Relative strength/loudness of upper and lower 8ft registers on a double harpsichord

In another thread, Andrew wrote: As to soft 8 foot and loud 8 foot, people do not refer to that. Because there are huge differences of opinion about relative strengths of the eight foots. Better to refer to upper and lower 8.

I am interested to know what the different opinions are. I was always under the impression that the upper 8ft is supposed to be softer than the lower; but that has consequences for arranging stagger when the manuals are coupled. Making the upper 8 softer means weakening the plectra and makes them pluck earlier, and vice versa.

On most instruments, the lower manual is arranged to pluck earlier than the upper manual. (An interesting exception was the 1769 Taskin at Edinburgh: when I played it in 2000, the upper manual 8ft strings plucked before the lower.)

The position of the plectra along the strings causes the upper 8 (front course) to have more high frequencies than the lower manual register. This makes the upper register inherently louder than the lower register, everything else being equal, which it isnt, of course!

I bring this up because voicing the upper manual to pluck second means that its plectra must be strong enough to pluck later, and with their more penetrating sound the upper strings can dominate the timbral balance. I have found this balance of strength/loudnes hard to achieve with them plucking after the lower plectra. A solution that I am reluctant to implement would be to increase the gap between the dogs and the tails of the upper manual.

I would be interested to hear from others on this subject.


In our workshop down here we have a belief that the upper manual of double manual Flemish instruments is the ‘principal’ manual and as such should be voiced louder (but still staggered the same). I won’t elaborate more here presently as it needs quite a work up and I have never written it down. This is partly tangled up with the nature of the transposing doubles.

Saying that, this not a single musician can accept it and we have even had harpsichord sale of a commissioned instrument fall through because of it. It’s just too controversial.

I am not an expert on the fortunes of the 1789 Taskin but I do seem to remember that at 2000 and before it was seriously messed up in terms of jack direction and so on and that it has since been corrected. Others will know more. I can’t easily check from Australia!

I think the concept of the upper manual of a Flemish double being the prinicpal manual is worthy of elaboration here. It raises the question of what constitutes a Flemish double? Are you strictly referring to Dulcken style coupling? How does it differ from a French double?

Regarding the Taskin, I mentioned the stagger to John Raymond at the time. He replied that I was the first person to notice it, and that he suspected that John Barnes had made a mistake…

The origins of design of the ZHI Flemish Double that I have go back a way, and it might be thought of as a non ravalé French instrument, with its compass of GG to d3 and French style keyboards. We only have D. J. Way’s word for it that the lower manual 8ft should speak before the upper.

I seem to recall that Bill Jorgenson may have once said something about the upper manual 8ft speaking before the lower; but I cannot find proof at present.


I am today voicing down a delrin upper 8, to comply with the stated preferences of the harpsichordist, a double ‘Taskin’ copy, so that the lower plucks first and is stronger. It would be so nice to justify the stronger pluck coming second, as thus the overall dip can be tightened up (we haven’t mentioned the 4, I like it in first pluck, but softly). No bottom screws. Monday, I went over a double with a strong 4 foot, the owner loves it like that, it came first, then L8 then U8. Lots of key dip, but as a pianist, the owner seemed happy. I don’t argue with the customer! FWIW. Thomas , Not very HIP, all this?

Dear David and others.

Regardless of the conflicting historical trends, it is a demonstrable fact that, in a French-type instrument with manual coupler, regulating the upper 8’ to be slightly softer (not too much otherwise you cannot play crossed pieces), other things (total loudness) being equal, makes the action significantly lighter. This was observed by both Hubbard and K. Gilbert.

For a scientific proof see my paper.



Edit: the paper I just quoted is mostly about staggering. It needs complementing, re 8’ stop balance, with the analysis I included in my “Playing the Baroque Harpsichord” book, Chapter 6. Harpsichord Voicing and Stop Balance.