Posts tagged sound
So the concept is not new… but rather new to ME. In January, i decided to interview all of the manufacturers at NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants). It took me 3 days to get through all of the pianos and speak to everyone at this large trade show. One of the companies that caught my attention due to design implementation was Young Chang. Speaking with designer Del Fandrich, we looked at “floating” soundboards. But before we get into floating soundboards, let’s first look at soundboards in general.
A soundboard appears to be a big flat sheet of wood (usually spruce) underneath the strings on the piano. The soundboard isn’t actually flat but slightly curved under compression. The purpose is that it acts like (what i would call) an amplifier… technically speaking my engineering friends would call it a transducer – transforming energy into sound. We hear the piano tone primarily because of the vibration of the soundboard.
So what’s a ‘floating’ soundboard then? Well pianos have two battling elements – string length vs. soundboard flex. What do i mean by that? The longer the strings are, the deeper the sound of the piano. That’s why 9′ long concert grands sound magnificent! They have lonnnnnnng strings. So if you were to stretch the strings in a short piano to the very edge of the rim, you would think that you would have this marvelous tone right? Wrong. See that’s where this battle goes on. Think about diving boards for a moment. The closer you are to the edge of the pool, the less the diving board will move. Why? Because it’s attached to the side of the pool (which is rigid). The farther out over the water, the more the diving board will flex. So back to pianos, the closer you get to the rim, the more the rim ‘stifles’ the sound vibration. Ideally the bridge of a piano should be some distance away from the rim. Enter the floating soundboard concept. So… what happens if you could have the best of both worlds? What happens if you have long strings AND flexibility? That’s what has happened with Young Chang’s latest design. If you look straight down in the bass section on their latest pianos, the soundboard is not attached to the outside rim for the entire bass section. The advantage then is that you can have longer strings and still have decent vibration of the soundboard in the bass because it is not attached. Kudos to Young Chang for being not necessarily the first to the finish line but being one of the largest piano companies in the world to embrace this advance in technology and build bigger sounding pianos.
It was a funny afternoon of visitors in my piano shop. One such visitor was a friend of mine… another guy named Glenn (although i keep reminding him that 2 ‘n’s are redundant… but then again, i named my youngest son Quinn…) ANYWHOOOO… he comes in, sits down and states “Glen… i have a REALLY hard time reading information from piano ‘authorities’ when in the first paragraph, there are GLARING errors. It’s rubbish”. Now you have to bear in mind that most of my friends are critical thinkers. Glenn is no exception – structural engineer by trade but also piano lover. He continued “I was reading from a leading expert who was writing about piano soundboards being under tension”. Me being the non-intellect of my friends… i get dragged by my collar into such discussions… i’m a little slow to the draw and reply… “Ya… uh huh and your point?” (I’m surprised he didn’t have my head at that response.) “Glen think about it!!! Tension by definition means to pull apart. Take a rubber band. Stretch it apart. THAT’s tension. Compression means pushing together. He held one of my business cards bending it slightly – THAT’s compression. It’s ridiculous that a soundboard would be under tension… it would be KINDLING! Pull apart a soundboard??? Pianos aren’t under tension at all… they’re under compression. The Roman arches were designed with compression – pushed together”. After thinking about it for awhile i recognized how he was right. Piano soundboards are compressed – slightly arced with a crown. The more i think of that concept, the error in logic almost seems humourous. We’ve somehow slipped into bantering terms about that incorrectly define the piano. We then have a scenario of the blind leading the blind don’t we? When the so-called experts are educating their followers down a slippery slope. Starts to make one wonder however as to the validity of other information given. Just sayin’.
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.
Bridges are beautiful aren’t they? And true to form, they serve the purpose of connecting – of filling the gap. Many know what a bridge is on a guitar or violin but many do not know of piano bridges. What is the purpose of the bridge anyway? Well simply put, the bridge transfers the vibration of the string to the soundboard where the tone is amplified. So the EFFICIENCY of transfer is critical to retain the sound produced at the string. Effectiveness comes from 5 elements and they are:
Position – if the bridge is positioned on the soundboard incorrectly, the tone will be compromised
Material – many are made from maple or mahogany
Downbearing – how much pressure is being placed on the bridge by the strings
Notching – cutaways leading up to the flat surface on top
Laminations – most bridges today have at least a “cap” which is a cross laminated piece to reinforce the bridge for structural integrity.
