the sound of massed violins in classical orchestral recordings

why do massed violins have this sort of gritty sandpapery reverberation in classical orchestral recordings?even in some sections of a piece, when the violins are playing softly in the background, you hear that gritty overtone more than the melody.when I listen to the Houston symphony in Jones Hall,sitting fourth row, facing the violin section, I don't hear that sound.I have three systems { two of them mid-fi ] and I hear the same thing-even with all instances, the other parts of the orchestra are clear.  my main system : Vanalistine Trancendence 10 tube preamp,a 35 year old solid state Proton D1200 amp, [have tried NAD,Project, Musical Fidelity amps--they don't sound any better],Onkyo dx7555 CD player [Stereophile class B],and Project Carbon turntable with Grado Black 2 cartridge [ the Ortophon Red was too bright ] through Magnepan MG12/QR speakers.Tried a highly regarded Elac speaker--no change as far as the violins go, but way inferior to those dramatic Maggies.So, there you have it. Is it the equipment? Is the state of the art not up to recording violins? Is it me? [its o.k.-I can take it}. In closing,a couple of years ago,I had phone conversation with a well known person associated with a major speaker company about this. His response :[ paraphrased ] Violins are a problem--don't like 'em.  Any input will be appreciated. Thanks.
Very complex waveforms of many instruments -all not necessarily in perfect tune with each other. Add in their harmonics and intermodulation. This is very demanding on an audio reproduction system.
Is it the equipment?


To understand why we will need to drill deep down into the details of exactly how a violin makes music. It’ll be worth it because a lot of the same things happen with a lot of other instruments, just not quite to the same degree. Which is what makes violin so hard to do right.

The violin bow is a bunch of rough textured threads. Its not one thing. Its a bunch of them. That’s why you sometimes see them all frayed, as some wear through and break, the ends fray and frazzle.

As the bow is drawn across the string its not a smooth motion. As each little rough bit grabs and lets go its more like a series of tiny little plucks than a steady tone. Its all these transient spikes within the tone that give violin its character.

In order to reproduce this well it requires the entire system be fast enough to accurately reproduce each one of those micro transient spikes, then die down fast enough to reveal the underlying fundamental tone, as well as the resonance of the body of the instrument. This is asking way too much. The vast, vast majority of components get the transient, render it too harshly, smear it so much the tone and body are lost, wash rinse repeat. All day long. Its crap. Its why hardly anyone wants to listen to classical.

Its sad how hard this is to do right. My system didn’t get there until I got the Moabs. Even then it would not be there without all the many many tweaks and mods to every inch of wire, every component chassis, on and on.

So yes its your equipment. But not just the amp, speakers, etc. Equipment includes every inch of every wire from the breaker panel to the speaker cone and every component in between and all the stuff they sit on and the room the sound is heard in.
Thanks "no romance" and" millercarbon" for your articulate responses.What I have learned is that the phenomenon is real [ which, strangely,gives me a sense of  relief ] and it is formidable.I'm not sure I'm ready to go " on and on" at this stage of my life.Now that I know [ perhaps subliminally have always known ] I can better appreciate how far I have come from that portable Phonola I carried around some sixty years ago. I still get a thrill when those Maggies go full tilt Mahler!

Yeah, it just seems to be one of those things recording engineers have trouble with. I've got hundreds (thousands?) of orchestral recordings on CD, vinyl and cassette, and probably only about twenty or thirty of them get orchestral strings close to truly clean & right.  I'm picky enough on this topic to rate the various labels on their orchestral string tone cleanliness batting average.  It's one of the reasons I have so many orchestral recordings on Philips.  Analog recordings usually do better on this front than digital ones, but that doesn't mean that analog and vinyl are superior in this respect.  I also gotta say that streaming via Qobuz and Primephonic probably does better with this aspect of reproduction than any other media.  Who'd a thunk it?
I think the quality of the recording has as much to do with this as anything.  Most just do not get it right.  Occasionally they do:
Beethoven Overtures, Sir Collin Davis.  A beautiful SACD recording on the Sony label, manufactured in Japan that I am enjoying right now.
If violins sound gritty something is very wrong with your system.
As others have said, massed violins, especially playing ff, are hard to record, but some engineers and some labels seem to get it right at least some of the time.  In my experience early all-digital Deutsche Grammophonen CDs were some of the worst offenders.  Things can be ameliorated by seeking out more "forgiving" components and more "forgiving" speakers.  The problem is you may lose an incisive quality that you like on other recordings.  It's a fine balance.  The sorry truth is that you're unlikely to find mid-fi that walks that tightrope successfully.
I agree with everything that has been said previously.  Massed violins may be the hardest thing to get right.  Perhaps the next most common problem is trying to reproduce massed voices, especially sopranos, properly.  In my view these are similar problems. 

