Plectra and voicing

Dear David.
Your comment (highlighted in red below) makes me wonder whether there has ever been a record of a systematic study of the shape of plectra on the sound quality. I have had plans for such a study of systematically varying the geometric parameters of the plectrum and the effect on the sound, but age and other increasing responsibilities prevented that—plus a quest for a quantitative measure of “sound quality”. Yet, I would love to see the result of such a study, even as a descriptive attempt, because I think that this could be a tremendous assist to improve one’s instrument a lot, especially for serious hobbyists, who cannot spend a lifetime on accumulating such an experience professionally.
If you can identify such a record, I would love to learn about that. (I had only Frank Hubbard’s advice for my kit in his little red book).

May 24

It’s definitely a harpsichord. Pascal Taskin was a famous French harpsichord maker of the 18th century whose designs have often been copied. The instrument you have might well be based on a Taskin, but it’s hard to say without more information.

It’s most likely that this was made from a kit. However, kits could be purchased in various forms; for example, a skilled woodworker could purchase only the soundboard and action parts, and make the rest (the case) himself from plans provided by the maker. More commonly, one will purchase a complete kit with all parts and simply do the assembly and finishing. If you’re still in touch with your friend, maybe he could give you some additional information.

If you post a photo of one of the jacks (the tall white plastic pieces), someone here may be able to identify the maker.

Don’t worry about the fact that the bottom of the case is plywood. That was a common practice. The other case parts (except perhaps the lid) should be solid wood.

As far as getting the best sound quality goes: the design of the case does influence this considerably, but it’s out of your control at this point. What you can control is the final voicing, that is, cutting the plectra (the small bits that actually pluck the strings). Careful voicing is very important for a good tone. There’s no way to know how the instrument will sound except to string it and voice one of the registers.

Good luck with finishing the project and let us know if you have more questions.

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In Reply To

May 24

Dear masters, Thanks a million for all your suggestions. I am by no means professional and I have to admit that I didn’t know so many models and schools before reading your replies. Thank you. I have really no idea, I am afraid, whether it was made of a kit, because I assume that the wood quality …

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Wolfgang G. Knauss
Theodore von Karman Professor of
Aeronautics and Applied Mechanics, emeritus
California Institute of Technology
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Hi Wolfgang,

I’m not aware of any such study. I made the comment perhaps too hastily. I’m not a professional but have built two harpsichords (a Zuckermann and a Hubbard kit). I know for sure from experience that the voicing affects the touch and speed/accuracy of repetition, and of course the volume produced. I think it also affects the tone, but this is harder to quantify. As I recall from voicing my Hubbard French, finding the right volume (softer than I initially started with) also produced a tone that I liked better. I was intending the instrument for my living room; things might have been different if it was going to be used regularly in a concert hall. I do remember clearly that I eventually found a good volume level that also felt good to play. It’s all of a piece . . . .

The plectrum material (quill, black delrin, white delrin) probably plays a role too, although my only experience has been with white delrin.

When I first got interested in harpsichords (1974), I got a copy of Hubbard’s red book. When I built the French kit 20 years later, the instructions (as I recall) provided more detailed/more sophisticated instructions for voicing. I should dig out that little book – I still have it somewhere.

The Instrument Workshop offers precut delrin plectra in 9 (nine!) thicknesses.
I re-delrined my harpsichord entirely with the extra thin, and am very pleased with the easy touch and the timbre which is full and not too clangy with higher partials.

I was under the impression that the range of thicknesses was to take into account the different demands of the 4ft (thinner) and the low notes of the 8ft (thicker), with thinner plectra in the treble of both 8ft and 4ft. The idea of having all plectra the same thickness doesnt make sense to me. It seems that your example would favour the high notes of the 4ft at the expense of weak 8ft basses.

When I used to use ZHI celcon blanks, they were supplied all the same thickness. The higher in pitch I went, the more meat I removed. I now follow a similar recipe with bird quill, choosing the feather size according to the pitch.

But there is no law that says you are not allowed to voice your own instrument in any way you wish! :grinning:

This would seem the case, logically. However, I had had a frustrating experience a while back, voicing down thick plectra, so I started in the top octave with the thin plectra, working my way down, expecting to change when the sound needed it, and it never needed it, so I used thin plectra top to bottom on two 8’ registers.

My sense is that the thin plectrum releases the string easily by bending, so the string is less displaced than it would be with a stiff plectrum. As a result there is less energy imparted to the higher partials. I recall, perhaps accurately, an extended posting on a different forum by a fine builder, showing in detail how he thins and shapes a piece of delrin into a comb of plectra. I recall he said that he didn’t modify these plectra to match the range of the instrument, but that with identical taper they worked well with no further modification. Fact or mis-remembrance, this encouraged me to accept the results.

The instrument is a hybrid, action parts were from a Burton kit, case altered somewhat to follow a Hubbard plan, and the soundboard came from Hubbard. I made it 2 x 8’ because my intent was to play Iberian and Italian repertoire. The instrument is in a rather small room. I don’t know if the warmth would carry in a larger room, but the bass does not sound weak; it is perhaps a little gentle in onset, stiffer plectra might add a bit more “chiff.”