I am posting here a new version of my article on harpsichord voicing, which has previously appeared in Swedish and Dutch (1995 and 1998). Since then, I have collected more information about voicing (both with delrin and quill) and I have seen many more instruments by various makers and in various states that in one or another way confirmed my ideas or helped to refine them. So while this text is, in structure, not unlike the original one, it speaks, let us say, louder. This article is divided in six sections. After final proofreading, I will also provide the whole text as a downloadable pdf document.
The article was originally intended as an encouragement for using bird’s quills in harpsichords. However, the commonly used delrin is a very good alternative for quill, if it is used well. Even the reader who is not considering quill will find useful information about delrin further below.
Harpsichordists hear a lot from other musicians about how their instrument sounds: it is too loud, says the recorder player; it is too soft, say the members of a string ensemble; it sounds too aggressive, says the cellist who sits beside the bentside; it is unreliable and out of tune, say all those people who have to do with casually played conservatory harpsichords. A true harpsichord lover might find these remarks ridiculous, but let’s face it: there is every reason for learning how to improve one’s tuning technique, how to keep the dampers in shape and, of course, how to make proper plectra. A harpsichord in poor shape has, in terms of charm, not much to offer – and even in an instrument in better shape we must accept most of the basic conditions that characterize harpsichords: their dynamic range is relatively small in comparison to other instruments, no matter how hard we hit the keys; their tone has a high content of partials; and although the non-musical noise that accompanies the tone production – that is, the mechanical clicking that accompanies the attack and the characteristic sound heard when we release the key – may be low in a good instrument, the player has little influence on it. If we want to maximise our possibilities as players, we ought to look more closely at the part of the action that produces both, the tone and the noise: the plectrum.
Usually plectra are made from delrin. This is a rather sturdy material which is used in, among other things, miniature gearboxes and the likes (having model trains as a hobby, I have learned to appreciate such unmusical applications of this material as well). A delrin plectrum can keep its shape for a very long time: say, as long as a tap washer. As with tap washers, a delrin plectrum’s sturdiness and proper function both depend on how its condition was at the beginning of its use and on the conditions during its use.
Since I am not interested in reiterating, without solid reasoning, any of the various plectrum philosophies that live out there in the wide harpsichord world, I would at the beginning like to propose a list of desirable plectrum qualities on which everybody can easily agree. These qualities are three in number. A harpsichord plectrum
- needs to be sturdy,
- must function well, that is, it may not get caught in some way, or pull the string out of tune,
- needs to produce a tone that is suitable for the instrument.
Sturdiness is to a large degree defined by choosing the right form of the material. Delrin for harpsichord plectra is made available in several forms, and according to my observations their sturdiness varies a lot. Apart from the cast plectra, small plectra in snippets cut or stamped from plates of a varying thicknesses are the most commonly used ones. There are several problems connected to pre-shaped plectra of all kinds, whether they were cast or cut. One specific issue with the pre-cut ones is that the sheets of delrin used for their production usually break slightly more easily in one direction than in the other. I have heard various explanations for this, which all have to do with the production process: the material in itself is amorphous. In any case, the consumer who uses pre-cut bits of plectrum has no chance to verify whether these were cut in the sturdier or the weaker direction. My first recommendation is hence to use plates of delrin instead of snippets, and to test the good direction by bending a plate in one and the other direction. Afterwards one cuts narrow (plectrum-wide, plus one mm in reserve) strips in the good direction.
A second problem with pre-cut plectra is that they might have been damaged on a microscopic level during their production, depending on whether they have been cut or stamped, and on how this was done. For the final consumer of these bits it is simply impossible to know why a certain batch of delrin plectra keeps breaking, but the fact remains: the plectra in some harpsichords break at a rate that is untypical for the good qualities of delrin. There must be secondary reasons for such a behavior. Breakage of harpsichord plectra is not a matter of fate. Delrin plectra are not at all supposed to break all the time. If one keeps having such problems with one’s harpsichord, one is probably better off if one looks for a different source for one’s plectra.
The sturdiness of a plectrum is also put at risk by any shape that results in stressing the material in an irregular fashion. All exaggerated forms of a wedge (as seen from the side) and pointy shapes (as seen from above) enhance the risk of breakage in this fashion. I am not arguing aesthetics of sound here: the sound produced by such plectra is high in partials and penetrating – there are many harpsichord lovers who subscribe to this sound as being typical for the harpsichord and I will not claim that my own, different, taste is worthier. However, the wedge- or point-shaped delrin plectra are, in terms of durability and function, completely unsuitable. At their base, they bend not at all or only very slightly, in their middle they bend still only slightly while their tip has to provide most of the necessary flexibility, thus bending very much. This results in their tips bending permanently downward within a short period of time. I am talking about weeks here. This prevents the plectra from slipping back over the string on release. Alternatively, or in addition, the tips will break off after a much too short period of use.
Also those plectra that have been provided with ridges, valleys or washboard patterns, due to being shaped by using a blunt knife or a wobbly scalpel, belong to those with sections of over-stressed material. Whichever shape we intend to give our plectra, it is important to achieve a smooth finish. Any part of a plectrum thinner than the surrounding areas will break prematurely. Here we have the explanation of why hastily produced mid-rehearsal plectra have a tendency to break within days. There is no bad spirit at work – most of the time, impatience, bad equipment and bad light are more than sufficient.
To be continued