July 27, 2005 | Instruments
New York piano technician, Mickey Finn joins us to offer up some suggestions on caring for, maintaining, and even tuning up studio instruments.
As a piano technician servicing recording studios in New York City, I am often asked for advice. In this article, I would like to discuss some guidelines you can follow to get the most out of your piano, as well as a few emergency tips that might bail you out in the middle of a session when a tech isn't available. Keep this in mind however: The piano may be a big instrument, but it is also fragile. It must be treated with care. While we believe that understanding the insides of your piano is a good thing, it is not inconceivable that you might damage something if you aren't careful.
Placement of a piano is often a no-brainer, but assuming you have some choice in the matter, let's go over some don'ts. Windows, radiators, water heaters, air conditioners, fish tanks (believe me it happens) are all things to be avoided. If you have to place the piano near any of these things, try to insulate the offending device as much as possible. The reason? These things change the air temperature, give off moisture or do both. Regulating humidity is the key to preserving your instrument.
Humidity change is why tuners have jobs. You may have noticed your piano going out of tune at the same time every year. This is due to the change in air temperature, which changes the humidity level.
Ideally you want to maintain a humidity level between 40% and 60%, with as little fluctuation as possible. A small humidifier can transform a dry space into a properly controlled environment, and it requires no more maintenance than filling the unit every few days. Alternatively a wet space requires a dehumidifier.
Some piano shops still push retrofitted devices, such as the Damp Chaser (TM), on their customers. Installed inside the piano, these devices consist of a metal rod and a bucket. They heat up and give off moisture, but as we say in Brooklyn, "fugheddaboutit". I don't recommend them. I've never seen a situation that couldn't be improved by using a standard room humidifier or dehumidifier.
Any part of a piano that is loose can become a source of annoying little noises in the studio. In fact, anything near the piano is a potential source of rattles and buzzes. That means anything in the same room. Locating these little noises can be really frustrating because resonating objects can play tricks on your ears.
One technique for localizing these noises is to alternate listening between one and both ears. Two ears help pinpoint the location in space, while one ear lets you focus on how close you are using only volume as a cue.
Listen through the microphones next. If the sound is not actually in the piano, it may not end up on tape. But if it is, good luck. There are a many places that can buzz inside a piano. Frequent culprits are the music stand, the pedal mechanisms, the hinges, or one of the sticks, which hold up the lid. One good trick is to use your hands; I've discovered the source of many buzzes by simply feeling around for the most vibration while playing the note. Often small screws, especially in hinges, make big noises.
This brings me back to my original suggestion. When a piano becomes dry, it often begins buzzing. Add a humidifier to the picture and, in a few days, a lot of those mysterious little noises may go away on their own.
You, yes you, can tune your piano. I'm not talking about throwing your tuners number away. There is no substitute for a quality professional tuning. Let someone else get paid to drive themselves batty. However there is no reason you can't learn some basics to be able to touch up your instrument.
There will be a time when for one reason or another things go out of tune before a session is completed. Let's face it, four hours of a pounding jazz session and it's inevitable. Knowing how to touch up a note here or there can save a lot of headaches when the clock is ticking.
Luckily, one of the most noticeable problems is the easiest to fix (and probably the only thing you should attempt yourself). It is called an out of tune unison. To fix it you will need a tuning hammer and a rubber wedge mute. Your technician may be able to get these items for you.
Each note on a piano has one, two, or three strings which are struck by a hammer (the one inside the piano) The lowest bass notes have a single copper-wound string (or monochords). As you go up the scale, you eventually have Bi-chords (two string unisons), and finally Tri chords (three string unisons). When one string in a unison goes out, the note sounds out of tune.
The first thing to do is to determine which string is out. If it's a monochord you're in luck; simply tune it to the octave. But more often than not, the higher treble strings are the ones that go.
If one of the tri-chord unisons is out, you can often use the center string for reference; it's the most stable of the three. To find the offending string, use your rubber wedge (or your finger in a pinch) to mute first the left, then the right strings as you play the note.
Locate the tuning peg for the string in question and place the hammer on it. The principals of proper technique are beyond the scope of this article, but the basic idea is that you must listen for oscillation or beating between the notes. Just like with a guitar, the slower the beats, the closer the pitches are in tune. Pull the string slightly higher than the target pitches then slowly finesse it down as you play the note in question. This will help to keep the pitch stable after you are finished. Remember, this takes a while to get used to. A little bit goes a long, long way. Go easy with the hammer. A piano is a fragile instrument, not something you wind up like a toy.
If none of the strings in the offending unison are correct you must tune one of them to the octave below. If it's out of tune too, it's probably time to pick up the phone. But if not, mute the center and left strings by putting your rubber wedge mute between them and tune the un-muted right string to the octave (that's in tune) below and then bring the rest to match it. (Yes, this starts to get complicated. Remember this is why guys like me get paid to do this).
Understanding the nitty-gritty of how your piano works is a basic studio skill. Even if you never pick up a tuning hammer, knowing a bit of the technician's craft will enhance your proficiency as a producer. I hope that these few concepts will help you maintain a musical working environment.
For a more in depth study on piano technology, there are two books I recommend. For a dry but thorough introduction to the technical aspect of tuning, check out Piano Tuning and Allied Arts by William Braid White. The other is Arthur A. Reblitzs' Piano Servicing, Tuning & Rebuilding. It has an extensive section on tuning methods and repairs, plus it's a great resource for piano-related information.
Mickey Finn is a musician and piano tuner in New York City. His company, Brooklyn Piano, tunes and services pianos for many recording studios. He can be reached at: www.brooklynpiano.com/top