Posts tagged voicing

Piano voicing – what exactly are we talkin’ about?

You may have heard a piano technician talk about voicing saying “Well we can voice those hammers down for you if you’d like”.  First of all, most don’t know what voicing entails.  Second, manipulating the hammers ‘down’ (up or sideways for that matter) doesn’t exactly fit any kind of tonal response you would think of. But before we get carried away describing what is going on, let’s define voicing: Voicing is the manipulation of very hard pieces of felt called hammers which strike the strings on the piano. At that strike point (please refer to the blog called Bright and Brassy Sounding Pianos) the hammers can either create warm sound, brassy sound, nasal sound, thin sound, percussive sound – all from the strike point of the hammer. Voicing then changes or alters the support of that strike point to get the desired response out of the piano. Voicing ‘down’ means to make the piano mellow while voicing ‘up’ means to make the piano more strident.

So here’s the pseudo exhaustive (or exhausting… take yer pick) list of what goes on in the voicing world. 

  1. Needling
  2. Filing
  3. Hammer hardener
  4. Hammer softener
  5. Steam voicing
  6. Methyl hydrate/water mix

So i’m not going to pass judgement on what i think is correct voicing and/or techniques, but i WILL describe what’s going on in each of those methods.  Without further adieu, here’s the list on what technicians do to pianos. 

1. Needling… needling is by far the most common process in voicing.  Pictured to the right is a voicing tool that i own.  You will see that it has a needle in the tip.  When you poke holes in hammers, it releases some of the tension and almost… ‘fluffs’ up the hammer.  In doing so, the hammer can support the crown – the very tip to bring out the optimal sound of the piano.  Most often this is used in reducing ‘high’ points – where one note will stick out above it’s neighbours.

2. Filing… hammers over time with heavy use will eventually become grooved.  These grooves quite often make undesirable tones.  Filing the hammers reshapes the worn parts so that the grooves are minimized.  Please see the picture on the left for a hammer file voicing tool.

3&4 Hammer hardener and softener are both commercially available substances which drastically alter tone by use of chemicals.

5&6  Both steam voicing and methyl hydrate/water change the hammers by fluffing up the hammers much like a piece of paper when it gets wet.  When paper gets wet and then dries, it is no longer flat but ‘crinkled’.  In like manner, hammers ‘puff up’ with the addition of methyl hydrate and water mixed or steam voicing. 

So there you have it – the entire list (that i know of) to alter piano tone.

Bright ‘n Brassy Sounding Pianos

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.

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.


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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