How To CAT-Scan (And Hot-Rod) A Stradivarius At the home workshop of Sam Zygmuntowicz, form follows function: The Brooklyn-based luthier, who has designed instruments for Joshua Bell and Yo-Yo Ma, is scientifically analyzing great violins of the past to make even better ones for today.
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How To CAT-Scan (And Hot-Rod) A Stradivarius

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

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

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Mr. SAM ZYGMUNTOWICZ (Violinmaker): You can see it on our graph, 23, 28.


In the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn last week, we met up with violinmaker Sam Zygmuntowicz in his home workshop. He's been doing some high-tech study of antique instruments, and he's applying that knowledge to his own craft. He and Dr. George Bissinger from the Oberlin Acoustics Workshop started the Strad 3D Project. They used CAT scans, laser imaging and acoustic analysis to learn how violins made by the old masters work. On a piano top in his living room, Zygmuntowicz had arrayed a number of very beautiful and precious instruments.

Mr. SAM ZYGMUNTOWICZ: This violin is the Willemotte Stradivarius from 1734. He made this in his 90s. It's one of his last works.

HANSEN: And the one next to it.

Mr. ZYGMUNTOWICZ: This is the Plowden Guarneri del Gesu from 1735. It's from really the most beautiful period of Guarneri's work, and it's considered one of the dozen best Guarneri still in existence.

HANSEN: Tell us about the research that you've been doing.

Mr. ZYGMUNTOWICZ: For my own work, technology has become so accessible. I mean, I have a laptop computer that cost me about $500 and another thousand dollars of software and, you know, various equipment. I can do analysis now that couldn't have been done in any lab 20 years ago.

HANSEN: Show us.

Mr. ZYGMUNTOWICZ: Well, this is the first way I would test a violin. I'd hand it to a violinist.

HANSEN: Identify yourself.

Mr. AARON BOYD (Violinist): Aaron Boyd(ph), violinist.

HANSEN: And you're going to play the del Gesu, the Guarneri.

Mr. BOYD: Plowden del Gesu.

(Soundbite of Mr. Boyd playing the Plowden del Gesu violin)

Mr. ZYGMUNTOWICZ: Now for contrast, I'm going to give him the Willemotte Strad to play, which is a very different sort of sound.

(Soundbite of Mr. Boyd playing the Willemotte Stradivarius violin)

Mr. ZYGMUNTOWICZ: How would you categorize the main difference between the two fiddles?

Mr. BOYD: The Willemotte, in general, has this wide array of colors. It's like playing on a rainbow, and the de Gesu just has that kind of punch that I think a lot of fiddle players really gravitate towards. they know that when they play this fiddle, it's going to soar to the back of the hall, which I think has a lot to do with why they're rather in some ways more coveted. It's not often talked about. I think Guarneris are even more coveted than Strads for that reason. They're darker, huskier and they think they're going to straight to the back of the hall, though I've always leaned towards the colors and the slightly more silvery qualities of the Strad.

Mr. ZYGMUNTOWICZ: Now, I mean, I quite agree with his assessment. The problem is, you know, humans, we use words to describe things which are very inexact and they don't mean the same thing to you.

HANSEN: Well, how do you measure a rainbow? How do you measure a punch?

Mr. ZYGMUNTOWICZ: Well, everyone's got their own language. So, now I can take this thing to fiddles and do a quick sound analysis on them, and we'll just see visually, you know, we've heard them now. Let's see if we can see a difference. I'm going to put this up on the apparatus.

HANSEN: Zygmuntowicz suspends the Guarneri in 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. Then, it's the Strad's turn.

Mr. ZYGMUNTOWICZ: That one little tap basically contains the full spectral response of the instrument. A small tap can be as good as a symphony. So now, we just have two superimposed jagged lines.

HANSEN: One is red, and one is blue.

Mr. ZYGMUNTOWICZ: Right. The blue is the Willemotte Strad. The red is the Plowden. You know, we had the impression that the Plowden was a bit of a warmer sound, and if you look around the air resonance, when you come up here to this main, strong resonance, the Plowden has a really quite higher peak, and that's probably a big part of why that fiddle sounds so full. The Willemotte has a bit of a shapelier format, you'd call it. The overall response curve has more of a little depression in the midrange, and more of a hump in the high rage, even though, overall the Plowden has more output. So, when Aaron said, well, the Guarneri gives you that feeling of a lot of power, well he's quite right. But for the timbre or the tone color, that depends on the shaping of this curve.

