The National Association of Music Merchants had their annual show again this year in (not so sunny) Anaheim California from January 19th-22nd. NAMM used to be merely a trade show for wares in the music business. It has now morphed into so much more: I was speaking with music school owners whose sole reason for going to NAMM is the educational component (called NAMM U for University) where teachers and schools discuss ideas and share what works. There are clinicians giving demonstrations in every field from banjo to music writing. The NAMM oral history project also has been going now for years where interviews are done with iconic people in music arts and industry. The main stage has music going continuously as well as events in various hotels in the surrounding area. Those are just the official NAMM events but there’s so much more that happens from business meetings, networking to a major Christian worship night. Regardless of your involvement in music, there is truly something for everyone to gain at NAMM. This year’s attendance eclipsed 100,000 attendees!
Breaking the silence of 30 years, Steinway made a presentation with Spirio, their automated digital player system. I sat and watched legendary pianists on a display and simultaneously those same notes were being played on the Steinway grand in front of you. Digital systems were a bit of a theme this year. Yamaha presented Music Cast, a way to broadcast their Disklavier sound to anywhere throughout your house. QRS (Story & Clark pianos) – one of the oldest innovators of player pianos has moved to Bluetooth and introduced control of the piano through smartwatch. PianoDisc (Mason & Hamlin, WNG) also introduced a redefined ease-of-use app for their player systems. When you start to see video of your favourite performer and then see the keys move in sync with the performance, it’s quite fascinating to watch.
Also in attendance were Bechstein and Steingraeber – both companies are from Germany and haven’t been to NAMM for several years. It was great to not only see these pianos but to sit down and play, listen and feel their latest iterations of manufacturing. I really enjoy meeting the families behind the pianos. Seventh generation Alban & Fanny Steingraeber were at their booth. Christian Bluthner was present at the show as was Paolo and Lucas Fazioli, Hannes Schimmel Vogel and Zuzana Petrof. While there are many musical celebrities that show up at NAMM, I just happened to see Herbie Hancock, legendary jazz musician.
Always of interest are pianos that take the stage for eye candy. This year were 3 pianos: Although not a new concept, the grand piano from Kawai (seen in the video) looked visually remarkable. Seiler did a vintage car (seen below) in fire engine red. My favourite was the Gustav Klimt “Woman of Gold” painting on the Bosendorfer. It’s a 1906 painting that has been transferred and highlighted in 24K gold leaf on the under side of the grand lid. The music rack and legs also had art case highlights. You can read more about the Klimt painting on Wikipedia and read more about the reproduction on the Bosendorfer here. Below you can spin the view by either grabbing the picture with your mouse or using the arrows to walk around the grand.
In other news, Grotrian has introduced a new line called the Freidrich Grotrian – a joint manufacturing effort between China and Germany. Hailun Piano company debuted their 2.0 version of their hydraulic grand lid system where you need no prop lid stick at all to hold up the lid. On some of the larger grands, trust me the weight can be substantial. But their proprietary system allows you to lift the lid with one finger and simply place the lid at any position and it will stay there. Pearl River, who manufacture the largest amount of pianos annually (~130,000) continues construction on their new facilities. Speaking with Stephan Mohler, state-of-the-art computer systems are being equipped in the new transformation. Renner with Lloyd Meyer as well as the Piano Technician’s Guild (PTG) also had booths.
Brands at the Show (alphabetical)
Baldwin, Bechstein, Bösendorfer, Blüthner, Brodmann, Fazioli, Fridolan Schimmel, Geyer, Hailun, Hoffmann, Haessler, Hallet Davis, Hardman, Irmler, Kawai, Kingsburg, Knabe, Mason & Hamlin, Pearl River, Perzina, Petrof, Pramberger, Ravenscroft, Ritmuller, Sauter, Schimmel, Seiler, Shigeru Kawai, Steinway, Weber, Wilhelm Schimmel, Wilhelm Steinberg,Yamaha, Young Chang
Piano Price Point is starting a “Piano Walk-Around Channel” on YouTube where you can take a 10 second walk around grand and upright pianos. This was initiated at NAMM 2017 and will be available soon and searchable by make and model.
I’ve heard this statement many times “I don’t want a concert grand, I’m looking for more of a baby grand”. To many, this is a completely normal statement. For those who have been around pianos, the translation is more like this: I’m not interested in a limousine, I’m looking for a subcompact car”. I believe that there is a lack of knowledge why the former statement is prevalent. People either see a massive piano on a stage or they see a piano in a home. VOILA! 2 sizes of pianos – concert grand and baby grand. When you start to know the business of pianos however, there are actually more like 6 basic sizes of grands and 4 standard sizes for upright pianos (also known as verticals).
But there are so many different sizes of pianos. How do you know what to buy?
First of all, let’s look at basic groupings of sizes that have evolved over time and next, we will take a look at differences between the categories in both grands and upright pianos and why consumers purchase different sized pianos.
It’s true. I got my ruler out and measured the strings of the highest note on several pianos. From the largest piano to the smallest, the top note “speaking length” is only around 2 inches long (5cm). Speaking length is the predominant resonating portion of the piano string. Why are those strings similar on any piano? It has to do with something called scale. There is an optimal length and thickness of string to make the highest notes of the piano resonate. It just so happens that for all pianos, the top strings are all rather short. The lowest notes however are a completely different story. This is why pianos are different lengths (for grands) and heights (for uprights). Starting from the very highest note of a piano, as you proceed down towards the middle and then eventually the bottom bass notes, the strings stretch towards the full length of the instrument. When you measure a grand piano from the tip to tail (front of the keyboard to the end of the piano), they range from 5 feet long (1m50) to well over 9 feet long (2m75) because the bottom bass strings span the distance. Upright pianos range from 40” tall (110cm) to 52” tall (132cm). Take a look at the diagram on speaking lengths. While the bass strings span most of the piano, it’s also important to note that the string lengths are tapered so that even by the middle portion, lengths vary drastically. But what’s the advantage of a long piano over a short one? Conversely, why not just have a short piano? Why have a behemoth of a piano in your space?
“It’s lost on me. I can’t hear the difference between pianos.”
Me: “Really? But can you hear the difference between the quality of a clock radio and large stereo speakers?”
“Well yes of course”
If you haven’t heard the difference in pianos, you MUST hear different sizes with your own ears. Take yourself to a piano store and listen. Have someone play various sizes of instruments. The usual response with those who have never been exposed usually reply “Wow those are really different sounding”. In the decades I’ve been around piano buyers, I’ve never once had a customer say “They sound all the same”. People with no musical experience can easily hear depth of tone.
What is it that is so different? That’s a bit of a loaded question because piano composition is the attention to a 1000 details but for the purposes of this article, we’re going to focus in on the size of the piano. There are 2 main factors at work here: One is that longer strings bring about depth of tone and the second is a difference in power and output.
All About that Bass – Depth
The foundation, the body of the note, the pitch we hum when we describe a note on the piano is called the fundamental. But there are other vibrations going on in any piano. When the hammer strikes the string, it sets in motion not only the fundamental but other frequencies known as partials or harmonics. These partials also constitute piano tone without which we would not perceive the full body of sound of the instrument. But it is generally agreed that longer stringed pianos (in both grand and upright) deliver better fundamental with more pleasing harmonic structure. Piano tone that is often described as “deep” quite often comes from longer stringed instruments. Does that mean that everyone should be buying huge pianos? HAHAAA YES! I have a saying “You can never have enough piano”. I’m being facetious, of course. But I encourage you to consider different sizes of pianos when making purchasing decisions. When you stretch piano strings across 5 feet (150cm) or 9 feet (275cm), structurally they are very different. Longer pianos, with thousands of pounds more string tension, require more framework and structural integrity. Think about a bridge: To span a short distance, it is critical to build for structure yes but it is more critical if you have to cover a longer distance. Larger instruments are simply more costly to build. They require a greater framework and more iron etc. Subsequently they are pricier instruments.
Piano size then can be reduced in a nutshell to this: Larger instruments are better sounding but need to be married to the physical size restraints of the space and budget of the buyer (because they are more costly). Over time, sizes have standardized to meet requirements. You can search pianos by size on Piano Price Point HERE. In the uprights, there are roughly 4 heights of pianos available today: 42”, 45” 48” and 52”. And yes there are pianos being made in between each of these categories but a large portion of piano sales have evolved to these sizes. Why do people buy smaller more compact pianos? Predominantly it’s due to space and budget. The smallest upright piano many refer to as a console piano. Speaking length in the bass ranges from maker to maker but bottom strings are about 40-44” long. Smaller pianos also have smaller soundboard area and physically don’t output as big a sound as taller pianos. Console pianos are comfortable in any home or living environment. Studio pianos are the next larger piano category (usually about 45” tall). Speaking length can be 43-46” long. Speaking lengths vary depending on the angle of bass strings, how wide the pinblock area is etc. Many choose this size of instrument because it is still comfortable to look over when sitting at the piano. For example, if you’re playing for a choir, you can see over the top of a studio piano. Both 48” and 52” tall pianos I refer to as professional sizes. These pianos have full sized actions (mechanical parts). Console pianos have smaller actions while studio pianos sometimes have full actions and sometimes not – depending on the maker. The professional 48-52” tall pianos have speaking lengths ranging from 44”- 48” for lowest bass strings.
