Friday, March 27, 2015

The Sonaré (R)evolution

Powell Sonaré PS-601 

By Steven A. Wasser
President, Verne Q. Powell Flutes, Inc.

When we decided to co-manufacture a step-up flute in 2002, our conceptualization of Sonaré, with a Chinese body and a Powell headjoint, was ground-breaking.  I vividly recall one of our long-time Powell players coming up to us at the convention that summer.  With her hand on her hip, she demanded to know, “Why Powell is making a flute in China?”  I explained our concept of putting a professional headjoint on an inexpensive flute body, since the headjoint was far and away the most important acoustical component of the flute.  She tried the flute then said, “I’ll take that one.”

We’ve come a long way since we introduced the Sonaré flute in 2002.  For one thing, at last count there were 14 other flute makers who had copied our concept.  For another, the Sonaré flute has evolved.

When we introduced Sonaré we were frankly paranoid about doing something that might jeopardize the Powell image.  Thus, we were extremely careful to distinguish between the flute body made in China, and the headjoint made by Powell in the United States.  The engraving on the headjoint was the normal Powell Signature headjoint engraving, but the Powell name was nowhere to be seen on the body of the flute.  We engraved “Sonaré” on the barrel of the flute.

During the first few years of Sonaré’s existence we wound up using 4 different scales made by our Chinese partner.  We ultimately standardized on a single scale – the one we though was best – but were still not satisfied.  Since the acoustics of the flute are determined first by the headjoint and secondarily by the scale, we decided to focus our engineering talents on the body.  To make a long story short, in 2006 we came up with a technology we’ve called “Zinki,” that allows us to economically extrude tone holes at Powell with our Modern Powell Scale.  Since then we’ve used Zinki to extrude all Sonaré flute bodies, as well as our Conservatory and Signature flutes.  Even Custom gold flutes with extruded tone holes are done on Zinki.  (If you’re curious about the technology you can look up U.S. patent #7,420,109.  It describes our approach for putting a big ball through a small hole.)

By using flute bodies made at Powell with the Modern Powell Scale, we felt we had made a large leap in quality.  At that point we decided Sonaré could become a Powell flute.  Sonaré then became a model designation, just like Signature or Conservatory.

However, we aren’t done making improvements.  Starting in spring, 2015, the Sonaré flutes being assembled for us in China will be utilizing cups that are the same size and shape as the Powell flute cups used for Conservatory and Signature flutes. 

One final point.  Because we make the body and headjoint of the flute at our Maynard workshop, and because we do the final finishing at Powell, we have an instrument where more than 50% of the content is U.S. content and where final finishing takes place in the USA.  Thus, our Powell Sonaré flutes qualify as “Assembled in USA.”  To the best of our knowledge no other flute in this category qualifies for that country of origin labeling.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Cutting Piccolo Headjoints - The Wave Headjoint

Last week, headjoint cutter and flute finisher Lindsey McChord told us a bit more about the scraper blade, one of the tools she uses to cut metal flute headjoints.  Working with wooden headjoints requires a different set of tools and involves a much different technique.  In the video below, Lindsey gives us an overview of the process as she begins work on a Powell Wave style piccolo headjoint.


Friday, March 13, 2015

Tools of the Trade Part 1 - The Scraper Blade

In several of our posts here on Flute Builder, we've had the chance to discuss and share photos of various parts of the headjoint cutting process.  This week, we stopped in to the headjoint cutting room and took a short video of headjoint cutter and flute finisher, Lindsey McChord.  In this first video (of many we plan to film), Lindsey talks about one of the most important tools she uses, the "scraper blade."


Friday, March 6, 2015

Inline or Offset G

Left to right: 14k Custom with inline G, 19.5k Custom with offset G.

One of the standard options for a Powell flute is to have either an inline G or offset G.  For some, the choice may be simple.  For instance, if your fingers are not long enough to play an inline G flute comfortably, you'll probably choose the offset G.  But, is there a difference in sound between a flute with an inline G and one with an offset G?  We asked Steven Wasser, President of Verne Q. Powell Flutes, if he could shed light on this topic.  His response is as follows:
Because a flute is not an efficient converter of your air stream into sound, the tiniest things can make a difference in response and acoustics.  If we had a keyless flute where the only choice was to position the G tone hole in-line or offset, there would be no difference in intonation or response.  However, the presence of the offset G key requires a small additional rib, and additional keywork.  The independent G keys, with their additional mechanism, add a small amount of mass to the flute.  All other things being equal (ceteris paribus, as the economists like to say), there will be a slight acoustical difference between an in-line and offset G flute.  The difference is likely to be so subtle that it is not material, and my suggestion would be to go with whichever mechanism is most comfortable for you.
So, now we know the answer!  As mentioned in the introduction, the option of inline or offset G is available on all Powell flutes, including Powell Sonaré models.  Follow this link to view additional information on the Powell and Powell Sonaré flute models.

Close-up on 14k flute with inline G.

Close-up on 19.5k flute with offset G.  The yellow line outlines the side of the extra mechanism tubing that is part of the additional keywork for the offset G.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Signature and Conservatory

Left to right: Silver and Aurumite 9k Handmade Conservatory flutes

The Powell Signature and Conservatory flutes are two of our most popular models, so we are often asked, "What is the difference between them?"  There are just a few differences, so we wanted to help answer that question...