 Every single thing in the chain from the recording to your listening room has to be just right.  Therefore, it is likely you will need to address several contributors with an incremental improvement after each change.

We can do nothing about the recording quality.  What we can control is our system/power supply and room.   When the source of a problem is unclear, it usually makes sense to look into those things that are likely to be weak links in the system/room or things that are relatively inexpensive.  I probably wouldn't start by changing components.  If your car isn't running right, you probably don't switch out the engine first.  My experience is that grain/grit is most often related to power supply and/or ambient EMI/RFI.

In your system description, I didn't see anything about your power supply.   Power supply to the equipment must be addressed.   PC's, IC's, and speaker wires vary in their ability to reject ambient EMI/RFI and to present grain free high frequencies and also in the extent to which they contribute to grit and grain.   There are also products made by companies like Synergistic Research and Audio Magic that can help with reduction of ambient EMI/RFI in the listening room.  millercarbon is absolutely correct in stating that every inch of wire from the breaker box to the speaker cone can influence problems like this.  I once had a noisy duplex that was raising hades with my system until I replaced it with a good receptacle.  BTW, I've had some brand new ones that sounded just as bad, so buy an extra or two and try them all.   If your duplexes are old, get some good new hospital grade duplexes and see if that makes a difference.  I don't know that addressing power alone will get you where you want to be, but I do know that you won't get there until you have a good clean power supply. 

I've found that vacuum tubes vary considerably in their ability to render violins properly.   Not to state the obvious, but are your pins nice and clean?  Do you have back up tubes that could be evaluated?

While your statement regarding the use of headphones and the fact that you are hearing grain even at low volumes might seem to rule out the room as the primary culprit, my guess is that you are not going to get where you want to be without some attention to the room.  Personally, I've never listened to music in an average sized untreated room that could provide a satisfactory listening experience.   Low frequency smearing is commonly  recognized as room related, but anytime you have a failure of higher frequency signal to smoothly and rapidly decay, you will also get a smearing in those frequencies.  Not sure that necessarily comes across as grain, but it will come across as poor definition and articulation especially as the volume is increased.  I'd think about some work in this area after you've gotten your power supply and cabling optimized. 

What is your experience with solo violin recordings?  Are you good with how the Bach sonatas and partitas are presented?  How about the Beethoven sonatas?  Try some piano trios.  Are these works all presented without the grain you are objecting to?  How about sopranos and flutes?  What happens if you turn the volume up so that you are getting sound pressure levels in the high 80's and low 90's where high frequency instruments predominate?  If things other than grain go south when you turn the volume up, I tend to think about some room involvement in the problem, although equipment can't be ruled out. 

No easy answer here.  But I would go after clean power first.

Massed strings were always a problem with me.  Even with a tube preamp, the problem persisted.  Only after I changed amp and speakers did things get better.  And it took a while until the speakers broke in before the situation improved.
I may be wrong, but I don’t think IC’s and power plugs made a difference, even though I upgraded all of those.  
It’s really a hard issue to track down.
Good luck!
No doubt due to the detail and transient response required massed strings and violin in particular are one of the tougher challenges and often one of the last things folks get a handle on, if it matters to them. 
Analog recordings usually do better on this front than digital ones, but that doesn't mean that analog and vinyl are superior in this respect.

That is literally exactly what it means.

What recordings have you listened to that cause this effect? Please tell us. I agree with the comments that the quality of the recording is key. I have heard what you describe, to one degree or another, from even the most thoughtfully put together audiophile systems... when the recording quality is not very good. Yes, massed violins are very demanding in both the recording and playback processes, but what you describe is an especially obvious problem with digital recordings, especially early digital recordings; whether on LP or digital media. You are a live concert goer, so you know of what you speak.