If you are thinking about grand vs. upright for sound, these two pianos are similar in speaking length to the smallest two grand sizes. (See Chart Below) If you’re looking for comparable lengths of bass strings, the 48” and 52” pianos are roughly equivalent to 5’1” grand (150cm) and 5’7” (170cm). These taller upright pianos deliver greater depth of tone than shorter pianos but also demand their presence in a room.
The chart above shows bottom bass string lengths for various piano sizes. The heights and lengths are shown beside the appropriate icon and the center line shows inches of bass string lengths. I didn’t realize until doing some measurements and research just how wide this range is. I find the visual of this both interesting and helpful.
When it comes to grands, there are roughly 6 sizes: Baby grand (5’0 or 1.50m), Medium Grand (5’7” or 1.75m), Large Grand (6’1” or 1.90m), Extra Large Grand (6’8” or 2.00m), Semi-Concert (7’4” or 2.25m) and Concert Grand (9’ or 2.75m). Baby grands, being the smallest of any grand fit comfortably into any home. They also have the shortest strings. They are usually priced competitively and many, many houses have baby grands. Medium and Large grands traditionally have been the most sold, most sought after for household grand because they strike the balance between budget, size and sound. Medium and Large grands also work well for institutional small to medium sized venues. Extra Large grands and Semi-Concert grands are perfect for larger venues or people like myself who say “you can never have enough piano” 😀 In reality, they output substantial dynamic range but usually too much for most people’s liking in a home environment. The Concert grand size is appropriately named to fit in a concert hall. They are grandiose. If you have never played one, you should.
If you’re thinking about buying a piano, first things first – listen. Don’t start with the tape measure. Go to a store and do some listening. THEN determine what is pleasing to you in tone but also in budget and size. Like never before, you can find a piano that fits your needs. There are pianos at every price point. Don’t be in a hurry but spend some time familiarizing yourself with not only different brands but different sizes from the same maker. They’re quite different from top to bottom. After all, you’re the one who will end up with the instrument in your space for years to come.
Meet Mr. Charles Walter, CEO of the company which bears his name. I had the privilege of speaking with him both at the last music trade show (NAMM 2016) and also a few days ago. I enjoy meeting those who are directly involved not only in piano make-up and design but those who are living legends. The Walter Piano Company is the oldest family run American piano company in existence today. And when I say family run, I mean that each of the Charles Walter pianos that come out of the production facility has been manufactured in part by members of the Walter family. Since the founding of their company they’ve had more than 25 family members spanning 3 generations working at Walter Piano.
Never heard of the Charles Walter piano? In the masses of pianos produced each year, there is a handful of what I would call “boutique” manufacturers that produce hundreds of pianos instead of tens of thousands. The Walter piano company is one such maker. They are completely hand built instruments and require sometimes months to complete each piece. But rather than telling you about Walter Piano, let’s hear the words from Charles himself and how this company came into existence.
Glen Barkman: How did you get into the piano making business?
Charles Walter: Well, I graduated with a degree in engineering physics from the University of Illinois and some years later I was hired by a company called C.G. Conn. Many people know them as an organ maker and my first job with the company wasn’t actually working with pianos. I was hired to work under Dr. Earle Kent, who was a true inventor for Conn. They had asked me to build something called a “beat counter” – an electronic frequency device. Back in that day, Dr. Kent was given the opportunity to have a research facility.
GB: I did some background reading on Dr. Earle Kent and was surprised to find out that he held over 28 patents relating to sound and music! He seemed passionate about exploration and development as well as the science of sound.
CW: Yes and it was while I was working for him that I was transferred to piano research with soundboards. In 1964, Conn had purchased the Janssen piano company in New York. But to make a long story short, Conn hadn’t been doing well financially and the opportunity presented itself to purchase the piano division in 1970. And those were the beginnings of the Walter Piano Company.
GB: And so how does one go about establishing a piano company?
CW: We moved into a 102 year old building in Elkhart, Indiana. The building was previously used for making the Elkhart Automobile. Starting out the company meant long hours. There was a lot of work to be done and at the same time we were raising a family.
GB: Rachel, you were born and raised with full knowledge of the factory and now are Vice President for Walter Piano correct?
Rachel DeMercurio (nee Walter): Yes, I grew up spending a lot of time at the factory and remember many a night when my parents were working those long hours, they would put us to bed on the showroom floor.
CW: And that old building had many hallways. You used to practice your basketball dribbling there. Haha
GB: I remember speaking with your wife, Barbara asking why you didn’t just carry on with the Janssen name and she said “Well you [Charles] just about re-designed the entire piano so you might as well put your name on the front”
CW: Yes it was actually her idea. We started out on one floor of that old building making only spinet, console and studio pianos and then gradually took on the 2nd, 3rd and 4th floors.
GB: Your reputation must’ve preceded you because you were the only piano to be sold along side of Steinway in the Steinway Showroom in the 80’s.
CW: I remember getting the call when they placed their first order for 26 pianos.
GB: So what is it about your pianos that make them unique? What makes them such high quality instruments?
CW: Back when I was working for Conn, we were striving for what is called “smooth inharmonicity”. A gentleman by the name of Paul Bert calculated string scale design and as mentioned, I was working in soundboard experimentation. The research facility at Conn allowed us to approach sound from a scientific means as well as one that is musical. Many years later with the help of designer Del Fandrich, we added 2 models of grand pianos to the line as well.
GB: In piano tone, the fundamental is the “base” of the note that one would describe as the pitch of a given note and the harmonics are the other “overtones” which are the frequencies singing above that. When you say smooth inharmonicity, are you speaking about making the harmonic ring of the piano more pleasing to the ear?
CW: Yes, correct and we also worked at uniformity in the piano so that as you transition from note to note, section to section, it was also smooth.
GB: I’ve played your pianos and they are truly lovely to listen to.
RD: You achieve a high quality instrument by design (which my father had lots to do with obviously) but also the combined effect of high grade, top quality parts. For example, we have our cast iron frames made here in the USA at OS Kelly in Ohio. We use Delignit pinblocks. When it comes to soundboard material, we only order top grade. Most components of our pianos have solid wood core instead of pressboard or MDF. Our bass strings are the top Gold series from Mapes. Each piano has individually weighted keys meaning that it’s not just formula, we actually go through and weigh each key to balance it correctly. And speaking of keys, our uprights have longer keys than most, which allows for greater control with regards to piano touch.
GB: Looking at your pianos, there’s something else that sets them apart.
RD: Yes, that’s because they’re finished in lacquer. Our hand-rubbed lacquer is durable and looks less “glassy” and more natural on wood. One of the advantages of working with lacquer is that it’s much easier to touch up or repair which just means that our pianos can look better over the long period of time.
GB: And your designs are very natural looking American designs. Who did those?
RD: Well actually those again were my parents’ designs. My mother, Barbara had a lot to do with designing music stands and it’s all been developed in-house.
GB: The combination of natural looking finishes and American cabinetry makes the Charles Walter pianos look like they could fit so comfortably into any home.
GB: Tell us about the touch of your pianos.
CW: We offer 2 options – We have our Walter action as well as the option of a Renner action.
GB: We did an interview with Renner some time ago and they’re known to be the best actions in the world.
GB: And hammers?
CW: We mainly use Abel and for an even softer tone we turn to Ronsen (an American hammer maker) upon request.
GB: You have different facilities than the old Elkhart building correct?
CW: Oh yes. In 1995 we moved to another building here in Elkhart. Hard to believe that’s already over 20 years ago.
GB: And what has changed over the decades with the advancement of computers and technology?
RD: Well… nothing really. We still build pianos by hand like we always have. We added a stringing machine because our guy here who was putting the strings on was getting a sore arm.
GB: Hah that’s great. It’s wonderful to know that piano manufacturing still functions like it has for over 150 years in a workshop making each component by hand.
RD: It’s been the Walter way of life really – earmarked by hard work. When I was growing up, my first job was as a floor sweeper. There was none of that “oh you must be the boss’ daughter” privilege. There were no favours here, let me tell you. And each summer, we had a new summer job in a different department of the factory. As family members we’ve all had parts to play in the business. Currently 11 family members – a mix of full and part time workers still work at the factory and we have 3 generations represented here.
