Posts tagged soundboard

How Often Should Pianos Be Tuned?

There hardly is a day that goes by when people don’t ask “How often should i tune my piano?”  To understand this question, there are a few variables you need to be aware of.  Firstly, there are roughly 18 tonnes of string tension pulling on most pianos at any given time.  To say to me “We hardly ever play it” in some ways is irrelevant because the strings are still under tension regardless of whether your hand touches the keys.  That said, pianos that get play a LOT will go out slightly if the tuning pins have not been properly set when tuning and i have noticed that more frequently used teaching pianos require more attention.  Second, humidity change plays a large part in tuning stability.  The strings are not just stretched from one end to the other.  They go over a bridge (much like you would see on a guitar).  That bridge is attached to the soundboard and depending on seasonal changes in humidity, the piano will fluctuate in pitch as the wood expands and contracts.

Now then, once you understand all of that, my usual response when asked how often pianos should be tuned is this: Depends how particular you are in having it in tune.  Recording studios and concert halls have it tuned every time it’s used.  Some churches even locally have it tuned once a month to quarterly depending on budget.  Most teaching studios tune twice a year.  Most families tunes yearly.

“But my piano doesn’t go out of tune that often”… hahaaaa.  I’ve encountered VERY few pianos in my lifetime and i’ve played over a thousand that rarely go out of tune.  My guess is that the piano is just gently creeping out of tune in such small increments that you don’t realise it’s gone out a few degrees.  My rule of thumb is that most people can’t hear when a piano is out of tune up to 6 degrees!  A degree in tuning is called a cent.  A semi-tone is 50 cents.  Full tone 100.  When pianos are out by about 3 or 4 degrees, the piano has still dropped in pitch but may not have been noticed.  Well… wait another year and then it’s out another 3 or 4.  Sooner than you know it, the piano has sunken 12-15 degrees over 3 or 4 years and instead of simply correcting a few degrees, you’re pulling strings.  My advice? Whether you hear it or not, do yourself a favor and keep it in regular maintenance.  And besides, like freshly squeezed orange juice, nothing beats a freshly tuned piano.

Pianos and Dust

I get asked ALL the time “What do i do about the dust in my piano”. Let me reassure you that dust is NOT an enemy to pianos. The outside of pianos – the cabinet is simply furniture. The inside – the strings, keys, action – think of it like a car. Do you worry about dust on your car engine? Of course not. Piano keys have a type of dust ‘trap’ which is the keybed. As seen in the picture below, when you take the keys out there are paperclips, dust, coins. None of these affect the piano performance. Heat and humidity fluctuation are the enemies to pianos – not dust.
So go ahead and dust the outside and leave the insides alone. Now if you own a grand and you’re tired of looking at dust under the strings – again, it’s cosmetic but i can understand that you want to have it clean and bright looking. I own a soundboard cleaner which is simply a long aluminum strip that i attach a dust cloth to. When asked to clean under the strings, I remove the grand lid and do a proper job of cleaning. It requires some effort and know-how but worth the results. Just one cautionary note: If you want to either vacuum or dust the inside of your grand, be REALLY careful with the dampers (pictured right). If the wires that hold these in place get bent, they affect the sustain and will require adjustment. My advice, you can dust the gold cast iron, the strings, the soundboard, the tuning pins, but leave the dampers alone. Hope this helps.

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.

Floating Piano Soundboards… What’s all the hype?

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.

Piano Soundboard Tension???

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’.

Cause & Effect: Piano Rattles

HOPEFULLY you don’t have a rattle like this snake inside your piano! But you have to admit… it DID grab your attention right? Well… needless to say, sourcing out rattles in pianos are tough tough tough… Yep… A rattle in a piano is a difficult thing to find the source of.  Why? Because the piano emits vibrations and the vibrations usually excite some part on the piano unrelated to the string that is loose.  Generally there are 4 main areas that cause rattles in pianos:

