1)Aural vs. electronic tuning
The Aural VS. Electronic Tuning Controversy: One Piano Tuner's Opinion
Years ago, there was a front page article in the Los Angeles Times which featured two of the better known piano tuners, one of them a strictly aural type of tuner and the other, who while he started as an aural tuner, "defected" to the electronic camp (though he never really abandoned the aural since that had been his background). But each was arguing the merits of his approach and presumably the demerits of the opposing approach.
As someone who was also "aurally fixated" for the first eleven years of my career, then rather reluctantly made the change to the use of an electronic device, it's my opinion that the combination of the two results in the most optimal tunings attainable. The ear can only hope to attain the kind of accuracy a machine yields provided that the user is relying upon one of the mainstream electronic tuning devices available on the market (and the current ones are indeed quite accurate). I use either of two (the Cybertuner and Tunelab) and can attest to their highly accurate output. They succeed in creating the kind of stretched octaves and/or intervals(i.e., tenths, seventeenths)that an accurate tuning must have.
By the same token, relying only on a machine is undesirable. The ear alone in my experience creates better results where unison tuning is concerned because the most infinitesimal deviations shown in the readings taken by the machines create less than optimal results in the tuning of the strings for individual notes (there will be an "out of tune" quality in the sound which any bona fide piano tech should recognize).
I don't intend to change anyone's mind about which is better in the end but instead to inform the reader of my experience with both approaches during the thirty seven years I've been doing this.
2)Eleven of the most popular American brands with added commentary on European pianos
1) Steinway--The official "Cadillac" of American pianos, having a reputation earned by virtue of the number of concert pianists who play and endorse it. Has the lion share of patents as well and featured in the recently released film "Note by Note" which showed the one year construction of a concert grand model. Models made in the 70's and 80's during the time CBS owned it weren't considered so great because of changes made in the action (using Teflon bushings in the action centers). But they've regained the excellence they formerly had. But this quality comes with a fairly high price tag. The current Steinway dealership in Los Angeles is a veritable, high class piano salon and well worth the trip just to visit and check out.
2) Mason & Hamlin--While not having the reputation of the Steinways. in many players' opinion, this brand still ranks up there with Steinway based on the tone and action. Even with its patented tension resonator (a spoke-like constructed device designed to reinforce the stability of the inner rim), it was never marketed as aggressively as Steinway so many are unaware of its deservedly high quality. In my experience, the best were made in the "Golden Era" of piano making(from the 20's though the 50's) and then regained their excellence beginning with the 90's.
3) Baldwin--Another of the mainstream pianos (Liberace reportedly owned five), it had been endorsed by a number of concert players but due to loss of sales, declared bankruptcy a few years back and was acquired by Fender Gibson, the well known guitar manufacturer. It manufactured two popular upright models, the Hamilton model(considered an "institutional" brand because it became fairly widespread in schools) and also the Acrosonic spinet which was very popular among the smaller uprights.
4) Chickering--The chief rival to Steinway in the 19th century because it was made so well (Jonas Chickering, the founder, also had a patent on the cast iron frame), it became one of the mainstream fine pianos. However, like the aforementioned Mason & Hamlin and other brands, it was for a number of years under the umbrella of the Aeolian Co., a period during which(at least in my opinion)American pianos were of a lesser quality.
5) Knabe--Designated as the "official piano of the Metropolitan opera", appropriately enough because it has a rather nice "singing" quality to it. And like Steinway, Chickering and Mason & Hamlin these are good candidates for rebuilding or restoration(moreso since the best were manufactured from the early 20th Century through the 50's). Their website indicates that the current models are made by Samick, a Korean manufacturer.
6) Yamaha--Always a reliable "workhorse" model, I've often called them a really fine "generic" piano as well. It ranks high, however, because the fine construction results in a good tone and very even action. They're very popular in studios and nightclubs. They have, however, become more expensive over the years. As a result, buyers often consider purchasing the cheaper "grey market" edition which have already been in use in Japan prior to being exported elsewhere.
7) Kawai--On a par with Yamaha(depending of course on who you ask), they have experienced a noticeable improvement since they first arrived on the American scene. Some of the current RX series are really nice and noticeably mellower sounding than the earlier models. For those on a tighter budget, all the models are less expensive than the comparably sized Yamahas.
8) Kimball--The "Chevy" of American pianos, these were easily one of the most manufactured of the American brands. Many of the old uprights had an attractive tiger oak veneer but the much later consoles and spinets from the 70's were a practical investment since they were quite affordable. During the 70's they came out with a laminated soundboard in the grands as a means of making the boards sturdier and thus less susceptible to cracking in more severe climate conditions.
9) Wurlitzer--If Kimball is the Chevy then Wurlitzer would certainly qualify as the "Ford" of American pianos. The spinet was particularly popular in the 50's. Like other American pianos, however, it's in the 70's that there's a noticeable decline in the overall quality(this wasn't just from a decline in craftsmanship however, because there was a ban on the use of buckskin and the substitute parts created new problems such as sticking keys).
