Saturday, October 31, 2009

How Yamaha's new electronic piano improves upon a 300-year-old instrument.

There are nine pianos squeezed into the back of Yamaha's music salon in the old Aeolian Building in New York, and between them they represent an abridged history of technology's assault on the instrument. Against the wall you'll find a majestic 9-foot grand and two of its 6-foot cousins—not an electric bone in their bodies. A few feet away is a modern player piano, the Disklavier Pro, which is still an acoustic piano but is outfitted with gadgets that can resurrect Art Tatum if you insert the correct 3½-inch floppy. (Think Darth Vader: still human but with a lot of gizmos for extra functionality.) And over by the door is the newest addition to the Yamaha family, the just-released AvantGrand. It doesn't even have strings.

The AvantGrand is at the cutting edge of electronic piano technology, though you wouldn't know to look at it. It looks like a small baby grand, 4½ feet deep with the usual folding lid. In place of strings, it has four speakers, but if the lid is down, the only obvious sign that this isn't an acoustic piano is a small control panel that tucks neatly under the keyboard. More important, it actuallysounds like an acoustic grand piano. Since the timbre of a piano is derived in part from the way the instrument itself vibrates as the sound resonates inside, the Yamaha engineers sampled notes from a variety of locations inside the 9-foot concert grand they used as their model. When you play note on the AvantGrand, you're basically triggering an extremely high-quality recording of a concert piano, adjusted in volume depending on how hard you hit the keys. 
The lengths to which the designers have gone to replicate the experience of a top-notch grand piano are almost absurd. Each key is attached to a hammer that, while it has no string to strike, imitates the kick you get when you hit a traditional piano key. Two resonators under the hood cause the entire instrument to vibrate subtly the way a real piano does when the sound is resonating inside—an effect that is solely meant to imitate for the player the physicality of a real piano. A Tactile Response System even replicates the way the pedals vibrate a little when you're really hammering away. (It's kind of like the Nintendo 64's Rumble Pak.) The pedals are also precisely calibrated to the variable resistance of a real piano. Yamahahas the graphs to prove it.

What all this means is that the bottom 95th percentile of the world's pianists will not notice much difference, if any, in the tone and quality of this piano as compared to a traditional one. In fact, the AvantGrand probably sounds considerably better than the baby grand in your living room.

I got a chance to try the AvantGrand for myself recently. A gaggle of Yamaha employees gathered round to explain the piano's virtues while I moved them all to tears with a little Rachmaninoff. (Actually, Magdalena, my handler, helpfully pointed out the correct chords as I honked my way through a prelude.) Despite my clunky playing, I found the AvantGrand entrancing, more responsive than even the expensive pianos I'd tried in college, the ones you had to get a special key from the music department to play.

Which is why it's a little odd that Yamaha isn't giving itself more credit for this remarkable product. The company seems desperate for acceptance from traditionalists—the crowd that doesn't think a piano should ever have to be plugged in. The press materials insist that the AvantGrand is virtually identical to a concert grand, only cheaper, smaller, and always perfectly in tune. (The AvantGrand goes for $20,000; there is also an upright version which sells for $15,000.) Testimonials from concert pianists extol its virtues. In essence, the company is doing the same thing Les Paul did when he debuted an early model of a solid-body electric guitar: namely, dressing it up like its acoustic forebears. Paul glued the wings of an Epiphone guitar on the sides of the pine 4x4 he was using for his prototype, which he called "The Log." Yamaha's hammers, resonators, and lid are a little more sophisticated and functional than those Epiphone wings, but the emphasis is still on verisimilitude.

It's a shame, because Yamaha has done more than capture the soul of a grand piano in an electronic device. They have improved on a 300-year-old instrument. Keyboards come with all sorts of dubious bells and whistles, but some are genuinely useful: The ability to record your playing very precisely and play it back, say, or to make simple adjustments in how responsive the volume is to the force you use striking the keys. The most obvious advantage is that digital instruments are always precisely in tune, which is especially important when you're forcing your young child to take piano lessons. (Even if perfect pitch turns out to be genetic, it's probably a good idea to start ear training on an instrument that plays the right pitches.)

An instrument like this could actually change the way all pianos are tuned. Contrary to what you may have learned in Disney's Donald in Mathmagic Land, choosing exact frequencies for the notes in a scale is far messier than tuning the strings to the neat fractions of thePythagorean scale. Tuning an instrument very exactly to one key using the standard ratios between notes makes it out of tune in every other key. (There's a very good, non-animated summary here.) The modern scale simply splits the difference between every key so that they're all equally out of tune.

The AvantGrand can instantly retune itself to a variety of tunings, or "temperaments," from Donald Duck's Pythagorean scale to those that were standard during Bach's lifetime, which is very titillating for baroque-enthusiasts. Those wishing to precisely re-create the tuning that Bach used can hit a few buttons on the control panel, and the pitches of the notes will revert to the asymmetric tuning used in the very early days of the piano, when different keys had different personalities, since they weren't all equally corrected. 

Are you a devotee of the 17th-century organist Andreas Werckmeister? You can set the piano to his preferred frequencies if you like. The AvantGrand even has a harpsichord setting that, like a real harpsichord, produces the same volume no matter how hard you strike the keys.

There are, of course, plenty of purists who will insist that an acoustic piano's sound is far superior to the AvantGrand's. But it is not necessary to win these people over for the AvantGrand to change the way we think about the piano. This instrument represents a psychological victory for the electric piano, which no longer feels merely like a better tuned or more tech-savvy alternative to the real thing. This is a really good piano. I would train my kids on it—whether they liked it or not. - Chris Wilson


  1. Ahh...Technology and its many battles to take over this existence we could have once called human.

  2. Ahh...Technology and its many battles to take over this existence we could have once called human.