Posts tagged piano
Have you walked into any piano store lately? It’s a sea of black and shiny? Why is that? Since the development of polyurethane resins (circa 1970), that mirror piano finish has become synonymous with ‘modern piano’ and has won out in popularity far above any other ‘look’. From a finishing perspective, making that incredible shine requires skill and knowledge and proper facilities. The only problem is… shiny doesn’t necessarily mean good. Consumers however seem to get those two points confused. If that type of finish has been around for almost 50 years, what has transpired in the world of piano making that we CAN’T see? The finishing techniques on the outside are obvious, but what are areas that have changed on the inside of the piano? How do we convince consumers that pianos from the 1980’s have been improved upon for the last 30 years?
I’m always fascinated by the business of piano manufacturing. I’ve witnessed and played so many different types of pianos that all have a similar look and yet are vastly different. Even consider the different prices of pianos today. A grand piano can sell for $10,000 and one right beside it can sell for $150,000! They look similar to the untrained eye but they sound and play really differently. So what has happened in the ‘modern age’ of piano making (1970-2014) if the pianos look almost the same?
Design has definitely changed. And by design I mean the internal workings of the piano and not so much the cabinetry. If we could paint broad brush strokes, I would venture to say that the 70’s and 80’s were marked by the advent of automation. Although boutique makers will always exist specializing in hand-crafted instruments, giants started to appear making tens of thousands of pianos annually. Productivity leads to efficiency and ultimately consistency. By the 1980’s, Japanese and Korean workforces dominated mass produced pianos. It was conceivable for MILLIONS of pianos to be made by a handful of companies. Like it or not, the word for that era is Consistency. Good design or bad, these pianos were consistent. Global marketing meant that many of these instruments became household names. With the exception of a few manufacturers in North America, piano makers all but closed their doors in the early 1980’s financial crash while mass produced pianos mainly from Asia were emerging.
Labour costs were up, profits were down and the diversification of labour, parts as well as cost cutting measures was initiated. The extreme growth of the 70’s and 80’s has declined (compare a high of 275,000 pianos sold in 1979 to 99,000 in 1995). Trying to fill gaps and stay competitive, many piano companies started developing multi-tiered levels of quality giving both choice and price considerations with A,B and often C lines of pianos.
China hit the ground running. While the rest of the world has experienced the piano for almost 200 years, the popularity of the piano has all of a sudden exploded in a country with more than a billion people. USA, Europe and Japan are almost deemed ‘mature’ markets and thus begins a decade of decline. However by the end of the decade, more than 180 piano companies emerged in China alone including many established companies opening up facilities within China.
The big have gotten bigger. There’s this trend where massive companies are establishing all price points and in order to do so, they have purchased many of the ‘godfathers’ as I refer to them… the upper end German boutique makers and conversely either contracting or setting up facilities in China for lower end production. China is now a decade into serious piano making and the game of ‘catch-up’ and consolidation has begun. Unprecedented is the aid of computer assisted design and reverse engineering has all but debunked many old piano making techniques.
And so I return to the question, “If all pianos are starting to look the same, where do we go from here?” Someone asked me recently, “Have inexpensive pianos all but caught up to more expensive ones?” In a word, no. Expensive makers were busy raising the bar at a time when low end makers were simply making pianos viable. In recent years, upper end makers have been pursuing excellence in tone: rather than simply making ‘soft’ hammers, they’re going after versatile hammers through the use of better felt (see interview with Jack Brand on Weickert) – ones that play soft and felty but also loud and percussively. Tonal aspects are also more advanced – with old growth timber gone, boutique makers are pursuing high elevation slow growth wood with tighter more resonant grain for soundboards. Strings and what is called scale is ever increasingly moving towards purer tones with focused harmonics. And actions are (as I like to describe them on high end pianos) like chocolate – rich and beautiful. In my estimation the whole world in piano making has just upped the ante in these last 5 years. But new pianos do come at a cost. Modestly priced piano models from the 70’s and 80’s are now unaffordable by many households. Like never before there are several piano companies that have broken the $100,000 mark for price point. It appears that with the emergence of the nouveau riche in many countries, the boutique makers are reaping the rewards. This has left the bottom arena rallying for market share. Kudos (where credit is due) to the improvements in fledgling companies who have grown from nothing to substantial instrument makers within the span of a decade. If you are in the camp that quickly dismisses Chinese made pianos, you’re in for a surprise – especially in the coming years. Regardless of your budget, however, there’s even more reason and more incentive to look at buying a new piano than ever before.
- China still tops the industry with an estimated 79.6% of sales worldwide. Domestic imports in China are up by 15%
- Consolidation continues and productivity is between 40,000 – 130,000 pianos annually for many of these companies (doing the math, that means some manufacturers are making between 100-350 pianos PER DAY)
- Luxury markets are up and German exports continue to rise
- Viewing 10 year trends, North American sales of acoustic pianos has recovered from 2008 financial crunch and have remained relatively stable but numbers are still down by 42% in retail dollars and 61% lower in units since 2004
- According to NAMM 2013 report, demand for larger grand pianos has increased in recent months to the 6’ size and there is a greater demand for higher quality upright pianos with average price point set at $16,425 and $4,834 respectively
- Last year roughly 32,000 pianos (grands & uprights) were sold in the USA
I was in the office of a metal fabricator recently and admired his collection of vintage wooden golf clubs. Not being a golfer I inquired “Are these rare?” He laughed and replied “Not really… titanium and other alloys have all but replaced traditional clubs like these. I just like the look of them.” Having been around pianos most of my life, I’ve often wondered about the traditional use of wooden parts in the mechanical action of the piano. We somehow have managed to romanticize every aspect of this instrument and when faced with the possibility of making more efficient, versatile, stronger and consistent parts out of composite materials like nylon or carbon fiber there are far too many competitive voices that ignorantly refer to these as ‘plastic’. Plastic has this connotation of cheap grocery bags and kid’s toys. If you’re in that camp, think again about how not only golf clubs have changed but how airplanes also used to be made out of wood. Historically, the first bicycle was made completely out of wood and yet the majority of Tour de France bikes are now made out of carbon fiber… and for the record, I won’t be taking my next flight on any wooden airliner. Why have we embraced certain areas of technology and accepted it as the norm and yet reject it in the piano?
