Finding the Elusive Digital Stradivarius

A hammer tap to the bridge
— light as a dried pea —
helps Curtin capture an acoustic
instrument’s sound signature.

In music, everything seems to have another digital life. Pianists can play with different voicings on an electric keyboard. Guitarists can filter their instrument’s signal through a pedal or amp to create various effects. Why shouldn’t violinists be able to digitally harness the sound of a Stradivarius? For starters, it takes an incredible feat of engineering to make an authentic-sounding digital violin. Radio reporter (and violinist!) David Schulman takes us to visit a top violinmaker who has been working with a physicist and two engineers to create a prototype digital violin.

Inside the Episode:

Scientists say the violin is one of the hardest instruments to mimic. But MacArthur Award-winning violin maker Joseph Curtin has been working for several years with physicist Gabi Weinreich, along with sound engineer John Bell and industrial designer Alex Sobolev, to create a digital violin. They say its sound will be hard to tell from a recording of a Strad.

Data from 12 different locations let violinmaker Joseph Curtin digitize a violin’s sonic fingerprint.

Joseph Curtin and Alex Sobolev with prototypes of the digital violin

Joseph Curtin’s workbench, where he carves, builds and varnishes his acoustic instruments.

Closeup of some of the pigments and syses used in varnishes for finishing acoustic instruments.

Convolution Reverb samples:

Bonus — Meet David Schulman, the reporter of this story:

PRX was able to ask producer/reporter David Schulman about his experience making this audio story. He says,

“The chance to do this piece brought together several things I am deeply fascinated by — music, violins, sound-rich audio storytelling, and the nature of creativity & discovery.”

Something that didn’t make the final cut of the story, which sheds more light on why a digital Stradivarius is so difficult to engineer, is

“Weinreich’s research has shown that a violin’s sound is in fact deeply varied in the spatial dimension, and that, with each note, the physical power and direction of the overtones changes widely  — one likely reason why it’s hard to actually record an acoustic violin well.”

On convolution, the name of the technology developed for the digital Strad, David says,

“With it’s potential for alternate aural realities, [convolution] is a richly metaphorical area for scientists, artists and storytellers […] Imagine a situation in which  convolution impulse maps are the most vivid documentation remaining of a ransacked temple, or a lost Stradivarius.”

While he was gathering tape and doing interviews, David tells us that he was even able to play some of Curtin’s instruments, an added bonus for someone who is a musician on top of being a radio producer. Still, such an idyllic experience still was not without its challenges:

“The central challenge of the piece involved using demos to link several rich — though rather technical — ideas,and to arrive at a final comparison where you’d hear the digital Strad and an actual Strad, side by side.”

This episode was reported and produced by David Schulman in 2013 for PRX’S STEM Story Project. It was hosted for this episode of Transistor by Genevieve Sponsler and mixed by Erika Lantz.

Photos: David Schulman

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