How to Amplify a Piano

I recently tuned a baby grand piano for a local, well-known performance art venue. The venue was about to host a multiple Grammy Award winning artist, and called me in to tune and check over the piano. The piano wasn’t in the greatest shape, but the tuning went smooth enough. As I was finishing, an employee of the venue walked over to the piano with a vocal microphone in hand, stuck the mic in a random spot inside the piano, and asked me to play something so that they could sound check.

I looked at him quizzically, played a quick tune, and then started to gather my things. Before I left, I found my contact person at the venue and attempted to explain to him that “That…. is not how you mic a piano.” I gave him a few tips and left. I returned later that night to see the show and was wholly unsurprised that anything outside a small range in the treble section was practically inaudible, not to mention being able to hear the vibration of the plate that was being transferred directly to the mic.

A piano is a very difficult instrument to amplify well. There are many reasons for this. Pianos are not built with amplification in mind; they work best as a solo instrument in small to meduim size spaces. When playing along with other instruments or in very large spaces, the sound of an acoustic piano can very easily be lost.

The area that a piano’s sound is emanated from is almost as large as the piano itself. There is no obvious placement for a microphone like there would be for a guitar or a trumpet. Additionally, high and low frequencies are located at opposite ends of the instrument and cannot both be captured well by a single mic. During performances with other amplified instruments, the piano, even at close range, may be quieter than the ambient noise in the room which will basically cause any acoustic microphone to amplify the room instead of the piano.

I am not a sound engineer so I won't get into all of the ways that professionals amplify their pianos, but many other piano technicians that I’ve spoken to recommend the Helpinstill piano microphone. This system utilizes multiple magnetic sensor bars placed in close proximity to the strings that act similar to an electric guitar pickup. This system results in zero feedback and clear sound from the full length of the keyboard.

Since a Helpinstill system is not cheap, it can be cost prohibitive to install one. Luckily, there are plenty of resources out there describing ways to get good sound out of a piano using a type of microphone you are more likely to already own. This website has an almost-overwhelming amount of information on the subject.

 

 


See more of my blog posts here

Hantavirus

A deermouse.  (via Wikipedia)

A deermouse.  (via Wikipedia)

Five years ago, I spent a few days hiking in Yosemite National Park with my family.  A few days after we left, the National Park Service put out a notice of an outbreak of Hantavirus – a disease transmitted by air and hosted by mice.  This was the first time I had ever heard of this virus with nearly a 40% fatality rate.

The relevance of this virus to piano tuners and piano owners is that old pianos often serve a second purpose as mouse hotels.  Even if you haven't seen any mice around your house, if you haven't physically opened up your piano in the past few years and checked for mice nests or droppings, there is more than a slim chance that mice live or have lived in your piano.  I would say that over 25% of upright pianos that I open up show some sign of mouse inhabitation.

There is a lot of concern about Hantavirus in the piano technician community (rightly so), but I find that there is also a lot of misinformation. I'd like to try to clear things up a bit here.

First of all, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is the best place to get good, non-sensationalized information about this issue. Hobbyist and even professional web forums are full of hyperbole and misinformation.

Hantavirus was first recognized in 1993 in Northwest New Mexico. Since it's discovery, more than 96% of reported cases have occurred west of the Mississippi River.

Hantavirus is spread through rodent feces and urine. It is kicked up into the air when mouse droppings are disturbed and causes infection when breathed in by humans. Hantavirus doesn't seem to live long once exposed to air or sunlight. For humans to become infected, there must be an active mouse infestation. Droppings that are more than several days old are unlikely to harbor the virus.

There have been only two cases of Hantavirus with known exposure in Louisiana.

The virus is carried by several species of rodent: the deer mouse, cotton rat, rice rat, and white-footed mouse. All of these usually live in rural areas, but the deer mouse and cotton rat can sometimes be found in cities under certain conditions. House mice rarely, if ever, carry the virus. Barns, sheds, and other unattached structures in rural areas are the most common places to find the virus, and therefore require the most caution when cleaning or working in.

Deer Mouse habitat.

Deer Mouse habitat.

Cotton Rat habitat.

Cotton Rat habitat.

White-footed Mouse habitat.

White-footed Mouse habitat.

Rice Rat habitat.

Rice Rat habitat.

