Harp Buzzes 101: String End Vibrations

String ends can cause a sympathetic vibration when their tails are in contact with one another.

String ends can cause a sympathetic vibration when their tails are in contact with one another.

One of the most common and annoying harp buzzes is caused by unwanted vibrations where the strings are anchored in the soundboard. Fortunately this is also one of the easiest buzzes to eliminate. With a little patience and detective work, you can easily fix that annoying buzz yourself.

Have Some Sympathy.

You are probably already familiar with the concept of sympathetic vibrations, but if not, let me give an example. In your harp studio or practice room, have you ever had a light fixture or object nearby start buzzing every time you play a specific note? For some reason, that object is prone to vibrate at a particular frequency, and if your note matches, it will vibrate. If the vibrating object touches something else, it will cause a buzz, the same way a snare drum will sound when the band plays a particular note, even if no one is playing the drum. Depending on the thickness of the vibrating object and the acoustic properties of the room, the buzz may become loud enough to annoy the heck out of you.
A string end vibration is caused when the tail end of a string vibrates sympathetically with the note you are playing and the vibration causes it to come in contact with something else, usually a string anchor, another tail end, or the wood of the harp itself.
Since harps are designed to project sound, an unwanted buzz inside the body will be amplified and pushed right at your ear through the sound hole. The trick to eliminating it is to track down what two objects are touching one another and find a way to make them stop touching.

Diagnosing String End Vibrations

String end vibrations sound the loudest when you are sitting at the harp. To rule out noises coming from elsewhere, such as the action, play the buzzing string with your ear close to a soundhole, then with your ear close to the action. If the sound is louder at the soundhole, it is likely coming from inside the body, and the most likely culprit is a string end. Another common clue to a string end vibration is how many strings cause it. While most vibrations manifest in one particular string, some will occur in two or more adjacent strings, or in a single string in different pedal positions. In cases like this, the offending string end is so excitable it is vibrating along a range of frequencies.

It’s logical to think that if, for example, your harp buzzes when you play third octave C, that the problem is coming from that strings end, but this is rarely the case. Alas, it can be coming from practically any string end on the instrument. In most cases I’ve seen, though, it is probably coming from somewhere in the first through third octaves.

To locate a string end buzz, you can start by taking a look inside at where your strings are anchored. Can you see any places where two long string ends are touching one another, or where a long tail is able to brush against the soundboard? If so, carefully clip the tail shorter to see if you can stop the buzz.

If a visual inspection doesn’t do the trick, you need to play the offending note while using your other hand to push on each string end one at a time. If pressing against a particular string end stops the buzz, you’ve found your culprit. If not, keep trying. Press on each end more than once in slightly different places. You may need to hit some tiny little spot in order to stop the buzz. More than once I’ve checked every string and not found the source of the buzz, but then checked again and found it after another try, or even two more.

Once you find the location, try to determine what is likely to be buzzing. A string end that is very close to an anchor is a common one, as is a string end that is slightly long and touching wood. If you have a tail longer than the anchor, try to clip it shorter. If that doesn’t do the job, try rotating the string knot a quarter turn. Don’t overdo the rotating, as it can damage the string. In some cases, you can bend the tail so that it is farther from whatever it is in contact with.

If none of the fixes in the preceding paragraph work, and you are certain you are stopping the noise on this particular string, replace it. That should take care of the problem. Sometimes, there’s just something about the knot that is buzzing and there’s no way to fix it without starting over.

Not every buzz inside the harp’s body is a string end vibration. I have seen rib screws that were loose, braces that had come unglued, and handles that needed to be tightened. Once, we had a harp brought into Lyon & Healy to fix a bad buzz, and one of the technicians discovered that the problem was a ball point pen that had been clipped inside! However, over ninety-five percent of the buzzes you hear from this part of the harp are due to string end issues. It is well worth your time to try and eliminate them yourself instead of waiting months or a year for your technician. Happy hunting!

 

My Harp Has a Boo Boo!

Ouch!

Ouch!

It happens to every harp sooner or later. You do your best to be careful when you move. You load your harp in the car with care. You ask the violists nicely for the thousandth time not to push their chairs into your harp. But no matter how hard you try, the time will come when someone knocks a music stand against your soundboard, or you drop a tuning key, or that overly helpful stage hand runs the top of your column into a doorway. The result. A dent! A ding! A scratch! What are you supposed to do now?

