Behind the scenes at Yamaha - like kids in a Kando factory

Tue, 7 Oct 2008, 4:46am

Piano tuning in hard hats may seem extreme, but when you're stringing a concert grand and working up a tension equivalent to 20 tons, it pays to be careful.

It's just one of the things we discovered during our behind the scenes tour of Yamaha facilities in and around the company's home town of Hamamatsu, taking in visits to the grand piano and brass/woodwind manufacturing operations as well as the company's audio and home cinema divisions.

The company's slogan is 'Creating Kando Together', the Japanese word meaning something like a state of inspiration, and by the end of the tour I was regretting never having been inspired to learn an instrument, so much care and attention was going into making the products.

I guess I'd never wondered how musical instruments were made, let alone imagining them leaving the factory in the familiar Yamaha boxes.

What I discovered was a mix of high technology - robots making one of over 200 different kinds of brass instrument mouthpiece every five minutes - and hand -crafting, with employees beating out trumpet bells by hand from a single sheet of metal.

Mellowing the molecules
It's possible to make the basics of a trumpet by soldering two flat sheets together then spinning them into shape, we're told, but the hand-beating alters the molecular structure of the metal and gives a more mellow tone.

Amazing, too, was the engraving of the saxophones made in the company's Toyooka plant, just outside Hamamatsu: the logo may be put on by a robot, but  the decoration is done entirely by hand, with a tight-knit group of guys working with chisels to carve out the decoration just 0.1mm deep into the metal.

If you want to see them in action, check out this short Yamaha video.

It takes some 4000-6000 strokes to engrave a single sax, over about half an hour, and the company produces around 200 units a day, so the engravers are kept busy.

Work, rest and play
200 trumpets come out of the factory every day, too, each one relaxed, seasoned, played and tested before packaging, and the factory is as full of statistics as it is full of music as instruments are tested.

For example, there's the 0.2mm tolerance on trombone slides, the yellow light used to check for leaks in brass instruments, and the toothpick with a piece of paper just 0.02mm thick used to check for leaks on flute keys.

 

Taking pride of place in the Toyooka showroom is also this lump of wood. 100 year old African Grenadilla wood, in fact, used to make the company's professional woodwind instruments, but only after three years of seasoning to bring it to the right quality. Student versions of clarinets, piccolos and the like are made from ABS resin, which has similar characteristics.

Just not quite the same.

Musical 'Skunk Works'
Toyooka is also home to Yamaha's custom instruments division, which is like a musical Skunk Works, making special instruments for special, un-named, customers. Everything is handmade here, from brass and woodwind to guitars and violins, and the products are each unique, and built to order.

One craftsman works on a single instrument from start to finish, taking a week to build it. No wonder one of the company's custom made gold flutes will cost you 1.5m-4m Yen, or between  £8000 and £20,000. And if you fancy one of Yamaha's custom-made acoustic or electric guitars, count on a wait of anything up to six months.

Pianos on wheels
Back at Hamamatsu HQ, we walk round the grand piano factory, delighting in robotised transporters trundling from one building to another carrying pianos and playing music as they go, and learn some of the fine points of grand piano manufacture.

Yes, they use robots, and laser measurement, but so much is done by hand and eye, from the adjustment of mechanisms with super-thin paper shims to the tuning of the piano and conditioning, the craftsmen picking away at the tightly-packed wool of the hammers with little metal pins to get just the right hardness.

Oscilloscopes, or by ear?
In soundproof booths, employees have oscilloscopes to hand to ensure pianos are tuned correctly, but most do it by ear and experience, and each piano goes into climate-controlled storage several times during its manufacture to season it to its intended delivery location.

Oh, and there's a machine that plays evey key 300 times automatically - pianos, it seems, benefit from running-in.

It's all come a long way since medical instrument service technician Torakusu Yamaha, passing through Hamamatsu in the 1870s, was asked to take a look at a broken reed organ at a local school. At the time such instruments were in demand with the growing popularity of western music, but were all imported, and thus not to many people knew how to fettle them.

Yamaha fixed the school instrument, and decided to set up a company making reed organs in Japan.

One of the first is in the Yamaha showroom, along with an early grand piano made by the company soon after, and having had a number of illustrious owners, including  - allegedly - the Emperor.

 

Proudly displayed on it is the original name of the company, the Japan Musical Instrument Manufacturing Co..

 

These days Yamaha makes everything from a huge range of instruments - it claims to be the only single company able completely to equip a symphony orchestra, and as official supplier to the Vienna Philharmonic, that includes some old-style instruments not used by any other orchestra - to the familiar hi-fi and AV equipment. And that's before you get on to the range made by sister company Yamaha Motors.

But there are also lesser-known Yamaha products, including routers, interior design solutions and the speakers you're likely to find inside many mobile phones. It even applies the same woodworking skills it's developed over many years of making instruments to other fields.

If you drive a Lexus, a high-end Nissan or an Audi, and it has wood trim, it will have been made by Yamaha Fine Technologies, or FineTech as it's known internally.

So when a Japanese businessman drops his child off at Yamaha music school with her Yamaha flute, then drives his Lexus to the Yamaha golf centre, enjoying his mobile phone's polyphonic ringtones, before unloading his Yamaha clubs, maybe - just maybe - he's getting his head around the Kando concept.