“The piano is made for music. It’s not just a machine.” I agree whole-heartedly however, the moving parts of the action – do they create sound? The joints and levers called the whippen assembly – do they make noise? Are they tuned? Most of these parts are inert and inaudible. If you ever get to see a technician take an action piece out of the piano, flex the joint and listen for any kind of noise. They’re incredibly quiet.
So if the joints (also known as the flanges) have a more tactile application, why not fit them with new composite materials? That’s what has happened with parts inside Mason & Hamlin pianos. Wessell, Nickel & Gross (WNG) is the parts company who manufacture such composite parts (same owners as Mason & Hamlin). Composite literally means ‘combined’. It’s the joining of the aforementioned components – usually nylon, carbon fiber or epoxy materials.
When speaking earlier this year with Kirk Burgett, president of Mason & Hamlin and WNG, we touched on various aspects of their pianos that have been re-designed with ‘outside the box’ thinking. One such concept is hammer shanks. The hammer is the lever (that looks like an actual hammer) which strikes the strings with a felt head. To my knowledge, WNG is the only composite shank maker in the world. So what’s the big deal? Why change what already works well for hundreds of years? In this slow motion video provided by WNG, (which is very compelling I might add) it demonstrates how wooden shanks absorb energy like a spring instead of transferring energy to the string. Ideally in a piano action, you don’t want to lose energy from the moment you touch the key. Piano touch should be an extension of your fingers and ultimate transfer equals maximum output of the instrument. So even if you could get wood that was incredibly rigid to match the strength and resilience of composite shanks, getting 88 shanks to operate in the same manner is challenging.
Mason & Hamlin have all but eliminated that variable of inconsistency by implementing these shanks into their pianos. And I must say, their pianos are suitably impressive. Advantages of new composite materials:
1. Strength and rigidity
3. Resilience to humidity fluctuation
4. Reduced mass
Take a moment to watch the video and if you have the opportunity, try a new Mason & Hamlin piano. If you need confirmation that they’re building quality, you’ll be convinced in short order. WNG also offer a wide variety of aftermarket parts for rebuilders of pianos as well.
A special thanks also to Kirk Burgett for his passion in piano design, creativity and innovation. Pictured above, a whippen assembly made out of composite material ~ welcome to the 21st century.
Pianos look great in showrooms don’t they? Why is it then that even the nicest pianos quite often look tired in private homes? The answer is not to play or touch the piano. Au contraire, pianos are made for music and to be played! Quite frankly, I believe it’s due to the fact that there aren’t parameters set around piano care. Having had a busy household with three of my own children growing up around pianos, I set up three simple rules to prevent piano damage:
1 No toys (I don’t care if it’s fluffy the teddy bear… he still has button eyes)
2 No food or drinks near the piano
3 No acts of aggression
My reasoning? I’ve seen way too many pianos destroyed by small cars (especially on the keytops). Anything that is hard (keys and purses are the worst!) will eventually lead to hairline scratches. Regarding food or drinks, I can’t count how many times people have said “oh I’ll just put that cup down at the end of the keyboard” (referring to the cheek blocks) or “up here on top”. And wouldn’t you know it, there’s an indelible circle left afterwards – usually on beautiful wood veneers such as mahogany or walnut.
Finally, no acts of aggression; Despite the fact that pianos can take quite a beating when played at concert level doing avant garde or prepared piano music, it’s the intention and respect with which I’ve shown my own children to have for an instrument that’s important.
Beyond household rules that establish simple parameters for having an instrument in the home, how do you keep a piano looking new? Dusting with a swiffer or chamois on a regular basis is perfect. (Word to the wise though, don’t let the swiffer handle scratch the piano!) A simple light swipe to keep the dust off keeps it looking presentable. More than that, what’s the protocol for wiping fingerprints or simply cleaning a piano?
Let’s start with the DON’Ts
1. Don’t use standard furniture polish. They build up a sticky residue over time and depending on the piano, sometimes even soften the finish
2. Don’t use water. Although most modern finishes are impermeable to water (such as eurethanes), it will still streak and look terrible
3. Don’t use any type of paper product – not papertowel, no Kleenex or tissue because when you think about it, paper is derived from wood – wood is an abrasive – you’re actually scratching the finish
4. Don’t use harsh cleaners or solvents
1. Always use a soft cloth or chamois
2. Use a cleaner/spray that enhances depth, removes smudges, minor dirt and fingerprints that also doesn’t leave a greasy residue
One product family that I have used for many years is Cory Care Products. They understand pianos. Their products are simple, effective and you really can’t over do them. They make the blacks jet black and sheen incomparable.
One misunderstood finish is satin. By nature of the fact that you’re rubbing a piano to clean it, it becomes shiny – counterintuitive for satin. Cory has developed a ‘polish’ for satin pianos. It retains the satin look very effectively. I’ve kept a bottle of both for years now. So if you want to keep up with appearances, set up some basic house rules, dust regularly and clean occasionally using great products. It’ll keep the wow factor for any piano in your home.
It struck me recently that Schimmel, an almost 130 year old piano company is working at staying competitive. As I was updating and implementing new changes and models to the Schimmel line, it struck me that there is a movement to diversify – to stay competitive and at the same time push the upper limits of technology. The highest level of their pianos is called the Konzert series (in English where we obviously get the word Concert from). This new series includes a higher grade soundboard material (Bavarian high altitude AAA grade), re-scaling of the line (new and enhanced tone), a mass reduced bridge (allowing for better tone transference to the soundboard), new mineral keytops (instead of plastic) as well as new keys that are patterned after the K280 concert grand. In addition, Schimmel has begun a new department called “Tonmeisterei” (tone or sound master department) where the new K series undergoes more significant voicing (changes to tonal color).
