Pianist, composer, and producer James Bacon discusses Phoenix pianos, and the man behind the innovations
As is the case for many lovers of piano music, my fascination goes right back to early childhood; a time when I knew almost nothing of how a piano could produce sound, let alone just how a trained pianist could interact with a keyboard interface to create such seemingly limitless arrays of musical effects. Nevertheless, I had precisely what was required to ignite and nurture the beginning of a lifelong passion for the instrument: parents who loved piano music, found it to be a cultural necessity, and avidly collected it on vinyl. Excited by my eagerness to learn more about the piano, pianists, and composers for the instrument, they were willing to travel the country to let me experience some of the great piano masters in concert.
During the 1970s and 80s, I was introduced to a diversity of recordings, including Maurizio Pollini’s epic Chopin interpretations, Michelangeli’s sublime Ravel and Debussy, Glenn Gould’s inimitable Bach, and, memorably, a complete concert attendance of Bernard Roberts playing the Beethoven cycle in Sheffield, my home town, was followed later by the vinyl box set of the same work for Nimbus. Collecting vinyl was, perhaps, the most effective window into the world of piano music.
By 1981 I had started piano lessons, aged 11, and quickly found myself improvising and composing, whilst working steadily through graded pieces. Intrigued that I should be writing music for piano before taking a grade, my father bought two basic microphones and a Philips cassette recorder, in order to capture my early attempts at composition, and to chart my progress as a player. That, in itself, seems to be a sufficient explanation for a symbiotic fascination with the recording process.
During my early twenties, and now away from home, I had begun an interest in synthesiser-based music, leading to a number of releases on various labels during the 1990s. Although this felt like a radical departure from my classical pianistic roots, it was, in retrospect, very much a function of those early years of piano study. Indeed, the very same creative forces were at work. But I had no piano of my own, and I had begun to miss the warmth and response of an acoustic instrument.
This was remedied, temporarily, by the purchase of a rather nice Bechstein Model 8 upright. It was an old instrument, but had character, warmth, and a sweet tone. Of course it lacked the commanding bass of a large grand piano, and in time, as I wished to record various classical pieces I enjoyed playing, I had to find a solution.
With limited funds, I was able to part-exchange the Bechstein for a small Yamaha grand. This brand new instrument had considerable power for its size, but I soon became dissatisfied with the tonal characteristics. The bass register was louder than the Bechstein’s, and I immediately preferred the action of a grand piano, but I missed the Bechstein’s character.
A further transition to a Yamaha C3 brought partial relief, but something was still missing. At this point I had precious little grasp of such concepts as scale design, but had figured out one thing: bigger – generally speaking – is better.
Finding Hurstwood Farm Pianos
In 2003 I was finally in a financial situation to shop for a piano that could serve the purposes of serious recordings and music making. Such an instrument would, I now deduced, have to be of Tier 1 quality, and at least 7 foot to produce convincing bass. I was in no hurry, as I steadily worked my way through a long list of UK piano dealers.
Two makes of piano were of particular interest: Bösendorfer and Fazioli.
Many of the dealers I spoke to, quite understandably, could offer neither, but nonetheless used my enquiries to attempt to push other makes, claiming they would satisfy. They are salesmen, after all, facing tough financial realities, and, like their counterparts in the automobile industry, generally don’t hesitate to extol the virtues of whatever makes they stock, even if you have specified Rolls Royce, Mercedes or Ferrari.
Then came a stroke of luck. I phoned Hurstwood Farm Pianos, and found myself in an immediately engaging conversation with Richard Dain – an engineer, it turned out, with a clear passion for pianos – who displayed immense technical knowledge, but in the absence of any of the usual sales patter. This was a relief, but exciting too. Richard invited me to come and try his pianos – predominantly Bösendorfers – for which he then had the UK dealership.
My partner and I put aside a weekend so we could visit Hurstwood Farm without a sense of hurry. Our first face-to-face meeting with Richard was entirely memorable. The many Bösendorfers he had on display sent my head into a spin; how could these pianos be so majestic? What was it about them that made all the other pianos I had ever had access to – including perfectly functional grands belonging to teachers or music institutes – seem prosaic?
Richard’s explanations could be summarised thus: ultimate quality materials and workmanship, superb scale design, and very fine, well-regulated Renner actions, which in their own right had gradually been optimised for use within Bösendorfer’s range.
My budget at that time could only accommodate a Bösendorfer 214. I think it is true to say that the added foot of length over a C3, along with their famously slow build quality, gave me the feeling of a quantum leap. This was not only a piano I was able to set up a specialist recording facility around, but also an instrument on which I could develop musically, both as an interpreter and composer.
There was still a problem. A rather harrowing problem, in fact, that no amount of twisted logic could unravel: I had played several of Richard’s Bösendorfer Imperials the same day I played the beautiful 214. And they were undeniably an ultimate piano experience.
