STEINWAY DIFFERENT SOUND, WHY?
Posted on January 18th, 2015
STEINWAY DIFFERENT SOUND, WHY?
STEINWAY DIFFERENT SOUND, why? by Manila Pianos Inc.
There was a time in the Golden Era of American pianos before WWII when there were hundreds of piano manufacturers in this country. Today there are only 3 left:
- Steinway which makes about 2000 pianos a year
- Mason & Hamlin which produces about 250 pianos a year
- Charles Walter which makes less around 65 pianos per year
It can be confusing going to piano stores because there are dozens of American names stenciled on Asian production pianos. If furniture is the most important consideration, these instruments are available for very little money. American pianos cost 5 or 6 times as much as Chinese pianos which look similar.
So why do people invest so much money for American pianos? There are primarily 2 reasons:
- Quality of sound and touch
- Longevity of investment
Even the best of the Asian production pianos, Japanese made Yamaha and Kawai (they also have factories in Indonesia and China) are best new out of the box. Because of the soft woods indigenous to the region, use of particle board and plastic in construction, and different method of plate production these instruments are best bought new since their lifespan is limited. Also, because they are available for relatively low cost, rebuilding doesn’t make financial sense for these instruments.
SOFT WOODS: The body of Asian pianos are made from softer luan mahogany. This is important because the body of the piano supports the sound board.
SOUND BOARD: The sound board of the piano is the heart of the instrument. It is the thin wood membrane beneath the strings which is responsible for the tone of the piano. It is like the top of a violin or guitar. Sometimes a sound board will crack and buzzes can occur. These can usually be fixed by highly skilled piano technicians using shims and refinishing the board. This is only possible if the piano is being rebuilt since the strings and plate of the piano must be removed. However, hairline cracks in a sound board are a normal part of aging in most parts of the country. What is essential to a sound board is crown.
CROWN: Sound boards are built into the piano under pressure causing a slight upward arching. This is what enables power and sustain of the tone. In time sound boards can flatten out and lose crown. In this case, you can rebuild the piano with new strings, hammers and such, but you will never achieve a satisfactory sound. While sound boards can be replaced, it is very expensive. And you end up with essentially a new piano. In fact in Europe, pianos which have replaced sound boards may not legally have the name of the original manufacturer on the front of the piano!
PLATE: There are 2 methods of manufacturing the cast iron plate which supports the 8-14 tons of combined string tension inside a piano.
- Wet sand casting: This is the method employed by handmade piano manufacturers like Steinway, Baldwin, Mason & Hamlin as well as the best European pianos. It takes approximately 3 months for the metal to cure.
- Vacuum mold process: A much faster way to make a plate (about 90 seconds) this method is used in the vast majority of Asian production pianos like Yamaha, Kawai and the many Chinese stencil brands with American names on the front.
While the strength of the vacuum mold plates is sufficient to support the string tension, the metal is less dense. As a result, there is a metallic resonance to the sound which pianos with wet sand cast plates don’t have. That is why Yamaha is often the choice of rock and pop artists. The sound will cut through a mix better than a Steinway or other American made piano.