I must say that the new Konzert design is not something to be glossed over. These new changes are substantial. At NAMM in January, I had the opportunity to sit at the K280 on stage. The clarity and harmonicity are truly outstanding. This is in part due to the tunable triplexing. In short, the part of the string that produces the body of the tone is called the speaking length of the string. At the termination points of the string however, Schimmel has added harmonic value by adding tunable “aliquots” (translated means ‘a portion of the whole’). While duplexing refers to having these aliquots at the farthest end of the string, triplexing has aliquots at both the tuning pin end as well as the hitch pin side of the string. Rather than simply terminating the vibration of the string past the speaking length, these metal aliquots keep the tone ‘live’ and add harmonics to the body of the note. Schimmel now has made these harmonic areas adjustable and subsequently tunable so they can resound in the same pitch as the note itself. It sounds complicated but when played, the practical output is that the tone is perceived clear as a bell.
Schimmel still has its historically significant Concert line available but has added two other lines entitled Schimmel International and Wilhelm Schimmel. Schimmel International has outsourced some parts to become more cost effective, having the cabinets made in their European factory of Kalisz, Poland. There is enough labour and materials present from Braunschweig however to still be classified “Made in Germany”.
Wilhelm Schimmel is completely Schimmel designed but built mainly in the Kalisz plant. It offers a more cost effective alternative for a European piano. While Schimmel pushes the envelope on the extreme upper end, the company is keenly aware that there is demand for more cost based pianos for the lower end market. Undoubtedly, many competitive markets (especially China) are hungry for such instruments. Schimmel has not only shown its engineering and design prowess but diversification with the intention of reaching all market demands in today’s economy.
So you just purchased a piano. Now what? It’s kind of like bringing the baby home from the hospital; you need to give some thought as to the inclusion into your life. What about placement? Where do you put it? And how about maintenance? How much and how often does it need to be tuned? This month, we’re taking a brief look at piano follow up in your home.
I’ve quite often said that pianos are like small elephants. As a piece of furniture, they can dominate a room. First off let’s debunk the old ‘outside wall’ business where many have been told pianos cannot sit on the outer wall of a house. Back in the 1920’s, old houses didn’t have sufficient insulation and in winter, outside walls had as much ice on the inside of the wall as the outside. Fluctuations in temperature were enormous and pianos weathered much better on inside walls. This is not really applicable today. General rule of thumb, if you can touch the wall and it feels like room temperature, you most likely don’t have an issue because modern construction and insulating have effectively buffered outside extremities. There are, however things to consider as danger zones: direct sunlight, baseboard heaters and fireplaces. Direct sunlight will not only create fluctuation in temperature and humidity and affect the inner workings of the piano but it will quite often fade and damage the outer finish.
Baseboard heaters are a no-no for close proximity. They heat up and cool down constantly. Finally, being in a confined space with a fireplace or wood stove also dries out parts and the sound board of the piano. If you have an upright piano, don’t position it close to the wall and in doing so ‘cup’ the sound. General principle is to have the piano about a fist’s distance from the wall which ensures proper displacement of the sound. Do also consider acoustics of the sound as well. Hard wood floors will echo while carpet and drapes absorb sound. Plaster and glass contribute to the echo. Grand pianos sound great in corners as the tone reflected off of the lid will be heard as it reflects again in the corner.
What exactly is piano preparation? If all of the notes play and work properly, why do I need to put work into a new instrument? Let’s just say that manufacturing involves assembly and some levels of preparation. Final preparation is the last stage of adjusting a piano to its home environment. Having a piano moved half-way around the world, it has been bumped and jostled. The wood at the factory quite possibly has different humidity levels to your home and so out of the approximately 5000 intricate piano parts, some may be 90% tight but rarely are they 100%. Let me give you a small example: the hammer that strikes the string is attached to a round stick called a shank which rotates via a steel center pin on a small wooden piece called the flange. This flange is screwed into a common rail appropriately called the hammer rail. It’s my experience that if the flange screws are not completely tight, you lose transference of energy and will quite often result in audible clicks even if they are a quarter of a turn off of tight. “Well why would they become loose by simply moving the piano?” It’s not that the screws have undone, it’s that the wood has settled or cured, possibly absorbed or released humidity subsequently resulting in looser parts.
Preparation involves double checks on these screws as well as plate and action screws and the alignment of action parts. Also significant is the ‘seating’ of strings – making sure they are tight against the bridge. Bringing pianos to proper pitch for the first time is also part of that process. Finally, voicing the piano – making it sound brighter or mellower – adjusting the tone so that it is suitable in your home environment is significant.
“So… how often should I have this done?” are usually the words clients say to tuners as they’re putting on their shoes and closing their toolkits. Great question. If you’re a new piano owner, there quite often is abundant stretch in the new steel strings. You wouldn’t think so, but new piano strings will stretch for quite some time. Subsequently, tuning new pianos more frequently in the first year is always beneficial. Usually your first tuning is included with a piano purchase from a retail store. My advice? Tune another 2 times your first year and you will have a very stable instrument long-term. So what happens to strings with stretch? It’s a little like a tug-of-war. You stretch the strings and the strings pull back but not as far (often by about 1/3). You tune again, and again the piano will pull back but not as far. By the third tuning, you should have more consistent pitch. After that how often should you tune the instrument? This varies considerably from location to location and piano to piano (and person to person…lol…some people are just really picky :D) In more drastic climates, where it gets really cold and then quite warm, pianos could be tuned twice a year just following the major changes of ‘freeze’ and ‘thaw’.
