Posts tagged pianos
On this latest trip to China, I managed to catch a glimpse into the transformation of Pearl River Piano. Already the largest piano company in the world manufacturing more than 130,000 pianos annually, Pearl River Piano has its sights set on even greater advancement.
One hundred thirty thousand pianos annually equates into about 400 pianos being manufactured per day. Imagine though what it must be like to produce 400 pianos daily. With roughly 225 tuning pins per piano, that’s 90,000 coils per day. Conservatively a piano contains 200 pounds of iron for each frame. That would be 80,000 lbs of iron plates per day, 35,200 hammers and piano keys per day, 2.4 million action parts per day… you get the picture. These are staggering numbers. And behind these numbers are equally massive storehouses of wood, machinery, and a company employing thousands of people.
Touring the existing facility, as you will see, many processes are done either by hand or mechanically. In the new facility, millions of dollars are being invested into state of the art CNC and robotic equipment for even more efficient, more refined piano making.
We started the tour in the lumber yard. If you scroll below, you will get a sense of just how vast the warehouses are. If you are a woodworker, you will appreciate how much material is here. Stockpiled are high quality woods from around the world – enough wood for 5 years worth of pianos. Visible are spruce beams for keys, soundboards and ribs, walnut and beech for rims, maple for bridges, pins and action parts. All wood is kiln dried and then moved indoors for further storage and rotation.
Below is a panoramic image of the lumber yard. You can “grab” the image by pressing and holding the mouse button down and then moving the mouse. Alternatively, you can use the arrows in the image.
Without question my favorite part of the tour was the foundry where cast iron frames are pulled out of beds of sand. This is the traditional way of making the frame of the piano without which the piano would not be able to withstand the 19 tons of string tension. Molds of piano frames are pneumatically pressed into the sand. Once the sand holds the impression, molten iron is poured into the relief to create the cast. The frames are then processed and painted vibrant gold and silver, ready for installation in the piano. Again, it’s hard to get your mind around seeing hundreds of frames all to be used up within days.
The traditional way of making a grand piano rim is to clamp layers of wood around a form. Pearl River has automated this process with a massive press applying thousands of pounds of pressure to ensure the wood is tightly glued together. It looks effortless when these steel machines press together.
In theory, how do you individualize a piano on an assembly line when there are anomalies in wood and metal as raw materials? Pearl River has a brilliant solution to this. Each piano undergoes “electric eye scans” that take readings on variances. These variances are then printed out onto a card which accompanies the piano throughout the assembly process. It allows for subtle changes to be made to each piano to optimize and accommodate so that it’s not just a “one size fits all” approach to piano making. They actually alter the assembly to individualize the piano.
As you can see, there are lines upon lines of pianos being assembled simultaneously. One main difference between small manufacturers and large is the amount of tasks each worker is responsible for. Whereas small piano manufacturing requires workers to perform various tasks, large scale manufacturing like Pearl River has workers focusing on just one or two tasks. You get good at something when you’re single-minded. Quantity necessitates efficiency. And if that is true, it could also be said that sales require proficiency. Pearl River has in recent years become the world’s best selling piano because of great designs but also brilliant implementation in manufacturing.
What is also impressive is that Pearl River Piano has also achieved ISO14001 certification for environmental management systems. These are International Standards that have been set as recent as 2014.
Where are all of these pianos going? I thought you might ask that. When you think of a population of 1 billion people in China alone,
130,000 pianos only represents 0.01% of their population. And while they are the dominant manufacturer in China, they also export to 120 other countries around the world.
If you haven’t heard of Pearl River before, you might want to remember this name. They have already achieved world status and once the new facility is in full production, their presence in the music industry will be formidable.
So how was China? It was brilliant. Pearl River Piano did an incredible job hosting. Thank you. At the end of the tour, we sat and listened to a performance in their recital hall and it struck me that where music is involved, we speak the same language.
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.
The soundboard of a piano ~ to the naked eye, it looks like a giant sheet of wood located under the strings. To piano makers, this is one of the most critical elements of science in the instrument. Why? The job of the soundboard is to transform tone of the vibrating piano strings into audible waves which also color the tone. Truly, it is inseparable from the voice of the piano.
