Southside Strings floats a new way to make instruments
It’s both a bit strange and a perfectly sensible way to nurture a startup community: Throw a contest for best startup pitch, then give the winners some recognition—from both their soon-to-be peers and the broader community—and add a little help to take the next steps.
One of three winners of last week’s Will This Float? competition, organized by Co.Lab, is David Dunn, a musician, graphic designer, and now first-time entrepreneur, who moved to Chattanooga with his wife Bryony in 2013.
His business, Southside Strings, is an extreme mash-up of old and new. Like a lot of startups, it aims to disrupt an existing status quo, but in this case the incumbent has been largely unchanged for 600 years.
Southside Strings will produce stringed instruments in the viol family, which includes violin, viola, cello and bass, using 3-D models to guide a computer-controlled CNC cutter to shape pieces of uncarved wood into instrument parts. Think of it as 3-D printing, except the machine cuts away wood to reveal a form instead of building up bits of material to create something tangible out of thin air.
“The product is going to be an instrument that is set in six centuries of knowledge but taking a brand-new look at the production and design of it, always honoring what the thousands of makers have come up with over the last six centuries,” says Dunn.
Southside Strings is a passion project inspired partly by Dunn’s decades as a music teacher, watching children—both his own clarinet students and his wife’s violin students—struggle with badly made instruments that failed because of poor workmanship but were too expensive to replace. He plans to start with members of the viol family, which haven’t really changed since their forms were set in the 16th century.
“If you were to put two violins side by side, one made in Cremona, Italy in 1560 and one made in Brooklyn in 2014, they would look almost identical,” he says. “Much of what we know about and how we build these instruments was defined by people in the 16th century, when the acoustic needs and the color needs of a musician varied greatly from what’s needed now.”
He asks, “Why, when it comes to this instrument, is the definition of beauty locked in to how it was defined in 1560?” The form of the guitar was also established at roughly the same time, but it has been the subject of innovation for years.
“Guitar makers have felt incredibly free in terms of understanding that the science behind it is you have these six strings, they have to be a particular length and tension to produce pitches, and then you have this fretted fingerboard,” he says. “But that is the only thing that defines a guitar.”
Dunn isn’t looking to revolutionize the violin or create the perfect instrument for all those would-be headbanger cellists who have been awaiting innovation for centuries. But he feels he has earned the right to explore these shapes and how to make them better fit the needs of students and performers today.
“I spent many, many years and hundreds of thousands of hours with a wooden instrument in my hand, trying to understand the relationship between myself and this inanimate object,” he says. “In that moment when you’re playing the instrument, in many ways you think of the instrument as your partner, as a living thing that’s on stage with you and is reacting to what you ask it to do.”
“I’m not trying to change the landscape,” he says. “I’m just trying to get better quality as a possibility for instrumentalists today. At all levels.”
Rich Bailey is a professional writer, editor and (sometimes) PR consultant. He led a project to create Chattanooga’s first civic web site in 1995 before even owning a modem. Now he covers Chattanooga technology for The Pulse and blogs about it at CircleChattanooga.com