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Old 05-15-2020, 08:07 AM
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Does anyone still build harpsichords?


With electronic keyboards everywhere able to synthesize almost any sound, is there any demand for new harpsichords? Can piano builders make them, or is it a special art which only trained individuals could do - upon request? Can a standard piano be converted?

It seems that the last two well-known builders of them died a few years ago.

I'm sure that many have been preserved and still in good working order - as with pianos and violins.
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Old 05-15-2020, 08:11 AM
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No direct knowledge, but seems as tho the last few I've heard/heard of were built by the player. Not sure if someone makes "kits" or how much was custom fabricated.
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Old 05-15-2020, 08:22 AM
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There are certainly kits. I attended a harpsichord concert in my town a year or so ago, and the lady played a kit-built harpsichord.
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Old 05-15-2020, 08:45 AM
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They certainly make them in Britain. The Harpsichord Society lists sixteen makers:

https://www.harpsichord.org.uk/acquiring/

There used to be a maker about half a mile from where I live, but not sure if they are still there anymore.
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Old 05-15-2020, 08:55 AM
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Here's one made in 2006. He chose a harpsichord instead of a piano because it's much easier: The harp of a piano is under tremendous tension, such that no material other than steel could be strong enough.

(Aside: The Yamaha company originally made pianos. But since they had the tooling to make strong steel parts anyway, they decided to branch out into other products needing strong steel parts, like motorcycles)
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Old 05-15-2020, 09:14 AM
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There are certainly kits. I attended a harpsichord concert in my town a year or so ago, and the lady played a kit-built harpsichord.
I know a guy from college who lives in Massachusetts and owns and plays harpsichord. (I think he mentioned getting a virginal from a music friend recently.) I vaguely remember him saying he built one from a kit (or was that the bagpipes?).
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Old 05-15-2020, 10:50 AM
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Here's a company in Connecticut that makes harpsichords and harpsichord kits:

http://www.zhi.net/instr/index1.shtml
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Old 05-15-2020, 11:03 AM
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They certainly make them in Britain. The Harpsichord Society lists sixteen makers:

https://www.harpsichord.org.uk/acquiring/
Hey, I know some of those people! Sadly, Mark Ransom (listed under "Hire") passed away last December. A lovely if somewhat eccentric man.

There's not a huge demand for new harpsichords for actual performances, where original 17th- and 18th-century ones are preferred, but conservatories and individual players still want them for rehearsal purposes if nothing else. It's a niche business but it's doing okay (not counting the effects of current circumstances).

And synthesized harpsichord sounds may work as background to a pop song but for your Scarlatti keyboard piece it would sound horrible (and be considered an abomination by the sort of audience who enjoy Scarlatti).
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Old 05-15-2020, 11:06 AM
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Huh. How much do the kits cost? I looked on that website and they didn't list prices.

ETA: Found a different maker. Looks like a simple one requiring complete assembly is about $6,500 and goes up from there.

Last edited by Sicks Ate; 05-15-2020 at 11:10 AM.
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Old 05-15-2020, 11:10 AM
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And probably the best-known popular song with a "confirmed" harpsichord passage (not synthesized via a keyboard) is the intro to this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ABUmZvzGHVc
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Old 05-15-2020, 11:49 AM
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Gerald Self makes them in San Antonio, Texas.
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Old 05-15-2020, 12:21 PM
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Come to think of it, this thread is a better fit for CS. Moving.
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Old 05-15-2020, 12:29 PM
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The harp of a piano is under tremendous tension, such that no material other than steel could be strong enough.
Im almost certain it’s made out of cast iron, or at least used to be. I play a 50 year old Baldwin baby grand, and that sucker is heavy enough to be cast iron.
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Old 05-15-2020, 03:44 PM
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More likely to be cast steel than cast iron. There's little reason for anything in the modern era to be unalloyed iron, and what's referred to as "cast iron" (or "wrought iron" or whatever) is usually a form of steel. Steel isn't just sheets.

In any event, you certainly can't make a piano out of ABS plastic, but you can make a harpsichord.
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Old 05-15-2020, 04:41 PM
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They certainly make them in Britain. The Harpsichord Society lists sixteen makers:

https://www.harpsichord.org.uk/acquiring/
The first on the list is my good friend Peter Barnes: still very much in business; even more in demand during the CV crisis.

Take a look at his website: lovely stuff, beautifully made and intelligently priced.

And I built the workshop/showroom he's working in!
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Old 05-15-2020, 05:36 PM
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And probably the best-known popular song with a "confirmed" harpsichord passage (not synthesized via a keyboard) is the intro to this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ABUmZvzGHVc
Best known?