Doing some light reading 😀 (Wood for Sound by Wegst, 2006, American Journal of Botany) it becomes apparent that soundboards are this careful balance of elasticity and stiffness or rigidity. In the diagram, it reveals that there is a correlation between density of wood and elasticity (Young’s Modulus). Generally the lower the density, the greater the vibrational properties. Balancing this concept is stiffness required to resist what is called the down bearing of the strings – the pressure of piano strings pressing down on the soundboard. So the soundboard makeup is this marriage between rigidity (resistance) to pressure while maintaining elasticity for vibration allowing optimal dynamic range and sound radiation.
What then makes for a good soundboard? We thought it would be appropriate to go to the source. Bolduc, one of the few independent piano soundboard makers in the world allowed us a glimpse at what is involved in the making of a soundboard. Situated in bucolic Quebec, Canada, they supply both to piano makers as well as independent piano rebuilders. So without further, adieu, let’s talk to Christian Bolduc, factory superintendent.
Glen Barkman: Tone wood – why white spruce? Is it structural, is it the density or mass? What makes it ideal for piano soundboards?
Christian Bolduc: The North American White spruce has been used for over a century for the making of piano soundboards, as well as violins and other stringed instruments. It has proven its outstanding tonal properties with the most prestigious North-American piano manufacturers. The cold and vigorous North American climate contributes to the strength of the spruce which offers appropriate structure and elasticity required for making a good and resistant soundboard.
GB: When choosing a great log for tonal purposes, what characteristics are you looking for when you view a log in its natural state? Ie. What diameter, length, areas without branches, bark etc.
CB: We need the nicest spruce logs available for making piano soundboards. Most of the time, we use only the base of the tree and cut just under the first branches. The length of the logs we use can vary from 2.5 meters long up to 5 meters (8-16 ft). The tree needs to have grown slowly, gradually, without any twisting, blue marks or other impurities. After having selected the best logs, only 20 to 25% of the tree will be selected for making a 1st grade grand piano soundboard. The rest of the wood will be used for making upright soundboards because the colour is less important because they face the wall. The remaining wood can also be used for other products such as house mouldings and lumber.
GB:Do you happen to know usually how old the trees are when they are logged and when it is the best time to harvest these trees and why?
CB:The tree needs to be cut in the winter time to prevent any sap that would affect the stability of the wood. We need at least 15” diameter at the small end of the log in order to be able to make the quarter-sawn cut. Most of the time, the trees are at least 100 years old.
GB:Do different types of spruce or other woods exhibit different fundamentals in the piano as well as overtones?
CB:There have been many experiments made by piano manufacturers in the last century using different species of woods for soundboards. The spruce tree is definitely the best material as far as tone is concerned.
GB: What is the rough timeline from logging to soundboard? Logging, drying, cutting, curing, shaping, sanding…
CB: The spruce needs to be cured slowly before moving into production. The most important criteria is that the tree needs to be cut during the winter time when moisture is at its lowest. The logs will first be cut into lumber at our saw-mill and stacked outside for months for a slow drying process. The wood will then be kiln dried a few weeks and stacked again for many additional months. The spruce is at least a year old when we start making the soundboard panels.
GB: What is the ideal “curing” humidity or moisture content in the wood?
CB: The soundboard will need different drying periods during the process of production. In the final step, while gluing it into the piano, the soundboard can reach as low as 4-5% humidity content.
GB: Are soundboards planed and then sanded or rough cut and then thickness sanded?
CB: The spruce lumber is cut into oversized planks. The pieces are color and grain matched and then glued together. The soundboards are sanded to their final thickness in a 74″ wide abrasive wood planer.
GB: Do you customize pianos for specific companies and how do you go about doing that?
CB: We manufacture all types of soundboards based on the piano manufacturers’ specifications. Thickness, shape and grain alignment vary from one piano to the other.
GB: How thick on average is a piano soundboard?
