Is bigger better? Maybe.

I just learned of this New Zealand teenager named Adrian Mann, who built what is described as “the world’s longest piano” (I’m not convinced of that claim) from scratch. The thing is 18 feet 9 inches long. It has only 85 keys, for some reason, instead of the canonical 88, apparently choosing to cut off a few from the top end. I would understand stopping at some point at the bottom end due to the continued logarithmic lengthening of the strings, which could become extreme.

In any case, I presume the object of making such a long instrument was to avoid the foreshortening of the bass end strings which are traditionally made heavier by winding metal wire layers over the core string. (A wound string is more flexible than a solid string of similar mass.) The shorter the string, the more/thicker overwinding has to be done to compensate, and this results in more complex and chaotic overtones and basically a stiffer string that will have less sustain. This is why the bass end of a grand piano sounds clearer and stronger than the same notes on an upright. So this maker has avoided the issue by letting the strings be as long as they need to be. I expect the tone on the bottom is very clear, but I’m not convinced that’s all there is to it. You’re going to get a lot more standing wave artifacts on a very long string. I would bet a hard strike would have a noticeable distortion on the attack and possible residual subharmomic standing waves. In any case, kudos to the kid for his chutzpah. He’s clearly got a lot of talent and drive.

18' 9

18′ 9″ Piano by Adrian Mann

National Strategy for Combating Wildlife Trafficking

In February, President Obama released the National Strategy for Combating Wildlife Trafficking. This is primarily aimed the so-called “iconic species,” especially elephant ivory and rhinoceros horn.

There is no question that endangered species of animals and plants and their habitats should be protected from extinction. Threatened species of wood and animal products, especially, have historically been widely used in the musical instrument industry. The most common and well-known example is the use of elephant ivory for piano keyboards. Since the 20th century development of high quality synthetic substitutes, the has been no practical reason to continue using genuine ivory for keyboards or, for that matter, nearly any other purpose.

Similarly the case of Central and South American rosewoods (plant species are not addressed in the Strategy). While there is no good synthetic substitute for natural wood, there are more sustainable species that function equally well. In both cases, no reputable manufacturer in the world still uses newly harvested materials from endangered species. It’s not necessary and is morally indefensible.

But humans are not practical. The fact remains that there is no aesthetic substitute for these natural products, so humans still desire them and are willing to pay for them. Thus, the illegal trafficking in these products continues to be a global problem. Governments are absolutely right to do everything in their power to stop this activity.

However, when the desire to Do The Right Thing goes beyond reason, there must be some accommodation. In particular is the question of antiques. With antiques, the animals were harvested and materials used and sold freely and legally. There is no benefit to restricting their trade now, and the impact of this national policy in the US promises to be far-reaching for musicians, collectors of musical instruments, and museums. And its effect can only increase the cost of illegal ivory and therefore the incentive to continue killing elephants.

The fact sheet for the National Strategy states the following:

To begin implementing these new controls, federal Departments and Agencies will immediately undertake administrative actions to:

  • Prohibit Commercial Import of African Elephant Ivory: All commercial imports of African elephant ivory, including antiques, will be prohibited.
  • Prohibit Commercial Export of Elephant Ivory:  All commercial exports will be prohibited, except for bona fide antiques, certain noncommercial items, and in exceptional circumstances permitted under the Endangered Species Act. [This appears to allow export only of antiques.]
  • Significantly Restrict Domestic Resale of Elephant Ivory:  We will finalize a proposed rule that will reaffirm and clarify that sales across state lines are prohibited, except for bona fide antiques, and will prohibit sales within a state unless the seller can demonstrate an item was lawfully imported prior to 1990 for African elephants and 1975 for Asian elephants, or under an exemption document. [OK, antiques are still good to trade domestically.]
  • Clarify the Definition of “Antique”:  To qualify as an antique, an item must be more than 100 years old and meet other requirements under the Endangered Species Act.  The onus will now fall on the importer, exporter, or seller to demonstrate that an item meets these criteria. [This gets more difficult, as one rarely has a full history of an antique and all its repairs.]
  • Restore Endangered Species Act Protection for African Elephants:  We will revoke a previous Fish and Wildlife Service special rule that had relaxed Endangered Species Act restrictions on African elephant ivory trade.
  • Support Limited Sport-hunting of African Elephants:  We will limit the number of African elephant sport-hunted trophies that an individual can import to two per hunter per year.