I have to admit, I let out a big sigh 6 years ago when I found out that Bösendorfer was purchased by Yamaha. Why? I have nothing against Yamaha. It’s because like many companies as of late, small piano makers are sold to larger ones and they’re dissolved into bigger corporations and it soon becomes merely a name on the front of a piano. The history, the heritage, the piano making expertise are lost and replaced as a name plate – simply selling credibility on the laurels of a former name.
Regarding Bösendorfer, I couldn’t have been more wrong. Fast forward to 2014: I caught up with Ed Bezursik (Yamaha Acoustic Piano Marketing Manager/ Bösendorfer North American Marketing Manager). We recently had a few brief minutes talking. We spoke of the new Yamaha CX line (see July 2013 blog) and then finally I asked him “So what’s the future for Bösendorfer? Is it going to get moved to Japan?”
(I know… a brazen and bold question but… I was curious) “Nothing of the sort!” he replied emphatically. “We’re keeping it where it is. In fact, we’re making Bösendorfer MORE Austrian”. When queried about this, he said that areas which had been outsourced are now being made in Austria. He referred me to the man who specializes in this at production level, Simon Oss (Premium Piano Market Development Manager for both Yamaha & Bösendorfer). “Yes”, Simon confirmed, “as Ed points out, the cast iron frame was previously made in the Czech Republic and is now a more expensive, higher quality frame made in Austria. Many people wonder how the product changed since Bösendorfer was purchased by Yamaha Corporation. The piano is constructed with exactly the same fundamental principles of Viennese piano making in Austria, since 1828. The production of the instruments is unchanged and we have Yamaha to thank for a much broader service and distribution network. The same Austrian craftsmen who built the pianos before Bösendorfer became part of Yamaha are still working today. With about 120 staff – out of these about 100 are craftsmen and technicians which are producing close to 300 exclusive instruments a year – a major contribution in today’s economy. In 2013 we celebrated our 185th anniversary at Bösendorfer, which makes us the oldest premium piano maker in the world. And we also completed our 50,000th instrument, a model 225 which you surely saw at NAMM”. (see NAMM highlights blog).
For those who have never heard the name, Bösendorfer can be found in many concert halls around the world. The company was started in 1828 by Ignaz Bösendorfer and by 1830 gained the status of official piano maker to the Emperor of Austria. The company has a star-studded cast of owners over the last 185 years from Classical greats like Paderewski to pop icons like Michael Jackson, jazz legends like Oscar Peterson to money moguls like Steve Jobs. If you’re looking for what is called a “Premier” piano, Bösendorfer is considered one of the most prominent, highest ranking, oldest companies in the world. Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Prices (MSRP) of these pianos start at a modest $105,000 and range up to $515,000. Whew!
Most times I don’t like being wrong but in the case of Bösendorfer, I’m glad I was and I’m happy to see that one of the oldest surviving piano companies gets to continue to build pianos as one of the godfathers of the industry. Kudos to Yamaha for having the foresight to secure this company and allow the heritage to live on.
For your viewing pleasure – A quick video about the making of serial # 50,000 from Bosendorfer. BTW, that’s 24 carat gold plated statues and frame.
And Bösendorfer has also started a publication recently which can be read online and found here
I have to admit, I’m a duck to water when it comes to playing the piano. If I see a piano, I’m always curious as to how it sounds and plays. Recently someone said to me “y’know you really should do a blog about how to test pianos… I don’t have the slightest clue how to go about that”. It’s one thing I do instinctively and it made me stop and think about my procedure.
Going back just over 20 years, I was a new upstart that just got hired by the local piano store. With 2 Classical degrees behind me I felt confident I knew my way around the keyboard. Fortunately my boss at the time – now a designer and consultant for Samick Music Corporation put me in my place. I’ll never forget his words “Glen” he stated, “for years you’ve played the piano but don’t presume that you know how the piano works. You’re a race car driver but don’t make the mistake in thinking you’re a mechanic. Drivers are not mechanics”. Thankfully I had enough sense at the time to heed his words.
Over the years, I’ve literally played thousands of pianos. I must say that now knowing cause and effect – what mechanical processes and components creates a certain touch or tone – is a huge asset. And so I’ve compiled my thoughts from the ‘front end’ – from the keyboard side to try and explain a little of what is going on ‘under the hood’ and what tests are fundamental to any piano. I’ve reduced these to 5 steps for newbies (I know… I know… it’s what my kids call me… “Dad you’re such a noob”)
1. Sustain – A piano that sings speaks to its ability to sustain the tone and not disappear after a few short seconds. One thing that I listen for is a piano that sings. Sustain, means that when you depress a key the tone continues to resonate. This sustain speaks to great manufacturing techniques and great components.
Test: Play any note on the piano with medium pressure and listen to the sound as it gradually dies away. How long did it take? What was the sound like as it decays? Carefully listen to low and high notes doing the same. In every octave (every 8 white notes) you’ll hear differences of the ‘decay’ (don’t worry… it’s not the same as tooth decay. It’s the more technical term of ADSR – Attack Decay Sustain Release)
Technical: The strings resonate with just the correct amount of pressure (called down-bearing) onto the bridge where the vibrations are transferred to the amplifier we know as the soundboard. Working properly, the materials should not be ‘inhibiting’ the tone from freely singing. The piano is a transducer, converting the energy of touch to string vibrations and then into sound waves. All three of these elements must be working in sync to produce tone. A piano that sings – that’s a thing of beauty. I’ve played many a piano that has a ‘sweet spot’ in a certain range or octave but to get a piano to sustain from top to bottom, that requires excellence in manufacturing and design. While a good technician can alter some elements of the piano to bring out tone, sustain is a tough one that in my mind either ‘you got it or you don’t’.
2. Evenness – My piano teacher (when I was 13) asked me to play a scale “like a string of pearls – each one should be matched in color and size”. That’s a great lesson in musicality but also for testing pianos. What happens though when you apply the same amount of pressure but neighboring notes don’t respond the same way on the piano? It’s REALLY difficult to express a melody when the piano parts are not manufactured or prepped so that all 88 notes respond with evenness. Often notes ‘jump out’ at you – either in volume or brilliance.
