SILVER, GOLD, PLATINUM - AND THE SOUND OF THE FLUTE
This article is
based on data from the diploma thesis of Renate Linortner, and the paper is available
in its entirety for download in PDF (Acrobat Reader) format. The following shorter
version is concerned with dynamic and timbre differences only. The
complete PDF version
(only in german)
contains further data on alloys and material analysis of metals used in existing
The discussion on the influence of the material of wind instruments on the sound color is unending. While acousticians speak mostly of a negligible influence, players are convinced that the material highly influences the color of the radiated sound. This paper reports on experiments done with 7 different flute materials and 110 testpersons, where the price of the instruments is between € 3,000.- and € 73,000.- (!). Double blind tests and statistical analysis showed players‘ and listeners´stereotyped ideas on that matter and the non-recognizability of the used material. Sound analysis pointed out big differences in the sound level and sound color of played tones caused by the player and just measurable but not perceivable differences (< 0,5 dB) in sound color caused by the material.
The role that the
wall material plays in determining the tone quality of flutes has long been a
subject of argument. Laboratory measurements of sustained tones in artificially
blown wind instruments made by J. Backus in the 1960’s [1,2] generally showed no
evidence that the wall material has an appreciable effect. But players and
instrument makers didn’t accept these results because of the fact that the
instruments were artificially blown. Therefor J. W. Coltman worked out an
experiment with flutes made of three different materials (silver, copper and
wood) and with different wall thickness. They were blown by the author himself
and four different professional flutists . The experiment was completed by
listening test with 27 observers. The result of statistical analysis was that
“no evidence has been found that experienced listeners or trained players can
distinguish between flutes . . . whose only difference is the nature and
thickness of the wall material of the body, even when the variations in the
material and thickness are very marked.” Nevertheless instrument makers, players
and listeners continue to insist that the nature of the wall material does
indeed have an effect on the instruments’sound. Perhaps, from the point of view
of flutists, there is a stigma attached to J. Coltmans´ experiment: the flutes
where built especially for this experiment and without any keywork.
A silver coated, full silver, 9 carat gold, 14 carat gold, 24 carat gold, platinum coated and all-platinum flute was played by 7 professional flutists (members of Viennese orchestras including the Vienna Philharmonic orchestra) in an anechoic chamber. The recorded sound material: a chromatic scale over 3 octaves (c4-c7) instruction: convenient forte, a crescendo up to fff and a decrescendo up to ppp on the single notes a4, f5, d6 and bb6, the famous solo from Carmen (Bizet) and the solo of the 1st Symphony of J. Brahms.
The sound material was analyzed and prepared for a listening test with 15 experienced professional flute players including the seven test players. An additional opinion survey was done on the question of the influence of the material on the sound, response and if there is any relationship between the wall material and the soundcolor of a flute with 111 persons.
A good estimation of the influence of the player and the material on the radiated sound gives an RMS of the played chromatic scale. Differences are rather seen between the players whilst those between the instruments are extremely small. This implies that flute players can realise their subjective imagination of “a good sounding” to a far extent independently of the instrument.
Fig. 4: Soundlevel of the played chromatic scale (seven players with seven flutes)
A common stereotype is that full Platinum flutes provide the the player with a
larger dynamic range.
Fig. 5: Dynamic range of each instrument (four notes, seven players)
Dynamic range of the indivudual players
Quite different is the situation if one looks at the individual dynamic range of
the players. The obtained dynamic range is between 7 dB and
19.6 dB. The figure shows the mean values for each player, all instruments and
the notes a4, f5, d6 and bb6. The highest obtained dynamic is four times as much
as the lowest.
Fig. 6: Individual dynamic range of each player (four notes played with all flutes)
Tab.1: Absolute dynamic values for each note: mean values of seven players
Fig. 7: Mean spectrum for the seven flutes
The sound examples below give an idea about the influence of the material. One player plays a note with all flutes. The sequence is: silver coated, full silver, 9 carat, 14 carat, 24 carat gold, platinum coated and all platinum.
The mean spectra for each player show the opposite situation (differences up to 7 dB, Fig. 8).
Fig. 8: Sound differences, mean spectrum for seven players on one instrument
There were two tests made: in TEST A,
the Carmen solo and the Brahms solo was presented (from a CD), at first from
Player 1 with all instruments, then Player 2 with all instruments and so on. The
test persons had to guess the instrument. The result was interesting: no
instrument was identified correctly. The best value was that for the 24 k Gold
flute: only 22% of the test persons identified it as a 24 k Gold flute. Whereas
the wrong allocations had much higher values: 34% identified the Platinum flute
as a 9 k Gold flute (only 6.8% identified it correctly) and 32% thought that the
14 k Gold flute is the Platinum flute (11.3% were right)!
full silver flute
carat gold flute
carat gold flute
carat gold flute
platinum coated flute
TEST B, we tried another approach: the test persons listened to one instrument
played by all players. They had to describe the sound color and to guess the
instrument/material. Then the next instrument played by all players was
presented, and so on. Only one instrument (the all-silver flute) was identified
correctly, with all other instruments the confusion was perfect! For instance:
the 9 k gold flute was mainly misinterpreted as an all-silver instrument, the 14
k gold flute was identified as the platinum instrument and the silver coated
instrument was assigned to all instruments (with each instrument at least one
test person thought that it is the silver-coated instrument).
expected, the most significant assigned expressions for all instruments were the
“contradictionary expressions”: for example, the sound color of each instrument
was evaluated as “bright” and simultaneously as “dark” or “full/round” and
Tab. 2: Subjective appraisal of the sound quality of the test instruments
with experienced professional flutists and listeners and one model of a flute
made by Muramatsu from 7 different materials showed no evidence that the wall
material has any appreciable effect on the sound color or dynamic range of the
instrument. The common stereotypes used by flutists and flute makers are exposed
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