Piano Quality

Written by Nexcerpt on September 27th, 2011 in Patterns & News.
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The finest pianos in the world were built about a hundred years ago. Due to evolution in engineering, exhaustion of raw materials, and flagging business standards, we will never see their like again. Some people may build very good pianos; new forms of the instrument may exceed (in narrow ways) the magnificent machines built a few decades either side of the year 1900. But, from a musical perspective, there will never be a “better” piano than the typical concert grand of a century ago.

A recent post by Russell Turpin at FoRK posed the issue:

For thirty years, someone with the dollars could book a supersonic
flight across the Atlantic.

That stopped, almost a decade ago.

Which would surprise most anyone in 1980, asked how commercial flight
would proceed. The alleged S-shaped curve for technology delivered to
the consumer proved, in this case, to be shaped more like a dromedary.

Maybe it was marketing overshoot. Maybe a bit of regression due to
exogenous constraints. And, yeah, shaving a couple of hours off
crossing the Atlantic matters far less than the other unpleasantness
now associated with flying.

But I'm curious what there are other salient examples there are of
"consumer technology regression."

This reminds me of what I observed in my years as a piano technician. For a decade, I performed all tuning and maintenance for the Kalamazoo College Music Department, Music Center, and Bach Festival Society. I also tuned for a variety of recording studios and concert venues around Kalamazoo — including odd, cool gigs like tuning stage pianos for BB King concerts, and Fender Rhodes pianos for Clare Fischer, perhaps the greatest master of that instrument.

During this time, I was also teaching and performing, so I met other clients of many kinds, and managed pianos of every style and design. These ran from a desperate disaster of a gutted player piano in an American Legion hall (where the upper block of many black keys was simply missing, so most keytops were level) to a magnificent nine-foot Steinway in a private home, barely used in fifty years.

I restored an 1880s Mason & Hamlin piano prototype (with machine heads they called “screw stringers” rather than tuning pins), and hand-matched frame elements (stamped with serial numbers from several different reed organs, apparently never completed). I rebuilt majestic grands of the 1920s — such as a matched pair abandoned after decades of use in the vaudeville-era orchestra pit of the State Theater in Kalamazoo. (I first saw those pianos stacked up as if junk, backstage before a BB King concert.) So, I speak not only from the collective memory of other musicians and technicians, but from direct study of the keyboard industry, of its major players, and of specific innovations and their quality.

These are my generalizations, especially of the timeline. I may return to document dates and models with external links, but the arc of quality and development is valid.

From the early nineteenth to the early twentieth century, most pianos were of very high physical quality, with an absolute minimum tonal quality we might today call “decent.” Some grand pianos and the odd vertical piano were magnificent; ALL vertical pianos were at least good.

Through the mid-twentieth century, continually improving automation (or, at least, mechanization) of the creation of parts and materials (from felt to wire) made it possible to build a better piano each year at a cost not much greater than before. Some grand pianos were magnificent; all LARGE vertical pianos were good.

During and after WW II, the spinet piano (smaller, lighter) became more practical (as material costs increased, particularly metals) and more popular (as homes became smaller, and ceilings lower). Some of the earliest were of decent quality, but most, increasingly as time passed, were almost unusable for quality musical purposes. (The scale, or size and layout, of strings was constrained by the size of the soundboard, such that minimal harmonic quality standards could not be met.) Along with that advent of “engineering” to compensate for material limitations, “musically” skilled designers and builders became less common. Some expensive grand pianos remained magnificent, especially where experienced builders were given latitude; most larger vertical pianos were good.

In the 1960s, Japanese manufacturers — most notably Yamaha and Kawai — took a lesson loosely from the auto industry, and began making piano manufacturing processes predictable. Rather than driving tuning pins by hand, or against an alignment template, they created robotic systems to drive all pins at precisely the same angle, with precisely the same force, in every instrument. This did not produce higher quality — it produced the same quality every time. Thus, it became possible to evaluate the quality of the design, rather than of the result. Any experiment or improvement in the design, however minor, would echo uniformly through to the finished product. A very few, very expensive grand pianos remained magnificent, especially where experienced builders survived; most American-made vertical pianos were of unpredictable but marginal quality, and declining; most Japanese pianos were of uniformly good quality, and improving.

In the latter quarter of the twentieth century, it became increasingly obvious that major historical manufacturers had lost their capacity to build a magnificent piano. In one case, the failure was precipitated in the early 1970s when CBS bought Steinway & Sons. Industry lore had it that the few remaining skilled artisans were permitted to work in Steinway factories, though perhaps not doing the fine refinements and regulation they were uniquely suited to perform. According to insiders’ reports, the newly jobless in unemployment offices local to Steinway’s New York facilities had, as their first assignment, to apply for work building pianos. As assets were sold or exhausted, and as forests across the world fell out of sustainable management for wood quality, it became increasingly difficult to purchase wood of the high quality that would have been standard only fifty years earlier. The ideal material — Sitka spruce grown to full mature size in a dense, sheltered stand — had all been cut years ago. No magnificent grand pianos were being built, though a few Japanese instruments came close, due to irreproducible flukes of soundboard or final finish quality; most American-made vertical pianos were of marginal quality, and in steep decline; Japanese pianos — especially Yamaha — were of uniformly consistent quality, and — especially Kawai — of uniformly high quality.

