What makes the tone of a piano?

Posted by: enescu

What makes the tone of a piano? - 03/29/04 11:27 AM

How much is it the strings and the hammers, the scale design, the materials?
Thanks.
Posted by: BDB

Re: What makes the tone of a piano? - 03/29/04 12:16 PM

If you don't have strings, you don't have any tone!
Posted by: fuoco

Re: What makes the tone of a piano? - 03/29/04 12:48 PM

The player. \:D
Posted by: RealPlayer

Re: What makes the tone of a piano? - 03/29/04 01:21 PM

They're all interrelated, of course, but I'd guess the biggest influence comes from the scale design (including strike point), followed by hammers, and then the rest...

Just my non-technical POV...
Posted by: enescu

Re: What makes the tone of a piano? - 03/29/04 02:02 PM

BDB, are you suggesting that if you change the set of strings with one built to slightly different specs, the tone will change drastically?
I'm just learning...
Fuoco, from what I have read, players don't seem to be able to change the tone much more beyond a relative change that happens with change in sound volume.
Thanks.
Posted by: cht

Re: What makes the tone of a piano? - 03/29/04 02:03 PM

enescu,

In answer to your question, everyting determines the tone of the piano, and no one component is more important than the other. A world class piano won't sound right with hard hammers. New strings won't sound right with a lousy scale design or poor bridge construction. It all works as one.
Posted by: Steve R

Re: What makes the tone of a piano? - 03/29/04 03:41 PM

 Quote:
Originally posted by enescu:
How much is it the strings and the hammers, the scale design, the materials?
Thanks. [/b]
Design is everything. That includes the selection of string types and sizes and hammer weight. The factor I see mentioned most frequently by techs as affecting tone is hammer strike points.

All of these factors are part of a piano's design. Tweaking hammers or changing the brand of string may change the tone somewhat but they won't change the fundamental design limitations of an instrument.
Posted by: Larry

Re: What makes the tone of a piano? - 03/29/04 08:08 PM

Which part of the cake is it that makes it taste good - the flour, the eggs, the butter, or the sugar?
Posted by: Toddler2

Re: What makes the tone of a piano? - 03/29/04 09:26 PM

Duh Larry,
It's the icing. Every kid under the age of 10 knows that one.
;\)
Posted by: Del

Re: What makes the tone of a piano? - 03/30/04 01:00 PM

 Quote:
Originally posted by enescu:
How much is it the strings and the hammers, the scale design, the materials?
Thanks. [/b]
Any realistic answer to this question probably depends on your perspective.

As a piano tuner/technician about the only tools I have to work with are the hammers and the action. So the pianoís voice depends on the physical characteristics of the hammers and my ability to voice them to the clients pleasure. So the tone, or voice, of the piano is a function of the piano hammer. Of course, the hammer must be chosen to compliment the existing scaling of the piano ó the string scale, the soundboard assembly, the rim, etc. So my hammer options for any given piano are some limited.

As a piano rebuilder/remanufacturer I have a few more options open to me. I can change the string scale somewhat, I can change the design and structure of the soundboard assembly. And to a limited extent I can change the plate. So now the voice of the piano is dependent on the string scale and the soundboard and on my ability to manipulate their characteristics within some very fixed parameters and I can tailor the sound of the piano a bit more. So, now the voice of the piano is determined by the string scale, the soundboard and the hammers. More options.

Still, Iím not going to be able to really change the string lengths all that much. And, while I can change the soundboard ribbing and shape, there is not much I can do with things like bridge placement or backscales, etc. As well, even though I still have a variety of hammers at my disposal they are going to be chosen with an eye toward the fixed-length scaling and the overall design elements of the piano that are beyond my ability to control. So my overall options are still limited.

Now, as a designer I (sometimes) have complete freedom to find my own way among a veritable maze of options. If you tell me you want a bright, powerful sound from a 7í piano I know immediately where to begin. Iíll start by drawing a medium to long string scale and load it heavily. Or, if you tell me you want a 5í 2Ē piano appropriate for use by an advanced player with limited space Iíll start by drawing a mid-length scale with relatively low tensions. In both cases Iíll follow up by matching an appropriate soundboard assembly to the chosen scale. Then Iíll develop a suitable rim assembly and plate. Finally Iíll specify appropriate hammers.

So, while all of the working elements of the piano are interdependent, it all starts with the string scale. If that is not suitable for the type of sound you want from the piano there are a limited number of things that can be done. (Iíve written on the difference among various string scale choices in other posts.)