CB: A regular piano soundboard can vary from ¼”(6.5mm) for a small model up to 3/8”(9.5mm) for a concert grand piano.
GB: Why quarter sawn? Why vertical grain?
CB: The main reasons are for stability, strength and sound transmission. The soundboard is firmly glued into the piano but still needs to expand and retract without splitting, depending on the ambient conditions and humidity variations. Maintaining the annual rings in a vertical position guarantees that the wood will change dimensions without cracking. The quarter sawn cut makes it also stronger to support the downward force applied to the soundboard by the strings which can reach over 600lbs.
GB: What is the purpose of ribs to a soundboard? How do you incorporate crown (slight arc) into your soundboards?
CB: The ribs help maintain the crown of the soundboard and also counterbalance for the down force exercised by the strings. The ribs can be pre-shaped to match the crown or glued under tension in a press.
GB: What types of glues hold the planks together?
CB: Most manufacturers from the 19th and 20th centuries have been using the hot-hide glue for gluing soundboard panels, pinblocks, veneers, etc. The hot-hide glue was not only good to fix the parts together but also a very good sound transmitter. Today, we use a glue which was developed with the same philosophy of “sound transmission” as it becomes as hard as glass but with a superior resistance to any type of environment.
GB: Obviously with 19 tons of string tension on a piano bearing down onto a soundboard, the soundboard needs to be stable enough to withstand that pressure. Do you measure clamping pressure when joining planks or have other measurements to determine adhesion and subsequent rigidity and stiffness?
CB: The glue used for laminating the soundboard panels is actually stronger than the wood itself. We may think having maximum force is better, but too much pressure with the clamps is not good. There must still be room left for the glue itself.
GB: Are soundboards finished with resins or lacquers or left in their natural state? Or are they finished by the piano manufacturers who purchase them?
CB: The finishing of the soundboard is done by the manufacturer after its installation into the piano. The soundboard needs to be lacquered in order to seal and protect the wood.’’
GB:How is the soundboard adhered to the inner rim of the piano?
The soundboard is glued to the inner rim as a flat glue joint. There are notches in the inner rim to allow room for the ends of the ribs to fit within.’’
I just want to express my thanks to everyone at Pianos Bolduc for answering questions and also supplying most of the images. Due to the wasteful nature of quarter sawn lumber, it makes me happy to see that Bolduc is also concerned with the environment and not letting any scraps go to waste. They only work with suppliers involved in reforestation. The shorter pieces unusable for pianos are sold to guitar luthiers and the sawdust is used by local farmers for litter while the bark for heating sugar shacks and cottages. Excellent!
For more information about Bolduc, visit their beautifully designed website. There’s lots more information on their company, soundboards and pinblocks as well as an array of tools that they also sell.
One final note ~ if you’re anything like me, you’re curious as to their inscription on their logo “Je veux, Je peux”. Translated from French it literally reads “I want, I can” and the insinuation is that we can really make things happen if the desire is strong enough to succeed. Congrats to Bolduc for nearly 40 years of this pursuit!
They appear in every city ~ tall old upright pianos from yesteryear. They seem massive compared to today’s standard. In fact, it would be an anomaly to find small pianos that were made before 1930. Why? For 2 reasons: First, the technology of making small piano actions was not widely developed; and second, there seemed to be this idea of making elaborate and spectacular cabinets with grand-like tones. The only way to accomplish that was through the use of long strings and a large soundboard necessitating a taller piano.
The wheels of trends move slowly in pianos. From a cosmetic perspective, it took nearly 75 years for elaborately carved pianos (circa 1850) to turn the corner to have more simple lines (circa 1920). In fact, I’ve seen many pianos in my lifetime where ornately carved grand and upright legs have been swapped out for modern square legs. Why? Fanciful detail simply fell out of vogue by the 1920’s. You didn’t want to be seen with intricate woodworking on a piano. By the end of the Second World War and into the 1950’s and 60’s, making pianos ‘compact and convenient’ became the mandate. Having a ‘big old upright’ became unfashionable. At the same time, rising labour costs gave way to efficient manufacturing and attention to detail was replaced by utilitarian designs. There weren’t many embellishments or carvings to speak of. Finishing resins also began in the late 60’s and early 70’s to usher in an era of black glossy pianos. Pianos kept declining in height until the industry hit a new low of 36” tall pianos – called drop action pianos, where the actions of pianos were recessed inside the body of the piano. For anyone who has worked on these, you’ll know exactly how difficult they were to service. It was near this time that something switched – something that would affect the piano industry forever.
