Archive for May, 2011
I regularly get asked this question in my shop. What IS the difference between big pianos and small pianos? Well i’m going to preface this by asking you a question, “Do you ever see small pianos in concert halls?” The answer unequivocally is a resounding NO. Logically then, ALL piano makers have come to the same conclusion that bigger pianos are somehow better. And you could argue that big pianos fill big rooms with sound. And there is a measure of truth to that, HOWEVER… my nephew who is in his 20’s has a stereo system in his car that is a 1000 watts of output. Now when you consider an average home stereo might be 200-400 watts and a clock radio might be 1-2 watts, a whopping 1000 watts seems overkill right? Well the bigger the stereo system, generally speaking, the greater the fidelity. In pianos too, the longer the strings (thus making a bigger piano), the richer the fundamental… generally speaking. The what? The fundamental? What is that? Glad you asked. The fundamental is the base frequency of a note. Within every note on any instrument, there is a rainbow spectrum of harmonic tones. The fundamental then is the base… the one we hear the most – the pitch of the note. So if you play an E on the piano, primarily you will hear frequency corresponding to E. Within the body of that note though are other notes – namely the 5th, the 7th, the 10th etc. So within an E note are also present “overtones” or “harmonics” of B, D and G#. They all are embodied in that same note. A trained ear will hear them. In fact, piano tuners tune a piano way more based on the sonority of the overtones than the pitch of the note which brings me back to the original quest for the truth about large pianos: Large pianos generally have more fundamental and more pleasing harmonics than small pianos. And THAT is precisely why you should always find as BIG a piano as your space and budget can afford. You will be MUCH happier with a taller upright and a longer grand because the fundamentals will be more present and there will be less conflict with ringing overtones.
I must say if there’s one thing i know little about, it’s the COMPARISON of cast iron plates in pianos with regards to tone. We don’t really have the luxury of comparing identical models of pianos with different cast plates in them. I am referring to the difference between traditional sand cast plates vs. V-Pro casting. I can spot a traditional sand cast plate a mile away but does it affect tone? Hmmm i’m not so sure… but here’s what i DO know (which might be dangerous – as they say “a little knowledge is dangerous”)…
Traditional sand casting: Make a model. Press it into sand… remember making a mold of your hand in plaster when you were a kid? Same thing except that the master model is a piano frame. Once the ‘relief’ is in the sand, they pour molten iron into the mold.
V-Pro casting: Make a model. Cover with a plastic sheet. Add sand on top of that. Sandwich with another layer of plastic. Using a vacuum (V, by the way stands for Vacuum… Pro is for process = V-Pro)…. suck the atmosphere out of the sand bag sandwich and it very accurately mirrors the model. That then becomes the new relief mold. Make sense? Have you ever seen those ads on TV for leftover food where they suck the air out of the bag and it tightly forms around the contents? Well that’s what’s happening here.
So what does it matter? If it’s traditional sand cast or v-pro? Well the sand cast looks rough while the v-pro looks absolutely finessed. There’s barely any finishing required on v-pro while the sand cast needs a fair bit of attention to call it complete. I read today that the v-pro plates create bad harmonics. Though i’m not ruling it out, I’m not buying that either. I don’t doubt that the cast may be vibrating, but by comparison to a wooden soundboard and felt hammers, i truly believe that the bulk of any overtones are going to be coming from the interaction of those parts rather than the cast. So why the big deal? If iron is iron and one comes out looking better than the other, why do some people talk about v-pro like it’s in question? I’m not entirely sure but i have some hunches. If the sole purpose of the frame is to be the backbone of the piano – the rigid stabilizer – then mass is always better. Quite often to compensate for traditional gravity based casting, the “more is better” motto is applied. If it means that they make a bigger, chunkier plate JUST to make sure that all of the cracks and crevices get filled in when pouring, so be it. In the v-pro arena, casting is much more accurate and is also more efficient. My own thinking is that the cast iron pianos with v-pro are thinner. That’s my wager. From the pianos i’ve seen (especially older ones) where they are really robust, invariably the cast iron frames are also beefy. Back in January – visiting a few boutique piano manufacturers, one intimated that the casts were traditional sand cast… intimating they were somehow superior. Isn’t that interesting? Low-tech can still be considered superior? Well jury is out for me. I can’t actually speak from personal experience because i’ve only seen isolated cases on both sides for comparison. And really, there are WAY more variables than just the cast from which to compare. I’ve never seen two pianos from the same year, model, size etc with 2 different plates to compare. But i WILL go on record saying that there is ONE thing that i do know to be generally true: heavier pianos (ie more iron) are USUALLY better instruments. Other than that… my little knowledge… is just… dangerous.
If you own an upright piano and it hasn’t been maintained other than tuning, it’s time to do a simple test. Ever so gently, press some keys down on your piano. The first 1-2 millimeters (1/16″) does it feel kinda loose? If so, you may have a case of something called ‘lost motion’. What is lost motion anyway? Well before we discuss it, take a moment to look at the two videos below. The one on the left has gaps in the parts. Notice how the one green part is moving significantly before engaging the assembly? The one on the right is a snug fit – I just finished adjusting the same piano. So what actually is happening here? Glad you asked. Over time, parts wear and compress and create spaces or gaps between parts. And instead of moving smoothly together, the parts start travel at different times. At the keyboard i would describe it as feeling ‘loose’. It’s called lost motion because the green backcheck is moving without pushing the hammer towards the strings. In essence, the hammer has lost some of it’s power or force due to the gaps between parts – thus the name. And the fix? Easy – there’s an adjustment screw to take out that lost motion. A technician can have that fixed in no time at all. So if you’re feeling like you’d your piano isn’t quite right, do this little check and ask your tech the next time they come to tune because is probably the quickest fix with the most drastic results on a piano that i know of.
Five. The number is five. In my estimation, pianos require 5 tunings to stabilize the stretch in the steel. Did you just read correctly? There’s stretch in steel? Absolutely. And to prove it, try tuning a piano with new strings. The first 3 times are almost laughable how much the pitch alters. By the fourth and fifth times the strings level out. Why is this important? There are three applications: if you have purchased a new piano, expect to tune it more than once in your first year. Second, if you have just restored an old vintage piano – same thing applies. I would hope that some of (if not most) of those tunings would’ve been done prior to arriving at your house but you’d be surprised at how off pitch i’ve seen new (and even expensive) pianos after the first year. Third, if you EVER have a string break on a piano – just remember that putting the string on is the easy part… retuning 5 times that year… more challenging. Recently i was at a customer’s home where the family piano had been dropped by movers. 6 strings broke trying to bring it back up to pitch – apparently the sudden jolt altered it considerably. After ordering these new bass strings, it only took me a half hour to put them on but i told this teacher that i need to stop in for just a few minutes to tune because they won’t hold for the first few tunings. Just some thoughts to remember…