Friday, May 15, 2009

What is Piano Voicing?

Every piano has its own unique sound. One might be described as 'glassy,' another as 'warm'. One might have a 'full singing' tone, and yet another sounds 'thin.' Although the original design establishes the basic character of your piano's tone, your technician can modify it to better suit your taste or restore its original tone if it has deteriorated with age. The process of modifying a piano's tone is called voicing.

What is the difference between tuning and voicing?
Tuning is the adjustment of the tension of all of your piano's 220 (or more) strings to the correct pitch or frequency. This ensures that notes played in a musical interval (octaves, chords, etc.) will sound in harmony.

Voicing is the adjustment of a piano's tone or quality of sound. Tone can be changed without affecting the pitch. For example, turning the bass or treble knobs on your stereo changes the tone but does not alter the notes the musician recorded. A skilled piano technician can voice a piano to change its tonal personality from mellow to bright or robust to delicate. The degree of change possible depends upon the piano's design and condition.

What is good tone?
Tone varies, even among pianos of the same make and model. No matter what its size or cost, any good piano should provide a wide range of tone, from soft and sweet to loud and bright. The tone should be even from the lowest to the highest notes. Most of all, it should sound musical.

What does the perfect piano tone sound like?
There is no single answer, because everyone's taste varies. Also, certain tonal characteristics are more suited to specific styles of music. A bright, lively tone might be best for jazz, whereas you might prefer a rich and dark sound for Beethoven's music. There are many different sizes and models of piano available in the market place; you chose your piano because it sounded good to you.

But a piano's tone changes with use. As the hammers wear and compact, the tone often becomes too bright and harsh, robbing the pianist of the ability to produce a sweet sound. As parts wear, the regulation (adjustment of the mechanical parts that transmit motion from the fingers to the hammers) becomes uneven, and the pianist loses control over volume and tone. This is most noticeable in quiet playing. A delicate pianissimo passage becomes very difficult or impossible to play, and some keys may not sound at all if played very lightly.

Aging of the piano's strings and structure also can diminish its tone.

Other factors that affect the sound you hear from your piano are:

• ROOM ACOUSTICS -- Hard shiny surfaces such as windows and bare floors reflect high frequencies, making a piano sound bright and loud. High ceilings or large adjoining rooms add resonance. Rugs and upholstered furniture soften tone and add warmth.
• THE LID -- Both grands and verticals sound louder and brighter if the lid is opened.
• YOU -- Your ears are sensitive, and will perceive sound differently if you have spent all day in a quiet office or at a loud construction site.

Does my piano need voicing?
• Your piano may benefit from voicing if:
• Your piano sounds different than when you purchased it.
• You don't like the sound even after it has been tuned.
• Tone varies radically from note to note.
• You cannot achieve a range of tone (mellow to bright) at different volumes.
• The piano has lost its ability to play softly.
Before deciding if a new piano needs voicing, make sure it is well-tuned and well-regulated. Then, play a wide variety of music on it. Most voicing procedures are long-lasting, so give yourself some time to explore the sound of a new instrument before deciding to change it.

How often voicing is needed depends upon the piano's usage and its intended audience. Pianos in concert halls and recording studios often receive minor refinement of the voicing before each performance. A home piano may need some initial voicing to customize it to the owner's taste, then once every one to five years to maintain its tone.

Your piano and your musical needs are unique -- your own schedule for periodic voicing is a matter for you and your technician to decide. To find out how voicing might improve the tone of your piano, ask for a demonstration on one or two notes.

How does a technician voice a piano?
Before you or your technician can fully evaluate then tone of your piano, it must be well-tuned. Tuning is the first step in improving the sound of any piano and may actually provide the tone you desire. If the tone is still not satisfactory. Your technician will inspect the action, hammers and strings. If these components are severely worn, major repairs may be required before an improved tone is possible.

Moderately worn hammers can be re-shaped with sandpaper to remove string grooves and restore their original rounded shape. Next, the hammers are aligned to strike each string squarely.

Action regulation should be checked or adjusted. This ensures an even, powerful response from each key.

If tuning, hammer shaping and regulation are correct, the tone probably will be balanced but still may be too bright or mellow for your taste. If so, your technician might recommend voicing the hammers.