    1. Something loose on the soundboard (especially on grands) – a pencil, paperclip, ummm (don’t laugh) rat poop (ewww i know…), marbles, combs, pieces of paper
    2. Loose hinge pins are HUGE on the list – the centre pin of the hinge is sitting too loosely in it’s frame and rattles sympathetically with the string
    3. Loose pedal rods or trapwork
    4. Buzzing unseated string – where an individual string is not snug against the bridge or capo
      The solution? I start by removing any extraneous things (like pictures or ornaments from the area). Next, try to localize the source.  Move your ears around as you play the note and try and find out the general vicinity where the noise is coming from.  If you see any loose item, now’s the time to grab the tweezers and pull it out.  It may be something simple like that.  Then start holding things – start touching all the hinges or piano parts until the noise stops.  When all else fails, try touching individual strings that are being struck by the hammer.  If for example there are 3 strings being struck at once, place your finger on each one and then strike the key again.  You may find that one of them is creating noise.  Now when it comes to loose parts, you MAY be able to tighten a screw down and stop the noise.  But if you feel like you’re over your head, simply ask a technician about it next time he/she comes to tune.

Piano Bridges

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.

The Best Time to Tune

First of all, let me say that if you haven’t had your piano tuned in YEARS, the best time to tune is RIGHT NOW.  This article relates to people who tune their pianos regularly and would like to know how to optimize their tunings so that they last longer.  (and i just heard someone say “You can optimize tuning???”) The answer is a resounding YES! But before i give you the goods on that answer, i’ll keep you in suspense and drag you through the proverbial mud on the why’s of this answer first.

There are 3 elements that affect tuning stability.  Tuning pin torque, stretch in piano wire and soundboard fluctuation. Tuning pin torque has to do with how tight the tuning pins are in the pinblock.  For those who can’t place what part i’m talking about, these are the steel ‘pegs’ the tuner loosens and tightens to tune the piano.  The wire is stretched across the piano and are wound around these at either the top of the piano (on an upright) or at the front (on a grand).  Tuning pins are held by friction in a pinblock – a wooden (most often laminated) block of wood which i found out a few years back is called a wrestplank in Europe.  The word ‘wrest’ has its origins in ‘wrench’ which makes perfect sense really.  It is the part of the piano the tuner uses the tuning hammer (or wrench).  So if the friction is not there, the torque is not there and there will not be tuning stability.

The second factor affecting tuning is the steel wire itself.  Now this only applies to new wire.  Believe it or not, there’s HUGE amounts of stretch when new wires are installed on a piano.  Generally, i’ve noticed that it takes about 5 tunings to get new strings to stabilize.  If you’ve EVER had one broken string on a piano, you’ll know that the new wire will go out of tune quite quickly for the first few tunings.

So if your piano has good tuning pin strength and the wires are not new, that only leaves one alternative as to why pianos go out of tune on a regular basis (remembering that there are 18 tonnes of pull constantly at work as well!)  The last factor affecting tuning is the fluctuation in the soundboard.  The soundboard is the giant ‘amplifier’ that takes string resonance and multiplies the volume.  Without soundboard there is little sound on a piano.  Now similar to a guitar, the strings of a piano cross over the bridge which is directly attached to the soundboard.  Since the soundboard is dynamic – meaning that it is constantly moving, fluctuation in tuning will occur.  And what affects the soundboard? You guessed it, humidity.  Humidity affects wood CONSTANTLY.  It absorbs moisture and swells and dispells humidity and shrinks.  There is a constant contraction and expansion of the soundboard. 

So back to the question: When is the best time to tune the piano? The answer: after the major adjustment in humidity has occurred – namely spring and fall.  In the fall, the humidity shifts into the rainy/snowy season and in the spring the humidity moves into the dry/sunny season.  As soon as that shift has taken place, the piano will then be adjusted for the next 6 months.  So what happens if you tune before that time?  Well, you’ll nicely get your piano tuned, the humidity will shift and then you’ll notice notes will start to sound a little bit ‘out’.  To optimize your tuning, wait until AFTER the shift.  Where i live those months are October/November and March/April.  Just a thot to make your hard earned dollars last a bit longer…

Where’s Waldo?

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?

Yamaha G3 Rim

Yamaha C3 Rim

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.

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.

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