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Acoustics Training


What follows is my offer of a new opportunity, which if you are young and passionate about making musical instruments, would merit your close attention.

Acoustical Technology Training

When I began building harpsichords, this business was, as it still is, dominated by the idea that if you make an exact physical copy of an antique harpsichord or violin (the model having been selected because its musical and acoustical properties were generally accepted as being musically superior), then the resulting instrument should sound exactly like the original would have sounded.

Everyone seemed to think that this was a good idea. Yet, when the results of such instrument making were compared to the original instruments, the antiques sounded so much better as to make the copies of them appear acoustically inept, musically incompetent and on the whole, aesthetically mediocre. Apparently, this vast discrepancy didn’t seem to bother anyone but me. A few, not instrument makers but players, knew the difference but still had to play on the new instruments. The reason why this chasm failed to dampen almost everyone’s enthusiasm is that they accepted the conventional wisdom.

That conventional wisdom was that antique instruments were thought to sound better because they are old. Modern instruments were and still are generally acknowledged by connoisseurs to be radically inferior to the antiques…like a faded photograph compared to the real thing. Yet, so many of the ancient instruments are clearly better sounding in every possible way than modern made instruments. The easiest answer as to why is that the antique instruments have had 200 years of aging to improve their sound.

Click here for a Sound Sample of my Blanchet inspired French Harpsichord made in 2008*

Click here for a Sound Sample of my Lautenwerk finished in 2007*

Here, the aging metaphor was being misappropriated, even by famous musicians, from the wine making industry. It is an “explanation of convenience” which seems, as far as I can tell, to have absolved musical instrument makers since the 19th century of the obligation to do anything more than making their instruments by first taking careful measurements of a famous antique “master” instrument and then reproducing those measurements using as similar materials as possible to the original instrument. When the sounds of their instruments didn’t turn out as good as the originals, they rested on the hope, no, the expectation that in 200 years their instruments were going to somehow magically sound absolutely fabulous, like the great antiques sound today. I actually heard this being spouted by several harpsichord makers and violin makers. One even said: “I make as exact a copy of the original as I can. If it doesn’t turn out (sounding as good), it is not my fault.”

This arrogant attitude presumes that the best makers of previous centuries were content with making an instrument, just like instrument makers do today, in the hopes that it would show over time to improve with age until it became a great sounding instrument. What astonished me at the time is how many of my colleagues swallowed this way of thinking hook, line, and sinker. At the time, I instinctively rejected this notion but had no evidence to substantiate my radical view.

Fortunately, a visit to the Russell collection in Edinburgh in 1972 provided me with ample evidence that this notion was false. There, where harpsichords from every period and country could be heard and played, is also where that conventional “wisdom” may be observed to be glaringly wrong. If age is what made a musical instrument good, then instruments made in 1585, clearly, should be that much better sounding than instruments made in 1668…after all, they had over 80 years more to improve…but they are not better! The harpsichord made in 1720 should, by that false reasoning, be better than the one made in 1769. But it is not! Logically, any exception to that notion meant to me that the notion was totally false. That has proved to be the case. And if this notion is totally false, then it makes thinking that it is true to be exceedingly arrogant, because it assumes, without any proof, that the best ancient makers were as clueless and ignorant as most instrument makers since the 18th century.

My visit to the Russell collection revealed to me the following fundamental truth; makers who built the best sounding instruments did so because they knew exactly what they were doing and did everything in their power to make their instruments to sound as wonderful as possible right from the moment the instrument was made. It was nothing magical, nothing having to do with the aging process of wood, no "mini iceage", no "holy" varnish, no mystical intuitive talent of some blessed makers that they were able to build instrument after instrument of exceedingly high quality. Those makers who built the best sounding instruments did so because they mastered acoustics. It is as simple as that.

