© Tilman Skowroneck 2013
I have mentioned this before. I am not convinced that a given harpsichord can be substantially improved by putting up some new strings.
In fact I am rather convinced of the opposite, which is that random changes to a given design (and the stringing of a harpsichord belongs, or should belong, to its maker’s design choices) not normally result in a major shift toward a better tone. The expectation that a harpsichord can be optimized by applying a number of relatively simple tricks, or by experimenting with some new string material, is usually rewarded by some kind of disappointment. In my experience, a truly noticeable shift in a harpsichord’s quality often goes in the other direction: it happens when the instrument is being neglected. Improvement is a much more hard-won thing, especially when the instrument is assembled and ready to be used.
So what I will discuss here below should be seen as an exception, as I am about to introduce an exceptionally well-suited string material which actually does, within reasonable limits, improve the tone and tuning properties of a harpsichord:
Over the past decade or so, Stephen Birkett of the University of Waterloo, Canada, has researched the properties of historical iron strings, and has come up with a formula to produce iron wire with very similar properties. This so-called P-wire is now becoming available (here is some more information about it), and I have had the chance to test it in three quite different harpsichords with a Flemish-French mixed scaling (brass in the bass, and iron from the tenor upward).
A single-manual 8′ 4′ Flemish harpsichord which is a few years old, a double-manual Flemish harpsichord from 1962, and a five-octave double-manual French harpsichord from 1981; all by Martin Skowroneck, and strung with so-called “Sydney wire,” which is also based on the analysis of historical wire, but dates from the nineteen-sixties and may have its origins in a different methodology.
- Compared to Sydney wire, the new P-wire has some similarities, but a few noticeable differences, or rather, advantages. Similar is that the new strings require little time and effort to be tuned up to pitch. Some other soft wire used in historical instruments is known for needing a week or so of frequent re-tuning before it settles properly. Sydney wire stabilizes after a few corrections, and within a day; P-wire requires somewhat more time, but once settled it is rock-stable.
- I have not actively measured the tensile strength of P-wire. However, the second of the harpsichords, the Flemish double, has four ranks of registers and thus a very wide gap between tuning block and soundboard, which generates precariously long 4′-strings in the upper treble. After measuring the scaling in that area, I anticipated them to break about half an octave before the top, but nothing happened – not even when I, by mistake, tuned one of the strings two or three semitones too high. This is truly remarkable.
- The new P-wire is easy to bend but springy, and the making of loops is not problematic. Also, the material grabs very well on itself, and the loops have no tendency to slip. Only the thinnest diameters are brittle and break when bent too sharply, which however does not afflict their tensile strength; rather the opposite seems to be true.
- Most pleasing to me is the fact that the attack of the new wire is less sharp and results in a less “wiry” sound (M. Skowroneck’s words). This is most welcome to those who need to spend some time practicing, who perform in hard-sounding venues, or who are made to listen to one or the other of these activities. The sound, simply, is less tiring to the ears – it is bound to be easier to record than most other wire as well.
- Along with less sharpness, the attack of this wire feels to the player as if she or he has ever-so-slightly more control over the touch – there is more “claw” to it as it were. This may be a very slight difference, but it is very pleasing. I’ve tried out a number of high-register pieces (such as Couperin’s little windmills from the third book) for verification: it is much easier to engage with this kind of music if one feels that the instrument fully cooperates. P-wire seems to bring you closer to this sensation.
- Some colleagues had prepared me to expect a longer after-sound and more “bloom” to the tone. Sydney wire produces some reasonable after-sound and bloom, and I admit that I did not anticipate some substantial differences. However there is a clear difference, most pronounced in the treble, in the upper 8′ register, and most of all in the 4′, which – in one and the same instrument – suddenly emerges as a true stop in its own full right. Also worth mentioning is that even the highest 4′ strings produce a stable sound and thus are (acoustically) easy to tune. Even if, in individual strings, the difference is subtle – in a whole re-strung instrument, it is clearly noticeable, enough for me to have recommended this material to several colleagues, and to write a blog post about it.
- P-wire strings of various diameters sound very similar when used on the same tone (unless the deviation is substantial), and the influence of tension on the tone quality is very much less clear than in other wire. Thus the under-tensed last iron strings before the switch-over to brass toward the bass sound completely acceptable and not much different from the fully tensed strings above, and the over-tensed 4′ in the top of the instrument does not become even squeakier because of being closer to breaking. All such differences and changes are evened out to a much larger degree than in any other wire I know. So what we get is easy access to an equal tone throughout the instrument. A thought-provoking side effect for organologists who specialize in historical stringing practices is the explanation why historical makers (specifically piano makers, of whom we seem to have the most information) often applied rather standardized stringing schedules, wasting no time on stringing gauge transitions by ear. The simple reason may be that with historical wire of a good quality, this fine-tuning was unnecessary. True, half an octave of thicker or thinner wire would have made a difference, but one tone here or there clearly not.
- Finally, the surface of the new wire is clearly less abrasive and easier on quill.
It appears that P-wire can now be ordered by contacting Stephen Birkett directly (see my links above), and that deliveries take no more than a few months.