Regulation & Voicing: What Buyers of Performance-Quality Pianos Should Know
(Editor’s Note: We prefer to keep articles in Piano Buyer as nontechnical as possible, in order to make them accessible to the largest number of readers. However, to satisfy the needs of more advanced pianists, we occasionally publish pieces that are slightly more technical, such as this one.)
REGULATION AND VOICING — the work of preparing a piano so that its touch and tone are even and beautiful — require a combination of painstaking technical adjustments and artistic considerations. Without this preparation, even the finest instrument is reduced to little more than a collection of parts, almost certain to disappoint. As a purchaser of a performance-quality piano, you have a much better chance of finding a suitable instrument if you have a basic understanding of these subjects.
Many pianists believe a piano’s action or tone can’t be changed, or that the performance quality of a piano or action is determined solely by its brand. But any piano’s action can go out of regulation, become dirty and worn, suffer from neglect, or merely vary within a normal range — top-rated brands are no exceptions. Many wonderful instruments, new and used, are rejected by buyers because a lack of recent or competent service — or both — is disguising their true potential. Many a hidden gem is available to the buyer who asks the right questions, and can find the right technician to solve an instrument’s problems.
Steinway & Sons pianos made in Hamburg, Germany, are considered among the finest instruments in the world. In the past several months, however, I have worked on three Hamburg Steinways, each of which had different problems that made it unsatisfactory to its owner. The solutions to their problems reveal much about action regulation and voicing in performance-quality instruments in general — but before introducing the pianos, I’ll discuss the analysis and procedures used to solve these kinds of problems.
Analysis and Procedures
The technician must first assess what the piano needs, and then, taking into account the customer’s goals and budget, make recommendations. The solution can range from a touchup regulation to a complete replacement of the action. If the owner’s budget is slim, I try to first perform the least expensive and most effective steps, to mitigate the most serious problems. Usually I will regulate a sample key or section to show the customer what the results are likely to be, installing samples of new action parts where appropriate.
In explaining to clients how I address problems in piano regulation and voicing, I divide the subject into several sections:
Unless friction problems are solved prior to regulation, little real progress will be made. A piano’s action contains thousands of friction points, mostly in places where pieces of cloth, felt, or leather serve as buffers between metal pins and wood. Too much friction can slow the working of the action and create what feels like extra weight in the key. The main culprits are dirty friction points, which make the action sluggish; the solution is to clean or replace the dirty parts and lubricate friction points. Knowing what to lubricate and which lubricants to use takes experience. Lubricants such as WD-40, oil, and wax can ruin a piano action, so don’t try to do this yourself.
As part of the friction-control process, action centers — the points around which action parts pivot — must be repinned where necessary to correct inconsistencies in action-center friction. In very old pianos, especially New York Steinways of certain eras, buildups of verdigris — a greenish corrosion of the metal center pins in the action centers — can greatly stiffen the action parts, making them unplayable. In most such cases, these parts will need to be replaced.