Imagine you were sent to the Ferrari factory in Italy and told they were going to show you five brand new cars… and you get to choose one to take home with you. How do you pick? What’s your litmus? Who do you bring to help you? Ultimately… no matter which you pick… You have a brand new Ferrari. My trip to the selection room at the Steinway factory in NYC was just like this. Invited into a listening room with five beautiful hand-built Steinway Concert Grand Model D pianos. And one of them was going to be housed in our studio in Kalamazoo. It seems some dreams do come true.
A Tale of Two Neighbors
This past year, the Executive Director of the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra (KSO), Peter Gistelinck and I worked hard to develop a professional partnership between our two organizations, neighbors in downtown Kalamazoo. OCC and KSO working together for professional orchestral recording and media production. This partnership began with a few formal concert recordings and a big project of multi-track recording of the KSO featuring
Who’s Bad at Miller Auditorium. Then an unbelievable opportunity came our way. A friend of both OCC and KSO (who would like to remain anonymous) decided they wanted to be a part of forging this new partnership and donated money for the purchase of a brand new Steinway D for the KSO that would be housed at the Overneath recording studio. Needless to say, we were both flabbergasted (love having the chance to use that word!)
Journey to the Center of Queens
In May I had the pleasure of traveling to New York City with KSO Maestro Raymond Harvey and Mr. Gistelinck as well as D. Marie Jones, who would be the primary technician for the new instrument. Any reason to go visit New York City is a good reason. Personally I had never been to the Queens borough before so I was excited to experience a new side of New York. The Steinway & Sons company moved from the Island of Manhattan in the mid 1800’s when the city was rapidly expanding and purchased a large plot of land on the river in Queens. Over the centuries (centuries!) they have existed, through depressions, recessions, and booms, the Steinway company sold portions of their property to keep their company going. While the only remaining indications that the Steinways owned sections of that land are found in the street names (like Steinway pl.), the original factory (and the newly expanded sections) still exist in the same place they did in the 1800s.
A Clockwork Steinway
Together, we all took the tour of the factor to see the incredible process that is the creation of a Steinway & Son’s Piano. At the heart of any grand piano is the sound board, the wood where the sound first resonates after the strings begin to vibrate. Steinway is extremely selective with the wood for the sound board. Not only do they only purchase the highest quality wood available, but they actually do all the treatment of the wood in-house! And on top of that, only about half this high-end wood is up to snuff for a Steinway soundboard. About a 50% yield on already select wood. All over this section of the factory are directions and concepts to help the men and women building the boards select the correct pieces. It takes skill and meticulous precision, but the end product is a VERY flexible length of wood that looks seamlessly like one flattened single tree. No blemishes, no knots, just perfectly synched grain for a clean tone.
The building of the piano rim is one of the most impressive and generally exclusive parts of the Steinway process. a series of long dense planks of wood are stacked, glued and then arduously bent in an incredible contraption invented by the Steinway family. Five technicians bend this wood using the desired models rim-pressing device until it sits comfortably in its correct shape. Then… MONTHS of sitting in a humidity controlled environment til its shape is solidified and the wood is ready.
The Steinway decided to buy the forge that creates the metal frame inside the instrument that supports the strings. This way, they now completely control the quality of the iron and the final shape. Once the newly shaped rim is trimmed and sanded, the board and metal skeleton frame are installed. From there, it goes to the action department.
This is the most esoteric part of the Steinway process and no pictures are allowed in that area. A combination of hand crafting and micron-precice machine cuts create the unique and special action that make up the famous Steinway feel. Once the action is in place and
quality inspected, the strings are installed and the instrument begins to make its first sounds. It takes a long time for the wood and metal strings to stretch, but eventually, we begin to hear the sound that steinway is famous for.
The final steps before selection include the lid, the finish, the lyre
installations, and of course the famous logo printed on the chassis. Once the instrument has been inspected and tuned by the in-house technicians, it goes to the selection room for a potential buyer… and this is where I find myself at the end of May 2016.
The Chronicles of Selection: The Maestro, The Technician, and the Engineer.
Watching Maestro Harvey and Ms. Jones work is one of the most rewarding experiences I have ever had. The Maestro is a phenomenal pianist in his own right (besides being a tremendous conductor and director) and he plays each instrument feeling for action and listening for resonance. He spends time alone playing classic piano literature and listens while Ms. Jones plays as well. Ms. Jones works intricately on the string sounds, plucking them individually, measuring decay time, listening for resonance and wave decay as well as working with the technicians for weight and action
adjustments. For me, it was like watching Michelangelo and Da Vinci paint together. My contributions were strictly sound related, and these two monsters of the piano instrument were gracious enough to listen to my thoughts and allow me to help in the process.
We slowly nit-picked over the five pianos we were shown. Ultimately,
the question became: what elements were permanent in the build of the piano, and what could be adjusted and regulated? Each
instrument had tiny flaws that we worked through, treating the selection like the most expensive porridge the three bears ever ate. “This one is too pingy in the upper register”, “This one is not powerful enough up top to cut through the powerful low end”, “This one’s action is too heavy”, “This ones action is too light”. From the beginning, one of the pianos stood out to us. Number 5.
The Big Friendly Giant Instrument
It had it’s flaws. Maestro Harvey thought it took too long for his fingers to get the hammers to the strings.
And one of the 8ves was lacking a bit of resonance… but wow did this instrument play. “Concerto piano” was the term I heard repeatedly. A piano that could compete with the Orchestra in a concerto setting. This instrument was definitely in that category. Over the course of a day and half, the Maestro and Ms. Jones worked with the technicians to see if the flaws and minutiae of the different instruments could be regulated or were permanent fixtures in that instruments build. By the end… it was that 5th piano that proved to be the best to all our ears and fingers. And this is the instrument we packed up in our suitcase and took home with us (Hey southwest allows free checked bags!)
2016: A Piano Odyssey
Just this week, we welcomed our new piano to the Overneath recording studio. Both Mr. Gistelinck and I watched in awe as our new instrument was professionally setup in its new home, Isolation A, a room Kevin Brown built specifically to isolate a concert grand piano (But don’t worry, it moves seamlessly into the live room for beautiful natural reverb). We tickle the ivories for the first time, and cannot believe the amazing situation we find ourselves in. We are so grateful to our donor and to the teams at both organizations who have worked so well together to bring this new opportunity to Kalamazoo. We hope that this piano becomes a destination instrument for both performance with the KSO and recording with OCC. Lets make some music!