Test: Play a series of adjacent notes with even pressure and see if the volume or brilliance changes. Quite often it is better to strike each note with the same finger if you’re not accomplished at the piano. People unversed with piano technique will unknowingly play heavily with a thumb or finger and think it’s the piano not responding correctly.
Technical: There are approximately 6,000 parts in a piano action. The action is the ‘engine under the hood’. When pianos don’t respond evenly, this could be one of many adjustments (also called regulation). I’ve played pianos that once regulated, you wouldn’t know they’re the same instrument. In addition to adjustments, too much friction, not enough friction, action design, quality of parts, execution in manufacturing, balanced keys – all of these play a part in making all 88 keys function to make the piano play smoothly.
3. Control – Aside from evenness, there is an aspect called control. This is by far the most difficult aspect to explain and most difficult to test. While evenness speaks to neighbouring note difference, control refers to the feel of the keys moving through varying degrees of pressure. This is not referring to the sound of the piano but rather the correlation of key pressure sensitivity to piano tone. What you’re wanting is a piano where the keys feel like an ‘extension of your fingers’. I’ve played many pianos that feel hard to control. This refers to the subtleties of touch. For example, sometimes you’ll be trying to play quietly but the keys feel inordinately heavy and when the tone comes out, it’s not the whisper you’re looking for. At other times you’re looking for power but the piano doesn’t deliver. Making your softs soft and your louds loud – control is vital to satisfaction.
Test: Test one key at a time. First depress a key in slow motion so that the note makes no sound: pay attention to how the key feels. Does it feel succinct at the beginning stage? Does it feel loose or does it feel heavy at the top? How about halfway through the key stroke? Can you feel more pressure? And the ‘click’ at the end of the key stroke – every piano has one – that’s the reset of the key. And finally the cushion of the felt at the bottom – is it too spongy or hard? Play the same note repeatedly getting louder all the while paying attention to the feel. At maximum pressure, how does it feel? The best test for this is to A/B compare different pianos in this process and determine which one feels most ‘natural’. I’ve often said that everyone should play a concert grand at some point in their lives. The most expensive grand pianos usually have been given the most attention at the factory. Sometimes it’s great to get a reference point of a piano that you may not be able to afford… but to try it to see what excellence feels like. Then… reality check – match your budget with the closest piano you can afford. If you’re new to the piano, test the best benchmark you can find.
Technical: Intrinsic to piano design is the geometry of the action. Action design – the weight of a hammer, the degree of the whippen, the placement of the capston, and the quality of all of these parts – all of these small seemingly insignificant parts play a vital role when we attempt to control the piano through varying degrees of pressure.
4. Tonal quality – This refers to the sound of a piano. I’ve played many pianos that excel at one certain volume level but sound terrible at another. Myself? I look for versatility. Ideally I want that really felty soft tone when playing quietly and a more bold strident sound at louder volumes. What do you like? This is by far the most significant element where personal taste is involved. If, for example, the piano sounds great at soft volumes and you only intend to play quietly you may want to look for a piano that suits your ears in more of the quiet range. Some people only play loud and louder and look for a more percussive sound. Different folks, different strokes.
Test: Depress keys one at a time and listen for the color spectrum going from soft to loud playing. Does it change or does it sound the same from soft to loud playing? Does the piano excel at one volume level but not another? Sometimes a piano may seem dull at louder volumes or too bright when playing softly. The harmonics (in plain speak the “ring” or overtones) are at times clanging or distorted. Does the depth of tone feel satisfying in the bass (lowest notes) and do the highest notes (top octave) sound defined or too ‘plinky’.
Technical: As we heard in the interview with Jack Brand, resiliency and elasticity of the hammer felt are vital for the production of great piano tone. The design or ‘scale’ of the strings also plays an important part. In fact, this topic is so immense, we could discuss piano tone all day – the composition or the soundboard, the bridges, the cast iron, the placement of the hammers… the list goes on and on. The main thing is that you actually enjoy the piano you are playing. BTW, often overlooked is simply TUNING the piano! Pianos in tune or out of tune sound vastly different.
5. Touch weight – Do you know how much a nickel weighs? Most piano technicians do. Why? Because touch weight refers to the amount of weight required to set a piano hammer in motion. If the keys feel too heavy, even by the weight of a nickel a piano can often feel laborious or tough to play. (A nickel weighs approximately 5 grams and technicians will use them in a pinch for measuring key weight). But there are in fact two measurements for piano weight – static and rotational inertia. Soft playing ‘dead lifts’ the hammers while loud playing deals more with the inertia of the hammer once set in motion on a rotating axis. Sound complicated? LOL it is!! I’ve had many people ask if something can be done with the touch. The answer is yes but… it’s also complicated and costly to implement. More often than not I advise people to find a piano where the touch feels comfortable.
Test: Play a song or various keys and make mental note to the actual resistance to your fingers. This should feel comfortable. Try and remove your ears for a moment. You’re now not supposed to be listening but feeling. Too light of an action doesn’t provide proper dynamic expression while too heavy can feel tiresome.
Technically: If you look at the wooden edges of the piano keys, you’ll most likely be able to see circles of inserted lead. These weights are inserted into the keys to offset the weight of the hammers and assist in playing at quiet volumes. The weight of the hammer itself however is responsible for most of the rotational inertia at loud volumes. Pianos can play incredibly different at polarized extremes and sufficient testing should be done at different dynamic levels.
So you’ve narrowed down which piano you like? You may want to confirm your decision with a professional. Remember, drivers are not mechanics. Have a word with a local technician. For a list of local technicians in your area, see our Find-A-Tuner chapter.
