This is the process of adjusting all the mechanical parts that make up the action and keyboard to achieve maximum efficiency.
With use, there is inevitably wear and tear on moving parts, compression of felts and hardening of leather, and as a result the piano loses it’s evenness of touch, its power and its dynamic range. It’s a bit like driving a car that is misfiring and has two flat tyres. Each one of the 88 notes on a piano has at least 25 different points of adjustment, so regulation is a highly skilled and time consuming job, but it can transform the experience of playing the piano. A new piano benefits greatly from being regulated a few months after purchase to compensate for settling and compression of new felts; after that a moderately used domestic piano will need regulating perhaps once every 3-5 years, while a more heavily used professional’s piano should be regulated annually.
This can involve the replacement of hammers and other worn action parts; resign and rebuilding of the action; restringing with optimisation of the stringing scale; soundboard repairs.
Eventually the action, hammers and strings will become sufficiently worn that regulation, reshaping and toning can no longer achieve a satisfactory result. When this point is arrived at the relevant parts can be replaced. This may be some or all the following: hammer heads, rollers, shanks and flanges, check leather, action felt leather and springs, key bushings, key coverings, key washers, bass strings, steel strings. The most common parts to need replacing if a full reconditioning is not required are the key bushings and the hammer heads. When the key bushings (the pieces of cloth which line the sides of the holes at the front and middle of the keys) become worn and hard, the result is lateral movement in the individual keys and a very rattly feel and sound to the keyboard. Replacing the bushings transforms the feel of the keyboard, improving accuracy and response, and eliminating unwanted noise. The hammer heads are at the heart of the piano. When replacing them it is absolutely crucial to have the correct weight and dimension of hammer, allied to the appropriate leverage ratio. To this end I always use Precision Touch Design when installing hammers. In recent years I have started to use so-called 'Natural felt' hammers (where the wool has been washed with water rather than chemicals in the preparation of the felt). These provide a warmer sound with a greater dynamic range. I make a point of only using the best quality materials: Renner and Abel hammers and action parts, Roslau blue steel wire. In recent years I have trained in the use and fitting of the carbon-fibre action parts made in the USA by Wessel Nickel and Gross. These provide unprecedented stability, lightness, and consistency of manufacture.
Toning and Voicing
This is the creation and maintenance of a sound and dynamic range to suit the pianist, the piano, and the acoustic, by working with the weight and shape of the hammer head, needling the felt, and refining the regulation.
The fundamental characteristics of a piano’s tone are defined by the design and construction of the ‘strung back’ – the frame, soundboard, bridges and strings. In the past, makers took great pride in refining their own unique sound. The mellow gentleness of a Bluthner contrasted with the rich woodiness of a Bechstein, the warmth and clarity of a Bosendorfer with the power and ring of a Steinway. Sadly, much of this individuality has been sacrificed by modern makers in pursuit of power and brilliance. Within the parameters of these basic tonal characteristics however, the skilled technician can make significant changes to the tone of the instrument by working on the alignment, shape and hardness of the hammer felt. By aligning the heads, and by shaping and needling, the technician can manipulate the compression and tension of the felt so as to increase the dynamic range, and to make the sound more ‘bright’ or ‘mellow’ , ‘hard’ or ‘warm’. The repeated striking of the hammer head against the strings not only causes the felt to compress and harden, but also gradually wears the top of the hammer flat. This makes the sound hard, and narrows both the dynamic range and the spectrum of tone colour. Eventually it becomes necessary to reshape the hammers so as to restore the correct profile; once the heads have been painstakingly faced to the strings (to ensure that all three strings are struck simultaneously), the felt can be needled to achieve the desired tone quality. Before this process is carried out it is essential that regulation and tuning are perfect. The possibility of causing irreversible damage to the hammers is ever present in this process, so it should only ever be undertaken by a highly experienced technician. During my years working as a concert technician for Bosendorfer I not only maintained their fleet of concert instruments, but toned and voiced many customers' instruments in all types of environments and acoustics. Since then I have worked with great success on all the other major makes including Steinway, Fazioli, Bechstein, Bluthner, Grotrian Steinweg, Yamaha etc
Tuning is a subtle and sometimes under-rated skill. Pianos need to be tuned regularly to compensate for changes in temperature and humidity.
In most cases a piano should be kept at ‘concert pitch’; that is, where A=440hz. This maintains the correct tension on the frame, and provides the optimum tone quality. It is not the playing of a piano which has the most effect on its tuning, ( indeed, a well tuned piano should hardly be affected by even the heaviest playing. Achieving that stability is possibly the hardest part of the tuner’s art) – rather, it is changes in temperature and humidity which cause the wood of the soundboard to expand and contract, which throw a piano out of tune. For this reason, a domestic piano should be tuned at least twice a year to counteract these changes. I normally recommend 3 times a year for most of my customers because a more consistently high quality of tuning can be achieved. A normal tuning will take about an hour; if the piano has gone significantly flat of concert pitch it may need to be gone through twice – a quick raise of the whole instrument to pitch, followed by a fine tuning. This takes about 1.5 hours. Instruments used by professional players and teachers should often be tuned more than three times per year to maintain them at the very highest standard, and those used for concerts and recordings are tuned before every concert or session.
Concerts and Recordings
The preparation and tuning of pianos for concerts and recordings can be one of the most demanding parts of a technician's work.
Over the years I have prepared and tuned pianos for concerts and recordings by some of the worlds finest pianists including Andre Previn, Oscar Peterson, Dave Brubeck, Andras Schiff, Angela Hewitt, Garrick Ohlssohn, David Owen Norris, Artur Pizarro, Diana Ambache, Sequeiro Costa, Stephen Coombs and Leif Ove Andsnes . Leif Ove Andsnes' recording of Haydn piano concerti on a Bosendorfer which I prepared and tuned won the Gramophone Disc of the Year in 2000. “I am happy to endorse Stephen Carroll Turner’s work with the highest praise. He has prepared my piano for recordings on many occasions and it is always flawless. He has recently completed a major refurbishment of my Bosendorfer 225 and his care and attention have been exemplary. Tip-top bloke!” David Owen Norris In 2022 I had the privilege of not only preparing the Steinway D grand for the latest recording by the English composer Barry Mills, but also giving the premiere performances and recordings of two new trios by Barry: one for clarinet, viola and piano, and one for oboe, cello and piano, with colleagues from the Brighton Chamber Ensemble. The disc - Portraits, Volume 7 - is available on Claudio Records.