Do vibrations to the soundboard improve tone?

kissing

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Spinning off from the recent debate that occurred in the Tonerite topic, I am seriously wanting to know whether anyone could plausibly explain the physics behind the old adage that instruments improve in sound from constant playing, since the 'vibrations' of being played improve the properties of the tonewood in some way.

The appeal of devices like "Tonerite" ( https://www.tonerite.com/ ) is that it applies vibrations to the instrument's string and wood to improve the sound as though it's a vintage instrument "played in" for many hours.

Full disclosure, I'm very skeptical about this phenomenon because I've yet to see a line of reasoning that can explain it.

A few words from my perspective to start the discussion:

The wooden top of ukuleles is a rigid albeit springy material.
The properties are like a diving board. It will spring and vibrate when some force is applied, but return more-or-less to its original form when the vibrations stop.

In order to change the overall property of how this wood behaves musically, one needs to alter the wooden structure using the vibrations.
I'd argue that if vibrations were strong enough to cause a change in wood structure, it will destroy the instrument.

I think wooden instruments do experience some change with the passing of time. Wood retains moisture, and over time the moisture content changes depending on the environment. Hence, this might be what is perceived as instruments 'opening up' with time.
I'd argue this occurs somewhat independently to how much an instrument is played/vibrated.

Some have brought up testing and experimentation.
I think it would be very difficult to test it reliably; especially given that no two instruments are completely identical and the sound of an instrument depends on many factors; both physical and psychological. If scientifically rigorous tests have been conducted or have been planned, please let me know. I'd be interested to know more.

Some have presented anecdotal accounts as a significant piece of evidence that this works. However, I'd argue that there are significant anecdotal evidences for many things we don't consider proven; including homeopathy and other placebo-based remedies, astrology and ghost sightings. I don't think anecdotes alone are sufficient to prove whether something is likely to be true. Anecdotal evidence must be paired with solid scientific reasoning to form a plausible theory or hypothesis.

I do believe that the physical concepts involved are relatively simple enough to discuss on a theoretical level.

In my view, in order for playing-in or vibrations to improve an instrument's tone, there has to be something to do with these long term vibrations causing permanent and irreversible change to the structure of the wood, coincidentally in a way that specifically improves musical sound.

Currently I find this rather implausible considering the nature of solid wood as discussed, and entropy.

Any thoughts?
 
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TopDog

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I have always been sceptical about ukuleles (or any stringed instrument) 'opening up' with continual playing. Like you, I cannot see any logical reason for this to occur. I think what happens to many players is,that the more they play a certain instrument,they grow accustomed to it's quirks and variations as compared to a different instrument; as some folk find the more they drive, the more confident they feel as a driver, so the more you play 'that' instrument, the more confident your playing becomes. More comfortable. Better muscle memory,maybe, on that particular fretboard?
 

kkimura

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Having not studied the nature of tone wood structure in stringed instruments I can only apply general logic to this question.
First, either a ToneRite changes the instrument or it doesn't. If it doesn't change the instrument then what is being heard as improvement is due to some kind of placebo effect.
Second, if it does change the instrument then logically speaking the change could be good or bad and users would be reporting both positive and negative results unless the ToneRite has a mechanism to evaluate the instrument and then decide how to effect the "change" so that the instrument improves. I don't know if the ToneRite manufacturer claims that capability.
Lacking the evidence of both positive and negative reports along with the strong probability that a ToneRite just vibrates without a mechanism to detect the "tone state" of the instrument under treatment, we are again left with a placebo effect.

B.T.W.
I'm perfectly happy with a positive placebo effect. For me perception is reality.
 
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merlin666

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Maybe there is a a way if significant CHANGES to sound as a response to excessive vibration can be measured in a scientific way. If these potential changes are an improvement is a completely different topic.

The more important question may be why someone would think that their uke needs "improvement", keeping in mind that pretty much any changes made can also lead to a perceived worsening. Though psychology suggests that people who put effort into improvements also perceive the outcome as favourable, even when there are no measurable changes.
 
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Veritas99

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Maybe there is a a way if significant CHANGES to sound can be measured in a scientific way. If these changes are an improvement is a completely different topic.