I’ve often thought that it’s a shame that the new starting point for children has moved away from the piano to an electronic keyboard. We don’t ever fall in love with keyboard sound or touch. I truly believe that kids today quit piano before even being introduced to a real instrument. I remember once having a discussion with someone who had come to my house remarking that they had never seen a grand piano in a home before. They’d seen pictures on TV of grand pianos on stage but never actually come across one in real life. That was amazing to me. I hope that if you’re a newbie at the piano and you read this that you’ll take courage enough to go to a piano store and try one. You’ll be amazed at what you find. These electronic devices we call keyboards are not even a shadow of the depth and beauty of real piano tone. It’s like handing someone a box of crayons and saying “paint a masterpiece”… it simply can’t be done. The depth and richness of shading and color that can be achieved from a real piano that is properly tuned, voiced and regulated is not only a dream to play but allows full expression of tone that goes beyond words. As the great Bill Evans put it, “When you play music you discover a part of yourself that you never knew existed.”
Is he a spy? No. Is he famous? No. But this one man’s company has single-handedly infiltrated most of the major names of pianos in the world. 200,000 pianos per year to be exact! Who is he? Jack Brand. Haven’t heard of him? I hadn’t either until the interview with Del Fandrich a few months back. After some preliminary investigating, I found out that Jack Brand owns a company in Canada called Brand Felt. So what does this have to do with pianos? Jack Brand, third generation felt maker along with his father, Klaus Brand, re-established the German Weickert/Wurzen production facility, the oldest, most respected felt maker of piano felt in the world. I queried Jack a few months ago about his interest in shedding some light on the felt making process and he agreed to do this interview. I’m so excited to share his words. I’ve only scratched the surface and already I’m finding that felt making is more about art and intuition than formula; that you could spend a lifetime studying how hammer felt affects piano tone so drastically. Established in 1783, Weickert is over 230 years old! The trade secrets, production notes, and piano technician feedback have been handed down so that this closely guarded secret of felt making lives on. But don’t take my word for it… let’s hear it from Jack.
Weickert and Wurzen are some of the oldest names (THE oldest??) for felt manufacturing in the world and yet the Weickert felt has been “re-introduced” again for hammer manufacturing, correct? Can you tell us a little history about the name and origins as well as your involvement with Weickert and Wurzen?
Wurzen is the oldest existing felt plant of wet processed felts in the World. The oldest. Basically, I was very lucky to come across this beautiful opportunity to re-introduce the old legendary Weickert Felt. All the know-how had disappeared between 1945 and 1991.The Weickert company was expropriated in 1945 by the Communist government and the family fled to the West. The last owner of the company was Alice Weickert, who was an American and had married into the Weickert family. Steinway New York was one of the largest US customers for Weickert hammer felt. I am the fourth generation of textile makers, third as felt makers in the Brand family. All previous generations lost everything due to wars and expropriations, my dad and mom started in the West with nothing after WW2. I am the first in four generations who can build on something.
In 1991 my dad asked me if I was interested in coming back to Germany to look at my grandfather’s plant which couldn’t be salvaged and also at the former Weickert felt plant.
To make a long story short, my dad and I re-privatized the old Weickert plant in 1991. We got a phone call from Renner, Germany asking us whether we could produce the old Weickert felt. We were lucky, the old production recipes were handed to me by an old former production manager of Weickert’s. We ran some materials and the hammers were sent anonymously to Steinway. The response from Steinway (who did not know who had made the felt) was:
– this felt reminds us of the old Weickert Felt
– where is this felt company?
– and we want more
The rest is history. The PTG (Piano Technician’s Guild) of Germany came to the Wurzen plant in 1992, and conducted blind tests on four different grands and the difference in tonal result was significant. After that our supply for Wurzen/Weickert hammer felt was always sold out. Capacity has steadily increased to the point where today annually 180,000 to 200,000 instruments are outfitted with Wurzen felt, about the same amount as in 1903 when ‘Weickert’ felt already had a widely recognized name in the piano world.
Your company Brandfelt.com – how did you get into this business? Did you grow up always wanting to manufacture felt?
I basically learnt felt around the breakfast and dinner table. Our living quarters were at the felt plant. My parents sent me to Canada in 1971 because they wanted me to grow up in a country where there hopefully would not be wars. A small felt plant was founded in Toronto, something to fall back on, in case everything gets lost again thru political turmoil.
Personally I am a production/product development guy who identifies with a natural product like wool felt and who got lucky to stumble upon the challenge of piano felts, which is probably the most difficult felt to make. My colleagues and I didn’t invent the Weickert hammerfelt production method, we only re-introduced it because of fortunate circumstances together with determination and real interest in the product by a whole bunch of people in our factory. At this point I also want to thank all the piano builders and hammerhead makers in the world who showed genuine interest in making a better product and let results speak for themselves.
Piano felt is a small part of our overall world sales, but it is one of the most challenging and interesting ones. We have manufacturing and converting plants in USA, Canada, Europe and Far East.
Let’s get into hammer felt making. How many basic grades of felt are there?
First of all I would say there are today about four major different manufacturing methods in the world for piano hammer felt.
1) I call it the Royal George method out of England, whose technology was purchased by a Japanese felt company in the early 90s,just as the Wurzen /Weickert hammer felt method was being reintroduced into the market place. Royal George as a felt maker does not exist anymore.
2) The VFG method which is a manufacturer out of Germany (in the former West Germany before German reunification in 1989).
3) The Japanese/Chinese method which existed before a Japanese felt company purchased the know how from Royal George, England.
4) The Weickert/Wurzen method which was developed in 1847 near Leipzig and which by 1861 was internationally recognized. By the early 1900 ‘s the J.D. Weickert Piano Forte Felt Company supplied top hammer felt for about 200,000 annually world wide.
