Can technology improve the sound of 300-year-old violins?

The Audiophiliac discusses the state of the art of violin making with a master builder.

Steve Guttenberg
Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Stereophile.
Steve Guttenberg
3 min read
A small sampling of instruments at David Segal Violins Steve Guttenberg/CNET

David Segal Violins is located just a few blocks from Lincoln Center and the Juilliard School in New York City. I stopped by the showroom to learn how the technology of violin making has changed, but that wasn't the main story. Today's violins may look similar to the ones made 300 years ago by Stradivarius or Guarneri, but they get used in different ways. Where before violins were only played in concerts, now they're also recorded. Segal tells me that a great concert violin might not work all that well to accompany a vocalist.

The "technology" of violin making hasn't changed all that much over the last 300 years. Segal makes it seem so simple: you take a piece of wood, air dry it, carve it with a chisel, then glue it with hide or rabbit bone glue. And every violin maker has his own varnish. As we talked, Segal did say the design of the tuning pegs on modern violins have been improved so they're easier to tune, but he doesn't use them on his own instruments. He also repairs violins, violas, and cellos.

Mass-produced violin prices start around $1,000, and Segal acknowledges that some of them might even sound decent. Today's hand-made violins start around $8,000 and go up to $60,000. Violas and cellos are more expensive. Segal's instrument prices are closer to the top end of that range, but he puts around 200 hours of labor into building one violin. If the sound isn't to his liking, he rejects the instrument and tosses it in a fire. "It takes less than 2 minutes to burn a violin," he said.

David Segal with one of his violas. Steve Guttenberg/CNET

Musicians are welcome to come to Segal's showroom to try out his violins, violas, and cellos, and play a selection of instruments. It's not just a matter of finding the best instrument they can afford; it's the best one for their fingers, bow pressure, and how the instrument will be used. Some musicians may need to borrow an instrument to play it in a setting with other musicians to know for sure. Segal usually has a Stradivarius or two in house.

When I asked Segal what makes one violin sound better than another, he said, "It's quality, projection, and power." It's a matter of beauty and how loud it plays, and Segal explained, "You can have a sound, and you can have a sound; it's the palette of colors you can get from an instrument -- or not."

It's not just the violin that has a sound; the bow is almost as important. "First you buy a violin, then we match a bow to the violin," he said. The curve of the bow and the balance of the bow in hand are crucial.

I also chatted with General Manager Diane Mellon at the shop, and I loved the way she described the difference between a violinist and a musician. She said, "You can be a very fine violinist, but not such a great musician."

In other words, the technique is all there, intonation is great, phrasing is good, but you don't feel like they're saying something to you. With a great musician you feel like you're hearing Mozart or Beethoven; you really hear the music, not just the notes. There are a lot of great violinists, but not many great musicians.

Segal was born in Israel and is a second-generation instrument maker, the son of Mendel Segal who made mandolins and guitars. David Segal is a graduate of the International School of Violin Making in Cremona, Italy.

This short YouTube documentary shows David Segal at work.