Doesn’t Tusq put out a sound analysis to show how its saddles compares to bone? It seems like there should be a way to do this same sort of comparison for a uke pre and post Tonerite treatment.
 

Brad Bordessa

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If someone actually wants to test this, I've been using a handy piece of software called REW to measure my room for audio mixing: http://www.roomeqwizard.com/. Seems like you could configure it to measure the change in response of an ukulele. Perhaps with an SBT pickup in an ukulele placed right in front of a speaker? Or with the uke directly between the speaker and a mic. There's a waterfall view that displays decay time, which I imagine would be most helpful for viewing the resonance.

I get the impression this is kind of a big deal to the OP. Why not just buy one and test it? Seem like you'd get more than $150 worth of satisfaction having some definitive numbers to prove or disprove its effectiveness.
 

Cluze

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Had a long reply.

Editor screwed it up.

My try to re-submit. May give up.
 

Wiggy

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Cluze: Try creating your text in another editor, then copy/paste it here.

I hope this helps.

-W
 

Cluze

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Cluze: Try creating your text in another editor, then copy/paste it here.

I hope this helps.

-W

Oh, I know. That is what I usually do and what I should have done. But I was lazy and didn't do that this time. It was a lengthy post and I don't quite it in my to re-type it right now. Perhaps later.
 

Cluze

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Ok, this is my second (third?) attempt at this. This time I *will* type it up offline, and then paste it into the forum.

Let me start with some caveats:

- I disagree with some of the suppositions that the OP has made.
- I am not a materials scientist. I am a physicist (astrophysicist to be precise, not condensed matter) so I do have some experience with sifting through research papers.
- I have spent some time sifting through some of the research in this area, but not a lot of time. I am just scratching the surface at this point.
- I don't own nor have I used a Tonerite.

I started my journey down the rabbit hole of this topic by looking at the 2006 paper by Wegst in the American Journal of Botany titled "Wood for Sound." (It was recommended to me by another forum member during a discussion unrelated to the topic at hand.) From that paper:

Common beliefs are that regular playing and aging of wood improve the acoustical properties of musical instruments, that instruments that are exhibited in museums rather than played lose their quality, that "old fiddles sound sweeter," and that new ones need to be "played-in." Humidity and creep are believed to play an important role in this. Hunt and Balsan (1996) show experimentally that regular playing at intermediate or high humidities leads to an increase in stiffness and a decrease in loss coefficient. Beavitt (1996) presents experimental evidence to support his hypothesis that creep facilitated by humidity cycling results in changes in the overtone spectrum of the instrument, making it sound more sonorous and resonant. Segerman (1996, 2001) claims that creep in newly strung instruments affects the sound as it absorbs sound vibrations and that vibrations accelerate creep and thus help a newly strung instrument to settle in faster. Other research shows that the gradual decomposition and loss of hemicellulose with time lowers a wood’s density without affecting its Young’s modulus (Bucur, 2006). This avenue is being pursued further in current research to "age" soundboard wood by infecting it with a carefully selected fungus to lower the density at a constant Young’s modulus and thereby improving the sound radiation coefficient and quality of the soundboards (Zierl, 2005).

Further research on the "playing-in" and ageing of musical instruments is required to explain conclusively the various observed phenomena in terms of the chemical, structural, and mechanical properties of wood and the environment to which it is exposed.​

A phenomena which is reference here is "creep", or more technically called "deformation creep" is a specific engineering term that describes how a material stretches while under tension. I will also note that I did try to track down most of the references in that snippet above. Several of them are proving difficult to find, as they are either not available online or are behind a paywall.


Wood, as a material, is conceptually simple, yet surprisingly complex. As Wegst put it earlier in the paper:

One feature that sets wood apart from most manmade materials is that it is an orthotropic material, meaning that it has unique and independent mechanical properties in the directions of three mutually perpendicular axes: longitudinal, radial, and tangential.​

And:

Wood is primarily composed of hollow, slender, spindle-like cells, that are arranged parallel to each other along the trunk of a tree. The microscopic properties of the individual cells such as their composition and structure, their physical and mechanical properties, and their shape and connectivity determine the overall performance of wood.​

Wood is mostly composed of three things; cellulose microfibrils, lignin, and hemicellulose. The shape of, orientation of, and the bonds between the cells of the wood are what give rise to the variety of strength and hardness we see in different types of wood.

