The Dreaded P.R.T.B.

What the heck is a P.R.T.B.? It stands for pedal rod tubing buzz. It is a sympathetic vibration caused by a harp’s pedal rod tubing assembly, the system of parts inside a pedal harp’s column that connect the pedals at your feet with the mechanism above your head. It can cause very prominent unwanted vibrations, primarily in the 5th and 6th octaves, when they are played loudly.

Why Do They Happen?
P.R.T.B.s happen when either: 1.)one of the pedal rods or 2.)some part of the tubing assembly vibrates along with the playing of one or more of the of the strings. Since the rods and tubing are as long as some of the harp’s longest bass strings, these vibrations can be rather loud. They can develop because lubrication that was originally added to the tubing dries up, leaving more room for vibration, or the tubing itself widens over time, causing the same result. There have been a variety of different materials used for tubing over the years. All of them can develop buzzes, the reasons why can vary.

A harp’s pedal rods can start to vibrate sympathetically along with the strings.

Diagnosing a P.R.T.B.
P.R.T.B.s are almost always heard on 5th Octave B or below. The most common one by far is the 5th Octave A flat. 5th Octave G and 6th Octave C are also more frequent troublemakers, but these buzzes can happen throughout the lower register. If you hear a loud, low rumbling sound when playing in this range, it may well be a P.R.T.B., especially if it only occurs in one particular pedal position on a given string. Playing the offending string as well as the one an octave below it may make the tubing buzz more prominent. Another way to diagnose a tubing buzz is to play the offending string plus an adjacent one. If this causes a pulsating sound in the buzz, chances are it’s the tubing.

It’s also important to try and rule out loose linkages in the mechanism, which can cause similar buzzes. If your harp’s mechanism needs reriveting, it may cause buzzes similar to those in the tubing. Linkage buzzes, in general, are higher pitched and more metallic than tubing buzzes.

Does it Mean Something’s Broken?
No. It is merely an unwanted sound. You have to play pretty hard before hearing a tubing buzz. I often hear them when the harp’s owner does not, because I play very hard when I regulate, in order to detect potential problems. A tubing buzz is not a sign that anything is damaged or about to break.  If it doesn’t bother you, or you only hear it when you play really hard, you can ignore it without worries.

The pedal rods need to be disconnected from the mechanism before the buzz can be fixed.

Fixing a P.R.T.B.
Eliminating a P.R.T.B. is a labor-intensive project, as it is necessary to disconnect all the pedals and springs, as well as disconnect the pedal rods from the mechanism. In some cases, the tubing assembly has to be removed as well. On newer instruments, it is often possible to cure this buzz by pushing grease into the tubing to fill any voids that have defeloped between the rods and the tubes. This is often called lubricating or “greasing” the rods. Lubricant is used, though the point of the excercise is not actually to increase lubrication, but to cut down on free space inside the tubing. If this alone doesn’t work, sometimes removing the tubing assemly itself and adding some additional padding to fill any voids between it and the harp column can do the trick. In other cases, it is necessary to replace the entire tubing assembly, though the pedal rods can generally be reused. Regardless of which solution is used, this is a job best left to a technician. Because of the disassembly and reassembly involved, it is time consuming (technician-speak for “expensive”). Another reason why, if this buzz isn’t bothering you too much, you can just ignore it.

Make Sure it’s not the Room
Last month I wrote about ruling out sympathetic vibrations coming from somewhere in your harp’s environment, not the harp itself. If you’ve already followed those instructions and made sure your room is innocent of all charges, and the buzz you’re stalking is in the lower register, see if you can determine if it is, in fact, the dreaded P.R.T.B.

 

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How to Prepare for a Regulation

When you make an appointment to have your harp regulated, there are three important things you can do to get ready. The first is to make sure your strings are in good condition, especially in the top two octaves. The second is to make a list of any specific problems you would like to see addressed. The third is to let your technician know in advance if you will want strings or other parts replaced.

Good String Condition –> Good Regulation

Over time and with use, harp strings wear away at the points where the discs of the mechanism (or the lever cams on lever harps) contact them. Strings that have been in heavy use for a year or more will often look like they’ve been chewed on, or even had a bite taken out of them, at those points. On thicker strings, from the third octave on down, this wear can affect the string’s tone, but generally doesn’t affect its ability to play in tune. In the top two octaves, however, the shorter string lengths mean that any change or damage to a string will have its effect multiplied. As the string wears away, the disc will grip the string less strongly. The string will tend to sound flat, and may even begin to snap.

These problems can be fixed by a regulation even if you don’t replace the strings, but there’s a problem. If I adjust your harp to sound in tune with old, worn strings, then they wear out or break and you replace them, their relationship with the discs will change, and they will likely sound sharp. That’s why, for the most accurate and durable regulation, I recommend replacing old or worn strings prior to your regulation.

