String Making – The Beginnings of a Journey


INTRODUCTION

Up until now, all of my posts have primarily dealt with qin making. My previous post, on my experiences in finishing and French polishing the qin, will be the last one for a while in regards to qin making, as I will focus a bit more on strings and other subjects for the time being. As mentioned in my very first post, this whole website, and much of my involvement with the qin community and opportunities I have had the chance to partake in regarding the qin has been a direct result of my quest into the exploration of qin strings. This post will cover the beginnings of my journey down this road. I am currently in the process of putting together several resource pages that will be dedicated exclusively to string making, including the methods and tools I use, setup, materials properties, and research on the subject. These pages will be located under the main group of Strings n’ Science, located in the top menu. Among these resources also includes pages with microscopic string photographs of all the strings I have collected, made, and tested, as well as general science resources on musical string theory, string making, and the the physics behind vibrating strings, as well as some potential advanced processes for string making such as electrospinning.


THE BEGINNINGS OF A JOURNEY

It all started way back during the time I was making my qin, about a year ago, most specifically, during the buzz checking and final intonation phases of my qin build. In order to get the buzz checking phase right, I needed a full set of strings. I figured since I would be taking them on and off many times, and that I might accidentally damage them having never strung the qin before, I opted to get the cheapest set I could find, an almost “sacrificial set” of strings for finalizing the qin. I found a set of cheap Dunhuang brand metal-nylon strings from Sound of Asia for only $25. When I was first designing my qin, I had originally planned to string it with silk strings. Silk strings were out of the question however at that time, due to cost, and the fact that I could very well ruin them having never dealt with such strings before. I quickly found out that you get what you pay for, and the Dunhuang set I bought was, and still is, the worst set of qin strings I have ever used. However, they served their purpose very well for buzz checking, and later as a set for “destructive testing” and dismantling for my string studies. The set was incredibly stiff, even for metal core strings, and was a bit too short, making stringing a nightmare. Since metal-nylon and silk strings have different tensions, flexibility, and vibration, in order to compensate I did the buzz checking phase with the strings tuned extra low to attempt to simulate silk, which seemed to work very well – even with old and very used silk strings now tuned all the way down to G1, I have almost no buzzing issues.

However, there were several things that troubled me during the process. For one, I could not afford silk then, or even in the near future as I still had expenses for finishing my qin to account for. In addition, silk strings are quite expensive, and though if properly taken care of they can last for many years, if I break a string without a spare I would be screwed, and have to potentially get a whole new expensive set just to replace that one string. Metal-nylon are much cheaper, and though they were very loud and resonant, they were far too metallic sounding on my qin (analysis has revealed that my qin does indeed amplify the range of metallic tones a bit more than usual). I didn’t want to spend all this time designing and perfecting a qin that I was not happy with in tone. Not to mention that my choice to go with a French polished shellac finish would be unusable with metal-nylon strings, which would rapidly wear away and damage the softer finish. I had heard that there were composite strings made of synthetics, like nylon. However, I found that they were nearly impossible for me to find unless I spoke/read Chinese or knew someone who could help me obtain them. The price for them falls between high end metal and silk, but I just could not actually obtain them anywhere, and did not really know anyone yet who could help me. I refused to settle for metal-nylon, but also could not afford silk. So it got me thinking: well, if I can’t find or buy them, then why not just make them myself? After all, I already would spend a total of over half a year making my qin and every aspect of it, so why not do the strings myself as well?

From that moment I started down the path to attempting my own strings. My original intentions were just to make a simple and cheap set of quality, usable qin strings. However, this later evolved into looking at advanced methods, materials, alternatives, and intensive scientific and harmonic analysis of strings. I did not want to make metal core strings, and silk would require years of practice developing my technique with spinning raw silk, not to mention sourcing quality material, and the large investment involved in the material itself and tools necessary. I decided to therefore pursue the still rather underdeveloped road of synthetic string making. While there was already some synthetic strings on the market, such as the popular Longren Binxian strings and several copied variations to them, there really was almost nothing on the process of qin string making, let alone for modern materials and methods, and I heard that their quality and tone still left much to be desired. I also have heard lots of mixed results from qin players on these strings, that often they were too dull sounding compared to silk or even metal core strings.

