Posts tagged Steinway

The History of Piano String Tension

Blah! The title of this sounds to most as exciting as watching paint dry.  Operative words being “to most”… to me however this is one of the more interesting charts i’ve seen in a long time.  Back in 2005, published by Europiano, Juan Más Cabré wrote this article showing the differing string tensions over the last few hundred years. Everything i know about string tension i learned as a child with a bread pan and rubberbands. Hahaaa… i used to make musical instruments when i was a kid. What fascinated me though was the thickness of the rubber band and the sound that would happen at a certain pitch. This is exactly what’s going on in pianos. The graph shows the earliest of pianos from Cristofori (in 1726). That string tension is little more than that of a harpsichord. It became evident that a stronger frame would be neccessary to implement higher tension. With higher tension comes more singing tone. Next on the list is Silbermann who asked Bach for some input. Silbermann contributed the damper device (similar to a damper pedal) to the piano. Shortly thereafter in the Classical era (Beethoven’s time) more and more iron was added to the wooden frame so as to boost the string tension – again with more singing, sustaining sound and also more resonance and power. Enter the famed Steinway and Bosendorfer. Interesting to note is that “more is not always better”. There have been pianos that have had higher string tensions (as in Ibach) but manufacturers decide what sound is pleasing. This is part of the backbone of ‘scale’ – the trade secrets of piano makers. Length of string, thickness of wire and tension of string all add to the sound. To get a mini idea of this, play around with a bread pan. It really is a fascinating exercise in string tension. And after that… just make some fresh bread. Nothing beats music and food together :)

Bechstein Restoration – As Good As Old

I was asked to tune a piano recently that i had restored about 10 years ago.  What struck me as i sat there tuning was the quality of this instrument from yesteryear.  More than that, from turn of the century… ok i guess we need to qualify that right? hahaaa… from the turn of the 20th century, great piano design was well under way.  In fact, some of these piano designs are still revered and respected and are from a time known to many as the ‘golden era’.  Although i agree with many that there are SOME pianos from 100 years ago that were brilliant, there were many many more that were just coming of age.  The highest level of pianos however – the Bechsteins, the Bluthners, the Steinways, Bosendorfers… the list goes on where pianos were made to such a high degree of craftsmanship that they became manufacturers by royal appointment…  I find those pianos are very musical indeed.

The problem i have though is that many say “Oh nothing beats my grandmother’s old piano”… did they just refer to this old beat up, worn out piano as the apex, the very pinnacle of piano design? I must go on record by relating a saying that a wise old piano technician once told me when i first entered the business.  He said:

“Glen, there are two myths in the piano world: Older is good. And newer is better”.  Sounds paradoxical but it’s true… i’ve played old pianos most of which are just mediocre.  I’ve also played brand new pianos that you would think are brilliant and are sub-standard.  The moral of the story: quality in manufacturing and design still create beautiful music but you need to wade through the myriads of pianos to search for the gems.  If you had the chance to play this old C. Bechstein, it would without a doubt confirm that some will remain memorable.

Art Case Pianos – Part 2 – The Classics

In part one of this series we looked at the very FIRST art case made by Steinway.  Oh sure there have been many MANY other manufacturers before and after 1856.  That was just a small story introducing the concept of “art case” – if you weren’t familiar with the term.  Now we’re going to look at a few examples of modern art case pianos.  To begin with, i thot i’d introduce a recent photo of a piano named Grotrian – high end, beautiful and such a classic art case.  To me an art case is all about proportions – note how the cabriole legs (double curved 18th century type) give a certain elegance to the design. The music rack is embellished with scroll work. Repeated again under the keyboard. Even the side rims are notched and accented with motifs. Though i prefer satin art case instruments, this one has been high polished. In England, they’re called ‘bright’ finishes. Check out these other examples of art case: a few vintage Steinways – one with ornate carvings, the other with detailed inlays. While some would call these garish, if you’re a woodworker of any kind, you’ll appreciate if nothing else, the labour that went into the meticulous detail.