I remember pulling it out of the box in 1981. My brother, who was a local rock musician and eventually became a television, movie and IMAX composer, bought one of the first digital keyboards in the city. Being almost a decade younger than him, he invited me over to his house for the unveiling and we plugged in this Yamaha DX7 for the first time to listen to sounds that we had never heard before. We look back now and have a good laugh but it was the inception of the digital era. By late 80’s and 90’s digital pianos and keyboards became the new experiment for parents with budding musicians. “Let’s just buy this $299 keyboard for the kids and see what happens”. Having lived on the sales floor during this time, I’ve heard that line more times than I can remember. As the digital age emerged, some people argued that these would NEVER replace acoustic pianos. And they were correct. However, that is not to say that digital pianos and keyboards didn’t alter the industry. With time and technology, digital pianos have become more authentic sounding and feeling. So have they finally become a replacement? Well, that depends on your expectation. If you’re used to the subtleties of felt striking strings, and the nuances and shading of color in music, as well as the ability to truly ‘feel’ sound then the answer is no. If you want portability, decent tone, volume control with no maintenance, they might be the solution you’re looking for. (Just a plug for my friends who are piano technicians… when people tell me excitedly that they don’t need to tune their digital pianos in order to save money, I’m quick to remind them that what they save in maintenance they heavily lose in depreciation of electronics but that’s another story).
The bigger question however is “How has the electronic age affected the present day piano industry?” Well it’s time for some big broad brush strokes – ones that create generalities but also may shed some light on what is up and coming in the world of piano sales for the future.
1. Christmas is over. I remember hearing of stories (before my time unfortunately) when piano store owners would relish the fall season. It was a time when all of the new upstart piano students would come in to purchase a piano. It was like Christmas! With no other options (pre-keyboard era), parents were forced to look at only traditional pianos. Quite often, the lion’s share of the yearly sales in a retail outlet happened in the fall season. This has now been replaced largely with a 2-step process of either the purchase of a portable keyboard or a used piano followed at some point with a more ‘serious instrument’. Unfortunately in my opinion, many children never learn to fall in love with the tone of a real piano if their first experience is an unweighted, 61 key keyboard that vaguely resembles the sound of a piano. Many also quit the piano before the real instrument is ever purchased and implemented.
2. Price points have changed. Digital pianos touted as the ‘new technology’ have all but plummeted in price. What used to sell for $2,000-$5,000 is now roughly available for $600-$2,000.
3. Entrance of hybrid pianos. What’s a hybrid? It’s a digital piano with a real action. Advantages: a real touch of a piano, portability and no maintenance. Disadvantages: digital tone, longevity of electronics is unknown. The hybrid pianos albeit a great step in the world as far as technology is concerned are hitting the price point of yesterday’s digital pianos $2,000 – $5,000.
4. Digital pianos mainly create tone by replaying recordings of real concert grand pianos. So when you play a note on the keyboard, the digital piano plays the appropriate recorded note at the appropriate volume. But if digital piano tone is a recording of a concert grand, why would consumers upgrade to a small sounding real piano as the next step up? They wouldn’t. If they’re upgrading, the trends are towards bigger sounding acoustic instruments.
