Results of action redesign and new hammers

At this month’s chapter meeting, David Graham and I presented the results of this past summer’s work in which we rebuilt a number of grand actions.  We took this opportunity to make some before and after audio recordings with a variety of selections played by yours truly.  There were four pianos involved.  To begin the program David played the before recordings of each piano and the tonal and playing characteristics were noted by those in attendance.  All of these pianos had significant tonal deficiencies and two in particular had significant action setup problems.  The recordings actually presented the pianos in a better light than they sounded live; nevertheless the strident, weak tone was clear to all.  The two pianos with action problems were obvious to the listeners as well as the poor pianist tried valiantly to make them bow to his desire but to no avail. 

The four pianos were: Samik 4’ 10” about 10 years old, Grinnel Bros. 5’ circa 1930’s, Bechstein “E” 1961, Yamaha C3 2 years old.  The first three were given Isaac hammers; the Grinnel and Bechstein also had new shanks and flanges installed.  All also received a basic Stanwood Touch Design which included evening out the stick weights, key weights, and properly  regulating the wippen assist springs on the Samik and Bechstein.

Upon hearing the recordings and live playing of the Yamaha all in attendance agreed the transformation was remarkable and in some instances quite dramatic.  The tonal quality became warmer with greater projection and the playability was greatly enhanced.

As the player I would like to comment directly on what I experienced in particular with the little Samik.  This is a creature not unlike many we see coming out of SE Asia, after doing the before recording I was only too glad to get up and walk away from this beast. However, after the work was done, I would have gladly played the piano for many hours.  It is still a 4’ 10” grand but it had none of the ugliness we usually associate with this brand and size.  It was not just the new hammers but also correcting the significant action problems and mistakes in the action setup that transformed this piano into a truly wonderful instrument I wouldn’t mind owning!  Do not give up on these pianos; there is actually a pretty nice instrument in there just waiting to come out.

We have all wished we could have a second chance to say something, hoping maybe we could do a better job the second time, well I will try that now.  Between sloppy penmanship, poor light, aging eyes, I couldn’t read my notes for my portion of David Graham’s and my presentation at the last chapter meeting.  My comments covered some of the diagnose work done to determine if the action should be rebuilt or were there other superseding issues.  All of the components within a piano must be functioning properly in relationship to each other, if any one of these components is failing, little can usually be done to the functioning parts to make up the deficiency.  The following list is by no means complete, but is rather a starting point.

1)      Soundboard.  The condition and amount of crown and downbearing play a significant if hard to specify role in tone production.  If the tone has a long sustain but not much volume, this can be indicative of a flat board.  Too much downbearing can sometimes produce a loud attack and fast decay.  But there are many more other variables in the construction of the board which bear upon the tonal characteristics that generalities quickly fail.  However if the piano sounds fine with a reversed crown, don’t worry about it!

2)      Split bridges.  These are visually obvious; if they are tonally obvious they need to be fixed before proceeding.  Also look for problems in the cap-trunk, trunk-apron, and all joints to the soundboard.

3)      Loose bridge pins.  These will usually present themselves with lots of noise, distortions, and false beats.  But sometimes overly hard hammers can sound this way as well.

4)      Delaminated ribs.  These are usually associated with panel cracks from environmentally caused shrinkage/expansion or over drying the panel in the factory.  When these are present besides the obvious noises there can be an inefficient transfer of sound energy across the soundboard grain.  You will usually also find crown problems and the bridges may be moving or rolling toward the pinblock.

5)      Delaminated soundboard panel.  Check along the perimeter.  Nearly 1/3 of all pianos coming into my shop have some level of this. 

6)      Action saturation.  This is a problem common to larger instruments, especially in the keys.  As wood ages the internal mechanical integrity begins to fail.  Keys can sometimes flex almost to the point of feeling broken on a sharp blow.  Key replacement or a chemical or mechanical reinforcement are the only solutions.  Hammer shanks can also flex on a hard blow due to either failing wood or too heavy of hammer.  Look for notes with an unusually soft “loud” or one which actually gets softer as you play harder.

7)      Structural problems.  Outer and inner rim delamination usually isn’t critical to the inner rim’s performance, but can be indicative of other problems.

8)      Nose bolts and perimeter screws.  The function of nose bolts is to stiffen and dampen the harp.  If the harp is vibrating in sympathy with the strings, (all due respect to “bell metal” claims) you are losing a lot of tonal energy.

9)      Cracked harp.  Tuning instability for no apparent reason can mean there is a problem somewhere in the structure of the harp.  This is more common than you might suspect or maybe I just naturally attract pianos with this problem.

This is not a complete list, but can be a starting point for assessing the work needed to allow the piano to reach its full potential.