Yamaha Piano Secrets Revealed

Recently, two Yamaha sales representatives were selected from across the USA to visit Yamaha’s main piano factory and headquarters in Japan for an exclusive piano training workshop. One of those representatives was Dwayne Hilton, President of Lacefield Music in St. Louis, Missouri. The other was our very own Hugh Sung, Director of Institutional Solutions at Cunningham Piano. After 4 intense days of training, Hugh and Dwayne sat down together to share their thoughts on this rare behind-the-scenes look at Yamaha’s piano manufacturing methods and philosophies. Here is an edited transcript from their discussion.

Hugh Sung:
So our first day we were tasting pianos, and comparing the different qualities. And then the second day was pretty incredible. We actually got a chance to walk through the factory at Kakegawa, which is located about 30 minutes’ drive away from Yamaha’s headquarters in the port city of Hamamatsu (which itself is about an hour’s train ride southwest of Tokyo).  We got to see pianos from piles of wood to finished, gorgeous instruments. Dwayne, what were some of the things that impressed you the most?

Dwayne Hilton:
Obviously we’ve learned something every day that we’ve been involved with this. But I’ve got to say, that second day when we actually got to do the factory and really see what’s going on, that’s probably some of the stuff that most impressed me, and I’ll just tell you some highlights. When we first walked in, they were building U1 [upright pianos]. And we were watching that process, from how they do the soundboards, to how they’re putting them on the frame.  When they talk about Japanese precision and Japanese skill, yes, there are robots. They have machines where absolute precision is necessary. But to take that another step, it definitely isn’t all about the robots and the machines.

Hugh Sung:
Yes, there were robots that did precision cuts and precision measurements. And they had robots, really at every stage. There were robots tuning pianos as well. And yet, complimenting every robot, there was at least two or three human beings overseeing the work. It was a complete marriage between human hands and technology. And the technology was really, I think, more in terms of just assisting the humans. For example, there were some really clever ways of machines lifting the pianos, moving them around and just getting the pianos in place so that these people don’t have to do it themselves. They can focus on doing their jobs really, really well.

Dwayne Hilton:
And one of the things that we’ve really been touching on is, since we’ve been here for the last three days, is that human element. We got to see the workers there and the skills that it takes to build a Yamaha piano. It takes years of training and understudy just to be able to be at the factory to be able to build these products. We saw everything from people who are stringing the piano wire by hand and exactly what that takes. It’s not done by machine, it’s done by hand. When they wind the copper around the string, it’s got to be done by a human hand because they want it so much apart, so that you have a warmer vibration.

Hugh Sung:
That’s what’s really interesting because there’s this beautiful balance between absolute precision and consistency, which Yamaha is known for, and that human element. For example, what’s the big deal about hand spun bass strings? Basically what we’re talking about are piano wires and the lower strings need to have more mass. So they’ll take a steel piano wire core, and they’ll wrap a layer of copper wire around it to make it thicker. It’s a very easy thing for a machine to do this. The problem is that actually sounds too sterile. For that, you really want an element of human inconsistency. It sounds weird, but it’s that quality that makes the piano sound human, not sterile. Right?

Dwayne Hilton:
Right. Yes, to give it a human element, it makes it sound good. When the hammer strikes a string, it has to make the string vibrate warmly.

Hugh Sung:
Every piano gets tuned four times. The first two times the robots are tuning – they have these automated robotic systems, which is pretty cool. They’ll do a basic tuning, but then the last two always are humans.

Dwayne Hilton:
We got to see the people actually tuning them. The pianos would come into the room and they would tune it, and it was just so amazing. And before the tunings we saw the hammers being put together, glued and actually put on the action stack by hand. They have some really cool ways of doing it, but it’s still done by hand. The action checks, whenever they were going through every action and making sure everything was regulated perfectly. All of that was done by hand as well. The voicing and needling of the hammers, again all done by hand. That was a human element, and to watch that, the skill it takes of these workers to be able to do that, made me realize it’s not just a mass produced piano. No, there’s that human element where it takes a long time from skills to even the seasoning of the wood, all the way to the finished product. It takes an incredible amount of skill and it was wonderful.

Hugh Sung:
And yet, with Yamaha being the world’s largest piano producer, I was just absolutely stunned with the precision of the assembly line. How they were able to coordinate all the different stations and workers. For me, it was like a written symphony with all this incredible planning, in terms of the logistics between one station to another, and an orchestra actually performing all of those functions. All these workers working in absolute precision, harmony with each other.

Dwayne Hilton:
You’re absolutely right. It just seems like it’s an orchestra. It takes many parts to make something beautiful, and many people to make something together to make something beautiful.

Hugh Sung:
And that level of precision, in terms of the scale that they have to do it at, and yet do it with the human element still intact. That was mind blowing.

Dwayne Hilton:
A few more things that impressed me, just to tell you a little bit more. Every piano is checked and checked and checked, before it’s ever put in a box to get ready-

Hugh Sung:
We saw that upright piano, right? Remember, it was U1 I think?

