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 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.

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.

Lever Harp Spoken Here

Lever Harp Lineup at Lyon & Healy WestPeople often ask me if I’m willing to work on lever harps, and the answer is yes! In addition to my extensive experience with Lyon & Healy and Salvi lever harps, I have also serviced and repaired harps by a variety of other makers including Camac, Dusty Strings, Thormahlen, Sandpiper, Triplett, Heartland, and more.

While some traveling harp technicians prefer not to get involved with lever harps, I consider them a specialty. During my time at Lyon & Healy I spent two years performing final regulations on all of the Troubadours, Folk Harps, and Preludes that Lyon & Healy produced. I was a member of the R&D team that developed the Prelude. I also had a hand in the final assembly and regulation of many of the Salvi lever harps sold in the United States in the mid-1990’s.

But enough about me. Let’s talk about your lever harp and its needs. How often do lever harps need service? A lot less often than pedal harps. Lever harps can go for years and years without any more maintenance than regular cleaning and string replacement. If you’re starting to hear some buzzing when you play, or if the harp doesn’t sound in tune anymore when you flip up some of the levers to change keys, then you’re probably due for a regulation.

I generally recommend that lever harp owners who are not having any problems with their instruments have them regulated about once every five years. This gives me a chance to perform preventative maintenance like tightening screws, replacing levers that may be wearing, and watching for any structural issues that may be developing over time.

As with pedal harps, I recommend preparing for a regulation appointment by replacing the strings in the first and second octaves if they are more than two years old. Many harpists also decide to have their bass wires changed during a regulation appointment. As we discussed in this post, new bass wires can give your whole harp’s sound a big boost.

Should I be Worried about those Cracks by my Tuning Pins?

Veneer Cracks around a harp's tuning pins

Cracks like these are almost never a cause for concern

If you own an older harp, say thirty years old or more, you may be familiar with the little cracks that can develop on either side of the tuning pins, as shown in this photo. In some cases, cracks like these crop up in harps that aren’t so old, especially if they have been subjected to a particurly harsh environment (as in, “my Grandma kept this harp in the garage for 10 years. Do you think it’s okay?”).

While I always recommend showing any crack, bulge, or other inconsistency in your harp’s wooden frame to a qualified harp technician, if your harp has cracks like these, chances are there is nothing to worry about.

Pedal harps, even hundred-year-old ones, are covered over much of their surfaces  in a layer of wood veneer almost as thin as a sheet of paper. the old saying, “beauty is only skin deep” certainly applies to the average harp. The gorgeous birdseye or flame maple pattern on your harp’s body is only a veneer.

On most harps made since the 1920’s, when you look at the top of the soundboard you will see its grain running vertically. If you take a look at your soundboard from inside the harp’s body, however (use a flashlight if you need to), you will notice the wood grain running horizontally. Again, the outer surface of the soundboard is a veneer, decorating the underlying board.

The cracks you see in the photo only extend through the veneer. The structural” bones” of the harp’s neck are most likely intact. This condition should not result in loose or slipping pins. What’s going on, in my opinion, is that the harp’s neck warps to some degree over time, due to the constant pressure of the strings. This causes stress to the veneer, weakening the glue joint which holds it to the underlying wood. In addition, each tuning pin is pulled downward on the string side of the harp (and upwards on the opposite side), causing additional stress on the veneer. Over time, it can crack. The good news is, cracks in laminated wood, i.e. two or more layers of wood glued together, cannot transfer from one layer to the next. Laminates are intentionally glued together at cross grains – meaning their grain directions are perpendicular to one another. This arrangement adds strength and stability, and also prevents the spread of cracks.

Could cracks like the ones in this photo be a warning that there may be underlying damage in the next layer of wood? It is possible, but unlikely. If a harp has lived in a harsh environment, there may be further damage underneath the veneer, which could cause problems such as slipping pins. However, I rarely see this. Most of the time the damage goes no further than the outermost layer.

If you’re looking at buying an older harp, or see this kind of cropping up on yours, I would certainly bring it to your technician’s attention. They are rarely anything but cosmetic, though, so don’t be too concerned.