Amazing Acoustic-Digital Pianos

Few people can deny that digital pianos are impressive instruments. They come very close to reproducing the sound and feel of true acoustic pianos, and
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Few people can deny that digital pianos are impressive instruments. They come very close to reproducing the sound and feel of true acoustic pianos, and they also have cutting-edge technological features. Yet despite the fact that digital pianos look, sound, and feel like their acoustic counterparts, many pianists believe that the nuances of the world's greatest compositions don't sound the same played on a digital piano as they do on a fine acoustic piano.

Each acoustic piano has a unique personality, feel, and tone, and a standardized electronic device simply can't replicate this individuality, no matter how authentic its piano sounds are. Fortunately, the acoustic pianos described here (known as hybrid pianos or acoustic pianos with MIDI) are sure to satisfy almost everyone, from the acoustic traditionalist to the computer-music enthusiast. They combine the best of both worlds — true acoustics and high-tech features.

So if you want the hammers-on-strings tones of an acoustic piano as well as the ability to play along with the sounds of other instruments, the ability to record what you play and play what you record, and the ability to listen to the piano play by itself, read on.

MAKING MAGIC

A piano can combine true acoustic action with digital capability in several different ways. To understand the different options, first keep in mind that the acoustic piano has two distinct parts: the keyboard (comprising the black and white keys) and the playing mechanism (comprising the hammers and strings).

Digital electronics can be applied to the keyboard, the playing mechanism, or both. Electronics in the keyboard enable the piano to send digital information as you play, which allows you to listen to yourself play through headphones or even to record music. If the electronics connect to the playing mechanism, the piano can receive digital information. With this connection, you can play back prerecorded song disks (see the sidebar “MIDI Song Disks” on page 35) or songs you've recorded to a disk.

Hybrid pianos are acoustic pianos with preinstalled electronics. Hybrid retrofit products can be installed on almost any acoustic piano — even one you already own. Sometimes you can combine retrofit products to get the mix of capabilities you want.

THE MAIN FEATURES

Acoustic-digital hybrid pianos are sorted according to their capabilities: playback, record, and mute. These hybrid pianos look and play exactly like the high-quality acoustic pianos they are; the additional features do not compromise their acoustic nature in any way.

An acoustic piano with playback capabilities is often called a player piano. This piano has a series of very sensitive solenoids (electric switches) that enable it to play back all the subtleties of an original performance using the actual hammers and strings of the acoustic piano. When you play a song disk on this type of piano, the keys seem to press down by themselves, as though an invisible person were playing. Add a sound module to a player piano, and the acoustic piano plays along with other instrument sounds, such as strings and woodwinds. You'll often see these hybrid pianos used in commercial settings — restaurants, hotels, and shopping malls — to provide the sound of live piano music without requiring the services of an accomplished pianist.

You can also modify player pianos to record your compositions: special sensors attached to the keyboard translate each press of a key into MIDI messages. When combined with a sequencer (often built into the piano), this feature allows you to record and play back your songs electronically. When you include a multitrack sequencer in your piano setup, you can record sophisticated compositions with instrument sounds you've added, using the keyboard to play the other parts.

An acoustic piano that only has recording capabilities is still a good composing tool. However, it plays back your recordings on the sound module; the actual acoustic piano remains silent. With this setup, you can play along with prerecorded songs or just listen to them. You can even add external sound modules to re-create a whole orchestra. Of course, this type of instrument also functions as a standard acoustic piano, allowing you to play normally.

The silent-piano feature found on many hybrid pianos mutes the keyboard by stopping the action — that is, it prevents the hammer from hitting the string. This kind of piano gives you the option of playing with headphones and not disturbing anyone because it includes a built-in sound module just like a digital piano's. Think of this version as a multipurpose piano: by moving a lever, you can have a digital piano, an acoustic piano, or both.

A piano with keyboard sensors and a mute function is great for musicians who want to practice late at night or for beginners who want to practice silently. This type of piano also works well for music students who want to rehearse without being heard by others. Another advantage is that you can play any part you like (flute, bass, and so on) in accompaniment with a song disk while the piano remains silent.

Your piano can play a song you've recorded or one selected from a library of prerecorded music. Depending on its capabilities, the piano creates the music you hear using one or a combination of the following arrangements: the acoustic piano alone, the piano and the sound generator, the piano and an audio CD, or the piano and an external MIDI instrument.

When you're deciding which features matter most to you, consider how you'll be using the piano. For example, if it will be used at home, you may want a piano that has a mute option so family members can practice in privacy or without disturbing others. If its destination is a hotel lobby, restaurant, or other commercial location, you'll definitely want a hybrid piano with playback capabilities for that player-piano effect. And if it will be used by a student, you'll find the recording features very useful in learning situations and well worth the extra cost.

A MULTIMEDIA EXPERIENCE

One of the most exciting features of many hybrid pianos is their ability to play along with visual media. The piano plays along with performances captured on your VCR, DVD, or VideoCD. As you watch a concert on television, your piano plays exactly what the featured pianist is playing, and you can hear any other accompaniment through the speakers in the controller or in your home-entertainment system.

Your piano can reproduce the pre-recorded performance's full expression — such as the velocity with which the player strikes keys and the subtleties of pedal depression. The piano's playback mechanism very likely covers most if not all of the 88 keys, so it can play even the most complex pieces accurately. Because a hybrid piano's playback mechanism (which is sometimes called the player) runs the length of the keyboard, some manufacturers don't include the four lowest and four highest keys in the playback range because to fit the whole mechanism, they would have to cut into the piano's legs.