To learn far more about piano quality — across Kawai, Yamaha, and other brands — study this spectacularly detailed review of recent development of the piano industry. Thanks and Bravo to Kendall Ross Bean for producing that material!

The decades either side of the millenium have seen Korean manufacturers, such as Young Chang, challenge Japanese superiority. As a rule, Koreans have not succeeded. Although they have largely preserved the concept of consistency across pianos, their products likely have lowered the average quality of pianos worldwide. I suspect they will continue as a downward influence on price, and thus on quality, of pianos of every make and model. Today, there are essentially no magnificent new grand pianos; quality of vertical pianos has stagnated, overall, as plastics intrude into realms where wood once ruled, and the quality of irreplaceable wood elements continues to decline.

In 2010, I spent an afternoon playing most of the pianos on the floor at Steinway of Chicago. I visited the Butterfield Road facility in Downers Grove; it’s not their most elegant or showy location, but the diversity and selection is great, including many other brands of new and used pianos. The best instrument in the building was a Steinway Model M — not a large instrument at just over five and half feet, but with excellent tone and touch. I believe it was built in the late 1800’s, presumably in Hamburg, Germany, and it made the newer, larger grands in the same room sound like factory rejects. Its most recent rebuilding — perhaps its second, or even third — was done expertly, without harming the machine’s initial character and prestige. If properly maintained for the next several decades, this 120-year-old piano will remain a far better musical instrument, with far better sound quality, than any new piano.

That is to say: no better acoustic piano will ever be built, at any time, ever again.


4 Responses to “Piano Quality”

  1. jamesgala says:

    I can’t read the entire article; just the first paragraph, because it keeps returning to the comment page before I can finish. This notwithstanding, I disagree with the premise stated in the first paragraph, and assert that the finest pianos ever made are being made now by European piano manufacturers such as Bechstein, Siler, Shimmel, et al. These pianos have faster and more nuanced actions, and a much more refined sound than American or Japanese pianos. I’ve played the best of turn of the century pianos in the same rooms as the new European piano brands I mentioned. To my ear, there’s no comparison.

  2. Nexcerpt says:

    JG: I’m sorry you can’t see the entire article — I’m unable to replicate the page behavior you’re describing, so I have no way to evaluate it. This is the direct link: http://blog.nexcerpt.com/2011/09/27/piano-quality/

    I’ve also played Bechstein, Seiler, and Schimmel instruments, and can accept in principle that to some ears — with the focus on that aesthetic — there may be comparably good sounding new pianos now in showrooms or concert halls. I acknowledge that new pianos also may have a slight edge in certain areas immediately after manufacture. I simply doubt they’ll keep it.

    A professionally rebuilt instrument can have the same quality strings and action as any new piano. The same should be true of the wrest plank or perhaps even the soundboard, and virtually every other element that influences the tone or touch (other than the harp and case, as noted below). In that regard, our differing opinions may have more to do with the capacity for quality and attention to detail of the person doing the rebuilding, than with the physical nature of the piano. That is, the rebuilder may have missed some opportunities.

    As to the harp and case (or perhaps the soundboard), those in a newly manufactured instrument may be slightly different in a positive way, if the design has been subjected to competent analysis and thoughtful modification. However, I would contend that such design decisions are at least as likely to diminish the instrument as to enhance it — in particular, I suspect such modifications are unlikely to stand the test of time. Personally, I don’t believe that today’s cases or harps (two of the only “permanent” components of the modern piano) can be so superior that the new pianos will remain superior. From a technician’s perspective, at least, I don’t perceive the required character and durability.

    I’m also thinking about somewhat black arts of the trade — such as choosing scale length, setting bearing point relationships, and other obscure but powerful design decisions that are practically unalterable. Personally, I find the “precision” of modern design lacks… something. Something quite ineffable. At the levels you and I are listening, most of the important stuff is subjective. This is one of very few arenas in which I might voluntarily use the otherwise disquieting phrase, “We can agree to disagree.”

    Whether I’ve made it clear in the article or not, my premise is that the “quality” of a piano extends beyond its current state of tuning and regulation, to its enduring character. You propose a perfectly valid aesthetic; I believe other aspects of character will reveal themselves only over time.

  3. [...] aren’t paying for quality Oct 3rd, 2011 by Jordon Cooper. TweetPiano quality today is nowhere near the quality that it used to be In the latter quarter of the twentieth century, it became increasingly obvious that major [...]

  4. roy says:

    You remind me of a vintage car collector friend of mine who kept saying that modern cars will never be at par to the beauty and grace of the old ones. In this age of mass production and commercialism, you have a point in saying that quality is being compromised. Besides, being a piano technician of wide experience, you are in the position to know what’s missing in the modern pianos.

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