Latest Harpsichord - video & sound

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ErnieM

Ernie
Corporate Member
Last week I posted some pictures of my latest instrument. Some of you asked for sound files so you could hear it played. This afternoon, Dr. O'brien, professor of keyboards and early music at ECU, dropped by to try out the instrument. It is a joy to hear him play. Unfortunately, I have no recording equipment, so I grabbed my phone and took the following short videos. My apologies for the quality of the video and sound.

The first video shows all three ranks of strings (183 of them) being played simultaneously. You can see the keys of the upper keyboard going up and down even though he's not touching them with his fingers.


[video=youtube;CCkAH5JGSX0]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CCkAH5JGSX0[/video]

I see that I can only upload 1 video per post, so I will continue on separate posts.

Thanks for listening (and watching).
 

Hmerkle

Board of Directors, Vice President
Hank
Corporate Member
O.K. again, absolutely unbelievable!

But tell us more about the second keyboard, if the upper works in tandem with the lower, why is it there?

Can you play either keyboard without the other, or together?

How does the buff stop in the 3rd video work, I don't think Harpsichords have pedals like a piano, or do they?
 

ErnieM

Ernie
Corporate Member
O.K. again, absolutely unbelievable!

But tell us more about the second keyboard, if the upper works in tandem with the lower, why is it there?

Can you play either keyboard without the other, or together?

How does the buff stop in the 3rd video work, I don't think Harpsichords have pedals like a piano, or do they?
Hank,

There are three sets of strings on this instrument - let's call them rank1, rank2, and rank3. Rank1 is played by the upper keyboard. Rank2 and rank3 are played by the lower keyboard. There are 3 levers that are found above the keyboard. The left lever can turn rank3 on/off. The right lever turns rank2 on/off. Rank1 is permanently on. The middle lever turns the buff stop on/off (more about that later). By using these levers, the player can control which ranks are playing and which ranks are silent at any given time. When the upper keyboard is played, the rank1 strings play since that rank is always ON. When the lower keyboard is played, rank2 and rank3 are played together. However, by using the levers, either (or both) of these two ranks can be turned off. This gives the player a lot of flexibility. Rank2 (lower keyboard) can be played by itself. Rank3 (lower keyboard) can be played by itself. Rank2 and rank3 (lower keyboard) can be played together. Finally, rank1 can be played (upper keyboard) by itself.

To add to these choices, the upper keyboard (rank1) can be coupled to the lower keyboard and its keys will be played automatically whenever the lower keyboard is played.. This is accomplished by little dowels that are glued onto the rear of the lower keyboard's keys. Take a look at this picture.


IMG_3896.jpg

This picture shows the rear ends of the two keyboards. As you can see, the little dowels glued into the lower keys push up on the upper keys when the lower keys are played. This couples the two keyboards and allows the upper keyboard to be played by the lower. The upper keyboard is mounted onto the lower keyboard in such a way that it can be slid forward or backwards about 1/2". When it's in the forward position (as shown in this photo) the dowels (called, for some reason, dogs) are directly under the ends of the upper keyboard's keys allowing the upper keyboard to be played by the lower keyboard's keys. When the upper keyboard is slid back to its rearward position, the dogs are no longer lined up with the rear of the lower keyboard's keys. When the lower keyboard is played, the dogs "miss" the rear of the upper keyboard's keys and the two keyboards are uncoupled.

The buff stop is a wooden rail that sits directly behind the rank1 bridge (called a "nut") on the pinblock. Small, rectangular pieces of leather are glued to this rail. The left/right movement of this rail is controlled by the middle lever. When the buff stop is turned on (by moving the lever to the right) the little leather pads contact the rank3 strings a semi-dampen them causing the guitar-like effect. When the buff stop is turned off (by moving the lever to the left) the leather pads no longer contact the strings and the sound reverts back to its normal state. Here's a picture of the buff stop rail, which should make this a bit clearer.


34-3.jpg

I hope all of this jibber-jabber makes some sense. It's really not as complicated as it sounds, but getting everything to line up and work correctly is quite nit-picky. It will try your patience.

Ernie
 

ErnieM

Ernie
Corporate Member
This is incredible! Are the caps of the keys ebony?
The sharps themselves can be ebony, but I usually use maple as the ebony adds too much weight to the front of the key. Traditionally, the sharps (whether ebony or any other wood) are capped with bone. However, bone has become very expensive and I've switched to Micarta which is actually a paper product. It's very hard, durable, and just about indestructable. Unfortunately, gluing Micarta down with conventional glues doesn't work. Within a month or two, the Micarta will just fall off. It's the one place on a harpsichord where I use contact cement.
 

Hmerkle

Board of Directors, Vice President
Hank
Corporate Member
Thank you Ernie,
That is SO interesting!