The good news is a small area of damage does not necessarily require complete refinishing to fix. It is possible to touch up a scratch or dent, making it virtually invisible.

Don’t Try this at Home

Making dings like these disappear is better left to a professional.

Making dings like these disappear is better left to a professional.

There are finish touch up products available at your local hardware store, such as touch up pens and wax pencils, but my advice is not to use them. It is difficult to make a good repair, and easy to make the situation worse than it was before you tried to fix it.
If you really want to make a dent or ding invisible, your best bet is to seek professional help. You’ll want to find a musical instrument or furniture touch up artist in your area. An expert in touch ups will know the best way to deal with the damage on your harp and how to match the color of its finish.

Talk to Piano Technicians

The best place to look for recommendations for touch up work is to contact piano technicians in your area. A lot of them do touch up work on pianos and would be well-qualified to do the same for your harp. If they don’t do the work themselves, they will probably be able to recommend someone to you. You can do the same with guitar repair shops. They may also do touch up work or refer to a local expert.
You can also search your area for furniture touch up services, but the reason I recommend going through piano and guitar technicians is that they may know of someone with experience working on musical instruments and will know the proper steps necessary to protect your harp’s strings and mechanical parts from overspray. To find qualified a piano technician in your area, try the search tool at the Piano Technicians Guild website.

Know Your Finish

A pro touch up artist can fill a dent like this with special equipment and make it flush with the rest of the surface.

A pro touch up artist can fill a dent like this with special equipment and make it flush with the rest of the surface.

If you talk to a touch up expert, it will be helpful to know something about the finish on your harp. A large number of harp makers, including Lyon & Healy and Venus harps, use a lacquer finish. This finish is a standard in the furniture industry and is well-known to people who do touch up work. Salvi and Camac instruments have a polyurethane finish. This is a more durable coating, but it is harder for a touch up expert to work with, and not all will be willing to help you. Whatever make of harp you have, I would recommend contacting the maker to ask what finish was used on the harp. There are multiple types of lacquer as well, including precatalyzed lacquer, so the more you know, the better informed your touch up artist will be.

So don’t just live with that unsightly dent. Good touch up artists can be quite affordable. In many cases they’ll even come to your house. Your harp will thank you.

 

 

The Care and Feeding of Pedal Felts

Yep. Time for new felts!

Yep. Time for new felts!

As part of a standard regulation, I always replace a harp’s pedal felts, the red pads that cover the pedals where they sit in the pedal slots. But why? Often, they look just fine. Sure, if they go too long without replacement, they can get torn up and really affect the harp’s playability, but short of that, what’s the point?

The point is that the felt becomes compressed over time, and this affects how the discs rotate and twist the strings. When pedal felts are new, they act like puffed up pillows, padding the harp pedal as it moves against the notches in the base. Over time, though, like pillows that have been slept on, the felts get pressed down. Spaces between the fibers of felt are reduced. In effect, this lengthens the pedal’s “stroke,” or full range of motion.

Even though it isn't torn, this felt is ready to be replaced. Time and use have compressed it.

Even though it isn’t torn, this felt is ready to be replaced. Time and use have compressed it.

New felts increase the discs' grip on the strings, eliminating buzzes and snaps

New felts increase the discs’ grip on the strings, eliminating buzzes and snaps

Even though the increase in stroke is only a few hundredths of an inch, this change affects the stroke of the discs in the mechanism, affecting how much they rotate and grip the strings. As the felt compresses, this discs’ grip is reduced, which can lead to snapping, buzzing, and compromised intonation.

A freshly replaced felt optimizes the action's "stroke."

A freshly replaced felt optimizes the action’s “stroke.”

Besides having your harp regulated on a regular basis, what can you do to prolong the life of your felts? Leave the pedals in the flat position when you are not playing. The pedals are connected to very strong springs which helps them move up when you want to move from sharp to natural, or from natural to flat. If you leave your pedals in a natural and sharp notch, the felts are pressed against wood, which causes compression over time, even if you aren’t playing your harp. If your move the pedals all the way up to flat when the harp is not in use, the pedal felts rest against the white slot felts. this padding reduces compression, prolongs the life of the felts, and thus the life of your harp’s regulation.