These rules are already being enforced and are having dire consequences for legitimate collectors, musicians, and museums. This last week the Budapest Festival Orchestra reported that U.S. Customs officials at JFK Airport had seized seven bows from the orchestra’s string section. The orchestra was traveling from Budapest to Avery Fisher Hall in New York, where it performed  a pair of concerts. It seems the bows were returned after a $525 fine was paid. Apparently the orchestra had documentation attesting that there was no elephant ivory in the bows, but it did not meet specific criteria required by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. That agency stated that elephant ivory was identified on the 7 bows by its typical grain pattern. Other orchestras have voiced concern about traveling to the US with the possible threat of having materials confiscated. The difficulty in many cases of providing unequivocal evidence of both date of purchase and, especially, provenance of ivory parts promises to be a thorny issue for some time to come.

Elody Electric Recorder

As one of humanity’s most ancient types of musical instrument, the recorder has undergone few fundamental changes over the centuries. The 18th century Baroque style plan seems to have found few contenders for improved designs. It’s partly a case of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” But its longevity is also due in part to the fundamental physics of the thing. There is just so much you can do to the bore size, its conical taper, or the size and shape of the windway without also disturbing the fingering, affecting the tone, and altering its range. The basic design used by nearly all recorder makers to this day is a delicate balance that simply works. For the lower ranges, probably the most successful aberration are the German Paetzold recorders (now made by Jo Kunath), which are designed after square organ pipes and thus take more wind and have a certain mechanical clatter to the key system, but provide a powerful sound at the bottom end where traditional recorders are usually weakest.

A recent entry into the alternative recorder market is the Elody electric recorder made by the well established German firm Mollenhauer. They have basically created an instrument for the rock and roll market, with gaudy paint jobs and inlaid bling. But at its core it is simply another alto recorder in a new dress. It can be played like any other alto, though the flute-like keys on the foot joint are a bit different from most altos. The main feature of interest in the Elody is the built-in electronic pickup which can be plugged in to any amplifier or effects boxes. The company does not provide much technical information about the pickup or the overall design. At a price point of around $2200, the Elody is at the top of the company’s list short of the best wooden great bass recorders. I’m not sure how they justify the cost, but I doubt that many would find it attractive. Perhaps some rock star with more money than sense… But conceptually, the integration of a pickup is a good idea and they seem to have gotten it right. I’d personally like to learn more about the type of microphone that is used and how they manage to install it inside the instrument without it affecting tone or being bothered by humidity condensation (not to mention being rammed by a swab).

Pianoarc: A solution looking for a problem?

Pianoarc is a circular keyboard developed as a dramatic stage presence for Lady GaGa’s keyboard player. It’s really customized to his particular reach, and it comes on a stand that can be tilted up to 50 degrees for visual impact. The thing has 292 keys, including 3 full 88-key MIDI controllers, plus a smaller section used for program control. They got some top engineers from QRS to make the electronics, and the keys were cut by a Steinway tech. The keys are wood, but are sprung (not weighted, obviously, due to the tilt stand). The action uses special optical sensing in some way that I’m not that clear about. The thing is a prototype shown at a recent NAMM show, but they are soliciting orders for custom versions, “about the price of a high quality acoustic grand piano.”

What is interesting is not so much the circle, but the arc. Ergonomically it makes sense to pivot the arms rather than to lean in and open up the shoulders as when playing a straight keyboard.

