Posts Tagged ‘tuning’

strings from waterloo

October 7, 2013

© 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). (more…)

beryllium copper on the front page

April 26, 2012

© Tilman Skowroneck 2012

As the “searches” tab in my blog stats is telling me, many people are interested in the characteristics of  beryllium copper harpsichord wire in comparison to other materials. Some time ago, I have posted an explanation in the “Skowroneck harpsichords” tab of the sidebar (see my full text there), but I would like to pull the discussion to the front, and expand it.

As I have stated, beryllium copper is not the same as phosphor bronze (the latter doesn’t sound all that well, hence this whole discussion) although it looks very similar. It has similar characteristics to brass and can be used in harpsichords with a brass scaling, or in the bass of harpsichords with a mixed scaling. I also claim that,

beryllium copper of the kind best known to me also has a good sound. True, most people will have no possibility to make direct comparisons between the various materials – and “good” is a problematic term. I have tested brass and beryllium copper in one single instrument and monitored their properties over a time span of 15 years. I found beryllium copper to sound slightly “fuller” than the brass that is usually available today, but without compromising the appropriate overall “brassy” sound character. Together with the advantages listed above I personally prefer this material. As said above, however, these properties may vary from manufacturer to manufacturer and not all beryllium copper appears to be as good as I describe here.

I am re-posting this here, because I should add that beryllium copper can be hardened just as other wire. This property might in fact be at the bottom of some negative judgments about its usefulness as harpsichord wire. (more…)

tuning: overthinking inharmonicity

January 10, 2009

This is an expanded version of a comment I posted earlier this week on the hpschd-l. Anyone who wants to get into historical harpsichord tuning and never come out again ought to search the archives of that list. There’s several lifetimes worth of tuning wisdom and tuning folly to be found there. In this post, I discuss one randomly picked topic from tuning lore: the so-called inharmonicity of strings and what to do with it.

A very short popularized version of the theory says that in stiff or thick (or both) strings the partials are out of tune; thick, stiff strings act acoustically as a rod. Imagine a 1950s staircase and its iron handrails. The rods that attach them to the ground say (when one tried harping on them, which one wasn’t supposed to do) plink/plank/plaing/plunk/plong, but mostly “ploink”; the “oi” factor in this ploink indicates that something – in terms of a pure sound – isn’t as it ought to be. When tuning very thick foreshortened bass strings or the treble strings in a modern piano, we are facing palpable manifestations of this inharmonicity. Even in the strings of early keyboard instruments there is theoretically some inharmonicity. This wisdom works wonders for the fantasy of some insiders. (more…)

basic tuning technique

December 19, 2007

Long ago, at the conservatory of the Hague, I used to have a yoga class directly before my harpsichord lessons. I now believe that this mad schedule was the working of some bad spirit who wanted me to spoil both: yoga, and harpsichord playing (he didn’t succeed). During yoga, I was as tense and rigid as the dried fish they sell here in Sweden at Christmas time. Well arriving at the harpsichord lesson, my body had gotten weak as pudding while my mind was all tense and jumpy in anticipation of the new and wonderful requirements of a Real Musical Education. “Technique, technique, technique!” my teacher chanted, the first time he jogged into the harpsichord studio, eagerly rubbing his hands.

No wonder that on one of those days, when I was touching up a few unisons, I tuned every note jerkily up and down again. My teacher’s eyebrows shot up in intelligent acknowledgement: “Aah, you always tune a little higher first – is that to make the string hold better afterwards? Very interesting method!” 28 years after this event I can disclose that I simply was very nervous. But there are methods that help harpsichords, clavichords or fortepianos keep their tuning and there are some things better to avoid when tuning. (more…)


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