KEEPING RECORD

The recording equipment that is found on hybrid pianos varies. You'll find that many of these instruments have built-in sequencers for recording your compositions. The piano that you choose may even have a fast-record feature, which allows you to save a spontaneous performance so that you can hear it again later. Pianos that have a quantization feature correct slight timing errors in your playing when they play back your recorded performance.

Some products facilitate recording by sending out a digital signal (for recording onto a floppy disk or a hard disk), whereas others send out an analog signal (for recording onto an audio CD or a videotape). If your control unit has MIDI ports, you can connect your piano to other MIDI-equipped instruments and recording devices, such as a CD recorder, or to your personal computer. (To understand more about your piano's MIDI capabilities, see “MIDI 101” on page 47 and “The Computer Connection” on page 52.)

USING SONG DISKS

You may be surprised to find that player pianos have access to thousands of prerecorded songs. You can listen to songs in every style — some recorded by the world's best pianists — on your acoustic piano at the touch of a button. Pianos often come with software preloaded into the control unit's memory, and most can read song disks from various media and in various file formats.

The Standard MIDI File (SMF) format is the most common one, but manufacturers also have their own proprietary formats for prerecorded music. Obviously, the more formats your piano can read, the better.

REMOTE ACCESS

If your piano can transmit data wirelessly, you can connect it to other multimedia sources such as a VCR or a computer without having to connect the piano to the source using wires or cables. You can put the source in a different location and avoid compromising the aesthetics of the piano setup.

In addition, you can access many of the control units on hybrid pianos remotely. Remote controls enables you to take full advantage of your piano's features while you are able to relax on the couch or mingle with your guests, because you don't need to be near the piano yourself. Radio-frequency remote controllers work at greater distances from the piano's control unit than infrared remote controllers do.

SO MANY CHOICES

Price will likely play an important role in your decision-making process. An acoustic piano with MIDI generally costs more than a digital piano with the same features, but with one of these hybrid instruments, you get the sound and feel of an authentic acoustic piano. If you choose to buy an acoustic piano that has preinstalled electronics, you will still have a choice of cabinet styles and finishes, just as you would with a standard acoustic piano. Fine digital acoustic pianos are available from PianoDisc (manufacturers of Mason & Hamlin pianos), Story & Clark, and Yamaha.

You may instead choose to add playback, record, or mute features to the piano you already own and love. Once you determine the combination of features you want, investigate the retrofit products available from Baldwin (manufacturers of Chickering, Wurlitzer, and Baldwin pianos), MIDI 9, PianoDisc, and QRS to see what will fit your needs and budget. Remember that you don't have to add all the features at once; you can add one feature now and wait until later to purchase others.

With the many options available, you'll find a hybrid piano that fits your custom specifications. And you won't have to compromise on what matters most to you — true acoustic sound and feel. All the amazing electronics discussed here merely enhance a piano whose quality you can really enjoy.

MIDI Song Disks

Throughout the Digital Home Keyboard Guide, you will find references to MIDI song disks: 3.5-inch floppy disks that act like modern player-piano rolls. However, unlike player-piano rolls, which can only tell a piano to play notes at one level of expression, a MIDI song disk instructs your piano or sound module to use volume changes, vibrato, pitch bend, and more in the designated song. When a selection plays, you will hear anything from a solo piano to a big band with full instrumentation, depending on the number of sounds your source can produce simultaneously.

You can start and stop MIDI song disks at any point in a song and slow down or speed up a song's tempo without changing its pitch. You can even fast-forward, rewind, and play a song just like you would a cassette in a tape player. And you can transpose a song into any key — which is not possible with CDs or tapes. You'll especially appreciate this feature if you are a vocalist who wants to sing a song that is written in a key you are not comfortable with.

There are three ways to play a MIDI song disk. The easiest way is to insert it in your digital piano's disk drive and push the Play button. If your keyboard or digital piano doesn't have a disk drive, you can use the instrument's MIDI ports to connect to a separate MIDI keyboard with an onboard hardware sequencer. Or you can use your computer's disk drive. (See “MIDI 101” on page 47 for more on MIDI; see also “The Computer Connection” on page 52 for more on MIDI connections and using a computer with your piano.)

What will you do with your MIDI song disks? You might have your piano play selections to entertain your friends. You could plug a microphone into the piano's microphone jack for an at-home karaoke session. Music educators use song disks to provide accompaniment and guidance for students. (If you use a sequencer that lets you mute individual tracks, you can create what are commonly known as “music minus one track” accompaniments — songs where you mute one instrument part so you can play the missing part yourself.) Students of other instruments, such as horns or vocals, can play along with song disks, which they can slow down, transpose, or rewind. Worship musicians will find a large selection of contemporary and traditional worship music on song disks. Song disks are especially useful for a choir that has limited or no accompaniment.

Remember that the song disk doesn't actually play the sounds; it merely provides the information that drives and directs those sounds on your keyboard. You should also note that some disks work only with a certain brand of digital piano or keyboard. Most pianos, however, read disks in Standard MIDI File format, the most common disk format. Check with your local retailers to see the selection of disks they have in stock and to find out what they can order.

Hybrid Piano Manufacturers

When you click on Site Features at the Electronic Musician Web site (www.emusician.com), you will find links to Web sites for the companies that make hybrid pianos and retrofit products.