NS Design Rides a WAV
…new violin model joins the affordable line.
Ned Steinberger’s name is well known, as he has been on the forefront of new instrument designs since the former furniture designer turned his attention to musical instruments in the 1970s. Sting, when he was with the Police, brought the unique Steinberger Bass to the attentions of millions.
And currently the likes of Laurie Anderson, Les Claypool, Tony Levin, and many other high-profile artists play his instruments.
“I am known for high-end products, but really, my heart is in products that are more affordable,” he says. “Our products have become high-end because we try to push the envelope in sound and art, and in the end you have something expensive, particularly initially. You’ve tried to make it the best you can, delivering the highest level of performance, whatever the cost.”
But now Steinberger is working on a new line that will feature a lower price tag, making the instruments available to a much broader universe of players. The series, called WAV, already includes a bass model, and the WAV violin is slated to be released this spring, with a preview possible in time for the NAMM Show.
A Designer First
Steinberger grew up north of New York City. His mother, Joan Beauregard, is an artist, and his father is the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Jack Steinberger. By the age of 13 Ned had his own wood shop. He initially flunked out of college, and eventually found himself in the Maryland Institute College of Art where he studied sculpture and photography, both of which would be key ingredients to what would become his life’s work, creating new designs for string instruments.
Steinberger points out that what makes his career unique is the fact that he approaches the art first as a designer, not a player. “Most people are really interested in music and musicians, and the actual instrument, as a tool, is secondary,” he observes. Most of those designing instruments are musicians, and perhaps are not able to make the radical leaps that someone approaching from a design perspective would be more open to.
His first career was as a designer of furniture and cabinetry, and some of his early furniture designs are still being manufactured today. In the mid-1970s, he became friends with Stuart Spector, who got Steinberger interested in instrument design.
“When I met Stuart Spector, I was designing chairs,” he says. “I was always interested in how you could design things for people ergonomically. With Spector, I played with things a bit — some aspects were a given, and from there I worked on what would not only be comfortable but would have a look. Looks are very important.”
The Spector NS bass guitar came out in 1976 and was an immediate hit, and it was followed by the groundbreaking “headless” bass. That instrument would receive the “Design of the Decade” award from the Industrial Designer Society of America, among many other accolades. “A Steinberger bass was featured in Time Magazine, and that was a huge milestone,” he recalls. “And I hadn’t been accustomed to winning awards, so that gave me the confidence to go forward.”
The Steinberger Sound Corporation soon followed and developed and marketed headless graphite instruments, among other products. He sold that company to Gibson in 1986. He continues to consult for Gibson and the Steinberger line, and also for D’Addario and Martin.
Today NS Design is based in Nobleboro, Maine. “We have a very unusual set-up,” Ned explains. “When I started in guitars, I also started a factory. We have partners around the world, mostly NBE Corp. based in the Czech Republic. They are our longtime partners, and they build our high-end instruments.” And now they have a new partner in China who is building the WAV instruments.
With manufacturing off-site, the actual facility in Maine is minimal: NS Design has three employees who check quality and set up the instruments, plus a couple of salespeople and a couple administrative people.
The Challenge of the Violin
“All my career, I have given equal weight to sound, playability, and aesthetics,” he notes. “Without a good sound, you have nothing. On the other hand, a lot of instruments sound pretty good, but are limited on articulation, limited in what you can do with them. The most beautiful sound in the world that is in a steady state is not music and is not fun. Music is about manipulating sound, and that’s where playability is so important.”
Confident of achieving these criteria in his company’s CR series of instruments, he looked at what he could do to make it all more affordable.
“You have the opportunity to concentrate on the next step: how to create a version that is 80% or 90% of that, but do it in a way that is significantly more cost-effective and thus less expensive? First you do whatever you can to push the envelope forward, then you go back at it from the other side: how can you make it the most affordable?”
The question isn’t philosophical any more: Steinberger’s answer is the WAV Series. Like his other instruments, these will feature ebony and rosewood fingerboards, the Polar Pickup System, and an adjustable truss rod and bridge. It’s just that he has found a way to develop and manufacture them more efficiently.
The Bass WAV debuted in 2006, and he hopes to have the WAV violin out at NAMM. Ned says he initially wanted to start with the violin, but then opted to lead off with the bass. “While the bass is bigger and more expensive, by nature of its scale it was less demanding to develop and manufacture. The violin presents more of a challenge, especially the NS violin because it has a completely unique tuning system.”
For Steinberger, just because something has been done for hundreds of years doesn’t mean everyone should still do it. In fact, it often means the opposite. “If you want to optimize the performance of an electric violin, it has to be headless,” he explains, providing just one example. “The conventional violin uses a completely archaic tuning system. People have learned to deal with this, but there was no way I was going to make a 21st century violin with a friction tuner.” He worked hard to analyze different possibilities, and concluded the only option was to place the tuner on the body, where the weight of it could be better supported. “It’s similar to moving the tuning on our bass guitar – you want to bring the weight back.”
The conclusion that a whole new tuning system on the violin was needed led to a major R&D effort at NS. It was a “huge project” he says, but they have come up with something that is extremely stable. Then it had to be applied to the new WAV Series.
“You can be sure the basic tuning functions are all going to be there, just developed for the less expensive WAV Series,” he says.
In addition to the tuning system, things like the shoulder rest were not taken for granted. It will feature all custom parts, as he points out the instrument is physically difficult to play and difficult to teach since merely holding the violin can cause pains in the neck, shoulders, and arms. So Steinberger developed a new shoulder support system that doesn’t require the hands or the chin to hold the violin up. He comments, “The nice thing is the shoulder rest itself extends across the back and there is a counterweight behind that the audience doesn’t see — the audience just sees a bit of magic defying the laws of gravity.
“We are very excited about this and it’s also going to be available for all NS violins – it will fit both the CR and WAV series. But also the final design of the support system will be something that will fit any acoustic violin as well. It’s really quite amazing.”
Despite his advancements and developments, Steinberger knows he’s dealing with ultimately a relatively small market — for now.
“In the last ten years that I’ve been involved, there’s been huge changes in the electric string market,” he says. Their Polar Pickup System, which allows the player to control attack and optimize bowing response, has had a big impact on the segment. “The magnetic pickup, which is the core of the electric guitar, is not suitable for the violin,” he states. So for the years developers put magnetic pickups on violins to “electrify” them are years lost, he says, thus making the electric string family “late to the table.”
But now he says he looks forward to explosive growth.
“Violinists are still just figuring it out,” he laughs. “I was just with an older gentlemen who plays for the New York Philharmonic, and he’s just starting to figure it out! He bought one for fun, just to see what it could do.”
And he looks forward to more dealers embracing the new instrument.
“Initially, acoustic violin shops were categorically opposed to having any electronic components in their stores, and they wouldn’t let me in the door,” he remembers. “But now, there are very few who won’t talk about it. It’s turned around 180 degrees.
“Many are feeling they are missing out if they don’t learn more about the market and participate in it.”