Another Australian piano

By Dick Letts.
First published in the April-May 2001 edition of the Music Forum.

I've just played the Ron Overs piano. What a surprise!

Ron has been tuning my piano for years. Every time he comes, he has a story to tell about how he's experimenting in rebuilding some old Baldwin, or trying out some other idea he's been working on. The last couple of times, he brought the news that he had an entire piano, ready in final draft. Why didn't I come and take a look, have a play?

My real piano-playing years are regrettably long behind me. I'm thinking: would I even know if I'm playing something unusual? And it's embarrassing to play badly, even for an audience of piano-technicians. (Though who ever heard a piano tuner who could play the piano?!)

Curiosity edged out reticence. That was surprising. Even more surprising was the piano itself.

Unlike the very beautiful looking Stuart and Sons pianos from Newcastle, the Overs-Steinbach doesn't look special. In fact, it looks like a conventional black Alex Steinbach seven-foot grand, because the Overs inventions are all on the inside of the Korean-made (Samick) case and frame.

But boy, it sounds and feels great.

What Ron has done is this. He's made major modifications to the action: i.e. he's taken the traditional piano action first patented by Sebastian Erard in 1820, and redesigned the geometry of everything between the key and the hammer. He explained all of these changes to me in great complexity. I can make a pretty good guess that you don't really want to know all that. The short introductory version is that he's realigned the centres of movement in order to get rid of unwanted and unproductive friction. The friction in his action is halved.

You might jump to the conclusion that getting rid of the friction makes for a light action. Not so. Most of the weight of the keys is added in intentionally. It is needed to give the pianist something to work against in controlling the loudness and other characteristics of the sound.

But the effect of reducing the friction is that the action is very fast (I take Ron's word for this since my maximum piano speed is about 12k an hour). Probably, no-one can play faster than this piano can respond.

Also, you can make the finest gradations. I've never played on an action capable of such a pianissimo. Whereas on ordinary pianos you reach their ultimate softness with still a way to go to silence, with the Overs action the gradation seems to go in infinite steps to near-inaudibility and then silence. There's no final gap. It's sooo smooth!

The other thing Ron has done is played around with the sound of the piano, designing a new string scale, varying the placement and height of the bridges across which the strings are strung, and taking a router to the perimeter of the sound board. (On a five foot seven inch piano 'his next experiment' he's actually put a saw cut through the edge of the sound board, adjacent to lowest bass strings. Takes no prisoners, that Ron.)

Samick should be very grateful. It's a lovely sound. And the power! This is a seven foot piano that a nine foot concert grand should be scared of.

The Overs workshop is not a pretty site. It's in an anonymous shop-front on a near-dead main-road shopping strip in Concord West, a low-glamour suburb not far from Olympics territory in Sydney's western suburbs. Inside is a dark jumble of pianos dead and alive, uninviting to your lay person but doubtless each with its own biography for Ron's small guild of technicians and craftsmen.

You get the impression that rents are paid through the tedium of piano tunings and maintenance, but the real work is after hours and probably donated.

Ron is a craftsman. He deals in measurements of millimetres and half-millimetres. He is interested in the distinctive properties of different types of timber. He is designing things mechanical. He is attempting to improve on an artefact that has had the full attention of teams assembled by the Steinways and Bösendorfers of the world over a couple of centuries: over a period in which science was interested in mechanics and actually worked with wood! - not computer pathways and biotechnology. That takes some self-confidence.

It's fantastic whenever you meet someone so immersed in the construction of excellence.

Ron had been thinking about building the new action for years. He got the theory in place, but had no idea how, in real life, it would work for a pianist. Some of the technicians were saying, "This might be pretty off-putting for the pianist, because if you cut down on the friction you could lose the feel". But once it was built, what Ron expected came to pass. Ron: "The the first thing the pianist notices is that the keys feel as though they are pushing up against your fingers. When you release the key you can feel the action wanting to come back to rest. It feels very different, but after ten minutes pianists get used to it and start to realise... The big benefit is that fast repetition".

Young hot-shot pianist William Chen was dragged out after the piano competition to try the Overs-Steinbach. He came for half an hour - had to get away to another appointment - but stayed for two hours. He played the 'Firebird Suite'. Ron: "He said this piano allowed him to play the piece at the speed he really wanted to play it. He said he had never been able to play it as fast as he could on this piano".

If I could have got rid of the embarrassing audience, I would have played all day as well.

"What else apart from speed?"

"When you're playing the major works, it takes a lot of energy. There's no doubt, you know. One of the advantages I can see is that for pianists who don't quite have the stamina, it will enable them to cover the big repertoire a lot easier".

The (first) piano was scheduled to be shown for the first time at a piano technicians' convention. "You can have the best action on the planet. But if you put it into a piano that doesn't produce sound, the average pianist is going to think God what is this thing?" Ron had planned to build a new sound board but time got the better of him - the assembly of the first new action had taken longer than expected and he knew he couldn't present a piano with a poor sound. So he modified the existing factory sound board, playing with its thickness and routing round the edge to give it greater flexibility. "The upshot of this was, we ended up with an extraordinary instrument. We are VERY HAPPY with the sound of the thing".

In the process he also fixed that problem so common in pianos, the sudden change of tone as you descend into the bass register. The transition is smooth all the way down.

"What's it going to cost?"

"At the moment we're looking at AU$70,000 plus 10% GST. We don't expect it to stay there. If everything goes as it should, it will go up". At the Piano Tuners Convention, tuners and pianists were asked what they thought the piano should sell for on the showroom floor. "Opinions ranged between $70,000 and $90,000. We're endeavoring to build a world-class piano".

"Why a seven-foot? Its a rather unusual size, isn't it, in terms of what people tend to buy".

"It's certainly bigger than most people want to have in their home. But it's a good size for a recording studio or small recital hall, you know, a chamber music venue. In a lot of ways, a seven-foot piano is a better instrument for chamber works than a concert piano, because the concert piano often overwhelms the cello and violin and you just can't hear them". Ron said that actually, he thinks piano no. 001 is too powerful. In the second piano now under construction, he will slightly change the height of the bridge. This will slightly reduce the power but give more of a singing tone and a longer sustain - more suitable when you don't need to cut through an orchestra.

"So are you going to have other sizes in due course?"

"The next model will be five foot seven. We're currently doing a prototyping exercise on a G2 Yamaha, which is a similar size. The five-seven piano won't be called an Overs-Steinbach; I think it will be called an Overs 170, since it will be an all-Australian piano".

"You said there's a company interested in using the action".

"Yes, ****** and ******* is interested."

Ultimately, the enterprise could be sustained by licensing the action for use by other makers.

But only Overs will build the Overs piano with the Overs action and the Overs sound.

Dick Letts is Executive Director of the Music Council of Australia

First published in Music Forum, April - May 2001 edition.