MIDI controllers have come a long way in two decades. If you're a piano player, though, nothing comes close to the feeling of real strings being struck by the wood-and-felt hammers of a precision-crafted piano action. Wouldn't it be nice if you could sit down to an exquisite piano and record every nuance of your performance with a MIDI sequencer? Or hear a bank of lush strings perfectly mirroring your live piano performance? With Moog Music's PianoBar, now you can. The PianoBar, developed in collaboration with Buchla and Associates, turns almost any 88-key piano into a MIDI controller.
Acoustic pianos with built-in MIDI are nothing new, but the PianoBar is unique in that it is completely portable and noninvasive. Setting it up takes less than five minutes, and it won't leave a scratch on your piano. What's more, the PianoBar comes with a complete library of sounds loaded and ready to go.
The PianoBar consists of three pieces of hardware: the Scanner Bar, the Pedal Sensor, and the Control Module. It also includes a wall wart, two cables, and a foam-filled carrying case that looks like it might contain an electric guitar. I appreciated the inclusion of the case, and if you're a working musician who plays several different pianos at clubs, studios, or churches, you will too.
To set up the system, place the Scanner Bar at the back of the keys (up against the fallboard), the Pedal Sensor under the pedals, and the Control Module wherever you have room for it (see Fig. 1). The two cables connect the Scanner Bar and the Pedal Sensor to the Control Module.
The Scanner Bar contains 88 infrared sensors, one for each piano key. It supports its own weight with hard rubber feet that rest on the cheek blocks at each end of the keyboard. A strip of felt on the back of the Scanner Bar prevents your fallboard from getting scratched. An alignment mark appears at middle C, and additional markings appear in the upper and lower octaves. The PianoBar accommodates subtle variations in key width or key spacing by allowing its sensor mechanisms to slide from side to side in the upper and lower octaves. To make such adjustments, you loosen a thumbscrew (there's one at each end) and shift the sensor mechanism until the alignment mark appears where it should be.
The Scanner Bar's sensors work their magic by sensing the movement and velocity of each key. This technology instantly transforms your playing into MIDI without the need for pitch-to-MIDI conversion. At first, I was concerned that the Scanner Bar might interfere with my playing. But as it turns out, the Scanner Bar occupies only about a half-inch along the back of the keys. I occasionally noticed my fingers brushing up against it, but it wasn't a problem.
The Pedal Sensor is a lightweight plastic wedge that simply sits underneath your piano's pedals. It picks up the motion of the sustain and soft pedals, but not the sostenuto (middle) pedal. I needed a Pedal Sensor with a little more substance, though; my piano rests on a hardwood floor, and I had a little difficulty keeping the pedal sensor in place. I also needed a Pedal Sensor with a little more height. The device needs to be within an inch of the pedals, so I ended up sticking a book under it to position it correctly. The manual mentions an optional Pedal Height Adjustment Accessory that theoretically could have solved both my height and substance issues, but it wasn't yet available when I wrote the review.
You get one 15-foot and one 6-foot cable (both of which are essentially heavy-duty USB cables) for the connections to the Control Module. The long cable is intended for the Pedal Sensor, but I needed to put the Control Module on the right side of my piano, and the Sensor Bar's connector is on the left side. So I ignored the manual's warnings of data errors, and used the long cable for the Sensor bar. If that caused data errors, I never saw them, but I would definitely have preferred an additional connector on the other end of the sensor bar.
The PianoBar's Control Module has a black finish with a simulated ebony-wood-grain top (see Fig. 2). Notwithstanding the obligatory mass of cables that emanate from it, the Control Module complements the look of a nice piano reasonably well. The Control Module was a little too wide to sit on the shelf next to my grand piano's music stand, though, so it sat at an angle with one end on the piano's rim.
The Control Module has connections for the Scanner Bar, Pedal Sensor, and three expression pedals (which are not included). It also has two audio outputs on ¼-inch jacks, a ⅛-inch headphone output, and MIDI In and Out connectors. Except for the headphone jack, all connections are on the back of the Control Module.
The Control Module's front panel has a Volume knob, indicators for MIDI activity, and a 2-by-24-character LCD display with a bright blue backlight. In addition, it has four buttons to navigate through the menus, four buttons to quickly select MIDI channels 1 through 4 (for soloing or volume changes), and a rotary encoder knob to change values in the menus. Also on the front panel is a slot for inserting a Library Card (one blank card is included).
The Control Module's sound generator is 64-voice polyphonic and 16-part multitimbral, and it conforms to the General MIDI 2 specification. Onboard are 300 sounds that can be organized into 100 Setups. Each Setup configures the sound, settings, and effects for each of the 16 MIDI channels. The first 60 Setups are user-rewritable. You can also edit Setups 61 through 80, but those are the 20 available slots in the inserted Library card; if you want to copy a Setup to a card, simply copy it to an available slot between 61 and 80.
The remaining 20 Setups are factory presets and can't be rewritten. They contain duplicates of some of the more useful Setups in the first 60 User slots. The only way to preserve the User Setups to external media is to save them to memory cards, 20 at a time. The PianoBar offers neither SysEx-dump capabilities nor a factory-reset feature, so you'll need three memory cards if you want to back up the original PianoBar setups. Fortunately, Moog has priced PianoBar accessories quite reasonably; a pack of three Library Cards costs $34.95.