 

And finally, some modern day examples of art case – Bosendorfer designed by Audi. Steinway’s year 2000 “Rhapsody in Blue” limited edition (commemorating George Gershwin). And one of my all time favorites, Schimmel’s Pegasus. Click on the picture to see the enlarged photos.

Art Case Pianos – Part 1 Steinway #1225

A friend of mine (who will remain nameless) is a bit of a legend in the piano industry.  One day we started talking Steinway and he asked if he ever told me about “Twelve Twenty-Five”.  “1225? What’s that?”  He proceeded to tell me about this piano that is the oldest known “Art Case” Steinway ever found.  He and a business partner bought it! (before it entered into Steinway museum).  Here it is if you want to take a look. So art case refers to anything aside from standard traditional looking grand piano. “Traditional” means straight legs, no frills cabinet in either black, walnut or mahogany. “Art case” refers to paintings, carvings, fancy legs, scroll work, inlays, exotic woods and recognized designers.
But let me first continue with the 1225 story. So… apparently (as legends take on a life of their own…) this piano was part of an estate. But here is where it gets tricky because the piano didn’t say STEINWAY anywhere on it. Well… how do you know if you have a Steinway if it doesn’t have those letters anywhere on the cabinet? There were only 2 clues: One was that the music rack was carved with the same pattern as Steinway. The second clue was that the designer was definitively the same designer Steinway had used in later projects. On a gamble, these two men bought the Steinway… or what they THOUGHT was a Steinway. Some time later an entourage came from the factory to authenticate the piano and… sure enough it is the oldest art case piano presently in existence from Steinway & Sons. By the way… 1225 is the serial number of the piano dating it to 1856.

 

Piano Manufacturing Today… Is It All a Numbers Game?

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5ODzO7Lz_pw[/youtube]

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!

[flv]http://www.pearlriverusa.com/flv/pearl_river_01.flv[/flv]

 

How Much is My Piano Worth?

This is a quick and easy guide to price out what a piano is worth.  But before i get into that, let’s pretend for a moment that i know nothing about pianos… who knows… you, the reader might be in that situation.  Let’s say… i’m shopping for a houseboat (which i know nothing about BTW).  If i started my search, this would be my process:  I’d investigate new ones… I’d search for “BEST OF” makes and models, look at used ones, find out which ones hold value, which are most sought after and above that look at location and condition.  Pianos really are no different. There are about 4-5 parameters that i constantly bear in mind when evaluating instruments:

  1. Find out new value (if at all possible… many pianos have gone out of biz in the last 100 years…more on that later)
  2. Look online to find used comparisons
  3. This will determine what value retention is like
  4. Condition condition condition
  5. Location location location

So… case study #1  Let’s say you own a studio yamaha upright piano (pictured above).  Let’s say you own a model E108.  The new versions of those pianos locally sell for about $4000 CDN.  My rule of thumb is used pianos in mint condition sell for about half what a new one lists for.  Why? Well put the shoe on the other foot being a consumer.  Let’s say you want to buy a piano.  What would motivate you to buy used vs. new? If a new piano is $4000 and a used one is $3500… i’d usually buy the new one for a few more dollars and have warranty etc.  If the used one is $2200 (with no tax being a private sale) and a new one is $4000 plus tax (roughly $4400), the used savings are substantial enough to warrant buying used (at a cost savings of $2000 or more).  Finding out used comparisons… there are ones listed between $1800 and $3200… so you need to decide then what condition your piano is in.  Ask yourself “How close to new does my piano appear?”  Then examine again what other examples locally are selling for.  If yours is a MINT version of what you see locally… you may want to price it a bit higher.  Condition drastically affects piano value.  I’ve had beat up grands and excellent condition grands – same model and have a HUGE price disparity due to condition.  Look for evidence of condition – rust, cracks, chips, scratches.  Generally outside condition is often indicative of inside condition as well.  Finally… location.  I’m AMAZED at how pianos sell for different dollars in different locations.  It’s called supply/demand.  If the demand is higher, the price is according. Locally economic health also affects many used items. 