And it is these bonds which may offer some insight into the mechanism by which the Tonerite supposedly operates. Weakening or even breaking some of the bonds between the cells can physically alter how the material responds to vibrations and (at least in theory) alter the tone. This may sound concerning, as it could also weaken the material to the point of failure. But an additional reference (in one of the many papers, articles, and posts I read, but can't specifically recall at the moment) suggested that these sorts of bonds are hydrogen bonds and can re-form with changes in temperature and/or moisture (humidity.) Just because the wood is no longer alive does not mean that it isn't still undergoing changes on a microscopic level.

The idea in the preceding paragraph may also explain the idea that an instrument can "go to sleep" if it isn't played regularly. This concept wasn't really something I was familiar with, but I did find numerous mentions of it on several guitar forums during my searching about.

Is this all a bit hand-wavy? Yes, it certainly is. But the Tonerite does make some claims that are testable. Even without an underlying theoretical framework, it can be tested. That is the true beauty of the scientific method. It does not care what you believe, only what you can test.

And that is why I don't believe in the validity of homeopathic medicine or astrology. It isn't simply that they don't have plausible mechanism of actions. It is that they are testable, have been tested, and have failed those tests repeatedly.

EDIT: Wording.
 
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rainbow21

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I am glad I did not give in to temptation and post an opinion after reading the posts from Bill1 and Cluze. This brings to mind the "Peanuts" Sunday comic strip where I relate best to Charlie Brown: (imagine the characters lying on a grassy hillside looking up at the sky)

Lucy Van Pelt: Aren't the clouds beautiful? They look like big balls of cotton. I could just lie here all day and watch them drift by. If you use your imagination, you can see lots of things in the cloud's formations. What do you think you see, Linus?
Linus Van Pelt: Well, those clouds up there look to me look like the map of the British Honduras on the Caribbean.
[points up]
Linus Van Pelt: That cloud up there looks a little like the profile of Thomas Eakins, the famous painter and sculptor. And that group of clouds over there...
[points]
Linus Van Pelt: ...gives me the impression of the Stoning of Stephen. I can see the Apostle Paul standing there to one side.
Lucy Van Pelt: Uh huh. That's very good. What do you see in the clouds, Charlie Brown?
Charlie Brown: Well... I was going to say I saw a duckie and a horsey, but I changed my mind.
 

kkimura

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Sometimes when I sneeze loudly near my ukulele I can hear it resonate in response. That might explain the odd looks I get sometimes when I play in a group setting. And then, maybe not.
 

Ed1

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Thanks to the OP, and Bill1 and Cluze for their long posts. No ad hominem attacks here which makes the reading of the thread enjoyable. Differences of opinion on issues of science usually show that more facts need to be added. Hence testing.

BTW, I'm only adding this post so that little green circle with the arrow (or is it a duckie or horsey?) shows up on my threads page ... or maybe to ask folks to list any papers they come across on this topic. I know Cluze did this a while back on another thread.
 

Wiggy

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Unrelated, but could be related to the discussion of aged tonewoods.

After a remodel, I tried pounding nails into some salvaged 40 year-old Douglas Fir rafters. I couldn't, without a nail gun. It was really hard.

Hypothetically, could vibrating old construction lumber "awaken" it, resulting in my ability to drive a nail into it with a normal hammer? Over time, would it then return to its aged hardness? This could be testable.
 
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Tukanu

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Top ten alternate uses for the ToneRite:
10. Slip it under your pillow and wake up to an improved singing voice.
9. An easy meat tenderizer. Turn those cheap cuts into gourmet steaks.
8. Forget about shaking or stirring….vibrate your martinis instead.
7. Duct tape it to your thumb to disguise your handwriting when penning a ransom note.
6. Duct tape it to your forehead to improve cognitive function.
5. Duct tape it to your throat when answering those phone calls about your expired auto warranty.
4. Duct tape it to your throat when calling in sick to work.
3. Wear it around your waist to effortlessly burn off those extra calories.
2. Slip it under your spouse’s pillow to improve the tonal range of his/her snoring.
1. Drop it in the bathtub for a relaxing Jacuzzi effect….(not recommended).