A photosensitive LED on the Scanner Bar allows you to manually change Setups. When you tap the LED with your fingertip, another LED lights up above the piano key that corresponds to the current Setup number. (If Setup 1 is active, for example, the LED above the lowest A would illuminate.) Press a different key to change to another Setup. You can't assign MIDI Program Changes to piano keys, and you can't select Setups 89 through 100 using this method — only 1 through 88.
Setup editing is comprehensive and reasonably intuitive. For each MIDI channel, you can specify parameters such as Velocity curves, keyboard zones, MIDI routing, and effects levels. Each Setup has two effects — reverb and chorus — but some reverb presets are actually delays and some chorus presets are flangers or delays.
My first thought when I turned on the PianoBar was, “Wow! This thing lights up!” Until that point, I hadn't realized that the Scanner Bar has LEDs for every key and pedal that light up as you play (you can turn that feature off if it annoys you). The LEDs also come in handy for changing programs and setting keyboard zones. The LEDs have an additional use for piano students: you can play a MIDI sequence into the PianoBar, and the lights will indicate what notes to play.
I played through each of the included Setups to get a feel for the Control Module's sound quality, and all of them sounded great. I'm sure that the PianoBar won't replace your most capable sound module, but you can do quite a bit with the onboard sounds. The Setups contain a high proportion of lush pads, probably because that's what sounds best when mixed with the sound of the piano. If lush pads aren't to your liking, you can reprogram the Setups using other sounds in the Control Module's GM2 sound set.
The Control Module also provides plenty of split Setups with bass sounds in the lower octaves and other sounds in the upper. None of the Setups use more than four channels; anything more than that might cause polyphony problems (and you wouldn't be able to take advantage of the front-panel controls dedicated to the first four channels).
The built-in sounds weren't as important to me as the PianoBar's MIDI responsiveness, so I conducted a couple of unscientific tests. I began by simply recording a dynamic performance into a sequencer to get a feel for the range of MIDI Velocity values I could generate. I could achieve values as low as 20 and as high as 127, with the full spectrum of values in between (Moog has since updated the PianoBar to produce all 128 Velocity values.). The PianoBar passed my Velocity-sensitivity test with flying colors.
Then I attempted to measure the system's latency. In Cakewalk Sonar, I recorded the PianoBar's MIDI output to a MIDI track and the sound of the piano into an audio track simultaneously. Afterward, I manually marked the initial transients of the audio notes and compared them to the time stamps of the MIDI notes. The timings were dead on, usually within one or two SMPTE frames. Granted, this test accounts for neither the latency of the audio-recording process nor the piano's own mechanical latency. From a practical standpoint, however, the PianoBar's latency is nothing to worry about.
RAISE THE BAR
Moog Music's PianoBar has plenty of obvious applications. Every recording-studio owner with MIDI instruments and an acoustic piano will certainly want one. Composers who have eschewed MIDI keyboards until now will gain access to music-scoring applications such as Sibelius and MakeMusic Finale. Music students will reap the advantages of computer-assisted instruction while still playing a real piano. Working pianists will expand their timbral palettes far beyond what they're accustomed to.
The PianoBar is a wonderful offering for any acoustic piano player. I have a mile-long list of things I want to record with it, because frankly, I play better on a real piano than I do on a MIDI controller. The PianoBar is easy to use and comes with all of the documentation you need. If you're a music educator, a composer, or a live piano performer, sit down at a PianoBar and give it a try.
Allan Mettsis an Atlanta-based musician, software/systems designer, and consultant.
FEATURES4.0EASE OF USE4.5QUALITY OF SOUNDS4.0VALUE3.5RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5
PROS: Accurate piano tracking with no significant latency. Easy, noninvasive setup. Capable sound set.
CONS: Pedal Sensor moves too easily and needs height adjustment. No MIDI SysEx dump capability. Cable attaches only to the left side of the Scanner Bar.
Keyboard Sensors88Connectorproprietary USB-typeDimensions50.25" (W) × 0.44" (H) × 2.50" (D)Weight8 lb.
Connectorproprietary USB-typeDimensions10.00" (W) × 0.75" (H) × 3.00" (D)Weight0.25 lb.
Sound EnginePCM playback (supports General MIDI 2)Polyphony(64) notesMultitimbral Parts16Memory(300) ROM sounds; (100) Setups (60 user, 20 card, 20 factory)External Storageproprietary Library Card slotAudio Outputs(2) unbalanced ¼" TS; (1) ⅛" stereo headphoneMIDI(1) In, (1) OutPedal Inputs(3) ¼" TS expressionOther Connectors(2) proprietary USB-typeDisplay2 × 24-character backlit LCDPower12 VDC adapter; 85-250 VAC, 50-60 HzDimensions9" (W) × 3" (H) × 5" (D)Weight2 lb.
Dimensions52.25" (L) × 4.00" (H) × 16.50" (D)Weight5.75 lb.