When it came back, all brand-new, from the American factory in Queens, New York City, the soundboard was wonderful: singing, sustaining, huge, clear. The action? Horrific. Not surprising, given that 1961 was a pretty bad year for Steinway factory action-building.
This new action “played like a truck,” as we say. Very high downweight—in the high 60-to-low-70-gram range—AND high upweight, from 30-36g. It would take a gorilla, or The Hulk, to play serious music with a touch like that. And that’s WITHOUT the dampers engaged. Because the Steinway factory had installed the damper action at a height that was different than the action elevation, the little nose of the damper mechanism dug into the soft felt on the key end, and made it 4-6g heavier still.
In a word, unplayable.
Various great technicians, including the legendary Norman Neblett, tried their best to lighten the touch, to no real avail. Warner Bros. had resorted—descended—into renting another concert grand every time they had a session. The piano they rented was a “D” that had been on the long-defunct yet world-famous scoring stage at Todd-AO. It had a reputation as a “magic piano”—it sounded and felt so good.
Some context: until the end of the 1990’s, even the best piano technicians, with rare and few exceptions, knew nothing about how to permanently and ethically change the touchweight on a piano. The factory was king; you didn’t change what they did at the factory. That was seen as near-heresy. Action rebuilding and engineering was almost like a secret; factories much preferred it that way: ignorance as a competitive edge (they’ll buy more new pianos…)
There has been an absolute revolution of knowledge and understanding about piano action geometry and engineering over the past 20 years, and we at DAP have been lucky beneficiaries, and hungry students of, this change. We have made action engineering, and touchweight refinement, one of the crucial aspects of our craft and business.
The story of how we got the job is epic. I’ll save it until next time…but soon. Soon.