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Spider silk sounds
March 5, 2012 10:35 AM   Subscribe

Spider silk spun into violin strings "Strands of spider silk have been used to make violin strings that have a unique and thrilling sound, thanks perhaps to the way the strands deform when twisted."
posted by dhruva (35 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite

 
I wish the article would describe the difference in sound a little more clearly. There's one sentence about strong high harmonics, but other than that, do words like "brilliant," "unique" and "thrilling" actually mean anything?
posted by naju at 10:48 AM on March 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


Very cool. I'm not crazy about the sound on the lower strings. I wish they had provided more comparative samples from the higher registers, since they claim the strings could be particularly well suited for the E string.

The thickest of these, the G string, holds 15,000 filaments.

Spider silk undies next?
posted by Kabanos at 10:49 AM on March 5, 2012


Sounds like cheapo metal strings to me.
posted by ZaneJ. at 10:49 AM on March 5, 2012


Brilliant is a description often used for sounds with louder high harmonics (think a trumpet, or a bell or cymbal - the latter two have no 'harmonics" per se, but do have strong high frequency content).

I was just reading about this recently in context of the variability of concert pitch, basically there was an escallation where everyone was pushing their tunings higher and higher, because a tighter string will be louder and will have stronger high harmonics, making it more audible and insistent.
posted by idiopath at 10:58 AM on March 5, 2012


Yet another military application.
posted by TwelveTwo at 10:59 AM on March 5, 2012


I wish the article would describe the difference in sound a little more clearly. There's one sentence about strong high harmonics, but other than that, do words like "brilliant," "unique" and "thrilling" actually mean anything?

The only interesting result here would be from a double-blind test. See, for example, the many blind tests that have comprehensively debunked the notion that Stradivarius's violins have a uniquely excellent sound.

More to the point, though, if the spider-strings are actually markedly different from previous technologies there is really no agreed upon standard by which we can call them "better" or "worse." It's not as if violins are striving to approximate some non-violin sound so that the spider strings could be judged to be a closer approximation to that sound than anything achieved before. A violin strives to sound like a violin. If we prefer the sound of the spider-strings it will be simply a matter of (slightly) redefining what a violin sounds like: rather like the shift from the fortepiano to the pianoforte. And there will always be a market for earlier string technologies not just because of cost but because people will want to know what the music sounded like when it was composed.
posted by yoink at 11:10 AM on March 5, 2012 [4 favorites]


It sure is too bad we can't distribute audio files over the internet.
posted by odinsdream at 11:12 AM on March 5, 2012 [5 favorites]


yoink: "people will want to know what the music sounded like when it was composed"

Not only that, but many timbral qualities are much more popular decades after obsolescence than they were in their own time. See the moog, yamaha dx7, various outdated guitar tech not least of which tube amplifiers, tape storage of audio, 8 bit audio AKA chiptune, etc. etc.
posted by idiopath at 11:15 AM on March 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


"You could have a thinner string for playing the same pitch, which would be a bit more bendy and responsive"

aw shit, Itzhak Perlman is gonna MELT YOUR FUCKING FACE OFF!!!!!
posted by nathancaswell at 11:23 AM on March 5, 2012 [4 favorites]


The BBC's article actually has a sound sample attached, if you're interested in what it sounds like.

I didn't care for it much, honestly. I think regular violin strings sound better. These are definitely different, but I wouldn't call it an improvement.
posted by Malor at 11:35 AM on March 5, 2012


I was just reading about this recently in context of the variability of concert pitch, basically there was an escallation where everyone was pushing their tunings higher and higher, because a tighter string will be louder and will have stronger high harmonics, making it more audible and insistent.

Still going on. I know of several organizations that Tune to A=444 instead of A=440.


And there will always be a market for earlier string technologies not just because of cost but because people will want to know what the music sounded like when it was composed.


The only people I know who really care about period performance practice are musicians, and even then, usually just the folks with degrees in music history. I mean, when was the last time you heard someone complaining because most the performances of Symphonie Fantastique use a tuba instead of a serpent? There are Period instrument performances of pieces out there, and they're interesting, but most people would rather hear music they like the sound of than music they think is authentic.

