Posts tagged tone
I will go to my grave arguing that horizontally laminated bridges are the WORST thing possible on a piano. Sometimes my blog is informative while today i just need to rant. Yesterday i tuned a brand new piano (which will remain nameless) and i thought to myself – i’ve tuned pianos that are 100 years old that are better than this #$%!@#. What is WRONG with this piano???? So i guess a wee bit more description would help: It was a continental style upright. Continental means it has no front legs and is rather narrow front to back. Rather narrow usually means short key sticks. Short key sticks means it usually doesn’t feel very balanced. Check mark. Then i noticed that the dampers were lifting AHEAD of the hammers. WHAT???? The damper blocks dampen the sound and should be removed from the strings about halfway through the key stroke. Instead, they were lifting BEFORE the hammers were even moving. Ridiculous! In addition to lifting at the wrong time, the damper springs were so heavy that it made any kind of delicate playing impossible. OK wait… there’s more. So about 2 octaves above middle C, the tone just decided to take a left turn and sound like a tin can on steroids. But the Pièce de résistance in this piano was the lack of sustain. I took one look at the bridge (pictured) and added it to my list of bad pianos of all time. I have NEVER NEVER NEVER played a piano regardless of name brand that has a horizontally laminated bridge. WHY? Because sound will not travel through 14 layers of glue. FOURTEEN!?? Yep. Fourteen. I counted.
So if you have no idea what i’m talking about, a bridge (like that on a guitar) is the part on the piano where the strings transfer energy to the soundboard. If you look at the picture, you’ll see the strings crossing over the bridge pins onto this piece of wood. In this cheap piano, they made it out of layers and layers of glue… errr i mean wood. It is my experience that bad bridges are bad for business. The pianos ALWAYS sound terrible.
Now i understand the need for cost effective manufacturing and maybe this is my ignorance in woodworking but if you need to make a cheap bridge, why not turn it 90 degrees and do a vertically laminated bridge so that the sound is running down the individual strips of wood? The big boys (those who build $100,000 plus pianos) usually have a solid one piece with a cap for structural integrity resulting in great transference but also crazy costs. But i’ve also played really great pianos with 5 ply vertically laminated bridges. That is my guess at why i can play a 100 year old Bechstein that sounds wonderful (on today’s list of tunings) and why this piano that is brand new plays like dirt. Manufacturers need to wake up and realize that if there are corners to be cut, tone is not one of them. This week a piano tech said to me “The road to hell is paved with shortcuts”. Truly this is one of them.
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.
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 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!
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.
I was 22 years of age when i was hired by the local Baldwin piano store. The owner was a technician and the first words out of his mouth were “Glen, you may be educated in performance but i just want to tell you that because you know how to DRIVE the car, don’t presume that you know how the car works”. He then proceeded to tell me that the mechanic is not the driver in the Formula1. And so i took his advice to heart. I began to learn about the insides of the piano. I will say however, that being a driver and a mechanic both have distinct advantages. I remember this boss calling me to his workshop to try out a newly rebuilt piano. He’s all smiles and with big outstretched arms he points to the piano… “VOILA!” He asks me to play. I remember not being impressed by the piano and how put off he was because i couldn’t properly articulate what it was i didn’t like about the piano. And then it occurred to me that regardless of what your thoughts are re: the makeup of the instrument, it’s the driver still that counts – they’re the ones who are going to play this instrument.
So how do you properly test drive an instrument? It’s funny because i get lots of students through my doors looking for pianos and who do they get to preview the piano? Why, the teacher no less. But again, teachers are drivers and usually have very little understanding of what is going on in the piano. They walk around the instrument and give the ol’ inspection “mmm hmmm’s” but don’t really know what to say. LOL…ok this is funny – so you know the grand lid on a piano? It’s the 45 degree angled part held up by what is called a prop stick. After previewing a Steinway grand for her client… she finally said. “SOooooo, this is one of those ‘one-stick’ pianos”. (most pianos have 2 or 3) OK ok ok… i thot it was funny… kinda like judging the car by the antennae. Anyway… here are some tricks and tips on testing pianos:
- Test the piano at different volume levels. My trumpet teacher used to say “any 2 year old can blat a horn – it takes a master to play it quietly”. Much is the same at the piano. If a piano is ever going to misfire, it will be at soft volumes
- Play each key – find out if there are any sticking or problem notes – listen especially for buzzes and rattles
- Find the crossover. The crossover is the spot where the bass copper coloured strings change to steel strings. This is usually a problematic place on most pianos for consistency. Great pianos will have a very gradual change in tone.
- Sustain. Sustain is your friend. Take one note – moderate volume – play it and listen to how long it takes to die away. If it’s short lived, quite often the soundboard (the amplifier) is dead.
- Excessively loose or heavy action. Take one key – depress the notes on either side then grab hold of the sides of the key and wiggle it back and forth – left to right. Does it ‘knock’? Worn out pianos usually will have a notable ‘click’ here. As well, lift the very front of the key by the overhang – ever so slightly (you don’t want to rip off the keytop!) It should rise only about 1/16″ but it should also fall on it’s own weight. Newer pianos quite often are tight and if there’s too much friction here, they won’t fall back to rest position.
- Finally, test the workings of the pedals. Make sure the damper blocks lift simultaneously and in a comfortable manner.
Oh there are many many other tests you can do… but these will cover the basics. Enjoy!