Posts tagged action

Piano Scale Design

There are SO many differences in piano design.  “Well aren’t all pianos kinda the same?” you ask.  Not at ALL!!!! (I can’t emphatically add more stress to this point).  Yes pianos operate the same – they all have soundboards, strings, keys and actions.  Think about cars… BMW, Toyota, Honda, GM… they all drive but do they feel identical? Of course not.  Even within the same company there are huge differences between models.  Toyota makes (my beloved) Landcruiser but they also have made the Tercel (and trust me… i’ve owned both and there are few similarities).  Pianos, within the same company have different designs.  These designs are called “scales”.  When you play hundreds of pianos you will appreciate a good scale.  So what’s the difference between a good scale and a bad one?  Oooohhhh (rubbing hands together) where do we start? Hmmmm let’s start at strings: There are 2 types of strings on any piano – plain wire steel treble strings and copper wound bass strings.  In the steel wire treble strings, there are about 2 dozen sizes of wire (plus half sizes!) ranging from 0.029″ to about 0.059″ in thickness.  To look at them, they all kinda look the same but they are INCREDIBLY different.  So each note is matched in length and tightness to the pitch of the note.  Someone then decides “OK let’s use size 14.5 wire for that note on the piano”.  Now that’s part of the design – part of a decision to make a piano sound a certain way.  Now getting into the bass section… OMG! There are hundreds if not thousands of permutations on what could be used for the centre ‘core’ of the string but also the copper winding… how much mass, how long is the copper blah blah blah… there are HUGE choices to be made on JUST the strings alone.  Which reminds me… i should write a blog about great sounding bass strings… cuz trust me, not all strings are equal (far from it).  And believe it or not, there are different grades of steel wire as well – all factors that play into the overall sound of the instrument.  So that’s just one tiny tiny element of piano design… then you think about hammers – the quality, the weight, the placement… the action – the various types…. the frame, the soundboard, the quality of the wood… even the expertise of installation… the list goes on and on and on!!! Someone once told me “The piano requires the attention to a thousand details”.  I believed him… THAT’s scale design.

All this to say… i have found that there are 2 pianos that i tune that i REALLY REALLY enjoy.  One being the Yamaha C7 – it’s the 7 foot Yamaha grand.  The other is a Boston 6′ grand (designed by Steinway, manufactured by Kawai).  Both have SUCH smooth scales… meaning that the sound from one note to the next is like a string of pearls – matched in tone and timbre – fundamental and overtones.  Nothing beats a good scale.  Shout out to Steve in Metchosin who has me regularly tune his C7 and to Hillary and Lawrence on their choice of such a wonderful Boston.  Thanks… those pianos remind me of why i love to play.

Lost Motion in Pianos

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.

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The Broadwood Piano – remaking the silk purse

Recently i was hired to work on a Broadwood grand.  Now for those of you who don’t know, Broadwood has an illustrious place in the world of piano making.  Established (get this) in 1728 (yes you read correctly), this company made pianos for royalty (obtaining the Royal Warrant for manufacturing – see lower left photo) and had probably the most famous historical endorser Beethoven himself.  Upon gifting a grand piano from Broadwood, Beethoven wrote a thankyou letter back in February 1818: ” I shall regard it was an altar upon which I will place the choicest offerings of my mind to the Divine Apollo”.  Think about the fact that this company was established 125 YEARS before Steinway.  Now obviously in the early days they were manufacturing clavichords, harpsichords and square grand pianos.  The Broadwood company became known for their actions (internal mechanisms) and also is credited with the sustain pedal.

The piano i had the opportunity to work on was a “barless” grand meaning that it had no reinforcement bars or ‘struts’ to hold the tension of the almost 18 tonnes of string tension.  Instead, Broadwood made a full perimeter frame which appears to be almost double in thickness – making this an extremely heavy instrument.  (see photo of strings) The major problem with the piano i worked on was that it had a cracked action rail.  If you’ve ever seen the inside of a grand piano, you’ll know that all of the hammers are screwed in place to one long rail called the action rail.  If the action rail is cracked, many things happen – first, you don’t have a solid base to attach the hammers.  That creates ‘travel’ where the hammers will jostle about not hitting squarely the strings.  Second, believe it or not, if a screw is so much as even loose on an action rail, you’ll hear the subsequent ‘click’ of the hammer.  So there were a number of hammers clicking before i attended to it.  And finally, the regulation. Regulation is the process of fine adjustments to streamline the flow from key to hammer.  It’s what makes a piano feel ‘right’ or positive.  With a cracked action rail, the hammers wouldn’t stay in alignment.  After quoting on this job, it then struck me… “what have i got myself into?”  Action rails have nearly 200 screw holes, thickness requirements down to the thousandths and fore and aft placements that need tending to.  Well i’m always up for a challenge.  And so before ripping this piano apart, i went back to the calculations.  There’s a joint near the hammer called the flange.  And for those who are interested, mathematically, you should be able to compute flange height.  Simply, the string height inside the body of the piano minus the length of bore (LOB) – which is the centre of the shank to the tip of the hammer SHOULD equal the bird’s eye.  The what? The bird’s eye is the nickname given to the joint of the flange.  See? It looks like an eye… kinda… ok maybe not… but it’s a steel pin surrounded by cloth inserted into wood.  So after calculating the bird’s eye, i managed to then thickness sand the new rail just under 3 thousandths of an inch (about the thickness of a piece of paper).  So once everything was installed? The moment i had been waiting for… it WORKED! but it just needed a lot of adjustments refitting the old parts.  It was a fun experience and more than that, exciting to bring a tired Broadwood (the silk purse) back to life.