Each of these felt methods provide different resiliency or elasticity effects in the felt, hence different results at the hammer head maker and different tones at the voicing stage (because each type of felt will react different in voicing even if hammerhead making method, voicing method and type of instrument are the same)
Each felt manufacturer offers in addition different grades. The Wurzen Felt company offers 4 different grades:
-Piano (which can also be used for grand instruments)
-Weickert Special (the latest and probably also the best in most instances, especially for grand instruments)
All these four different grades by Wurzen are being produced in accordance with the basic principles of the legendary Weickert hammerfelt manufacturing method. The difference in the above felt grades can, for example mean different wool blends and/or slightly changed processes, for example with more or less hand labour in the different stages of production. But we always follow the old Weickert method which nobody else does in the world at the moment. Basically the different grades offer different kinds of elasticities to the hammerhead maker and end user. Weickert in the olden days also carried four different grades of top hammer felt.
What exactly is virgin wool? I presume it doesn’t refer to non-promiscuous sheep…hahaa Do piano hammers primarily use virgin wool?
Virgin wool is wool shorn from live sheep, not dead sheep (usually raised for meat production. Those wools are called skin wools which often are chemically removed). Usually live animals get shorn twice or once a year depending on the food environment and what type of length or fineness of fibre is required. These are virgin wools.
So the big question: What raw materials and process make for great piano felt? What factors affect tone?
Using the right fibres is very important and a prerequisite. The Wurzen/Weickert felt company has a long tradition of knowing what fibres are best suited and how these fibres have to be processed after they are shorn from the sheep. We have our own company specific recipes and specifications, which we consider proprietary. But the different steps in the manufacturing method are essential to provide good tone results in the end (fibre blend, mixing, carding, felting, fulling, finishing). This is where the real know how lies and which differentiates the Wurzen/Weickert felt from all other methods in the world.
In my seminar on the principles of felt making I hand out identical pairs of felt samples which represent the different stages of production, i.e. felted or fulled material but which feel quite different from one another in your hand when you squeeze, bend or just touch them. The pairs of samples are identical in fibre, dimensions and weight and still one will feel harder or stiffer than the other (or one surface feels smoother and the other rougher). Why the difference? Well it is the difference in production method. For example the one sample may have been exposed to high temperature steam whereas the other to low temperature steam affecting the moisture content in the felting and interlocking of fibres process (for fibres to interlock properly the scales on the fibres have to properly open up before they can interlock which only happens if you have the right temperature and moisture content),the right stoke and speed settings of the felting plates, plate patterns, type of transportation cloth on which the material gets felted, etc…
The point is the resiliency/elasticity of the product always changes if one changes any of the parameters in the production process. So that is the craftsmanship which one has to attain thru a lot of trials and errors. Specs of weight and dimension and which fibres alone don’t define the elasticity of hammer felt. One needs to know how these wool fibres are being processed under what parameters at each step of the production process.
The end result is a certain felt elasticity which stands for, in our case, for the Weickert method of hammer felt making. Generations of felt makers at our plant in Wurzen developed it in conjunction with and with feedback from piano builders and hammerhead makers since 1847. The Weickert method is proven and with the help of a good hammer head maker who will adjust his method to our felt, it will produce a beautiful tone. It is very important to work closely with a hammer head maker and also with the piano builder or piano technician to get optimal results. You can have great felt but without the right hammer making method you will end up with mediocre results. Vice versa a good hammerhead maker who knows his stuff and uses a mediocre piece of felt can still get a decent result but not the optimal one.
We know of many examples where the identical Wurzen felt hammer specification was made into hammers by different hammerhead makers for the same piano factory customer, one was good and the other was rejected. The conclusion is that without all three parties working closely together (felt maker, hammer maker, piano builder) you almost have no chance to get the optimal tone result.
To answer your question ‘what affects tone’ I would say it is almost endless but it helps to know what felt and which grade is on your hammer,who made the hammer and what method was used (ie hand vs Hydraulic press, prepress or not, shape of how felt is cut from sheet, what temperatures and times in presses etc…) and what design of instrument and tonal taste one wants to achieve.
The art and science behind felt making, the experimentation, the feedback from builders and technicians – it’s amazing that the Weickert “secret recipe” was not lost. Pianos around the world might have been changed forever had these production notes not have been found and handed to you.
Yes! The basic trade secrets were handed over to me by the then production manager in 1991 who in turn got it from the previous production manager who was still working during the Weickert family era. The last production adjustment to the Grand D hammerfelt spec production sheet for Steinway was initialled and dated in 1933.
Wow! That’s incredible. For those wanting to see felt making in action, here’s a video link to the Brand Felt Company in Canada. I’ve learned so much about an area of pianos I knew so little. And scratching the surface one quickly realizes how broad this speciality is. I just want to convey my thanks to Jack for taking the time to do this interview. Your insights and expertise are not only helpful but inspiring and captivating.
Do you live in the USA?
Do you have a piano with ivory keys?
You may soon be conducting illegal activity if you try to sell your piano, according to proposed changes by the Obama administration announced on Febraury 11,2014.
First of all, I want to clear the air by saying that I don’t believe in the slaughter of elephants. That age and era is closed and done regarding piano manufacturing. The piano industry neither fuels nor propagates the sale of new ivory. However, I take exception to changing the rules so drastically that many piano stores, technicians and individuals will find themselves conducting possible illegal activity simply by selling a piano that was until recently deemed legal. Do you own a piano with ivory keys? Read on…
When Grand American Piano owner, Clint Hughes, brought this to my attention a few weeks ago, he said “Glen, the effect on the piano industry would be titanic. Check out this Forbes article.” Piano Price Point, however is a website about modern piano making. The piano industry today doesn’t involve ivory of any kind since the official ban in 1989/90. CITES (Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species) prevented further slaughter of animals for the use of materials in pianos. Since then, (25 years later) the majority of pianos have been made with plastics while others work with cattle bone, simulated synthetic ivory or mineral keytops. The reason I bring this up is that if you’re in the piano business – whether new sales or not – then you’ve run into ivory keys at some point. For those who have not seen the published article, you can read it here. (Also printed by National Geographic,Telegraph and original source US Fish & Wildlife). In short, on February 11, 2014 the Obama administration released proposed changes to American laws regarding ivory. The proposed changes are as follows according to the Forbes article:
1. NO imports are allowed even with antique status (over 100 years). In past, CITES certificates could be obtained for authentication of pianos older than the 1989 ban.
