Posts tagged iron
The other day i was pulling apart an old Heintzman grand piano – arguably the best make of piano ever built in Canada. Rarely do the strings come off on an old piano. In fact, there was evidence that this one had never had new strings since new. I’m the first person to touch the strings in almost 90 years. I find that fascinating – not that the strings haven’t been changed but that this piano has not been touched since new. On the back of one of the understringing slats however i didn’t expect to find the signatures that you see in the pics. There were initials were MCR and he dated one of them August 27, 1923. As well, it reads “R. Sill” or “R.Gill” and the production number 394. I find it not only interesting but also humbling to be part of the life of a piano. I remember lifting the cast iron plate with a large engine hoist out of a piano and underneath it had a signature. What fascinates me is that we touch history, it comes to life. We get transported back in time to when piano makers were building these one at a time and some technician in the factory signed his name on a piece of a piano that will never see the light of day. It’s just interesting to me… it’s a piece of history that we get to see for a brief moment. But not only that, to make this piano function again, I need to re-install these same wooden slats back into the piano. That means then, that this signature was buried for 90 years, i’m potentially the only one to view it and then it gets concealed possibly for either another 100 years… or possibly never if the piano doesn’t get rebuilt again. Just thot i’d share someone’s work from nearly a century ago and bring to light that which was in the darkness. Below is a picture of piano keys, each one signed by the technician who tuned it… check out the dates.
My gears about this post started in January of this year. I briefly discussed the concept of steel frames in pianos with piano designer Del Fandrich at NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) in Anaheim, California. Until recently steel hasn’t been really considered as an option for a frame in a piano. It’s relative brother iron is just so much easier to work with and cost effective… and let’s face it, the development of the piano is shrouded in tradition. “If it ain’t broke” some would argue, “don’t fix it”. Well enter the age of the super-piano. Pianos designed with extreme accuracy, pianos manufactured by computer assisted tools called CNC (Computer Numerically Controlled) – lathes that can cut out parts within thousandths of an inch. We are also living in an era where there are giant piano manufacturers but also boutique makers who put out pianos in excess of $250,000. With the holy grail of pianos much more in view than 100 years ago, mark my words that change is in the wind. Seguay.
As a kid do you remember those REEEEEALLY bouncy small rubber balls? Do you? I grew up in a house that had a central hallway. Well you can imagine what fun those balls were when you bounced one at any angle. Our cat was wide-eyed and mystified at such a toy. The success of those bouncy balls is due in part to the density of the ball but ALSO, equally important is the reflective surface. Try bouncing it on a soft rug and all energy is lost. So the guiding principle then is that the harder the reflective surface, the more the energy is transfered outward correct?
Pianos are no different. Lately i’ve been working on a 1923 Steinway. The action rail is a long rail which holds all of the hammer, shanks and flanges in place. Interesting to note is the METAL rail. While 98% of the companies in that day simply used wooden rails, Steinway was using cast rails. Yamaha in about 1970 redesigned all of their pianos to have alluminum rails. What does that mean? Well when the hammer strikes the string, it means that the harder surface (ie metal) is like the cement floor with the bouncy ball. It pushes the energy outward. Wood, though firm doesn’t hold a candle to metal of any kind. With energy loss also comes sound projection loss.
Fast forward over one hundred years from Steinway’s action rail. Now make no mistake that iron in pianos is the backbone and is the rigid frame in any piano. But what happens if you use a substance whose strength is MINIMUM three TIMES greater than that of iron. Back to the bouncy ball. Firmer structures make for greater projection. When i interviewed Petrof at NAMM, their new designs which can’t be seen are some of the more exciting changes i’ve seen in years. One technician who was at the show told me all about the implementation of steel in their keybed. Interesting. The keybed is the framework around the keys. Again… hate to sound like a broken record but… harder the surface, the greater the projection. And now what have they gone and done? Check this out…. STEEL frame – not just iron. Kudos to them. Now this may not be news to some… but it’s news to me. Change is in the wind… and we’re going to see it in our lifetime.
Oh and BTW, due to increased strength, somewhat less steel is used thus exposing more of the soundboard. See how the frame is almost like a spider’s web? Brilliant. The Petrof model is called the Monsoon. When it rains it pours…
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.