LOCATING AND REMOVING UNWANTED PIANO SOUNDS

WANTED DEAD OR ALIVE

Did you ever sit down to a piano to play, all inspired and just vigorous to do your best. Maybe you have a beautiful melody in your head and heart and you want to pour it out on the keys.

So, you strike the first few ivory's and press the damper pedal for resonance like normal only to hear a "screech, clunk and wiz" with every push of the pedal it's "screech, clunk and wiz". The sound is so annoying that you just can't stand to play on that piano.

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Yes, these odd sounds that sometimes come from our piano are maddening but even more maddening is "locating piano noises". I want to give you an article that deals with "Locating and Removing Unwanted Piano Sounds".

DETECTIVE HATS

We will put on our detective hats and get to the bottom of "some" of these unwanted sounds but it will not be easy.

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Locating piano noises is one of the hardest things that a piano tech has to do. I think this is an accurate statement and the reason it is true is because of the variety of sources where these noises lurk.

Somewhere inside that vast array of wires, felts, wood, metal, nuts and bolts there are noise demons and they have to go. It pays to have some tricks up your sleeve but more than tricks you will need patience.

THE ENEMA

Let me give you a humorous true story that happened to me one time. I got a call from a older lady who was a piano teacher. She wanted me to tune her piano but also said there was a terrible noise coming from her foot pedals and could I find it and fix it.

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Since it was a mini-grand I immediately started thinking of ways to approach this. She said, “My husband sprays it with WD-40 and it seems to help but only briefly.” I told her that WD-40 might even be "promoting" the squeak as it is primarily used to eliminate the presence of moisture.

So we worked out the visit and I arrived on approved time and day. As is my custom I fix anything that is wrong with the piano before I begin to tune, that includes all noises. Now what I use for some of these squeak-noises when I think I can get away with it is "Mineral Oil". It says on the bottle "Mineral Oil Tasteless & Odourless Laxative".

It worked and when the job was done my client noticed that the squeak was gone and asked how I did that so I told her "I gave your piano a Laxative." We both laughed and then she said, "I can't wait to tell my husband that the tuner gave my piano a laxative and that all it needed was an enema cause it's fine now."

WHERE ARE THEY

Where I live there are ants everywhere in the summer. It seems that you can find ants on your roof and under rocks all at the same time. They are unpredictable really as to where they will show up. This is similar to piano noises.

When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.....
— Sherlock Holmes

The difference is you can "see" the ants but with piano noises they can only be heard and they are so deceiving. You think you have found the buzzing sound so you work to narrow it down in one specific area only to be mistaken. Like I said it is maddening.

I mentioned "buzzes" and so I think that is a good non-musical sound to start with. There are, of course, other definite sounds that cannot be categorized as a buzz and we will deal with those too.

Now the "buzz" itself has various sounds of "buzzing". Some are high-pitch, some are scratchy sounding, some are a vibrating sound. They are all annoying in the piano and unwanted and must be eliminated. Where should I start to look?

LET'S START IN THE DAMPERS

 (1) Upright Piano Damper Action

Damper felts get old right along with the piano trouble is they get hard too. There are reasons for the hardness and sometimes it is because of previous sloppy work but technicians who dribble glue on the strings or the damper felt itself. Then it's a matter of removing the glue which is harder than it sounds. Never-the-less removal works.

....massage those felts....   

....massage those felts....

 

Also, concerning these hardened damper felts nothing works better than replacing them with new softer more durable felts but if that is not possible then what I like to do is "massage" the felts.

I do this by placing my finger in between the damper felt and the string and pinching and squeezing and pushing it. This takes the crust off the outer layer and while this is not a real fix it's surprising how long this will last if done properly.

If when the damper pedal is engaged and a damper does not clear fully back away from the string a buzz will be heard as the felt is generally just resting slightly on the string as it vibrates. If this is the case then the problem usually is the damper spoon at the back of the wippen needs to be adjusted forward or backward.

Another check on this is to press the piano key corresponding to that particular damper felt and if it is working properly then as the key is pressed midway on its way down then the damper felt should be fully out from and away from the string. If not then it is obvious that the damper spoon needs to be adjusted.

(2) Grand Piano Damper Action

The Visual Inspector   

The Visual Inspector

 

As you know the Grand Piano has a different layout and if we are still thinking the noise is coming from the Damper Action this calls for a good "visual" inspection first.