GB: Well thank you for taking the time especially at Thanksgiving when it’s a busy time of year.
RD: Yes, it was our pleasure. My parents are having no less than 70 people over for Thanksgiving.
GB: WOW! That’s a big ordeal… especially considering that Mr. & Mrs. Walter are in their 80’s! That’s fabulous.
It was truly a pleasure speaking with both Rachel and Charles Walter. They’re honest, hard-working Americans who take pride in their work. They are wonderful people who build lovely pianos and in my talks with them over the past few weeks I have found that they have a deep commitment to faith, family, community and the art of building pianos of excellence… and it shows.
Have you ever heard someone describe an object as being “jet black”? Jet is derived from the French word “jaiet”, a process that dates back to the 1300’s where lignite (a type of coal) was polished to a deep sheen. It was referenced as the benchmark for black as early as the 1700’s. But jet black has been overtaken by “piano black” as the example for the deepest, darkest, smoothest finish of comparison. In recent decades, with the advancement of technology and engineering, piano finishes have been perfected and there is now an association with “modern piano” as being black. This is evidenced by the fact that the majority of piano sales today are finished in high polish black.
But how do they achieve this mirror finish? Piano parts are not dipped in some magically smooth plastic coating and come out looking this way. Achieving the perfect piano black is an exacting process. Just like a mirror, the piano reveals any and all slight imperfections. The reflective qualities are a testimony to not only innovation but manufacturing prowess.
As I’ve had opportunity to visit some piano factories, I’ve learned that piano finishes are not as much about applying the perfect finish in a dust free environment but more about levelling and polishing the black polyurethane finish to perfection. If you’re interested in how they do that, here are the basic steps in making perfect piano black:
1. Smooth substrate construction
“Substrate” refers to what’s underneath the finish. The first step in achieving a perfectly smooth finish is to have perfectly smooth wooden parts. All pianos must have some sort of wood substrate construction that is perfectly smooth (either medium density fiberboard or laminated layers of wood for
strength but also to prevent warping). Planing and sanding is done with precision. After all, the black finish is merely a coating over top of raw wood. If there are grooves, gouges, scratches or scrapes, they will be easily seen by the mirror finish when completed.
2. Sprayed layers of polyurethane:
Using a spray gun, primer coats (preparation layers for top coat layers) and polyurethane (black shiny coating) are sprayed. Multiple layers are sprayed in succession and with each layer, the finish gets thicker and thicker. One would think that if you’re spraying a shiny finish that the process would be done but at this stage, it’s hardly considered anywhere close to completed. These sprayed layers accomplish merely the build up of material which will have most it sanded off.
3. Levelling the layers
There is a big difference between shiny sprayed finish and a levelled finish that has been polished. Shiny simply means that there is reflective sheen in the finish. When a piano has been sprayed, it is definitely shiny but it is also textured. Spraying a finish in a dust free, properly ventilated room still does not make a perfect finish. You can get decent finishes but not perfect finishes “straight out of the gun” meaning that it’s left as-is when the spraying is completed. The automotive industry robotically sprays car finishes that are so good “out of the gun” that most are left that way. It’s pragmatic when millions of cars are being manufactured annually. The piano industry however is held to a much higher standard. When you look up close to a surface that has been sprayed, there are anomalies from the spraying application and drying process known as orange peel (which looks rippled like an orange). Against the light, this ripple effect blurs the mirror quality. The process for pianos has only begun. It now must be made level.
What’s the difference between shiny and level? A sprayed “out of the gun” finish will be shiny but not smooth like a mirror. The only way to reflect light perfectly is to level or sand the finish until all of the layers are smooth. Ironically, this means sanding the polyurethane to a dull gray. The reason? It all has to do with light reflection. If the finish is smooth and flat, the subsequent finish will reflect perfectly. But the sheen must be taken down first and be made level before polishing can begin.
Sanding is the removal of material until the surface has become a dull gray. To be able to cut the finish to level, several grades of paper are used. While we think of sandpaper as rough grit, finish sanding uses really soft papers.
The diagrams above show both side and top profiles of finishes. Successively the finish is removed until the surface is smooth.
If sanding is the removal of finish, polishing then is the removal of scratches. This process has become streamlined due to advancements both in tools and the science of finishes. Giant polishing machinery has been utilised to create consistent results in many of the piano factories that produce thousands of pianos annually, but hand finishing by boutique makers still creates the same end result. The advent of orbital polishers (machinery that spins many times faster than by hand) make finishes consistent and perfect. As seen in the short videos, these processes are now done on industrial level to exacting precision. But hand sanding and polishing are still involved in corners and hard to reach places. Compounds containing slight grit are used to take the dull sheen back to shine. The combination of friction from the wheels as well as the compounds rubbing on the piano parts create the desired results. Buffing wheels are used in final stages for developing sheen.
The end result? A piano with beautiful reflective qualities. The finishes of today are both beautiful and durable making the piano an instrument of admiration and wonder. A special thanks to Sauter, Petrof and Hailun piano factories for video footage helping to describe piano finishing.
Every piano has one. It is the backbone to structural integrity. It’s also what gives a piano most of its weight. What is it? Commonly called the frame, harp or plate, this iron mass in the piano withstands the 19+ tons of string tension.
While iron reinforcement pieces were introduced into the piano by the year 1799, it wasn’t until 1825 that a full cast iron frame was patented by a man named Alpheus Babcock (The Piano: An Encyclopedia. Palmieri). All of the piano manufacturing world then saw the great advantage of the implementation of iron, and have incorporated iron frames into their instruments ever since. The addition of metal to the piano all of a sudden meant that the string design could have greater tension, making the resonance, far greater and the power, magnified. It is this frame that turned the page away from predeccesors of harpsichords and clavichords and established the piano more akin to the instrument we know today. It also meant that tuning stability was finally possible.
I’ve been wanting to feature cast iron making in the piano for some time and found that Doug Atkins (Registered Piano Technician from Dayton, Ohio) had visited the OS Kelly Foundry in Springfield, Ohio where they cast Steinway, Grotrian and Charles Walter piano plates. His photo tour was perfect and he has graciously allowed us to use these pictures. Shown above is exciting process of pouring molten iron to form a piano frame. But before we get to that, let’s step back and take a look at how this method of sand casting works.
To begin with, it is helpful to understand the basics process of casting. In its simplest form, casting starts with a pattern, a master template to be reproduced in metal. The pattern can be made from anything ~ wood, styrofoam, plaster ~ anything that can be carved to make the shape that is desired. While there are 2 major types of casting processes for pianos (sand cast and vacuum processed), we are going to examine green sand casting (also known as wet sand casting). After the desired shape has been made, it is then pressed into the sand to make a mold. Once the pattern has been removed from the sand, the negative imprint remains. The compressed sand form impression is filled with molten iron and within seconds, the mold cavity is filled. The iron cools, the sand is broken away and reclaimed, leaving behind the iron shape, the exact representation in metal.
If you’re interested in casting on a small scale, here are 2 excellent explanatory videos seeing this process in action (Sand Casting Tutorial & Aluminum Sign Casting). They walk through everything from filling forms to pressing sand and show the iron being poured into the forms. They are an excellent resource in understanding the finer details of casting.
At the OS Kelly Foundry (now owned by Steinway), casting piano frames happens on a much larger production scale. They’re not casting small pieces but frames that weigh hundreds of pounds.
Like books on a shelf, the cast iron molds stand vertically in a row; each one, a pattern to become the next iron frame of a piano. Notice both the brand and model for each model are written on the side of the template. These are life size patterns that stand sometimes greater than 6 feet tall.
The Model: Echoing the aforementioned process, all casting starts with a master model. Shown (right) is a model of a grand piano ready to be pressed into the sand.
The Impression: Pressing the cast into the sand. Pictured are the detailed lines left in the sand of an upright piano after removing the model. Each of those lines will become a supportive bar in the frame of the piano. Details such as lettering and decorative elements will also transfer effectively from the master model to the sand. Pictured below is the a 30 second clip of the moment when they pour the molten iron into the mold.
Casting: Pouring the molten iron into the mold, the frames quickly fill the cavity and harden. After cooling, the sand is then removed from the form.
Finishing: Cooled and cleaned, the frames are ready for sanding, finishing and spraying. Extensive time must be taken to process each frame, making it ready for the piano. CNC (Computer controlled lathes) are often used by larger companies after casting to more accurately smooth out the details of the plate and with precision, accurately process each frame to be uniform. Once the grinding and sanding have been completed, the piano plate is then painted with primer. Traditionally, the frames are sprayed in bronze powder mixed with lacquer, gold metallic paint or occasionally silver and then clear coated to appear smooth as glass. Pictured is a cast iron frame installed inside the rim of the grand piano.
Thanks again to Doug Atkins for supplying pictures from his tour. If you want to see the entire tour, click HERE. There are over 100 photos and videos to look at more closely. Enjoy.
