Today we’d like to speak about our beloved Blüthner Grand Piano.
Many of my clients have asked why we feature a piano in our studio that some have never heard of or played. After all, most lovers of fine pianos consider Steinway to be the standard of excellence. The name is ubiquitous across the world in concert halls and music academies. Originally, we had a Steinway here at the studio. The acquisition was as much a response to a fine product as it was to brilliant marketing. Let's face it, when it comes to pianos, they own the space.
It's akin to shopping for a fine watch. Most consumers would buy a Rolex - exquisite, luxurious, but is it the best? Not when compared to the lesser known Hublot Black Caviar Bang or Blancpain 1735. Marketing moves us towards certain brands - known, lauded,
and thus, secure.
“The public always wants to be told” Edwin Lefevre
Two years ago we decided to make the switch to a piano that we believed was a much better fit for our recording space, chosen by ear and feel rather than security and recognition. And though we know it to have gone above and beyond in quality, we still find many artists that are hesitant to use this relatively unknown piano. Thus, we thought it time to really explain why we love our Blüthner.
Obviously, no two pianos sound alike. Each one is made from a different tree, different wood, and each has its own unique resonance. Finding the piano with the sound that works for you is a very individual thing, and should always be.
I have been performing and recording my entire adult life, and I can comfortably say I know my pianos. When selecting an instrument, I sit at the keys and listen for a kind of sound - a warm harmonic - the rich tones the wood carries, its ability to express certain overtones. Thankfully I have been blessed with the ear, and have acquired the expertise, to recognize that sound. That is what I have come to rely on, not a marketing pitch - however storied and skillful it might be. It is the search for that special sound that guides me - the luster of the tone, rather than the brand.
WHY NOT A STEINWAY?
Even today, if someone told me that there was a room full of Steinways around the corner, my heart would skip a beat. Why? Steinway has a fantastic reputation to build an instrument of high quality. A good friend of mine said to me, “With a Steinway, you could always count on a certain quality of physical behaviour, touch and sound”. This is important; especially when it comes to concert pianists who rely on a certain consistency for the way the instrument behaves. There are many Steinways that I did not like at all, and there are some I’ve truly enjoyed. It really depends on the character of each instrument. But after accolades have been given, there is still one extremely important aspect that is just as important to address: choice.
Steinway & Sons has a monopoly in the piano world. They are the most widely distributed concert piano globally (holding about 98% of the market), and that is no coincidence. From supplying musical education centers to making exclusive deals and endorsements with musicians to play their pianos (and punishing them if they do not adhere), they’ve created an arena where it is extremely difficult to play or endorse any other brand, let alone to know it could be competition in the first place. Many music writers have commented on the dedication and effectiveness of the Steinway approach:
Michael Z. Wise explains, "Steinway runs a mutually beneficial system for themselves and the artists, incentivising “the most prominent pianists to maintain a Steinway monopoly on concert pianos, which is a great way to get consumers to buy their pianos. Rising pianists benefit from the prestige of Steinway's brand, and Steinway's brand benefits from the prestige of being associated with every single famous pianist.” The New York Times, 2004
“Part of the company strategy to ensure that future generations of pianists will feel this way about Steinways is to make top music conservatories like Juilliard and Oberlin so-called ‘all-Steinway schools.’ If you want to study the piano there, you must play a Steinway.” Benjamin Ivory, The Observer, 2006
And Ben Roth articulates my point: “[Steinway is] a storied company that produces gorgeous instruments…(but) many people never acknowledge that there could be any other "elite" piano brand, simply because Steinway so aggressively stifles its competition. If you like Steinway, chances are that you like it in part because it is a luxurious brand by reputation. And that is why they can charge you so much for a piano.” Fire Hazard, 2013
Roth encapsulates the essence of Steinway's successful approach here: "The pattern goes on…If you were a piano prodigy, grew up watching your idols perform on Steinways, personally only ever played Steinways at your conservatory, and then (on some momentous day) were offered by Steinway to be a Steinway Artist, wouldn't you accept? The alternative is to find something else to play in every concert hall you visit. And if you were looking to buy a piano, and every classical album you owned was performed on a Steinway, and every live concert you went to see was performed on a Steinway, wouldn't you think there must be something great about those pianos?”
CONCERT VS. STUDIO RECORDINGS
Now, considering that I am writing this article in a recording studio, I should mention something that very few people consider when looking for a piano on which to record: there are two very different types of recording which will determine the type of piano you are going to want to use. The first is studio recording. The second is concert recording, which is undertaken in a large hall or ambient space such as a church.
Many people have an idealistic idea of what a concert grand should be able to accomplish when recording - without considering the room, the size, the song, the type of recording that the music calls for, etc. Concert recordings require a huge room and a great instrument, ideally a concert grand. In these recordings, microphones are placed above and sometimes across the piano. An orchestra, ensemble or soloist may be playing alongside the pianist. The result is a full round sound, complete with the large reverb that accompanies these recordings. The microphones pick up the overtones from the piano, thus reflecting into the space - ideal for the piano recording itself.