What’s Old Is New Again at NAMM

Music dealers worldwide make their pilgrimages to NAMM (the largest American trade show for musical merchandise) every year to be sure they see (and try) the latest in music technology. What surprises me often is how old ideas get recycled and promoted as the Next Big Thing. Since George Beauchamp created the “Frying Pan” aluminum body electric guitar in 1931, instrument makers have sought to use alternatives to wood. Among metals, the obvious choice is aluminum, it being easily machinable light weight, and non-magnetic. Today several companies make aluminum guitars:

At this month’s NAMM in Nashville, there were at least two more:

It would be interesting to know if any of these makers did market research to determine whether there is really a market for these and to follow their progress over time. Most of these companies tout the expertise of their founders’ experience in the high-tech aerospace/aeronautics industry. There are certainly parallels to suggest that the skill sets of that industry could apply to guitar manufacturing. Indeed, the main skills would be computer aided design and manufacturing (CAD/CAM). Use of computer-numeric-controlled (CNC) machines for cutting metal is a natural way for someone to create precision objects without having the more hands-on skills required for manufacturing in wood. (Modern manufacturing in solid wood guitars uses similar technologies, but requires more hand finish work.)

Another device shown at NAMM is a strap-on attachment for an acoustic guitar that provides a set of piano-like keys for striking the individual strings. There is little information about the Guitar Forte by Percussive Guitar Inc., suggesting that this is still in prototype testing. The video on their website pretty much shows what it’s about. This idea is also not new. Percussive piano-striking mechanisms were fairly popular in the 18th century, especially on the so-called “English guitar” or cittern.

NMM Preston English guitar with attachment

English guitar by James N. Preston, London, ca. 1765. National Music Museum.

It’s not clear whether any of these devices provide a piano-like escapement. The Guitar-Forte device seems to have a fairly noisy attack sound. The historical versions tend to use felted hammers to soften the attack, but at the expense of volume. A hammering mechanism is best used on instruments with heavier strings with higher tensions that a guitar (especially an electric guitar) normally has. In the case of the English guitar, the sound is reinforced by its double courses.

Aristides One-Piece Molded Electric Guitars

Aristides Guitar Model 020

Not well known in the US, Aristides Instruments of Haarlem, Netherlands, is manufacturing high-tech electric guitars and basses featuring a one-piece molded body made of an exclusive glass crystal in resin matrix (which they call “Arium”) with a glass/carbon skin. Their claim is that the material performs like a theoretically ideal wood analog. Since it has no grain, it is allowed to resonate equally in all directions of vibration. According to Aristides,

“The tonematerial is extremely hard and its unique cell structure is responsible for the unprecedented quality of sustain and resonance.”

I think I’d want to test this statement before purchasing an instrument. The fundamental physics of any stringed instrument determine that the energy of the vibrating string can is converted to acoustic energy. The more sound the resonant body produces, the more quickly the string’s vibrational energy is used up. The reason you can hear a harp or a piano over the sound of a symphony orchestra is that they convert a lot of string energy into acoustic energy very quickly. The mass of the string has a direct bearing on the initial energy available, which is why pianos use triple strung heavy wire under high tension in the high treble end.

The art of making any guitar is finding an ideal tradeoff between acoustic power and sustain. The more massive the instrument body, the more energy it takes to move it. So acoustic guitars are generally as light weight as they can be made considering other factors of structural integrity, the size needed for a resonant chamber, etc. The neck is relatively massive, for both structural and acoustic reasons. We want the string energy to go into the resonant sound box rather than into the non-resonant neck.

With electric guitars, the situation is very different. In this case we are usually going for a longer sustained sound of the plucked string. As well, guitar strings are relatively thin and low-tensioned as compared to a piano. Electric guitars are even sometimes fitted with extra-light strings to allow more ease in bending and rapid playing styles. So the initial energy provided is fairly weak. (An acoustic guitar is usually fitted with heavier strings to drive the soundboard.) The sound of an electric guitar comes from converting the string vibrations into an electrical signal which is then sent to an external amplifier and speaker. Since we don’t have to be so concerned about acoustic projection, we can instead design the body to add to sustaining the sound. This is why Les Paul and Leo Fender started out making electric guitars with massive, heavy solid bodies. The whole point of a solid body guitar is to conserve the energy of the vibrating string.

