Why Rees?

 
 

Asymmetrical Soundboards

Rees Harps Inc. build instruments which are especially unusual in that William has refined a trademark asymmetrical soundboard.  In the case of a harp, when the soundboard is symmetrical, it is evenly divided by the strings.  These symmetrical instruments often have unbalanced voices.


Why asymmetry?  The perfectly symmetrical nature of the traditional harp soundboard lends itself to wave canceling.  Wave canceling occurs when two wave frequencies (sounds, in this case) are modulated equally but are opposite.  The high point in one wave is canceled out (attenuated) by the low point in another wave and either no sound or a much diminished sounds is produced.  The other failing of a symmetrical soundboard is that if the soundboard is not sensitive to a specific tone on one side, the other side will also not be sensitive to that tone because the two sides are identical.  (See Diagram 1 below.)


An asymmetrical soundboard breaks up both of these patterns.  Wave canceling is reduced because the various parts of each side of the sound board are so radically different in configuration that they carry the wave frequencies in a purposefully mismatched manner.  Equal and opposite waves are not produced so they do not cancel.  Further, the division of the soundboard into two unequal portions means that the two sides of the soundboard are not identical and one side can pick up the tones which the other side cannot.  The asymmetrical soundboard eliminates dead or bright (wolf tones) strings, commonly tolerated in traditional harp designs, and produces and even tonal repsonse throughout the full range of the harp.  (See Diagram 2.)


Interestingly, guitars and the entire violin family externaly appear to have symmetrical soundboards but internally this is not the case.  Guitar luthiers use some or all of a combination of asymmetrical bracing, soundboard thinning and bridge adjustments to eliminate the symmetrical performance of a guitar soundboard.  Luthiers of the violin family use the some of these techniques and add to them the off-center placement of the soundpost and bass bar, therefore giving their violins the asymmetrical advantage.  This has been the case for well over a hundred years in both of these instrument families.  It is only logical that the same principles apply to harps as well.


Effective asymmetrical performance in a harp soundboard is best achieved by setting the midrib and strings off-center.  Overall, testing has a greater sensitivity to a wider range of tones than do comparable symmetrical instruments.  The true test of an asymmetrical soundboard is when a performer goes into a recording studio and works with an experienced recording technician.  Time after time, the response has been amazement because there is no need to adjust for the harp.  Technicians can set the levels to neutral all the way across the board.  While no performer purchases their harp because their recording engineer recommends it, it is worth thinking about the fact that recording engineers, by definition, have some of the best and most highly trained ears in the world and while they may have no understanding of harps, they have an acute understanding of instruments as a tool of music and music is, after all, the whole point.


Environmentally Responsible Harps

In 1988, at the Guild of American Luthiers annual convention, a watershed speech was made which served to actively involve luthiers in the struggle to confront the problems surrounding the extinction of several of the primary species of trees used in lutherie.  Unfortunately, the action has come too late for classic instrument woods such as Brazilian Rosewood, Mahogany and Ebony.  All three are precariously near biological extinction and the trade in them is either illegal or on its way to being so.  In soundboard woods, for so many years, due to the destruction of the German Blackforest, Germany has been buying North American Engelmann Spruce, milling it and selling it back into this country disguised as prized German wood.  Since the demand for a specific wood is often customer driven, it is important that customers be made aware of the extreme nature of the problem.  Rainforest Relief has developed an excellent set of guidelines on the overall subject of endangered woods which is available at http://www.rainforestrelief.org/documents/guidelines.pdf.


For our part, we began to become aware of this issue in the late nineties and removed all tropical rainforest woods from use in our lutherie.  As we have educated ourselves further on the subject we have stopped using all the following woods:  Ash (from Canada or Russia), Bubinga (African Rosewood), Cedar (Spanish and Western Red), Cocobolo, Cherry (from Canada or Russia), Ebony, Kapur and Luan (both found in plywood), Mahogany (all), Paduk, Purpleheart, Redwood, Rosewood (all), Sitka or Engelmann Spruce, Walnut (from Canada or Russia), Wenge or Zebrawood.


Poplar Soundboards

Harp soundboards do have some unique aspects which distinguish them from other instruments.  Foremost is the amount of string pressure.  While a standard acoustic guitar will have around 130 lbs of string pressure, a 36 string lever harp may have well over fifteen hundred pounds.  This only gets more dramatic as additional strings are added, as in multi-course harps.  Harp soundboards, therefore, are on a precarious line between being thin enough to dynamically voice and thick enough to maintain mechanical integrity.  Wood selection and distribution of mechanical stress is clearly essential to good harp design.