Dwayne Hilton:
Yes.

Hugh Sung:
And they asked us, “Can you see the defect?” We’re like, “This piano looks perfect.”

Dwayne Hilton:
“This looks like a perfect piano.” And they showed us the back of the piano, which really nobody ever looks at. Everybody looks at the front of a piano. But on the back of this upright, I could not even tell, but maybe there was just-

Hugh Sung:
There’s a tiny little bit of the varnish, like a spot literally less than the tip of my pinkie, that was a little bit lighter than another piece. And for that tiny defect, they took it off of the assembly.

Dwayne Hilton:
This was the quality control that we saw. As a dealer, if that piano came in, I would have never noticed.

Hugh Sung:
We’d be like, “That’d be fine.” But they won’t let it go. We saw one young lady whose sole job is to stare at the piano, run her finger over every crease and corner with specially designed lights, so she could see any defect.

Dwayne Hilton:
The quality control is amazing, of course. Then later on that afternoon, we got to see a little bit more stuff with the factory. We got to see more of the grand pianos. How they bend the wood, and how the rims are put together. How soundboards are made – it was amazing how they were gluing ribs onto the soundboards.

Hugh Sung:
Yes, and a guy was right there gluing these ribs down, and just checking to make sure that the glue is consistently being applied. And there’s another guy dedicated to just applying the Yamaha decals on the soundboard. We were all impressed with him. What’s also really interesting is that with all the different models, they have a different procedure for each model. I found that very interesting.

Dwayne Hilton:
Very good point, Hugh. That’s right. For every model, they’ve got the recipe, if you will, on, “how are we going to make this piano be at its very best?” And it’s different, from model to model.

Hugh Sung:
Yes, exactly. The rims are of a different combination of laminate woods, for one model as opposed to another, even if there’s just a few inches difference in size.

Dwayne Hilton:
We also got to see a few other things about a rather new technology. It actually came out of violins and guitars that Yamaha did. It’s called their A.R.E. technology, which stands for Acoustic Resonance Enhancement. It’s just another way of basically making that wood sound like it’s an aged wood.

Hugh Sung:
What’s interesting is they were explaining a little of the science with it. With a raw piece of wood, the grains are kind of randomly assembled. But over time, what happens with consistent vibrations, those vibrations will align those grains and those layers in symmetry and make them straighter so they’re more efficient at producing those sounds. For violins like Stradivarius, this process can take hundreds of years. Well, Yamaha found a way of doing that in a fraction of the time, but with the same effect, with no chemicals, no damage to the wood. And you’ve now you’ve got this mature, molecularly identical process. That’s game changing. It’s amazing.

Dwayne Hilton:
And then, just to finish off that second day, we saw how they were assembling the grand pianos at the end. The high gloss finish process was really amazing.

Hugh Sung:
Especially the nanoparticle machine! Most piano manufacturers just spray paint it, put a little bit of polyurethane. But Yamaha? No, they had to have a whole nanoparticle finish application robot. It’s like something out of Star Trek. Unbelievable.

Dwayne Hilton:
It was also amazing how they finish the post that’s underneath the piano.

Hugh Sung:
Even that, nobody looks at that. And yet there’s an artisan painting the post, by hand. I also loved the master craftsman stations. There were like four or five dedicated rooms.

Dwayne Hilton:
That’s right. And we got a sneak peek into what they call their premiere pianos. We found out that there’s really only five – what they call master technicians – that’s really allowed to have their hands to build the CFX series, the CF6, the CF4. And of course the SX series, this is what Yamaha calls their premium pianos.

Hugh Sung:
These are the top of the top line. The finest pianos.

Dwayne Hilton:
Hugh and I were honored to be able to see enough of what’s really happening. And the skill it takes, and to hear how they voice the pianos.

Hugh Sung:
These are very sweet people, but you could tell they love what they’re doing. And they were gracious in giving us just a small fraction of a demonstration of their incredible skill, and their thought processes in terms of what they’re aiming for. And again, the hand craftsmanship.

Dwayne Hilton:
I think that’s what’s the beautiful thing, just seeing the hands that build these fine instruments.

Hugh Sung:
We even had a chance to spend some time with one of the world’s greatest piano technicians. Ace was giving us a masterclass on what it takes to tune a piano. What’s interesting is that he has a whole philosophy. I’ll admit I only think of tuning as a rather simplistic process, but he was talking about this whole new way of tuning that actually makes the sound project. It’s bigger, it’s clearer, it has character. I thought this was absolute genius. And they have a whole academy of young people that are coming around from all over the world to learn these techniques. And it’s an integrated approach.

Dwayne Hilton:
That’s something I was impressed with at the factory, seeing lots of different age ranges. You and I, we ate with the workers in the cafeteria.

Hugh Sung:
That’s true. They’re not just younger people. We saw all generations. Some people that have been there their whole lives.