When bridges go terribly wrong… most people when purchasing a used piano don’t look for cracks in the bridge. They ALWAYS look at the soundboard but quite often don’t consider the bridges. If the bridge is cracked, the tone “bleeds” from one string to the next and will not have any substantial sound or sustain. The other thing which i will point out is that inexpensive pianos have a gazillion laminations (it looks like plywood). I swear there’s more glue on some of the cheap pianos than there is wood. I’ve NEVER heard a GREAT piano with more than a few laminations. If you see one with 10 ply or more… take note to the sound. Chances are, the tone is also very comprimised.
On a completely different note, at a recent trade show (NAMM 2011) Petrof introduced a redesign of their spectacular grands and interestingly the bridge at the very high notes on the piano is BLACK! That’s because it’s made out of ebony – which they claim makes excellent transference of high note tone. I have to confess… it was a favorite piano to play when i was there. Beautiful.
Ever wonder what makes one piano sound bright and strident while another more mellow and warm? Well my son plays the drums (and piano of course!) and i find it interesting that it’s the attack point that determines frequencies. So… let’s say for example a drummer pulls out a pair of brushes to do a jazz number. Next song he uses sticks for a rock song. Finally, let’s think of soft mallets. Now think about the fact that the drums themselves didn’t change. The rims, the skins – all remained the same. What changed however was the attack point – more specifically the density of the surface. So the brushes have many fibers put together. They ‘swish’ the drums more than hit in part too because the fibres are flexible. The sticks have a very defined strike point but also a firmness to them. The mallets on the other hand are ‘felty’. Each of these accentuate – now this is key – different frequencies that already exist within the drum. The harder the strike point, the more the drum will accelerate the frequencies akin to the mallet. Now in pianos, the hammers are the mallets are they not? They strike the strings – they present the tone. It is at that strike point the tone is established. So if you want different sound, simply change the hammers then right? Well…. sort of. 50% of your tone will be in that strike point and 50% will be the frequencies accelerated within the piano itself. Back to the drum analogy – the mallet can change and produce varying degrees of brilliance but the drum still embodies all of the frequencies… whether you enjoy them or not. So are you stuck with the tone that’s in your piano? No. In the words of the Germans “Vee haf vays unt makink dem talk!” – There are methods to alter the sound – by manipulating the strike point – to change the perceived tone. That’s called voicing.
Quite a number of years ago a friend of mine watched a show on TV about beauty. What was interesting to note was that they took a number of pictures (i hate to say it…sorry i’m not sexist but…) pictures of women of all different shapes, colours, kinds and sizes and showed them to different cultures asking “Point out the most beautiful”. The statistics were interesting… that regardless of culture there is a general sense of ‘beauty’. And before you get your nickers in a knot, let me just say that in North America, they’ve manipulated that concept to the NINES! to the point of disgusting. It’s created a weird box that women are somehow supposed to fit into – regardless of the fact that most do NOT.
I was tuning a piano this morning – thinking of the concept of beauty in tone; how 8 out of 10 of my customers listen for a similar type of tone. I was contemplating what the ‘averages’ were in piano sound – that if you were to play a number of pianos, what most people would find pleasing. Ok follow the rabbit trail here… i was then thinking about connecting a spectrograph (an electronic device that displays a breakdown of frequencies) to pianos that are considered ‘beautiful’ and analysing the correlations of tone. (i know, i know…piano tuning is boring…lol… i have such thoughts when i’m tuning for better part of 2 hours…lol). So after the tone is ‘visible’, then look at the physical makeup of the piano – the felt, the strings, the make and model etc and try and reverse engineer the formula. Why? Well, there’s this thing called VOICING. Voicing is the art of manipulating the piano hammers in such a way as to enhance frequencies or remove unwanted frequencies. When i was young, i thot that each piano company had a certain tone. Yamaha had a tone, Baldwin had a tone, Kawai had a tone, Steinway had a tone… etc… and to a degree, that concept is true. But what MANY people don’t know is that the tone can be altered almost up to 50%. What that means is that you can have an extremely mellow sounding Yamaha – which typically is a brassy bright instrument. Through voicing, you can change the way the fibres of the hammer strike the string. Once this is accomplished, pianos can go from very mediocre to dazzling!
Well… my time is up. I’ll write another blog about voicing some time…promise. And there you’ll understand the basics how-to’s of the process of voicing.