Installing a Gold Crown on a Lyon & Healy Style 23

24k gold crownQ: I have a Lyon and Healy 23 and I was given a gold crown for my birthday.  I thought when I took off the wood crown that the gold crown would be an easy installation using the same holes for the screws.  Guess I was wrong.

Do you have any “installation for dummies” advice on how to install the gold crown?  I just don’t want to do anything wrong.
A: As this customer found out, installing a gold crown on your 23 is not a simple matter of taking one off and putting on the other. The screw hole locations are completely different. If you find yourself in her position, I offer the procedure below, which I developed when I worked in the final assembly department at Lyon & Healy. Please take care and use this advice at your own risk. I advise you to contact a professional technician to install your crown for you, but if that is not an option, carefully following these instructions should help you get the job done.
1. put two pieces of double-sided tape on the bottom of the crown

2. Have a chair or step-stool available so you can see the top of the column

3. Set the crown lightly on top of the column. Ideally, the screw holes should point to front, back, left and right, but you need to avoid being too close to existing screw holes. Rotate if necessary so you can drill into virgin wood.

4. Center crown as best you can, sighting from underneath at all angles

5. When you like the position of the crown, pull down firmly so that the double sided tape will hold it in place temporarily

6. Using a punch, nailset, or awl, mark holes as close to the exact center of each screw hole as possible

7. Pull the crown off the column. Using a screwdriver or other fairly solid, fairly sharp tool, scratch an “X” on its bottom nearest the front screw hole. I define “front” as the direction you would face if you were sitting at the harp. This marking will help you remember where the front of the crown is

8. Remove double-sided tape

9. Locate the correct size of drill. Determine this by holding the drill bit in front of a screw. The screw threading should be a little wider than the drill bit, but not much

10. Place a screw in the crown and note how much screw protrudes from the hole. This is the depth of hole you want to drill in the wood. Mark your drill bit with a piece of tape so that you don’t drill too deep

11. Drill your holes. Be careful to hold your drill as close to perpendicular to the wood as you possibly can. Slanted holes will pull the crown off center

12. Lubricate screw threads with beeswax or soap and place them in their holes

13. Remembering to keep the “X” in front, set your crown in place. Ideally, each screw will set right into its hole

14 Tighten screws. It is best to go around in a circle from screw to screw, tightening each a few turns at a time.

15. The screws shouldn’t feel loose. However, if you are fighting them, you need to stop. The heads will strip easily and the shafts can break. These screws are made of brass and are not terribly strong. If you have problems a little more lubrication may help. It is also possible your drill bit was too small, but be cautious about drilling a bigger hole. Look at the angles of the screws. If one or more are at a slant your holes probably got out of whack during drilling. If this is the case, it is best to start over, rotating the crown once again to avoid existing holes

How to Check Your Harp after a Regulation

Style 14 harp with benchMost harpists don’t have a professional technician based in their home towns. If you do, this article will bore the heck out of you. Please return to looking at cat videos. If not, you probably have your harp serviced by a technician who comes to your city periodically, often once a year. If you live outside a metropolitan area, you may have to drive several hours to bring your harp to a visiting technician in the nearest big city.

If your technician is a once-a-year visitor to your area, you’ll want to do what you can to make sure you’re comfortable with the work that was done before he or she leaves. This means checking out your harp after it is regulated. Play one or two of your favorite pieces of music. If there was a spot on one piece where you often noticed a buzz before the regulation, play that spot. Is the buzz gone? Try a few pedal changes. Are you comfortable with the pedal action?

The top professionals I work with always check their harps. They play them hard and loud, and run through some of the most technically demanding pieces they know. If something isn’t quite right, they’d rather find out while I’m standing in in the room with them than two days later when I’ve flown to another part of the country.