Since strings take a while to stretch and settle, it’s best to replace them two weeks prior to the regulation appointment so they will be stable by the time you see your technician. If you miss that window, however, even one week prior is okay. I’d rather regulate your harp with new, slightly unstable strings than with those old clunkers.

When a string is in good condition, it can be gripped well by the discs, resulting in a clean sound and accurate intonation.

When a string is in good condition, it can be gripped well by the discs, resulting in a clean sound and accurate intonation.

Worn away strings will not be gripped as well. They will be out of tune when you change pedal positions and will probably snap against the discs as well.

Worn away strings will not be gripped as well. They will be out of tune when you change pedal positions and will probably snap against the discs as well.

Be Specific

If there is a buzz or strange vibration in your harp that is bothering you, make a note of it, along with as much specific information as possible about conditions when it happens. Better yet, practice reproducing it. The best way to make sure I hear what you’re hearing is to be able to make it happen when you bring the harp in for service. If you make some written notes, you’ll be able to remember the pedal position, string, et cetera. I often have people give me vague information like, “there’s a buzz. I think it’s in the third octave somewhere. Or was it the fourth?” Having as much info as possible about what key you’re in and what string your playing when you hear the buzz will give me a greater chance to locate and troubleshoot it. There are many cases where a buzz will happen one one particular string and in one particular key. If I don’t set the pedals exactly the way you do and play the string the same way, I may not hear what you hear. Later on, when I’m headed back to Indiana and you play in that key again, you hear that the buzz is still there and you decide I’m a lousy harp technician. Neither of us wants that to happen!

Likewise, if you have a question or several about your harp, do yourself a favor and write it down. If I had a dollar for every time someone said “I know there was something I wanted to ask you but I can’t remember what it was” I could probably take a luxury cruise.

Plan Ahead

If you would like bass wires or pedal caps replaced, or if you have a disc that is broken, please let me know in advance. I can make sure I bring what you need, and schedule in any extra time that may be required to replace strings or broken parts. I try to keep spare parts on hand, but I’m limited to the amount of things I can cram in my luggage and the airlines limit the amount of weight I can carry, so I’m not prepared for every situation. I also only carry an emergency set of strings. If you’re not sure whether or not something will need replacing, feel free to ask me. I may need you to send a picture, or we might make a plan to have the part on hand just in case.

So there it is, your harp technician’s wish list. Paying attention to these issues will help you get the best possible regulation when the appointment time rolls around. Not only that, but you’ll make your technician’s day. Cheers!

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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!

 

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.

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.

 

Fall 2014 Harp Regulation Schedule

harpreg30Here’s an at-a-glance look at my schedule from late July, 2014 through the beginning of November:
 

  • July 21-27: Redlands, CA
  • August 25-30: Ann Arbor, MI
  • September 5-8: Interlochen, MI
  • September 19-24: Salt Lake City, UT
  • September 25-27: Spokane, WA
  • October 6-10: Omaha, NE
  • November 3-8: Austin, TX

 

If you’d like to schedule an appointment for any of these locations, feel free to contact me (steve (at) mossharpservice (dot) com). If you’re viewing this post after Summer/Fall of 2014 you can find an updated schedule on my calendar page.

Check out Harptechguild.com

techGuildLogoThere’s a new website called harptechguild.com, sponsored by the Lyon & Healy/Salvi Technicians Guild, that can come in handy when you need to know which technicians serve your area and when one will be coming to town.

While I wish everyone in the world would just hire me to do their harp regulations, obviously that isn’t possible. I simply don’t go everyplace. Or I do come someplace near you, but sometimes the timing of my visit doesn’t work for you. Now, you can search technician service areas through harptechguild.com.

The Lyon & Healy/Salvi Technicians Guild isn’t a guild in the purest sense. It is a group sponsored by the Lyon & Healy and Salvi Harp Companies.  Technicians who are considered by these companies to be qualified to service their harps are admitted to the Guild. Members include technicians employed by both companies as well as independent techs like me who have extensive training and experience with these two brands.  We get together periodically to share information and to learn from each other, and we regularly communicate about regulation issues and coordinate service for customers looking for technicians in their areas. The companies also use the Guild to keep independent technicians informed on advances and design changes happening in the factories.

The members of the Guild pushed for the creation of a website where customers could find a list of technicians who service their area and access their contact information, as well as an online calendar listing service trips for each technician. Lyon & Healy  and Salvi responded with harptechguild.com.

The site is young, and admittedly not every member is using it to post a schedule, but you can find listings of highly qualified  technicians who come to your area, and the listings cover the entire world. I encourage you to check it out. If you are connected to a  harp society  chapter or other harp group, i would encourage you to consider adding a link on your community website.