On the other hand, there's a big market for gut strings for bass. Some genres (jazz players who want to sound like Paul Chambers, blue-grass, and gypsy jazz folks) really call for that sound, but that's driven by a modern aesthetic than a need to play how it sounded "originally."
posted by Gygesringtone at 11:41 AM on March 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


The same spider Genus Nephila starred in this FPP, about a cloth/costume made entirely from spider silk
posted by dhruva at 11:46 AM on March 5, 2012


Where the bee plucks, there pluck I.
posted by jamjam at 12:07 PM on March 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think the discussion of how great they do or do not sound misses the central point for me, which is that some dude just made plausible violin strings out of spider silk. That's pretty darned cool.
posted by found missing at 12:21 PM on March 5, 2012 [5 favorites]


Gygesringtone: "Still going on. I know of several organizations that Tune to A=444 instead of A=440"

But compare 440/444 to 380/451.
posted by idiopath at 12:31 PM on March 5, 2012


What song is being played in the demonstration?
posted by anb at 12:33 PM on March 5, 2012


Perhaps I'm just deaf, or not trained, but I can't say I thought it sounded much different from other violins I've heard.
posted by sotonohito at 12:39 PM on March 5, 2012


Is this the string wars thread? In that case: GUT STRINGS FOREVER
posted by sinnesloeschen at 1:21 PM on March 5, 2012


But compare 440/444 to 380/451.

I've always been under the impression that most of that local variance was due to set pitched instruments (Organs, sets of tuning forks, etc.). To be honest though, I never did much research about the creeping A thing.

Perhaps I'm just deaf, or not trained, but I can't say I thought it sounded much different from other violins I've heard.

After listening to the clip (which has no doubt been compressed before being played on my crappy speakers), it sounds like someone playing a bright violin. Which is really frickin' cool.

About 3/4s of the way through college I had to switch from the ubiquitous Helicore D'addirio strings to something lower tension. I tried probably 4 or 5 different kinds of string, from Velvet (which has a different material for each string) to Corelli (which use tungsten). The difference was huge. I mean, my bass still sounded like my bass, and my playing on the bass still sounded like me playing my bass, but different aspects of the sound came through. One set gave me a growling tone that made my low range sound down right menacing, another (The Corelli) made my harmonics crystal clear. I was nailing harmonics that I could never find, and boy did they ring.

What amazed me was the engineering that went into these strings. It isn't just "lets apply the same process to X material." Heck Velvet strings install differently from other strings. These things were developed over years to try and get a specific sound and playability. Which I guess is the opposite approach of "what can we do to make spider silk into strings," and that means it's even more impressive that they were able to get a sound anything like what we're used to hearing from violins.

What the whole string changing exercise taught me was that the equipment you use is very important, but only in that it makes it easier or harder to create certain parts of your personal sound. Changing instruments won't make you better, it will just help you work less on different things. In order to REALLY get a feel for the personality of the strings, I'd love to hear the same player play the same instrument with the spider strings, and the traditional strings.
posted by Gygesringtone at 1:24 PM on March 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


Is this the string wars thread? In that case: GUT STRINGS FOREVER HAN SOLOED FIRST
posted by yoink at 1:25 PM on March 5, 2012 [3 favorites]


The only people I know who really care about period performance practice are musicians, and even then, usually just the folks with degrees in music history. I mean, when was the last time you heard someone complaining because most the performances of Symphonie Fantastique use a tuba instead of a serpent? There are Period instrument performances of pieces out there, and they're interesting, but most people would rather hear music they like the sound of than music they think is authentic.

Well "most people" is probably accurate, but "only musicians" certainly isn't. There's been a pretty solid interest in "authentic" performances of baroque and even earlier music out there for some decades now--both in recorded performances and in concert. It's not as if, say, Trevor Pinnock's career exists solely because other musicians go to hear him.
posted by yoink at 1:30 PM on March 5, 2012


In other arachnid news: the largest piece of spider silk cloth in the world is currently on display at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, perfectly complementing Ellen Terry's iridescent beetle-wing dress at Smallhythe Place in Kent.
posted by verstegan at 2:07 PM on March 5, 2012


There's been a pretty solid interest in "authentic" performances of baroque and even earlier music out there for some decades now--both in recorded performances and in concert. It's not as if, say, Trevor Pinnock's career exists solely because other musicians go to hear him.

I actually literally meant "The only people I know who really care," I should've worded it differently so it wouldn't get glossed over as "phrase meaning my experience is universal #16." I could see that reading as a little dismissive, which isn't how I meant it. Sorry I was unclear.