The reason for this is that the damper wires on a grand pass through the strings. This is significant because if perhaps a piano string is out of alignment even slightly then it could be resting on the damper wire causing a buzz sound usually.

To remedy this simply re-align the string under the capo bar. You can also bend the damper wire slightly if you need to. This should remedy that noise. These are subtle yet unwanted noises but you can make a difference rather quickly by following these instructions.

(3) Foreign Objects on the Soundboard

One time I was asked to tune a mini-grand in a Church. When I started to play the piano before tuning it I noticed that many of the keys were "babbling" or double-striking. It was also very noisy and the keys were not performing properly. So I decided to take the key bed out and have a closer look.

....unwanted noise producers sometimes laying on the soundboard....

....unwanted noise producers sometimes laying on the soundboard....

What I found was so remarkable that before a began adjusting the action I called the fellow who was sent to let me in over to the piano as a witness. When he was present I pulled the action all the way out and found three full scribbler pages, several pens and pencils, paper clips, guitar picks and some coins, etc. I even found a woman's fake finger nail of which I said to the man "I hope we don't find the woman in there someplace".

Now, the above story does not happen all the time but it does go to show you that a neglected piano is subject to unusual noises. Anything hard that is lying on the sound board will always make it's unwanted presence heard. Kind of like a bad kid. It just will not stop.

A loose screw, paper clip, plastic finger nail, these are potential music breakers. A plastic shirt button or worse a metal shirt button on the ever so sensitive sound board can be the source of your heartache.

(4) String Buzzes

These are generally different from foreign objects on the soundboard. I mean the sound may be the same or close but if it's a string that is buzzing then it will be centralized usually to one note and not seemingly everywhere as the soundboard buzz.

...unwanted sounds...  GET OUT  ...

...unwanted sounds...GET OUT...

The list is long as to the source of string buzzes some of which I have already covered with the damper details in both the upright and grand pianos. I think it's fair to say that string buzzes coincide with the "bearing" points as you would follow the culprit string on it path down through the capo bar, through the agraff, on down through the bridge pins to the bottom hitch pin and back up.

Administering a bit of pressure at these various points, even tapping the pins into the bridge itself and taping also the string toward the bridge. You can check these points to see if they are buzz-free by playing the note as you move from point to point. Make sure you tap gently on the pins and string and use brass punch preferably a stiff piece of hardwood dowelling works as a second choice.

(5) Bass Strings That Buzz

I have found that many of the older bass strings buzz. This is a result of rust and dirt forming between the copper winding and the steel string.

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The most helpful thing to do here is back the pressure of the string and take it off the bottom hitch pin. Then twist the string via the loop one full turn and always in the direction that will tighten the winding not loosen it. Often this will work but often the only real remedy is to replace the string.

(6) Rattle Type Noises

If you hear rattles when you are playing, this could very simply be loose case parts or the music stand itself. Maybe the piano lid. Not something to get too alarmed about usually.

Work hard to silence the noises....let your success be your noise.....
— Frank Ocean

These are often remedied by adding additional felts or even replacing existing felt so as to eliminate the obvious hard contact. You can also lubricate certain contact areas by administering hard "soap" to the contact area.

(7) Clicking Type Noises

Sometimes the white key covers get lose and you don't even realize it. They just separate themselves from the bond they used to have with the wooden key top. Humidity is probably the reason for this.

Trouble is they may not be totally separated. Perhaps a part is still bonded and when you are playing and you strike that key it makes a clicking sound as a result of being free on the unglued part. Again so subtle yet so real.

(8) Hammers That Make More Noise Than They're Worth

The hammers themselves cause lots of grief in many ways. One way in particular I find is when they are in need of regulation work. Regulation Work is term we use to explain that the piano action needs some adjustments.

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In older pianos the hammer itself, although made from cotton originally, have over the years compacted and now are as hard as wood. Sometimes these hammers will get to the point that they will not let-off from the string after being played. At least not until you take your finger off that particular key. This is where regulation adjustments apply.

Hammer buzzes happen as a result of accidentally spilling something on them like glue etc. This makes a hard spot on them that will buzz upon impact with the strings.

Sometimes we techs use things like hammer-hardener on hammers when they are too soft but unfortunately it is applied to heavily.

Sometimes it is deep grooves in the hammers themselves that is the culprit. If deep grooves are the problem then the hammers need to be voiced or replaced.

