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Describing sound is a bit like describing wine, or colour; we all wind up using describing words which attempt, as best as possible, to match an abstract experience with something we can relate to.  Learning to understand how one piano’s touch and tone is different than another can be an important and satisfying part of selecting your new instrument, and the following list discusses some of the more commonly used terms and their general meanings.

Bright/Shrill

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A bright piano is normally a description of a sound which heavily emphasizes the top of the EQ range. Think of this as boosting the treble in your car or home stereo; there may be mid and lower tones which are in the sound, but they are much quieter than the higher frequencies, giving the sound a very piercing, sharp tone.  This can be caused by a number of factors in a piano, such as a fast strike speed (of the hammer), the hardness of the hammer, the tension of the scale design, or poor manufacturing (many false beats will cause a sharpness of tone as well).

Dark / Muffled

tone-dull

A dark or muffled piano is normally a description of a sound in which the lower range of the EQ range is emphasized.  Think of this as turning down your treble on your stereo, and turning ONLY the bass and little mid up;  you will get a less defined, more boomy sound.  This is generally a symptom of cheap or ill-prepared hammers, though it might also be a symptom of scale design as well.

Metallic / Percussive

Metallic or percussive piano tone is a combination of both a ‘bright’ sound, as we discussed above, but also a very fast and hard impact by the hammer.  In an ideal situation, when the hammer hits the string, the sound is produced, and there is a nice even ‘dying out’ of the sound.  In a percussive hammer, there is a very dramatic rise and fall in the volume as the hammer hits the string, but the longer ‘dying off’ sound is much quicker and softer than the initial hit.

Tone-ideal
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Warm / Deep
A warm sound is normally a piano in which the tone is generally well balanced between low, mid, and high partials.  It’s not too dark, not too bright, it sounds ‘warm’, and generally works with nearly any genre of music.  Although everyone has their own taste in sound, many technicians will try and voice pianos to this type of a balance.
Rich / Complex
A rich or complex sound is a tone in which many people hear both an enhanced bass tone and an enhanced treble tone.  This is very much like a ‘Bass / Treble’ boost on your iPad or stereo.  Because there are many emphasized partials in a sound like this, some people find this tone more interesting to listen to than others.
Clear / Sustaining
Clear / Sustaining: This is a very difficult element of tone to achieve, and can be present with other elements of tone.  To achieve clarity, many factors must be in place – a high level of manufacturing quality so that tolerances don’t allow for unevenness in the scale design, false beating, etc; a high quality soundboard must be there so that grain and glue does not distort the sound or cause unnecessary loss of energy; the hammers must be voiced perfectly; and the strings must be of extremely high quality and evenness.  A clear sound is often what people will describe a piano which exhibits both Ideal Sustain, as well as a complex tone.

Understanding touch is, like sound, highly subjective.  However, customers consistently tell us how helpful it was to have at least a basic understanding about what’s going on ‘under the hood’ of the piano.  These are some common descriptions of various pianos’ actions, and what mechanics are likely creating that impression.

Heavy/Light

A heavy action refers to either the real OR perceived resistance that the keys offer your fingers.  We say ‘perceived’ because a piano with limited dynamic range and responsiveness will always be perceived as ‘heavier’ than one with lots of dynamic potential, because the player is constantly trying to play harder to achieve the desired volume (and therefore it becomes ‘harder’ to play).  In most cases, though, the action is either poorly lubricated or has not been designed or set up well.  Actions should always produce about 50 grams of resistance (give or take a few grams), as 300 years of tradition has dictated that this is the ideal balance between ease of use as well as control.  Sometimes lubricating an action will help ease a heavy action; however, often the key weight is highly innate to the instrument, and cannot be modified that substantially.

A light action feel is also produced by the same factors as a heavy one, and can also be real or perceived.  A piano which is highly responsive with lots of dynamic potential will normally be described as lighter to the touch, regardless of whether the actual weight is lighter, because people find themselves getting more volume out of the instrument for the same effort, and therefore they reduce their efforts, making the piano seem ‘light’.  Just like a heavy action, a light action can also be caused by mechanical error, either in construction or design.  An action which is too light will reduce one’s ability to control the piano, and in some cases also reduce the repetition speed.

The advent of composite materials in actions has increased the consistency of which manufacturers are able to deliver extremely well balanced, properly weighted actions, at lower price points.  Whereas a composite or wood action can both be finely tuned to an extremely and equally high level in the hands of a master, many manufacturers have found a welcome consistency in composites when factory preparation is less flexible.

Sluggish
A sluggish action is an expression we often hear from customers when the repetition speed of an action is very slow.  A very good grand action should be able to repeat close to, or above, 10 times per second.  When an action is not balanced properly, or poorly lubricated, this will be much slower, causing many notes to not sound – particularly in fast passages.
Responsive / Crisp
When a very good action is well prepared and regulated to the highest tolerances, a player may feel extremely ‘connected’ to the piano, because there is a high level of accuracy between what they are doing with their fingers and what the hammers are doing.  On many actions which are either of poor design or in a poor state of preparation, a combination of tiny gaps, lost motion, inconsistency between keys, and unnatural balance will cause the player to feel like the piano is not ‘doing what they are telling it to do’.  When a player comments on a piano’s responsiveness, they are often trying to describe the sensation of feeling very little mechanical ‘filtering’ going on between the music and their fingers.

 

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