Posts tagged design
Ok so there’s some homework attached to today’s post – it’s a TED talk -if you haven’t yet seen TED tv you should… FABULOUS encouraging and often humorous talks to feed the soul. Anyway, i watched this post some time ago about a guy building a toaster from scratch. Click on it (above). So it’s about a guy who decides he wants to build a toaster, gather the necessary components of iron, copper, mica and plastic to form his toaster. ANYWAY… the reason i mention this is because i once thought to myself… “i wonder how i would go about building a piano from scratch”. Think about the cast iron frame alone – let alone the grand rim, the pressure fit soundboard, the 3000+ action parts, the strings, the hammers… The piano manufacturing process is the evolution of about 200 years of tinkering and design to the point where we have it today. Seguay.
I had the privilege of speaking with the CEO of Pearl River/Ritmuller piano company this year. He said that they have about 1.3 MILLION… that’s capital M as in Million square feet of manufacturing space (2.8 million of land!) Annual productions run nearly 100,000 pianos. So… think realistically about the fact that it might take many months to produce one mediocre piano by yourself. Pearl River is putting out – completed pianos 800 PER DAY. 800 completed, tuned, regulated, finished, polished pianos PER DAY. Now this brings about one other point – Productivity necessitates efficiency. Did you catch that? The more you create of one product, the more efficient the manufacturing becomes. If i made one piano, it might take me a few years. Two pianos… let’s just double up every stage of the manufacturing and build twos of everything. Thirty per year, you need a small team to accomplish this. (Approximate numbers) 450 per year – as in Bosendorfer – roughly 37 per month… that takes some thought as to efficiency. Steinway – around 5000 pianos – 400 per month. See where this is going? Now when you get to 90,000-100,000 pianos annually you have two options. You hire an incredibly large work force of people with many inconsistencies or you did what Pearl River did and bring in VERY expensive machines to streamline the process. This is where my radar perks up. If you can maintain and supply for consistent sales at nearly 100,000 instruments annually, then by reason, should not their refinement in manufacturing tolerances also become very acute? Productivity lends itself to efficiency because you CANNOT manufacture that many pianos without being consistent time and again. Before you have the audacity to wipe off a brand of pianos without thinking through what it is they accomplish in a year, better make sure you know that of which you speak. At 100,000 pianos a year, 800 per day, they’ve hired some of the best in designers in the world (Lothar Thomma). At a staff of nearly 4000 employees, this piano company will soon be (if not already) one of the largest forces in piano manufacturing the world has ever known. If that were not enough, Pearl River/Ritmuller is one of (i believe) only 2 piano companies in China to receive the highly accredited ISO (International Organization for Standardization) stamp of approval. Check out the promo video below… now THAT’S impressive!
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.
Ok let’s be honest here… companies are coming to recognize that their name is worth more than their product. And i’m not talking just of pianos – the Japanese company Sony manufactures many of their products in Mexico… Martin guitars partially the same. Delta, HP… they’re all savvy to the fact that their names bring about reliability amongst consumers. They then trade their name for cheap labour and high profits… albeit quite often for a short season. I have a friend who used to always say “In biz, you can either have a quick nickel or a slow dime”…. meaning that you can either sell out, for tomorrow the market may be gone… make the quick money now… or you build a quality product (the slow dime) for higher dollars that require longer to sell and have a smaller market share etc. So how does this apply to the piano biz? Glad you asked.
In January of this year i attended the NAMM show (the National Association of Music Merchants). And i took this opportunity to play every piano at the show but also, i talked to each manufacturer and asked what their ‘selling advantage’ is. Interesting to note that name branding has gone a layer deeper… not only is the piano name a brand, but now the parts are name branded. Terms are bantered about such as “Roslau wire”, “Abel hammers” etc. The cheapest of designs (i was told) are copies of expensive pianos. In fact, i heard on more than one occasion how these pianos were from ‘German tradition’. Well… i wouldn’t have really cared much until i have started hearing these same catch phrases from consumers. People like name brands and buyers want confidence – that comes from innovation, design, tradition. So… me being the skeptic… what happens if those elements are all but smoke and mirrors? I’m not saying that the parts are not what they say they are but… what happens if those parts don’t equal the whole? If they don’t truly give the entire picture? Let’s say you’re buying a car. The motor is great! But what about the frame? What about the transmission? The body? The performance is all dependant on the entire package correct? And so i see the general trends of piano making presently moving towards name branding the significant parts while glossing over other less noticeable ones hoping that consumers won’t somehow notice. The sad part? Is that most consumers buy it… hook, line and sinker.
So how do you avoid being horn-swaggled? Look deeper into the piano manufacturing… do your homework… talk to performers and technicians, teachers and friends. Be a smart and edumacated consumer.
When i was younger there were these books called “Where’s Waldo?” They consisted of busy cartoons where you had to find this one character named Waldo. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen those puzzles where they’ve changed 10 things in two different pictures and you have to find the differences but today’s post is something similar to that…. let me explain.
Last week 2 pianos came into my store – a C3 and a G3. For those who don’t know, both of these are famous Yamaha models of the same size – 6’1″ grand pianos. Both are spectacular. They made both of these models overlapping the manufacturing dates for almost 25 years! What is rare for me though is to have 2 within a few years of each other (namely 2) and to note the differences. I had preconceived ideas as to what those were but i was sadly mistaken. They are without question different designs (or in the piano world ‘scales’) but what are the detailed differences?
I took a few measurements and i must admit they’re very similar in many respects. First thing i did was a measurement of the gram weight of the hammers. Exactly the same although they ARE stamped differently – is their density slightly different? I then measured the keys for balance point – the same. I was told that G’s didn’t have duplexing but both of these were exactly the same. Crossover was the same. I also measured the bridges and they were slightly different but not hugely (a 5mm difference). The only 2 areas of change that are notable: one is a cosmetic difference – a beveled lid on the C whereas the G is plain. Second and by far the biggest difference – the rim on the C is wider in the tail. What this means is that there are more square inches of soundboard – giving more vibration/volume. Interesting.
Playing the two pianos – if you didn’t have a point of comparison it would be next to impossible to tell. The major difference though from the player’s point of view is that the C ‘breathes’ a bit more. It feels somehow fuller and the sound seems a touch more ‘distant’. The G feels ‘close’. The tone appears to be right in front of you.
So there you have a brief and short comparison. Yes, you could pull apart every joint, every angle, every string gauge but the long and the short of the matter is that they’re both wonderful playing and sounding instruments and the changes are negligible.