Now, having said that, there is, in fact, good reason to make an electric guitar with an acoustically resonating body. We aren’t concerned about projection, but rather about tone. And this is a much more arcane science. Much the way a fine wine has complexity of qualities–fruits, tannins, aromas, and changes as the flavors develop or break down in the mouth–the acoustic qualities of an instrument body add complexity to its tone. Wood has always been the preferred material for this purpose because it has the right combinations of strength, weight, and flexibility, while offering complexity in the ways it resonates with the string vibration at different fundamental frequencies and overtones. (As when a wine expert speaks of “high notes.”)

My instinct tells me that a synthetic guitar body will be more homogenous than a natural wood body, and thus would not provide that complexity. Or at least not by the material alone. It may be that the complexity is contrived more by the curves and cutouts of the synthetic body, rather than by the material alone. A block of spruce doesn’t vibrate very beautifully, but when carved into the shape of a violin belly, it is almost miraculous.

I have no doubt that the Aristides guitars are spectacular to play. If there was a dealer in the US anywhere nearby, I would certainly like to try one, since the claims are intriguing. Ultimately, sound preference is subjective. There are many factors affecting the sound of an electric guitar–the type, location, and quality of the pickups; the passive or active electronic components; and the types and settings of effects and amplifiers–altogether creating a gestalt that can be wonderful or awful. The material from which an instrument is made certainly affects the quality of the string energy being transmitted to the rest of the chain, but I would be wary of assuming that’s all there is to what makes a great guitar.

MIDI Wave Theremin

When I was a kid we’d get a massive Sears catalog in the mail every year. Must have been hard on the postman when those came out. For more than a century, Sears was the place to get all the essential stuff for living in America — everything from thermal underwear to cast iron stoves to musical instruments. For a while you could even buy a house from Sears.

I swear I had that dinosaur set.

But in the 1950s what I looked forward to was the toys. In anticipation of Christmas, I’d scour the Sears catalog, reading the descriptions of every toy and game, making a list of several pages, then going back and editing it down to the most “realistic” 15-20 items. All despite knowing for a fact that there was no Santa Claus and that what I was most likely to get in my stocking was a note from Dad saying he had paid this year’s installment on a life insurance policy (which was supposed to have some cash value eventually). Toys were not really an option and I knew that. But it didn’t stop me from window shopping the Sears catalog and feeling that pang of desire for some ingenious new piece of frippery.

To this day I enjoy looking at catalogs and websites and eBay and imagining what  fun it would be to play with a real certified aboriginal Aussie didgeridoo or a new guitar synth that does everything but make pancakes for breakfast. Thus was this blog born of my wonder at new musical toys to play with.

I have a new item on my wish list (as in “ain’t never gonna be able to afford one of these babies”) as I came across the Horst MIDI Wave Theremin, individually hand made (read: quantities and availability may be limited) by Australian electronics design engineer Horst Gruhle. There are a bunch of straightforward videos on the website that demonstrate its functionality. I always take demos with a grain of salt — after all, it’s being played by the guy who dreamed it up and built every aspect according to his vision of what it should do and where things should go. Having said that, the videos show pretty clearly that the thing can probably do some really fun stuff right out of the box, and lots more even funner stuff with practice. I’ve wanted a theremin almost since the Sears catalog days (no, they did not sell theremins at Sears as far as I know).  I tried to build one once, but my understanding of electronics schematic diagrams is sketchy at best and it never managed to produce more than a little crackle and hum. Far better to leave these things to the people who really know how to do it.  Enter Horst:

UPDATE: Since there is no pricing information on the website, I asked Horst about it. Here’s his reply:

“Currently, the recommended retail price is $995 Australian Dollars. We have the Theremin on special occasionally and sell it for $795. Sometimes we have promotional offers and “throw in” a trigger-pad and/or a midi-to-USB cable. All Theremins are still Hand Made in Australia. To get the latest price, it is best to contact us.”