For a tone that is too loud, too bright or seems to die out too quickly, softening the hammers felt often is recommended. This is usually done by inserting needles into specific areas of the hammer to increase flexibility.

For a tone that is too weak or too mellow, hardening of the hammer felt may be necessary. This is usually done by filing away soft outer layers of hammer felt or by applying a chemical hardening solution.

Once the overall tone is correct, individual notes are voiced to make the tone as even as possible from one end of the keyboard to the other. In some pianos certain notes still may sound different from their neighbors, no matter how skillfully the technician voiced the piano. This most commonly occurs about an octave below middle C, where the strings change from steel wires wrapped with copper to plain steel. Such irregularities are a result of design compromises, and usually cannot be corrected by voicing.

Getting the most enjoyment from your piano
One of your piano's most important assets is its tone. Properly voiced, your piano can offer you a rich palette of music expression, and inspire good practice habits in every member of your family. However, piano owners are not always aware that tone can be customized to their own tastes and room acoustics, and to correct for deterioration and age. If the only service your piano has received is tuning, the sound can likely be improved by voicing.

What is Action Regulation?

As a conscientious piano owner, you probably have your piano tuned regularly by a qualified technician. You may, however, notice a deterioration of its performance despite regular tuning. It's important to note that tuning is only the adjustment of the system of strings and pins that determines the pitch of each string. Your piano also requires a periodic servicing called regulation, which attends to the mechanical parts which cause strings to sound when keys are played and affect the sound through use of the pedals.

What is regulation and how does it affect my piano's performance?
Regulation is the adjustment of the mechanical aspects of the pianos to compensate for the effects of wear, the compacting and settling of cloth, felt, and buckskin, as well as dimensional changes in wood and wool parts due to changes in humidity.

The three systems involved in regulation are the action trapwork and damper system. The action is the mechanical part of the piano that transfers the motion of the fingers on the keys to the hammers that strike the strings. It is comprised of over 9,000 parts which require adjustment to critical tolerances to be able to respond to a pianist's every command. The trapwork is the assemblage of levers, dowels and springs that connects the pedals to the action affecting sustain and dynamics. The damper system is the mechanical part of the piano that stops the vibration of the string when you release the key and is controlled by the key and pedal systems.

If I have my piano tuned regularly, why do I need to have it regulated?
While tuning corrects the pitch of your piano, it is only one component of a complete maintenance program. Regulation attends to the touch and uniform responsiveness of your action, all vital to making each performance pleasurable. In addition, regulation ensures that your instrument is capable of producing a wide dynamic range -- a critical factor, particularly in pianissimo passages.

Music is one of the most complex vehicles for expression. Its beauty is reliant upon personal dynamics and tempi. These changes require extremely fine adjustments to respond to the pianist's nuances and subtle shadings. A smooth, even response throughout the entire range of the keyboard and an extremely quick action capable of playing rapid passages and repeated notes evenly is essential. Outstanding response is essential for a pianist to create an outstanding performance.

Do all pianos need to be regulated?
All upright and grand pianos need periodic regulation to perform their best. Frequency of regulation is dependent upon amount of use, exposure to climatic changes, and the instrument's quality, age and condition. New pianos may require regulation in their first year because settling and compacting of parts sometimes necessitates adjustment.

How often is regulation needed?
Only you and your technician together should decide how frequently your piano needs regulation. Several factors can contribute to this. The intensity and number of hours your instrument is played, and climatic conditions are all determinants. A piano kept in relatively consistent conditions which are neither too wet nor dry, optimally at a temperature of 68 degrees Fahrenheit and 42 percent relative humidity, will require less adjustment.

The quality of the instrument itself also can affect frequency of regulation. Some manufacturers decrease costs by not going over the regulation and voicing processes in the factory as much as needed. Reputable retailers sometimes do the necessary regulation themselves prior to selling the pianos, but others do not.

Also, performance instruments may require some regulation before each use, due to the higher demands placed on them.