I'm all about the performer making a conscious choice to make it sound as close to what the composer intended as possible, or not. I just don't think it's something most members of the audience take into consideration.
posted by Gygesringtone at 2:15 PM on March 5, 2012


I had to listen to the example through my studio headphones to form an opinion. I generally like how the spider silk strings sound, although they sound like they take some getting used to. The sample they provided is somewhat obfuscatory, and I think the researcher knows it, so that ticked me off a little. Also, listening comparisons on a compressed sound file is dumb.

For those who haven't played a bowed instrument in the family of the violin: the way the instrument works (simplified) is that, by dragging a bow (usually made of horsehair) rubbed in rosin (usually some sort of semi-sticky pine sap) across a string (today made from wound metal), you produce a small amount of friction. The friction vibrates the string at a particular pitch, along with a bunch of other pitches (harmonics) which get transmitted through the bridge (that natural wood looking thing the strings run across) and, to a lesser degree, the tailpiece (the black thing at the base of the instrument that the strings attach to) into the sound post inside which is just a piece of wood squeezed between the front and back faces of the instrument. The sound post vibrates inside the body of the instrument where the sound is amplified and comes out the holes on either side. This funny Rube Goldberg-esque method of making sound is further complicated by the fact that there are no frets (those metal stripes you see on many guitars' fingerboards), so you actually have to know where to put your fingers in order to make the correct pitch - a true-tone instrument. (There, now you can't say you know nothing about it anymore.)

What I hear right away is that these strings are easy to over-bow, that is, to push down too hard and make that growly stringed instrument sound that nobody much likes. This is in contrast to metal strings which, especially on a violin, are easy to under-bow which makes a kind of hissing squeal that's also quite unpleasant. Pushing down on the bow = add more energy to the system = louder and more friction. But the same friction that makes the vibration can also make the bow not move smoothly across the string, causing the growl. Or a lack of friction can make if go by too fast, causing hiss and squeal.

But then, he seems to ease off right away suggesting that the strings allow for faster dynamic corrections (you can hear the difference in the metal string demo where... I dunno, he doesn't seem to correct himself at all). I have a suspicion that the "polygon" pattern that the filaments are forming has a much higher coefficient of friction than the smooth, wound metal that most of us are used to. The rest of his use of these strings sounds a lot less rosin-y, and I assume that the higher friction leads to less use of rosin. It sounds a great deal more like the bow is fresh and the string is clean but not slick like it's new out of the package. If you listen to concert cellists - and I say that, because the cello amplifies bad instrument care in the hearable range much more readily than the violin does, I think - it's the difference between when the instrument seems to sing (i.e., the legato notes seem not to be heavily impacted by the other acoustic qualities of the instrument), and pop cello where, if you amplify it, you might be looking for that overdriven sound that sounds a lot like sample clipping on a digital waveform.

Here's where the demo they provided was obviously hiding something: I would have liked to hear a couple of more typical comparison sounds that he didn't provide. First, I didn't hear a long, open string. That's where you take your fingers off the fingerboard and bow the string at its natural frequency. With metal strings, you know immediately that it's a metal string when you do this, which is why modern string musicians go to great lengths to never play an open string. I also would have liked to hear him pluck the string. On violins, this typically makes a "plunk" sound you'd associate with a ukulele rather than what you'd expect of a guitar. I'd like to hear whether the string rings for longer (unlikely, compared to metal), or whether it drops off much faster. Anybody who plays (and he obviously does) knows that you start by comparing open strings, because they're the most telling. Not sure whether the editor cut that, or whether he didn't provide it. The pizzicato thing is just nice to know, because if they sound dead when you pluck them, you don't want to get into a piece that's plucked with a dead sound.

The demo leaves me curious whether the strings deform better under the fingers. It's hard for non-musicians to imagine how much work it is to hold your hand in an unnatural position and then depress metal strings that actually don't give all that readily, but it's a lot of work! If you take your right thumb and put it up near your ear, then take your left index finger and thumb, make a C with it. Put the C around your right thumb up near your ear, and don't rest your hands or elbows on anything. Now squeeze till your thumbnail gets whitish. Release. Now hold that position for an hour and squeeze your thumb that way every half second. That's about how much work a beginner does.

I can get all the other comments about "brightness" (that's high harmonics) and "richness" (that's low harmonics), but a violin isn't the right instrument to deal with that when you're looking at harmonic performance. He should have chosen a viola if he wanted to demonstrate that, because a violin is always bright. It's tuned very, very high. I love when people talk about one violin being brighter than another, because it's like... gosh, the E string is tuned more than an octave above middle C. If you get much brighter than that, you'll be playing a dog whistle.