If you don’t have this, buy it ($, sorry) and get back to us. Not Houston, but close enough? 😊 Glorious (correct) string sound. If you still hear what you describe above, there’s something going on with your equipment.

Btw, the main reason that massed strings are so hard to record/reproduce is not so much “transient spikes” as it is the fact that the violin produces an extraordinarily complex wave form. One note from a violin contains over a dozen harmonics. Transient issues occur on the initial attack of a note. After the initial attack (initiation) of a note, the sound of a violin, even an entire section of violins, can be as you describe from your live experience...smooth, even silky smooth. A drawn bow across a violin string produces a continuous sound, not an interrupted one with multiple small transient attacks as has been suggested.

Back to the issue of the complex waveform. It is difficult enough to record/reproduce a single musical wave form that is so complex. Consider that over half the instruments in an orchestra are string players and about half of those are violin players. Each one of those violins produces a somewhat different already very complex waveform due to the differences in the instruments themselves and the way that they are each played....all playing at the same time and often the same note. Is it any wonder?
Vinyl may do a good job of glossing over the details of the sound of massed violin in a digestible manner but I would question if it is inherently better at accurately reproducing the detail these days than digital. Digital is more than up to the task these days. Physics and inertia in particular is a much larger inhibiting factor with vinyl than digital.
It's the recording. Listen to a 50's press of many labels, and they sound convincing. Even on a modest setup the quality is easily heard. 80's-present recordings are hit or miss.

Naturally, even the great labels had some duds as well. 

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Frogman one thing I would point out is transient response Is not limited to the leading edge of notes though perhaps that is where it is typically most pronounced. 
Just one other thing: rather than a "gritty sandpapery reverberation" what I hear when there are problems is more of a harsh glare, a kind of steely sound that might otherwise suggest that a component or a speaker is close to its performance envelope.  Perhaps instead it was the recording device (ADC or whatever) that was close to its limit.
**** harsh glare, a kind of steely sound ****

Yes, but could also be described as “gritty, sandpapery”.  Gritty and sandpapery is what I like to call a “soft grain”.  Soft, because use of the term “grain” is usually associated with a harsh sound.  I hear a soft grain, akin to what one sees when one gets very close to a picture in a can see the ink dots.  The sonic image is not saturated enough.  For me, good pure analog sound still fills in more of the dots that complete the sonic picture heard with live orchestral violins. 
Right now I'm getting outstanding, edge-less violin string tone from a Primephonic stream of Hillary Hahn and orchestra doing "A Lark Ascending."
I had a friend who played in the high school orchestra and he was next to the violin section. To this day, he can’t stand the sound of violins and massed strings as they can be gritty and etched sounding in real life.

As my system has evolved, I can easily hear the texture, growl and etch but it’s not irritating. What I hear is the instrumentalists expression, intent, and technique, which is pure joy.

All the best,
**** a friend who played in the high school orchestra and he was next to the violin section. To this day, he can’t stand the sound of violins and massed strings  ****

Well, high school 😱......... Funny you should mention this.  Just before the COVID shutdown, I attended my son’s HS band concert in which he played 1rst Clarinet.  The sound of a HS clarinet section is something that is indescribable.  
The sound of a HS clarinet section is something that is indescribable.