Conclusions: Used pianos and electronics have shored up many of the sales of pianos below $3,000. Consumers buying new acoustic traditional pianos are looking to upgrade into something better and so they’re starting to shop bigger. The challenge is to hit the price ratio for today’s economy. The chapter in Piano Price Point that has surprised me over the last 5 years is Upright Piano Chapter 5 ~ pianos priced between $7,000 – $9,000. It’s the largest chapter within Piano Price Point. The prices reflected are Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Prices (MSRP) which are often inflated by up to 1/3 of what you would find in local stores. This means then that new piano sales are targeting somewhere between $4,500 – $6,000, consistent with the report published by NAMM this year (read about it in our Piano Market Trends article from November 2014). And if you scroll through the pianos in Chapter 5, take a look at the sizes. They’re averaging 48” tall. Shoppers are moving back to the fact that bigger is better. Also, the cabinetry details are also becoming more significant. Two-tone wood with gloss black are coming of age as well as decorative veneers of exotic woods such as bubinga, macassar and even simple cherry or mahogany. It appears that the cosmetics of pianos are getting a bit of a makeover and the manufacturers are moving towards larger instruments. The giants are once again emerging.
To end, I’d like to point out that there are a few manufacturers moving back towards 138cm or 55” tall pianos (Steingraeber, Bechstein, Bluthner and Heintzman to name a few) and tell of a recent incident that sparked this article. Through a series of events, an old Ronisch piano (still being made today by Bluthner) became available locally. Being the curious sort, I had to go take a look. It was not a 52” tall piano – standard height for tall piano manufacturing today. No, it wasn’t even 55” tall… it was a whopping 58” tall (145cm)!! I had to acquire it mainly for the reason that I’ve never seen an upright piano this large (pictured at the top of this article). To be honest, I don’t even know what I’m doing with it yet because it’s sitting in my hall. When I pass by, I quite often play the lowest notes – sounds that I’ve never encountered on a large upright piano. Finished in burled walnut, this forgotten treasure of yesteryear is an example of how piano makers (this one from 1885) desired to make a grand sound in upright form. As consumers are looking once again for timeless heirlooms and pianos that truly inspire through beautiful cabinetry, amazing tone and responsive touch, I believe that the industry may move back to 55” tall pianos as part of the repertoire of piano making in the future and discontinue smaller instruments. The piano industry is quickly becoming a niche market and makers are just now feeling the effects of 150 years of trends coming full circle.
I always enjoy the back story – the behind-the-scenes look at why pianos are made and developed the way they are. This year I had the opportunity to have a few minutes with Christian Bluthner. Without question one of the eye-popping pianos was the acrylic Bluthner grand. I did not know that Christian Bluthner is actually Doctor Christian Bluthner ~ a certified physician. When speaking with him about the piano he remarked “It took me back to my medical days in researching the acrylic for this piano (released in 2014). We used to use Petri dishes made of medical grade acrylic which would not distort the light. With this high grade acrylic, it can be buffed and polished and will not turn yellow. That’s what we incorporated into this piano”. Absolutely fascinating.
One of my other favourite moments took place early on Saturday morning in the Pearl River room where I chanced upon Lothar Thomma and Stephen Mohler. I snapped this pic as they were making last minute adjustments to a Ritmuller grand piano. Piano Price Point featured these two (see October 2013 on Kayserburg)
Together they are the designer and builder for Pearl River, Ritmuller and Kayserburg lines. Although they are serious about their work they are actually quite humorous together. We laughed and had a great exchange for quite some time. Stephen Mohler who was raised in Switzerland, lives year round in China and spends his time teaching principles of piano building. He said “You cannot teach piano making on infrequent trips to China. It must be done consistently and daily”.
Also at NAMM: newcomers to the piano land – A.Geyer. Although not an old name, Geyer is an old German brand revisited again and manufactured in China. At the booth is no stranger – Colin Taylor (formerly Bosendorfer and Brodmann). Specs and stats will be on Piano Price Point when they come hot off the press. While many piano companies are raising prices slowly in the industry, Geyer is seizing entry level price points with pianos that present well. Congratulations to Geyer for their launch into what many deem a challenging marketplace for a start-up.
So fast I almost missed it… In fact I did a double take. In the midst of the Young Chang group was this grand named “Fridolin by Schimmel”. When I inquired about this instrument, I was told by Larry Fresch about this interesting and unique collaboration. It’s no secret that many companies build for other makers.
