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Approaches to soundboards (pedal harps)

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  • #69348

    As harp’s soundboard is the part that mostly defines the sound of the instrument, it would be interesting to discuss current approaches to its manufacture by different makers.

    I will start with some basic info. Hopefully more experienced people will tell more.

    For example there are rumors, that Camac started to use cedar at certain point, reinforced with carbon fiber on both sides and veneered on the outside. I’ve seen such boards on a few electo-acoustical Camac harps, but I’m not sure that’s their common approach for all instruments.

    Salvi makes the boards from European spruce and uses a special vibro-acoustical chamber to test a new harp’s soundboard.

    Lunacharsky (USSR) harps were never veneered on the top, which I think contributed to the quality of the sound, but the sboard was less durable this. Luncharsky also used a vibro-acoustical chamber, but I have no idea if that improved the sound in reality.

    Extended boards of USSR harps were made out of 2 spruce layers, with grains running perpendicularly to each other. Again no veneer.

    I often hear about the special “American” harp sound. Would be interesting to know what is special (if anything) about L&HVenus and SwansonHarps soundboards. Perharps Carl could tell us a little about his own approach.

    Thanks

    #69349

    I also suspect, that on modern harps (at least those I examined) the sboard is tapered only longitudinally – from the bass end to the treble, while in Erard’s times sboards were tapered also across the grain – from center to sides. Can anyone confirm this?

    Such tapering made sboards significantly lighter and definitely should have contributed to the distrinctive harp sound of that age?

    Finally a harp’s soundboard is all about weightstrength ratio. There are just different approaches on how you make a soundboard light and strong. Without excessive mass where you don’t need it, but still stong enough to withstand strings tension.

    In this regard it is not clear why at certain point strings tension significantly increased (XX century). Aside from the known shift to A=440Hz, I tend to believe that people wanted to add volume to the instrument, making the harp able to compete with large orchestras. However, the more tension you add, the thicker sboard and entire harp’s construction should be…

    I do not see any advantages of current high tension – it is bad for the instrument, bad for the player and bad for the sound too.

    Would love to hear contrary opinions on this.

    #69350

    Well-made harps made in recent years by Lyon & Healy sound pretty magnificent. The tension is not a problem. The historic instruments of the 1920s, and Wurlitzers, are worth studying. Their lightness aided the resonance of the harp, giving them full rich tone, and the shaping aids the projection of the tone, along with the elaborate carving of the column.

    I do not think current methods are necessarily any improvement and worth more study. Darker woods seem to lead to darker sound, which simply covers the tones.

    The ideal harp tone developed in America has long been described as pear-shaped, round tone with as much reverberation of overtones as possible throughout the range of the instrument, and a full resonance. This is achieved by careful selection of maple and spruce wood, and the physical shape and weight of the harp. The more you can talk to experienced harp technicians and geeks here, the more insight you will gain. I have never been taken with the Salvi sound or their experiments, as their goals are quite different. The angelic, heavenly sound of the style 23 harp remains my eternal ideal. A metal stirrup at the base of the center strip reinforces the bass notes, which support the highest notes. An evenly spreading soundingboard creates broadening tone from top to bottom. The harp should be as light as possible, while structurally sound. While there are numerous small improvements to be made mechanically, the ideal harp has already been created, in my opinion.

    #69351
    howard-bryan
    Participant

    First, let me say that your ideas of the progression of the soundboards of pedal harps is correct.

    #69352
    john-strand
    Participant

    My Venus Paragon is approaching 30 years old and was built for me with a lighter than usual soundboard for great sound – which indeed it has – however, I have been concerned the past few years about the probable lifespan of the board – so I decided to restring with all light gauge strings –
    My major problem was in finding appropriate light gauge bass wires and I considered all sorts of substitutions etc etc, but none seemed to really be right – I noticed some posts here about Vermont Strings and ended up getting a set of Erard “gothic” gauge wires from them – also got bow brand lever harp gut for 4th and 5th octave and lever nylon for top 3 octaves – my understanding is that this combination will give about the same tension overall – I was concerned that the 5th octave A, B, and C lever gut might not be long enough for a concert grand but they were – although the A was pretty close –
    I also wanted to check the soundboard before and after, so measured the distance at the 5th octave G though the soundhole – then removed all the strings for a couple weeks while I did some other maintenance and some gilding touchups – during that time the board “relaxed” right at 1/4″ – on restringing with light gauge and after slowly pulling up to pitch over about 10 days, I found the board had only pulled up 1/8″ inch and, although I didn’t think to measure it, I am assuming that the neck will be less likely to continue to twist –
    The strings seem to have taken a longer time than usual to stabilize, but I chalk that up to the whole instrument readjusting itself to about half the tension he has been used to – the wires are copper wound with red C and Blue F’s and have a “feel” to them that is very much like my classical guitar bass strings – there is a bit of a “twisting” feeling to them that you don’t get with the steel core wires – the lighter tension overall is different than I am used to but about the same difference when i switch back and forth between classical guitar and electrics –
    The sound is very similar to before, but there is a noticeable difference in sustain up in 1st and 2nd octaves especially when the pedals are in natural and sharp – overall, I would say that the sound is just a bit softer, but with a very “sweet” quality to it – I don’t think this is a solution for orchestra harpists who have to pull hard, but seems like it would be quite acceptable in a solo situation or small group –
    Overall, I am delighted with the sound and of course, the prospect of saving the board which was my first concern – Vermont Strings were great to deal with and I recommend them – It also occurred to me that for those folks out there having trouble with arthritis or hand problems, the light gauge would be a help in being able to stay with the instrument longer

    #69353
    Jerusha Amado
    Participant

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    John,

    But this string option only applies if the soundboard of the pedal harp was built lighter as opposed to the standard thick board of a grand or semi grand, right?

    #69354
    howard-bryan
    Participant

    I’ve been stringing some modern pedal harps with the light gauge strings for several years, usually for harpists whose hands are failing from the stress of playing tightly strung, unresponsive harps.

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