In the first of a series of posts decoding the differences in design that make a Mason & Hamlin piano superior, we discuss scaling. What is it and why is it important?
Scaling in the context of a piano refers to the layout of the strings. Let’s begin with the basics. Sound on a piano is produced by your finger depressing the key, which in turn activates a hammer that flies towards the string. This force causes the string to vibrate and produce the pitch it is tuned to. This sound is then amplified to a level where it can be heard further than a few feet away by a soundboard which is a piece of (in the case of a Mason & Hamlin) extremely high grade spruce which is tapered and then ‘crowned’ into the rim of the piano. Spruce is one of the best woods for transmitting sound waves and we use exclusively spruce from high quality Canadian forests.
The bridge is the vessel that transfers energy and sound waves from the vibrating string onto the soundboard as it is attached to the soundboard on one end and has the string running over it at the other.
This is where scale enters the equation. On any grand piano, there are two bridges – known as the bass bridge and the treble bridge. You will notice that some strings run more or less straight while others run at an angle, over the top of the straight strings. The straight strings are attached to the treble bridge while the angled strings run on the bass bridge.
One of the most difficult challenges for a piano designer is to choose the point at which the piano should cross from one bridge to the other. This is known in piano speak as “the break”.
You see, the smaller a piano is, the more strings will have to go on the bass bridge to ensure they are long enough to achieve the required pitch (remember big instruments like the tuba play low sounds while small instruments like the piccolo pitch very high).
It is extremely difficult to get a smooth crossing of the break and on cheaper pianos (and even some very expensive ones!) you can often hear a very noticeable change in the tone quality or power. If the break comes too soon the first note on the bass bridge will have not enough power in relation to the note beside it and so forth. Too soon and the bass will overpower the treble.
What this means is that for any given size of grand piano, physics can prove a demonstrably preferred place to locate the break and thus in a perfect world every size of piano you build will be scaled differently to optimise the performance of that piano.
Unfortunately it isn’t an ideal world. Because the angle of strings changes depending on the scaling, the design of the keyboard underneath has to be matched to that scale. This means if you are scaling each of your pianos differently, you then must design a completely different keyboard for each. It is easy to see how this becomes a very costly proposition in the amount of parts and processes required for a factory. As a result nearly all manufacturers compromise on some of their models and standardise a scale for several sizes to cut costs. This means several models in their line up must be compromised on tone, power and balance between bass and treble and have poor breaks.
The good news is you don’t have to compromise. Despite being a boutique manufacturer of only 300 pianos each year, Mason & Hamlin firmly believe that if your space or budget restricts you to buying a smaller instrument, you deserve a piano that isn’t compromised for its size.
As a result, each of our five grand piano models has a unique scale - ranging from 30 notes on the bass bridge on our small model B to just 18 bass notes on the concert grand.
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