P wire is a very subtle topic. But brass wire is a different matter. There are hundreds of alloys of brass and the metallurgy is understood in vast detail. So making brass strings is mostly a matter of choosing the desired alloy and relative percentages of copper and zine and trace elements, for yellow, red, etc. Very little mystery there.
So what makes brass music wire better or worse in the case of wire for strings? Clearly there is a drawing process involved, with possible annealing at steps and so on, but is there any evidence one method of drawing produces more musical strings than another? This question arose in my mind after our colleague David Pickett suggested that Dr Birkett’s brass is drawn with some special and proprietary technique, the details of which are unknown to me.
All reports say his brass is great. Everybody acknowledges Little Falls brass is excellent,. What makes it so?
I wonder if a high degree of roundness makes better sound? I wonder about the ultimate hardness and how it affects sound. In the guitar world D’Addario goes to expensive manufacturing lengths to make strings very precisely uniformly round, with an advanced laser production technique I believe.
What exactly change in brass wire over decades that changes the sound, precisely? Any member who has colleagues in metallurgy should invite them to join?
Old harpsichords may have had wonderful phosphorus laden iron wire, but how good was their brass wire I wonder?
Of interest in the article on piano wire in Wikipedia it is stated:
The oldest record of wire being made for musical instruments is from Augsburg in 1351.
That’s amazing. It’s probably the oldest documented reference specifically relating to music. But of course we have been making wire since at least Ancient Egyptian times.
There are presumably only a few variables in making brass wire:
Composition, ratio of copper to zinc (and any other possible elements).
Cross-sectional shape. Andrew brought this up, though as far as I am aware it is universal practice to aim for a circular cross-section.
Drawing and or annealing processes – largely proprietary.
It is my impression that, while both Lutz Brass (The Instrument Workshop in Ashland, Oregon : www.fortepiano.com) and ZHI Brass are made by Little Falls Alloys, ZHI is slightly harder and they sound different. But I should qualify that by saying that my stringing with ZHI was done about 15 years before I acquired any Lutz Brass. The color of the two is different, Lutz being more yellow than Birkett, though I have no idea whether this implies, as one might reasonably expect, less copper in Lutz wire. The two sound different, though when I say that I personally prefer Birkett Brass, I may be expressing a subjective opinion, and I hasten to add that for me Lutz Brass comes a very close second to Birkett Brass. I have not tried any European brass.
Brass colour just comes from the ratio of copper and zinc, no mystery, yellow brass about 35% zinc, red brass about 5% zinc, and so on. [Vaguely related re colour is that nickel silver is 60% copper, 20% nickel and 20% zinc, so it is also a copper alloy and has no silver, but looks silver.]
The yellow through to red colour is a continuum based on percent zinc.
I thought Little Falls, at least now, only makes one grade of brass wire, and so no variation likely. They may have had more types in the past and simplified production. Little Falls is straight 70/30 according to the website.
The use of music wire in Europe is established by the late 12th century, though it was available from the 10th century on (Grove entry ‘String’). Some early mentions of metal wires in musical instruments: in 1185-8, Gerald of Wales notes in Topographia Hibernica that Irish harpists use metal wires rather than gut in their harps. An encyclopedia by Bartholomaeus Anglicus completed about 1250 notes that psaltery strings are made of either brass (“auricalcum”) or silver.
There is a good (not exhaustive) collection of medieval musical string material references, with English translations, in Christopher Page, Voices and Instruments of the Middle Ages, London/Melbourne 1987, Appendix 4 (pp.210-242). Not only sheep but also wolf’s gut! It doesn’t have the reference to Augsburg wire production in 1351. Page’s appendix stops before 1400, so doesn’t include the reference to clavicymbalum metal strings in Arnaut von Zwolle.
Thanks Michael. Yet another example of the unreliability of WIkipedia in many areas. It’s bad that people (possibly including me sometimes!) have come to think of it as an authoritative source of truth and accuracy.
So that’s amazing that iron wire drawing was well developed so early on.
I am amazed at the interesting range of discussion re music wire.