10) Young Chang--Probably among the first and then most popular of the South Korean pianos to enter the U.S. market in the 80's. It was quite affordable but these early models had a number of mechanical issues that kept techs blessed with more work to do. It was, however when Joseph Pramberger from Steinway came on board that they then witnessed a vast improvement in the overall quality. He passed away and the company then made pianos with the Pramberger label.
11) Samick--The other Korean Manufactured piano, like Young Chang had a number of mechanical problems with it and it was the addition of a German technician, Klaus Fenner, which improved the condition of the piano to a considerable degree. Like Young Chang(and even the more recent Chinese arrivals), these are now fairly decent and affordable instruments. Very suitable as "starter" pianos for those parents who want their children to begin studying piano but not unsure of how it might turn out.
12) European pianos (including Bosendorfer, Bechstein, Bluthner, Hamburg Steinway, Steingraeber, and Fazioli) all show just what true craftsmanship is all about. I was privileged to visit a number of their factories in the summer of '79 and I can attest to the high premium placed on quality where no expense is spared to achieve superlative results (which is but a reflection of the traditional European emphasis on high quality production itself). They do, however, have a mellower sound than their Asian and American counterparts which is quite suitable for certain repertoire (notably Chopin, Liszt, Debussy) but might not be considered suitable for pianists wanting a more percussive sound(creating a dramatic rendition of the Rachmaninoff concertos). But I'll acknowledge that this is also a subjective judgment since some of the world's most renowed concert and jazz pianists(Victor Borge, Garrick Ohlsson, Oscar Peterson) were faithful devotees of the Bosendorfer.
When attending the NAMM trade show over the years, I've observed so many changes with the above brand names(stemming from acquisitions and what not) that by the time you've read this, some of the above information might very well have changed.
3)Humidity control: Is it really necessary?
It has been my experience that there is a definite place for humidity control devices, the
chief one being the Dampp-Chaser. True, the climate changes in the Los Angeles area
aren't as extreme as that found on the East coast(where the REALLY major fluctuations
in dryness/humidity will easily wreak immediate havoc on a piano's tuning and more seriously
such components as the soundboard, treble/bass bridges and the pinblock). So if you
reside in Malibu or Santa Monica you'd be justifiably concerned with the effect of dampness
and in the outlying desert areas such as Palmdale it would be dryness.
However, time and again I've seen the Dampp-Chaser installed in pianos where such
changes are hardly enough to warrant the additional investment. There's not necessarily
any harm rendered to the piano except for those instances, fortunately quite rare, where the
installation was clearly incomplete; the tech has failed to install a component called the
"humidistat" with the result that there's now a real problem with the surrounding air
becoming altogether much too dry. When I encountered this with one piano, it was terribly
out of tune and I recognized immediately that the chronic overdryness had adversely
affected the soundboard sufficient enough to flatten it enough to lessen the string tension.
This would be tantamount to a piano tuner "untuning" a piano when lessening the strings' tension
just by using the tuning hammer on the tuning pin to flatten the pitch.
My own advice to a customer approached by a tech about this is to pose questions about the
need or desirability of having it. If you the customer already have an established good
professional relationship with the tech, and it's quite clear that the degree of ambient
instability in the room where the piano's located is excessive, by all means make that added
investment. But a first time tech who comes across like a used car salesmen might very well
be selling you something clearly unnecessary(and as I indicated above, an improper installation
will wind up making things worse).
4) Piano longevity
I'm sometimes asked about piano "longevity" implying that an average piano like an average
human being will have a finite lifespan. But then I usually reply saying, "your piano will be here
long after we're not." You see, any decent piano, not subject to abuse(which includes not just
acts of vandalism but subjecting the instrument to the harshest weather changes imaginable)could
quite readily last to at least a hundred years and more. Even pianos neglected(mostly through
no ongoing maintenance such as tuning and basic repair) will still hold up quite well. Granted that
the ones neglected for a long time are susceptible to string breakage when finally tuned, yet the
old uprights and grands I've so often encountered in the course of my career that were made like tanks
were built in this fashion because the makers clearly intended them to survive for such a long time.
It will usually take a major catastrophe to put an irreversible end to a piano's life; the piano becomes
a victim to a natural disaster and at that point it becomes debatable whether it's worth the investment
to have it restored as much as possible to its prior condition. Assuming there's not a complete destruction,
certain makes(i.e., Steinways)might be worth it because of their long term market value or because they
were made with such fine craftsmanship that they could qualify as works of art. And in some cases,
a piano's sentimental value means enough to the owner so that would warrant a restoration.
At any rate, a reputable rebuilder should properly advise you whether a restoration is warranted and if
so, to what degree(i.e., to replace the soundboard or not, to install a new pinblock or not).
Links to piano related items
A complete source for piano information - www.pianoworld.com
A great source for piano purchases and sales - www.craigslist.org
A very good moving company in town - www.fjpianos.com
Another fine piano moving company-Teo Garcia, (323)585-3651
I might be able to assist you to find a good piano teacher.