In case you’ve ever wondered (and who hasn’t?) a theremin works by using a pair of high frequency (as in radio frequencies) oscillators. One is steady while the other is affected by the proximity of the player to an antenna. If you’ve ever tried to tune a guitar by ear, you probably know about the concept of “beat frequencies.”

Beating of two frequencies

Beating of two frequencies (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When two strings are not quite in tune they can be said to be “out of phase”, i.e., the high part (peak) of the sound wave on one string will tend to work against the low part (valley) of the other, cancelling out the energy of both. In phase energy is additive; out of phase energy is subtractive. Since they are not perfectly out of phase the cancelling is not total, but as the frequencies get closer the cancellation effect happens less… well, frequently. So on a guitar you listen for the phase shifting as you tune, which manifests as a sort of slower and slower tremolo or “beat”. If the strings are 1 Hertz (cycle per second) different, you’ll hear that beat frequency once every second. Scale this idea up to the radio frequency spectrum and what happens is the beat frequency can be basically anything within the range of human hearing. The capacitance of your hand moving towards the antenna is sufficient to cause relatively minute differences in the oscillator, but relative to, say, several megahertz is quite a lot relative to the audible spectrum. So what we hear is the difference frequency of the two oscillators. AKA spooky soundz.

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Bowed Keyboards Never Die…

The idea of a bowed string instrument controlled by a keyboard has been around at least since Leonardo sketched a concept for the viola organista around 1488. The most successful realization of the idea is the hurdy-gurdy, which uses a rosined wheel turned with a hand crank to simultaneously bow several strings at once. The different notes are achieved by a mechanism of buttons attached to tangents which shorten one or more of the strings. But this is not properly a keyboard instrument.

Leonardo’s concept is the one most commonly used in attempts to created a truly polyphonic keyboard. In essence, the piano-like key lever is attached to a simple looped wire through which the string passes. Pressing the key pulls the loop and string against a rosined wheel. The advantages of such a device are compelling — a sustained note can be played as on an organ, but the player can also continuously affect the the dynamics of the note by adjusting pressure on the key, effectively allowing a nuanced vibrato if desired. Probably the best known historical example is the Geigenwerk, invented in Nuremberg 1575 by Hans Haiden and related by Praetorius in his Syntagma Musicum.

Geigenwerk from Praetorius

Geigenwerk from Praetorius

But the actual mechanics of the bowed keyboard have been a challenge from day one. The most obvious problem is the rosined circular wheel used to activate the string. Ideally, one would want to have every string pulled in the direction of the center of the wheel. In order to make that happen you need an elaborate mechanism or a round keyboard. Round keyboard? Indeed yes. To wit this latest incarnation of the Geigenwerk, here called a Wheel Harp for no obvious reason, by Antiquity Music of California:


Wheelharp from Antiquity Music on Vimeo.

Self-Tuning Piano

A fascinating article by Paul Ridden at Gizmag about Don Gilmore’s self-tuning piano system. It uses sensors on each string to determine pitch, and sends an electrical current through the string to warm it precisely enough to cause it to “relax” — basically expand — giving a lower pitch. It seems to me that this would only work when the tuning goes sharp. I think the normal tendency of strings under tension is to stretch and go flat, in which case this system wouldn’t be much use unless it’s assumed that the whole instrument is tuned a bit sharp to begin with. The other aspect is that the further out of tune a string is, the more current it would draw. It’s only heating them a few degrees and the total cost estimate was about $0.17 US/hour, but you have to wonder… is this thing safe?

Tour of Vietnamese Musical Instrument Makers Village

Craftsmen of the village of Dao Xa create fine traditional instruments by hand.

Craftsman in the village of Dao Xa

Craftsman in the village of Dao Xa

“Also the craft requires artisans’ patience and more importantly, their love, passion and dedication. Without these, one couldn’t produce a standard instrument.” – Nguyen Xuan Soan

Source: Vietnam News