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Caption: Data from 12 different locations let violinmaker Joseph Curtin digitize a violin's sonic fingerprint., Credit: David Schulman
Image by: David Schulman 
Data from 12 different locations let violinmaker Joseph Curtin digitize a violin's sonic fingerprint. 

The Elusive Digital Stradivarius

From: David Schulman
Length: 07:38

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The sound of a fine acoustic violin is deviously hard to mimic. But a leading maker now has a digital prototype designed to sound the equal of a Stradivarius.

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These days you can plug a pawn-shop guitar into a laptop (or even a phone) and dial up the sound of B.B. King, Carlos Santana, or Jimi Hendrix. All thanks to software that models vintage guitar gear, digitally. 
 
So why has no one yet modeled a million-dollar Stradivarius? 
 
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.

During the piece, neuroscientist Daniel Levitin — author of the best-selling "This Is Your Brain on Music" and a professor at McGill University, listens to audio samples of the digital violin and an actual instrument by Antonio Stradivari. And he tries to tell from the sound which is which. The results may come as a surprise.

(The musical demos of each instrument — an excerpt from the Tchaikovsky violin concerto — were played by Naxos recording artist Ilya Kaler. Kaler has won the top prize at the Tchaikovsky, the Sibelius, and the Paganini international violin competitions.)

This piece comes in two versions — a 5'00 version and a full7'38 mix. Please consoider the full version if your clock allows, as it provides additional context, and more commentary from both Curtin and Levitin.

More info on the digital violin is at www.weinreichlabs.com

Those who license this piece also get access to bonus audio that allows stations to replicate the demonstration of the concept of "convolution" that is central to the digital violin. These files include a room recording of producer (and violinist) David Schulman playing one of Joeph Curtin's fine acoustic violins, and versions of the same signal processed through a series of convolution reverbs. These reverb filters were created by sound engineer Peter Steinbach using a technique that precisely replicates the acoustic characteristics of Disney Hall, Alcatraz, and a Giza Pyramid. Many thanks to Peter for so graciously sharing his work for the cause of the public radio.

This program is part of the STEM Story Project -- distributed by PRX and made possible with funds from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. 

Piece Description

These days you can plug a pawn-shop guitar into a laptop (or even a phone) and dial up the sound of B.B. King, Carlos Santana, or Jimi Hendrix. All thanks to software that models vintage guitar gear, digitally. 
 
So why has no one yet modeled a million-dollar Stradivarius? 
 
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.

During the piece, neuroscientist Daniel Levitin — author of the best-selling "This Is Your Brain on Music" and a professor at McGill University, listens to audio samples of the digital violin and an actual instrument by Antonio Stradivari. And he tries to tell from the sound which is which. The results may come as a surprise.

(The musical demos of each instrument — an excerpt from the Tchaikovsky violin concerto — were played by Naxos recording artist Ilya Kaler. Kaler has won the top prize at the Tchaikovsky, the Sibelius, and the Paganini international violin competitions.)

This piece comes in two versions — a 5'00 version and a full7'38 mix. Please consoider the full version if your clock allows, as it provides additional context, and more commentary from both Curtin and Levitin.

More info on the digital violin is at www.weinreichlabs.com

Those who license this piece also get access to bonus audio that allows stations to replicate the demonstration of the concept of "convolution" that is central to the digital violin. These files include a room recording of producer (and violinist) David Schulman playing one of Joeph Curtin's fine acoustic violins, and versions of the same signal processed through a series of convolution reverbs. These reverb filters were created by sound engineer Peter Steinbach using a technique that precisely replicates the acoustic characteristics of Disney Hall, Alcatraz, and a Giza Pyramid. Many thanks to Peter for so graciously sharing his work for the cause of the public radio.

This program is part of the STEM Story Project -- distributed by PRX and made possible with funds from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. 

Broadcast History

debut on PRX

Intro and Outro

INTRO:

Great old violins are shrouded in mystique. They’re works of art. And they are shockingly expensive.

A violin by Antonio Stradivari typically commands a million dollars. At least. One made by his chief rival was recently offered for 18 million dollars. Yes, 18 million.

That’s somewhat beyond the budget of radio producer David Schulman. So he recently found himself trying to find another way to get that Old Italian sound.

OUTRO:

We heard about the quest for the digital violin as part of the STEM Story Project, produced with support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Presented by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange.

Musical Works

Title Artist Album Label Year Length
The Star Spangled Banner David Schulman (arr.) 2013 :10
Luna Tierra David Schulman Quiet Life Motel. SchulmanCreative 2012 :10
Addis Eleven David Schulman Quiet Life Motel. SchulmanCreative 2012 :10
Chaconne," first movement from Joshua Bell and John Corigliano, with Marin Alsop conducting the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra The Red Violin Concerto. Sony Classical 2007 :20
Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto Ilya Kaler and the Russian Philharmonic Orchestra, Dmitry Yablonsky, conductor Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto - Valse-Scherzo. NAXOS 2007 01:00
Theme from Young Frankenstein David Schulman performing music by John Morris 2013 :10

Additional Files

  • CONVOLUTION REVERB DEMO 1 — David Schulman plays an acoustic violin by Joseph Curtin in his workshop in Ann Arbor, Michigan (CURTIN_ACOUSTIC_IN_ROOM.wav)
  • CONVOLUTION REVERB DEMO 1 — the same audio, played through a digital sound map of LA's Disney Hall captured by sound designer Peter Steinbach (CURTIN_ACOUSTIC_IN_ROOM_DisneyHall.wav)
  • CONVOLUTION REVERB DEMO 3 — the same audio, played through a digital sound map of Alcatraz prison, captured by sound designer Peter Steinbach (CURTIN_ACOUSTIC_IN_ROOM_Alcatraz.wav)
  • CONVOLUTION REVERB DEMO 4 — the same audio, played through a digital sound map of Egypt's Giza Pyramid captured by sound designer Peter Steinbach (CURTIN_ACOUSTIC_IN_ROOM_GizaPyramid.wav)

Additional Credits

edited by Deborah George

Related Website

http://www.weinreichlabs.com