What makes this unique however is that Young Chang builds the piano and also sells it under its own dealer network. Usually if a company builds for someone else, the piano is then marketed and distributed by the commissioning agent. Not so in this case – it is completely built, distributed and marketed by Young Chang.
Introductions – Samick unveiled its Johannes Seiler line. Seiler is an old German name which was purchased from Ursula Seiler in 2008 by Samick. Now available are 3 lines – Still “made in Germany” Seiler – the company is continuing to manufacture there with models marked SE and sport Renner actions. Relative copies also called Seiler are made in Indonesia called the ED line. For the first time this year, the entry level GS series called Johannes Seiler were unveiled which are pianos made in Indonesia with different yet beautiful designs.
Perzina also introduced the Gerhard Steinberg for North American distribution (not to be confused with Wilhelm Steinberg). Under direction of Marti Gordon formerly of Empire Music, both the Perzina and G.Steinberg pianos are hand built instruments from Yantai Perzina factory in China.
I’m not into digital pianos but there’s one piano that I must mention worth noting. Ravenscroft under the direction of Michael Spreeman make 2 models of concert pianos which he meticulously recorded into digital samples. This new division called Ravenworks – a combination of piano sounds and custom built keyboards are made to emulate the real McCoy. When I listen to most keyboard recordings I can spot them a mile away. Not so with Ravenscroft! If you ever need to do serious recording in the studio, I have to go on record by saying this is the most believable piano sample I’ve ever played. And it also takes a technician like Michael Spreeman to deliver a keyboard that has touch response like an acoustic piano.
Finally, Bosendorfer showed a prototype of what will most likely be officially released mid year – the new 280 Concert Grand. Although not at liberty to say anything technical at this point, Ferdinand Braeu (senior technical director for Bosendorfer) said the new design will deliver wider dynamic range and was on display for sampling.
This year was an exciting trip connecting again with friends and contacts. My only regret – not catching Paulo Fazioli to talk about piano design. Hopefully next year.
To view the entire slide show of 140 photos, click HERE.
Present at the show in alphabetical order:
A.Geyer ~ Baldwin ~ Bluthner ~ Bosendorfer ~ Brodmann ~ Cline ~ Fazioli ~ Fridolin ~ Grotrian ~ G. Steinberg ~ Hailun ~ Hallet Davis & Co. ~ Hardman ~ Irmler ~ Johannes Seiler ~ Kawai ~ Knabe ~ Mason & Hamlin ~ Otto Meister ~ Pearl River ~ Perzina ~ Petrof ~ Pramberger ~ Ravenscroft ~ Samick ~ Schumann ~ Shigeru Kawai ~ Seiler ~ Wilh. Steinberg ~ Weber ~ Yamaha ~ Young Chang
This month I had the great privilege of interviewing Michael Spreeman, owner and founder of Ravenscroft pianos. They are a new addition to Piano Price Point. You can find their listings of pianos in the manufacturer index here. It’s always great to hear inside the minds of piano makers and designers – why they do what they do. Hope you enjoy this talk as much as I did.
PPP: When was the company officially launched?
MS: The official date… we opened the Scottsdale Studio in 2004… wow, that was nearly a decade ago. Time flies when you’re having fun as they say.
There are so many great piano companies in the world. What was the initial inspiration to build a piano, to create something that had never been done or rather, make your mark on the industry?
One of the motivations for starting SPI/Ravenscroft Pianos was the re-design I did for Bob Ravenscroft.. and yes.. there was also a frustration with what I was seeing in new pianos. In addition to rebuilding and concert work, I was also doing a fair amount of “new piano prep” on high-end pianos. What if I, as a technician, were to build my own pianos?? And… yes.. yes..exactly..I know… WHO in their right mind would even consider starting a piano building business in a declining market!?? However I knew I could do better… and yes… it was (and is) a quantum leap from technician to builder. But as a technician, I wanted to create something unique, not so much something that had never been done before but rather, a performance piano that would do what the numerous artists I’ve worked with have been telling me that THEY want a piano to do: to offer them a broader spectrum of color and dynamics than they’ve ever experienced in order for them to better convey their musical message, that would encourage and allow them to do things they couldn’t do on other pianos… a piano that would minimize the mechanical interface in order to maximize the efficiency of their expression. And then as an Artist, I wanted to do what I do for ONE reason and ONE reason only ~ to present the very finest customized, hand-built instruments that we absolutely positively can to concert venues, pianists, and enthusiasts… to raise the bar for all performance instruments.
