Posts tagged strings

Piano Signatures

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.

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.

The Problem with New Piano Strings

Five.  The number is five.  In my estimation, pianos require 5 tunings to stabilize the stretch in the steel.  Did you just read correctly? There’s stretch in steel? Absolutely.  And to prove it, try tuning a piano with new strings.  The first 3 times are almost laughable how much the pitch alters.  By the fourth and fifth times the strings level out.  Why is this important? There are three applications: if you have purchased a new piano, expect to tune it more than once in your first year.  Second, if you have just restored an old vintage piano – same thing applies.  I would hope that some of (if not most) of those tunings would’ve been done prior to arriving at your house but you’d be surprised at how off pitch i’ve seen new (and even expensive) pianos after the first year.  Third, if you EVER have a string break on a piano – just remember that putting the string on is the easy part… retuning 5 times that year… more challenging.  Recently i was at a customer’s home where the family piano had been dropped by movers.  6 strings broke trying to bring it back up to pitch – apparently the sudden jolt altered it considerably.  After ordering these new bass strings, it only took me a half hour to put them on but i told this teacher that i need to stop in for just a few minutes to tune because they won’t hold for the first few tunings. Just some thoughts to remember…

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.

So you have an Upright Grand?

This is the most frequent misnomer in the piano biz.  True story.  On a daily basis people come into my shop and whisper to me “Do you know that i have an upright grand at home?”  I think they’re hoping my eyes will pop out of my head in amazement at such a rare and wonderful find – that we’ve truly discovered the queen’s jewels! Sadly… i’m a skeptic at heart…. possibly even cynical.  Y’see… the term “upright grand” was started in the 1920’s as a sales feature.  When you lifted the lid on some pianos there was this embossed slogan “Grand piano in upright form”.  This got bantered about so much so that it became a coined phrase – the “upright grand”.  And customers would then feel proud about their acquisition of a piano they thought was so much more grandiose than any other upright piano.  So what exactly were they referring to? Well… size is one thing.  Very tall old upright pianos (usually about 55 inches in height) have similar string length and soundboard area as about 5’8″ – 6’1″ grand pianos.   That said, a tall upright WILL  deliver similar depth of tone as some grand pianos, granted.  But the bigger difference that started all of this is a small little piece that was usually only found on grand pianos called an agraffe.  Agraffe is a french word that means ‘staple’.  In fact… check out the picture of my box of staples from my desk drawer.  See that? It says agrafes (missing an F for some reason…)  Agraffes on grand pianos ‘staple’ the exact position of the string to the cast iron in a piano.  It sets the left-right position spacing of the strings and also the ‘downbearing’ of the string (how much pressure the string is placing on the bridge).  Because agraffes are usually found on grands, some manufacturers who put them on upright pianos started calling their verticals upright grands.  Most don’t know of this crazy little factoid but that’s in my mind the true meaning of the term.  Ok wait… it gets better… recently someone came in and told me they had a “Concert Upright Baby Grand!”  Oh for heaven sakes… from the sublime to the ridiculous!

Loud but not belligerent

There are few things in my life that i am SOOOO opinionated about that i would venture to say “YOU ARE WRONG” but to this regard, i’ll go to my grave standing behind this point.  “What is it” you ask yourself “that would make him so adamant?”  It relates to piano tuning.  Y’see, a few months ago i was tuning while another tuner was working on another piano adjacent to me.  After some time he put down his tools, came over to me and said “that’s CRAZY how loud you’re hitting the keys when you tune! Why do you do that?”  The answer is really quite simple (the explanation – a little more complicated).  When you tune a piano, you do something called “setting the pins”.  Each of the approximately 225 tuning pins is either loosened or tightened to raise or lower the pitch of the piano.  Only problem is… once you move the string, there is still residual movement of the pitch until that note has settled.  How do you get the note to *JOLT* into place? That’s where the term ‘setting’ the pins comes in.  If you strike the key with some force, it moves the string until it settles.  The advantage to this is that when a performer then sits down at a piano and they play some really loud chord, the strings won’t move out of position because they’ve already been set – they’ve already been struck with similar force when it was tuned.  What this ensures then is tuning stability – if i when i tune a piano hit quite a loud volume, the strings will only jostle out of pitch if the performer hits HARDER than i do when tuning.  In a nutshell, if you hear a piano tuner who is really gentle at the piano… you have the wrong tuner (in my humble opinion).  If they don’t bang the tar out of the piano when they’re moving the strings, the first loud piece you play at the piano will move them out of pitch and you’ll be having to live with that out of pitch note for the next year (or until you have your piano tuned next).  So when i was asked “Why do you hit the key so loudly?”, i simply stated “Because it makes no sense whatsoever to tune the piano quietly”.  We exchanged a few more words but… i still walked away thinking “I am right, and you’re wrong”.   Hate to say it… but unless you have a loud tuner, you will be unsatisfied with your tuning.

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.

Just Pedalling Part 2

So we looked at the most important pedal, sustain in Just Pedalling Part 1.  In this post we’ll look at the remaining 2 pedals.  The left pedal correctly named the “Una Corda” pedal is an Italian term with a translation that simply means ‘one string’.  On every piano, 6 out of the 7 octaves of notes have more than one string.  This means then that one hammer is either striking 3 strings simultaneously or 2 strings (depending on how low).  The very bottom notes only have one string.  If you depress the left pedal on a grand, watch the keys because the ENTIRE keyboard shifts about an 1/8 of an inch to the right.  Physically what is happening is that the hammers are shifted out of alignment so that they are no longer hitting 3 strings but rather two (one string is left off – thus una corda).  And so the piano becomes quieter because it is not hitting all 3 strings.  But something else is happening.  Piano hammers get grooves in them because they strike the same position all the time.  When you depress the U.C. (una corda)  (funny… my teacher used to simply write U.C. in my music… apparently we were supposed to know what that was about…lol) the piano also takes on a different sound due to the fact that the alignment of the grooves in the hammers are also out of sync.  This strike of the hammer is now on ‘fresh’ ungrooved felt and makes the piano not only quieter, but mellower. (is mellower even a word?)  So that is the CORRECT way U.C. is to work.  On uprights, the keyboard cannot move and so it operates COMPLETELY different.  Due to the fact that there is no side to side movement, how does one make the piano quieter? Simply by installing a governor – which is a ceiling or a cap on the volume.  If you try and clap your hands but only allow your hand to go only 5″ apart, how loud can you clap? Not that loud because distance creates velocity and velocity, volume.  In the case of piano hammers, uprights simply move the hammers closer to the strings to create the pseudo soft playing effect.  Is it effective? Not really… for 2 reasons.  One is that the touch gets drastically affected.  When the hammers move forward, most pianos then have ‘gaps’ in the touch because it has travelled the hammers towards the strings.  Problem 2 – there is no ‘fresh felt’ kind of sound like grands have.  It doesn’t move the hammers out of the grooves.

Well… just when i thought i’d cover 2 pedals on one post, i’ve run out of both steam and time.  Stay tuned for pedalling #3 on the sostenuto pedal… and the 4 variations! It’s a doozer!

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