In answer to these requirements and acknowledging our environmental concerns regarding the use of spruce, Rees harps were switched to poplar soundboards about ten years ago.  When used to full potential, solid poplar soundboards yield a rch voice that exhibits depth across the spectrum.  Poplar soundboards mature faster than spruce in voice and, just like any quality tonewood, they continue to mature and improve as the years go by.  Poplar is also not as prone to potential cracking as brittle woods like spruce.  Additionally, poplar is more dimensionally stable.  Because it expands and contracts less, a poplar soundboard will hold tune better.  Unfortunately, poplar is not a very attractive wood but the application of a thin veneer of maple over the solid poplar does not interfere with the voice of the instrument in fact, it lends some of its own color and integrity to the voice of the instrument in fact, it lends some of its own color and integrity to the voice by stiffening the wood just a bit.  Best of all, it brings the beauty of maple to the look of our soundboards.


Built to Last

The roots of Rees Harps Inc. date back to 1972, when William first started building harps.  Forty years later we continue to grow and remain, steadfastly, in support of you.


All Rees Concert Line harps are guaranteed to be free from defects in workmanship for the life of Rees Harps Incorporated.  All Rees Concert Line harps are guaranteed to be free from defects in material for five years.  It is the buyer’s responsibility to return the instrument to Rees Harps Inc., all shipping and insurance being prepaid.  This warranty is null and void if the harp has been tampered with, damaged by accident, neglected, misused, left exposed to either extreme heat, cold or moisture, or if the Rees Harps lutherie tag inside the instrument has been removed.  We reserve the sole right to determine neglect.  At the direction and sole discretion of Rees Harps Inc, certain minor repairs may be directed to be done in place (without shipping) when it is determined that the shipping will present unnecessary risk to the instrument.  In such cases, the warranty explicitly remains intact.  In some state you may have legal rights other than those given herein.


It is true that William and Pamela will retire out of the business in a few years and will hand it to William’s children Garen and Rebecca.  Rebecca’s husband, Shannon, is learning the trade in the shop and we hope to have even more news in the future of Garen and Melissa.   *wink*  As you can tell Rees Harps will remain a vibrant lutherie for generations to come.


Butterfly Bracing

Inside all Rees harps is a butterfly brace.  Butterfly braces are mechanically stronger than the more traditional “C” brace.  Butterfly braces prevent the sides of the harp from being pulled in by the string pressure actin on the soundbox.  Harps without proper internal bracing tend  to acquire strange overtones or a wafting sound over time.  (It has also been called the “Charlie Brown’s Teacher” effect because the harp becomes less and less distinct.) The use of a butterfly brace in Rees harps maintains the structural integrity of the harp and protects the voice of the instrument through the years.


The truth, with harp sa s with so many things, is that it is easy to get 75% of it right, a bit harder to get the next 20% and requires drive, will and talent to get that last 5% of the way.  All the little details which comprise Rees harps, including the attention given to the design of the bracing, is all of a piece.


Tuning

One of the most common feedback comments given by Rees harp customers is that they spend significantly less time tuning their harps than they have previous harps.  This is an advantage which has been designed in to each instrument.  Contributing factors are the bracing, the use of poplar and the string set.




Levers

A sharping lever (not, “sharpening” lever) is a device which raises the pitch of the string one half step.  For example, a string tuned to F when the sharping lever is neutral becomes an F# when the harping lever is engaged.  [Truitt levers, shown above and Camac levers, shown below.]


A high quality sharping lever will have enough mass and rigidity so that, when engaged, it does not dissipate the string energy and, instead, forces the vibrations back down to the soundboard where they belong.  All sharping devices, including blades, hooks and pedals,displace the string slightly.


In the harp world today, the Rolls Royce of levers are the French-made Camacs and the US-made Truitts.  Both are excellent.  Professionals tend to have their favorites but it basically comes down to a matter of personal preference.


Rees no longer uses the Loveland lever, an older style lever still found on some harps, because it does not voice a true half-step as cleanly as do the Camacs and Truitts.


So what is everyone else using?  It is a mixture.  Some companies are building their own levers but most of the harp world has been evolving steadily toward the Camacs and Truitts because they do not have the problems of their predecessors.  Additionally, both levers have experienced incremental improvements which have addressed some of the small initial production issues and provided for even more consistency and reliability.


Ornamentation

One of the things for which Rees harps have become best known is the extraordinary handpainted and hand carved ornamentation which graces most of our harps.  It is because of this work that we have won Best of Show and Best of Category awards at many of the most prestigious art shows int he country.  Another aspect of the quality of the ornamentation is that Rees harps tend to retain their value and, in some cases, appreciate, due to the demand for this often custom artwork.  Originally, William did all of the ornamentation himself but during the past five years his youngest son, Garen, has slowly taken over this creative work.  These days, Garen is the one who always has his paintbrush or carving knife poised over a harp and the beautiful designs you see are the work of his hand and it is Garen who has added the newest offering in ornamentation options.

      
         

Parallel Plano Backs

As beautiful as staved-back and round-back lever harps are they represent one of those cases when physics works in opposition to the eye.  In acoustic terms, the myth is that every frequency, no metter what direction it travels when it leaves the inside of the soundboard, will have a properl aligned portion of the back to actuate.  Theoretically, this is true but it is only part of the story.


