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A More Detailed Explanation of Voicing

Part I: What is Tone?

Simply put, voicing refers to the changing the tone of the instrument. A trained technician can accomplish this by softening or hardening the felt hammers, or by adjusting the way the hammers contacts the strings.

But, what is "tone?" Tone can be thought of simply as the brightness or mellowness of the sound. A note may be perfectly in tune; that is, it is vibrating at precisely the correct frequency, yet it can still sound harsh and bright, or dull and muted. Tone can also be described in terms of the "fullness" or "thinness" of the sound; it can float and hover in the air, or die off without any sustain, or "presence."

There are three basic types of tone problems:

  1. Certain notes just seem to "stick out" from the rest.
  2. Entire sections of the piano seem out of balance with each other; the bass may be big and bold, but the treble weak and thin sounding, etc.
  3. Sometimes the entire piano seems to be balanced but overall too bright or mellow.

These are all problems that have nothing to do directly with tuning, but rather voicing.

When a friend calls, we recognize their voice immediately. How? How can we distinguish one persons voice from another's? To understand this we need to know more about what sound is.

When a stone is tossed into the water it makes waves that ripple outward from the source. Similarly, when something moves in our environment it makes waves in the air that travel away from the source until it reaches our ears.

When the source of movement is a regular pattern of vibration, we perceive the sound as musical. A string vibrating at a regular speed produces a regular pattern of waves that cause our eardrums to vibrate at the same frequency.

However, very few vibrations in nature are simple. Usually, they are a complex pattern of different frequencies all happening at the same time. As explained in the article A More Detailed Explanation of Piano Tuning, a wire under tension will naturally break itself into smaller vibrating fractions, producing a series of higher frequencies at the same time as the whole string continues to produce it's sound.

Each of these frequencies has its own volume and decay pattern. If you could take the sound produced by one piano string and measure the volume and decay of each individual frequency, you would get a very distinct "picture" of the sound.

The word "tone" really defines the balance between all these frequencies. The louder the higher frequencies are in proportion to the lower frequencies, the "brighter" the tone will seem.

In a stereo system, we "voice" the music by adjusting the treble or bass controls. Clearly we are not changing the music, but we are changing the tone. When you turn the "treble" knob up on a stereo, you are simply increasing the volume of the high frequencies, for example.

When a friend speaks, their vocal chords produce a unique combination of harmonics that remain in similar balance no matter what they say, and we learn to recognize this pattern just the way our eyes learn to tell red from pink. Similarly, our ears learn to easily distinguish the tone of a trumpet from that of a saxophone, even if they are playing the same note. The "fundamental" frequency they are producing may be the same, but the harmonics that accompany that sound are very different.

Part II: Why Does Tone Matter In A Piano?

We may not know precisely why, but everyone knows how profoundly music can affect us. In a sense, the purpose of an instrument is simply to transfer feeling from the performer to the listener. It is the job of the performer to use the instrument as a vehicle for expression, and this is not an easy task.

We all know how many years of practice and dedication it takes to perfect the techniques necessary to perform on an instrument like the piano. But if, after all that time and effort, the artist sits down at a piano that is out of tune, harsh sounding, and unbalanced, they will never be able to produce the sound they have been trained to create.

When an artist plays the piano, they must know BEFORE they play a note what that note will sound like, so that they can adjust their technique. The more the instrument is in tune and tonally balanced, the more the instrument can "get out of the way" and provide a direct conduit through which the artist can communicate.

Further, it is vital that the instrument itself is not a distraction, either to the performer or the audience. Sweet music can never be produced on a harsh and brittle sounding piano. Powerful music can never be produced on a dull piano. If you think of tuning as the "structure" of a building, voicing is the color and style.

Imagine that every note on a piano is a person singing. If each note is produced by a different singer, the piano will have no cohesive sound. But now imagine that every note was produced by the same singer with the same voice. That piano will have a uniformity and predictable tone.

Voicing a piano means trying to make each note sound as if it were produced by the same singer, with the same voice.

It may be tempting to think that voicing is a subtlety reserved for only the best pianos and players, but this is a mistake. Imagine a beginner learning to play on a piano whose keys do not work properly. If the beginner is having trouble performing a specific passage, they have no way of knowing that it is because of the piano, and not their technique.

Similarly, the ability to learn musical expression is limited by the capacity of the piano to produce beautiful and predictable tones. As with tuning, a beginner may not always be completely aware when the piano is badly voiced, but they will ALWAYS be able to tell when it sounds better! And their ability to develop as a musician will be undermined by the limitations of the instrument.

Part III: How Is Voicing Accomplished?

The summary presented here more precisely describes the voicing of grand pianos, but the techniques for verticals are similar.

Before any adjustment is done to the hammers it is important to make sure that the strings are firmly seated where they terminate. The "speaking length" is created by pressure on the string at the front and back, just the way guitar strings are pressed against the frets on the guitar's neck.

At the front end, near the tuning pins, there is a small brass fitting called the agraffe, which the strings pass through with upward pressure. The higher notes are terminated with the string being pressed upward against a continuous iron "V" shaped bar known as the "Capo D'Astro."

At the other end, the strings are pressed downward onto the wooden bridge where they rest against angled metal bridge pins. Lightly tapping the strings with a brass rod where they rest against those pins will ensure that they are not sitting slightly above the surface of the bridge, causing tonal distortion.

Also, there is a certain kind of buzzing sound that can come from the string if it is not resting securely in the agraffe or at the "V" bar. A trained technician can recognize the sounds that come from these sources and address them. No amount of hammer voicing will affect this, so it is an important first step that is too often overlooked.

Even though there is only one key and one hammer for each note, most notes are created with three strings that are tuned in unison and struck simultaneously. It is critical that the hammers are centered on their strings. If they are not, they must be moved until they are.

However, over time the hammers develop cuts at the striking point from repeated impact with the strings. Before they can be shifted over to become centered, they need to be filed so that the striking surface is smooth again.

Since most notes have three strings, it is also critical that the hammer strikes them all at EXACTLY the same time. If they are not all level, the hammer may contact one or two slightly sooner, creating a very distinct "phasing" type of distortion that a trained ear can recognize. This is one reason why it is best to voice a piano only after it is tuned. Out-of-tune unisons can make it more difficult to hear the subtleties of voicing.

Adjusting the strings and hammer surface to create this even contact is known as "centering and squaring the hammer to the strings." It is accomplished by pressing the hammer lightly against the unmuted strings and then plucking them to determine if they are all being contacted equally. Any string that is not will "ring" when plucked with a fingernail, indicating that it is at a higher level than the others. Using special tools the lower strings are pulled upward until this is corrected. This is called string leveling.

Sometimes, instead of leveling the strings, the hammer surface can be lightly filed to accomplish this precise fitting.

Only now can we assess the tone that results from the hammer itself.

The piano hammer is the most important component of good tone. It is made from extremely hard, layered felt that has been "wrapped" around a wooden core to create the familiar egg shape. This "wrapping" process creates a dynamic percussive tool that is stretched along its surface, while densely compacted in its interior.

Piano technicians have a tool that holds one, two, or three needles securely, so that they can be stabbed into the felt in a controlled manner.

Sometimes the tone is brittle and seems to have no foundation. In this case, pressing needles deep into the sides of the hammer can open up the tone. When the first part of the tone, the "attack," is too harsh, shallow "fluffing" at the striking point can soften the harshness without affecting the rest of the tone.

The art of listening, diagnosing the tonal weakness, and knowing where and how to needle the hammers takes years of experience, along with a good deal of patience.

The use of chemical hardeners and softeners is also an option. Hammers that are EXTREMELY hard can be softened with a solution of alcohol and water as a first step to reducing the harshness of the tone. Also, the way in which hammers are produced by different manufacturers varies tremendously. Although most hammers are produced without hardeners, some of the best pianos in the world are specifically designed to be used with heavily lacquered hammers, with beautiful results.

This technique requires a well trained and experienced technician, but the point is that one should not generalize. It is the end result that counts, and it is the technicians job to understand how the different hammers are constructed, and modify his or her techniques accordingly, in order to produce the desired results. Sometimes the judicious use of chemical hardeners to brighten a dull tone is exactly what is needed, but this should rarely be the first step.

The process of voicing, as with tuning, is ongoing, and requires good communication between the technician and artist, because it is the technicians job to understand the kind of tone the pianist is trying to achieve, and understand the piano well enough to know how to achieve that result. No two pianos voice exactly the same. It truly is an art, but the rewards are often remarkable. Voicing can turn an average piano into a good piano, and without proper voicing no great piano can ever achieve its true potential.

Naturally, there are times when doing the complete process described above may not be practical. After a tuning, a good technician should always listen to the tone, and can make some very impressive improvements with a few deft strikes from the voicing needles. However, in order to truly perform with its optimum voice, the process described must be followed, and this can take several hours or longer.

Part IV: The Limitations Of Voicing

It is important to remember that the piano is still an "acoustic" instrument, and as such can never achieve "perfectly" uniform voicing, nor would that be desirable. Even the most carefully voiced concert instruments will have a natural variance that our ears have come to expect. This is one reason why a "real" piano tone will always sound more interesting and engaging than an electronic tone.

There are, however, certain areas of the piano that are likely to be difficult to balance, for differing reasons.

Bass Strings and Low Bass Notes

When a piano is being designed, one of the most important challenges is to keep the tension on each string the same, even as the pitch changes. To keep the tension the same as the pitch gets higher, we can only do two things: make the strings shorter, and/or thinner. As the notes get lower the strings get longer and/or thicker.

However, if the "plain" wire gets too thick it will become too stiff to vibrate well. That is why we have "bass" (or "wrapped," or "wound") strings. They are made by taking standard piano wire and wrapping copper around it in a tight coil. This adds mass to the string and slows it down without significantly compromising the flexibility, however these "metal against metal" strings will for obvious reasons tend to have a different tone quality than plain wire strings.

These "wound" strings are found in the lowest two octaves on most pianos. Smaller pianos usually have more. Typically, smaller pianos have a few wound strings in the lowest notes of the mid (tenor) section as well.

Often bass strings can have a subtle but noticeable high frequency kind of metallic "ring" that many people do not easily hear, but others do. It is typical in almost all makes, models, and sizes to find some bass notes that have more "ring" than others. At best, voicing can minimize this, but rarely can this be eliminated.

(The scope of this article is not intended to venture too far into the physics involved, but for those interested, this phenomenon is often created by a "longitudinal" wave; a frequency created by energy traveling up and down the string from front to back, rather than the standard vibrations created by the string vibrating more like a fast jump rope).

The thicker the bass strings get the more distorted and "muddy" the tone will become, because the extra thickness causes the harmonics generated to be increasingly "out of tune" with the fundamental frequency. A string can literally be out of tune with itself!

In this case it is obviously not possible to ever get it sounding as if it is at the correct pitch, and this is made worse by the poor and "muddy" tone. This is why the tone in the lowest notes is often so bad.

The desire to have a more clear and "present" bass tone is one of the reasons why musicians prefer larger grand pianos. The longer bass stings tend to have fewer such issues.

The Low Tenor

Often, the sound of the lowest tenor notes can be a bit "twangy" or "nasally." There are a number of reasons:

  1. To maintain the desired tension, the plain wire would need to be too thick, so a thinner wire is used at a lower tension, and this creates a different tone
  2. The strings terminate at the end of the bridge, where the vibrations are not as evenly distributed
  3. The strings terminate closer to the edge of the soundboard, which is less vibrant than the center

Sometimes the designers will try to use bass, or wound, strings for these notes. This solves some problems but creates others, because, as discussed above, wrapped stings have a different harmonic quality than plain wire.

Thus, voicing the piano so that the lowest tenor notes blend well with the notes above can be challenging. If is usually possible to make improvements, but rarely can we achieve a perfect blend.

Then, as we pass from the tenor bridge to the first bass strings, we shift to another bridge, with strings also terminating near the end of that bridge, but located closer to the center of the soundboard, and so here too we have difficulty blending the low tenor with the upper bass. This area is referred to as the "bass break" and it can be difficult in many pianos to achieve consistent voicing in this area.

The Fifth and Sixth Octaves

In grand pianos this would be the third section of strings, counted from the bass end, and in verticals it will usually be the lower half of the final treble end section. These are the notes that are most often used to create the melodies which are played with the right hand.

The tone in this section should be sweet and clear; brilliant but not harsh. Ideally, we want these tones to be "bell like;" to float and hover above the other notes which support the melody. If these notes die off, or fail to sustain properly, it is difficult or impossible to express the melody, which most defines the music being played.

One of the things designers do to aid in this process is to change the way the string "speaking length" is terminated at the front of the piano. In most grands, the tenor strings are all terminated in individual brass fittings called agraffes. However, in the treble sections, the strings pass under and are pressed upwards against a continues "V" shaped bar (the Capo D'Astro.)

By doing this, the energy from these strings can be spread out, causing the other strings to resonate slightly in sympathy. Further, there is often a metal fret positioned at both ends of the string that can be positioned at a precise length, allowing the portion of the string beyond the speaking length to produce a tone that is a harmonic of the fundamental. This design feature is known as the "duplex scaling," and is found on many, but not all grand pianos.

There are times, however, when these features do not produce the desired result. Often the tone can be too shrill or metallic. If the hammers are too hard in this section, the attack can be too bright, and if the hammers are too compact the tone can fail to "sing" and blossom.

Voicing this section of the piano is often challenging, and there are times when the limitations of the design make it difficult to achieve perfect results. However, an experienced technician can almost always improve the tone in this most critical area.

The Highest Notes

The very highest notes on a piano can be problematic. The strings are quite short, and the hammer needs to strike the string at precisely the right location on the string, just behind the Capo bar. Too far into the speaking length and the note will be dead, too close to the bar and you will hear more "knocking" than tone.

The positioning of the action can usually be adjusted slightly to allow an experienced technician to find the optimum location for this striking point. Also, hammers can often be hardened in this section to maximize the tonal clarity.

Still, there will always be some inevitable "knocking" sound in these notes, becoming less noticeable as you move towards the center of the keyboard. The strings are extremely tightly strung, the hammers are hard, and as the pitch rises the hammers strike closer and closer to the iron "Capo" bar. This natural "percussive" element created when the hammer strikes the strings in this area is unavoidable.

Getting the most tone from these highest notes is a challenge requiring skill and experience.

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