Interview with Piano Designer Del Fandrich
When you short list prominent piano designers in North America, you will always run into Del Fandrich. His career has spanned nearly 5 decades and has been a contributor in companies such as Baldwin, Charles Walter and most recently Young Chang. Years ago he worked his way up from (as he calls it) ‘grunt work’ to concert technician. Most noteworthy is his experimentation and implementation of floating soundboards. Although there are numerous topics we could’ve discussed, this one I find particularly interesting and hopefully we’ll have him back to discuss some other interesting (and rather groundbreaking) ideas he has in his back pocket.
Your name is prominent in North America for piano design. What’s your background that has led you to this place?
I started in this business in 1961 in Southern California. I did mostly grunt work; refinishing and “refurbishing” uprights. I’ve never had any formal training as a piano technician. I learned most piano work by doing it. In the late ‘70s I had a job—along with much of the concert work in Portland—that included prepping new, high-end pianos prior to sale. During this time I became increasingly frustrated with certain specific timbral abnormalities that were consistently found in certain models. Ultimately I came to the conclusion that most of these were design-related issues and I started searching for answers. In 1981 my wife had an opportunity for a management job in California so we moved there while I studied and conducted quite a lot of experimental work and piano rebuilding in my piano shop in Sacramento. I was hired by the Baldwin Piano & Organ Co. as Director of Research and Development. The title was a little misleading however I was able to expand my knowledge some before coming to a parting of ways. The day after leaving Baldwin I received a phone call from Charles Walter who had heard from a mutual friend that I was now independent.
He asked if I would design a grand piano for them, which I did: The Walter 190. My wife and I then returned to the Northwest and I began developing what ultimately became the Fandrich 122 Upright. This piano had a unique soundboard design that I was able to patent, and I licensed my brother Darrell’s patented vertical action design. Our little company built a hundred of these instruments and CNN did a story which resulted in George Harrison purchasing one for his home in England. A few years later Charles Walter asked for a second, smaller grand piano design and I drew the Walter 175 design. In my opinion—and I freely admit to some bias, here—this is still one of the best under-six-foot pianos available.
How long have you been consulting for Young Chang pianos? Young Chang, for readers who aren’t aware is considered one of the “big 5” Asian pianos ~ being Yamaha and Kawai (from Japan), Samick and Young Chang (from Korea) and now Pearl River (China) who collectively manufacture hundreds of thousands of pianos annually.
In late 2007 I was asked by Phil Glen—then Technical Services Manager for Young Chang—to prep one of their concert grands for the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) show and, when finished, write a report on both the condition of the piano and its design, which I did. This led to my being asked to meet with the company’s new Chairman, Mr Park, following which I was asked to visit their factories in Incheon, Korea, and Tianjin, China. That led to the request to redesign the entire product line. The company had just been purchased by Hyundai and its new management wanted to divest itself of the past and develop a product line that was uniquely Young Chang.
I’ve been making roughly six trips a year to Korea and China ever since. The design work was completed by late 2009, and since then my work involves helping the company to implement them and generally improve their production processes and quality control.
When I spoke with you at NAMM convention a few years back you had introduced me to the concept of “floating” soundboards. Sandwiched between the rim and the cast iron frame weighing upwards of 500 pounds or more, and having roughly 225 wires holding nearly 18 tons of string tension, having a soundboard that “floats” seems paradoxical. How exactly does that happen?
Broadly speaking, the concept of “floating” the soundboard simply means that some part of the soundboard system is not solidly attached to the inner rim (grands) or the liners (uprights) through some part of its perimeter. The idea did not originate with me. I first saw this idea implemented in early 20th Century American-made pianos such as the Mehlin grand. (There were others but this is the one that comes to mind.) I later encountered the feature in the Holland-built Rippen vertical pianos. There are also a few U.S. patents on the concept by inventors such as Howard Graves (all of whose patents make worthwhile reading). I was intrigued with the design feature and spent some time experimenting with various applications, which led to the implementation I used in my 122 Fandrich upright and the Walter 175 grand. In the upright I attached the soundboard panel to a hard maple liner and left a gap between the liner and the back panel. This was similar to the configuration found in the Rippen though I did not make the float quite as long.
