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Acoustic
PIANO WHAT PIANO BUYERS
VOICING AND TONE:
BUYER AND OWNERS SHOULD KNOW
SALLY PHILLIPS

o most piano buyers and owners, a pianos tone is probably its most
important aspect, but also the most difficult to quantify or describe.
Likewise, the shaping of the tone by the technician through the procedure
known as voicing involves unfamiliar terminology, and techniques that are difficult
for technicians to communicate to the customer. The purpose of this article, then,
is to provide information about tone, voicing, and definitions of some commonly
used terms so that piano owners and technicians can better communicate with
each other, and piano shoppers can make more informed buying decisions.

Voicing, or tone regulation, comprises a variety of tech- consistently, the tone of the hammers will remain good
niques that technicians use to change a pianos tone. until wear demands that they be changed.
Most involve adjusting the hardness, density, tension, Alexander Kobrin, the 2005 Van Cliburn International
and surface of the hammer felt to produce a spectrum of Piano Competition Gold Medalist, explains how an
tonal qualities ranging from bright to mellow. Slight re- uneven tone can affect the performer. According to
positioning of the strings may also be part of this process. Kobrin, when the pianist can be distracted by notes
Voicing differs from tuning, which is the adjustment that stick out or are weak in the scale, he or she has to
of the strings tensions to produce the proper pitches. In remember which notes dont perform like the others. This
voicing, it is the timbre of each note, not its pitch, that inhibits the performance, and ultimately, the audience
is addressed. Voicing must also be distinguished from doesnt get the full benefit of the artists interpretation of
action regulation, i.e., the mechanical adjustment of a piece. The student practicing on instruments with this
the keys and action for evenness of touch and response. problem will have much more difficulty performing on
However, a piano needs to be tuned and its keys and other instruments. Kobrin also states the need for young
action regulated before being voiced because these pianists to have a properly prepared piano for practice,
procedures themselves clear up many tonal problems.
For example, a piano can sound tinny simply because
it is out of tunesomething that no amount of voicing
can correct. An inability to play softly may be caused
by a poorly regulated action, which can make the touch
difficult to control.

Why Pianos Need to Be Voiced


Any pianos sound will gradually brighten over time, as
its hammer felts are repeatedly packed down by the im-
pact of the hammers on the strings; it will need regular
voicing to maintain good tone. Since hammer felt ab-
sorbs moisture, the tone can become mellower in more
humid weather, brighter in drier weather. The voicing
can become uneven when some notes are played more
often than others. Heavy use of the una corda pedal in
grands also causes the voicing to become uneven. I usu- Alexander Kobrin, the 2005 Van Cliburn International Piano
ally do some voicing during each tuning. If this is done Competition Gold Medalist

