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Interview with Piano Designer Del Fandrich

Piano Price ~ January 2014
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Interview with Piano Designer Del Fandrich

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.

Young Chang

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.

Young Chang

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.

Young Chang

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.
Young Chang
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!

The Sale of Steinway

Piano Price ~ September 2013
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The Sale of Steinway

Steinway grand piano

From its inception in 1853, Henry Steinway had 2 goals – make pianos that produce beautiful music and build a successful company. The former is done through innovation and craftsmanship. The latter is a result of sales and marketing. With success (as in the case of Steinway and Sons) comes change. Procedures are multiplied and streamlined, while efficiency and productivity are examined. In the early years, Steinway manufactured 1000 pianos per year or roughly 80 per month. Within 7 years (1860), those numbers doubled.

Bloomberg Steinway ReportBy 1900, Steinway was producing three and a half times the amount of pianos they originally made per year and then by the 1920’s, they were producing 5000 per year. Think about making approximately 400 pianos per month. That’s a major accomplishment for the 1920’s. It begs the question however, “why more?” Why do companies need to be bigger, better, stronger, faster? In a word – economics. It’s just business.

Bloomberg Steinway Report

The year 1972 marked when Steinway was first sold out of the hands of the Steinway family to CBS. After plans to build a musical conglomerate didn’t turn out as speculated, the company was sold to a group of Boston investors in 1985. In 1996, the company became a publicly traded stock with Samick (Korean piano company) as the major stock holder. It wasn’t until July 1st, 2013 that Kohlberg put an offer on the table of $438 million for the company. Steinway had a 45 day period in which to shop for higher bidders. Samick placed a bid of $499 million which was topped once more on August 14th, by Paulson & Co. with a bid of $512 million.

So why the interest in purchasing a piano company like Steinway? Money moguls aren’t interested in sitting on a company for the sake of boasting rights. They’re in it for the same reason Henry Steinway was over 100 years ago: to make sales. The concern from many is that the company will get watered down. Despite the trends of the last decade to trade upon name value and cash in for the ‘quick nickel’ selling name rights to produce lower priced products, it is apparent that many companies conversely see the upper middle class emerging in areas such as Russia, Brazil and China. What John Paulson is interested in is a great American icon – one that is so branded, it is synonymous with quality. In the words of Bloomberg Businessweek “The Steinway brand is both opulent and bulletproof”. It is my opinion that it would be unwise to rock the boat as it were in production if the aim is set at higher sales and market share of luxury items. Giants such as Kohlberg and Paulson hedge bets not on dismantling companies but developing new markets and pushing values higher because they want to get their money’s worth. After all, they didn’t exactly buy it for a song.

Kawai’s New GX series of Grand Pianos

Piano Price ~ August 2013
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Kawai’s Re-design of RX into GX grand pianos

Kawai stretcherEarlier this year, Kawai introduced us to their newest GX line of pianos following nearly a 20 year run with the RX series. Continuing on with their high tech Millenium III actions made of styran infused with carbon fiber, the piano scale has also been redesigned. However there are bigger structural changes which are outlined here:

1. Stretcher widened. The stretcher is the perpendicular beam (pictured left with lock plate) that connects the left/right sides of the rim. Kawai has solidified this beam and connected it to the pinblock and frame to act as a single unit.

Kawai key buttons
2. Concert key buttons. Notice that the length of the key buttons (pictured right with red bushings) are very long acting as structural reinforcement to the key. Stiffer keys mean better energy transfer to the action.

3. Longer keys in all models. This lengthens the distance from the fulcrum (pivot point) enabling both greater control in dynamics and minimizing touch difference from front to back of the key at the keyboard.

Kawai Katagi rim
Kawai soundboard4. New rim design called “Konsei katagi” meaning “mixed temperament”, mixing 2 alternating woods, one from northern grown closed pore hardwood, the other a tropical grown open grain wood provides both projection,warmth and full body.

5. New tapered soundboard. Using straight grained, quarter-sawn solid spruce for the GX line, the new soundboard taper offers greater sustain and projection.

Yamaha’s New CX series of Grand Pianos

Piano Price ~ July 2013
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Yamaha’s Latest Grand Pianos

Yamaha CX grand pianos

The year 2012, marking their 125th anniversary, Yamaha introduced a new line of pianos. For those who have been in the trade, you will know that Yamaha became famous for their G series grands in the 60’s and 70’s. The C series soon became the popular models throughout the 80’s and 90’s and through the millennium. In 2010, Yamaha introduced a brand new concert grand replacing the CFIII with one called the CFX. Just two years later Yamaha unveiled the entire CX line utilizing the ‘trickle down’ effect where technology on the highest level of design has been applied to smaller sized grands. So what are the features of the new CX series? Like any scale design changes, they must be observed first hand. But here’s the skinny on major points.

Yamaha design

1. Thicker back-post structure. Yamaha has increased the thickness by about 20% on supportive beams.
2. New soundboard design. Although not much has been revealed about what this entails, with years of experience and millions of pianos having been made, Yamaha states that the new manufacturing process to create the crown offers more projection and response.
3. New hammers. Based on the same felt as the CFX concert grand, these new hammers offer wider color range and tonal expression.
4. European wire is now utilized throughout the CX series presenting more pure fundamentals and distinctive sustained overtones.
5. Cabinet redesign. Pedal lyre, case arm, music rack and legs now have a minimalist look to them.

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