From the "top down," the Signature and Conservatory flutes differ in the following ways:

1) Headjoint - Signature flutes have a Signature headjoint, and Conservatory flutes have your choice of one of three Custom styles: Soloist, Philharmonic, Venti

2) Body - Signature flutes have sterling silver bodies.  For Conservatory flutes, you have the option of a sterling silver or Aurumite 9k body.

3) Mechanism - There is a pinned mechanism on the Signature and a pinless mechanism on the Conservatory.

4) Adjustments - Signature flutes have adjusting screws, and Conservatory flutes have paper adjustments. Click here to read or previous post on adjustments, "Very Fine Adjustments."

That's all there is to it -- just a few differences.  Have you tried the Signature?  Conservatory?  Since there are two body options for the Conservatory, make sure to try the silver and the Aurunite 9k if you can!  Also, we have links with additional specs on our website - click here for Signature and here for Conservatory.

Conservatory - Silver
Conservatory - Aurumite 9k

Friday, February 20, 2015

Making the Final Cut

Lindsey holding one of five headjoints she finished cutting. 

Cutting headjoints takes a tremendous amount of skill, expertise, and patience as we have learned from meeting with headjoint cutter and flute finisher, Lindsey McChord.  We had the chance to catch up with her this week while she was cutting piccolo headjoints.  In fact, she had just finished several, and it made us wonder -- how does she know when they are finished?  So, we asked!  Lindsey told us that there are essentially three areas she focuses on for determining whether a headjoint is ready to go: scales, dynamics, and flexibility.

When she has a headjoint that she feels is finished, Lindsey begins the final testing process with scales, focusing on the mid and low range.  Although some may consider the low register to be "weak" on a piccolo, Lindsey tells us that this is definitely not true.  She says that she strives for balance when it comes to registers -- never sacrificing one end of the spectrum for another.  For instance, some players may test a headjoint that has a great upper register but not a great lower register and vice versa.  Lindsey says it's important to have strong registers throughout -- never sacrificing one for the other.  She plays the full range through scales, going up to C4 and making sure that B4 speaks.  When playing scales, Lindsey can also check for evenness.  For example, if there is a difference between notes that are next to each other, it's a good indication that an adjustment needs to be made.  Lindsey uses scales to focus on articulation as well, making sure that articulations are crisp and that the response is niece and clean both up and down the scale.  In terms of sound quality, playing scales allows Lindsey make sure that the sound is focused and pure -- never undefined or "woody." 

The Anderson Etudes are a terrific method for testing a headjoint's dynamic range and flexibility.  Of course, a headjoint that only plays comfortably at one dynamic range would not pass the test, so Lindsey makes sure that she can play the full dynamic range with comfort and ease, including the extremes.  She also makes sure to incorporate large leaps (octaves, 6ths, etc.) in the testing process to get a sense of the headjoint's flexibility.  Whether she selects etudes with large leaps or simply ads them to her scale regimen, these exercises can really put the headjoint's flexibility to the test.

Anderson Etudes on the stand in the headjoint testing room.

In general, the goal is to cut a headjoint that one can play easily, without having to make changes to the headjoint, their embouchure, or both.  Lindsey tells us that one should simply be able to put the headjoint up to their lips and play -- comfortably.  She says that it's crucial for her to test the piccolo headjoints on the very same piccolo all the time, and she has to make sure that this piccolo is in perfect shape.  She says that a piccolo is capable of producing a full range of beautiful tone colors, and you can be very expressive.  All the nuances that one can achieve on flute can also be produced on piccolo as well.  She tells us, "There are some amazing solos for piccolo, but everything has to be there, otherwise, the piccolo is not capable of doing what it needs to do."  So, with that in mind, Lindsey knows that the piccolo is certainly not a "second class citizen."  When the headjoint she cuts provides the artistic and technical freedom she needs without any restrictions, and with ease and stability, it is ready!

One headjoint on far left in egg crate has been oiled and is used as a model for cutting other headjoints.  The other five in the crate are finished and will be oiled next.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

The Low Bb - Powell #4871

Looking through our archives this week, we spotted a very unusual flute -- Powell #4871.  It was made in 1976, and the most distinguishing feature of this flute is its low Bb!  The flute was made of sterling silver and had the following specs: soldered tone holes, .014" tubing, Cooper Scale, French cups, offset G, split-E, and a C# trill.

The low Bb is operated by a left hand lever which closes the key cup.  You'll see this outlined in the photos below.  Powell's repair technician, Rachel Baker, mentioned that it was most likely positioned there because there would not be enough room next to the C and B rollers on the footjoint.  Also, the C# trill key on this flute has a different shape and is positioned differently than a traditional C# trill key.  The C# trill key here is quite long in comparison and is located below the Bb shake (rather than above, which is where it is normally located).

Enjoy the photos below of this very unusual Powell!

Close-up on the footjoint (tone hole closest to bottom of footjoint is the Bb).
Low Bb is operated by a left hand lever (next to G# key).
No room next to B and C rollers for an extra key!

Green arrow points to low Bb key, red to Bb shake, yellow to C# trill.
A different flute for comparison.  Blue arrow points to a traditional C# trill, red arrow to Bb shake.
Close-up on serial number.