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MMD > Archives > July 2013 > 2013.07.25 > 04Prev  Next

Tuning Standards for Coin Pianos & Orchestrions
By Art Reblitz

Tuning Standards for Coin Pianos and Orchestrions with Pipes,
  and Band Organs.

Most American coin pianos and orchestrions should be tuned to A=435,
except for most Nelson-Wiggen pianos, which were tuned to A=440 if
the xylophone or marimba has that stamped on one of the bars.  Many
American band organs were also tuned to 435 (some at B-flat pitch
rather than concert pitch), while many European organs were tuned to
other pitch standards.  Per his recent posting, Scotty Greene is to be
commended for caring about preserving the pipes in the Coinola at the
DeBence Museum at their original pitch!

There's nothing sacred about A=440.  Orchestras worldwide continue to
deviate from this standard to this day, after centuries-long history
of changes in tuning standards.  440 Hz was not implemented all at once
everywhere in the world.  An informal standard was established in the
American industry in 1926, but Seeburg and Wurlitzer continued to use
A=435 for coin pianos and orchestrions all the way to the end of
production of orchestrions (although Wurlitzer had already changed to
A=440 for theatre organs earlier).  The International Organization for
Standardization finally recommended 440 Hz in 1955.

Now that many instruments are 100+ years old, one would hope all
technicians would be respectful of preserving these wonderful musical
treasures for what they were originally.  Nonetheless, certain
individuals to this day occasionally persist in altering the pipes in
orchestrions by cutting them off so they can be tuned to 440 Hz pitch.
The tone quality of a pipe depends on the relationship between its
length and cross section.  By shortening a flue pipe or the resonator
for a reed pipe, its scale is increased and the tone quality is changed
along with the pitch, so the instrument no longer has its original

The pipes were shortened in a historic Wurlitzer 165 band organ several
years ago, and more recently in a fine Seeburg orchestrion.  It is
neither inexpensive nor easy to restore ranks of wooden pipes to their
original length so the prior damage doesn't show, and so the sliders in
wooden violin pipes still function correctly.  In my opinion, by
cutting the pipes shorter, you are reducing the value of an instrument.
It's also risky to tune an early Mills Violano to A=440 because the
early design of piano plate was inherently weak, and a number of them
have cracked after being tuned to the higher pitch.

J.C. Deagan, a pioneer in promoting the use of standardized pitch, once
reportedly stated that an orchestra playing at A=440 is nothing more
than one tuned to A=435 playing under stage lights!  I suspect that the
person who might complain about the New York Philharmonic at 443 Hz, or
the Berlin Philharmonic at 445, wouldn't be able to stand listening to
any band organ that has been in direct sunlight for an hour after even
the finest tuning indoors, or outdoors in the shade on a day when the
temperature was stable.  This leads me to think that some people who
cut pipes off in historic antiques mainly do it to impress others with
their superior pitch recognition.  I doubt they would be able to
convince the conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic that his orchestra
is playing at the wrong pitch!

I've discussed this with a number of well-known technicians and
restorers who agree that the original tuning pitch should be preserved,
and who have given me their permission to add their names as endorsing
this viewpoint.  They include, in alphabetical order, Jerry Biasella,
Alan Bies, Steve Boehck, Ron Cappel, Durward Center, Stephen Kent
Goodman, Dick Hack, Wayne Holton, John Hovancak, Dana Johnson, Alan
Lightcap, Paul Manganaro, Mac McClaran, Bart Off, David Ramey Jr., John
Rutoskey, Don Teach, and Tim Westman.  The late Larry Givens and Mike
Kitner also agreed.  I've undoubtedly omitted a few people from this
list.  If your name isn't included here, it simply means that we
haven't personally discussed the issue, and nothing else.

My own personal exception to this rule is when tuning a well-made
player piano or reproducing piano, neither of which contains any extra
instruments.  Most 88-note American pianos made after about 1910 were
strong enough to be tuned to A=440, and I normally tune one to 440 Hz
because of the possibility that other musicians will play or sing
along with the piano.  I have no argument with anyone who wants to
build their own orchestrion or band organ with pipes that were made
to be tuned to A=440 or some other pitch.  When restoring an antique
instrument, however, please consider the desirability of preserving its
original sound.

Art Reblitz 

(Message sent Thu 25 Jul 2013, 04:03:25 GMT, from time zone GMT-0600.)

Key Words in Subject:  Coin, Orchestrions, Pianos, Standards, Tuning

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