Recently my wife, dog, and cat moved into a new house and downsized going from over 1400 square feet to 725. In this process I sold off and gave away a number of space hungry instruments including a chopped Hammond, one of my three Rhodes electric pianos, and my 1916 Wesley Raudenbusch & Sons farmhouse, upright-grand piano (see photo below). Sadly I had been neglecting acoustic piano in favor of Rhodes, synths, and an excellent Steinway Model D plugin from UVI. You can see this in the photo because I had allowed my wife to cover the top with the cat’s food and water, a cat bed, and decorations. Yikes!
In all fairness my old upright had become dissatisfying for me with it’s clunky action and honky-tonk sound, so shortly before the move I gifted it to my younger brother who has children interested in music lessons. Thus began my search for a new piano. And when I say new I mean new to me and newer than what I was used to.
It didn’t take me long to realize that even with my modest budget I would be able to afford an upright with exponentially better sound and playability than my old piano. The brands I tried included Yahama, Kawai, Hailun, Young Chang, Steinway, Seiler, Pramberger, Charles Walter, Bösendorfer, Mason & Hamlin, and I’m probably forgetting several others. Most of them were beyond my budget (*cough* Bösendorfer *cough*), but it looked as though I could afford a “gray market” Yamaha or Kawai built in the late 80s or early 90s. Checkout the article if you’re interested, but in brief, gray market means that the piano was originally sold in and manufactured for a foreign market.
After about a month of research, trying pianos, recording them, and evaluating the recordings I came a across a 2008 Kawai K5 upright on Craigslist. It took me about 30 seconds of playing it to know it was the piano for me. Now it lives with me in my home and it has been nearly impossible to leave the house unless absolutely necessary. Perhaps you noticed that until now there have only been two posts on ACB since April. I know this isn’t healthy, but I sense that I’ll be more sociable now that fall is around the corner.
I have been fond of Kawai pianos for some time. All the Kawais I tested sounded much more full and warm compared to other brands in a similar price range. On my K5 the action is firm, yet still fast. The heavier action takes getting used to, but the effort is paying off with an improvement in the strength and accuracy of my technique. In my opinion a heavier, firm (not stiff) action allows for a broader range of dynamics once the player has grown accustomed to it. I also learned in a brochure that Kawai piano factories have won the ISO 14001 certification for environmental management several times:
In 1997, Kawai’s Ryuyo Grand Piano Facility became the first manufacturing plant in the piano industry to receive ISO 14001, the world’s foremost certification for excellence in environmental management. In 1998, Kawai was privileged to receive a second ISO 14001 certification recognizing exceptional achievement in re-forestation, energy conservation, waste reduction and natural resource preservation at our highly-respected Maisaka Upright Piano Factory.
Having access to a piano of this quality has been inspiring. I have been practicing more frequently, I have a new jazz piano student, and I’ve been advancing my understanding of melodic and harmonic theory. I’ve also been experimenting with recording techniques. In my view the quality of my piano merits professional recording, so my goal is to get a system setup that will reproduce the color and texture of the instrument accurately. So far I have tried my homemade binaural (known as Vincent) and a few XY condenser mics. The best recording I’ve made so far is with the XY mics on my Zoom H6 at 120º suspended just inside the top of the piano with a monopod. It sounds good, but I’m not quite happy with the results. The next step it to try some matched pair small diaphragm condensers. Perhaps the RØDE NT5s or something similar. If you have any suggestions I’d love to read them in the comments.