After a piano is assembled, and while it’s still at the factory, it will be tuned and musically adjusted—that is, converted from an assemblage of parts into a functioning musical instrument. Generally speaking, as the quality and price of a piano rise, so do the amounts of tuning and adjusting that take place during manufacture. However, most pianos are not adjusted at the factory to 100% of their musical capability. Even if one were, the jostling and environmental changes that occur during the shipping of the instrument from the factory would ensure that it would arrive at the dealer in less than optimal condition. Bringing the instrument back to the level of musicality intended by the manufacturer is the responsibility of the dealer—or, once the piano has settled into its new home, of the buyer’s technician. Any such work performed by the dealer before the piano is delivered to the customer is known as dealer preparation, or dealer prep.
A new piano typically takes a year or two to stabilize—for the strings to stop stretching, and for the bridges, soundboard, and structure to stop settling. During that time, of course, the piano will also be responding to seasonal—and sometimes daily—changes in humidity, as all acoustic pianos do. For these reasons, keeping the piano in tune on the dealer’s showroom floor can be a challenge. Part of dealer prep consists of tuning the piano a few times while it’s on display. New pianos should also be tuned immediately before delivery to the customer, and again within a month or two after delivery, after the piano has had some time to acclimate to its new environment. The more the piano has been tuned by the dealer, the less frequently it will need to be tuned by the customer in the first year or two after purchase.
A piano is said to have as many as 12,000 parts (it depends on how you count them), and most of them are the moving parts of the piano’s key-and-action assembly. The accuracy of this assembly, and its fine adjustment—known as action regulation—significantly affect the quality of the piano’s performance.
Most of the major piano manufacturers take steps to stabilize the action regulation before the piano leaves the factory, usually with “pounding” machines that play each note hundreds of times. This compresses the many cloth and felt action parts, and also helps stabilize the tuning. After this breaking-in process, the action requires regulating to restore its original design dimensions. This stabilization process continues on the dealer’s showroom floor as potential buyers play the instrument and the dealer touches up the regulation as needed, due to additional settling and environmental changes. The pianos that spend the most time on the dealer’s floor before being sold are likely to have the most stable regulation when delivered to the customer. Pianos that receive less playing-in or regulating before sale may need regulating by the customer sooner to perform their best.
The tonal quality of the piano can be optimized by adjusting the hardness and density of the hammer felt, improving the accuracy of the strings’ termination points, and adjusting the strike points of the hammers on the strings—all parts of a process called voicing. While even the most skilled piano technician can’t make an entry-level piano sound like a performance instrument, tone and touch in even the least expensive pianos can usually be significantly improved through regulation and voicing. This is true for both grands and uprights, although the potential for improved performance is usually greater for grands. However, rather than make wholesale changes in timbre between bright and mellow, which can take hours or even days, most voicing done as part of dealer prep is intended to merely even out the tone from note to note, which can be done in a matter of minutes.
Finish Polishing and Touchup
Almost all pianos arriving in a crate or box will need some polishing to remove slight blemishes caused by the packing materials. Larger dents or dings can also usually be fixed by skilled technicians to be virtually undetectable. Buyers should keep in mind, however, that if you look closely enough, it’s possible to find slight blemishes on almost any piano—perfection is not an option.
A Multi-Level Approach to Dealer Prep
To describe the appropriate levels of dealer prep, it’s helpful to divide the piano market into three segments: economy-priced instruments (e.g., Cristofori; Hardman, Peck; Pearl River); mid-priced instruments (e.g., most consumer-grade models from Baldwin, Kawai, and Yamaha), and high-end instruments (e.g., Bechstein, Bösendorfer, Steinway).
Economy pianos are designed to satisfy the needs of the beginning student (the first two to three years) or casual user, and to do so for a relatively low price. At a minimum, an economy piano in the dealer’s showroom should be in tune, holding a tuning reasonably well, and its tone should be clear and uniform across the keyboard. Keys, hammers, and other parts should be assembled with uniform spacing, and the keyboard should be level. While it’s worth performing a basic level of regulation and voicing on an economy piano, it’s generally not cost-effective to do a fussier job, not only because of the piano’s low price, but also because the additional refinement usually won’t result in musical improvement significant enough to be worthwhile.
A complete dealer prep of a mid-priced instrument includes the standards of the economy prep. In addition, the action should be regulated so that it is easily controlled even during the fast passages and varying volumes attempted by an advancing, intermediate-level student. It should repeat as rapidly as a reasonably accomplished amateur pianist can play. In simple terms, the piano should be voiced to optimally sound the way it was designed to sound, uniformly mellow or bright as the case may be. Many mid-priced instruments, especially those made in Japan, are prepped very well at the factory to the standards described above, and these popular instruments disappear quickly from the dealer’s floor. Therefore, they’re likely to need the least dealer prep of all three segments of the market.
Many brands of high-end piano receive extensive prep at the factory and arrive at the dealer in impeccable condition, hardly needing tuning. From this, one might conclude that these instruments need little or no dealer prep, but this turns out not to be necessarily true because:
These pianos, with their high prices, appeal to only a small segment of buyers, so they may sit on dealers’ showroom floors for months, even years—all that time having their tuning, regulation, and voicing touched up as needed.
Buyers of these instruments are often accomplished pianists who won’t tolerate anything short of an exacting amount of optimization, and may additionally make special requests to suit their individual musical preferences.
The high-end design of these instruments will amply reward with superior musical results any additional musical finishing work done on them by a good technician.