I had the full intention of writing a blog on piano voicing and then suddenly realized that there are 3 completely valid meanings to piano voicing. The first meaning of voicing refers to chord voicing which denotes how you spread out the notes of a chord on the piano (quite often in the jazz idiom). The second meaning, as it refers to piano playing and pedagogy means making the melody line stand above the accompaniment. You voice the melody to be more audible than the rest of the notes you’re playing. The third definition however, refers to the technical aspect of manipulating the tone of the piano. It is this subject I’d like to delve into a little deeper.
When I was young I was slightly misguided in thinking that every piano brand had a signature sound. While there is truth in that statement, pianos can sound vastly different from model to model and can vary from even piano to piano. Why? At the core, the piano is comprised of natural products such as wood, felt, steel, leather and iron. All of these raw materials have anomalies and subsequently, no 2 pianos are the same. So while it is true that there are inherent qualities of tone related to a brand, the subtleties vary significantly from piano to piano. Voicing serves 2 purposes: one is to alter and change the global sound of a piano and two, to make a piano sound even.
What does it mean to have “even” tone? When I was 13, my piano teacher asked me to play a scale. “Play it like a string of pearls ~ matched in color and size. If you want to get louder, do so by tapering each note a little louder, then a little softer. Do everything gradually.” It was an idea that I could visualize where each pearl had its own quality and it was up to me as a performer to use some sense of skill to match one note on the piano to the neighbouring note. She taught me a lot about making simple technique musical. And when you play notes on the piano evenly in succession, it tricks our ears into thinking it’s monophonic (meaning “one sound” like the human voice).
At times, however, I’ll be playing what I believe to be consistently when all of a sudden, one note sounds different than the rest. Playing the note in isolation, it becomes apparent that this one note sounds sharper or “brassy”, bright or strident while the neighbouring notes sound warmer, mellower or darker. These are common words many people use to describe the tone of a piano. In short, the fix for the protruding note is called piano voicing. Piano voicing involves manipulating the instrument to achieve a different audible result. To create an even performance at the piano, it must be voiced so that each note sounds similar to its neighbours, making transitions in a musical line seamless. When I was in Hailun and Petrof factories last year, I took some time to watch factory workers whose jobs are solely voicing and tuning. It takes a trained ear and substantial skill to play notes quickly in succession and level the audible high spots which are strident and bring up the low notes to match the others.
So how does this process happen? How does one change the sound of a piano? To answer that, we need to think of what parts can be altered readily on a piano? Voicing predominantly involves altering the strike point of the hammer as it touches the strings. Yes, it could involve many other procedures but voicing is more commonly referred to as an immediate alteration to the wool hammers to produce a different tone. As to how this art of voicing happens, preparation precedes practice.
Pianos must first be in tune. How do you listen to the nuances of tone if the strings are not in unison? When you look inside a piano, 2/3rds of the notes have 3 strings per note. See our recent blog entitled How Often Should I Tune My Piano for a full description of the strings inside a piano. If there are 3 strings on a single note and they each are resonating at different frequencies, it’s like having 3 people talking at the same time. It’s impossible to hear the tonal quality of a note when all of the strings are not resounding in unison. So the first step leading to voicing is tuning. It is also during this time that most piano technicians make mental notes of the “worst offenders” which are anomalies across the keyboard. Because tuning takes well over an hour to get it in shape, familiarity with the piano also happens during this time. It takes time with a piano to find out what sounds it produces ~ what are its strengths and weaknesses and what areas need addressing more than others.
Levelling the playing field
Seating: At times, some notes will give off distortion. A trained technician will know that this is sometimes caused from the string not sitting flush up against termination points. Moving the string slightly can alter a note drastically.
Centering: Over time, some hammers shift from their strike position and don’t hit the all of the strings squarely. Adjusting the hammers to be striking in the center of the felt and at the same time is extremely important to consistent tone.
Travel refers to the movement of the hammer up towards the string. If the hammer is on an incorrect trajectory towards the string, it will hit the strings at more of an angle and also create odd tones or have one string strike before the other two. “Squaring” the hammers ensures they strike in the correct position at the same time.
Surface Preparation: If grooves in the hammers are significant, filing the felt of the hammers should be done to regain proper surface contact.
Action Corrections: Sometimes one note will be misbehaving mechanically and render it powerless. In such cases, it tricks our ears into thinking it has a different tone when in fact, there’s a mechanical problem. There are many issues that can arise in a piano that lead us to believe individual notes need voicing when in fact they require mechanical fixes or adjustments.
With the aforementioned areas addressed, voicing can now commence. Please note: these are piano BASICS. Pianos are much more involved but for the purpose of describing piano voicing, these are the baselines which all pianos must adhere to. These are the practical fundamentals of most household instruments and not concert level pianos which can sometimes take days to tweak.
So let me ask, what kind of tone do you wish to have coming from your piano? Beauty, after all, is in the eye of the beholder. Some wish for a power piano – strong and bright. Others want soft and felty. Personally, I look for versatility in a piano. I prefer pianos to be intimate and warm at softer dynamic levels and have a crossover where they can shift into more strident sounds when playing with force. Pianos that are icy cold or brittle at softer volumes I find somehow less satisfying and difficult to express emotionally. Conversely, playing powerful music with a dull thud also feels like it is somehow lacking.
Let’s be clear, however that piano voicing has limitations. I’ve often said that 50% of the tone of a piano is inherent to the instrument. It’s the wood ~ the soundboard, the bridges, it’s the design ~ the scale, the placement and thickness of the soundboard, the amount of ribs, backposts, rim construction etc., it’s the action ~ how it translates our musical intention into sound – all of these elements make up the piano. These I would mainly consider non-negotiable. Yes you can start down the path of reconstructing parts but this is more major surgery. The other 50% can be altered somewhat depending on the quality of the piano and the results vary drastically. Piano hammers also have a shelf life as well. Really old and “dead” sounding hammers fibers, ones that are really grooved, hardened or lifeless sounding need replacement.
Most pianos with time and playing become more brittle and harsh. The majority of the requests for voicing involve making pianos softer with fuller body. When I was young, I sought the brassy power piano. As I age, I look for tonal color more akin to “autumn leaves” ~ colourful, warm and beautiful. We get used to the piano we play and don’t consider that alterations could make the experience more enjoyable. With harsher tones, piano hammers can be “needled” in various locations to achieve those results. A needling tool simply has needles that get inserted into the piano hammer. Since piano hammers consist of felt stretched and glued around a wooden hammer molding, the insertion of the needle “fluffs” hammer felt, making it not so compacted. In other areas of the hammer head, the needle acts to give greater body or sustain. Most piano technicians know how to needle to create the desired effect.
Solutions for both hardening and softening also exist. A hardener coats the hammer and creates more brilliance in tone. Softeners penetrate and relax fibers and create softer sounds. While there are those who disagree with putting anything on the hammers, I believe that there is a place for more drastic alterations of hammers that have desirable end results. The danger is that solutions can be added to a hammer but cannot be extracted. I’ve actually played pianos rendered unplayable due to excessive chemical applications. The recourse really is only to change the hammers. But I’ve also played many pianos that have been strategically voiced with solutions for incredible results. The word here is caution and work with a piano technician you trust. Ideally, I like the felt of the hammer to speak. If you’re looking for a certain sound, sometimes changing the hammer is a better way than to try and artificially transform a piano into something it wasn’t intended to be.
Pianos are dynamic in nature. They are constantly changing. Voicing is not a do-once application but rather a process with time and maintenance. It involves keeping the piano at its best throughout its life-span. Have you lost the love of your piano? Sometimes pianos simply need to be voiced to bring it back to more of the sound when you first acquired it. You’ll be amazed at the results. Piano maintenance is so much more than tuning. Once you realize the possibilities, you’ll be amazed at how musical and beautiful your piano can be. Click HERE for a list of piano technicians in your area.
“George… hands”. I was 22 at the time and this seasoned piano mover was a man of few words. When things at the local piano store were slow, they would send me as a swamper, a helping hand to move pianos. Cigarette hanging out of the corner of his mouth, tanned and etched lines in his face, I always found it amusing that he called any young guy “George”. I mean, why bother trying to learn someone’s real name? He would always say it with a smirk pretending as if he didn’t know. If we were delivering to a small town three hours outside the big city, that meant 6 hours driving there and back. Most of the time we rode happily in silence.
“George… hands”. Again I was admonished. When moving pianos, you always place your hands on the outside edges so you can feel if you come close to a wall rather than scraping the piano. He would then quote what has become my favourite piano moving line, “Remember, fingers grow back, pianos do not”. Slightly horrified at the thought of having my fingers pinched between the wall and a piano, I would look up to see him give one of the few chuckles at my expense knowing I was a piano player. “You’ll learn quicker this way.”