2. All exports are banned except for antiques with documentation.
3. All interstate sales are banned as are intrastate commercial transactions – prohibited except with documentation.
I’ve been in piano sales since I was 23. Occasionally, exceptional pianos (usually higher priced grands) were bought and sold between the USA and Canada and CITES certificates would be obtained for such instruments. Minimum wait times were 3 months but more realistic delays were 10 months to a year. If I’m reading this Forbes article correctly, not only is the sale of pianos with ivory keys banned between these two neighbouring countries completely, but within the United States there is also a requirement for EVERY piano newer than 100 years old to have documentation if it has ivory keys. I don’t know about you but the ramifications of this are huge.
Firstly, I really dislike the fact that now piano technicians and shops are ‘guilty unless proven innocent’. The responsibility is that the owner needs to provide proof of authenticity, without which the sale would be considered illegal. It makes this respectable industry criminal. Secondly, if the procurement of occasional CITES permits seems to presently take an eternity, try having mandatory paperwork for EVERY piano with ivory. What will happen? My guess is that the over-taxed under-staffed CITES office will be bombarded with requests and subsequent wait times will balloon into years. Conversely, people will throw up their hands in frustration and simply ignore the new rules. Trying to regulate ivory and prohibit sales of legally obtained ivory from decades ago, as it exists on pianos, will not advance the cause the Obama administration is trying to implement. The Forbes article raises valid questions – namely, will this be enforced? Will the commerce of ivory cease? Will the Fish and Wildlife agents be able to keep up to demand?
So, what’s the answer? Awareness is the first step in addressing the issue. That is why this blog and mail out are important. Piano owners in the possession of ivory need to be made aware of the implications of new ivory regulations. The next step might possibly be discussion at the local level of piano technicians and teachers. If the process of registering a piano could be simplified via accurate serial number dating and/or exceptions made for pianos as a whole, the industry might not suffer such a black eye. Finally, communication needs to happen at governmental level to express concerns.
Am I blowing this all out of proportion? Possibly. The enforcement of such laws may never be implemented. The regulations might be too poorly manned. When push comes to shove however and there is a piano in transit that gets stopped… who is going to be in the wrong? Precisely – the seller will be considered conducting illegal trade of ivory. Subtle as this may be, the new rules shift “the burden of proof for whether ivory is legal from the government to an ivory holder.” [National Geographic] Never before in the history of piano making has the yard line been so drastically altered. In my opinion, this topic needs careful consideration and requires immediate action.
There are fewer than 500,000 elephants known to exist in Africa. Poachers are killing off an estimated 35,000 per year. It is completely understandable that the illegal trade of ivory needs to stop. According to the Telegraph, the ivory business represents a 7-10 billion dollar annual trade.
If you’ve never heard about NAMM, it’s the largest music trade show in North America. NAMM stands for the National Association of Music Merchants. So if you’re in the trade, whether it be musical instruments, band instruments, music software, support – like sound reinforcement, lighting, guitar strings, music books… this is the place to be. Established in 1901, the show now has reached an attendance of 95,709 visitors. Hosted in sunny Anaheim, California, the following pictures are the piano highlights for me. Hopefully they’ll give you a glimpse in terms of what it’s like. Enjoy!
In the middle of the trade show was a small concert highlighting Branford Marsalis and Joey Calderazzo, hosted by Schimmel. It was an intimate event in a venue that held only about 80 people. Kudos to Schimmel for this. For years I’ve followed the musical careers of both Wynton and Branford Marsalis. Joey and Branford play at such a high level and yet somehow make it so incredibly accessible and fun… best moment of the show for me. And it also brought back home again why we are involved in the music business… to make music.
Many of the brands that you see in stores were represented at the show. On the 3rd floor were Kawai, Samick, Schimmel, Pearl River, Kayserburg, Ritmuller, Hailun, Kingsburg, Petrof and Cline. On the 4th floor on display were Fazioli, Bluthner, Ronisch, Baldwin, Otto Meister, Hallet & Davis, Schumann, George Steck, Schulze Pollmann, Baldwin, Mason & Hamlin, Perzina, Story & Clark, Ravenscroft as well as Young Chang.
I always count it a privilege to meet people at this show who are what some would call ‘movers and shakers’. It was great to meet Mr. Hailun Chen (from Hailun pianos). He’s this unassuming man humbly standing in the corner. After I showed interest in the technical side, we then started dismantling his pianos in order to show me the finer points. Despite the language barrier (he’s pointing out features and I’m nodding) we still managed to connect about some of the new features of Hailun. When you consider that the Hailun company is responsible for manufacturing not only tens of thousands of pianos but is also a supply house of action parts to many companies, it was truly an honor to meet him. Connecting with Christian Bluthner (Bluthner pianos), Michael Spreeman (Ravenscroft pianos), Kirk Burgett (president Mason & Hamlin), Del Fandrich (designer of Young Chang), Thomas Dolan (CEO of QRS and Story&Clark) was also very exciting to hear what is going on in each of their respective companies.
One of the FIRSTS this year was the Kayserburg release of their grand piano from Pearl River Piano Group (see Piano Price Point blog October 2013 for more details on Kayserburg). The piano played and sounded wonderful… and although the price is TBA, in usual Pearl River fashion it will represent excellent value when it hits the market in North America. Unbeknownst to me, someone snapped a picture of me playing the Ravenscroft piano. They also released a VERY fine computer based sample of their piano. Pictured to the right is the unmistakeable look of Bluthner music rack and legs.
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