Finding the Elusive Digital Stradivarius

This post is part of a series of posts featuring the stories from our STEM Story Project.

photoIn 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 too?

For starters, it takes an incredible feat of engineering to capture the authentic sound of a violin. In this STEM Story piece, “The Elusive Digital Stradivarius,” producer 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.

PRX was able to ask David about his experience making the piece. He beams,

“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.”

photo (1)We’re often so quick to dismiss digital counterparts of things as inauthentic, but it just might be that digitizing a Stradivarius leads to improving it somehow too. At last, musicians can finally have access to an enterprise that was previously unavailable for the violin. As David illustrates in his piece, this technology enables new tools, new techniques, and new sounds for musicians and engineers alike to innovate.

Photos: David Schulman

Listen to all the other PRX STEM Story Project pieces.