Although I only worked with him a short while, he was the most deliberate, cautious and yet efficient piano mover I’ve ever had the opportunity to work alongside with. Seeing me try and muscle pianos he would stop me and simply say “Let the piano do the work”. What did he mean by that? You need to be able to feel the balance and work carefully to tilt, lift and roll these massive instruments.
Want to move your own piano? Before you weigh out this decision (literally and figuratively), let me offer a few facts about moving to help think this through.
1. Safety first. Last month’s blog we looked at string tension and that there are roughly 19 tons (conservatively) of string pressure on any piano. To keep the piano from buckling under such strain, cast iron was introduced into the piano over 150 years ago. This cast iron plate or frame results in pianos weighing so much. The SMALLEST piano weighs in more than twice to three TIMES the weight of an adult. While average adults weigh anywhere from 130 lbs to 210 lbs, the smallest pianos weigh nearly 400 – 450lbs. A mid sized grand (6’) weighs in at 700lbs. Baby grands and tall old upright pianos, 550lbs. Semi-concert grands come in at about 800-900 while full concert grands that you would see on stage, 1000 lbs – 1200lbs! Before you consider moving a piano, think through the concept that these pianos weigh much more than you do. A tipping piano or one that is moving down a staircase is a force that should not be taken lightly.
2. Piano wheels. To be clear, piano wheels are only designed to move away from the wall 6 inches when you need to do seasonal vacuuming. They were NEVER designed for piano moving (the exception being concert grand casters for rolling on a stage but they are still not meant for moving locations). You will never see a piano mover utilising the small 1 or 2 inch wheels of a piano. A rubber wheel piano dolly is the only way to move a piano. Back to point 1, this instrument that weighs 400-1200 pounds must first be lifted on to a dolly and then wheeled around. The wheels of a piano provide enough force to damage ANY floor. It will crush wood fibers and you will have a difficult if not impossible time getting rid of any dents or roller marks. Even doing the 6 inch move for vacuuming will show marks in the floor if you’re not careful. The dents are subtle but noticeable. See the picture on the left.
3. Protection. Piano finishes are durable… relatively. But when faced with rope or strap burns, walls, concrete edges, piano finishes are incredibly soft. Polyurethane finishes (as in black shiny look) are a little like glass ~ they look great until you damage them. Sit them in a room and they can look like new for decades. Dent, scrape or scar them and they are tricky (sometimes impossible) to touch up. Professional movers have thick blankets that protect these finishes. They have straps that are cinched snugly over these pads to protect any movement of the piano against any sharp surface.
4. Transportation. You wouldn’t think it but even moving a 600 lb piano over 2 stairs can be a very difficult task without a ramp. The right equipment makes all the difference in the world. Ramps and skid plates are essentials to the professional mover to roll over surfaces or stairs. Getting a piano onto a truck is another obstacle. The deck of a truck is quite often 3 feet off the ground. All professionals either roll up a ramp or they have a power tailgate that gently lifts it into place.
5. Technique. As previously mentioned, the piano needs to “do the work”. After having moved many a piano, you get a feel for the balance of pianos. While they are cumbersome, I’ve seen many slight-framed movers lift and transport pianos because they understand the balance of the instrument. There are 2 common moving techniques for upright pianos and 1 method for grands.
A. Did you know that there’s a handle on the back of a piano? It’s built into the back frame. Most movers will position themselves on the end of a piano and then grab under the keybed nearest the front leg of the piano. Lifting the piano on one end, another helper places the 4 wheel dolly under the bottom skid plate of the piano while it is on an angle. Simply by putting the piano down, the piano will then land on the dolly instead of its own wheels.
B. The second method involves having a lifter on each end of the piano who will then lift the piano straight up while a third person places the 4 wheel dolly underneath. It is then easy to roll the piano around the room.
One word of advice: if a piano is on a dolly, it is wise to always have one person with at least one hand on the piano. Leaving a piano unattended on a roll-able surface can be cause for tipping or rolling away on an inclined surface.
Grands must first be tilted onto a grand skid. To do this, professional movers do what is called “dropping a leg”. The pedals are first removed. On the keyboard side, the left corner must first be lifted up while a second mover removes the leg. The piano will, on its own accord want to angle towards the floor. With two movers, the piano can then be safely angled downwards onto the protective (and blanketed) skid. With the full weight of the piano on the corner, the left flat side of the grand can be tilted so that the piano is standing up vertically. And yes, it’s completely fine to have a piano angled in such a direction. It’s how all grand pianos are moved. With the piano safely in an upright position, the other 2 legs can be removed.
The piano is then securely strapped and blanketed to the skid, which is an L-shaped protective layer of wood and carpet (or other softer material). Once the grand piano and the skid have become essentially one movable piece, it can then be tilted (from the round end of the grand) and a dolly can be positioned underneath.
Placing a piano is only the beginning stage of piano moving. A clear path must be chosen to move the piano out of the room with the least amount of corners, turns and stairs. Ramps are used to bridge over any stairs or ledges. Outside, most ground can be handled by the 4 wheel dolly but at times, on uneven ground, gravel or grass, the ramps (or plywood) can be used to roll over. Once at the truck, it’s simply a matter of pushing the piano carefully to the top of the truck deck. This is much easier said than done. Most amateurs have no idea how heavy a piano can be with its full weight bearing down on an angle.
Remember the days before ratchet straps? People use to use rope. Cinching a piano to the truck is relatively easy so long as the tie-downs are secure and the piano is generously blanketed. The rule of thumb is: No movement. Parts only rub when there is movement to rub. If the piano is secured to the wall or bed of the truck, the piano will not move and subsequently, the theory is that there will be no damage. And ultimately, piano moving is all about safely moving an instrument without getting hurt.
Hire a professional. But how do you know if the professionals have experience with pianos? One day I just happened to show up to a technician’s shop just as a piano was being moved out. I asked him “Who’s moving?” The technician replied “I don’t know. The customer already had it arranged.” We waited for awhile and two young guys show up with a dolly. While the company truck was a well-established name, it was apparent that they had substantial turnover in staff and these two had not been on the job long. “Sooooo how do you lift one of these things anyway?”, said the one mover to the other. “They sure look heavy”. RED FLAG. Needless to say, that same piano was brought back the same day as it fell off of the ramp at the customer’s home only this time with substantial damage. How do you know who to hire? There are trucks everywhere saying that they move houses and pianos etc. and quite often, big companies don’t necessarily have trained movers for pianos. In a word, ask those who are in the business. Ask a piano tuner or call a store. They handle pianos every day. They also know who they have entrusted their pianos to for safe delivery.
Disclaimer: I feel strongly about not moving an instrument that puts people into danger. While professional piano movers have moved literally thousands of pianos, doing a one-off to save the few dollars is not worth the risk of injury to yourself or to your piano.
More Thoughts on Piano Moving
Moving across the country? Here’s a few thoughts: have you considered factoring in the piano move with your household belongings? If you’re driving with a U-Haul or some other rental truck, you can always hire movers just to get the piano safely on the truck. It’s a small price to pay but then you don’t have to worry about it.
Shipping the piano a long distance? Have you considered freight instead of moving? Freight involves crating a piano so that a forklift can put it onto a semi-truck. For long distance moves, it might be worth investigating that cost. Word to the wise: if you live in sub-freezing temperatures, get a heated truck as well. Pianos don’t particularly like crazy cold climates.
How do I save my floors from a piano? Pianos have casters (small wheels) and so to protect your floors, place the wheels into caster cups – small dishes that prevent the piano from rolling and save your floors.
Does my floor need reinforcing before moving a piano in? I have a couch that weighs 100lbs and has a similar “footprint” to an upright piano. Add 3 adult males each at 200lbs and the total would be 700lbs. Where most household pianos weigh 400-600lbs, I’m going to venture and say that structurally your house should be fine to handle any piano without reinforcement. That said, I’ve been in a mobile home once where it appeared that the section where the piano was sitting seemed to sag.
Finally, the piano that won’t fit: I’ve only been involved twice with pianos that literally can’t fit into a space where it was intended. Either the staircases were too tight or doorways and landings too impossible or the piano was simply too big. Although this sounds crazy, pianos can also be positioned by crane. Since I don’t live in New York, I imagine pianos are moved more often by crane than my location. Cranes have a fee attached (obviously) but are more reasonable than you imagine.
I was speaking with someone recently about this blog post on touch, describing it as “an interview with a piano mathematician”.
“There are piano mathematicians?” was the reply. If people only knew how many calculations go into the engineering of a single instrument, they would be astounded.
