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What does set up mean?

What does set up mean?

One of the questions we are (quite rightly) asked frequently is about set-up, but what does it mean?

Perhaps a few preliminary comments would be in order. Violins (most of them, anyway) are made of wood. If you have any wooden structures at home that are not protected from the elements, just think what happens to them during a year. One of my hobbies is cat breeding and I have outdoor pens to house the stud cats. At certain times of the year, the door of one of these pens will open by itself when I release the bolt and I have to be careful not to let the cats escape. At other times of the year, not only does the door not open by itself but I actually have to kick it in order to make it open. It’s the same door. This is simply the behaviour of a natural material (wood) in different levels of humidity. When the humidity is high, wood expands. When the humidity is low, it contracts.

Now consider the fact that, at least until you get into instruments costing thousands of pounds, the violins sold in the UK are not actually made in the UK. Even if they were, we know from weather forecasts, news reports and so on, that humidity can vary dramatically in different parts of the country, and even in the same part of the country from one year to another (when I moved here in 1995 there were water tankers driving along the country roads carrying the label “water for Halifax” because in Yorkshire it had not rained for weeks and the water had run out)

The good news (yes, there is some!) is that humidity changes actually have a very positive effect on the tone of a stringed instrument. Many times, I have found a violin buried deep in the storeroom that has been there for two or three years, and it sounds much better than a new one even though it has not been played. Once I found one that sounded really awful when I abandoned it in the heap (no it wasn’t a Gliga). Eventually, perhaps five years later, it sounded great.

The bad news is that there are two things in particular that are going to be affected by humidity changes (actually, three things, because bows are affected too, the length of the bow hair changes according to what happens to the stick in different humidities. I haven’t yet quite worked out what happens, but I know it does happen). First, and perhaps least important on a day to day basis, the soundpost. That is held in place purely by tension and if the tension is too low it will collapse. But it’s made of wood and it is between two plates of wood. If it fits perfectly in one humidity, it may well be either too loose (and therefore collapse) or too tight in another humidity.

Third – and this one really is an annoyance – the tuning pegs. The tuning pegs are made of wood (unless you choose to have composite pegs fitted, but this adds to the cost of course). The pegbox is also made of wood. In high humidity, the peg expands and at the same time the wood surrounding the peg hole expands so that the hole becomes smaller. So you have a peg that is a very tight fit and difficult to turn (hint – don’t try to force it, it might break. Just turn a hairdryer onto the peg for a couple of minutes, leave to cool, try again, repeat if necessary). In low humidity the reverse happens and the peg is too loose so it keeps slipping. The quick fix to that is to push the peg in further – pegs are tapered so that works – the problem is that when the humidity increases the peg is then going to be tight.

I honestly don’t see how this scenario can be avoided, given that we don’t have a climate where the humidity is constant. I was trained to tune using pegs alone and my first viola had the pegs refitted precisely because of this problem. It didn’t improve things much, and why would it? If the pegs work in one humidity they aren’t going to work in another, about the best that can be hoped for, surely, is that they are fitted to the humidity level you would typically be playing in. I certainly don’t see how any maker overseas could hope to have the tuning pegs fitted for optimum performance in another country.

The good news is that for most players reading this, the chances are that you will be using strings that are very stable, or you will be using adjusters (fine tuners). Either of those things will solve the problem, as will composite or geared pegs. If you’re using gut strings without adjusters (which is as they should be used) then getting the very best peg set up you can would certainly be worth your while – get it done locally so that there is at least some chance of the humidity being comparable. But accept the fact that you will have to push the pegs in in the summer and pull them out in the winter (assuming you have central heating)

The pegs don’t actually affect the tone of the instrument, of course. What does affect it – and the effect is huge – is the bridge. Basically any change you make to a bridge will have an effect. If you have a lower bridge it will be easier to play in higher positions but the dynamic range of the instrument will be reduced. A thinner bridge means a brighter tone, so does a harder bridge. Bridges do wear and if you don’t remember to pull the top of the bridge back every time you tune using the pegs, eventually the bridge will become so bent that it looks as if it is about to break in half. I knew one conservatoire graduate whose bridge was always like this but she just took the line that it hadn’t broken yet and she could still play perfectly well, which was true.

Finally, planing the fingerboard to remove any bumps can make life easier and may be necessary if there are any buzzes (this is more of an issue if the bridge is low, and a cynic could say that the reason certain beginner instruments are supplied with such a high bridge is in order to avoid these buzzes)

Which, if any, of these issues should you address? Well that’s up to you. My view would be to leave well alone until you become aware of a problem – a new instrument will take a few months to settle anyway and things can change during that period of time. Some shops make a point of selling instruments with a high level set up to start with. That’s fine but of course the cost of that has to be factored into the price. Certainly a shop is likely to charge more for setting up a violin they did not sell than they are to set up a violin sold by them in the first place. Whether it is worth the extra or not is really a decision to make, in conjunction with your teacher, considering also things like whether the resale value is important (a Stentor student violin sold used with a high level set up is still a Stentor student violin)

Finally, what do I do?  Just the basics, normally.  Lubricate the pegs, and the grooves on the nut and bridge.  Restring and fit adjusters (or a Wittner tailpiece if you prefer).  Shave the pegs if necessary (or even if you prefer it).  Anything different such as Pusch tailpiece or geared pegs can be done at cost, though frankly if I have any more hours of screaming frustration trying to fit a Pusch tailpiece, I might reconsider the "at cost" part!