Excerpted from the Spring 2014 Edition of Acoustic & Digital Piano Buyer
Copyright 2014 by Brookside Press LLC. All rights reserved. www.pianobuyer.com
1
because that is where they develop an appreciation for the in Asian pianos, are generally harder than American
quality of tone that, as future professionals or advanced hammers; e.g., those in older American pianos from
amateurs, they will be responsible for producing. the early 20th century, in current Steinway (New York)
instruments, and from American hammer-maker
Describing Tone Ronsen. European and Asian hammers are tradition-
Here are some terms commonly used by piano techni- ally voiced by voicing down, American hammers by
cians, in the voicing context, to describe tone: voicing up.
Timbre is the particular blend of harmonics in a Even and uneven describe how similar or different the
pianos tone, or in the tone of a single note. The timbre is timbre is from note to note on the same piano. The process
said to have color when it contains a blend of harmonics of evening out the timbre is usually a much faster one
that is pleasing to the ear. The piano is said to have a than making a wholesale change in the instruments tone.
broad spectrum of tonal color when the hammers are Big describes a piano sound with greater-than-
voiced in such a way that the timbre changes with minor average volume and projection (power)the qualities
differences in touch by the pianist, making accessible a needed, for example, for the sound to reach the rear of
broad range of timbres over the instruments full range an auditorium. These factors are not usually problematic
of volume. This is achieved by using hammers of very in pianos in the home, but are of critical importance in
high quality that have been carefully voiced so that very a concert setting. Power is primarily a function of the
slight increases in the speed of the hammer increase not instruments size and ability to sustain, the latter being
only the sounds volume, but also, slightly, its brightness. dependent on the pianos design, and the composition
Pianos with a broad spectrum of tonal color provide of its rim and soundboard. But the choice of hammer
the pianist with a larger expressive range. However, can also greatly influence sustain and therefore power,
producing the same degree of change in timbre for each and voicing can be used to improve these characteristics
hammer so that the voicing is even across the keyboard in a high-quality instrument with very good hammers.
and throughout the pianos range of volume requires that With instruments and hammers of lesser quality, sustain,
the voicer be very skilled. power, and projection should be considered inherent
Bright describes tone with a concentration of higher in the design of the instrument, and amenable to little
harmonics. Bright pianos that have been properly voiced change through voicing.
have a clear, clean, brilliant brightness that still has lots Its important to distinguish brightness from power,
of tonal color, whereas pianos whose bright sound is a but they overlap, especially in the concert setting.
result of the hammers needing reshaping Concert instruments must usually be
and voicing tend to lack such color. This voiced brighter than home instruments
latter, unpleasant brightness is described in order to cut through the sound of an
by terms such as brassy, metallic, glassy, orchestra. Brightness can also partially
and tinny. (Note that the word sharp is not substitute for power when the latter is
used because it refers to pitch, not tone.) Pianos with a broad lacking. But an overly bright instrument
Making a piano brighter is referred to by spectrum of tonal will lack color, and attempts to voice
technicians as voicing up. it down could sacrifice its power. Eric
color provide the
A mellow tone has a stronger fun- Schandall, an American technician living
damental frequency and fewer upper har- pianist with a larger and working in Europe, describes the
monics. Pianos that sound mellow, but expressive range. newer Hamburg Steinways as generally
that still have articulation and color, having a bigger sound than those of even
are described as sounding sweet, round, dark, or rich; ten years ago: There is a wider envelope of sound and
those whose mellowness is without these redeeming more variety of timbre. This allows more room to voice
qualities can be described as dead, dull, weak, or without the piano less bright and still have a big sound, not relying
power. The latter kind of mellowness is the result of the on brightness in place of a big sound.
instrument needing voicing or new hammers, or lacking Similarly, Alexander Kobrin speaks about the larger
in tone-producing capability for other reasonssuch as spectrum of tonal color available in a piano with a
worn bass strings, loss of soundboard crown, or poor big sound, and how that affects the choice of concert
scale design. Voicing pianos to be mellower is referred to instrument. In comparing two concert grands, Kobrin
as voicing down. says he would choose the one with the bigger sound and
Hammers in European pianos, or by European greater tonal color for Romantic works, but one with a
hammer makers such as Renner and Abel, and those clean attack and less color for Classical compositions.

Excerpted from the Spring 2014 Edition of Acoustic & Digital Piano Buyer
Copyright 2014 by Brookside Press LLC. All rights reserved. www.pianobuyer.com
2
Voicing Techniques

Here are some of the techniques used to change a pia-


nos tone:
Hammer shaping, filing, and sandingThis is the
process of removing with sandpaper the grooves in the
top of the hammer made by the impact of the hammer on
the strings, and restoring the hammers elliptical shape
so that only the very small area of the crown at the top of
the hammer strikes the string. When the grooves are very
deep and wide, they not only damp the sound but also
produce a louder impact noise, commonly characterized
as metallic, brassy, or even woody.
Mating the strings and hammersWhen a tenor or treble
hammer doesnt strike its three strings simultaneously, the
result can be buzzing or other odd sounds, as well as a loss
of power. Mating the strings and hammers can be achieved The impact of the hammers on the strings causes the ham-
mers striking points, over time, to become broadened, flat-
by a combination of leveling the strings and sanding very
tened, and grooved. Reshaping the hammers to restore the
small amounts of felt off the hammer crowns. striking points to their original size, shape, and surface quality
Needling the hammersCareful insertion of needles is an important part of the voicing process.
into the hammer felt releases tension in the hammer
and makes it softer, resulting in a mellower tone. Many
techniques can be applied, with varying results. For
example, needling the lower shoulder area can actually add moderate brightness without the use of chemical
increase the volume of sound, while needling lightly into hardeners. In some cases, ironing hammers in very
the crown of the hammer can make the sound sweeter on humid conditions will dry them out, making the action
a soft blow. With older hammers that have hardened, lost feel lighter and restoring the tone.
tension and compression, or are excessively worn, the Voicing an older piano in which a new set of hammers
technician must be more cautious about making changes. has been installed is quite different from voicing a brand-
Older hammers react more radically to needling, and new instrument. The pre-voicing and prep of a fine new
could be very difficult to maintain at optimal levels if piano at the factory by a skilled voicer can take days, and
there is not enough felt left to work with, hastening the the technician servicing the piano in the field encounters
need for replacement. hammers that have already been fully prepared.
Hardening the hammersLacquer solutions, typically However, the technician who installs new hammers in
thinned with solvent, can be applied to the ham- the field must possess the skills of the factory and field
mer felt to increase its hardness and brighten the tone. technicians to be able to set up the hammers correctly,
Needling to even out the tone after the lacquer dries then voice them to the customers preferences.
is then necessary. Applying lacquer is a highly skilled
job for an experienced technician, who must make Tonal Considerations
an informed judgment about the mixture, amount, When Purchasing a Piano
and placement of lacquer for best results. One reason I encourage customers, prior to shopping, to attend con-
experience is called for is that using lacquer to increase certs and listen to high-quality recordings of the type of
a pianos power and sustain can actually make the tone piano music they typically play in order to establish a
worse if the tonal problem actually is in the soundboard concept of tonal aesthetics. Older voicers called it hav-
and strings. Technicians call the adding of lacquer ing a sound in your earthat is, establishing a mental
building the tone; for some manufacturers, such as standard of what you like with which you can evaluate
Steinway, the use of lacquer is necessary to achieve the the tone of the instruments you encounter.
brands traditional sound. I recommend that you purchase a piano that, on the
Ironing the surface of the hammer compresses the dealers floor, sounds reasonably close to what you
fuzzy surface and makes the hammer produce a cleaner desire. Dont buy a piano with unsatisfactory sound
sound. Though less common in North America, ironing based on a promise that radical changes in its voicing
of hammers is still done extensively in Europe, and can will make it sound good in your home. Its true that the