When one buys a recording be it a record or cd ,they aren't even thing if it would sound good.There believing that it will .That is the sad fact.
Thank you all for your caring, thoughtful responses.I did an exercise today and wrote about it here in detail. I left the room for a moment and when I returned, Felicity,our dearly beloved cat was sitting on the laptop and all of my brilliant,insightful exposition was gone. I have a lot of respect for Felicity. Despite all warnings, she has never once shown any interest in the Magnepans and no matter how much Mahlerian angst is shaking the room, she lays down between the Maggies and goes to sleep. So here I go again. i have been listening to two CDs. The wonderful Samuel Barber Violin Concerto,Shaham,London Symphony,Previn,DG Digital,recorded 1993. Brahms Violin Concerto,Heifetz,Chicago Symphony,Reiner,recorded 1955,digital remaster,painstakingly adhhering to the original recording technique. This is what I heard.The violin solos were clear and "hash"free.The Barber solos were very up front, large and aggressive; the Brahms solos were further back. The string sections in both orchestras were equally "hashey","gritty".Interestingly,in both recordings,when the orchestras went very loud,the ''sandpapery hash" was much less evident,but as the volume began to recede,particularly in the Barber,the "hash" became more prominent.The softer the strings became, the more prominent the "hash". until It was louder than the melody and the "hash"was echoing in the right channel.It seems to me that this is an artifact of the complexity of the violin sound that Frogman and Millercarbon and others were referring to, a reverberation that probably dissipates quickly in the concert hall and goes unnoticed, but is locked [ trapped?] in the recording.So,I suppose, there is no panacea--a static reminder of the divide between life and synthesis like the dots [pixels ?] in photos that Frogman was referring to. What to do? For me it is ameliorate.
As has been suggested, components that are laid back,"forgiving."
Anathema to most audiophiles but very attractive to me. I'm suspicious of any component touted as "detailed."How much "detail"will I hear in the concert hall? How much do want to hear?
The problem isn't massed violins or any other instrument although instruments with complex waveforms make what you're hearing more obvious.  Even pure sine waves playing the exact same pitch (which real live musicians and singers frequently vary slightly vary from each other can make for an even rougher sound) that originate from different distances from the microphone will sound rough due to how they comb filter each other.  Therefore, even when listening live you should hear the same roughness.  Massed coral music will do the same thing.  It's simple physics.  Therefore, it's difficult to judge the fidelity of a recording or playback system when using music with massed interments because it's very difficult to distinguish the live roughness from the sound of added recorded comb filtering.  For more on this and polarity in general, see:, George S. Louis, Phone:  619-401-9876, please feel free to call me.
P.S. Yes, I hear that artifact in solo voices and choirs, a kind of "rattle" from certain notes on the scale. Eileen Farrell Puccini Arias. What a voice! But on certain notes' kind of "cackle/crack"reverb. No problem with far. Regarding "laid back", I remember reading some attractive things about the VANDERSTEEN 2CE Signature II. But now it seems to have disappeared and there is a Signature III,which no one has written about yet.Life goes on. I'm going to chill and put on some Brubeck on vinyl and then maybe some Keith Jarrett. Is vinyl better than CD.Dunno,but the ritual that used to irritate me back when is kinda fun now.
This is a fascinating string. I agree that the sound of strings is very tough to reproduce. Perhaps I lack the sophistication to comment here, but I do play the classical violin. My complaint with most recordings is that the sound doesn't sound real. I want to hear that the violin(s) is/are made out of wood. I want to here the zzzzhiitt sound at the frog of the bow. The recordings on DG are in my humble opinion the best at capturing string sound. Decca is positively the worst. If the original recording equipment doesn't accurately capture the sound, it won't matter what equipment we use to play it back. 
Absolutely, massed violins can be damned well ugly. You know that your system is getting there when you can listen to Barber's Adagio for Strings and not wince.
Magnepan MG12/QR speakers are rated at 86dB with 4 ohm impedance. These are ribbon speakers and very complex loads for the amplifier. Your preferred amp Proton D1200 amp is rated 100W at 8 Ohms. You need a SS amp with plenty of power, I would say at least 400 W at 4 ohms before you can really determine if mass strings are a problem. Find a good dealer who can loan you a good amp with plenty of current and try that in your system first.

I understand issue with mass strings all too well. I think your problem is with the amplifier. Old Krell and McCormack amps can handle mass strings with ease. But they are not the only ones.

Good Luck!
Violin, and piano are very good test for audio system...

For me with basic good electronic components, the day i was able to stand violins in mass, this day only comes after controlling vibrations, decreasing the noise floor of the electrical grid, and mostly treating and controlling the acoustic....(getting a good dac help for me a NOS one)

For a bad recording of violin there exist also good one for testing....

The problem is not with recording, there exist very good one...

The problem,often, is not with the basic good audio equipment each of us owns, the problem is controlling all these 3 necessary embeddings that makes, when uncontrolled, impossible for an audio system to reach his true S.Q. potential....

My recording of violins sound great now without harshness, and before implementation of embeddings controls i was not able to listen classical at all.... Classical is my favorite music but it is more easy for the ears to listen jazz if the system is not at his optimum...Right now i listen to Vivaldi 4 seasons, mass of violins, a polish version on TACET with many violins...Perfect sound....