(9) Piano Hardware

Prime sources of buzzes, clicks, clanks and other such noise are seemingly simple not thought of parts such as hinges, casters, locks and cabinet hardware. Music desk supports, slides, rubber bumpers, in fact just about anything can be a noise complaint.

.....the family choir four part harmony.....

.....the family choir four part harmony.....

Don't overlook the possibility that the particular noise you are trying to locate may be coming from the lamp or the lamp stand. It could be the Venetian blinds or a clock on the wall. It could be the picture of Grand Mother on the piano itself that is causing the annoying sound.

You'll need to have a good directional sense of hearing to find these noise makers and that's not all. As I have said previously, patience is a real virtue.

I blame the soundboard for most of the reasons that I cannot locate the source of the noise easier. The soundboard is doing what it is there to do and that is to magnify the sound. Too bad it was not programmed to magnify the good sounds only.

TROUBLE SHOOTING CHECKLIST

Lastly, let me give you a list that will not be exhaustive but never-the-less quite complete. Some points on this list will have been mentioned in the blog already due to the commonality of them. Note the following potential problem areas which will give you a starting zone at least:

O, no, another list.....

O, no, another list.....

(1) Pertaining to when your Finger Strikes the Key: Debris; Loose white key top; Loose wippen flange screw; Closely spaced keys; Loose key leads; Debris in key bushing mortises; Missing, damaged or worn key bushings; Pulley keys and worn balance holes.

(2) Pertaining to when the Hammer Strikes the Strings: Loose shank flange screw; Loose Shank (or butt) centre pin; Loose hammer heads; Delayed damper lift; Loose parts; Glue between grand jack and fork in the wippen base; Hammers touching each other; Balance rail glide bolt too high.

(3) Pertaining to after the Hammer Strike: Loose hammer rest rail; Jack rest felt or centre pin; Felts over-saturated with glue; Repetition lever screw too high; Loose back-checks; Loose catcher or catcher dowel.

(4) Pertaining to Key Returns: Key touches key stop rail screw or nut; Loose key stop rail; Loose key leads.

(5) Pertaining to Back-Action and Damper Noises: Loose grand damper stop rail; Underlever hits sostenuto rod; Missing or damaged damper stop rail felt; Damper heads strike plate struts; Damper Heads hit each other; Loose damper head; Loose grand under-lever pinning; Loose grand under-lever leads.

(6) Pertaining to Pedal Noises in Grands: Pedal linkage adjusted too low (too much play); Loose lyre braces; Worn or wobbly pedal pins or bushings; Hardened or missing felts and leathers on the trap-work; Trap-work lever hitting the L-shapped stop hook; Wobble trap-work or loose trap-work center pin; Worn bushings in the pedal rod guide rail.

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(7) Pertaining to Pedal Noises in Verticals: Misaligned pedals; Hardened or missing cloth punchings; Hardened or missing stop felt; Loose pedal blocks or brackets, worn bushings, wobbly or broken pedal pin.

(8) Pertaining to Books to purchase: “Pianos Inside Out” by Mario Igrec is highly recommended by myself and no doubt every piano technician that has read it. Clearly if you are in the piano tuning and repair business or even (I should say “especially”) if you are a hobbyist this is the book to own. There is so much knowledge in this book and is so very well thought out that I personally could not do without it now.

CONCLUSION

As you can imagine by now there are numerous annoying sounds found in pianos. Sounds that are easy fixes; sounds that will be found quit by accident; and sounds that piano owners search for seems like eternally.

I have tried to touch on as many of these sounds as I could think of but the list is endless in some cases. I have found that it is better to take them one case at a time and to approach it in a positive manner.

Don't feel defeated but do feel challenged and by all means make it your mission to find the unwanted sound.....and silence it forever.

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It literally could be as simple as a picture rattling on the wall as said earlier, rattling because the piano touches that wall ever so slightly. Then again it could be in the piano action where a centre pin is squealing for lack of lubrication.

What we need to know and have confidence in the fact is that these unwanted sounds can be located and great is the reward when they are tracked down. So don't give up your quest to make your piano as free of non-musical sounds as possible.

The reward is similar to a hard fought victory and the feeling of elation you get having won the battle. Don't give up, rather think in terms of.....ATTACK!!!!!

Written by Duane Graves of Duane's Piano Tuning & Technology