There are dozens of pop-rock songs from 60s and 70s that used harpsichord, from obscure acts to The Rolling Stones.

If you heard a song (up to 1978) with convincing harpsichord sound, it probably is harpsichord. Synths were just not up to the task.
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Old 05-15-2020, 06:45 PM
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Best known?

There are dozens of pop-rock songs from 60s and 70s that used harpsichord, from obscure acts to The Rolling Stones.

If you heard a song (up to 1978) with convincing harpsichord sound, it probably is harpsichord. Synths were just not up to the task.
Here's a top ten Best Rock and Pop Songs with a Harpsichord, and here, with very little overlap, is 10 Times Harpsichord Was Actually Really Cool.

The Kinks featured harpsichord prominently in several songs, including Session Man and She's Bought a Hat Like Princess Marina.
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Old 05-15-2020, 07:38 PM
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More likely to be cast steel than cast iron. There's little reason for anything in the modern era to be unalloyed iron, and what's referred to as "cast iron" (or "wrought iron" or whatever) is usually a form of steel. Steel isn't just sheets.
Having restored professionally pianos for 32 years, I can tell you you're dead wrong.
Quoting a former colleague of mine, a man who has forgotten more than most Piano Techs will ever know:

“The most notable difference between steel and cast iron is the carbon content. Cast iron has a carbon content greater than 2%, while steel has a carbon content of less than 2%, with many steel alloys having less than 1%.

Piano plates are mainly made from grey iron, which has higher carbon content – I’m not sure how much off hand.

Steel cannot be cast as easily as iron, and it does not have as high compression strength as iron.

Iron does not have high bending strength, and it fails more suddenly without bending whereas steel will bend and flex. So iron is more brittle.

Of course, there are huge varieties of different irons and steels, but the definition of carbon content makes it pretty simple.

So yes, he is dead wrong."
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Old 05-15-2020, 08:00 PM
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Having restored professionally pianos for 32 years, I can tell you you're dead wrong.
Quoting a former colleague of mine, a man who has forgotten more than most Piano Techs will ever know:

“The most notable difference between steel and cast iron is the carbon content. Cast iron has a carbon content greater than 2%, while steel has a carbon content of less than 2%, with many steel alloys having less than 1%.

Piano plates are mainly made from grey iron, which has higher carbon content – I’m not sure how much off hand.

Steel cannot be cast as easily as iron, and it does not have as high compression strength as iron.

Iron does not have high bending strength, and it fails more suddenly without bending whereas steel will bend and flex. So iron is more brittle.

Of course, there are huge varieties of different irons and steels, but the definition of carbon content makes it pretty simple.

So yes, he is dead wrong."
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Old 05-15-2020, 08:06 PM
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Originally Posted by Thudlow Boink View Post
Here's a top ten Best Rock and Pop Songs with a Harpsichord, and here, with very little overlap, is 10 Times Harpsichord Was Actually Really Cool.

The Kinks featured harpsichord prominently in several songs, including Session Man and She's Bought a Hat Like Princess Marina.
All great examples, but I missed one of the best uses of a harpsichord in rock:

The Screaming Trees - Sworn And Broken
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Old 05-15-2020, 08:07 PM
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Ah fuck, dupe.
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Old 05-15-2020, 08:34 PM
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My colleague wrote this addendum, in the interest of fairness.

I do know that some people have made piano plates out of steel by welding it up. It is plenty strong enough, but costs much more to make. That monster 12’ long Rubinstein piano has a steel plate. I wonder if that guy ever sold that monstrosity!

http://pianosrubenstein.com/r371.html

Sounds horrible, by the way. But very loud!
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Old 05-15-2020, 08:59 PM
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Barry White 'chording it up.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AhCWdFBd_fM

BTW...what's the difference between a harpsichord and a spinet?
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Old 05-15-2020, 09:42 PM
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I don't know about NOW but about thirty years ago my mother's cousin built one. It is owned by our lcity/county library.
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Old 05-16-2020, 09:36 AM
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Wait, so if you have pure Fe, that's iron, and if if you add a little bit of C, that's steel, but then if you add too much C, it's iron again? That doesn't make any sense.
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Old 05-16-2020, 09:49 AM
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If you heard a song (up to 1978) with convincing harpsichord sound, it probably is harpsichord. Synths were just not up to the task.
When I hear stuff like this, I think to myself, if people with a good ear would explain why the synthetic harpsichord sounds nothing like a harpsichord, then a method of synthesis might be devised that does convincingly sound like a harpsichord. As well as create nonetheless interesting sounds while getting there.
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Old 05-16-2020, 09:53 AM
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Wait, so if you have pure Fe, that's iron, and if if you add a little bit of C, that's steel, but then if you add too much C, it's iron again? That doesn't make any sense.
It's just naming of alloys. At low enough enough percentages of carbon you have nearly pure iron. Above 2% you have what is called 'cast iron', a carbon-iron alloy with many different properties depending on the amount of carbon, other components, and the processing method. The carbon lowers the melting point of the iron making it easier to cast. Modern iron alloys include malleable and ductile varieties that can be easily cast and have close to the same properties of steel alloys. 'Cast iron' is as imprecise a name as 'steel' is for a host of different alloys.
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Old 05-16-2020, 10:28 AM
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When I hear stuff like this, I think to myself, if people with a good ear would explain why the synthetic harpsichord sounds nothing like a harpsichord, then a method of synthesis might be devised that does convincingly sound like a harpsichord.
Are you saying we might someday move beyond 1978 technology?
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Old 05-16-2020, 10:38 AM
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(nm - duplicate)