I also wanted my small company to be different than the large manufacturers. Regardless of how many or how few pianos we can make in a year, it is simply not in our DNA to sacrifice on the quality of any of the thousands of components that make up a performance piano. As a limited production builder we do not have the manufacturing constraints that the larger more well known companies do. Our industry is challenged, it is unfortunate, but many of the old great piano manufacturing companies around the world are gone or have had to sacrifice quality to meet a declining price point. But our mission is to build elegant, responsive, pure and powerful grands that are unique and extraordinary.
What’s your background in manufacturing?
I don’t have a background in manufacturing. Rather, I began my training from the best in our industry, the technician side of piano RE-making, RE-building. Early in my career as a Steinway tech I loved that bold NY Steinway ballsy sound! As years went on, I rep’d Yamaha as a National Technical Consultant and Concert Technician working with many of their top performance pianos and artists. I so appreciated their clarity and articulation, something they are renowned for…. eventually I worked with a top US Fazioli dealer who also sold several other European based pianos. This helped formulate my taste of the European’s purity of tone.
Bluthner, Bechstein, Fazioli, Bosendorfer, Steinway… why are we not playing a Spreeman? What’s the story behind crediting Ravenscroft?
You know Glen, that’s a cool story… I actually decided to create my collection of Ravenscroft limited edition pianos because I was …well….ready….after spending those 30 years learning and practicing the craft. I was a concert tech preparing performance pianos for well-known artists, and actively rebuilding numerous high-end production pianos. Back in 1994, jazz musician and composer Bob Ravenscroft commissioned me to completely redesign and rebuild a grand piano that could produce a specific sound to fulfill his well-known free jazz style. I named this growing collection of grand pianos to honor Mr. Ravenscroft… based on that first successful project.
What are some unique features that characterize Ravenscroft design?
I think I know what you mean by the word “Features” …but I am a builder, so it is one of those words that I hear sales guys use as “providing the sales staff with something they can differentiate their product from another in order to increase sales”, LOL. My impression from the top performance artists who visit our Arizona studio and whom we get to enjoy at NAMM every year is that …. most manufactures are designing or building what the “company” chooses to present to the pianist. This is not at all my approach. Rather, I am free to design and build what the artists are telling us …what they want.
Nearly every aspect of my business and our collection of pianos are different from the norm. For example, one custom build with individualized custom hardware to match the clients architecture,… the one-off scale design to obtain a distinct sound for just one customer,… the 1000 year old Sitka Spruce chosen for a specific concert instrument and harvested just for the production of musical instruments, …or just our relentless pursuit of quality in every single piece of the instrument. Come to think of it, there’s very little we do that would be deemed “normal piano making” by any standard. It takes a lot of hours and a lot of passion to build an instrument that when finished and cared for should be around for 2 or 3 generations!
How has CAD (computer based design) optimized your custom made Renner actions?
We, the audience, experience the piano from an audio perspective, but the artist has to make a mechanical interface through the keys and action of the piano. Therefore my goal with all of the Ravenscroft pianos is to make-possible and facilitate an emotional connection between the piano, the pianist playing the Ravie, and the music being produced…hopefully to a level that they merge and become one. It’s from this creative space or zone that an artist can express their thoughts, ideas, and emotions through the instrument. We strive to make this wonderful connection as invisible as humanly possible.
