Timber timbre: the forest, the fiddler & the science around the strings.


Our acoustics expertise features on BBC Radio 3 as it traces the journey of the violin sound.

“It’s very easy to play in here, and satisfying at the same time,” says violinist Christian Garrick, referring to the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, which has nurtured the talent of globally renowned musicians since 1859. “It’s not overly wet, it’s very controlled; there’s no tendency for sound to run away with itself. It’s had a lot of time and expense spent on it to get to this point and it’s obviously a successful space; very enjoyable.”

In 2017, when the music school’s incredible new acoustic spaces enjoyed a rapturous opening night, our engineering expertise was one of the stars of the ensemble. Key to the project, one of our acousticians – Michael Whitcroft – talked to Radio 3’s Martin Handley, who was prompted by the rediscovery in his grandparents’ loft of the 1830s English violin he played as a boy (bird’s eye maple and conifer, according to dendrochronologist and violin maker Peter Ratcliff), to trace the provenance of a violin. In the process, they examine the engineering behind timbre and sound in performance.

The programme looks at the alchemy of the stringed instrument, balanced “on the edge between science and magic” – from the felling of the Bavarian forest timber that it is fashioned from, to the hands of a world-class player surrounded by the rich, nature-led acoustics of a state-of-the-art, sonically optimised concert venue where a laminate of birch plywood is the dominant material.

A tree goes through many stages to become a beautiful sounding musical instrument. But why does it sound as it does and what part do the acoustics of performance spaces play in the end result?

At the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, wood ‘speaks’ to wood, says Christian Garrick, and, argues Michael Whitcroft, it engages us too. “I see wood as an integral ingredient… We’ve a natural connection with wood… in our souls really. It has to be there in some form.

“Wood naturally has a warmth and a softness to it and when you are designing any space acoustically, whether it’s a small hall or a large hall, it’s a case of balancing the various ingredients,” he says of our Acoustic team’s work on the venue, where “wood is king”. Their range of laminate elements, given a lacquer and arranged in a particular pattern over three levels up to four metres high, was specifically designed to diffuse rather than scatter sound; spreading it out in space as well as time.

But it’s about appealing to more than just the auditory. “It’s also about the aesthetic; the way it looks, and speaks to our eyes,” says Michael. “There are all sorts of psychoacoustic elements going on that you just cannot switch off from, and it’s all part of the theatre of it; the art, the science, the engineering. The combination of all those elements.”

Listen to the full programme here