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RETUNING THE PLATES OF A CELLO

A. Thomas King
10908 Rock Run Drive
Potomac, Md. 20854

In 1959 my parents bought me my first "high quality" cello. It


was a Mittenwald instrument made the previous year. It was
somewhat stiff playing, and the lower end was thin; but it
seemed good for the price, and we expected that it would
improve with some age and playing. Unfortunately, it never did.
The tone remained thin and rather metallic, with little bass.
On occasions, when I performed during college, I was asked to
borrow another instrument because the director thought the
sound was so poor.

A few years ago I finally had enough money to look for a better
instrument and bought a lovely new cello made by Julian Emery.
I put my old one for sale on consignment where it stayed for
two years. Last Spring I decided that I had little to lose and
would regraduate the cello as my project in Carleen Hutchins
violin making seminar.

After it was taken apart - no mean feat because it was held


together with white glue and a triumph for Bob Spear who did
this for me - I used the shaker table to determine the modal
frequencies. For the belly they, were mode #2, 81Hz and mode
#5, 146Hz. For the back: mode #2, 70Hz and mode #5, 156Hz.
Obviously there were neither octaves nor any matches in the
modes. Also, they were much higher than Carleen thought they
should be.

After a long, tedious process of scraping the plates, I was


able to bring the modes into better relationships. For the belly the final frequencies were - mode
#2, 57Hz, mode #5, 123Hz. For the back, mode #2 , 58Hz and mode #5, 140Hz. Carleen felt1 pleased
that modes #2 matched well, and we left mode #5 high in the
back simply because it remained stubbornly high, and we did not
want to thin the back too much. The contour lines for the
instrument are as shown in Figure 1 right. The asymmetry in
the middle of the back exists because of some problems with the
original thicknesses. Before putting the instrument back
together, I scraped the ribs down to 1.4 - 1.5 mm from the
original 1.8 - 2.0 mm.

The reassembled instrument is a joy to play. The bass is rich


and full; the treble is sweet and not nasal. The instrument
projects very well and is easy to play. Repeatedly, I have had
people complement the tone after hearing just the open strings
as I tune. In a way, that comment is the nicest possible
because it means I have taken an instrument that people once
urged me not to play and have converted it into one that
instantly commands admiration.
Figure 1 after
rethicknessing

Before tuning Mode 2 Mode 5


Belly 81 Hz 146 Hz
Back 70 Hz 156 Hz
After Tuning
Belly1 57 Hz 123 Hz
Back1 58 Hz 140 Hz

1
Carleen recommends ideally Mode 2 = 60 to 65 Hz and Mode 5 = 120 to 130 Hz.