But in a small recording studio, the sound changes. Very often a grand or concert grand will still be used (if the room can handle it); however, the room sound may not be able to create the magnificent effect of a large concert hall - the natural reverb inherent in a large space. More often, a recording studio requires a closer and more intimate piano sound. Therefore, this type of recording will be more focused on the piano sound itself rather than relying on the ambient room sound. In a studio, the microphones are typically placed inside the piano so that the recording sounds closer and richer.
Where does this leave us when it comes to a choice of piano? Steinway pianos can be "joyfully obedient". They are known for their action and touch. They tend to have more resistance on the keys creating a favorable feeling for many concert pianists.
However, with this type of action comes the sound of the dampers. Unfortunately, with my Steinway - the sound of the damper when the pedal was depressed made a very noticeable cushion sound (this is the sound of the dampers being raised by the pedal). It was become extremely annoying and invariably was picked up in the recording.
The Blüthner, we discovered, was much better suited to our space. It is perfect for the intimate and full sound that many recording artists are looking for (and no damper sound). Finally, we found the golden tone we were searching for.
The Blüthner Grand at Alice's Loft
In the end, it comes down to personal choice. You’ll need to ask yourself what kind of sound you want for your recording; choose the space and piano with that in mind. At Alice's Loft, for all the above reasons, our choice is the Blüthner. And it is a brilliant fit.
Note* It is extremely important with Blüthners to find a piano tuner who knows how to work with them. The key is in regulating the upper register and fine-tuning the strings located there. If done well, the piano rings like nothing else, with the most gorgeous singing tone. If it is not done well, the strings can sound metallic. I have been extremely fortunate to find someone who really knows how to accomplish this. I gratefully thank my piano tuner, Robert Pearce, for his compassionate expertise in making my Blüthner come alive.
OUR STUDIO AND OUR BLÜTHNER
Alice’s Loft Music recording-studio boasts 30 foot high ceilings and a wonderful warm sound with ample space to handle the concert grand.
This 100-year piano (the 7’8, Style 10, Supréme Edition) has an incredibly expressive and rich tone with a very big bottom end, which has been perfect for our closely miked recording sessions. It features the patented Aliquot strings. The famous 4th string is not struck by the hammer, but vibrates through sympathetic resonance. The action is softer than the Steinway and the pedal is so light that it does not even feel as if I am pressing it down. Therefore, there is no damper sound in the recording - leaving room for the deep, resonant and ‘golden tone’ that is the base of Blüthner’s well-earned reputation.
ILLUSTRIOUS BLÜTHNER AFFICIANDOS
Many prominent artists have held the same high regard for the Blüthner. Arthur Rubinstein was one such pianist, finding that: "Blüthner had the most beautiful singing tone I have ever found…the piano inspired me. I don’t think I ever played better in my life. And then the miracle happened; they played it back to me and I must confess that I had tears in my eyes. It was the performance that I dreamed of and the sound reproduced faithfully the golden tone of the piano.”
Sergei Rachmaninov was obviously a convert, stating; “There are only two important things which I took with me on my way to America, It´s been my wife Natalja and my precious Blüthner”.
The Blüthner is one of the great old world pianos, and has been the instrument of Arthur Rubinstein, Claudio Arrau, Carl Reinecje, Wilhelm Kempff, Alexander Paley, Artur Pizarro, Petronel Malan and Mikhail Pletnev. Composers include Bela Bartok, Carl Orff, Peter Tschaikovsky, Dimitri Schostakowitsch, Gustav Mahler, Claude Debussy, Johannes Brahms, Franz Liszt, Sergei Prokofiev, Sergei Rachmaninov, and Richard Wagner. The Beatles played it on “Let it Be”.
Rachmaninov with his ‘precious Blüthner’.
CONCLUSION: MARKETING VEILS TRUTHS / BE YOUR OWN CASTING DIRECTOR
The ‘father of public relations’ and consumer-culture guru Edward Bernays once said, “We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested.” This is what we battle against in our day-to-day consumer decisions. It’s easy to see how powerful marketing can be when, in our case, it has created an overwhelming market-hold of one company over all other options. Thankfully, as musicians, we have one thing that the marketing companies can’t manipulate: we have professional ears.
The fact of the matter is, I loved the Steinway, but I love the Blüthner more. As stated, it’s always a matter of personal taste, but for me nothing takes the place of the deep tones when it comes to this particular piano. In the recording studio, I like to think of it as being a casting director. We can all mostly agree that Tom Hanks is a great actor, yes? But you wouldn’t cast him in the role of Don Corleone, would you? The same goes for a great piano put in the wrong type of room.
If you are searching for the perfect piano for your recording then ask yourself, ‘what kind of recording am I looking for?’ If you want a great, lush and close studio sound, then do as I do and work with Blüthner. Better yet, take a second to consider exactly how much you know about the multitude of other beautiful brands out there (Boesendorfer, Fazioli, Bechstein, etc.). Though I’ve made my choice, there are plenty of options for everyone. Be your own casting director. Don’t stop at the buck with Steinway, look for the character that fits the role. That’s what we did here at Alice’s Loft, and that’s why we are so happy with the piano we chose.