From your explanations, I think we understand how intricate of an instrument a Harpsichord is, but seeing the many, many parts that MUST work in concert (ha ha) to make beautiful music is mind-boggling!
 

CrealBilly

Jeff
Senior User
Im pretty much speachless thats a real work of art... so are the ranks turned to different octaves i would assume? Not knowing anything about this type of instrument.
 

ErnieM

Ernie
Corporate Member
Im pretty much speachless thats a real work of art... so are the ranks turned to different octaves i would assume? Not knowing anything about this type of instrument.

Jeff - There are three ranks of strings. Two of them sound at normal pitch. The third sounds an octave higher.
 

CrealBilly

Jeff
Senior User
Jeff - There are three ranks of strings. Two of them sound at normal pitch. The third sounds an octave higher.
That is just too cool... but i would hate the be the guy responsible to keep it tuned :) so another question if i may. I cant help but notice the "tone" of a harpsichord its very unique... are there special types of strings for a harpsicord? i come to understand the strings are "plucked" based on some of your previous posts. is it the plucking mechanism that contributes to the unique tone or length of string or special type of string or a combo of all three or am i getting to deep in the weeds? Sorry if i am - im just one of those guys that like to know how things work
 

ErnieM

Ernie
Corporate Member
That is just too cool... but i would hate the be the guy responsible to keep it tuned :) so another question if i may. I cant help but notice the "tone" of a harpsichord its very unique... are there special types of strings for a harpsicord? i come to understand the strings are "plucked" based on some of your previous posts. is it the plucking mechanism that contributes to the unique tone or length of string or special type of string or a combo of all three or am i getting to deep in the weeds? Sorry if i am - im just one of those guys that like to know how things work
Jeff - I love it "in the weeds", so ask about whatever interests you. It doesn't take any longer to tune the harpsichord than it does to tune a piano. However, it does have to be done more often. Once a month is usually what is necessary as opposed to the normal twice a year tuning for a piano. Most people who own a harpsichord learn to tune it themselves, which has become possible with the advent of low cost electronic tuners.

As you stated, there are many factors that contribute to the tone. The fact that the strings are plucked rather than struck in a piano, is one factor. The wire is another. The wire we use nowadays is low-tension brass and steel. This wire is produced for the harpsichord trade and attempts to duplicate the type of wire used when these instruments were first built. The braking point of this wire is quite a bit lower than in modern piano wire, but the harpsichord may have a cumulative tension of up to 5,000 lbs. whereas a piano can be 10 times greater. As a result, the high tension piano wire is not needed and, in fact, tends to lessen the tone quality when used in a harpsichord.

The soundboard also plays a major role in the tone of the instrument. What it's made of - how thick it is - how much (or little) tapering of its thickness in certain areas - etc. all have a huge effect on the quality of the tone. To a lesser extent, the case itself is a contributor in that there is no cast iron plate in a harpsichord to withstand the tension of the strings (it's not needed in a relatively low tension instrument). The plate tends to eliminate the case from the tonal landscape. In a harpsichord, the case resonates as well, so its material, thickness, and method of construction plays a role in the overall tone.

Lastly, the pluck point plays a tremendous role in the tone. Let's assume a given string is 48" long. Where along its length will that string be plucked? Do you pluck it 5" from an end or right in the middle at 24"? The closer it's plucked to either end of the string, the more nasal the tone will be. As the pluck point approaches the middle of the string, the sound becomes much richer and more mellow. Most harpsichords use a pluck point of about 1/10th of the string length (less in the upper ranges of the instrument). Of course, the pluck point is decided by the builder and, once built, it cannot be changed. There are obvious limitations. In a harpsichord, you couldn't have a pluck point anywhere near approaching the middle of the strings, as the length of the keys would be impossibly long. On some old, virginal style instruments like the muselar, a mid-string pluck point is possible because the strings run from left to right instead of front to back. This allows for normal length keys while still employing a mid-string pluck point. As with so many other things, there is a price to be payed with a mid-point plucking point. It tends to make the strings vibrate so wildly that the dampers have a hard time dampening the strings when the player's fingers are removed from the keys.

Sorry for the long winded answer, but sometimes the weeds are thick.:rotflm:

Ernie
 

CrealBilly

Jeff
Senior User
Jeff - I love it "in the weeds", so ask about whatever interests you. It doesn't take any longer to tune the harpsichord than it does to tune a piano. However, it does have to be done more often. Once a month is usually what is necessary as opposed to the normal twice a year tuning for a piano. Most people who own a harpsichord learn to tune it themselves, which has become possible with the advent of low cost electronic tuners.

