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MMD > Archives > November 1998 > 1998.11.09 > 18Prev  Next


Harsh Tone & "Brittle" Pianos
By Craig Brougher

Piano voicing is a very subjective art, but there are "absolutes" in
it as well.  A "Brittle" sounding piano is very easy to define really.
Whenever a hammer is adding it's own striking sounds that are not
entirely from the string, then that piano sound becomes "Brittle,"
and finally, "Tinny."

What you do not want to hear is the sound of the strike itself.
Ideally, the hammer must "emote" a pure string.  Now there are degrees.
For example, when the hammer is too soft on top but hard in the body,
the string tone loses harmonics above the 2nd, relative to the funda-
mental.  When the hammer is soft all the way through, the string loses
a percentage of all the harmonics through muffling, but the harmonics
above the second are practically gone.  So you see, a soft hammer
strike destroys the sound of the piano, too.

Any time a piano hammer strikes a string, the fundamental and ensuing
harmonics jump high.  Then they play out as they interfere with the
true fundamental, and it is these false beats from the strike that
amuse and delight a musical ear and make the ear clamor for more.
For example, if what you want to hear is "pure" string tones from that
wire, you would induce it from the end, rather than the "strike point."
But although you may get the wire singing, you wouldn't like it much.
It is the rise and decay of the string that is so cool! And it is the
degree of inharmonicity as well as the initial loudness that
determines, overall the character.

Voicing the hammers is the way to get this character from a piano.
Few if any people even know about it or mention it, and fewer still
ever ask me to do it for them.  That's why it is so curious to me to
hear people remarking on the characteristic voicing of Wayne Stahnke's
Boesendorfer when the chances are they have never appreciated voicing
enough to spend the money themselves.  (And then again, maybe they are
the only ones who have.  I speak generally, not specifically).

The perfectly voiced piano does have an acceptable range of latitude
of "perfect" if you will.  Since we like to hear the hammer modify the
character of a string, we can voice the piano up until we begin to hear
the noise created by the strike itself.  That is "on the edge."  Then
we can take that down just to the place where the noise of the strike
disappears, and we have a piano voiced as brightly as it is possible
to do.  (True, in the high treble, you have to compromise a bit between
loudness and clarity.  That's tough, but it's the nature of the beast,
and there are other tricks besides modifying felt tension too).

From that point, we are able to needle on down through a range of
intonation until we start losing a larger and larger percentage of
higher harmonics, and the string sounds like we "painted" it.  When
it starts sounding painted, we went too far.  If it sounds like that,
we "iron" the hammer back up a bit.  And then overall, we compromise
between hammers and octaves to even the intonation.

I also have sympathy for and understand the problems in voicing a piano
that has been voiced and voiced and voiced.  Pretty soon, you need new
hammers, and have to start all over.

Sometimes you will run into a new set of hammers that will not stay
voiced, no matter what you do! The instantly harden back up.  The
factory will often take overly soft felt, for whatever reason, and
pre-dope it.  That isn't unusual, I find.  But once in awhile you run
into a set that was pre-doped with something that is "plastic."  So you
can stab and stab, finally it takes your set, but as the piano gets
played, the "setting" starts to heal, and the hammer returns to its
original "obnoxious" rock-hard sound.  The cure is to install another
set of hammers.  I had to do this.  It just killed me to remove a
brand-new set of expensive hammers and go through that exercise all
over again.

By the way, Imategawa hammers were mentioned by one writer as being too
harsh.  They are not.  It's just that some pianos, notably Steinways,
do better in the high treble with a lighter molding and more decoupling
between the center of percussion and the shank.  I use Imategawas on
pianos that lose power in the mid and high treble.  For some things,
they cannot be beat.  And technicians should start noticing these
things, and not saying, point-blank, "I always use Renners," or some-
thing like that.  There is no such thing as the "perfect" hammer.
Let's come down to the real world and start listening for a change.
You can't use Renners on small grands like Marshall & Wendell and have
much when you get through, for instance.  Tone-wise or touch-wise,
they are the wrong hammer! You've just paid about $300 too much.

Concert Boesendorfers are particularly sensitive to bass string voicing
-- far more so than any other instrument.  By just tweaking a few
hammers, I have gone from an annoying twang on the wound strings to a
perfectly velvet, powerful, solid intonation.  And it is these strings
that determine the rest of the piano's tone.  They are the foundation
of that piano.  So if you have a loose winding on one, you can
sometimes hear it whining throughout the piano, even when you may not
always hear it on that same string!  It's weird.  Tone problems do
occur, and some of the strangest of all happen on the big pianos far
more often than on the small ones.

Horowitz' Steinway was, in my opinion, obnoxiously bright in the
treble, and I have wondered if it wasn't because he was partially
deaf in that range?

I don't like a piano whose treble actually clatters.  Claudio Areau
played at the music hall in Kansas City a few years back, and I was
embarrassed for the technician who set that piano up.  The top octave
was basically beyond "tinny."  It was enunciating, "Cluck, clack,
click, clink, quink, keenk, kinck, plink, plick."  Ah, yes.  What
artistry!  And, true to form, the "World Famous Kansas City Art Critic"
Cantrell didn't know enough to even mention it.  If Areau had played on
a board, he wouldn't have known the difference.  That piano sounded
like a cheap toy xylophone.

Tuners are not traditionally the best judge when it comes to piano
sounds, because in order to tune by listening to fundamental beats,
they must first tune out of their heads, permanently, all the other
sounds that makes that piano what it is, tone-wise.  However, there
are a few tuners who are also excellent voicers.  (One of the finest
voicers Steinway ever had likewise didn't tune, by the way.)

So I really enjoy hearing people comment about piano noises, but on
the other hand, I don't make much extra money when offering to voice
theirs! So I would just say, before we get too loud about somebody
else's piano, we ought to see what we could do with our own for a
change.  It makes a world of difference.  You'd really be surprised.

Regarding the Stahnke Boesendorfer, when a piano is voiced for a
particular stage, and listened too from the middle seats, what sounds
"harsh" up close becomes smooth and even "out there."  So you voice
for a concert from the audience.  However, when you record a piano,
you voice at that piano.  If the voicer listened to his work from the
audience, then he needs to be informed next time to listen wherever
they place the main mikes.

Craig Brougher


(Message sent Mon 9 Nov 1998, 18:00:58 GMT, from time zone GMT-0600.)

Key Words in Subject:  Brittle, Harsh, Pianos, Tone

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