In virtually all stringed instruments, the back and the front (the soundboard), are meant to work in conjunction with one another to generate the voice.  As the soundboard is activated by a string, its movement serves to compress and express tonal frequencies in complex patterns which then excite the inside of the back of the instrument.  When the back resonates, frequencies to which it has responded are altered and themselves expressed, some returning to the inner face of the soundboard in an even more complex array.  This interaction is what gives an instrument depth and life and some of the color in is voice.  In simplest terms, the back of a stringed instrument needs to be able to move as freely as possible within reason.


Now, think mechanically.  An arch is a mechanically stronger structure than a plane.  Meaning, all other things being equal, it takes a greater amount of force of frequency  to generate movement in an arched surface than in a flat one.  A flat back can be activated by a string more efficiently, yielding potentially greater sensitivity than the same force applied to a rounded back.  Staved backs also suffer some of the problems of an arched surface.  While each stave is, itself, a plane, the nearness of every point on the plane to a joint serves to generate losses in sensitivity.  Joins contribute to losses due to the glues embedded in the fibers and the juxtaposition of grain direction, one stave to another.  Additionally, staves are narrow pieces of wood and are unable to produce the frequencies that a large flat area can produce.  THis is the same reason that soundboards are generally not this narrow.  It is also the reason that a big speaker usually has an advantage over a small speaker - it moves more air and is sensitive to a larger range of frequencies. 


Think about it in terms of other instrument with which you are familiar, like the Ovation guitar or a Neapolitan (‘taterbug) mandolin.  Ovation has marketed themselves extremely well but, with rare exceptions, players, performers and builders agree that the Ovation sound is heavily mid-range.  Usually, it is the sound of an excellent piece of soundboard wood bouncing off of plastic.  It tends to lack the subtleties and harmonics that are the trademarks of fine guitars.  This is not to say that there are not lots of folks who enjoy the Ovation sound.  It is to say, however, that no one would confuse the voice of a Martin or Taylor, a Santa Cruz or a Somogyi for an Ovation.  The same is true of the Neapolitan mandolins.  When Gibson introduced their mandolin, which had only a slight arch int he back, the original little bowl backs were blown out of the arena by the larger, richer, brighter Gibson voice.


The exception in staved backs is the lute.  The construction of the lute compensated for its rigid mechanical structure by making the wood of the back so thin (1.5 mm thin) that the soundboard was able to easily activate the back.  The downside is that significant tuning and re-tuning is necessary.  To top it all off, the thin woods can not move enough air so lutes always have comparatively soft voices.  Unlike lutes and like most other stringed instruments, harps cannot mechanically tolerate an extremely thin back without other trade-offs.


There are many harps with round or staved backs that have beautiful tone.  The point is, that all other things being equal, a flat back can be controlled by a luthier to voice a weider range of expressed tones.  They joy is that the hand of every Master luthier takes these unchangeable Laws of Physics, wraps around them the art of their own personal work and lends the gift of diversity to this most ancient of strings.


Grammy Winning Harpists

We were thrilled when the Grammy Awards were announced this year and YoYo Ma won two Grammys for his album “Songs of Joy and Peace” on which harpist Marta Cook had recorded using her Rees berdeen.  Marta joins Carol Thompson, who played her Rees harp on Paul Winter’s Grammy winning album “Celtic Solstice.”  Congratulations to Marta and our enduring regard to Carol for continuing to make genuinely great music.



Weight

Rees has been a leader in building light weight harps with huge voices for years.  You should not have to decide between being able to handle your instrument and having it voice with a concert quality intonation and dynamic range.  William applies classical lutherie techniques to pack lots of voice into the fewest pounds possible so that you never sacrifice what you hear for what you carry.  As you can see in the photo on the right, Melissa, who barely weighs 100 lbs, is able to carry each size of Rees harp with only one hand.


Tuning Wrench

You’re thinking, what can be special about a tuning wrench?  The thing that distinguishes a Rees wrench from other wrenches is that it is not special at all.  We have our harp tuning pins specially machined so that a standard drum key (the keys which are used to tighten drum heads) can be used to tune them.  In other words, if you lose your wrench when you are at an out-of-town gig, you can go into any musical instrument store on the planet, purchase a standard drum key (for about $2.00) and you are ready to go.  So, nothing special turns out to be very special indeed.


Leg Room and a New Shoulder

Because so many lever harps have large, wide, deep soundboxes which taper away form the soundboard at the base, harpists have to have a longer reach, tilt the harp to a steeper angle, and sit with their legs farther apart in order to accommodate the large soundbox.  Since Rees harps are smaller in all of these respects, there is considerably more leg room and harpers are able to more comfortably sit with the harp.  Additionally, in response to requests from our customers of smaller stature, we are now offering all concert line Rees harps with a narrower shoulder.


© Rees Harps Inc. 2006-2011

222 Main Street, Rising Sun, IN 47038

812-438-3032