Today we have the privilege of speaking with David Stanwood, a piano technician who also happens to be a published author specializing in piano touch metrology. (Metrology being the science of measurement). He has spent decades studying, pouring over data to understand what it is that we FEEL under our fingers at the piano ~ what it is that makes the piano satisfying to play. The only problem is, it’s a little like speaking with a Formula One mechanic and asking “how does the car work?” It’s difficult to take these highly complex calculations and make them easily understandable. So what we’re going to attempt to do is start with the basics and work our way forward through some of the more complex questions. I hope you will find this not only interesting but also challenge your thinking about how we approach piano playing, performance and the technical angles of piano touch.
Glen Barkman:In its simplest form, can you define what touch is?
David Stanwood: Touch is the tactile connection between musical intention and piano tone.
GB: Musical intention. I’ve never really thought about it but you’re right, before we play, we make decisions, we pre-determine what sound we want to come out of the instrument that sits in front of us. When we touch the keys, that tactile connection is the bridge between what we seek and the tone we desire.
GB: In your opinion, what constitutes a satisfying piano touch?
DS: A piano with satisfying touch gives the pianist comfortable control of tone across the keyboard and at all dynamic levels (from pianissimo to fortissimo).
GB: From beginner piano students all the way to concert pianists, why is the concept of touch so important?
DS: Pianists use technique to control their sound and play expressively. It takes different techniques to play on pianos that have a light, medium, or heavy touch. A beginner is less flexible in their ability to adjust to different piano types because they are more limited in their technical skills. It’s best for a beginner to play on a piano that feels comfortable with a sound that they connect with emotionally. The professional pianist has more extensive ear training and a repertoire of technique that allows them to adapt more easily to the variety pianos they perform on.
GB: The piano, due to its immense size and weight is one of the few instruments musicians don’t readily carry with them. A violinist or horn player will show up to a performance and have full knowledge of what to expect from their own instrument. Pianists need to adapt to a variety of levels of touch. It’s a requirement of the instrument.
DS: Yes and pianists also expect and want a predictable response from every note. If one plays a scale at any dynamic level, it should take the same touch applied to each key. This simply makes it easier to control the sound. Unfortunately, there are lots of pianos with uneven touch. It takes highly skilled technique to play on a piano with uneven touch and without that level of skill the results are less expressive and not as satisfying.
Rosalyn Tureck talks very clearly about the challenge of performing on pianos with uneven touch in Steinway’s informative booklet “Talking About Pianos” Published in 1982:
GB: Many have not seen the inside of a piano. In basic terms, what’s the purpose of the levers that make up the piano keys and action?
DS: There are three functions of the piano action:
1. Multiplying force: The levers in each piano key make the hammer go up much faster than the key goes down. This multiplying effect gives the hammer enough velocity to produce sufficient tone.
2. Escapement: The second purpose of the action design allows the hammer to release from the pushing force of the mechanism just before hitting the string without jamming the hammer against the string.
3. Repetition: The action makes it possible for the pianist to be able to repeat the playing of each note quickly.
GB: How has piano touch evolved over the centuries?
DS: Chopin played and composed on mid 19th century pianos that had, very soft, light hammers, and a very light and shallow touch. The piano evolved into it’s final structural form in the late 19th century to have heavier hammers with heavier and deeper touch than its antique predecessor. Over the course of the 20th century we see hammer weights evolving even higher and tapping into the hidden tonal potential that we find in today’s pianos. To keep actions from becoming too heavy, the pivot point of the keys (balance rail) on today’s pianos is a little farther back than it was 100 years ago. This means the hammers do not move up quite as fast in relation to the key going down. As a result, the touch of today’s pianos is about 1mm deeper than those made earlier in the 20th century, bottoming out at a depth or “Dip” of 10.5mm. We find wide variations in touch of pianos at any point in history.
GB: You wouldn’t think that 1 millimeter of touch depth would make a difference but it is quite noticeable at the keyboard. Similarly our sense of touch is quite acute even in how level keys are or even variation in key resistance from one piano to another or from key to key.
Before going any further, take a moment to watch this brief video from David Stanwood where you’ll be able to see more of what is involved with Precision Touch Design:
GB: To aid the feel of the key, lead weights were introduced over a century ago and inserted into the keys. So manipulation of weight has been around for years now. What’s the purpose of the lead weights?
DS: Leads are traditionally set in the key to make it just barely drop with a 50g downweight (the weight required to start to move the key down). Hammers are heavier in the bass and lighter in the treble so there is more lead weight in the bass side of the piano and less on the treble side. Intuitively we think that making a perfectly consistent down weight will make piano feel perfect but it is an illusion. The inconvenient truth is that down weight is a very poor indicator of the forces that the pianist uses when playing at different volume levels. This is because down weight is measured with the key moving so slowly that the hammer does not go fast enough to hit the string. At playing speeds, the laws of inertia apply and the pianist experiences much higher playing forces which we refer to to as “Dynamic Touch”. Down Weight could be called “Static Touch”. It’s easy to measure but has little to do with playing pianos and making music.
GB: How then do you approach the piano to make this dynamic touch (from extremities of soft to loud playing)?
DS: My approach is to look at the component structure of Dynamic Touch. To do this I had to invent a whole new realm of piano science. It’s called “Touch Weight Metrology”. I developed new protocols which include Strike Weight – the weight of the mounted hammer and Front Weight – the amount of counterbalancing weight in each key. What ties it all together is the “Equation of Balance” which I discovered in the mid 1990’s. With the equation it became possible to calculate the amount of weight it takes to balance a gram of hammer weight. It’s called the Strike Weight Ratio which relates to how fast the hammer moves in relation to the key. Up until that time it was generally assumed that all action ratios were 1:5. GB: Meaning that for the force of the key was multiplied five fold at the hammer? DS: Yes, and to our surprise it turned out that the ratio could be anywhere from 5 to 7 depending on the age of the piano and its construction quirks. We studied hundreds of pianos and found that specific hammer weight/ratio combinations are associated with specific dynamic touch types. The key component of dynamic touch is the weight of the hammer. This little mass of wool felt covered wood is what transfers the energy of the finger’s stroke into glorious tone emanating from the soundboard. The hammer produces 70% – 90% of the force that the pianist exerts on the key when playing. Studies show that inconsistencies in hammer weights are the major factor in contributing to inconsistent dynamic touch. Smooth out the hammer weights and you smooth out the dynamic touch.
It’s not a silver bullet but it is a powerful tool.
As for our old friends the key weights – they will always have a place in piano construction. And down weight? – It plays a part but relates mainly to the pianissimo side of playing.
GB: And now for the ever-so-popular question… Can the touch of a piano be changed and improved? And what is the process for changing the feel of a piano?
DS: The touch of any piano even those of the highest quality can be changed and improved. The approach I take is to first perform a touch weight component analysis. I carefully listen to the client talk about their needs and desires. I inspect the action, I listen carefully to the piano and I play it myself. From all this data, a clear choice of engineered solutions emerges. These alway include smoothing out the Strike Weights and adjusting the level of Strike Weights to be higher or lower and most importantly to be a match for ratio.
GB: So for clarification, if I can interject, what you’re saying is that the smoothing out of strike weights refers to adjusting the weights mainly in the piano hammers because the leverage in the action makes every gram count when it is multiplied?
DS: Yes , actually every tenth of a gram counts. That’s why it is so important to pay attention to hammer weight. This skill has been overlooked in the evolution of piano technology. If the ratio is out of bounds, we adjust the position of lever points within the action to create a match. The weights in each key are always attended to as well because the traditional down weight balancing method that all piano makers have been using always produces inconsistencies in the key weights. I use the equation to calculate perfect key balancing patterns for remounting and fine tuning the counterbalancing weights within each key. The regulation of the action attending to friction
tuning and voicing of the piano are addressed as well.
GB: After years of analysis, you came up with an algebraic equation to explain piano touch. Can you briefly share the concept and the idea behind this “folded” and “unfolded” beam method of thinking about your Equation of Balance?
DS: It’s not rocket science, it’s see-saw science. The piano action seems like a complicated mechanism but it is actually what engineers call a Folded Beam which is to say it’s design, with key, wippen, and hammer shank, is made into a compact and practical mechanism. To understand the weight, leverage, and friction relationships in a piano key, it’s helpful to use the direct analogy of the key as a see-saw with a short side which represents the playing side of the key with a weight on its end representing the key weights. On the other side, the hammer sits way out on the long end. One may easily see that when one moves the short end down slowly, the long end moves up quickly just like a piano key. The ratio is represented as how far out the hammer sits. It’s easy to imagine that adding or subtracting weight to the hammer or sliding it in our out on the long end is going to have a big impact on how much weight it takes to balance at the short end. The wippen is represented by a weight just behind the fulcrum. Friction is represented by a rusty bearing on the pivot point.
Thinking this way makes the relationships clear. I’ve even used the see-saw to show 5th graders how a balanced beam with weights on both sides is equivalent as an algebraic expression with an equal sign. You could see the light bulbs going off by the expression in their faces!