Whilst at college, some fifteen years earlier, I had given a short end-of-year recital, also on an Imperial, housed at Firth Hall – part of Sheffield University – and I remembered it as a huge thing which was counterintuitively sensitive, responsive and approachable. The brand new Bösendorfers at Hurstwood Farm – there must have been four or five of them on display – sent me hurtling back to that college experience.
Meanwhile, as I went back and forth between a 214 and a 290, Richard remarked, “Are you sure you cannot stretch to an Imperial? It’s the most economical thing to do, long run… to buy the one you really want.” To some, that might sound like sales talk, but it was actually an astute observation. However, I simply could not stretch to almost double the price of the 214. Sensitive to this, Richard generously offered that were I ever to upgrade to an Imperial, he would fully refund the original price of the the 214 in part exchange.
Piano Conversations with Richard Dain
With the 214 in my studio, I was finally able to make the sort of progress with music and recordings that I had longed for. I was also able to set up my studio as a viable recording business for pianists seeking access to a fine instrument. And, just as importantly, I stayed in touch with Richard. He is not only a fabulous engineer, but also a generous and inspirational teacher. He imparts technical information not as raw “data” but as dimensional, engaging concepts, whereby his explanations tend to pose whole new series of questions, which in turn lead to periods of reflection.
Despite the magnificence of the Bösendorfers on display, I was struck by Richard’s continual dissatisfaction with elements of traditional piano performance and design, and his desire to engineer and integrate new and more effective systems. Around 2007 – a point in time when Richard had already become good friends with Wayne Stuart, overseeing European distribution for his exquisite and forward-thinking pianos – he was very excited by a prototype bridge agraffe system he had devised and installed into a Bosendorfer Imperial. I was invited to come and try it, and did so at the first available opportunity.
The piano was then situated in Richard’s (large) living room, alongside a Steinway D and his own Imperial. I brought a friend with me – someone with a passionate interest in music, science and technology, and with a shared enthusiasm for the potential reciprocity between what are sometimes considered separate knowledge bases. We were both astonished by Richard’s “Phoenix” agraffes. As I played the upper registers, my friend declared that he had never heard piano sonority like it.
Here began a brand new problem. Not only had my hankering for a Bösendorfer Imperial been stirred once again, but I also now coveted the idea of a piano with these special agraffes. As this Imperial was the only piano in the world to have the system at that point, it should not be surprising that I wanted this particular piano. Alas, the necessary funds were not available in 2007, nor was the piano for sale.
Subsequent exchanges with Richard over the coming years became increasingly news-filled. Udo Schmidt-Steingraeber – head of Steingraeber & Sohne Pianos in Bayreuth – also came to see the Phoenix Imperial, and had a similar feeling of excitement, to the point where he and Richard soon realised they had an unmissable opportunity to work together. The first manifestations of this collaboration were a series of Steingraeber instruments fitted with Phoenix agraffes. Already superb instruments in their own right, built in low numbers and with a degree of meticulousness similar to Bösendorfer, Steingraeber-Phoenix received considerable critical acclaim from visiting artists to Hurstwood Farm, from technicians, and from specialist recording magazines, whilst winning prizes for innovation within Europe.
I was delighted to see the success, but quietly – and rightly – I sensed Richard would only see this as a beginning. He is always full of new ideas.
By 2011, I had worked hard as a recording engineer and producer, and had been careful to put aside any spare income, just in case I could ever afford an Imperial. It seemed unlikely, since they are rare, but I was reluctant to let go of my dream.
During a conversation with Richard late that year, I mentioned Imperials in passing, whilst discussing a technical matter. To my surprise, he suggested I might part-exchange my 214 – at the purchase value, and good to his word – for the Phoenix Imperial I had visited years before. I was on the spot. This would entail raising additional funds from the sale of a number of dearly loved vintage electric guitars I had collected over the years. But the choice was easy.
Since its arrival, many recordings have been made with this magnificent instrument. WIth the support of expert technician Barry Clinton, it is kept in peak condition at all times.
New Phoenix Developments
The design of the Phoenix bridge agraffe addresses a number of aspects of traditional piano design which Richard Dain found to be lacking.
Firstly, the new agraffe – replacing the ubiquitous zig-zag bridge-pin system – keeps the string’s vibration in a vertical plane, once struck by the hammer. Their precious energy is therefore used to agitate the soundboard in such a way that it speaks. The old system sees a string start in the desired vertical plane, but gradually a side-to-side component develops, whereby energy is uselessly ceded to friction.
Secondly, Phoenix agraffes create about eight times the contact force between string and bridge, increasing the efficiency of acoustic energy transfer. A pianist can produce the same sound for less effort, whilst having access a larger dynamic range. Sustain is significantly improved, especially in the middle and upper registers. It is noteworthy that it was this aspect of Bösendorfer Imperial performance that had led Richard to develop his agraffe system in the first place.