I know reading all these forums about audio problems, that most of them are linked to the complete underestimation of the impact of acoustic, noise floor, and unwanted vibrations.... People dont know the destructive scale of these non adressed problems....And no simple unique ready to apply out of the box solution exist....We must work, it is not difficult but it takes time.... It takes me 2 years to figure it out with luck....

For test i recommend Bach Variation Goldberg music by FRETWORK a group of strings instruments.... Very beautiful and difficult to listen to if your embeddings and dac are not so good.... But marvellous to listen too in the opposite case....

I found massed violins a problem until I changed to a multibit DAC. Similarly with choirs, changing the DAC (and later, the amp) fixed that up.

My guess is @6119 try an external multibit (R2R) DAC with your CD player, assuming it has digital out.
Hard to reproduce?
Sit in the middle of a live unamplified string section and you will hear the same.
If you don't like it stick to winds, horns and percussion.
OR believe those who claim to tame without divulging any specifics.
OR believe those who claim to tame without divulging any specifics.
my thread journey has 20 pages...Specifics and idea are there, peanuts costs....

The specifics are simple to formulate:

mechanical embeddings, electrical grid noise floor, and acoustical controls....

But there is NO single ready made product that solve all 3 embeddings problems....Not even a good dac.... Sorry....

And upgrading from a low cost audio system to a very costly one is NOT the solution either for most of us anyway....And any system at any price need to be rightfully embed....
Like I said, I have great recordings of massed strings and ones that I will not listen to.  So I don't think the problem is my CD player, amp, or other nasties on the grid.  The primary determinate for violin, piano, or any other instrument is the recording itself.

But I do understand what the OP is wondering about. I think it is far easier to produce a great guitar recording that one with massed strings.
6119, thanks for your follow up.  Do you have any analog recordings on LP; would appreciate knowing your reactions to string sound on a good LP recorded in analog.  Thanks.
pwerahera:If you google PROTON D1200, you will see that it can deliver several hundred watts per channel. there is a tube demo showing how much power it is capable of.
Very interesting thread. And I have to agree: massed violins, for whatever reason (millercarbon and frogman have offered possible explanations) are very hard to reproduce. I play cello, and my daughter plays violin, so I've had plenty of experience listening to massed, and solo, strings live. But I have NOT had this problem live, as others in the thread have asserted. 

It's curious, though, that recorded SOLO violins don't seem to suffer from this problem, although the quality of the original recording--as always!--is extremely important. Hilary Hahn's first Bach sonatas and partitas CD, for instance, is a gold standard for me: a test record for the proper, silky and rich sound of a solo violin. 

I have a theory, but it's probably b.s. Violinists all play with vibrato, which constantly, and kind of randomly, varies the tone slightly. With a solo performance, this can be captured unproblematically. But with an entire violin section, everyone is employing vibrato in different ways. Thus, the massed tone of a violin section is extremely complex, not just at the physics level, but even audibly: each instrument is actually playing slightly above or slightly below the given pitch at any given time. Now, for some reason, the ear can resolve this in a live performance (or so I have found, anyway). But perhaps, recording and reproducing this micro-chaos is a significant strain on the technology....

FWIW, the DGG SACD called "Credo," with the Arvo Pärt composition of that title along with two solo piano pieces (including Beethoven's "Tempest" sonata) and the Beethoven Choral Fantasy, gets the sound of an orchestra's massed violins about as right as anything I've heard. The performances (Grimaud, Salonen) are also outstanding.
frogman:Shostokovich,Sym.No 5,Bernstein,N.Y.Phil. original pressing,ca 1960. Same recording, new pressing [very thin vinyl},same recording CD.All 3 rough, gritty strings. Rest of orch.clear,open spacious. Mozart piano concertos,Ashkenazy,Philharmonia,London ffrr [Decca],vinyl, recorded 1987.Open,spacious,brillant,clear piano,gritty strings.In this recording, when the strings are played hard, they sound almost silky:when played medium to soft, they have this spurious, sandpapery grit attached to them, like someone clearing his throat.In one section, the strings are following lightly behind the piano and they sound congested.
pwerahera:If you google PROTON D1200, you will see that it can deliver several hundred watts per channel. there is a tube demo showing how much power it is capable of.
From the Owners manual at: Specifications:Rated power 100 W per channel at 8 Ohm

Clipping power: 110 watts per channel into 8 Ohm (stereo), 175 W per channel at 4 Ohm and 220 W at 2 Ohm

But your speakers are not very efficient at 86 dB and has an impedance of 4 ohms. Hence, you need an amp that puts at least 400 W at 4 Ohms. Try an amp that can deliver 200 W at 8 Ohm, 400 W at 4 Ohm. Better if it can deliver 800 W at 2 Ohms.These are rated power, NOT clipping or dynamic power.