GB: What we’re looking at above is a cutaway of a grand piano key. Pictured is the side profile. The orange colored weights represent the necessary weight (which would in effect be our fingers pressing down the key) to balance the equation. The second diagram depicts those same ideas spread out. The numbers along the see-saw are the multiplying effects of those same levers. The picture here has a 5 to 1 ratio meaning that every gram at the hammer is multiplied by 5 at the keyboard, thus as you mentioned before, the importance of smoothing out the weights of the hammers. Though it looks like 5th grade math and paradoxically simple, when you add in the fact that the hammer is on a rotational axis and then you add in lead weights with friction points, the puzzle becomes more challenging.
GB: Historically, lead weights are the usual go-to for balancing a piano action. But talk to us about strike weight and what impact hammer weight balancing is can have on the piano.
DS: Historically lead weights have been used to hide a host of sins. For example if a key bushing is too tight when keys are balanced, more lead is typically put into the key to get it to go down. When the key loosens up after playing, the extra lead weight in that one key will make it respond differently from its neighbors and making the dynamic touch uneven. Or if a hammer is cut a little wider making it heavier than its neighbors, more lead is put into the key. In this case the uneven hammer weight makes dynamic touch uneven and the effect is magnified even more by the uneven lead weights in the key. Better to fix the friction or hammer weight rather than throwing lead weight at the problems.
My approach is to design and make dynamic touch by building touch weight components to precise engineered specifications. Most importantly strike weight is matched with the action ratio. This sets the stage for the dynamic quality of the action. Once the strike weight and action ratio is known the key weighting specifications for each key are calculated using the equation of balance.
The dynamic touch design is then installed to specification by individually adding or subtracting the strike weight of each hammer so they are perfectly consistent from note to note. Similarly lead weights in the keys are individually set into the side of the keys using precise specifications all installed to within a few tenths of a gram. This results in a specific dynamic touch quality that is perfectly consistent and predictable from key to key when played.
With these “Equation Balanced” actions the key weights are truly set permanently in the right place and never have to be altered again. When hammers wear out down the road, the new hammers are made to the touch design specifications and the integrity of balance may be maintained for the life of the instrument.
GB: So to recap then, pianos have been measured from the front (meaning the key and lead weights). What you’re saying is that we need to start thinking from the hammer and working backwards. We need to look more closely at Strike Weights and Strike Ratio. Since lead weights will really only affect a small fraction of the representative touch, addressing the Strike Weight will affect all levels of dynamics and not just quiet playing.
DS: Yes and so this vision for the piano industry includes training piano technicians on hammer weight balancing skills. They have to learn how to work with a hammer/strike weight specifications and be skilled in reducing weight by cutting and/or sanding the sides of the hammers, or increasing hammer weight, swaging small bits of lead weight into the wooden molding of the hammer. I’ve been balancing strike weights since the mid 1990’s. Initially there was some push back but now after 2 decades of teaching and training it has become an accepted method for technicians aspiring to the highest quality in their work.
GB: The evolution of the piano has led to this point of now being able to represent touch as an algabraic expression. Thanks, David for your efforts in all of this. I started reading your works back in about year 2000 and was amazed (back then and even more today) at your abilities to calculate touch.
GB: It has been great talking with you. Be sure to stop in at David Stanwood’s Website and look at many of the resources there. He has developed Precision Touch Design and offers training and courses to technicians globally.
Over the last few years, I decided to run a few ultra-marathons (marathons run on trails in the forest). And I must go on record by saying that maintaining fitness is much easier than trying to get in shape to begin with. It was an arduous journey trying to get ready for my first event. But when our bodies are used to a certain routine over time, it becomes the new normal. In essence, we train in order to raise the bar for a new level of expectation.
You wouldn’t think it, but pianos can be in shape or out of shape. Pianos can go out of shape mechanically in the way that they play but can also get out of shape in the strings which determines intonation or pitch. Today I’d like to take a brief look at a bit more of a structural and mathematical concept of tuning and pitch. Before we do, we need to examine how and why pianos go out of tune and when you understand why they go out of tune, there is greater understanding with regards to getting them in shape and maintaining tuning stability.
Pictured above are the 3 types of strings on any piano. When you depress a key on the piano, it activates a hammer that strikes the strings. Depending on the zone (high or low), there are different types of strings. The largest bass notes are called mono-chords and only have one string per note. The double stringed notes are called bi-chord where the hammer strikes two notes simultaneously. And then for the top 2/3rds of the piano, a set of 3 strings (tri-chord) are struck simultaneously by one hammer. As seen on the chalkboard, there are 88 keys on the piano. When we separate the notes by type, we see that there are approximately 227 wires (which vary depending on the design of the piano). Multiply this total by the tension from each string (approximately 160lbs per string) and this gives the grand total of 36,320 pounds of string tension pulling on any piano! Note: the string tensions vary from maker to maker, model to model but also within one piano, the string tensions vary considerably. These are simply averages to grasp the concept of how much tension is pulling on the frame. Conservatively, the piano has 18 tons of tension (36,000 pounds) pulling simultaneously and that number can reach almost 30 tons of string tension for larger concert grands.
The wires then pull with an incredible force or tension. The cast iron frame (pictured in gold) together with the structural beams resist this tension. It’s a constant tug-of-war. The strings pull while the cast frame resists. Slight variations in this tension result in change of pitch and an out of tune piano. The question then is: what factors change the pitch of a piano?
There are 3 main elements which affect tuning stability:
1. New strings and windings
2. Tuning pin torque
3. Soundboard environmental changes
1. When it comes to change in tension, strings when installed at the factory will stretch. You wouldn’t think it but new strings have considerable stretch in the steel. The windings, knots and coils will also tighten and stabilize. This only applies to brand new pianos. There is a finite amount of stretch that will happen with new strings and within the first few tunings this will no longer be an issue. There is wisdom in tuning new pianos more frequently until the strings feel like they’ve settled.
2. The tuning pins are the adjustable “pegs” that technicians loosen or tighten with a tuning hammer. They are friction fit into the pinblock ~ usually a multi-laminated plank of wood. Interestingly, in England, they refer to the pinblock as the “wrest-plank”. The word “wrest” (similar to wrestling or wrench) denotes forcibly to pull or in this case, to turn the “wrest pins” (or tuning pins) inserted into the wrest-plank. Because the tuning pins are friction fit into the pinblock, they must have the correct amount of torque (the measurement of how tight fitting the pins are). Too tight and the pins becomes too difficult for a technician to adjust. Too loose and the tension of the string pulls on the pin resulting in loss of pitch. Tuning pin torque then is a significant factor that affects tuning stability.
3. Probably the greatest factor affecting pitch, however is the soundboard. The soundboard affects the tuning stability insofar as the strings cross over the bridge which is connected to the soundboard. In the picture you can see the strings cross over the bridge (adhered to the soundboard). Not only are the strings pulling end to end, but there is something called down-bearing where the strings are pushing down on this bridge. Since the soundboard is comprised of wood, it is subject to environmental conditions. Seasonally as the soundboard absorbs or dispels humidity, the soundboard will arc or flatten slightly resulting in pressure on the strings. Pianos can even go up in pitch if the arc puts considerable pressure on the strings.
All three of these factors contribute to slight deviation in pitch. When the steel strings are new, they stretch and become slack and need to be re-tuned. Tuning pins can move slightly and gradually turn out of position. The soundboard arcs more and then less depending on environmental conditions.
Making Sense of Cents
Pitch is not simply some arbitrary sound but rather, it has evolved into more concrete, measurable and universal terms. A440 is the global standard. A is the note (just above middle C) and 440 is the frequency or speed of that wave measured in Hertz (named after Heinrich Rudolf Hertz accredited for conclusively proving electro-magnetic frequency waves). When it comes to piano tuning, while you can measure Hertz, you can also define pitch in degrees called cents. As seen in the picture, each semi-tone has 100 degrees or cents. A full tone then has 200 cents. What this means is that there are 100 increments or degrees of pitch from one note to the next neighbouring note. So in discussing pitch, being a math and facts guy, I like to know how many cents the piano is out of tune. A piano that is wildly out of tune will be 40 cents flat (pianos usually go flat rather than sharp). So 40 out of 100 cents, if a semi-tone is 100 cents, that piano has fallen in pitch 40% of a semi-tone! Pianos that are tuned regularly might only go out 1-3 cents (out of a total 100). Often, pianos might go out of tune 5-15 cents in a year. What does this depend on? The 3 factors we looked at above. If your piano has gotten over “new string” settling when the piano is first purchased, then that leaves tuning pin torque and soundboard fluctuation as main factors determining pitch or intonation. The pinblock and soundboard will change with humidity. Pianos LOVE stable environments. Baseboard heaters, fireplaces, direct sunlight, drafts… even excessive fish tanks, plants all have bearing on humidity in the room which affects the soundboard which in turn affects the tuning. Change in ambient temperature (and subsequent humidity) within the house but also seasonally will make micro-changes in strings which also create difference in pitch.
