CERTAIN TECHNICAL FEATURES of pianos are frequently the subject of sales talk, either to persuade you to buy a particular piano, to upgrade to a more costly model, or to not buy a competitor's piano. Untangling the truth from the salesmanship can be difficult, sometimes even for professionals in the business. The important differences in quality between brands are more often in subtleties of design and attention to detail than in advertised features, and even where meaningful features are involved, they are easily manipulated by advertising. The Piano Book explains in some detail many popular piano features and how they are sometimes misused in sales talk. Here I discuss just three examples: laminated versus solid soundboards, wet-sand-cast versus vacuum-cast plates, and issues related to the wood used in grand piano rims.
At the heart of some of these discussions is the fact that the piano industry — particularly the high end of the business — is very conservative, in large part because consumers are spending a lot of money to buy something they know little about and thus are easily scared away from anything that departs from the "old-fashioned" way of doing things. In addition, the purchase of a high-end piano is often the expression of a conservative part of one's nature — the desire to invest in something enduring and traditional, not cheap or trendy.
Because the design and construction practices used in making the best pianos have evolved over a long period of time, a certain wisdom is embodied in them that should not be too quickly tossed aside. But it must also be remembered that most of these practices are a century old and evolved under certain technological and economic constraints, some of which no longer exist. In other words, there may be better ways of doing things now that are not being pursued for reasons that have no basis in logic. The low end of the piano market is less constrained by this conservatism, but is still influenced by it.
One of the choices you may need to make among consumer-grade pianos is that between a solid spruce soundboard and a laminated soundboard. First, it must be said about this and any other tone-related technical issue that if the piano sounds good, you needn't question why — just enjoy it! However, since the technical issue may be raised by the salesperson (usually in the context of steering you toward or away from a piano with a laminated soundboard), you may want to know more.
Traditionally, the soundboards in all pianos have been made in the form of a solid sheet of vertical-grain (quartersawn) spruce. This solid spruce soundboard, as it is called, is made by gluing many narrow planks of spruce together, edge to edge. The soundboards of all performance-grade and many upper-level and mid-range consumer-grade pianos are still made this way. The soundboard is bent into a slightly convex shape, called crown, to better resist the downward pressure of the strings and to enhance the tone. Over many years' time, the wood gradually dries and shrinks, causing the crown to flatten or disappear and cracks to form. Although sometimes the problem is primarily cosmetic, if severe enough it can and often does affect the instrument's tone. Usually it takes decades for this to happen, but in very dry indoor climates, problems of this sort can occur even within the warranty period.
It was in large part to lessen warranty costs from prematurely cracking soundboards that, in the 1960s, several manufacturers developed laminated soundboards. These soundboards were essentially sheets of plywood. The sandwich of wood and glue prevented the soundboard from cracking or losing crown. The problems with these soundboards were three-fold: First, the pianos into which they were installed were usually the cheapest, and deficient in a variety of ways unrelated to the soundboard. Second, engineers failed to take into account in its design that a plywood soundboard would have different vibrating characteristics from a solid one. Third, although sometimes spruce was used in the plywood, often cheap, inappropriate woods such as basswood or lauan were used, disguised by an outer veneer of spruce. As a result of these three factors, these pianos usually sounded poor, giving the term "laminated soundboard" a bad name. Laminated soundboards of the plywood type are still used by a few manufacturers.
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