Lute setups: our criteria
LUTE SETUPS: OUR CRITERIAS (with the equivalent realized in synthetic material)
Our philosophy concerning gut stringings (but also their synthetic equivalents) for the lute family and 5 course guitars is simple: to reproduce, as far as possible, the ‘typical’ sounds of historic instruments as they were in use considering the generalacoustic behaviours of gut strings.
This task has obviously its limitations, set both by our limited knowledge of ancient stringmaking technologies and by the fact that the lute (taking the 6 course as starting point) went through very different fashions and developments all along its long history.
Sill, within those limitations, research in the field of historic stringmaking made some important progress in recent years and, although we cannot claim we know exactly what the sound of the dolce strumento was like (a speculative point rather than a concrete one, anyway, since there must have been different opinions among lutenists in the past, too), we can fairly confidently define the acoustical region, common to all lutes, which was imposed by the stringmaking technologies of the past.
First of all, let us rule out the materials whose sound definitely cannot match the characteristic sound qualities of the lute:
- PVDF (called‘Carbon’ from musicians) strings: much too bright in comparison with any type of gut string.
- Nylon: produces a somewhat duller and darker sound than gut.
- Nylgut: thin strings sound very close to gut just on the thinner gauges, but does not quite compare by increasing diameters. In short gut strigs became warmer and with a shorter sustain than Nylgut strings
- Wound on Nylon multifilament: almost all the strings of this type are much too bright and possess too much sustain – the opposite of what revealed by research on 18th century wound strings, which were fundamental-heavy and needed octaves for brightness, and had limited sustain.
And then let’s consider some other parameters pertaining to the sound of the lute:
- Working string tension: today’s criteria, when working out lute stringings, rarely follow the idea of feel of equal stiffness on every course, like advocated by the ancients. The modern rule is, in general, to calculate the string diameters by applying the same tension, expressed in kilograms, to each string (this criterion is first described by Maugine & Maigne ‘Nouveau manuel complet du luthier’ in Paris, 1869) and completely ignores the variability of some typical factors, such as the different amount of reduction of the string diameters under working tension and how different strings of different manufacture and/or length feel under the fingers.
- Octave strings: the modern tendency is to apply a noticeably lower tension than on their respective fundamental strings (Virdung, 1511 seem to suggest that the diameter of the octave string should be half that of its fundamental).
- Trebles: when single strung, modern tendency is to apply too low a tension, giving an unbalanced feeling between the treble and the other courses. We should consider here that the feel of tension -under the fingers of the right hand- of the 1st -that is single- is done in comparation with the other strings that are, generally speacking, paired.
- Stringing criteria: the principle of grouping the strings into three well defined Sorts (like advocated in the old treatises, in Trebles, Meanes and Basses) is usually ignored. Thus, we often see strings of one Sort invading the field of another, thus altering the timbric and dynamic balance of the instrument (wound strings on the 4th course, wound long diapasons &c).
In conclusion: the acoustical qualities of today’s lutes are, in general, remarkably brighter and have more sustain in the bass and, because of the wound strings, also in the mid-register, thus failing to achieve the timbric and dynamic homogeneity we believe was typical of the past.
At the top end, trebles can be much brighter (PVDF or so called‘Carbon’) or duller (Nylon) than gut. We have created a new sound that doesn’t have very much in common with that of the past.
No criticism at all on this choice: the lute can well be played like this, too.