Excerpted from the Spring 2014 Edition of Acoustic & Digital Piano Buyer
Copyright 2014 by Brookside Press LLC. All rights reserved. www.pianobuyer.com
3
A RECENT HISTORY OF PIANO HAMMERS AND TONE

Until the mid-20th century, it was commonly ac- to maintain the bank of Steinway concert grands
cepted that pianos began life as relatively mel- while still catering to artists individual tastes.
low instruments, brightening with playing over The hammers of older American pianos from
time. Early in the 1960s, however, there was a sea the mid to late 20th century tend to contain a lot
change in the perception of tone. Pianos began be- of chemical hardeners, and today these pianos are
ing made brighter in response to changing tastes likely to need new hammers in order to produce a
and larger concert halls. Dealers found that the good sound. Many technicians have been urging
piano-buying public was easily impressed with the hammer makers to recapture the hammer and
very bright-sounding pianos they were starting to sound qualities of the early 20th century, and
import from Japan. Individual tastes always come to use the most recent technical advances to get
into play, but in general, the pianos desired for better tone from hammers. Hammer makers know
concert work were getting brighter, too. a lot more than they did 40 years ago, and now
There is a limit to how bright a piano can be produce a variety of hammers that dont rely on
and still be controllable and musically beautiful, glassy brightness.
says piano technician Eric Schandall, and For a number of years, Dale Erwin, of Erwin
weve gotten to that point over the last 40 years. Piano Restoration, in Modesto, California, has
Although there are still differences in tonal tastes, been working closely with Ronsen Piano Hammer
the pendulum has swung toward a more moderate Company president Ray Negron and the Wurzen
brightness in the way hammers are made, and in Felt Company of Germany to take advantage of
how they are voiced, too. Wurzens restoration of the original process for
Ed Foote, piano technician at Vanderbilt Uni- producing its famous Weickert felt. Erwin has
versity, has had years of experience in the Nashville been a proponent of developing a softer, more
recording industry. He feels that the tonal palette resilient hammer to recapture the classic, early
has been narrowed by overly bright pianos. (Foote 20th-century American piano sound, which, he
recalls adding lacquer to the hammers of a brand- says, will bring out the true tonal potential of
new, already-bright Yamaha C7 grand to get a rebuilt instruments from that era. Erwin says that
colorful, aggressively bright sound that sold a high-quality felt is the basis for good hammers
million records.) He sees the current trend as and the production of tone color. Negron is quick
slowly moving away from excessive brightness, to point out, however, that even with the highest-
with pianists finding that a piano can have a big- quality materials, the machinery and processes
ger sound, a wider range of dynamics, and more used to make the hammers can radically affect the
colorful tone without sounding too harsh. final product.
Ron Coners, Steinways Chief Concert Techni The same caution should be applied to the early
cian, notes that in the last several years the density Asian imports from the 1960s through the 90s,
of the hammer felt in Steinway models B (7') and which can have excessively hard hammers that
D (9') has been increased, resulting in more robust dont respond to traditional voicing techniques.
power without increasing the impact sound. He The good news is that technicians such as Erwin
says that this change has allowed the voicer to are reporting great results with new, softer
get a bigger sound from the hammers without hammers on those instruments, too.S.P.
adding much lacquer. Coners explains that using
less lacquer increases the body of the tone, and For a more in-depth look at the historical evolution of
introduces fewer unwanted elements to the sound piano voicing, with links to recordings on YouTube,
that must then be voiced out. This makes it easier check out our online article on the subject.

