All Pianos have their own individual character and tone. Some might be described as “bright” or “metallic” others as “warm” or “wooden” and others as “rich and full” or “thin and percussive”.
The manufacturer of the piano has established a template for the basic character of this tone and can be adjusted and modified to better fit into the environment or room that it resides in or restore the manufacturers designed tone if has declined with age.
What is different between tuning and voicing anyway?
I am even after 43 years in this industry still surprised that many pianists and teachers do not understand that pianos need more than just the tuning of its 230+- strings. Tuning a piano is like changing the oil in a car, it is a necessary maintenance of the correct frequency and pitch to the modern standard of A440. Voicing is the adjustment and manipulation of the 88 hammers that strike the strings which affects the pianos quality of sound and character.
A Pianos tone can be adjusted without affecting the pitch just like the bass and treble on a stereo system or amplifier. The experienced Piano Tech can “voice” your piano to change its character and tone to “fit” your environment and room acoustics. Results are dependent of course on the quality of the pianos condition and age.
What kind of sound or tone do I want?
Is there a perfect piano sound? Everyone has a different perception of what kind of piano sound pleases them due to their exposure and education in music. There can be acquired taste to piano tone akin to comparing different wine varietals and being exposed to new ones and discerning if one likes it or not. A warm wooden tone is probably not going to find pleasure with one who listens to Rock N Roll Music which prefers a bright metallic and percussive tone. As we all have varied interests in music finding a piano that can meet and adjust to all styles of music you enjoy is one to seek for. Each environment is different, each piano is composed of thousands of parts made of metal, wood, carbon fiber, felt and wool all of which contribute to the final tone result. Do you have hardwood floors or carpet? Lots of glass and reflective surfaces? Is the Lid open or closed? These will all factor into the sound produced by the piano.
Each key has a hammer that will wear with use and age. These are made of felt molded and shaped around a wooden “hammer” aligned to the assigned strings of each note. As these hammers compact and wear with playing the tone is altered and becomes brighter and louder handicapping the pianist of a full range of expression. I have seen many young pianists struggle to play soft passages as it becomes more difficult to control when playing lightly and quietly when they have a piano that has these characteristics.
Do I need to Voice my Piano?
A new pianos sound starts changing as soon as you start playing it. When purchasing a previously owned instrument you are also acquiring a template that was established by the previous owner and environment.
You might have heard of a “break-in” period? Is your piano being played by a beginner whose first 2-3 years of piano playing reside in the middle octaves of the piano breaking in that section and leaving the outer octaves untouched making the balance of the sound uneven from bass to treble. Also over time the felt compacts, hammers get out of alignment to the strings and results in a brighter, louder sound making it more difficult to play softly. Your dynamic range from piano to forte also diminishes your ability to “dig in” so to speak as a pianos tone character changes from mellow to bright when one strikes the keys with more force.
What is the procedure for Voicing my piano?
The goal of this process is to improve the tone of the piano and tuning is the first step.
Voicing a piano requires it to be in tune so that your technician can hear the pure and subtle nuances of each hammer as it strikes the strings. Other factors that need to be considered towards this goal is the regulation of the action, alignment of hammers to the strings, string condition (especially in the copper wound bass strings) and termination points.
Once tuned the hammer shape needs to be addressed. Your technician would use sandpaper
to remove grooves and bring back the hammer closer to its original rounded shape. This is only if the hammer has enough felt left (age a factor here) to be able to accomplish this.
After reshaping and aligning the hammers to the strings to make sure you are getting a complete strike your tech might need to adjust the brightness and balance of the tone with a process called needling. The tech would insert one or more needles in specific areas of the crown and shoulder of the hammer. Where and with what results are achieved is a culmination of many years of experience of doing this. This is why I would caution one to hire a tech that is a registered piano TECHNICIAN and not just any piano TUNER. This is like the difference between someone that changes your oil (Tuner) and one that would rebuild and adjust your car engine (Technician)
Another way to change the character of the tone through the hammer is with a chemical treatment especially when building “up” the tone on mellow or soft hammers.
Once the overall tone is acceptable, individual notes are voiced to evenly balance the
keyboard from bass to treble.
If the only piano service you have had on your instrument is tuning, the sound could definitely be improved by voicing.