I can't really get all the concern about gut strings and matching historical performances, but that's mostly because I could never afford gut strings. I just feel left out. ($100 a string... wtf?)

Summary: he gave a bad example to do a comparison. In spite of that, they sound pretty good, but if I'm too cheap to spring for gut strings, you can bet these are out of my price range. And if you thought before that you didn't know how to begin listening to things like this for comparison, now hopefully you do.
posted by kochbeck at 2:19 PM on March 5, 2012 [91 favorites]


Osaki learned how to coax Nephila maculata spiders to spin out long strands of dragline

I'm guessing he just had it sitting in my bathroom window sill for a few hours.
posted by Metro Gnome at 5:20 PM on March 5, 2012


Kabanos: "Very cool. I'm not crazy about the sound on the lower strings. I wish they had provided more comparative samples from the higher registers, since they claim the strings could be particularly well suited for the E string.

The thickest of these, the G string, holds 15,000 filaments.

Spider silk undies next?
"

No, I think it will indeed be vests.

TwelveTwo: "Yet another military application."

Yep.
posted by Splunge at 7:13 PM on March 5, 2012


May I add, as an ex-cellist, kochbeck's comment should be side-barred.
posted by Splunge at 7:17 PM on March 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


"I love when people talk about one violin being brighter than another, because it's like... gosh, the E string is tuned more than an octave above middle C."

The lowest pitch where you should expect the first harmonic to be inaudible is e9 (difficult, but not impossible, to play on a violin IIRC). The lowest note where the second harmonic is likely inaudible is a7 (still hard to play, but more likely to be found in a score). For the third, e7. For the fourth, c7. The fourth harmonic is the range where we can start calling them "high harmonics". e7 happens to be the highest recommended note for orchestral violin parts.

Also, brightness isn't just about the absolute pitches, but also the ratios in the frequencies making up the timbre. The higher the harmonic (relative to the fundamental, not an absolute reference), the more it tends to conflict with 12tet tuning, so it will have a grating edge to it in an ensemble (especially with fixed pitch instruments).
posted by idiopath at 7:34 PM on March 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


In the olden days I used to buy "silk'&'steel" silk-wound acoustic guitar strings. They had a nice sweet sound, but they tended to go dead rather quickly. I haven't seen them lately.

I mean, when was the last time you heard someone complaining because most the performances of Symphonie Fantastique use a tuba instead of a serpent?

Since you mentioned Serpents, you now have to watch Frontier Psychiatrist again.

(Actually, I had heard that Berlioz would get really upset if orchestras substituted instruments for his concerts).
posted by ovvl at 8:12 PM on March 5, 2012


I did some more od the math on the harmonics - with an note under f6 (on the higher side of the violin's range), you could hear the 14th harmonic if present (presuming you don't have hearing damage). The 14th harmonic is well into the realm of dissonance even against equal tempered accompaniment.
posted by idiopath at 9:42 PM on March 5, 2012


and furthermore, the 16th harmonic and the 17th harmonic are just a hair under a halfstep apart (well within the range to produce a maximally rough dissonance) and at a fundamental of c#6 (1108.76 hz), played with the pinky on the e string in second position, they will both be well within the nominal standard range of human hearing, if present. My educated guess is that the single note, if that bright, would sound like a very agressive pipe organ if bowed, or a banjo going through a distortion pedal if plucked.

If such a pathologically bright timbre is hypothetically possible in that part of the violin's range, then brightness of the violin is far from a moot point.
posted by idiopath at 12:27 AM on March 6, 2012


This is why I love Metafilter. Today I learned about "pitch inflation," something I'd never even considered possible. Neato!
posted by Saxon Kane at 4:30 AM on March 6, 2012 [1 favorite]


It sure is too bad we can't distribute audio files over the internet.

I have no idea how these people got their catgut wedged into their scanners, or why.
posted by Kabanos at 7:01 AM on March 6, 2012 [2 favorites]


(Actually, I had heard that Berlioz would get really upset if orchestras substituted instruments for his concerts).

He did write the book on orchestration. My favorite part of the whole thing is when he says not to write 16th notes for bass players because they won't play them anyway.
posted by Gygesringtone at 7:49 AM on March 6, 2012


Yes, there was an essay in an old edition of Horizon about Berlioz, and title was a quote (paraphrase): "Not flutes, Piccolos! Oh you brutes!". There was a swell period illustration of Berlioz wrangling his unruly orchestra which looked like something in the style of Grandville.
posted by ovvl at 4:18 PM on March 6, 2012


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