Click here for a Sound Sample to of a recent Taskin harpsichord*

The consequence of this realization for me was that I understood that there was a body of knowledge and techniques (what I now call Acoustical Technology) which was being applied by those great makers, and which, for whatever reason, was lost. Indeed, that lost knowledge had to be something so ordinary that anyone back then could apply it with more or less success, and that it would have been taken for granted and eventually disappeared; as all that we take for granted wanes and eventually disappears in our cultural "march to progress". This Acoustical Technology was the “common denominator” connecting all musical instrument-making for 400 years prior to 1800…including the making of violins, lutes, guitars, brass and woodwind instruments, harpsichords, organs, clavichords, and pianos. Indeed, those makers whose instruments we most revere today, like Ruckers, Stradivari, Guarneri, Blanchet, Taskin, Cristofori, Amati, Schnitger, Stein, and Graf, were merely the most clever in figuring out and applying what they learned to the making of their instruments. Their less clever associates and colleagues built merely good instruments. Important about this realization is that it also meant that that body of knowledge was learnable. And, it meant that anyone who bothered to look for it in a focused, unsentimental, and mindful manner would have some success in recovering that knowledge.

Click here for a Sound Sample to of a my first fortepiano after Cristofori*

So the question I forced myself to answer was: What exactly were the makers of the great musical instruments of the past doing to make their instruments sound so good? Answering this question as completely as possible, thus far, has taken me 36 years and has required making more than 500 instruments of all kinds, mostly keyboard and bowed stringed instruments. The method I have used for my investigations was not unlike techniques used in Forensic Science.

Forensic Science takes fragments of carefully collected evidence, then analyzes that evidence in order to reconstruct the answers to who did what and when, how they did it, and, in some cases, why. Anyone who studies the antique instruments notices the obvious stuff like layout, materials, dimensions, etc. A forensic science type approach goes several steps further. With this approach one notices, as in hand writing analysis, the human traces of workmanship, aesthetic decisions, and methodologies, and seeks thereby to understand the behavior of the ancient makers. My approach added to these yet one more dimension. It began with one observation about human nature. That is, everything we do is an answer to a question of some kind. Further, every question we pose, either explicitly, implicitly, or covertly, either verbally or nonverbally, arises from an attitude we possess. By starting with that observation, I began with the simplest pieces of evidence to analyze and reconstruct the questions behind that evidence and then to intuit the attitudes that are the cause behind the questions.

From simple observations, working backward, it is possible to deduce the attitudes of those ancient makers. Then, working forwards, from that point, by adopting their attitudes, it is possible to reproduce work that appears and sounds like "brand new antique", as one of my patrons dubbed it. When my results were not exactly like those of the antiques, then I knew that I had not succeeded in rightly deducing the precise attitude behind the phenomenon. Using this method, it took me years of research and experimentation to figure out how the best of the ancient makers thought that resulted in the outstanding quality of sound they were able to produce, instrument after instrument after instrument.

Click here for a Sound Sample of my Violin Opus 424 *

Click here for a Sound Sample of my Violin Opus 425 *

Click here for a Sound Sample of my Violin Opus 426 *

Click here for another Sound Sample of my Violin Opus 426 *

Realizing the value of what I have learned thus far, I feel compelled to make sure that the knowledge that I have gained, at significant personal sacrifice, does not again get lost. For this reason, I am inviting qualified persons to work with me to learn how to apply the Acoustical Technology I have developed and mastered.

Click here for another Sound Sample of that same Blanchet harpsichord*

Now, finding, identifying and training qualified young makers who want to learn and master musical instrument making from an exclusively acoustical point of view is my goal. This is easier said than done. My experience over the last 36 years has made me realize that few musical instrument makers value sound as much as I do, fewer still are willing to pay the price themselves, as I have, to master acoustics. So naturally, I don’t assume that there are actually all that many musical instrument makers who are willing to subject themselves to learning what is required to be able to build great sounding musical instruments.

Nevertheless, I hold that what I do acoustically can be done by anyone willing to learn the techniques and attitudes necessary to apply this Acoustical Technology masterfully. This offer is open to anyone interested in learning this sophisticated yet simple way of realizing a high degree of enhancement in the sound of any musical instrument. However, only those who qualify technically, artistically, musically, and personally will be accepted for instruction. Whomever I undertake to teach the Art and Science of Acoustical Enhancement must be able to successfully apply my acoustical technology to their instruments once they have completed my course of instruction.

