In the March 2023 issue, luthier Andrew Carruthers takes us through his latest project, to make instruments inspired by forms in the natural world. Here he demonstrates the sound quality of his ’X’ and ‘O’ violins, tthe ‘Tabolin’ and the ‘Ripple cello’     

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After making two ‘Off-Beat violins’ which sounded good, I started to wonder how far I could push this surface carving before it actually did interfere with the  normal function of the violin. So I designed a pair of violins based on Chladni patterns. These are shapes that can be revealed when objects are vibrated at different frequencies. Two of them, one shaped like an ‘X’ and one shaped like an ‘O’,  have been used by some makers in the course of refining their tops and backs. Surprisingly, though, both of the finished instruments seemed to sound pretty normal. To demonstrate this I had  my friend Ivy Zenobi do a sound comparison demonstration between three Off-Beat violins and one regular (all are Del Gesu models). You can hear the comparisons here:

The next fiddle, the Tabolin, was another tonal experiment. My basic concept in violin design is that the instrument should be strong in the middle, so that it doesn’t collapse, and thin in the upper and lower bouts so that they can vibrate freely and produce more sound. My idea was to see how far I could push this concept.

There’s a limit to how thin you can go with wood, but other materials are both thin and strong. I made a violin with drum skin panels in the upper and lower bouts. I made a range of a range of sizes of these panels which can be individually tuned by adding weights (I used magnets) to the panels. These weight-tuned panels resembled the head of a tabla drum, hence  the name ‘Tabolin’. By changing the weight combinations and placements, the tone of the instrument can quickly be changed. The Tabolin sounded best with some weights, but not too many.

The most recent project is also based in acoustics but this time is a visualisation of sound waves.  The transference of energy from system to system, through different mediums is fundamental to both violin making and music making. I am fascinated by the thought that there are waves of different sorts passing through us at all times, causing everything around us to vibrate. The Ripple cello was a commission and creative collaboration with SF Bay area songwriter/cellist Mia Pixley who wanted an instrument to complement her ’percussive cello’ playing style. We talked about various themes for the instrument and the idea of waves and ripples resonated with both of us.  

The Ripple Cello imagines waves originating somewhere outside the cello and causing it to undulate as they pass through.  The ripples that precede the waves have been used in the upper bout, to form a güiro or washboard area on the cello, bringing a new sound to cello playing! The design also features ‘raindrops’ floating atop the waves and passing through each other unaffected. Because the Ripple cello was such a large time investment with so many unknowns, I built a prototype, the Ripple Fiddle, to test out ideas. Here are both instruments being played: