Revised version with input from Lucas Garcia, piano technician and voicing specialist.
All piano owners have called on a technician at one time or another, the most obvious reason being to get it in tune. As important as this is, there are other ways of making an instrument sound even better. One of these is voicing.
Chances are your technician has mentioned this to you, maybe without having given you a proper explanation of its meaning. There are two ways to approach this topic, a simple one for laymen and another one, more technical yet more accurate for those in the know.
The first approach is best understood by an analogy: Imagine for a moment that your instrument is like a speaker system. Frequencies ranging very low to very high are first produced within the instrument then projected outwards. The lowest frequencies of a piano, the bass notes, emerge from the left side and rise steadily towards the treble range in the middle an onward to its highest pitches at the far right end. Speakers are somewhat similar, in that woofers emit low frequencies, while higher ones are passed through mid-ranges and tweeters. Depending on the quality of speakers, or their general condition, the sounds can be full and well-defined or distorted and harsh, such as when the equipment is sub-par or defective. The same holds true for the piano, but all depends on how finely calibrated the action of the keyboard is or the condition of the parts and materials responsible for the production of sounds. Such is the basic goal of voicing, namely, to adjust all these factors in a way to enable the piano to work like a high end speaker system.
The more technical explanation for its part provides some insight on what is exactly involved in this task. Speakers and pianos have one commonality: both are transducers. Whereas the piano creates soundwaves by enabling the transfer of energy from a mass (the hammer) on to a string, the speaker does the same from electrical impulses activating a membrane within it.
Piano voicing is a highly sophisticated procedure of piano maintenance that has three distinct facets to it:
1 – Regulation
2 – Understanding the specifics of hammer heads and choosing the right ones
3 – Technical and artistic considerations
What follows are some basic notions. For those interested in knowing more, there will be a more detailed expose in weeks to come, a blog that will be posted under our Specialists’ Corner heading.
1 – Regulation is an operation aimed at controlling the movement of the hammer on the mechanics of the piano when it is played.
2 – Choosing the proper hammer heads is a particularly delicate task for the technician, because he has to take into account the artist’s preferences in terms of sound, the instrument’s capacities (or limitations, as the case may be) and the setting, e.g. a concert hall or private home.
It must also be pointed out here that one type of felt for a hammer head does not produce the same sound on all instruments, in fact they can yield totally different results from one make to the next. This leads us now to the last facet of voicing, the technical and artistic considerations.
3- The technical aspect deals with the adjustment of tension exerted on a felt pressed and glued on the wooden head moulding. The purpose of this task is to give the pianist the dynamic range he wants over the whole instrument. But when the hammer strikes the string, there is not only a projection of energy outwards but inwards as well, because some of it is absorbed by the soundboard. Returning once more to the speaker analogy, think of a material both stiff and rigid enough to trap the sound’s energy in it and another supple enough to diffuse it, at the risk of creating distortion when it is too sensitive.
The musical aspect, finally, is a much more elusive topic, so much so that it would take up a whole book. The matter at hand here is much harder to pin down in that it relates to more subjective things, often qualified by such epiteths as “warm”, “brilliant”, “metallic”,or “dry”. Because there are as many definitions of these terms as there are pianists, this puts the technician on the spot, because his task is to meet expectations in terms of sound quality, but to do he has to first understand the musician’s mindset.
(To be continued)