Since first making this offer, I have taught my acoustical technology to 4 young men, 2 of whom are violin makers and 2 of whom are instrument makers who are making harpsichords and fortepianos as well as violins, violas and cellos. The following sound samples are of their work. These demonstrate definitively that anyone interested to learn my acoustical technology can do so and do so extremely well.

Here are some sound samples made of a harpsichord made by my fourth Acoustical Technology Trainee, Devin Thomas, his Opus 1, a single manual harpsichord made after the Colmar Ruckers double of 1624--recorded using my recording equipment. This instrument was recently sold. However, Devin is building a Taskin double at the moment which will be for sale at the end of the summer.

The sound samples here made of two violins made by my first violin making Acoustical Technology Trainee, Artiom Sinelnikov, his Opuses 1 and 2, recorded using his mp3 recorder. Both of these instrument sold within the first week during which they became available.

Click here for a Sound Sample of my fourth Acoustical Technology Trainee's harpsichord Opus 1*

Click here for a different Sound Sample of my fourth Acoustical Technology Trainee's harpsichord Opus 1 *

Click here for another Sound Sample of my fourth Acoustical Technology Trainee's harpsichord Opus 1 *

Click here for a Sound Sample of my first violin making Acoustical Technology Trainee's violin Opus 1*

Click here for a Sound Sample of my first violin making Acoustical Technology Trainee's violin Opus 2*

Click here for a Sound Sample of my first violin making Acoustical Technology Trainee's violin Opus 4*

Technical qualifications involve a little experience making musical instruments, skill in use of tools, and skill in drawing or sculpting. Artistic qualifications relate to conceptual abilities, natural cognitive abilities, imaginative skills, and ability to think clearly and cogently about ideas. Musical qualifications have to do with how musical, how technically proficient on an instrument, and how much understanding of music one has. And personal qualifications have to do with age, attitudes, philosophy, intellectual aptitude, and habits, etc. The ability to speak English is also really helpful.

Anyone interested is welcome to contact me by email at pictagoras@aol.com. Use “Interested in Acoustics” in the subject line.

Keith Hill – Instrument Maker

A few years ago,I wrote a 250 page book on the subject of the science of enhancing sound, titled "The True Art of Making Musical Instruments, a Guide to the Forgotten Craft of Enhancing Sound". In it I express my views without consideration of how they might be received, because most that I have learned over the last 33 years about acoustics conflicts with almost everything currently understood as being important concerning the subject of Acoustics. To my knowledge, no other book has ever been written on precisely this subject, though many other instrument makers have been more qualified than myself to offer incontrovertable testimony concerning the Craft of Enhancing Sound, I refer to makers such as Antonio Stradivari, Giuseppi Guarneri, Hans Ruckers, Arp Schnitger, Bartolomeo Cristofori, Pascal Taskin, Francois Blanchet, Johann Stein, Nanette Streicher, and Conrad Graf to name a few. Its contents have been largely rediscovered, reintuited, reinvented, or understood anew by me during the course of making more that 406 harpsichords, clavichords, fortepianos, and violins. Where I owe these makers and other clever researchers a debt of gratitude, I have been quick to acknowledge their contributions. However, to one musical scientist, Marianne Ploger of Ann Arbor, Michigan, I owe far more than a mere acknowledgment. Her discoveries in the area of basic acoustics and hearing perceptions made possible a clear understanding of how the ancient instrument makers thought about dimensioning their soundboards and violin plates. You will find a Table of Contents and accompanying descriptions of the various chapters if you click on the "True Art" button. It is now only available to those whom I choose to train to use my acoustical technology.

My contact information is: Keith Hill - Instrument Maker, 5641 Granny White Pike, Brentwood, Tennessee 37027

My land line phone number is 734-322-3331

My email address is: pictagoras@aol.com

Click here for a Sound Sample of my 6 and one half octave Graf piano*

Click here for a Sound Sample to hear a Chopin Etude on my new 6 octave Cristofori piano