Fuzztones -- Not that I ever played in an orchestra but I used to regularly gather with a bunch of fiddlers for Old Time jam sessions.  The jams would happen at bars, restaurants, somebody's living room, or in backyards, parks & patios.  Of course, there'd be banjos, mandolins, guitars and other instruments, too.  Anywhere from five to fifteen fiddles.  Anyway, yeah, nobody ever got out of first position on their fiddles and tone/intonation was often suspect, but I never heard a trace of that cursed hash/buzz.  If I did hear buzz or hash, it was mellifluous and inviting, not annoying.  It just added flavor and dash.  The same goes for the many live classical concerts I've attended over the centuries.  It's only on recordings where the hash has reared its ugly head.
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sniff9 yes, as I mentioned, when starting this thread, I don't hear any of this roughness from the Houston Symphony in Jones Hall. I have often gotten a seat 2 to 3 rows back in front of the violins just to listen for it, since the phenomenon has been bothering me for years.When I attempt talk to audio salespersons about this, the usual response is "...don't know anyone here who listens to classical."
Perhaps this is Audio's dirty little secret, or as you put it more charitably, it creates "a significant strain on the technology."
I have A LOT of digital and analog orchestral recordings. Many of violin concertos. No idea what you’re talking about. I always eat smooth resolved playback. Even from vinyl records.

Probably your magnapans. ESLs do have distortion.
 the proton d1200 amp can produce 540w/1000w/1500w   20ms          '450w/650w/800w  100ms                                                                                 '380w/500w/520w  200ms                                                                               'duty cycle  500ms                dynamic headroom at 8,4,2ohms 7.3db    'should be able to easily handle any crescendo that Beethoven,Mahler,or Orff can dish out,n'est pas?
Whoops! left out the "ce".
Barber’s Adagio for strings, the climax at the end of the piece is a very good demonstration of this phenomenon. Very intense string power!
If you’re using a streamer/ network bridge with a wired connection, then RFI induced down the network cable can be eliminated with Network Acoustic’s ENO. I use the Ag version, makes things much improved.

I vote for recording quality.  Try DSD recordings, you will virtually never encounter it
I seriously doubt that people who truly love classical music will stop listening to it because of the difficulty of reproducing multiple violins without a certain edge or harshness, for lack of better terms. 

I experienced this problem with a pair of Magneplanar 1.7s which I liked so much I moved up to the 3.6s. That upgrade helped, and when I bought my present speakers Harbeth Super HL5 Plus, the problem was almost resolved. Some posters have pointed to the recording itself as being a part of the problem, and I concur. I purchased multiple versions of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos and found that the edgy gravel sound was almost unnoticeable on some. The same for choral voices. I bought multiple versions of Mozart's Requiem Mass until I found a recording that allowed me to listen to the "Lacrimosa" and discern individual voices and not hear the gravelly sound on the edges. If the recording is done correctly, most quality speakers should be able to handle the multiple violins and voices in an acceptable manner. Acceptable, but probably not perfect, and I think millercarbon was right to bring up the nature of the instrument itself.
Snilf - “I have a theory, but it's probably b.s. Violinists all play with vibrato, which constantly, and kind of randomly, varies the tone slightly. With a solo performance, this can be captured unproblematically. But with an entire violin section, everyone is employing vibrato in different ways. Thus, the massed tone of a violin section is extremely complex, not just at the physics level, but even audibly: each instrument is actually playing slightly above or slightly below the given pitch at any given time. Now, for some reason, the ear can resolve this in a live performance (or so I have found, anyway). But perhaps, recording and reproducing this micro-chaos is a significant strain on the technology”

Thanks for that snilf - you put it really well ; )