What are the signs that my piano needs regulation?
If you instrument displays a lack of sensitivity or a decreased dynamic ranges, it's a candidate for regulation. If you notice that the keys are not level (some higher or lower than the rest), the touch is uneven or that the keys are sticking, the need for regulation is indicated. However, a sluggish action or deep grooves in the hammers indicate the need for reconditioning or repair. Ask your technicians to show you what needs adjustment on your piano.

No amount of practice can compensate for a poorly maintained action. Poor legato touch, chord playing where all notes of the chord don't speak clearly, a gradual loss of subtlety in phrasing and an inability to execute quick passages or note repetitions evenly may be the fault of the piano -- not the player.

Testing A Petrof for its Characteristic

1. Press down the right pedal. Play the far left key as soft as possible. The softer you can play it, the better the action.

2. Let the note sound as long as possible. Check the sustain (rate of decay). Notice any changes in the quality of the sound as it decays.

3. Start over. Press down right pedal. Play a chord as loud as possible in the low, low bass. Let it sustain awhile. Then, play a chord in the middle register as loud as possible. Then play a chord in the upper treble as loud as possible. Let them sustain. (Woofer, mid-cone, and tweeter). Do the chords tend to merge over time? (Which is bad? You want the tones to remain separate.) This is a performance test for the sound board.

4. Leave pedals alone. Play one note at time one, two, and three octaves above middle C very, very loudly, one at time. Does the note distort? This is an acid test. Cheap pianos rarely survive this test. The Petrofs I have tested do well.

Repeat all of the above on other pianos to compare, especially the expensive ones above your price range to see what happens with a high perform instrument.

Also, test the following:

1. Is the treble about as loud as the bass for the same effort of playing, i.e., is the volume balanced? Some pianos end up with a bright treble because the technician is trying to balance a treble that is too weak in volume relative to the bass.

2. Can you play the entire scale softly? Many pianos play loud, and louder, but not softly. This is not an uncommon problem for pianos below tier one.

3. Does the instrument play really loud? Surprisingly, I have run into a few that are volume limited. This quality is not noticeable until you specifically look for it.

Why Slam Chinese Made Piano?

Originally you asked a rather general question. Why Slam Chinese-Made Pianos? There have been a number of excellent answers to your specific questions but I would like to add a general observation or two on the overall issue.

Some of us with long memories can remember when Japanese-built pianos began coming into the U.S. The early Japanese instruments were plagued with problems ranging from such minor details as soundboards coming loose and pinblocks coming apart to unstable actions to polyester finish problems. Not to mention the myriad ongoing tonal problems. It took about twenty years for them to get their product up to a minimally reasonable standard. In the meantime they were sold viable alternatives to the piano marques. Dealers and salespeople assured one and all that the Japanese pianos were just as good as the expensive U.S.- and European-built pianos, but because of the low cost of labor in Japan they were a real bargain. What problems? They were all built to the highest standards and used only “world class” components. And many U.S. consumers ended up paying the price.

Later on the Korean’s entered the fray. The early Korean instruments were plagued with problems ranging from minor details like soundboards coming loose and pinblocks coming apart to unstable actions to polyester finish problems. Not to mention the myriad ongoing tonal problems. It took about ten years for them to get their product up to a minimally reasonable standard. In the meantime they also were sold viable alternatives to the U.S.-, European- and Japanese-built pianos. Dealers and salespeople assured one and all that the Korean pianos were just as good as the more expensive U.S.-, European- and Japanese built pianos, but because of the low cost of labor in Korea they were a real bargain. What problems? They were all built to the highest standards and used only World Class components. And many U.S. consumers ended up paying the price.

And now the Chinese and Indonesian pianos are entering the fray. The early instruments coming from these countries have been plagued with problems ranging from minor details … well, you can probably guess where this is headed. It’s déjà vu all over again. And, once again, the U.S. consumer is taking it on the chin and in the wallet. It remains to be seen just when (or if?) the Chinese manufacturers will reach the level of the better Korean or Japanese manufacturers. Not to mention the better European builders. They probably will, given time. Anyone who has walked on the Great Wall can but admire the focus and tenacity of this culture. Still, I’ve been in several Chinese factories and, while there is certainly a will to achieve world-standard status, I'm not sure if there is yet a willingness to pay the full price of admission.