Getting Your Piano in Shape
There’s a saying about piano tuning “You can’t tune a piano unless it’s in tune”. Paradoxical? It sounds that way unless you understand the sentiment. The farther out of shape your piano is, the more the tug-of-war will happen. The strings get pulled into shape, the piano tries to pull back to its known comfort zone. If a piano is 40 degrees out of pitch and you raise it to concert A440, guess what ~ your piano will not be at A440. Why? Because the tug-of-war is happening. The soundboard is adjusting to a new level of fitness. The subsequent outcome is that most pianos will pull back ~ sometimes up to 1/3 of the raise in pitch. So let’s take that example of 40 cents. One third of 40 is roughly 13. After tuning to A440 once, the piano will respond by possibly dipping down as much as 13 cents. Most technicians compensate and tune a little sharper knowing that this pull-back is going to happen. And so here’s the part that technicians CAN’T control. They can’t control the adjustment of the piano and the subsequent pull-back in 225 strings. Those strings will pull back at varying rates and thus, one tuning will never do the job getting a piano into shape that is vastly out of tune. The only way to do that is to tune again. You can really only tune a piano when it’s in tune ~ meaning that unless it’s close to pitch, you will never be able to get an exact stable tuning the first time. It is better to keep a piano consistently in tune than to let it drop significantly and try and pull it back into shape.
I’ve heard from many people over the years. “The piano doesn’t need tuning because I don’t play it that often”. While it can be true that a pianist who plays with incredible force can knock a piano out of tune, it is most likely the least contributing factor to making a piano go out of tune. Regardless of whether you touch a note on the piano or not, there is 18 tons of string tension pulling every day, 365 days per year. If a piano is prone to going out of pitch 4 cents per year, it might be out 8 cents in 2 years, 12 cents in 3 years and so forth. And pianos are funny that way. I’ve witnessed pianos that go out 12 cents in one year while others go out 2 cents in 8 years. But in closing, I will state 2 truths:
1. The farther out of shape the piano is, the harder it is to get it back into shape. And it may require more than one corrective tuning
2. Environmental stability is everything
Pianos are introverts. Hah… they like dark shady places where the sun doesn’t shine and no one rocks the environmental boat. The only problem is, we want pianos to be social and live in the center of our lives and enjoy the music with the sunshine. We need to maintain pianos if we want them to sound pure, beautiful and harmonious. I’m a firm believer in the fact that we are the recipients of the music from our pianos. If we train our ears with a consistently out of tune piano, that sound becomes the new normal. With an in tune piano, we communicate proper pitch every time we play. In closing, the message is simple: Regular maintenance is so much better for the piano than letting it drop in pitch for years at a time. Tune at least once per year and you will keep everything from sliding drastically out of alignment. Tune more than that if your ears demand it. And if you haven’t tuned for quite some time, do yourself a favour and get your piano tuned. Nothing is more satisfying than playing a piano that truly sings and really, pianos only sing when they are in tune and each note is in unison. Your piano may have gone down in pitch to such a degree that it might require more than one tune up session but as an old technician friend of mine used to tell me, “The difficult we can do. The impossible may take some time” 😀
For a name of a piano technician in your area, please visit our more than 800 technicians listed with Piano Price Point: HERE
If you live in North America, you’ll surely be aware that Baldwin is a household name. In fact, my first job involving pianos was in the local Baldwin dealership. They have been around since 1862 and were at one point the largest piano manufacturer in North America. At the NAMM trade show this year, I caught up with Tom Dorn (pictured on the right) as I was curious how Baldwin has changed over the last few years knowing that they had been sold to Gibson Guitar Corporation in 2001 and in 2008, moved manufacturing to China. But I was equally curious to know what elements have stayed the same. As I approached the Baldwin booth, I couldn’t believe how the cabinets were identical looking on some of the models from decades ago. Baldwin, in my opinion has always captured the essence of American décor.
Glen Barkman: Tom, they look identical to pianos I used to sell. Are they using similar cabinet designs?
Tom Dorn: These furniture models (B342 & B442) are updated versions of the old Acrosonic pianos and have identical cabinets. The Hamilton studio piano (B243) is the latest version of our institutional vertical, and the model B252 is the updated version of the Concert Vertical (Model 6000). The new Baldwin Professional Series Grands have cabinets that were modeled after the most recent version of Baldwin Artist Grands (M1, R1, L1) that received that cosmetic makeover in the year 2000.
GB: What are some of the features that are unique to Baldwin that are implemented into current designs?
TD: The new BP (Baldwin Professional) Series Grands are done with the same “level” of materials that we traditionally used in Baldwin Artist Grands. The grands feature all-maple inner and outer rims, wet sand cast plates as well as solid Sitka spruce soundboards, Abel hammers, duplex scaling, and real ebony sharp keys. Baldwin verticals have a strong 5 post backframe, wet-sand cast plates, complete with Baldwin full blow action, and are now using Accu-just hitchpins ~ a way to accurately apply downbearing to the bridge from the string hitch. All Baldwin verticals are equipped with a functional middle pedal that is a bass sustain.
GB: What are some new upgrades that the old Baldwins didn’t have?
TD: Baldwin Verticals now have added the felt-strip mute rail or quiet play feature on a small lever on the lower part of the cabinet. This allows us to offer that capability without sacrificing the middle pedal.
The BP178, BP190, and the coming BP211 Grand models all feature the new slow close Magic Lid. This is a hydraulic system that allows you to lift the heavy grand lid with 2 fingers and makes opening and closing the lid on these pianos much easier and safer.
GB: Are there some features like hammers or strings that are the same brand 20 years ago that are still used on today’s pianos?
TD: We still use all maple parts in our actions, and the last change in the vertical action design came in 2002 when we altered the balance rail for faster repetition. We may have different suppliers for some parts, but they are all built to Baldwin specifications.
GB: What prompted the change to build pianos in China?
TD: The global piano market has changed dramatically. The Chinese domestic piano market is approximately 350,000 pianos annually – which accounts for 80% of the world’s new piano market. The USA only sells about 35,000 pianos per year. China simply is where the market is. When I started in the piano business back (way back) in the 1970s, there were many US manufacturers because the US market was selling upwards of 200,000 pianos annually. It made sense to make pianos here because it was the largest market.
GB: What are some of the new models released now? I remember the Artist series grands were M, R, L, SF and SD. That line has been expanded slightly to meet the needs of today’s consumers. What are the sizes of grands now? And uprights? What are the latest models?
TD: There was a 5’2” Artist Grand, the Model M (probably my personal favorite, one of the best small grands ever built). The new grand models are the Baldwin Professional Series (BP) and have a number designation that indicates the size in centimeters. They are BP148 (4’10”), BP152 (5’), BP165 (5’5”), BP178 (5’10”), BP190 (6’3”), and coming soon the BP211 (6’11”). I would suggest that someone who liked the M should try the BP165, the R the BP178, the L the BP190, and the SF10 the BP211.
For verticals we still make 2 Acrosonic 43” consoles (B442, B342). Everything else follows today’s demand for taller uprights. The new BP1 and the B243 are 47”, the BP3 is 48”, and the BP5 is 49”. The B252 is 52” as it is exactly like the model 6000 Concert Vertical.
GB: What makes the new Baldwins sound “warm”?
TD: The ‘warm’ Baldwin tone is a result of using similar materials to the ones that we always have (such as Abel hammers), and by having a product manager at the factory who has worked with Baldwin pianos for many years. Barnabas Fekete inspects each Baldwin Grand as it comes off the line and makes sure it is voiced to sound like a Baldwin.
GB: What’s the advantage of having a mega corporation like Gibson at the helm?
TD: Gibson is obviously no stranger to the music industry. Established in 1902, they have grown to become one of the largest music names globally. Purchasing Baldwin back in 2001 has given Baldwin presence and the stability of a major American corporation. One of the biggest advantages is the Gibson Entertainment Relations Division. Gibson has dozens of offices around the world that are working to promote their brand names. In the case of pianos this can be seen in terms of highly visible placements on TV Shows such as “Glee” or “Arrested Development” and movies such as “Behind the Candelabra” on HBO not long ago. Gibson also maintains the Trumann factory as a parts facility should technicians require parts for older Baldwin USA pianos.
Thanks so much Tom for taking the time to give us some insights into Baldwin then and now. Having been with the company for years, no one would better know than you how this company has transformed into the newly emerged Baldwin Piano Company we’re seeing today. For more information about Baldwin and their products, you can visit their website here: Baldwin Piano
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