Students and novice players are often uncomfortable about playing in front of me. If you’re newer to the instrument, I understand the discomfort you must feel, but I wish you would try to play a little anyway. I’m not there to judge your abilities. Heck, I don’t even play the harp! I just want you to have a chance to ask any questions you may have about the regulation while I’m still present to address them. Nothing’s worse in my world than trying to diagnose a problem with a harp over the phone a week or two after I’ve worked on it, especially if the owner was reluctant to play it when she picked it up. Now, if she had tried it out  after the regulation, and didn’t hear the problem until a week later, at least I would know she tried.

Checking your harp and not finding a problem does not mean my responsibility to you ends. It just means you’re respecting my time and yours by trying to prevent future questions from arising. I can and do try to help resolve problems long-distance and will even make a return trip if necessary, but obviously I need to keep these solutions to an absolute minimum.

Do you hate confrontation? Do you feel awkward complaining about something to a service provider? After all, I’m the professional technician and you’re just a customer, right? I understand that too. The thing is, different people play the harp differently, and often have different expectations about what is most important in their harp’s sound. I adjust the harps I work on based on the feedback I’ve received from hundreds of customers over the years, but there is no one-size-fits-all regulation. If you don’t like something I did, it doesn’t always mean I made a mistake. You’re not insulting me. I’d much rather learn what is important to you so I can set up your harp the way you like it next time.

Harp technicians are human beings. We do make mistakes sometimes. If you help us catch one before it’s too late, we’ll be embarrassed, but we’ll also be relieved that we got the mistake fixed without a return trip to your town.

So, plan on checking your harp. Play it through. If you need music to read, bring music. You may need to bring a portable stand as well. You don’t have to play the most demanding piece you know. Just make some music. Hopefully, you’ll notice that your harp sounds much better after a regulation, but just in case something doesn’t seem quite right. Let’s discuss it right then. We’ll both be glad we did.

 

Soundboard Veneer Splits

Splits in the soundboard veneer do not migrate into the board itself.

Splits in the soundboard veneer do not migrate into the board itself.

 

So, you see some small cracks or splits running along the center strip on your pedal harp, and you’re wondering if this is a sign of scary expensive repairs to come. Fortunately, splits like the one shown in this photo are rarely a cause for concern. As ominous as they look, they are cosmetic, not structural.

The wood grain on this harp’s soundboard appears to run parallel to the center strip, but the wood you see is only a very thin veneer. The grain of the underlying soundboard actually runs perpendicular to the center strip. While the veneer is splitting, there is no way this split will transfer into the soundboard, since the grain direction is different.

If you have a pedal harp, take a flashlight and look at the underside of the soundboard inside the body. You’ll see that the grain of the board is horizontal back there, not running the length of the soundboard the way the top veneer does. In essence, the split you can see on the top is only “skin deep,” and won’t go past the surface layer of wood.

Seen from behind, the grain of the sounboard runs perpendicular to the center strip.

Seen from behind, the grain of the soundboard runs perpendicular to the center strip.

 

Why do these splits happen? Under string tension, the soundboard is naturally pulled upward. As harps age, they develop a degree of bowing or “bellying” in the soundboard. This is actually an important part of the harp’s sound. A bowed soundboard is more resonant than a flat one. This is one reason sound improves with age.

While the soundboard itself is built to withstand the stress of constant string tension, at least for several decades if not more, the veneer is literally paper thin. Moreover, wood is weakest along grain lines. The tension on the board is highest right in the center where the strings are pulling. Where the underlying soundboard can flex under tension, the surface veneer can’t always follow suit. This can results in splits like the ones shown above.

Can these be repaired? First of all, the word “repair” is probably too strong of a word. Nothing is really broken. Okay, you might say, can they be touched up? While I haven’t asked this question of a touch-up expert, I suspect any touc-up work would be temporary. This section of the instrument will continue to bow up over time, and finishes, like wood grain, don’t necessarily flex under tension.

When is a crack in the soundboard something to worry about? If you notice a crack running parallel to the center strip, but about one half inch to one inch away from it, then you have cause for concern. Underneath the board, there is another center strip, much thicker and wider than the one on the surface. A split or crack along the edge of the larger bottom center strip can be an indication that the soundboard is on its way to coming apart. If you do see something like this, shine a flashlight at it. If you can see light on the other side of the soundboard, it’s time to start thinking about replacing the board, or the harp, depending on its monetary and sentimental value.