It takes more than a list of features to make a good piano. It also takes more than a collection of “world class” components gathered together and stuffed into a box. It takes more than a verbal assurance that wood is now, finally, being properly seasoned. I have stood in a Chinese factory being assured that the wood used for backposts in row after row of vertical piano back assemblies had all been “properly” dried and seasoned. And no one can explain the splits running two-thirds the way up several of these backposts. Just no idea how it could happen. As we went down the line I discovered this was not the only example of raw, green wood being used in these pianos. These things were twisting and warping and splitting all over the place. But it was all “properly” dried and seasoned.

Eventually they will figure all this stuff out. Some, perhaps, have already done so. At least they mostly seem to be working on their problems. This is of little consolation to those who purchased the earlier instruments, of course. The same was also true with the early purchasers of various Japanese and Korean pianos — but that was then and this is now. Both the Japanese and Korean builders are now more experienced and one thing you are going to get for your extra money with a more established maker is experience and knowledge. They have already had it, learned from it and have paid for it. And now you are being asked to pay your share in exchange for their higher level of competence. Their products will generally reflect that competence in terms of on-going performance and an extended useful life. It is one thing to get a piano sounding really nice on the showroom floor. It is quite another to keep it working well and sounding nice in your home for ten or twenty years.

In your favor, of course, is that by now most of the really bad pianos coming from China are gone. You are now much less likely to end up with an expensive pile of junk than you would have been just five years ago. Still, in exchange for the money you will be saving you will be given the opportunity to join an ever-growing group of guinea pigs (if you’ll please pardon the expression) who will be helping the Chinese piano industry achieve world standard status. With luck you’ll end up with a nicely satisfactory piano that, while it may never be a great piano, will still be serviceable. Without that luck…well, good luck.

(from pianoworld forum)

Why piano strings break?

Imagine the sound of a whip snapping against an aluminum pie pan and you have some idea of the sound that occurs when a piano string breaks. It's startling for anyone standing nearby, but especially so if you're seated at the keyboard!
Realize that the thin steel strings are tensioned to an average of 150 pounds each and it's not hard to understand that they might break occasionally. Though they're engineered to withstand the high tension, three main factors can cause them to fail.

Over time, especially in a damp environment, piano strings can rust. The rust eats into the steel wire, causing weak spots which can then break during the stress of hard playing or simply during routine tuning. Replacement is the only cure for rusty strings.

Excessively hard playing
Bend any piece of metal far enough and often enough and it will break. That's exactly what happens to piano strings. Sustained hard playing, especially the rhythmic left hand style used in many churches, can drive the piano's hammers against the strings with such force that they eventually break. Regular maintenance to the hammers (see next) can reduce breakage, but very hard playing will still take its toll. One solution is to amplify the piano with a microphone and sound system so it can be played lighter and still produce adequate power.

Very hard and worn hammers
With use, the smooth rounded surface of a piano hammer wears flat. Then instead of striking the strings with the flexible, rounded shape of a rubber ball it smacks them with a flat, hard surface. This can over-stress the strings, especially if the hammers are also made of very hard felt. In this case it is critical that your piano technician keep your hammers properly shaped and their hardness adjusted through a process called voicing.

Why does my tuner play each note so loudly when tuning my piano?

A piano string presses tightly against several friction points along its length. When it is tightened or loosened during tuning, this friction prevents the new tension from being evenly distributed throughout the string.

The tuner pounds the note to bounce the string up off the friction points slightly to allow the tension to equalize. If this didn't happen, the tension would equalize on its own when you sat down and played loudly, and the piano would slip out of tune.

Why do some pianos have Keys that feel Heavy and some that feel Light?

The weight required to make a key go down is referred to as the "touch." On different pianos it might vary from 40 grams to 70 grams (26 grams make up one ounce). Differences in leverage, mass of various parts, and frictional resistance yield piano actions that play very differently.

But don't think that a lighter touch is always better. In fact, most advanced musicians like to feel a touch that is anywhere from 52 to 58 grams. If a piano is too light, there's no feedback from the piano back to the player. And if the touch is too heavy, arms and fingers tire easily and sensitive control is gone.

Some adjustments can be made to change a piano's touchweight. If you're interested, ask your piano technician.

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