Size matters…

When it comes to pianos… size matters!  Bigger is ALWAYS better.  In pianos there are four areas where size comes into play: the soundboard, the hammers and shanks, the strings and the keystick.  All of these four areas contribute to a piano sounding as rich as possible and feeling as consistent as they can be.  The soundboard is the amplifier to the piano.  The more square inches of soundboard, the greater the resonating area (if it’s manufactured correctly).  The longer the stings on a piano (which means either length in a grand or height in an upright), the deeper the voice of the piano.  The longer the shank (within reason), the better the blow distance of the hammer to the string (and also less of an arc is required).  And finally, the longer the keystick, the greater the control.  That is why taller uprights are considered ‘professional’ and semi-concert grands and concert grands are 7 and 9 feet long… Bigger is ALWAYS better.

Pictured are two pianos – the one above  is a small upright piano.  The one below is a tall professional instrument.  Note that the size of the ‘action’ – the mechanism is considerably taller in one than the other.  This provides better control over the keys – especially in the area of quiet playing.

Drive the Car

f1I was 22 years of age when i was hired by the local Baldwin piano store.  The owner was a technician and the first words out of his mouth were “Glen, you may be educated in performance but i just want to tell you that because you know how to DRIVE the car, don’t presume that you know how the car works”.  He then proceeded to tell me that the mechanic is not the driver in the Formula1.  And so i took his advice to heart.  I began to learn about the insides of the piano.  I will say however, that being a driver and a mechanic both have distinct advantages.  I remember this boss calling me to his workshop to try out a newly rebuilt piano. He’s all smiles and with big outstretched arms he points to the piano… “VOILA!”  He asks me to play.  I remember not being impressed by the piano and how put off he was because i couldn’t properly articulate what it was i didn’t like about the piano.  And then it occurred to me that regardless of what your thoughts are re: the makeup of the instrument, it’s the driver still that counts – they’re the ones who are going to play this instrument.

grandSo how do you properly test drive an instrument?  It’s funny because i get lots of students through my doors looking for pianos and who do they get to preview the piano? Why, the teacher no less.  But again, teachers are drivers and usually have very little understanding of what is going on in the piano.  They walk around the instrument and give the ol’ inspection “mmm hmmm’s”  but don’t really know what to say.  LOL…ok this is funny – so you know the grand lid on a piano? It’s the 45 degree angled part held up by what is called a prop stick.  After previewing a Steinway grand for her client… she finally said.  “SOooooo, this is one of those ‘one-stick’ pianos”.  (most pianos have 2 or 3) OK ok ok… i thot it was funny… kinda like judging the car by the antennae.  Anyway… here are some tricks and tips on testing pianos:

  1. Test the piano at different volume levels.  My trumpet teacher used to say “any 2 year old can blat a horn – it takes a master to play it quietly”.  Much is the same at the piano.  If a piano is ever going to misfire, it will be at soft volumes
  2. Play each key – find out if there are any sticking or problem notes – listen especially for buzzes and rattles
  3. Find the crossover.  The crossover is the spot where the bass copper coloured strings change to steel strings.  This is usually a problematic place on most pianos for consistency.  Great pianos will have a very gradual change in tone.
  4. Sustain.  Sustain is your friend.  Take one note – moderate volume – play it and listen to how long it takes to die away.  If it’s short lived, quite often the soundboard (the amplifier) is dead.
  5. Excessively loose or heavy action.  Take one key – depress the notes on either side then grab hold of the sides of the key and wiggle it back and forth – left to right.  Does it ‘knock’?  Worn out pianos usually will have a notable ‘click’ here.  As well, lift the very front of the key by the overhang – ever so slightly (you don’t want to rip off the keytop!)  It should rise only about 1/16″ but it should also fall on it’s own weight.  Newer pianos quite often are tight and if there’s too much friction here, they won’t fall back to rest position.
  6. Finally, test the workings of the pedals.  Make sure the damper blocks lift simultaneously and in a comfortable manner.

Oh there are many many other tests you can do… but these will cover the basics. Enjoy!

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