Excerpted from the Spring 2014 Edition of Acoustic & Digital Piano Buyer
Copyright 2014 by Brookside Press LLC. All rights reserved. www.pianobuyer.com
4
The hammers are reshaped, and their
grooves removed, with sandpaper pad-
dles and strips. The density of the
hammer felt, and the forces of tension
and compression within the felt, can
be adjusted by a variety of procedures,
including (shown here) pricking the
felt with voicing needles.

tone will be different in your home due to differences in many piano studios in universities have one or two 7'
environment; e.g., carpeting and drapery instead of the grands in rather small spaces. The concern that a piano
dealers hardwood floor and bare walls, as well as the that large will be too loud can be alleviated by regulation
rooms different sizes. But youre buying a piano whose and judicious voicing.
tonal goal has been established by the manufacturer and The above notwithstanding, its probably best to err
has been built to that standard; you shouldnt expect a little on the mellow side when purchasing a new piano.
anything more than minor voicing in the home to even The really bright-sounding piano in the showroom will
out the tone or make small changes in its brightness, If get only brighter with time. Its easier to maintain the
a greater change in the instruments tone is attempted, it tonal quality of hammers that start out mellow because,
may well not be effective. eventually, they will naturally brighten with use to the
Theres one exception to this: A large piano can, desired level, and will tend to stay at that level longer.
within reason, be voiced to sound good in a smaller Overly bright hammers will require more voicing main-
space (though the opposite is unlikely to be true). I have tenance over time, and in extreme cases, can be respon-
many clients with 9' grands in their living rooms, and sible for broken strings.

Excerpted from the Spring 2014 Edition of Acoustic & Digital Piano Buyer
Copyright 2014 by Brookside Press LLC. All rights reserved. www.pianobuyer.com
5
The better the piano, the more voiceable its hammers for 50 to 100 hours, depending on repertoire and on how
and the more malleable its sound. Manufacturers have much playing and touch-up it received in the store before
to make decisions about materials as they increase purchase. After that, the tone and voicing will evolve
or decrease the quality of the product to meet various throughout the life of the hammers.
price points. The hammers in the least expensive models Choose a technician experienced in voicing your par-
just wont produce the quality of sound heard from the ticular brand, especially for performance-quality instru-
more expensive instruments. This can make separating a ments. Many manufacturers have specific tonal goals for
pianos voicing issues from its tonal potential much more their instruments, and technicians who regularly work
challenging for the consumer. with those brands hammers are more attuned to their
In addition, because tone depends not only on the expectationsand the expectations of the client who has
quality and voicing of the hammers, but also on the other chosen that brand based on its tone.
sound-producing parts of the instrument (such as the
rim, soundboard, and bridges), one should have realistic
expectations about smaller, less expensive pianos. Over the past 35 years, piano technician Sally Phillips has
No amount of voicing will make an entry-level grand worked in virtually every aspect of the piano industry:
service, retail, wholesale, and manufacturing. In her role
sound like a 9' concert grand. And because hammers
as a concert-piano technician, she has tuned and prepared
tend to revert to their originally designed tone, scaling
pianos for concert and recording work in such venues as
deficiencies in older or smaller models that may have Town Hall, Alice Tully Hall, and the Kennedy Center, and
been hidden by careful voicing may return as harsh for such orchestras as the Cincinnati Symphony, the BBC
changes in tone when the voicing deteriorates, exposing Concert Orchestra, and the Vienna Philharmonic. At pres-
awkward transitions in the scale. ent, Phillips lives in Kentucky and works throughout the
Following purchase of a piano, it should be ready for southeastern U.S. She can be contacted at
touch-up voicing and regulating after having been played sphillipspiano@hotmail.com.

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Excerpted from the Spring 2014 Edition of Acoustic & Digital Piano Buyer
Copyright 2014 by Brookside Press LLC. All rights reserved. www.pianobuyer.com
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