As you stated, there are many factors that contribute to the tone. The fact that the strings are plucked rather than struck in a piano, is one factor. The wire is another. The wire we use nowadays is low-tension brass and steel. This wire is produced for the harpsichord trade and attempts to duplicate the type of wire used when these instruments were first built. The braking point of this wire is quite a bit lower than in modern piano wire, but the harpsichord may have a cumulative tension of up to 5,000 lbs. whereas a piano can be 10 times greater. As a result, the high tension piano wire is not needed and, in fact, tends to lessen the tone quality when used in a harpsichord.

The soundboard also plays a major role in the tone of the instrument. What it's made of - how thick it is - how much (or little) tapering of its thickness in certain areas - etc. all have a huge effect on the quality of the tone. To a lesser extent, the case itself is a contributor in that there is no cast iron plate in a harpsichord to withstand the tension of the strings (it's not needed in a relatively low tension instrument). The plate tends to eliminate the case from the tonal landscape. In a harpsichord, the case resonates as well, so its material, thickness, and method of construction plays a role in the overall tone.

Lastly, the pluck point plays a tremendous role in the tone. Let's assume a given string is 48" long. Where along its length will that string be plucked? Do you pluck it 5" from an end or right in the middle at 24"? The closer it's plucked to either end of the string, the more nasal the tone will be. As the pluck point approaches the middle of the string, the sound becomes much richer and more mellow. Most harpsichords use a pluck point of about 1/10th of the string length (less in the upper ranges of the instrument). Of course, the pluck point is decided by the builder and, once built, it cannot be changed. There are obvious limitations. In a harpsichord, you couldn't have a pluck point anywhere near approaching the middle of the strings, as the length of the keys would be impossibly long. On some old, virginal style instruments like the muselar, a mid-string pluck point is possible because the strings run from left to right instead of front to back. This allows for normal length keys while still employing a mid-string pluck point. As with so many other things, there is a price to be payed with a mid-point plucking point. It tends to make the strings vibrate so wildly that the dampers have a hard time dampening the strings when the player's fingers are removed from the keys.

Sorry for the long winded answer, but sometimes the weeds are thick.:rotflm:

Ernie
Thanks for the answers - i was afraid i may have went in to weeds taller than me and would get lost... but the way described things was perfect.

So plucked about 1/10th the length would make for a much brighter tone than say near the middle. What material is used for plucking? I know from experience this has to make a huge differnce in tonal quailty of a given note also.
 

ErnieM

Ernie
Corporate Member
Thanks for the answers - i was afraid i may have went in to weeds taller than me and would get lost... but the way described things was perfect.

So plucked about 1/10th the length would make for a much brighter tone than say near the middle. What material is used for plucking? I know from experience this has to make a huge differnce in tonal quailty of a given note also.
Yes you're right. The closer to the end a string is plucked, the brighter and more nasal the tone will be. As for the plectra itself, there are 4 materials that can be used. Originally, some kind of bird quill (crow?) was used, and is still the preferred material by many. It is easier to voice (thin) and many feel its tone is superior. The down side is longevity.

In today's world, the most used material, by far, is delrin, a synthetic plastic made by Dupont, I believe. It has a much longer life than quill, at the possible cost of a slight lessening of tone. It's the material I've always used and am quite happy with it.

Third is celcon, which is also a synthetic. I've never used it, but some builders use it with good results. It is, however, not used by enough folks, and it is being discontinued by most supply houses.

Lastly is leather, which was used in many 1950-1960 revival harpsichords. As you can imagine, it gives a much mellower tone. It's longevity is a big problem, but it is used almost exclusively for the buff stop on most instruments.

Many other materials have been experimented with over the years, but so far, delrin is the closest to bird quill - hence its widespread use.

Ernie
 

CrealBilly

Jeff
Senior User
Yes you're right. The closer to the end a string is plucked, the brighter and more nasal the tone will be. As for the plectra itself, there are 4 materials that can be used. Originally, some kind of bird quill (crow?) was used, and is still the preferred material by many. It is easier to voice (thin) and many feel its tone is superior. The down side is longevity.

In today's world, the most used material, by far, is delrin, a synthetic plastic made by Dupont, I believe. It has a much longer life than quill, at the possible cost of a slight lessening of tone. It's the material I've always used and am quite happy with it.

Third is celcon, which is also a synthetic. I've never used it, but some builders use it with good results. It is, however, not used by enough folks, and it is being discontinued by most supply houses.

Lastly is leather, which was used in many 1950-1960 revival harpsichords. As you can imagine, it gives a much mellower tone. It's longevity is a big problem, but it is used almost exclusively for the buff stop on most instruments.

Many other materials have been experimented with over the years, but so far, delrin is the closest to bird quill - hence its widespread use.

Ernie
Man your like Wikipedia - but better :)

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quill

Screenshot_2016-08-11-11-05-53.png

You know i just so happen to have a over abundance of shead turkey feathers if your interested in doing quill plectrums. If so, let me know and when i process my turkeys for thanksgiving and christmas ill have a lot more.
 
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