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I'm a bit of a violin enthusiast so the new website of Martin Swan Violins just had to catch my eye. What also caught my eye was a page on his thoughts on buying a violin online, either from a dealer or of course eBay.
As anyone interested in music soon learns, every instrument is different - even similar models from the same production line, once they have seen even just a few months of use.
And where an electric guitar is a just a slab of wood, a violin represents the peak of craftsmanship of the musical instrument maker's art. Indeed, no-one has yet been able to emulate the skill of the greatest of violin makers, Antonio Stradivari, who made somewhere around a thousand violins over his long life, ending some two decades before Mozart was born.
So how could anyone possibly buy a violin online? How would you know that the instrument had the sound and playability that suits your style? Personally, I know I could go through a whole violin store full of instruments and maybe only find one that I almost liked.
Well one way of looking at it is that if you are an 'improving' player, which seems to be a nice polite word for learner, then if you buy a violin of a certain degree of quality, then the aim of your improvement could be to get the best out of that instrument. And this is one area where the role of a reputable dealer, like Martin Swan Violins finds its importance. A reputable dealer will know more about instruments than any player other than a virtuoso, and so you should be able to place a high degree of trust in their recommendation.
But what about eBay? You can't see, handle or hear the goods. So how would you know whether a violin had the qualities you were looking for?
Well one way you can hear the instrument is for the seller to post a clip on YouTube. If you can hear the instrument, then you should be able to tell whether it's any good or not.
But no... not according to Martin Swan:
"It doesn't help to hear a soundfile since the most important factor is always how it sounds under the player's chin, not through a microphone. Microphones vary enormously in frequency response, and no two rooms have the same acoustic ... plus it's the easiest thing in the world to doctor the sound post-recording."
Note my emphasis. Apparently, according to Swan, you can indeed make a cheap fiddle sound like a Stradivarius through audio processing. Well, he doesn't quite make that extent of a claim but I'm sure you see what I mean.
Well if this really were possible, then any home recording enthusiast could hear the Stradivarius sound from his or her monitors, when all that's in front of the mic is a cheap box knocked together in a sweatshop.
Or why spend your money on a fine Martin or Taylor acoustic guitar when you could buy any old cheap instrument and tweak it up?
Well as we all know, it isn't possible to make a cheap instrument sound like an expensive instrument. You can take away a few of the flaws perhaps, but adding actual 'goodness' is a lot more difficult.
What is very easily possible however is to make two instruments coming from the extremes of the quality spectrum sound equally bad. That isn't difficult at all!
So my interpretation of Swan's statement is that you can hear a violin played in a YouTube clip, but you probably won't be any the wiser how good that violin is.
Still, you could always take a chance. If you buy an instrument on eBay and it turns out not to be to your taste, you can sell it on. I did that a few times before I found my current favorite instrument, and I'm still on the hunt for something better.
I'm still waiting for improvements in my playing to put me in the Stradivarius class!