HANSEN: So, how would you apply what you see here on these graphs, and what they tell you about the sounds of these two antique violins? How do you apply it to the ones that you actually make?

Mr. ZYGMUNTOWICZ: Well, for most of history, new violins have been basically a budget priced option for a professional musician. It's one thing to say, well, this is a pretty good violin for the price, but what if you want to compete with Strad? 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.

HANSEN: This violin was made a week ago. Finished a week ago.

(Soundbite of violin playing)

HANSEN: In his workshop, Sam 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. A copy of an antique instrument can cost over $50,000, but it's a fraction of the cost of an original. Stads and Guarneris have been sold at auction for millions. Zygmuntowicz has made a cello for Yo-Yo Ma and works with other artists, including violinist Joshua Bell.

Mr. ZYGMUNTOWICZ: Joshua owns a violin of mine, but mostly what I do is hot-rod his Strad for him.

HANSEN: What do you mean? I mean, you say the word hot-rod and I'm imagining, you know, flames by the F holes, you know.

Mr. ZYGMUNTOWICZ: Well, I mean - you know, 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. You know, it's got sweat marks on it and bow necks and they need their equipment to work, you know, so I want to find out where have they been. Are they going somewhere humid or dry? Has anything come unglued? Does anything need to be planed? While it's in, let's give it a nice cleaning. And these are all small things that add up to that last little notch of performance. So, you know, working on old instruments like that gives me a lot of insight in what to do in new instruments, and vice versa.

I have a few people who have a great old instrument and one of my new violins. And if they bring them both in, we'll adjust the Strad first, because it's first. But then, we'll play the new violin and they'll say couldn't you make the Strad have a little more intensity there on the bottom of the G string after playing the new fiddle? So, then we go and we pushy the Strad a little more and then we go back to the new fiddle. They say couldn't you smooth it out a little bit and then, little by little, there's this, you know, I'm trying to converge the worlds, and they definitely - there's definitely, in my mind, a dialogue between the old and the new instruments.

HANSEN: So, it sounds like you're able to create violins that can have that same sound as the ones that took forever to make.

Mr. ZYGMUNTOWICZ: Absolutely. I mean, that - there is - I mean, there are different levels of the challenge. I mean, the first challenge was to make something that was good enough that a professional musician would take it out and play it in concert. That, I think, many violin makers are able to do now. I mean, it was an important barrier to break. However, the current barrier is to make something that musicians would really choose to play if they had the choice. And that's a very difficult, little - I call it the Strad Ceiling. You know, if someone has a Strad in their case, will they play your fiddle? And then you have to really think, what exactly is the nature of the sound that they like? What is it they like about the Strad? And then, it takes a lot of detective work to try to get closer to those very specific details. You know, what technology is letting us do is just be specific and analytical.

Unidentified Man: 555, B1 plus. This is one of the most active modes, one of the strongest frequencies on the fiddle. The hottest

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

Mr. ZYGMUNTOWICZ: It turns out that things that work very well are also very beautiful. It is sort of an ancient design concept that goes back to Pythagoras, but that the universe is designed in some kind of - in an aesthetic, rational way. And that still seems to hold up in the case of the violin, that when you see these very, very effective shapes, which are meant to flex and bend, it just makes an extremely lovely and very sensuous and very harmonious display, no matter how you look at it. When you look at it in your hands or when you look at it in light, in shadow, or when you pass it through a x-ray machine, to me, it's - what I find very satisfying about it is that I don't find that technology makes me estranged from art in the least. I find that it's actually a deeper look into the aesthetics of the instrument and the function is an extension of its aesthetics. That's one of the things that's so satisfying about the violin.

HANSEN: Violin maker, Sam Zygmuntowicz. You can see a video excerpt from the Strad 3D Project and watch a slideshow at our website,

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: Our music and technology series continues next week with a profile of the French music and acoustic research lab, IRCAM. We'll speak with the man who remembers the early days of that institution.

Mr. TODD MACHOVER (Composer): A German composer named York Kerler(ph) was waiting and waiting and waiting for one minute of music to be calculated on these room full of machines. And finally, he said, in the time that I wait for my one sound to come out, Wolfgang Reim(ph) has written another opera.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: Todd Machover is now at MIT, where his experimental musical instruments led to a popular video game, "Guitar Hero."

Mr. MACHOVER: The idea that you could make a new kind of instrument that would use the gestures, which you are most natural and familiar with, and the fact that that would lead to a set of instruments that would let anybody have fun with music, it makes a lot of sense.

HANSEN: That story, next Sunday on our Music and Technology series. This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

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