For example, our actions are individually CAD optimized to each and every piano before they are ever assembled. This provides a custom geometry configuration that is precise to the piano. The “down weight”, or amount of force necessary to initiate motion in the key, is a controllable variable and is critical to the evenness and performance of the action. We actually weigh-off each key to 1/100th of a gram in a specialized CAD program, which results in a real world tolerance of 1/10 of gram. Most factories only have the time to work within a 3 gram tolerance. Every pianist who enjoys playing the Ravenscroft notices this and comments on this attention to detail and how it has an enormous impact on their experience …because of the evenness of the touch from note to note. This is an incredibly time intensive procedure that we feel results in the finest performance action we can possible present to the pianist.
What’s your philosophy of tone? Where does it come from?
One very important starting point for me is evenness of tone and volume across the entire keyboard. So many high-end concert pianos that I’ve worked on tend to have uneven or weak areas somewhere in the scale. This can make intimate expression of phrases difficult for the pianist. Throughout my career, Steinway tech… Yamaha National Technical Consultant and Concert Technician, Fazioli support and setups…those experiences combined with years of input from artists, …I decided my quest was to attempt to create a hybrid tonality… my ‘best of the best’ as it were. A philosophy of tone, as you say, that has the warmth and purity of the fine European pianos, the harmonic complexity of the older great American pianos, that clarity and articulation of the great Asian pianos, then….from there…to ensure our design has it’s own unique colors with enhanced duration and as broad a spectrum of dynamic expression as is possible. Although our sound is very clean and pure, it’s also multidimensional. I strive for multiple layers, or dimensions, of complex harmonics that can be heard, sensed, and felt without sacrificing a strong emphasis on a bold fundamental tone.
What elements would you like to focus on in the future and are there plans to expand the line?
As more and more people get to sit, play, experience, and dream of owning a Ravenscroft…our focus will continue to be on the limited editions of a quality instrument, second to none… yet, we are always challenging ourselves on how to advance the aesthetics, the feel, sound and performance of our pianos. As demand for our pianos inevitably increases, we will expand to meet our customers’ requests…. within reason….without ever compromising our commitment to them and our quality standards. We will build the finest possible finished product we can create. BTW, we are excited to be releasing a new product at NAMM this year (Jan 2014), unfortunately I can’t yet share the details…. But stay tuned!
Your pianos have received world acclaim. What was the first moment you realized that you created something that made you smile?
I don’t smile until the artist smiles…or cries, often times right in our Scottsdale Studio. Those are the magical moments……the moments of truth… where passion applied to our work for our clients is affirmed… and suddenly it’s all worth it.
Warm regards, Michael Spreeman
Before signing off, I just wanted to thank Michael Spreeman again for doing the interview and to leave you with more media – check out Ravenscroft video page for samples. And for some eye candy, click down for a beautiful shot of their two grands taken from top down.
To prove artistry and craftsmanship in the late 1800’s, pianos were intricately and ornately carved. As the Victorian era ended and we were ushered into the 20th century, many of the older piano legs were swapped for simplistic ones to stay ‘modern’. The advent of both world wars saw an era where mainstream piano cabinets became simple and plain and if you wanted something a little special you ordered an “art case” piano. Fast forward to the late 60’s… black is IN. Browns are in the background. Why? With the advent of resins and polyester finishes, there was a demand for a more polished look and manufacturers didn’t need to consume time with matching great looking veneers. Let’s face it, you can spray black over top of any finish but great cuts of wood require time, attention and skill.
Fifty years later, after a sea of black pianos, makers are slowly changing the tides. Accents are in. Custom makers such as Steingraeber are touting their skill by mixing wood with black – that’s the hottest trend. As I’ve piled through thousands of pictures of pianos and brochures compiling this online book, the common theme is that the mix of wood with black is what many are finding the 21st century trend. From a sales perspective, it’s a ‘value added’ feature or another way to sell up.
And it’s not just happening with the boutique makers – right across the board at every price point – from Bosendorfer, Fazioli to Hailun to Story & Clark to Yamaha these accents are becoming more and more prevalent. Is it a completely new trend? No. Many of the European art case pianos have been integrating different woods on rims and under sides of lids for over a century. What is new is that these accents are becoming the 21st century mainstream for piano decor. While there used to be carvings and “gingerbread” on old pianos, now there are accents of exotic woods on rims, music rests and selective panels.
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