During my research, I stumbled across an excellent page on John Thompson’s website dedicated  to the process described by modern silk string maker and pioneer Alexander Raykov. A link to the page is here as follows: http://www.silkqin.com/03qobj/strings/raykovstrings.htm. I highly recommend anyone interested in strings, and particularly silk strings, to take a look at this page. It has an incredible wealth of knowledge that is extremely valuable for anyone wanting to explore strings. Going through his notes, as well as other sources here and there that I found, I decided to attempt to adopt the techniques traditionally used for silk with synthetic materials. Essentially, silk strings, at their most basic core, are really just specially made ropes optimized for musical production. The process involves gathering a specific number of fibers, and twisting them under certain conditions, such as tension and whetted, to make thicker sub-strands, and then several of these larger strand are twisted together to make the final string, which is stretched, cooked in glue, dried, and properly prepared. There are two major methods of making them: twisting many fibers to produce a large smooth strand, or the process I described above, to make a more direct, rougher, rope-like structure, where strands are twisted against each other to coil together, as is the process seen in the making of ropes, threads, and yarns. Therefore, why could this process not be used for synthetic materials for musical strings? In addition, there did not appear to be any commercially available strings using purely synthetic that followed this twisted rope structure method for the qin (though they are available for other instruments, notably made from Tetron, a synthetic material which combines polyester and rayon, mainly manufactured by companies such as Marusan Hashimoto in Japan.) In order to make this endeavor successful however, I needed to modify and adapt methods for the material I would be using, as well as source the proper material and understand the basic properties and mechanisms associated with working musical strings for instruments. My next post will dive more into the actual details relating to material selection and the process of making the strings, which I will further expand upon in detail on its own dedicated page. The PDF file at the bottom of the page will illustrate some of these key points, and will make much more sense after my following post in the next few days.


A MEMORABLE YAIJI

By the time I was working on these strings, I had already attended several guqin yaiji events held by the New York Qin Society, and started to become more acquainted with the members of the society, and become more directly involved with the qin outside of my own endeavors. After speaking about my work and research with several members of the group, I was invited to present and share my research and strings that I had made so far. This was an exciting opportunity, and one that was not only a very valuable experience, but a tremendous boost and encouragement to drive me further. The yaiji I attended and presented was the July 9, 2016 Celebrating Qixi and Qiqiao Festival, graciously organized and hosted by Yuni Han at the Chung Dao Tang in upstate NY. You can find more information on the event that day on the New York Qin Society page for the event: http://www.newyorkqin.org/qixiqiqiao/.  I gave a ~45 minute presentation and demonstration on my research, methods, and results so far. At the yaiji, I presented my optimized versions of the seventh qin string, made from both nylon and polyester, compared to another silk seventh string I had purchased from U.S. based silk string maker Lawrence P. Kaster. All of the physical details and analysis of the strings can be found on my pages dedicated to them, with Trial #13 being my nylon seventh string, and trial #16 being my polyester seventh string. There were many people who happened to attend the yaiji that day, and there was a great discussion on qin strings that day. In addition to my presentation, there were many wonderful qin performances by various members of the qin society, as well as traditional archery, and an exceptional bbq and dinner after. It was an excellent and memorable yaiji and experience, and I made many friends that day.

In addition, the yaiji was also extremely valuable in regards to expanding my then limited data on the qin. While I was there, I was generously given the opportunity to set up my test table and recording equipment to take data on several different qin that were brought to the event. I got the opportunity to collect very valuable data on three exceptional qin that day, the results of which can be see in the Guqin Harmonic Analysis Data page, for Sample Qin #1, Sample Qin #2, and Sample Qin #3. This data has proved to be tremendously valuable in my research on the qin and its strings, and will be used to write my articles on qin analysis.