And this is true whether you are an end user or a manufacture. I was once asked to ďbrighten upĒ the Baldwin L (a 6í 3Ē grand) and ďmake it more powerful.Ē Now, this piano was designed to be a warm and dynamic chamber piano. It very appropriately has a relatively short, low-tension scale. With suitable hammers and nicely voiced it is one of the nicest solo and small ensemble pianos around. The only thing that can be done to make it brighter and more powerful without unacceptably distorting the sound is to make the scale longer. This would have called for a new, or at least significantly redesigned, plate and that was beyond the budget for the project. So, to satisfy the powers that were, we tried simply increasing wire diameters and smoothing out the scale. Needless to say, it didnít work. The sound simply became hard and nasal.

The failure of this project illustrates just how important the string scale is in determining the overall performance of the piano. Once the characteristic of the string scale is chosen, the rest of the design is developed to suit. But that is where it starts.

Del
Posted by: enescu

Re: What makes the tone of a piano? - 03/30/04 04:07 PM

Del, thank you for taking the time to write this detailed answer.
On a given scale can one change the tone to a more "nazal" or the opposite, "throaty" voice just by working on hammers?
Posted by: Del

Re: What makes the tone of a piano? - 03/30/04 04:49 PM

 Quote:
Originally posted by enescu:
Del, thank you for taking the time to write this detailed answer.
On a given scale can one change the tone to a more "nazal" or the opposite, "throaty" voice just by working on hammers? [/b]
Only within the (sometimes narrow) limits prescribed by the scaling, the soundboard design and construction, the rim or back structure, etc., of the piano in question.

To attempt to go beyond those limits will result in ruined hammers and an even worse sound.

This question often comes up when folks find themselves in possession of a piano that does not suit their taste. (Whether this is because their taste has changed over time or because the purchased the wrong piano is irrelevant to the discussion. It happens.) A good tuner/technician can work wonders in matching a good set of hammers to a given piano and finding its inherent voice. He or she can also usually voice up or down from this point with some success. But no one can radically alter that basic voice without endangering the overall performance of the piano.

Iíve discussed before the problems involved when someone asks to have their Yamaha voiced to sound like a Steinway. Or, as also happens, to have their Steinway voiced to sound more like a Yamaha. It canít be done. The scaling and construction details of the two pianos are just too dissimilar.

The idea is to purchase the piano that has the voice you want first. If you find yourself in possession of a piano whose voice you no longer like check with a good tuner/technician to see if something has gone wrong that can be fixed. If not, itís time to start looking for another piano.

Del

Del
Posted by: enescu

Re: What makes the tone of a piano? - 03/30/04 05:27 PM

Del, thanks again.
You are right. My piano has broken in somewhat and the tone is not as pleasant as before. At low level it's the sweetest and clearest, I wouldn't change it, but at loud levels it becomes somewhat nasal and thin. It has a good attack, but soon it feels as if there is not enough sustain in the body of the sound... Maybe there is more contrast between the attack and sustain, now. I'm not sure I describe this correctly.
This did not happen when the piano was new...
Posted by: BDB

Re: What makes the tone of a piano? - 03/30/04 06:09 PM

If it sounded the way you like it once, chances are that it could sound that way again. Although the strings change slightly as they stretch out to equilibrium, most of the changes are in the hammers. Until there is no more felt to work with, you can get hammers to sound pretty much they sounded before they wore.
Posted by: Del

Re: What makes the tone of a piano? - 03/30/04 06:51 PM

 Quote:
Originally posted by enescu:
Del, thanks again.
You are right. My piano has broken in somewhat and the tone is not as pleasant as before. At low level it's the sweetest and clearest, I wouldn't change it, but at loud levels it becomes somewhat nasal and thin. It has a good attack, but soon it feels as if there is not enough sustain in the body of the sound... Maybe there is more contrast between the attack and sustain, now. I'm not sure I describe this correctly.
This did not happen when the piano was new... [/b]
Well, just like car maintainance is more involved than simply putting gas in it from time to time, piano maintainance is more than tuning it from time to time. Talk to your piano tuner/technician about touch-up voicing and regulating.

ddf
Posted by: ChrisKeys

Re: What makes the tone of a piano? - 04/03/04 12:05 AM

 Quote:
Originally posted by Del:
Now, [the Baldwin L (a 6'3" grand)] was designed to be a warm and dynamic chamber piano. It very appropriately has a relatively short, low-tension scale. With suitable hammers and nicely voiced it is one of the nicest solo and small ensemble pianos around.[/b]
I'll vouch for that. I own a Baldwin L (made in 1967). Among other things, it has new Abel hammers and has been voiced nicely by a very good tech. It has a really great sound; this is one nice piano!

Chris