would really choose to play if they had the choice," he says. "I call it the 'Strad Ceiling.' You know, if someone has a Strad in their case, will they play your fiddle?"

It's a question Zygmuntowicz uses technology to help answer.

"And then you really have to think, well, what, exactly, is the nature of the sound that they like?" he says. "You know, what technology is letting us do is be specific and analytical."

Form Meets Function

Zygmuntowicz and filmmaker Eugene Schenkman have collaborated on a forthcoming DVD that documents the scientific study of the Strad 3D Project. In the video, the movement and the vibrations of the wood are computer animations, and the violin's body heaves and pulsates like a living, breathing organism.

"It turns out that things that work very well are also very beautiful," Zygmuntowicz says. "It is sort of an ancient design concept that goes back to Pythagoras — that the universe is designed in ... an aesthetic, rational way. That still seems to hold up in the case of the violin."

And he says that using scanning technology to peer into the instrument doesn't estrange him from his craft — quite the opposite.

"I find that it's actually a deeper look into the aesthetics of the instrument," Zygmuntowicz says. "And the function is an extension of its aesthetics. That's one of the things that's so satisfying about the violin."

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