In the grands, a slot is cut in the inner rim (before the outer rim is attached) about 25 mm down from the top surface and a relief cut is made in the inner rim along this length to provide a space of about 5 mm between the soundboard panel and inner rim section and the outer rim. It has been my experience so far that some float is good, too much introduces tuning problems. I’ve designed some float in all of the smaller (185 cm and shorter) Young Chang/Weber grands and all of the vertical pianos.
And so what are the advantages then of having a floating soundboard?
The benefit is improved freedom of movement around the lower end of the bass bridge. It also makes it practical to remove the bass bridge cantilever but that is another story (see below). This increased freedom of motion enables the soundboard to respond to the coupled energy from the strings at lower frequencies. A fundamental rule of sound production is that if you want to create sound energy at low frequencies you have to be able to move a lot of air. In very large pianos this is less of a problem; the bass bridge is relatively far out toward a somewhat flexible portion of the board. In short pianos, however, placing the bridge close to the inner rim makes it impossible for the board to respond to lower frequencies. Hence the muddy, indistinct tone quality of most pianos shorter than roughly 180 to 190 cm. In the redesigned pianos in which I’ve done this the clarity of the low bass has been significantly improved over the more traditional design. And it’s not just a perceived improvement. Extensive signal analysis has shown that there actually is more sound energy in the lower partials of the sound envelope and this adds clarity to the sound and improves pitch identification.
Would that floating soundboard ever have any structural repercussions long-term?
These systems have been used long enough now that if there were any associated problems with the design they would have shown up by now. The only problem I’ve seen so far is that if it is overdone—i.e., made too long—there can be some tuning instability in the low end of the scale. As with everything else in the piano it’s a compromise. The float, incidentally, is only done through the bass section around the lower end of the bass bridge.
In past, correct me if I’m wrong but the way that manufacturers accomplished longer speaking length was to have a cantilevered bass bridge. How does the floating concept compare to cantilevered system?
The two are not mutually exclusive. In other words, you could use a bass bridge cantilever along with a floating section. But one of the advantages of the floating soundboard system is that it becomes practical to completely remove the bass bridge cantilever. I cannot think of any logical reason to use a bass bridge cantilever in any piano of any size.
It has long been taught that one of the most important design features of a short piano is to somehow fit the longest possible speaking length in there. Unfortunately this means placing the bridge very close to the inner rim. Also unfortunately there is very little flexibility in the soundboard system back there so the “solution” has been to place the bridge body on a cantilever and make the physical attachment to the soundboard panel some further out into the body of the soundboard system.
In theory this is supposed to transfer energy from the vibrating string(s) to the soundboard system. In the case of the low bass section of the piano this includes energy at very low frequencies. The biggest problem with the bass bridge cantilever is that it very effectively filters out all of the low-frequency energy that it is supposed to be transmitting to the soundboard system. This energy is absorbed into the cantilever system (i.e., converted into heat) and is no longer available to move the soundboard.
The second problem is that it demands a very short backscale. This short backscale acts as a clamping mechanism, restricting the motion of the soundboard system. This is a concept that should be understood intuitively but we’re so used to the old bass bridge cantilever system that sometimes it takes hands-on (ears-on?) proof to convince people that this really works. Being able to conduct and demonstrate this experiment is one reason why I built my string-testing frame; I can compare the two designs side-by-side. In every case where I have demonstrated this comparison to technicians they have—sometimes to their great surprise—agreed that the combination of a shorter speaking length, longer backscale and directly coupled bridge (no cantilever) gives a substantially improved bass tone.
Finally, your name is pronounced Fandrich as in “Fawn” not “Fan” right? Hahaa… might as well set the record straight. What’s your cultural background?
It’s pronounced as if it were spelled “Fondrick.” My ancestry is German and Norwegian. My paternal grandparents were of German decent but living in southern Russia when they were driven from their homes. They fled to Germany but, as refugees, were not overly welcome there. The solution was America. My maternal grandparents were both born in the U.S. to recent immigrants from Norway.
Del, I can’t thank you enough for the insights you have provided. Despite the technical nature of floating soundboards, I find it exciting to hear about innovations in the music field. I continuously hear the statement “pianos haven’t changed a bit in a hundred years”. They couldn’t be more wrong. Pianos are being worked on continuously and it’s because of the risk and experimentation from designers like Delwin Fandrich that piano tonal color is becoming more rich and beautiful. Thanks again for taking the time!
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