Regarding brass wires the copper content is clearly one controllable parameter. Another is the accumulated draw ratio (final wire diameter over initial diameter, or the inverse of that). That ratio determines the microstructure of the final product which is largely responsible for its strength. Of course one has the option to anneal the wire at one or more stations in the drawing process to attain properties optimal for musical instruments. At least this is how I view it as an (Aero)engineer and not as a materials science major.
Hi Wolfgang, The Little Falls brass wire is fairly universally well liked for harpsichords, but I see no evidence that the manufacturer has musical applications specifically in mind. Little Falls makes a wide variety of wire for industry. The music wire business is so microscopic I don’t think they would even care! It’s not sold as Music Wire per se. The point being, I do not imagine their drawing process takes into account any special needs of instruments (whatever they may be).
Remembering conversations between the late Rémy Gug and my parents in the seventies, a great deal was being made of the trace elements. These were supposed to add stability to the alloy by making it less easy for crystals to slip – slipping translates in practice into the annoying tendency of some string material to keep stretching over several weeks – while also making it possible to avoid too much hardening (which might be bad for the sound, and for the mental health of the person who tries to make some loops).
Rémy was arguably one of the first people to delve into old brass headlong, analyzing, casting, hammering-and-folding, drawing and ultimately selling the stuff. In my memory (it’s a while ago and I was young, so…grain of salt and all that.) his material was promising but somewhat uneven. An instrument strung with these strings was displayed at a conference in Stuttgart in the early 80s, and its individual tones struck me as “wobbly”. He himself went on about the sound being “alive”, but I wasn’t that convinced.
I remember some brass instruments made by Heinrich and Max Thein in Bremen using Rémy’s brass that sounded exceptionally good, though.
Rémy Gug was a bit of a mystery man, as he talked about his findings, so maybe I retained a more complex idea about the whole process of making historically appropriate and better-sounding and -behaving brass. No matter, it seems safe to say that it’s not easy precisely, or we would have had better brass strings for many years.
My hope is of course, that Stephen Birkett has delved into the complexities of the matter with similar zeal, less mystery, and better analysis and production methods. I still have to order some of his new brass. It’ll be interesting.
Going back however many centuries, the questions arise:
– Was brass wire actually manufactured in olden days with specific special characteristics for instruments?
– What else was it used for?
There could surely not have been any question in those times of alloying 70% pure copper with 30% pure zinc and, as with iron wire, the impurities might accidentally have made the alloy more suitable for music wire. Never discount the influence of serendipity.
Why not? We have had weights and measures and balances in every culture since Egyptian times. I am sure once having empirically observed an alloy had desirable properties over centuries the proportions could be weighed and managed. As to purity, that’s a different matter. I suppose it was possible to get fairly consistent ore, and to work it with experience. Then, as mentioned above, colour is able to be observed varying with the copper proportion in a fairly linear sort of fashion, and I am sure colour comparisons could allow a consistent product to be made. The eye is hugely sensitive to small colour differences. We can see about 2-3 million distinct colours and professionals needing colour to work with (colour graders in cinema for example) become extremely good at picking fine colour differences.
I say there is a good chance of early wire makers producing consistent product.
There are thousands of technical and industrial uses for brass wire, since ancient times. The music business has always been microscopic compared to technological uses of brass wire. I don’t think that brass wire was made specifically for instruments, in terms of specialised alloying and drawing processes. I think instrument makes took what they could get. and saw that it worked. A bit like paint was never made specifically for harpsichords (sorry, a rather extreme example, but it carries my point). Maybe vendors set up in Europe in later centuries supplying wire for instruments, but I don’t think that blossomed until the 19c. I don’t think Ruckers just popped down to Mannys Music for a few reels of music wire.
As to secrets, in most cultures, and certainly Europe, manufacturing processes were tightly controlled trade secrets, as peoples’ and villages’ entire livelihoods may have depended on them. Porcelain making by the time it reached Europe was a heavily guarded secret, as was glass making. [See Herzog’s wonderful film Herz aus Glas.] I would be very surprised if brass alloying and foundry work and wire making was not hugely secret. It was the norm. And of course provides difficulties for scholars to work out what they did!
I am by no means a metallurgist, far from it. I observe that Dr Birkett has joined our group and I welcome him wholeheartedly. Perhaps he may care to discourse on impurities and how they affect brass wire drawing, and the relation specifically to instrument wire.