Thirdly, and perhaps most significantly, the agraffes remove the need for “downbearing”. The required contact force is created by the string and the bridge being “stitched together” by the agraffe.
Dispensing with downbearing has two immediate advantages: (a) the soundboard is freer to vibrate when it does not have to bear the strain of string tension, and (b) it will last far longer before its typical “dome” shape collapses. In the case of a Phoenix bridge system, even if a soundboard’s dome were to collapse, the agraffes would maintain the contact force required for it still to function as it should.
For a lesser engineer, this eureka moment would likely have sufficed, and the follow-up story would be one of patenting, marketing and supply. For Richard Dain, however, the Phoenix agraffe led to a new avenue of engineering enquiry: now that the need for downbearing had been removed, could the design of the soundboard itself also undergo radical redesign?
A traditional soundboard may be anything up to 1cm in thickness. Such thickness, and therefore mass, are in no way acoustically desirable. Indeed, one only need consider the paper cone of a loudspeaker system to see that a piano soundboard is just as much structural as it is acoustic. In engineering terms, this is a huge compromise.
The obvious material to experiment with was carbon fibre. It had been attempted previously in piano design, but with poor results, as the thickness required in a load-bearing soundboard produced a brittle sound. Richard’s experiments took his soundboards to as little as 0.7mm, then back up to a little over 1mm. The weave of the carbon fibre was calculated to produce optimal performance, and for various reasons – aesthetic and acoustic – a very fine wooden veneer is applied to the upper surface.
Until I tried these carbon fibre soundboards – now fitted into the Phoenix range of pianos, produced in conjunction with Steingraeber – I was a little sceptical, but deeply curious. The moment I played them, however, they made immediate sense. They are hugely responsive, and so long as the hammers are voiced appropriately, they are able to produce a piano sonority that is familiar and reassuring, but with a dramatically increased dynamic range. The implications for pianists playing with orchestras or energetic ensembles are significant, as the need to play forcefully in order to be heard is vastly reduced. Strain on the pianist is lifted away, and freedom to concentrate on expression and musical enjoyment is afforded.
Traditional notions of piano size are now open to re-evaluation. If previously only a 9 foot concert grand could produce sufficient sound for a larger venue, there would only be one choice. Phoenix pianos – which are acoustically around twice as efficient as traditional pianos – make a piano of 7 – 7.5 feet competitive with a concert grand.
Carbon fibre soundboards also offer climate and humidity resistance, longevity and exceptional tuning stability.
The Phoenix agraffe can, of course, facilitate a different type of wooden soundboard construction for those insistent upon “organic” material. A board of just 3 – 4 mm will show increased acoustic performance whilst being just as stable – if not more so – than a traditional board and bridge system. Such a piano resides in Richard’s living room – a Steingraeber-Phoenix E 272. It is one of the most exquisite concert grands I have played.
Carbiano = Carbon Fibre Piano
Restlessly keen to move onto the next big project, Richard Dain began designing an all-carbon fibre piano in 2008, showing the first prototype in 2012 at Cremona. Many innovations and adjustments have followed. In his own words:
“Since then the development has been in changes that enhance the sound of that concept. In particular we have developed a computer programme that is enables us to study the frequency response of whole pianos as well as particular components of the piano, and to assess the effect of changes to features such as soundboard thickness, mounting, bridges and ribs. We can now design a soundbourd/ piano system that has natural frequencies that match those of the note being sounded. This makes a great contribution to the bass sound of small pianos.”
Only in 2015 did I first set eyes on this new creation, Carbiano. Based around the Steingraeber A 170 scale design – the smallest piano in Steingraeber’s range – it would be an ultimate test of the advantages Phoenix systems could yield. Indeed by limiting size, and therefore string length and soundbaord area, new engineering innovations alone would be relied upon to produce the full sound of a much larger instrument.
Has he managed it ? Yes: here is a small piano with a full bass, a warm, singing tenor, a rich middle, and with shimmering upper registers that have their own reverberation characteristics.
Having met Carbiano, and having made some promotional videos for Richard in the summer of 2015 for the Phoenix range, we decided to work with a pianist we both consider to be a true master of the instrument, Anton Lyakhovsky, to put this new piano through its paces:
Remembering my childhood fascination with piano, it has been a privilege to have so closely witnessed this new chapter in piano design. Very few changes and innovations occurred in the twentieth century, and were long overdue.
What good luck that all of this is taking place but a few hours’ drive from my Sheffield studio, and, moreover, to have stumbled across Hurstwood Farm Pianos and its genius proprietor back in 2003.
I hope anyone interested in pianos will get to share that experience.
James Bacon, February 2016