For reference, I have attached my presentation that I gave during the yaiji at the end of this post. It is mainly just materials tables and other pictures, so without talking points or notes you won’t know what was fully discussed in detail during the presentation, but I would be more than happy to answer any questions you may have, or things you would like to discuss if you are interested in the process or work as well. It will be elaborated on in future posts as well.

As an interesting side note, which seems to be a rather large coincidence, only a few months after I gave my presentation at the event, the biggest string maker in Japan, Marusan Hashimoto, announced that they would be releasing a set of twisted-style synthetic qin strings based on tetron-like material (mostly polyester), which would be the first commercial set of this type of string for the qin. I find this rather interesting and coincidental since: 1. they are the biggest string maker in Japan, making strings for all different types of instruments, and have been around for many years, 2. they have made synthetic twisted strings for other instruments such as the shamisen and koto, but had never mentioned such strings being available for the qin prior, 3. such strings have not been made before for the qin, at least that I am aware of, or talked about by anyone on the forums or groups I have visited. Since I joined qin groups such as the New York Qin Society, and the Guqin facebook group, I have actively discussed and pushing forward the potential of twisted core synthetic strings, in addition to sharing my work on the subject with other qin players, qin makers, and string makers. My presentation at the NYQS yaiji further solidified the potential viability of making usable qin strings from very affordable alternative materials, with further customization and tonal potential over the common monofilament core nylon strings. Though it may be unlikely, it would be pretty cool if I ended up being a motivator for releasing these strings (even if they got word and thought I was a potential competitor in the market, which would be completely impossible for me due to the shear time and effort it takes to make only a couple of strings for my current setup, in addition to the fact that I have the desire not to sell strings, but advance the understanding and technology of qin strings further). It is exciting to see that manufacturers may finally be looking into embracing some new and alternative approaches to strings, and I hope this continues to further improve the quality and availability of qin strings, and really hope it propagates to the field of metal core strings, since there is a considerable amount that has not been explored or optimized yet for these types of strings for the qin. Since my goal is not to make money to sell these types of strings, I can be transparent in my work and research, with no “trade secrets” to hide, and am willing to share what I have learned to help dispel the many misconceptions about musical strings that I often find players have in general, and to help further the advancement of these strings and the instrument.


PRESENT WORK

At present, I am in the process of tidying up the remaining bits of data from my first round of data collection and posting them on this site. I am also continuing to write, update, and organize information on this site. I am in the process of preparing to start my first attempts at making Kevlar based twisted core qin strings, as well as looking into over-wrapping techniques for my current nylon and polyester strings, to start attempting the lower strings in the set. I am also actively researching additional methods and materials for string making, including looking into making strings for custom applications, such as extra low tuning-capable qin strings (for playing at standard tuning E1 and even lower), as well as high resonance metal core strings and metal core strings with reduced metallic overtones. In addition, I am looking into alternative methods and materials for improving current metal-core strings, such as looking into different metals for the core, as well as using twisted metal core structures, –  both approaches, as I am aware, have not yet been attempted for qin strings, though can be found quite commonly and readily for many other instruments such as guitars, violins, and cellos. I am also in the process of beginning to work on and develop mathematical and statistical analysis software for analyzing the data I have collected for my strings, and be able to start to provide actual mathematical and scientific data, analysis, and explanations on the timbre of various strings for the qin, as well as the qin itself.


PRESENTATION PDF

engineering-sound-a-look-into-alternative-string-materials-string-making-techniques-and-harmonic-analysis-of-the-qin


FURTHER INFORMATION ON THE PRESENTED EXPERIMENTAL STRINGS

Nylon String Trial #13

Polyester String Trial #16


 

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