Dwayne Hilton:
Yes. That included some people that are just coming out of school.

Hugh Sung:
I think they said their retention rate is extremely low. Almost nobody leaves Yamaha. They just stay there.There’s a place for them to grow and contribute at all stages of life. I thought that was really beautiful.

Dwayne Hilton:
The factory was one of my favorites, but today we got to see some really cool stuff. One of the things we did, we actually got to see the actual shipping and logistics. Hugh, you and I both work in the United States, and a lot of times we just think about the United States. But we don’t think of the global idea of Yamaha and how they’re involved with shipping in every country in the world.

Hugh Sung:
They have a logistics partner that’s just dedicated to warehousing their pianos, as well as what we call the KDs, the knockdowns. That was pretty interesting, too. So all of the pianos and all of the piano parts, are made in one of two factories, either the Kakegawa factory, or another factory in Japan. So either you have a whole piano that’s boxed and ready to go, or you have all of the parts you need to put the piano together that are being shipped out to their other factories spread throughout Asia, to assemble those pianos. And that was something that they wanted to emphasize, that these are all coming from Japan, no matter what piano it is. If it says made in Indonesia, yes, it’s made in Indonesia, but with Yamaha Japanese built parts.

Dwayne Hilton:
We saw the forklifts and the way they’re so careful handling these pianos and the way they load them up on the dock into the shipping containers. They have, of course, these forklift drivers who are extremely skilled. They even have the right tools and little tricks to make sure that there’s going to be no damage done to the piano in the handling.

Hugh Sung:
I was really impressed also with their inventory software system, how they can locate every single part. Of course, Yamaha makes 25% of all the world’s musical instruments, as well as being the largest piano manufacturer in the world. They have this incredibly organized system to find every part, every piano, seamlessly. And they know exactly how much space there is in the warehouse, so that everything can just go right in its place.

Dwayne Hilton:
Everything that really Yamaha produces is shipped out of here, around the world. And it’s so clean, so well organized. Everything’s got a perfect spot on a shelf, exactly where they got to go. So they can just pick it, load it onto a container, and have it ready to go.

Hugh Sung:
I almost felt like there’s an art to that, as well.

Dwayne Hilton:
Absolutely.

Hugh Sung:
The art in the organization, the art in the execution, and passion. We really want to make sure that everybody understands, we care about these instruments. That legendary consistency and level of quality is so clearly evident in the smallest details.

Dwayne Hilton:
Right, and they want to make sure that their product gets on a container to get shipped to, well in our case, to Los Angeles, in the United States. And to where it’s going to get there safely. So ultimately, it’s going to come to our shops, where we’re going to tune it and go over it, to make sure everything’s great. And hopefully where you’re going to buy it, and it’s going to be just as good as, whenever it gets into your home, as whenever it left the factory. And that’s exciting.

Hugh Sung:
I think what’s so cool is that Dwayne and I have really seen the whole process. We’re not just getting pianos into our store and putting a price tag on them, but we’ve seen the love, the care, the passion that goes into every single component, every wire. I didn’t know they did hand spun wires on an upright piano. Who does that? But they do that, and we’ve seen firsthand what goes into every single piano. I feel so lucky! I get to work with pianos, and with people who love the pianos more than I do.

Dwayne Hilton:
Right, I didn’t think that was possible.

Hugh Sung:
But they love it to the Nth degree. And they’ve put me to shame a little bit. I wish I had that kind of passion. Amazing.

Dwayne Hilton:
Right, but after we went to the warehouse, we got to see really the corporate offices in Hamamatsu. 2,000 people working in two buildings take care of all Yamaha’s needs, and make sure everybody’s taken care of around the world.

Hugh Sung:
And it looked like we were in the hi-tech offices of Google or Facebook.

Dwayne Hilton:
Yes, and we got to have lunch with the office workers today. Again, I saw many ages in the cafeteria. Everything from the younger crowd who maybe just got out of university or college, all the way to people who look like they were getting ready for retirement.

Hugh Sung:
Right. And they were all just interacting together as colleagues. That’s pretty cool. I think there’s something very healthy about that intergenerational cooperation and collaboration. When I see that, it looks like family.

Dwayne Hilton:
Right. And if I could just wrap it up, Hugh and I and our district managers, we got a great chance to have some meetings. We can’t share everything in those meetings, but one of the things that they do want to know, is our opinion. And I felt like we got to talk freely about them, and Yamaha really seems like they want to listen and they want to do what’s best for us.

Hugh Sung:
We shared some very strong opinions in terms of things we want to see them improve. And they were actually really grateful that we were so honest in our feedback. I can’t think of a piano company in the world that is so passionate about their mission to make pianos available for everyone, and to get everybody to play a piano and to discover the joy of making music for themselves.

Dwayne Hilton:
They do, and that’s why Yamaha makes so many different products and so many different piano ranges.

Hugh Sung:
But the best pianos, for everybody. It’s just amazing.

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