Case study #2… old piano… a Nordheimer (see below)… you can tell it’s old because of the fact that it looks like an antique.  It looks NOTHING like a new piano.  These are trickier to price in some ways. Some have had new parts, some have been refinished.  But the fact remains that most tall pianos (55 inch) that look kinda crusty are usually better part of 100 years old.  Now before you get all wound up about the fact that you’re holding on to an ‘antique’ artifact, let me dispell the myth that there are only 2 kinds of pianos: modern design and ‘early’ piano.  Early pianos ARE collectable and are specific models made between 1800 and about 1850 but even those aren’t necessarily valuable.   The ‘modern’ piano as we know it almost became standardized by the year 1900.   So… looking online… see the wide range of value? $100 – $3000!  Find some that look reasonably the same.  Quite quickly you’ll realise that value is more a product of supply/demand than condition.  Most old pianos these days are valued locally here at about $500-800.  “But… but… but… we put THOUSANDS into the resoration of our piano” you protest.  I hear ya… and i feel for ya… but refinishing, new parts will only bump up the price somewhat. 

Finally, bear in mind the name… with name is associated price.  Steinway for example fetches many times more than weird and obscure pianos REGARDLESS of quality.  Why? They’ve managed to stay on top of their game (let alone they’re still in business today).  Other names such as Yamaha, Kawai, Baldwin, Young Chang, Samick, Pearl River etc… are also household names.  These pianos will always have better value retention because of the name association.

OK OK OK one last note… if you’re STILL stuck, contact either a store or a technician. I field questions ALL the time about value and what people should price pianos at.  Good luck! And happy selling. Cheers!

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.

When in doubt just say “Duplexing”

Duplexing just sounds complex. Complex means it’s complicated. Complicated must mean that you’re somehow smart. And so… (follow the trail) knowing about duplexing means you’re smart. Ha ha. If you’re ever at one of those hors d’oeuvres-type parties and everyone’s dressed in tuxedos and ballroom gowns, you’re going to want to have something to say when they ask your professional opinion about the piano. My advice? Nod… add a few “mmm-hmmmms” and say “Ahhh… Duplexing”…hee hee. Ok enough of my jesting…

So what exactly is duplexing anyway?? Created by the late great Mr. Steinway himself in 1872, it was designed as an ‘added ring’ to pianos – giving more resonance to the tone. How is this accomplished? Glad you asked. Any piano string has what is called ‘speaking length’. This is the live portion of the string which resonates freely when a note is played on the piano. The speaking length starts just past the tuning pins on a part called an agraffe (or capo d’astro… ok i’ll define those some other time) and ends on the bridge. Past the bridge, the string is then wrapped around some sort of termination pin. The tone past the bridge was traditionally considered ‘dead’ tone. But Steinway thought “what happened if we kept this part of the piano ‘live’ or ringing in harmonicity with the instrument”? And so the duplex system was born. Think of it as duple time… duple by definition means ‘double’. So duplexing then is a double ringing part on the piano. How did Steinway make this contraption? He rigged another ‘bridge’ just before the termination point. One that was made out of a series of bars. In fact, if you want to test out the duplexing on your piano (if you have it), simply look past the bridge (which is easy to see on a grand piano) and you’ll spot the parts that are called “Aliquots” (another great party word after you’ve used duplex). You can test how live the duplex is on your piano by simply strumming that portion. An aliquot on a piano is a bar shown in the pictures here. By definition it means “fractional part”. Stands to reason… since we’re adding a fraction of the sound to the tone. In Latin, it simply means “several” or “a few”. Steinway’s thinking was to add either an octave or 5th to the existing tone, making it fuller and richer sounding.

Having said all that… some people just don’t like the extra ring. Solution? Simply cordon off the strings with what is called ‘understringing braid’. (I know i know… too many new words this time around). In the tech world, it’s simply called understringing – anything touching the strings will stop the extra tone and so if you have a technician ‘block’ the tone by adding understringing, it will alter the added ring on a piano. By the way, one experiment i did about 5 years was change the proximity of the understringing with the bridge. It changes perceived tone considerably.

The Eye of the Beholder…

hammers2Quite 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.

Seguay.

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.

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