Last edited by Thudlow Boink; 05-16-2020 at 10:38 AM.
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Old 05-16-2020, 11:30 AM
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Are you saying we might someday move beyond 1978 technology?
That hardly requires my pontification, but according to the comment
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And synthesized harpsichord sounds may work as background to a pop song but for your Scarlatti keyboard piece it would sound horrible (and be considered an abomination by the sort of audience who enjoy Scarlatti).
even 2020 technology is not up to snuff, and that obviously includes hi-res recordings of actual harpsichord strings, along with dozens of other techniques. So I am curious to know in what ways the state of the art still falls short, which I do not doubt it does.

Last edited by DPRK; 05-16-2020 at 11:31 AM.
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Old 05-16-2020, 11:41 AM
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I suspect that the state of the art is, in fact, up to snuff, but that most makers of synthesizer keyboards just don't particularly care about getting their harpsichord emulation perfect. Which might not even be due to laziness: It might be that they have something that, according to their test focus groups (which do not include Gyrate), sounds even better than a real harpsichord.
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Old 05-16-2020, 12:04 PM
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(Aside: The Yamaha company originally made pianos. But since they had the tooling to make strong steel parts anyway, they decided to branch out into other products needing strong steel parts, like motorcycles)
They still make them. But Steinways still sound better.
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Old 05-16-2020, 12:27 PM
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Here's a top ten Best Rock and Pop Songs with a Harpsichord, and here, with very little overlap, is 10 Times Harpsichord Was Actually Really Cool.

The Kinks featured harpsichord prominently in several songs, including Session Man and She's Bought a Hat Like Princess Marina.
I guess "Society's Child" doesn't qualify as "Rock and Pop" or being "really cool"? :-) It was banned in many places - maybe on these lists too? :-)
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Old 05-16-2020, 12:33 PM
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Barry White 'chording it up.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AhCWdFBd_fM

BTW...what's the difference between a harpsichord and a spinet?
Piano strings are struck with a hammer and Harpsichord strings are plucked with a plectrum.

Pianos, even spinets, have greater dynamic range than harpsichords and of course the timbre is much different.

Also the strings of a spinet are vertical and the strings of a harpsichord are horizontal (maybe someone makes spinet harpsichords, not sure)
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Old 05-16-2020, 12:43 PM
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Also the strings of a spinet are vertical and the strings of a harpsichord are horizontal (maybe someone makes spinet harpsichords, not sure)
Behold the Clavicytherium!
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Old 05-16-2020, 03:40 PM
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Aside: "Plectrum" is a really fun word.
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Old 05-16-2020, 04:23 PM
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I thought “plectrum” was the thing you moved around a Ouija board. Turns out that’s a “planchette.”

Don’t get your planchette mixed up with your plectrum. That way madness lies.
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Old 05-16-2020, 04:28 PM
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Also, you usually hear “spinet” these days as synonymous with a smallish upright PIANO; less expensive than a full-size, and easier to fit into a small house or apartment.

I was surprised to learn that a) they date back only to the 1930s Depression, and that b) they completely stopped making them by the 1990s.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spinet...spinet_history
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Old 05-16-2020, 04:35 PM
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They still make them. But Steinways still sound better.
If you're comparing a Steinway and a Yamaha of equivalent size, condition, and workmanship, which one "sounds better" will always be a matter of opinion and preference. But yeah- I'll take the tone of an exceptionally good Steinway over that of an equally good Yamaha.

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Aside: "Plectrum" is a really fun word.
Yes! Although I've always found "plectra" to be even funnier. Especially when imagining it in a clipped sort of W.C. Fields voice.
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Old 05-16-2020, 04:40 PM
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Fun Fact I forgot to mention- take any Yamaha product, including motorcycles, and look at the logo. It's three tuning forks. Their very first products were organs and pianos.
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