The optimal dealer prep of a performance-grade piano should enable the piano to perform almost beyond human capabilities. That is, it should provide control greater than most accomplished, professional pianists can play, and it should leave all players wishing they could play better. In particular, it should enable the pianist to control dynamics (volume) such that very soft passages can be played with greatly controlled nuance, to repeat notes as rapidly as needed, and to take advantage of every musical advantage offered by the instrument’s scale design.
Here are a few examples of pieces that require extreme repetition speed coupled with great control of dynamics. A high-end piano should be capable of executing these pieces (provided, of course, that the pianist is capable of playing them!):
When being prepped for the showroom prior to sale, the high-end instrument should, in addition to being finely regulated, be voiced to represent the characteristic tone of its brand as closely as possible. If the factory voicing was sufficient in this regard, it should be left alone or only slightly touched up. This is because buyers of these instruments are often familiar with—and expect—a certain sound from a particular brand, and may not be happy to find one brand voiced, usually unsuccessfully, in an attempt to make it sound like another. Once an instrument is sold, however, the buyer should be encouraged to provide input on voicing decisions; the pre- and post-delivery service of the high-end piano will be determined by a combination of the technician’s judgment and the buyer’s taste.
Post-delivery service of a high-end piano will usually include a couple of service calls within the first year, for tuning, touch-up regulation, and voicing.
To a certain extent, the levels of dealer prep described above represent ideals; the reality may be quite different. Some of the factors that may interfere with these ideals include:
Pianos arrive on the dealer’s showroom floor in widely varying conditions, depending in part on how long the instruments have been in inventory at the manufacturer, in a distributor’s warehouse, or in the dealer’s own storage area.
Some dealers have technicians on staff; others contract out for technical services. The technicians, especially if under contract, may not always be available precisely when they’re most needed. This means that some pianos may remain on the floor unprepped for a long time following delivery, or untuned after a seasonal change in humidity has put all the pianos out of tune. It also means that if you’re fussy about your pianos, it helps to call the dealership in advance to let them know what you’re looking for, so they can schedule a technician to touch up a few instruments in preparation for your visit.
It’s not cost-effective for a dealer to do a perfect job of prepping every instrument. In the case of low-priced pianos that arrive needing a lot of work, the dealer may do nothing more than make sure that there are no obvious mechanical problems, that the piano is reasonably in tune, and perhaps even out the voicing a bit, if badly needed.
Although, in theory, a dealer can significantly change the tone of a piano through voicing, practically speaking, the dealer can’t be expected to completely revoice a piano to suit a customer until after the customer has bought the instrument. It’s prohibitively expensive to completely revoice, and could result in a tone that other prospective buyers don’t care for. Therefore, it’s best for a buyer to find a piano whose tone is a pretty close match to his or her ideal. The dealer will then usually be happy to even out the tone a little from note to note, if needed.
Can I Safely Buy a Piano “Out of the Crate”?
Although the online sale of even such high-ticket items as acoustic pianos is not yet common, the world is trending in that direction. If a piano is sold this way by a dealer who’s performed proper dealer prep, and who then hires a technician in the buyer’s area to provide post-delivery service, this may work out just fine. But occasionally we hear of a manufacturer selling or shipping directly to consumers, delivering pianos to buyers in the manufacturer’s packaging and bypassing the dealer—and the dealer prep—entirely. Although a local technician hired by the manufacturer can provide some of this prep work, the manufacturer is unlikely to pay for numerous service calls over an extended period of time—especially for the economy brands, which are most likely to be sold directly to the consumer. As a result, when the additional service is accounted for, the buyer may end up paying much more than he or she bargained for, or might forgo the service and be left with an instrument that never performs well.
In a similar vein, some shoppers at bricks-and-mortar piano stores request a new piano fresh out of the crate instead of a “floor sample,” based on the misconception that a crated piano must be in perfect condition, whereas a piano that has been handled by the dealer and other shoppers is somehow compromised. In reality, the opposite is true: The extra tunings, the small amount of breaking-in of the action by prospective buyers, the optimizing of regulation and voicing by the dealer’s technician, a little attention to cosmetics—all provide value to the wise shopper, who thus will always prefer a floor model to an unseen instrument still in its crate or box. Also, because acoustic pianos—even ones of identical make and model—tend to vary slightly from one another in their musical characteristics, choosing a floor model you’ve actually played will ensure that you receive an instrument with the sound and touch you expect.
It’s possible that some mid-priced pianos, especially Japanese-made uprights, may lend themselves better than other types to being delivered to the customer “out of the crate,” especially if the sale is followed by one or two service calls within six months for tuning and touch-up regulation and voicing. However, even with these brands, this is not a good way to buy a piano. Service calls to a customer’s home are much more expensive for the dealer than having the work done at the store, so even if the manufacturer or dealer provides post-delivery service for a piano uncrated in the home, that service is usually limited to the minimum needed to make the piano playable. In addition, many home-service technicians aren’t capable of performing cosmetic repairs, and movers will be unwilling to take responsibility for cosmetic issues that aren’t evident in exterior damage to the crate, so some of the risk of poor landed (delivered) quality is likely to be borne by the buyer. For all these reasons, the service departments of brands that are sometimes sold this way report that customers who buy a piano out of the crate are more likely than others to say they are unhappy with their purchase.
Good dealer prep results in an instrument that performs at or near its musical potential. Why pay for a fine instrument and settle for anything less?
Steve Cohen owns Jasons Music Center, a third-generation, family-owned piano dealer in Pasadena, Maryland, and has been a consultant to the piano industry for over 40 years. His clients have included Bechstein, Samick, Yamaha, and Young Chang, among others. He is also Piano Buyer’s Contributing Editor and Piano Industry Consultant, and lead appraiser for our Seller Advisory Service.