Though there is no anti-viral treatment for Hantavirus, early detection does increase the likelihood of survival. Early symptoms are similar to the flu (fever, fatigue, muscle ache, upset stomach). These then progress into serious respiratory problems.

If you are showing these symptoms, be sure to mention any potential rodent exposure to the diagnosing physician.

Hantavirus is not contagious and cannot be spread by sneezing, coughing, kissing, or other bodily contact.

The best way to prevent Hantavirus infection is to eliminate the presence of rodents in and around your home. The Canadian Center for Occupational Health and Safety gives these tips:

  • Storing food (including pet food), water and garbage in heavy plastic or metal containers with tight fitting lids.

  • Sealing any holes in structures where mice may enter.

  • Cutting back thick brush and keep grass short. Keep woodpiles away from the building.

  • Using rubber or plastic gloves when cleaning up signs of rodents, handling dead rodents, or other materials.  When finished, clean gloves with soapy water before taking them off. Wash hands with soapy water (again) after removing the gloves.

  • Setting traps when necessary.  Put rodents in a plastic bag, seal the bag, and dispose.

 

Mouse nests and droppings can be soaked with a 1:10 solution of bleach & water. The nest material should be sealed in plastic and disposed of. All reusable gloves, respirators, or other protective gear should be wiped down with the bleach solution as well.

Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome Cases, by State of Exposure. (via cdc.gov)

Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome Cases, by State of Exposure. (via cdc.gov)


See more of my blog posts here

Piano Tuning Gift Certificates Now Available!

My Holiday Gift Certificates were such a hit last year that I've decided to offer them again!

Gift Certificates start at $125.  They are valid for 6 months from date of purchase and can only be used in Orleans Parish. 

To purchase, head over to the Contact Page and send me a message with the desired value of the Gift Certificate and the name of the person it should be made out to.  Payment can be made via Paypal and the Certificate will be mailed to you.  Pickup can also be arranged if desired.

Thanks and Happy Holidays!

-Ryan


See more of my blog posts here

The Secret Life of Pianos

Today, I found this film that came out recently on Youtube.  It is basically a profile of a piano technician in Edmonton, Alberta.  It is very beautiful and I really enjoyed it (even though I disagree with a few of the things that this technician says!).

Have a look and let me know what you think.


See more of my blog posts here

Broken Strings Cause More Trouble Than You Might Think.

There are a lot of heavy-handed pianists out there who seem to have a misconception about the ease of replacing broken piano strings.  Replacing a broken string is not a "fix it and forget about it" kind of problem.

There are two types of strings in a piano: wound strings and plain (straight gauge) strings.  Wound strings are found in the bass section and are composed of a steel core running the length of the string, and a copper winding that is wrapped around the core.  Plain strings are found everywhere else in the piano and are simply a steel wire of an exact, consistent diameter throughout its length.

When it comes to replacing a broken string in a piano, the procedure is fairly simple.  The problems arise after the string has been replaced.  Piano strings, whether wound or plain, will stretch over time due to the large amount of tension that they are placed under.  This has the effect of very slightly lengthening the string, which causes the tension to drop slightly as well.  Since the pitch produced by a string is affected by its mass, length, and tension, any changes in these properties will cause a change in pitch.

After a manufacturer has finished building a new piano, they will tune it a half a dozen times or more to ensure they get as much stretch out of the strings as possible.  Without this, the tuning of the piano would be very unstable and the pitch of all of the strings would drop very quickly as they stretched.

The problem here lies in the fact that most piano tuners aren't going to want to tune your piano six times over the course of a few days.  So, when a string breaks in your piano, it will be replaced and freshly tuned, but that new string will go out of tune much faster than the rest of your piano.  The best way to deal with this is to mute any new strings until they have been tuned enough times to become stable.  On a typical home piano, it can take years before the strings have fully stretched out and stabilized.  Muting the string ensures that it won't be audible as it goes out of tune.  However, this comes with the trade-off of slightly lower volume in the bichord and trichord sections of the piano.

In the low bass, where each note is only comprised of a single string, the pianist must simply deal with the string going quickly out of tune, as a mute would deaden the note completely.

In addition to this, missing strings can wreak havoc on action parts inside the piano.  hammers will wear unevenly, bushings in the hammer flanges will get torn up, and grand hammers can get wedged against their dampers.

Basically, take it easy on your piano and you won't have to deal with the long-lasting effects of string replacement.


See more of my blog posts here