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Photo by Chris Casella
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Photo by Chris Casella
Photo by Chris Casella

Instrumental Collaboration

Every great piece of music requires partnership, among musicians, producers, songwriters, and even the audience at times. But the most overlooked collaborators are the people who make the instruments, an oft-unseen but essential alliance. Here, we delve into the art of creating the tools of the trade with four local craftsmen who make music possible.

Violin : The Classic

“A lot hasn’t changed in the last 400 years,” said David Schlub, owner of The Loft Violin Shop, “but what I think has changed is the student violins today – the $500-$1,000 violins – are probably better instruments now than student violins have ever been in the last 200 years.”

To attract students to his stringed instruments, he showed off a selection of modern bows, featuring horsehair strings dyed bright colors. Other than that tweak, though, much of the Clintonville shop felt unchanged by time. The store holds a wealth of gleaming instruments – violins around every corner – and the woodworking space in the rear smelled of glue, varnish and fresh sawdust.

The Loft’s artisans do nearly everything by hand, crafting and restoring instruments. Each violin requires between 200 and 400 hours from scratch, and they range in price from $500 to $30,000. Schlub was proud of the shop’s history and wasn’t worried about the threat of modern digital instruments.

“If you need a synthesizer to simulate a violin, then you need a violin.”

For more, visit www.theloftviolinshop.com.

 

Synthesizer: Modern Built

On to the mainstream portion of the spectrum – the synthesizer. A local team, Kevin Holland and John Staskevich, released a new model called the NTH Synth via Kickstarter in 2012. Its broad utility was encapsulated by two videos from customers: one, an avant-garde classical ensemble using it to create ambient textures; two, a toddler, twisting knobs and sliding controls to make an amateur sonic composition.

“Those two pieces of feedback right there kinda solidified that maybe we were on the right track with our original intent – something interesting to an expert and to a beginner,” said Holland, who runs a music studio with his wife.

The NTH was designed to tie every function to a specific knob, slider, or button, so that novices wouldn’t be intimidated by complex menus. It was also made to be open-sourced and hackable so that professionals could tweak every aspect of the machine and even build their own versions. Since the release of the NTH, which was sold all around the globe, the pair also produced the one-knob Luminth (“a modern music box”) and the iOS Snowchime app (“a sound toy”). The men are both open to making their part-time digital music venture into a full-time business, but for now they just enjoy creating.

“Nobody else is gonna build this, right?” said Staskevich, an electronics designer by day, pointing to the sleek NTH.  “It’s satisfying to bring something into the world that wouldn’t exist otherwise.”

For more, visit nthsynth.com.

Mountain Dulcimer: The American Oddity

Like the violin, the mountain dulcimer has deep roots, although it has generally existed further outside the mainstream. It originated in the Appalachians of the 18th or 19th century.

“There’s only two truly American instruments, and that would be the mountain dulcimer and the Native American whistle,” said Steven Stapleton, a local craftsman who makes dulcimers, psalteries, and thumb pianos. He was drawn to the dulcimer in 2004 because he wanted to learn to play the fairly easy instrument, and having worked with wood since the 1980s, he began producing his own in his home shop.

Over the years, the semi-retired systems engineer has refined his craft, selling dulcimers for $140-$500, mostly at folk music festivals around the region. He said that the key to making a great instrument is in the quality and type of wood. Curly maple and cherry sound bright; walnut provides deeper tones; mahogany is mellow. Stapleton uses this knowledge to customize instruments for professional musicians who want to harness specific sounds.

He produces a couple dozen most years, motivated by kinship with the musicians and the enjoyment of constructing the instruments by hand.

For more, visit www.stapletonwoodcrafts.com.

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